BLOOD IS HEAVIER By Ella Medler - swameworld

BLOOD IS HEAVIER By Ella Medler - swameworld

BLOOD IS HEAVIER By Ella Medler - swameworld


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Ella Medler

Publisher Information

Blood Is Heavier

Published in 2012 by

Ella Medler

Smashwords Edition


This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or

otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the

publisher’s prior written consent in any form of binding or cover other than that

in which it is published, and without a similar condition being imposed on the

subsequent purchaser.

The characters and situations in this book are entirely imaginary and bear no

relation to any real person or actual happening.

Copyright © 2012 Ella Medler

ISBN 9781476448633

The right of Ella Medler to be identified as author of this book has been

asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyrights Designs and

Patents Act 1988.


A huge thank you to all of my many author friends. You have showed me

love and have encouraged me along the way. But most of all, I owe a lifetime of

gratitude to the wonderful Patti Roberts who is an incredible force of nature.

She held my hand and guided me through the virtual jungle of self-publishing

and self-promotion and she continues to share her knowledge, advice and talent


Cover art: Patti Roberts

Video Trailer: Patti Roberts

About the Author

Ella Medler is a fiction novelist and playwright who lives in Cornwall, UK, with her

husband and two teenage daughters. She favours humorous fiction and crime/thriller genres

and is a firm believer in action, in every story and every walk of life.

To keep up to date with her current writing and future projects, visit her website at


By the same author:

Martin Little, Resurrected

(published by Andrews UK)


To my husband and daughters,

Brian, Christina and Stephanie,

For putting up with my moods and giving me the love I needed to keep going.



















18. TIME



21. FIRE




Five and a half years on since setting sail from the Turks and Caicos with his future wife

on board, Nick Hunter drove down the new Tudors housing estate, and then turned the corner

into Princess Drive. He could see Mrs. Budleigh waiting for him outside, by her front door.

She started talking as soon as she saw Nick’s boot emerge from the car.

“I’m sorry to bother you again, Nick, dear, but what with my daughter bringing over little

Oliver for the weekend, I really need that poor little bird out of the house. Amelia wouldn’t

approve of feathers in the same house as a small baby. I mean, it’s not like I’ve invited the

little blighter in. And there’s nothing wrong with a little bird in the house. I remember my

dear old mother used to cook with the door open because the kitchen window was a little

sticky and the number of times we used to get birds fly right in – robins, mostly. They’re the

cheeky ones. We even got a squirrel in, one frosty January afternoon. I used to think they

were funny, you know, like an extra toy. We didn’t have many luxuries in them days. I

suppose we are spoilt now, really, everything at the turn of a knob or push of a button… In

here, dear, you know the way.”

Nick suppressed a smile and went straight through to the little living room, dodging two

fat cats and four coffee tables smothered in doilies and china figurines and closely followed

by Mrs. Budleigh who was keeping up a steady flow of chatter worthy of a world tournament.

He had a good idea of what the little intermittent chirp that Mrs. Budleigh confused with a

bird trapped in her lampshade was, so he’d agreed to pop in on the way home, despite the

irrational need he’d felt all day to get home to Maxi as soon as humanly possible.

He opened up the set of steps under the light, to humour the old woman.

“Careful, dear. You don’t want to frighten it now. It might fly out to another room, and

then we’ll have a job on our hands. I’ve left out a little food for it – some biscuit crumbs,

ginger nuts and shortbread. That’s all I had around the house. And I put down a little saucer

with water and one with milk, but he’s not come down to it yet. That’s why I think he might

be trapped there, the poor dear.”

Nick smiled and swiftly unscrewed the shade from the light. He turned it upside down

under the shocked gaze of the old lady.

“No bird in here, Mrs. Budleigh. But I bet I know where that little chirping sound is

coming from. When was the last time you changed the battery in your smoke alarm, Mrs.


“Er… well… I don’t know, dear. Are you sure that’s what it is?” She followed Nick to

the small fitting on the stretch of wall between the living room and the kitchen, craning her

neck around his elbow to watch him changing the battery. “I really don’t want Amelia to

come and find a dead little bird in the house. It would only give her more reasons to stay

away. She visits so rarely these days, I never know when I’ll see her next…”

“There’s no bird, Mrs. Budleigh. I promise you. Look, I’ve just changed the battery.

Now, you can leave the food and drink out for the bird if you like, but you saw there wasn’t

one in the living room and it can’t be in the kitchen because that light’s a neon strip. Have

you been hearing the bird upstairs at all?”

“No, dear, I don’t think so.” The old woman shook her head to reinforce her words.

“Just what I thought. Give me a call tomorrow morning if you hear it again and I promise

I’ll come right back and we can have another look for it, ok?”

“Yes, dear, if you’re sure you don’t mind.”

“Now, would I mind helping my favourite lady in the whole neighbourhood? Of course I

don’t mind,” Nick winked at her.

“Ooh, steady. You’ll be making me blush and then what will the neighbours say?” Mrs.

Budleigh swiped her brow and fanned a little air over her face with one shaky hand.

Nick smiled and waved goodbye, then made his way back to his van. Another satisfied

customer. His small electrical business had taken off faster than expected, probably due to the

fact that he actually knew what he was doing. Maybe there was something good he could take

out of his army life, after all. A silver lining.

Maxi would most likely grin and say ‘I told you so’. His lips stretched into a wide smile

as he remembered the evening they met – not the most romantic circumstances, but

memorable nonetheless. Nick had been ready to become a recluse; he didn’t believe there

would be a place on earth, anywhere, for him. A place where he would fit. Maxi wouldn’t

take his pessimism. She’d stuck by his side and made it all possible. More than possible,

she’d made it all seem easy, fun, normal.

Ten more minutes and then he would be home. Silly how eager he was to get home every

day, as if it were the most powerful magnet on the planet.

At first, he thought married life was going to feel too much like being tied down. A

nonspecific, ordinary house stuck in some dreary British neighbourhood, with an all right

garden, the view from its windows never changing was bound to become boring; Nick

thought he would grow tired of it, get itchy feet.

Funny how easily he and Maxi had slipped into married life, how perfectly normal having

a child had been, how natural it felt to have a standard job in a nondescript town on earth, a

place where he belonged. Cameron was four now, growing up fast and starting to have an

opinion about almost everything. Like the newsreader on the television last night. ‘Don’t like

him’, Cameron had declared, and then he grabbed his fluffy plush giraffe and held his arms

out to be picked up for bedtime hugs.

The shrill ring of his mobile phone pulled Nick out of his daydream. Home, said the caller

display. 4.16. There were two missed calls as well – both from his home number.

He pressed the call button without slowing down.

“Maxi. Hello, beautiful,” he started.

“Nick. I thought you’d be home by now, sweetheart. I don’t know how long you’ll be, but

I thought I’d remind you. You said you could pick up Cam from Samuel’s birthday party at


“Ah. Yeah. On it.”

“Julia Anderson said they’ll look after Cam for a few more minutes if you’re late, so no


“It’s ok, I’ll be there. I’m nearly home now.”

“Oh, that’s good news. I’ve got your friend JB here – he’ll be pleased to know he won’t

have to wait much longer.”

Nick stomped on the brakes and swerved into a lay-by, narrowly avoiding a collision with

a Land Rover pulling a horsebox behind it.

“JB? You mean Jesse Bent?” Nick felt like ice shards had replaced the blood in his veins.

He felt numb with foreboding. Frozen. How did they find him here? “Maxi? Max!” he yelled

when she didn’t answer right away. “Max, are you there? Are you all right?”

“Of course I’m all right,” she answered, confusion seeping into her tone. “Why wouldn’t

I be?”


He ignored her question, panic making his thoughts bump into each other like badly

driven dodgems. JB was dangerous. JB worked for the wrong people. JB did not have any

qualms when it came to taking people out. But that was not an explanation Nick could give

over the phone. Flashes of images of their last encounter on Grand Turk, the day after that

fateful night he and Maxi had met, whipped through his mind like sharp flashes of lightning

in a summer storm. The interview room of the tropical police station, Maxi and her friends

sitting there for hours, giving statements and filling out forms, hungry, exhausted, covered in

sweat and harassed by flies. And Jesse Bent swaggering in and past the front desk as if he

owned the place. The look in his eye told Nick all he needed to know. King was untouchable,

and this case would go the way of so many others. Small fry would be blamed and the real

fiend in Cockburn Town wouldn’t even falter in his stride.

Nick squeezed his eyes tightly shut, struggling to pull himself back to the present

moment. He needed to get a grip if he was to stand any chance of outsmarting Jesse. JB was a

coward, but a clever one. That he was here showed that he felt too comfortable, much too

safe to feel threatened by his close proximity to a serial killer. Nick wondered if he’d lost his

touch. Did married life soften him so noticeably? And if it came to it, would he be able to kill

again? Nick winced at the thought.

“Nick?” Maxi’s voice came through, an edge of concern to it.

“When did JB get there?”

“About twenty minutes ago. He said he was passing and thought he’d say ‘hi’. Oh, and he

says ‘hi’ from someone called Dollar, too.”

Maxi mumbled something close to the phone, to JB, Nick guessed. It sounded like lighthearted

banter. Not holding a gun to her head, then. Yet.

Ugh! Nick’s lips pressed together in frustration. He should have been there, by her side.

He should have listened to his instincts. He should have turned around and gone home as

soon as the idea first popped into his head.

“Um…” Nick spoke softly, trying to sound calm so he wouldn’t worry Maxi

unnecessarily; maybe all JB wanted was a chat. “Is Jesse alone?”

To have JB prowl around his home was bad enough. But the mention of Dollar’s name

sent shivers down his spine. Nick didn’t want him anywhere near his family. Dollar de la Rue

was not just bad news, mention of his name had most people who knew him hide somewhere

deep and dark and hard to find. The man was hand in hand with the devil, as long as the devil

was loaded. Hence the nickname.

“Yes, he’s alone,” Maxi’s voice came clear and untroubled. “He’s been telling me about

the time you two were in the army together. He’s shown me a picture of the two of you in

combats in front of a derelict tower. I still think you’re the better-looking one, by the way.

But you never said you had such interesting friends – JB’s a real charmer.” She giggled.

“Good job we are happily married.”

The picture in front of the tower? Nick remembered it well. It had been taken two days

before Corporal Rodgers died supervising a bomb disposal, together with two of the best

experts. The following day Nick became acting Corporal. Battlefield promotion. Promotion

that he didn’t deserve. Promotion that led to the death of six incredibly capable men. Nick

closed his eyes against the old nightmare that threatened to engulf him. He was already

feeling the weight of his brothers’ bodies, the ripple of bullets through their motionless forms

as they protected him even in death, shielding him.

Nick struggled to pull his mind out of the haunting horror of so many years ago and come

back to the present once more; he needed to focus solely on the crisis unfolding in the here

and now.

He felt trapped. What should he do? Tell Maxi to get out and run? Run where? To the

neighbours? Down the road? JB would probably shoot her dead if he did. The neighbours,

too. Ignorance was certain to be Maxi’s best chance of survival.

Nick was quiet for a second, tactical manoeuvres, evasion strategies and diversionary

scenarios chasing through his head like a hundred miles an hour slide show. Then a spike of

adrenaline shot through his frozen limbs, nudging him into action.

They needed to get away. Neither Maxi nor Cameron were safe. Neither was he, but that

wasn’t the most important consideration right now. He could look after himself.

Where to go first? Home? Or the Andersons?

Nick shoved the gas pedal down and screeched out into the road again. If he ignored the

speed restrictions, he could be home in five minutes flat. And if JB was alone, he would not

pose much of a threat. He hadn’t hurt Maxi; she would have said something, or the tone of

her voice would have given it away. But she sounded totally relaxed, like nothing more had

happened than an old friend called in and proceeded to regale his wife with real-life wartime


He would drive home then. Take care of JB, talk to him, do whatever had to be done to

discourage him from ‘dropping by’ again. Then he would tell Maxi to start packing. They

could fling the essentials into the van in ten minutes, and still have time to collect Cameron

from the party by five. No need to frighten him; he would have more than enough to cope

with when they wrenched him out of the community he knew and loved and moved him

someplace new and unfamiliar. May even need to spend some time on the run.

Nick quickly mentally catalogued their assets, refining his plans in the process. The

Andersons lived just the other side of the main street from home. The shortest route would

take them through the middle of town, right past the Spar. They could pick up a bag of

provisions on the way. Cameron should be fine at the Andersons’; they were sensible people.

They would not let a stranger come anywhere near the kids.

The challenge was only to get Cam and Maxi safely out of town. Once on a train or plane

or boat to somewhere very far away, he knew he could make his little family safe all over

again. Only this time they would go the whole hog and change their names, too; he wasn’t

taking any chances anymore. How stupid of him to think they would be safe here, in a

civilized country like England. He’d been so certain the nightmarish, vile felons from his past

life wouldn’t dare come after him here. He’d thought that chapter closed, sealed hermetically

shut, unquestionably beyond any chance of revival.

Maxi heard the change in his breathing, or maybe the noise of the abused engine alerted


“Nick? Nick, are you all right, sweetheart?” But she didn’t wait for an answer. “Oh, JB

says his son is at Samuel’s party, too. Can you believe it? What a small world! You could

give him a lift there later, maybe. You probably have so much to talk about, old times to

remember... Oh, JB says that, apparently, the entertainer was sick, so he rang up an old

acquaintance of his who is good with party tricks. Axel. He says Axel wanted to be a

magician when he was a kid, he knows a lot of tricks. Isn’t that marvellous? JB literally saved

the day.” Maxi’s voice was thick with gratitude.

The ice shards returned and started shooting up and down Nick’s body, draining him of

all feeling. His breath came out in a loud whoosh, leaving his lungs empty and aching. His

thoughts congealed as the complete reality of this meticulously laid trap sank in. They were

good and truly cornered; someone had thought through all the details very carefully indeed.

Much too thoroughly to have been the work of a lowlife such as Axel, or even JB. That must

be where Dollar de la Rue came in. Dollar was an architect, and if he designed this particular

operation, then…

He needed to get home to Maxi as fast as possible; she was in grave danger. Cameron,

too. All the worries he thought he’d left behind five years ago, all the fears about endangering

other people’s lives together with his own came crashing down on Nick now. The guilt and

self-loathing were so strong for a moment, they were wringing the life out of him, stopping

him breathing, choking him. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t speak. His hands alone kept

moving, continuing to steer the car with robotic accuracy. His eyes were glazed, staring at the

road and seeing nothing.

“Can I talk to him? To JB?” Nick said when he recovered. His throat felt tight and raw.

He tried again to clear the obstruction in it, taking quick, shallow breaths, like a girl. It didn’t


Maxi mumbled away from the phone again. “JB says he’ll be outside waiting for you.

That way he can have a smoke.”

JB was getting out of the house. Away from her. That was good.

Nick sucked in a deep breath, willing his tense voice to loosen a little. “I’ll be there in two


“Ok. Love you.” She sounded calm, composed – had she picked up on his anxiety? If she

had, she didn’t let on.

“Love you, too. See you in a bit.”

The line went dead.

Axel – entertainer at the party. No. That didn’t sound right. He couldn’t carry off a clown

act; the mere sight of his little piggy eyes would make the kids run screaming for cover. Nick

recognised this part of the story for what it was intended to be – a warning. They knew where

his son was. Maybe they even had a man watching him play with the other kids right now.

Would they barge in and take Cam? No, they wouldn’t want to cause a scene; this was

England, not the Caribbean. They would probably wait until it was time to go home and then

try to slip into the house in the middle of all the end-of-party confusion, a parent looking for

their son’s lost toy, or coat, or something.

Nick lurched the van around the corner on two wheels, then he could finally see the house

in the crook of the cul-de-sac, with its squat laurel hedge and the neat front lawn bordered by


JB was ambling lazily towards the end of the road; he was only twenty or so yards away.

Nick stomped on the brakes, more at ease now that the threat was so much farther away

from Maxi.

When he came level with JB, Nick wound down his window and rolled to a stop. This

conversation was best kept private.

“Jesse,” Nick said by way of greeting.

“Keeping well, I see,” JB smirked towards him. “Nice house you have there. Pretty wife,

too… Four-year old son… You’ve been busy.”

Nick counted to ten in his head. When he could unclench his jaw, he spoke through his


“What do you want, Jesse? Get to the point.”

JB smiled and pulled hard at his cigarette. “Always in a hurry, you are. Patience has never

been your forte.” He smirked and took another long pull. “Ok. Dollar says your services are

needed. I don’t see why it has to be you; I can think of a hell of a lot more deserving cases,

better people… more focused, if you know what I mean… No... um... distractions in their


It was imperative to keep any emotion off his face until he found out exactly what JB’s

instructions were, so Nick kept quiet and concentrated on breathing evenly in and out. There

was a crushing weight on his chest that made pulling the air in almost impossible. He needed

air to think, to keep one step ahead and find a way to get Maxi and Cameron out of this

unscathed. They were all he had – his life, his entire world was built around them. The best,

the only truly good part of his existence happened since he’d met Maxi. If they hurt her

now… or Cam – so young and innocent, so adorable…

Nick could feel his control slipping with every thought and every image of Cameron and

Maxi his mind brought up from the unfathomable depths of his memory.

JB scrutinised Nick’s expression and leered. He obviously found Nick’s discomfort


“Having a wife and a kid must make it so much harder to concentrate on the job in hand,”

he observed.

“I’m an electrician now. I don’t have problems concentrating.”

“Hmm,” JB snorted. “You might have, if you’re not careful.” He tilted his head to the

side, staring straight at Nick with cold eyes. His face betrayed no emotion. “Dollar says to be

as convincing as I need to be.”

“If you hurt Cameron, I swear –”

“He wants you on board. Badly, I’d say.”

Nick swallowed against the lump in his throat, still feeling winded, and chose his next

words with great care.

“I stopped doing that sort of work more than five years ago. I’m not sure how much good

I would be now – to Dollar or anyone else. I’m out of practice.”

From the corner of his eye, Nick saw Maxi’s slight figure stop and peer out of the living

room window. She’d grown her hair and the soft, shoulder-length silver-gold waves suited

her much better than the pixie haircut of the day they’d met. She smiled and waved at them.

“I thought as much. You always used fancy words when you tried to wriggle out of doing

your job,” JB spat the last few words out at Nick and then he flicked his cigarette butt high

over the van’s roof.


Nick turned his head in a reflex motion, to see if the cigarette butt landed in the middle of

the road, and as he did so, he caught sight of the gigantic ball of fire ripping through the

house. He felt the shock wave of the explosion before he heard it, or maybe it was just that

his brain had been stunned beyond normal function.

His eyes wide open, Nick watched, bewildered, as shards of shattered glass from the

living room windows sliced through the air and impaled themselves, like daggers, into the

soft ground. The raging inferno that had been his home shot debris high up into the air; some

of the fragments smacked against the van’s windscreen, startling him.

No. No. No. How could it be? Max was in there. She’d smiled and waved only seconds


He could see the fire, but his mind rejected it like some sick fantasy, refusing to allow it

to become real.

Max was in there. There was nothing wrong with her – he’d seen her smile and wave just


She was alone. JB was here, by the van. He couldn’t have hurt her.

Nick turned his head to the patch of pavement where JB had been standing. There was no

one there.

His pulse was suddenly so thunderous, so fierce, he felt like jets of blood might burst

right through his temples.

“NO,” Nick shouted at the top of his lungs, a raw, rasping scream of agony. “Max!”

Why did it take so long to open the damned door? Why was he so maddeningly slow as

he ran faster than he’d ever ran before towards the raging fire?

Max was in there. He’d just seen her – she’d smiled and waved at him.

Nick’s feet pounded the pavement with the wild tempo of an Olympic sprinter. Not fast

enough. Why couldn’t he run faster? Why did his knees choose this vitally critical moment to

turn to jelly? When did perfectly clear air turn to cloying treacle?

Max was in there, waiting for him, relying on him to come and save her from the heart of

the inferno. How long could she survive it? She couldn’t be dead. She’d smiled and waved at


She’d only just smiled and waved at him.

The heat was lashing at his face now, scorching his skin. Maxi’s face swam in front of his

blistered eyelids. She smiled and waved at him.

He was dimly aware of the shrill wail of sirens getting nearer. Who called the fire

brigade? Max? She couldn’t have. She was in there. She’d smiled and waved at him.

She was all right. She must be. She couldn’t be hurt. She was smiling. She’d waved at


Nick vaulted over the laurel and ploughed through the rubble and fragments of wood and

twisted pipes. The wall of flames snarled and bit at his exposed skin. He brought up an arm to

cover up his face and pushed on, bent double.

Max was in there. She needed him. She’d smiled and waved…

He tripped, his trousers snagged on something. Furious, he shook his leg and the singed

fabric gave way, ripping with the ease of cheesecloth all the way down to his ankle. It didn’t

matter. He must get to her. Max. She was in there. She’d smiled and waved…

A pair of strong arms wrapped around his shoulders like steel cables and pulled him back.

Nick resisted, but he was out of balance and he fell, twisting to his side.

Another – smaller – blast gouged scorching, clawing gashes into his flesh and he heard

his singed hair crackle as it caught fire again.

He pushed himself to his knees. Max was in there. She’d smiled… She’d waved…

A fire blanket wrapped over him and he felt more than one pair of arms lift and halfcarry,

half-drag him away from the heat. He fought with the blanket. He fought with the

arms. His eyes were shut. He couldn’t open them.

“Max!” Nick shouted, a trapped animal thrashing to get free. She was in there. She’d

smiled at him… “Max! Maxi!” his throat was molten lava, his lungs felt drained of the last

molecule of oxygen. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t speak.

“Max! Maxi!” he forced out a hoarse croak. “She’s in there! She waved at me! Max! Get

off me! Let me go! Max!”


It was out, now, the blazing hellhole. Only cinders remained.

It had taken much less time than expected, putting out the fire, breaking up the thick wall

of onlookers, sending away the ambulances.

The charred remains of his home were still smoking, taunting him, calling him in. He

would have tried to get a little closer, if only he could bear it. He was too afraid to look,

terrified of what he might see, horror-struck by the intensity of destruction, sickened by the

notion that he was, once more, the cause of it all.

Nick dropped his head in his hands where he was, sat on the kerb, still wrapped in his

blanket. His eyes were stinging. His lungs were raw. There was a crushing weight locked

tight around his chest, pounding through his ribcage and snapping splinter after splinter out of

the wreckage of his heart. A few more breaths and he imagined it would be all gone.

Smashed, shattered, pulverised, as much a ruin as his home had become.

He’d refused to go to the hospital. All he allowed the paramedics to do was un-stick his

lashes so he could open his eyes again. He drew a couple of lungfulls of oxygen out of the

tank, as well, to make them happy and avoid being sedated and taken away against his will.

Hot tears trickled down his cheeks, etching grey streaks through the black smudges. He

was all right. Again. And Maxi… Maxi… wasn’t. Nick shuddered, suppressing a groan.

History repeating itself.

Innocents dying.

Why couldn’t it have been him? Why did others have to die in his place? It would be so

much easier to be dead than to live…

Survivor’s guilt, the psychiatrist had diagnosed all those years back, in Hereford. Not

Nick’s fault. Not preventable. Six men had died because that’s what happens in armed

combat, he’d said.

His six men died because they trusted him. They trusted him to know what he was doing,

to get it right. And he’d let them down. No amount of hours on a psychiatrist’s couch could

erase that out of his head.

And now he’d let Maxi down. Jaw locked, fists clenched, he wondered what his excuse

could possibly be now? There was no war. She died because she was too close to him. Her

love had made her vulnerable.

And he, himself, was solid poison. People who trusted him withered up and died at his

mere touch.

Nick wrapped his arms around himself, fighting to stop the automatic reaction that always

turned his self-loathing into raw anger. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to stem the tears.

The anger twisted and snarled and flared up inside him until it turned to fury – a fury so

vicious, so ferociously brutal and all-consuming that if Axel, or Jesse or anybody else were

standing in front of him right now he would have crumbled their bones to dust with his mere

hands and laughed as he did so.

There was no war. But there would be one.


Balmy Christmas evening. White-blue sky and turquoise waters fringed with the daintiest

white lace and soft, pale sands as far as the eye can see. And a bar to lean back on as you let

your thoughts wander.

Nick Hunter stretched his legs and leaned back on his bar stool. Christmases just didn’t

come any better than this. He smiled and nodded to himself in contentment as his eyes idly

followed a party of rowdy revellers. One of the girls was dressed in floaty white organza, so

they must have been fresh out of a wedding ceremony, he reasoned. What was it that made

people desperate to get married on tropical islands these days? Why couldn’t they just get

married at home? Or not get married at all?

“You know, I still think Marty’s accident wasn’t an accident.”

Nick’s head snapped up, his thoughts abruptly redirected towards less pleasant

conjectures. Tequila, the pretty blonde with almond eyes and deceptively unruffled

demeanour sitting close by his elbow took a long sip of her cocktail, picked out the lime and

sucked at it noisily.

“Why do you say that?”

“I just… feel it, you know? I can’t explain it any better. Call it women’s intuition.” She

crossed her legs and swished her poker-straight long hair so that it slicked down her back,

leaving her perfectly tanned shoulders bare.

Nick kept quiet for a minute, hesitating, unsure whether he should finally crack this

prickly subject wide open. Then he ventured forth; he’d been close to asking for Tequila’s

opinion for a while now, he might as well let the conversation go that way and see what she

made of it. Her intuition was dead-on, as per usual; she had good instincts for a girl.

“Is it the message? Did that freak you out?” Nick shot her a quick sideways glance, his

eyes still on the partiers by the water’s edge.

There had been a message – everything happens for a reason – clumsily etched in white

blackboard chalk on the narrow wooden dock, right in front of the boat that killed Marty.

The boat in which Nick should have sailed.

At the last minute, Marty had become inexplicably apprehensive about using his own

boat, so he’d asked Nick to do him a favour and swap. Nick did not care much about racing,

so he agreed with a smile, wondering exactly what new business tangle Marty had got

himself into, to make him so nervous. Marty was a very likeable guy, but with a deeply

dubious business sense; his plans often went wrong and if he ever came out of any trade

richer, it was more by luck than judgement. Often, he ended up owing money. This time –

again – it looked like his lenders had caught up with him.

As it happened, Nick never even made it to the Turtle Cove Marina before the start of the

race because he had been checking up on a suspicious-looking newbie who was prowling

around the narrow lanes of the small town, home to the small indigenous population. It was

much less salubrious there. Why would a tourist walk purposefully around, unaccompanied,

staring over walls and scrutinizing side alleys? Not exactly the behaviour of your classic


It was a good thing to do – keeping an eye out for troublemakers. The locals knew that

and, over time, Nick had learned to not only listen to these home-grown pearls of wisdom,

but also feel and act as much a native as the rest of the islanders.

Besides, the police hadn’t needed to raid this neighbourhood in months, and it was simply

more convenient to keep it that way. That the constant passage of drugs through the small

cluster of islands was well known didn’t mean that you had to make it easier for the drug

lords to infect the few remaining ‘clean’ areas, too. Providenciales had stayed safe in that

respect, so far.

You could not even blame the small police force. It would be simply impossible to know

exactly what happens on each and every one of the forty-odd little islands of the Turks and

Caicos, especially when only eight of them were inhabited. So, in time, the locals had learned

to be a little more self-reliant and a little more wary of strangers who strayed away from the

lavish hotels with their posh bars, spas, private beaches and swimming pools.

“No, it’s not that,” Tequila mumbled around the soggy lime. “Though that is certainly

something to think about. The message itself doesn’t worry me as much as its sudden

disappearance does, mere minutes after it was found.” She sighed. “If only the police were a

bit quicker to react. Now there’s no proof it was even there, and poor Marty will become just

another line on the accident stats.”

“Still, you’ve got the picture of it on your mobile,” Nick pointed out, remembering with

vivid acuity the surge of icy dread he felt when Tequila had sent him the message. “You

could always share it with the police.”

“Like that will stand up in court” she kept her head straight, squinting into the distance.

“And you know they’ll start asking questions – how long have you known him, where did

you meet… Do you really want them sniffing that close to home?”

“Hmm,” Nick muttered, scowling at the white sand that was threatening to completely

take over the little hut’s wooden floor. Tequila’s question was only rhetorical, but she had a

point. In their line of work, one could not be too careful. You definitely didn’t make best

friends amongst law enforcers.

And then, who was the intended victim? Was it Marty? Or was it him? He’d spent the

whole night thinking about it, but that could well have been because he was so highly strung

that almost every move anybody made or didn’t make and every word, spoken or merely

implied, seemed a threat. He had lived in a climate saturated with threats and violence for far

too long; these days, he could spy dark, gloomy shadows even in the brightest sunshine.

Anyway, that was a decision he’d already made – he was going to leave his old life

behind and never look back. A clean cut. A fresh start.

That was mainly why he had refused to do the last job. Axel Stern had given him the

message behind The Fat Jackets Grill. Nick had said ‘no’. Then Axel’s henchmen appeared

either side of him and Axel himself thrust the small envelope with instructions into Nick’s

hand. Nick took it and tore it to pieces without affording it the merest glance. Then he turned

on his heel and went back inside to finish his steak in rum gravy.

Neither Axel, nor his heavies attempted to stop him. Clever of them, though somewhat

surprising. Maybe they’d realised that beating up a contract killer was not going to do much

to raise their own life expectancy, always assuming they succeeded in getting that close to

him in the first place. Or maybe they had been instructed to take it easy and keep a low

profile. Whatever the reason, Nick had considered the matter closed.

But that night the accidents started to happen. Not to him. Never to him. But close by,

close enough to see.

That night the bar caught fire. Not unusual for an open grill kitchen, one would say. And

at first, Nick thought it a coincidence that the police officer taking the statements that night

also found it necessary to give the witnesses assembled in the church hall opposite the

wrecked building a lecture on how our decisions can affect the people around us.

A week or so later the glass bottom boat Nick happened to be on stuttered to a stop just as

the severe weather warning came on the short-wave radio. They were bobbing about the

wrong side of the reef with a hole in the fuel tank and waves getting choppier by the minute.

Glass bottom boats are not built to withstand stormy seas and the currents around the reef can

be a nightmare even on perfectly sunny days.

Nick’s quick thinking and good knowledge of the area got them all back to shore, tired

from fighting the swell with only makeshift oars for tools, but intact. Nick’s mobile showed a

missed call and a message: ‘Have we changed your mind?’ – caller number withheld, of

course – and the glass bottom boats flotilla got a thorough and well-deserved inspection. All

the boats had been tampered with, and the police were concentrating on finding a connection

between that incident and a previous one, of property damage to a building, which had been

reported by the tour operator almost two years previous. Yeah! It would be fair to say that no

one expected an imminent breakthrough.

Nick paid better attention after that, keeping away from the crowds, moving base more

often than before, changing course and decisions, discussing his plans with no one, trusting

no one. No one but faithful Tequila.

The day after he had bought his BMW GS off-road bike over in the US, there had been a

shoot-out and the dealer’s apprentice was shot dead on the forecourt. They never did catch

the gang of unhinged bikers who did that. Nick had collected his pre-ordered bike a day early

by sheer fluke; he had been so eager to ride it that he’d popped in on the off chance, and there

it was – waiting for him.

This last one could have been a coincidence, of course. Not many people knew he was

going to buy a bike in the first place, never mind the exact location of the dealer. Yet,

something – the early onset of paranoia, perhaps – told him that the shooting, too, happened

for a reason.

Then, there’d been the salt-water croc in the pool incident at Raphael’s. Lucky that he

happened to look in before Raphael’s ten-year-old son, Panchito – the birthday boy – dived

in. Tequila had been there, too, and she was supposed to have been keeping an eye on the

neighbourhood, but she said she’d seen and heard nothing suspicious.

And then the following Friday night the knives-juggling act at The Crystal Palace went

wrong. The human ladder toppled over, knives flying in all directions. A young lad standing

right next to Nick was stabbed in the neck and a couple of other people had superficial stab

wounds; the jugglers were sacked and the act was removed from future performances.

Nick’s nerves were violin strings by then, taut and ready to snap. So there really was only

one way to construe the message on the dock – it was a warning. A warning received too late

to save Marty’s life. A warning Nick felt inclined to heed.

He wondered if he would have noticed a change in his boat’s handling, if he were the one

in it. He felt pretty sure he would – when he was sailing, the boat was an extension of his own

body, like an extra limb; he knew precisely what every creak was trying to tell him as if the

boat were hard wired straight into his brain, every twang of rope, every shudder of the hull,

every whisper of sail... Marty should have noticed the change, too, he was experienced

enough – would have noticed a change, Nick amended mentally, if he’d been sober and if it

would have been his boat. Not so easy to pick up on a change in an unfamiliar vessel.

Eyes tight, Nick sniffed, his mind running through the seemingly unconnected incidents

again. What sort of disturbed psycho would hurt innocent bystanders simply to make a point?

They hadn’t targeted him, he was quite sure now. Last time, with the boat, they had been

after Marty. And they must have been pretty slick, if they’d managed to keep a step ahead

despite the last minute substitution.

But he could see it was getting closer, the snare, if that’s what it was.

The first few were strangers. But Raphael, he knew well. Nick had spent hours… days…

diving with him and Panchito, exploring the reef. Raphael was a fisherman – poor, kindhearted

and honest. The sort of guy you could count on. As was Marty, only on a more

inebriated, less immaculate scale. Still a nice guy, good with boats. He owned a small fleet of

dugouts, kept in perfect working order, which he rented by the hour. It provided him with a

nice, steady income, which trickled straight through his fingers and onto shiny bar counters

without gathering dust. He’d spent nearly every evening drinking alongside him, these past

few days. Was that why they picked Marty? Did their closeness put Marty’s life in danger?

Where the bullies looking to spark off a reaction?

But even if that was the case and all these were meant to be warnings aimed at him, what

lunatic would even consider trying to coerce a contract killer into doing something he didn’t

want to do?

Ex-contract killer, Nick amended the term in his mind. He’d made a choice. He wasn’t

going back. That part of his life was over. Behind him now. Forgotten. He was a free man,

answering to no one and doing only what he wanted to do.

He was looking forward to a quiet time now, maybe get a job, perhaps even find someone

to get close to, settle down with. Not marry. No, none of that silliness. But good company and

smiles and attention. Normal chatter. No more guns. No more violence. And no more running


“Marty wasn’t meant to be in the race in the first place,” Tequila pointed out, pulling

Nick out of his daydream. “His boat had been tampered with. He told Blanche at The Lobster

Pot. I was there, I heard him. His face looked all crumpled up with worry. He was really

scared, you know? Like a week-old kitten perched atop a pine tree. He said his boat was bust.

Kaput.” She flicked the limp lime skin across the open room; it landed in the sand, right

under the gnarled sea tree standing on its own between the corner of the hut and the calm

turquoise waters.

Nick sighed and forced a smile back at her. He hadn’t mentioned any of his concerns to

her and something stopped him from doing that now. Suspicion? Mistrust? He tried to get a

handle on his mood before it could spoil the entire evening.

“Tequila, Marty’s always racing boats.”

“Was, –”

“Was racing boats,” he grimaced at her correction. “We all are. You can’t live here for

more than five minutes and keep away from water. And crumpled up is Marty’s natural facial

expression. Was,” he corrected again, raising his hands in mock surrender before she could

say anything.

He searched her face, but Tequila wasn’t watching him. She was staring at the noisy

crowd that was making slow progress down by the water’s edge, with a mixture of

amusement and puzzlement on her pretty little face. Nick hesitated again, wondering whether

to listen to his instinct or bring up all the weird things that troubled him, but she started

speaking before he could open his mouth.

“Who or what do you reckon sank her boat?” She nodded towards the party, a little smirk

on her face. “Most people enjoy weddings, I would have thought.”

Nick followed Tequila’s gaze. It took him a second, but then his brow smoothed out and

he laughed.

“I see what you mean. She could be pretty if she smiled.” He hesitated. “You mean the

blonde in the cherry pink dress with the pixie hair, right?”

“Um-hum,” Tequila confirmed.

The girl in question was kicking at the sand, raising tiny dust clouds as she followed

apathetically a little distance behind her companions. A pair of strappy sandals swung limply

from her right hand.

They watched in silence for a minute, then Tequila spoke again.

“I reckon her boyfriend dumped her.”

“She might not even have a boyfriend,” Nick countered. “She was probably on a hunt for

a potential boyfriend and couldn’t find anything suitable.”

“Nah. She looks …” Tequila cocked her head to the side as she considered what words

would best describe the girl, “… settled, you know. Like her life is rolling down a neat set of

tracks already. She looks like she could probably afford to pay for company, if she wanted it

that badly.”

“Hah,” Nick snorted. “You and your theories! Where did you get that from?”

“She does look it,” Tequila insisted. “It’s obvious.” She took in Nick’s doubtful

expression, her blue eyes narrowing with mock contempt. “Don’t even try to pretend you

understand women, Nick. You’re way out of your depth here.”

“I’m not pretending anything. And I’m never out of my depth – you of all people should

know that.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” she allowed after a little while. “You’re all right in tense situations.”

She paused again, then she tacked on, refining her assessment. “As long as they don’t involve

making small talk with a woman.”

“What?!” Nick exclaimed in disbelief.

Tequila’s eyes flickered to him and back; she giggled at his shocked expression.

“And what exactly do you know about normal female behaviour, then?” Nick challenged.

“You’ve lived the same brutal life I have for far too long to think normal. So I’m just as

likely to be right as you are.”

Nick set down his empty glass on the bar counter behind him, then folded his muscly

arms across his chest, pleased with his argument.

Tequila laughed quietly to herself, not looking in the least offended by his assertion, then

her eyes took on a teasing sheen. “I’ll bet you I’m right. Your GS for twenty-four hours.”

“Aw, not my bike, Tequila, please.”

“Knew you were chicken,” she taunted.

“That BMW is my best friend, my only family.”

“You’ve only known each other for a few weeks; it can’t be your best friend yet. I’ve

known you for years and yet you’ve never said that to me.” She pushed her lip out,

pretending to sulk, but turned around and smiled at him. “Go on,” she encouraged. “It’s only

for a day. We’ll do a swap. You can have my Spyder.”

“I don’t like Spyders. They’re huge and clumsy. And about as much use off road as a

segway. I love my GS.”

Tequila scoffed, then crossed her arms as well and waited, raising one eyebrow and

staring straight at Nick, a defiant smile on her face.

“Ah, kid.” Nick sighed heavily, shaking his head. “You don’t half know how to spoil a

guy’s evening…”

“Yay,” Tequila cheered, throwing her arms up and hopping on her bar stool in a

celebratory one-man-wave.

“I haven’t said ‘you’re on’ yet.”

She laughed, untroubled. “Yeah, but we both know you will.”

Nick took a minute scrutinizing the object of their bet. There was something in the girl’s

posture. Maybe the way she held her head, sad but not defeated. Or the set of her shoulders,

slightly hunched, as if she was expecting an attack, but still defiant, somehow. Her face was

smooth, apart from the set of her mouth – jaw locked, lips tightly pressed together into a thin

line – the sadness rained in, controlled, as if she was determined not to let her mood spoil her

friends’ enjoyment.

Whatever had upset the girl in the pink dress had clearly not dampened the others’ spirits.

There were eight of them, not including her – four pairs – and they continued to shove each

other into the sea, laughing raucously and larking about like a bunch of kids just out of

detention. It was quite unusual to get holidaymakers so far away from the main beaches on

the North coast. There was a road that led to the south end of Long Bay beach, but aside from

that, there wasn’t much here.

There is nothing like an unsolved mystery to pique one’s curiosity.

“You’re on.”

Nick looked at Tequila out of the corner of his eye; she was fighting it, but eventually a

triumphant grin stretched across her face. Her body was wiry and hard, athletic in the

extreme, but her face looked weathered. Tired. Ready to retire. Then again, it wasn’t easy to

retire from the sort of business they were in, not even if you were an independent.

She’d made a good partner, a valuable ally, loyal and brave and daring. Tequila had

always had a good instinct for sidestepping danger. It was generally a good idea to listen to

her advice.

She wasn’t the sort of person one would usually go to for relationship guidance though.

As good a mercenary as she might be, Nick had never seen her express much emotion. And

as for boyfriends, he imagined it would be pretty hard to find one who would be comfortable

with her workout routine, even if she dropped the shooting practice and threw away her


“Go on, then, call her over and buy her a drink,” she prompted.

Nick froze, stunned.

“You want me to call her? Over here?”

“Well, how else are you going to find out? You’re going to have to make conversation.

With a girl.” She spoke the last three words with slow deliberation, her eyes wide with


Nick’s brow creased with unease. He was annoyed to admit to himself that Tequila’s

words made him nervous. Worse than that, the confident, knowing look on her face right now

made his stomach flip with a feeling not dissimilar to panic.

He swallowed hard before speaking. “Can’t you call them over? You’re a girl.”

Tequila stared at him, mock admiration thick on her face. “Wow, you’re quick today.

You’d be putting Einstein to shame,” she said dryly.

“You know what I mean, they’re more likely to find you better company… less of a

threat, at least,” Nick mumbled, running quickly through the few memories or romantic

encounters and conversations he’d had of late; it wasn’t easy getting close to women when

you killed people for a living. What would you say? Hello, darling. Make yourself

comfortable while I finish shooting that guy over there. We can have fun afterwards. Right,

what an ice-breaker those few words would be!

Tequila giggled and emptied her glass in one go, then plonked it down with a sharp tap on

the counter behind them. She crossed her thin ankles, looking at Nick expectantly.

“Do you have to know now? Can’t it wait until tomorrow? Or next week? I could follow

her to her hotel and find out that way. There’s no need to talk to her.”

Tequila covered her mouth to stifle a giggle.

“You’re so funny, Nick Hunter. What are you afraid of? She won’t bite.”

Nick scowled at her. “I’d far rather she did, actually,” he muttered. “I’d know how to deal

with that.”

Tequila sighed quietly, a patient look in her eyes.

Nick glared back at her. “What do I do if she starts blubbing on my shoulder?”

“She won’t. Girls of her upbringing don’t do that.” She took a peek at his expression and

pre-empted his next question. “You can tell by the way she walks. Look. See how she’s

holding her head?” Nick was still frowning, unconvinced. “Listen. You don’t have to marry

her. Just prove me right, and then make your excuses and leave. Consider it good practice for

the future – you do intend to get a girlfriend eventually, don’t you? Unless you’re thinking of

becoming a monk!”

Nick was still with stress by her side, a look of intense concentration on his face, trying to

work out what he could say to complete strangers. After all he’d been through in his life, how

was it possible that he was nervous about a mere conversation?

“All right, baby brother.” Tequila stood up determinedly and started strolling towards

their quarry. “I’ll give you a hand. I’ll get her here. You just buy the drinks.”

“Wait,” Nick answered in a muted voice, his arm extending in a useless attempt to stop

her. “I haven’t thought this through yet.” Then, under his breath, too low for her to hear, “Just

how much do you want my bike?”

Axel’s voice came from behind the bar just as Tequila reached the group of people on the


“Mr. King says ‘hi’.” His expression was entertained; it was obvious he’d listened in to

their conversation. Nick found this small detail incredibly irritating.

“Axel. Go away.”

Nick turned back to watch Tequila talk animatedly with the girl who looked like she

might be the bride. Then she pointed towards the little hut, a wide smile on her face.

“Mr. King is not used to have to ask twice,” Axel insisted.

Nick ignored him.

“He says if money is the problem, he will double it.”

“I am not interested,” Nick hissed between his teeth.

“You should ponder Mr. King’s offer carefully, Mr. Hunter, before anyone else gets

hurt,” Axel droned on doggedly.

Nick grimaced, then turned slowly around, the better to stare into Axel’s piggy little eyes.

“Funny. I had you as a half-intelligent primate, Axel. Why are you trying so hard to

change my mind? Take a hint. No. Now, leave.”

“Ok, Mr. Hunter. But you want to pay attention to my warning, sir. You will make a lot

of people unhappy. A lot of them. Or maybe even dead.”

Nick was on his feet in a split second. His right hand pushed Axel’s flabby chin up, his

left clutched a thick handful of greasy hair at the back of Axel’s head. Axel’s eyes were

unfocused as he tried to keep Nick’s face in view. A couple of beads of sweat that had

nothing to do with the warmth of the day were starting to form on his brow.

“Put your hands where I can see them.” He waited for Axel to do as he was told. “You are

bright enough, aren’t you, to realise I could snap your neck in a second.” A small, strangled

whimper escaped Axel’s lips. “Exactly. So you won’t try to mess with me,” Nick continued.

“And after today, I don’t expect to see your greasy face ever again.”

Axel swallowed loudly, uncomfortable at the angle at which Nick forced his neck to


“Now pay attention to me, Axel. You go back to your boss and tell him Nick Hunter says

‘no’. And you also tell him Nick Hunter is not used to have to say ‘no’ twice. It makes Nick

Hunter terribly unhappy.” He twisted his left hand slightly. Axel grimaced, but kept quiet.

“Get it?” Nick’s hand twisted some more.

“Yes,” Axel whimpered.

Nick took his hands back and made a dismissing movement with his fingers. Axel didn’t

wait for verbal reinforcement; he spun on his heels and disappeared.

Nick stepped to the fridge, picked up a bottle of tonic water and rinsed his hand of the

sticky residue off Axel’s hair. He caught sight of Tequila moving slowly but steadily across

the beach towards the hut. She was surrounded by the little crowd.

Had she seen what passed between Axel and himself? Nick thought it possible that she

might have missed the swift and quiet altercation; they’d stood in deep shadow, away from

the bar counter. He decided he was glad Tequila had not been involved. Though he should

probably make her aware of the possibility of harassment from people like King; she might

find herself in Nick’s position soon.

He sighed as he watched the overexcited mob draw nearer. He felt too angry, too irritated

for polite conversation. He felt the urge to load his bike on a boat and sail aimlessly across

the Atlantic.

Running away again.

The thought froze him in place. He was not going to run away. Not anymore.

He would go and find King in the morning and clear all this up once and for all.

More at peace, now that he’d decided on the way forward, Nick cleared his expression,

put a smile on his face and reached for the clean glasses. The barman was nowhere to be

seen; his disappearance had coincided with Axel’s arrival, Nick realised, unsurprised.

Nick stalled the dreaded moment as best he could, pouring drinks for everyone, laughing

and joking and teasing the bride and groom to the perverse delight of their friends.

Finally, he could delay no longer. Tequila had already made a couple of inappropriate

remarks about women and his bravery in general. Luckily, no one had picked up on it, but if

she continued like this she was only going to make things harder for him. So he took a deep

breath, picked up his glass and strolled over to where the sad girl was sitting on the sand, all

by herself.

“Mind if I sit with you? My jokes were so bad, they threw me out.” He smiled at her, his

eyes searching her expression warily.

She shrugged. “If you like,” she answered in a pleasant, low voice.

“Oh,” Nick pointed at her empty glass, “would you like me to get you a top-up?” There

was a small patch of wet sand right next to her glass, which made him think she had tipped

out her drink, but he kept this small observation to himself.

“No, thank you. I’m fine.” She spoke without looking at him.

“So you are. In fact, you’re more than fine. You’re beautiful.”

“Hmm,” she muttered, keeping her face turned to the sea, her eyes narrowing a fraction.

“Really,” Nick insisted. “Surely, your boyfriend must constantly tell you how beautiful

you are.”

She didn’t answer.

“I’m sorry,” Nick continued doggedly, refusing to give up on his mission; his feeble

attempt at making conversation with a girl would make him the laughing stock of the island

in less than a day if Tequila had anything to do with it. Failing to make conversation, to be

precise. So, there was no turning back now; he had to press on. “You’re probably tired of

hearing that by now. And if you haven’t got a boyfriend, then… I could keep telling you how

beautiful you are until you’re tired of hearing it from me.” She was still quiet, her eyes

unfocused, lips white and pressed tightly together. “Or you could just tell me to go away

because I’m boring you to death,” he shrugged with a half smile, wondering if it was always

so hard to break the ice, or was it just this girl that was being difficult; he hadn’t felt

anywhere near as uncomfortable speaking to Tequila only a few minutes ago.

“My ex-boyfriend never did,” the girl spoke suddenly, her voice hard with bitterness. “In

fact he was last seen with his shorts around his ankles and his hands around a certain room

maid not so many hours ago. So I can’t have been that beautiful to him.”

Damn. Tequila was right.

“And your chat-up lines suck,” the girl went on. “The rest of us have evolved a bit since

they invented the wheel, you know.”

“Sorry,” Nick whispered, repentant, wondering quite how outdated he had become since

he’d distanced himself from society in general, and normal life in particular. “I honestly

didn’t mean to upset you.”

She let out a heavy sigh. “You didn’t. I was there already. I’m sorry, I overreacted. I

just... feel a little prickly right now.” She sighed again.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Nick staring, mesmerised, at the elegant curve of

the girl’s neck, her pointy little chin, the determined set of her mouth, her sad eyes. For all the

strength emanating out of her, there was an air of vulnerability, of defencelessness about her;

he yearned to put his arms around her shoulders and hold her protectively against his chest.

She was staring, unaware, into the distance, towards the distant horizon, now a couple of

shades darker than the water.

Nick scrambled furiously for a way to break through her barricade of silence.

“I’m Nick. Nick Hunter. Good intentions, lousy jokes, bad habits... Abysmal, prehistoric

chat-up lines.” He smiled tentatively. “But honest. Honestly. I wasn’t joking when I said you

are beautiful.”

The girl’s lips twitched. “Maxine Hamilton. Maxi to my friends. Too trusting. Always

doing what is expected of me – well, not anymore.” Her voice turned acidic. “Very bad judge

of character.” She sighed again.

“Don’t worry. You’re bound to get it right one day,” Nick soothed.

“Yeah. One day.” Her eyes dropped to the sand. She wriggled her toes absentmindedly

until they were completely buried.

“So…” Nick started again, “…Maxi.” He smiled, noting how much enjoyment there was

in merely saying her name aloud. That thought made a chuckle escape, too. Maxi tilted her

head and looked at him through narrowed eyelids. “Sorry,” Nick put in quickly, afraid he had

upset her further. “I was only thinking your name seems so ill-fitting... considering how tiny

you are.” He smiled again, hoping for forgiveness.

Maxi sighed softly and turned her gaze back to the sea.

“It’s ok, I’m used to it. You’re not the first one to say it,” she whispered. Then she sucked

in a deep, jagged breath. “Sometimes... Sometimes I wish I could grow smaller still. Just keep

shrinking until I become invisible. Then I’d turn my back on everyone and just... go off by

myself, somewhere… Nowhere in particular, just some place far enough away that they

won’t be able to find me. Top of a mountain… Bottom of the sea… Middle of a desert… Off

the radar.” She paused for a second. “Do you ever feel that?” she asked suddenly, fixing Nick

with the penetrating stare of a born inquisitor.

Her expression had turned stubborn. Nick thought she looked sweet like that, all frown

lines and narrow slits for eyes, like a Tinkerbell with a temper.

“Frequently,” he answered truthfully and with feeling. “Anything stopping you? Going

off the radar, I mean.”

Maxi turned to face him full on, clearly surprised by his question. “Um…”

Just then, Tequila materialised as if by magic behind Nick’s left shoulder. She stood

motionless, holding her hand out expectantly. She must have been listening. Nick pulled the

keys to his off-road bike out of his pocket with a sigh and flicked them up in the air. Tequila

snagged them dexterously and turned away with a quick “Thank you”

“Going already?” Nick called after her.

“Things to do-o,” she sang, jiggling the keys in her hand.

Nick stifled another sigh.

“Girlfriend trouble?”

He whirled around and gasped in shock at finding Maxi’s face an inch away from his

own. She had obviously leaned closer when Tequila came over. Now she drew away quickly,

her cheeks warm with embarrassment.

“Sorry,” she mumbled into the sand.

“No… um… I’m totally untroubled. She’s not my girlfriend – Tequila – thank goodness

for that. No. I… I’m afraid I’m such bad company, I scared them all away. My twenty or so

wives, not to mention the girlfriends... The whole humongous harem. They were running hell

for leather last time I saw them. Every single one. I was wondering why they all asked Santa

for running shoes last Christmas... So, I’m all alone now, just me and the fifty empty beds...”

Nick shrugged, peeking at Maxi from under his lashes.

Maxi giggled and Nick smiled back in response. Why did he feel like it was his

responsibility to make this girl happy? She had baggage, for God’s sake. Plus – getting too

close to her could become awkward, especially if the boyfriend reconsidered his position and

wanted her back.

But Maxi’s golden-green eyes were clear and open, inviting even, as she stared at him

appraisingly. Nick found himself unable to turn away from her, not that he had any strong

wish to do so. If only he could work out how to steer the conversation towards the point at

which he could invite her out for a coffee, or an ice cream, or a cocktail, or a gentle walk on

the beach, or a scorching hot kiss under the stars… He found that instead of fearing having to

deal with her unpleasant personal circumstances, he actually wished he could know her


“Do you really mean it?” she asked just then in a quiet voice, a little breathless.

“Yes,” Nick said, and then he blinked a few times, trying hard to concentrate on what he

was supposed to have meant. “Every word. But what exactly in particular?” What was she

thinking? He’d been so deep in thought himself, that he’d lost the thread of their


“Would you really tell me that I am beautiful?”

“So often that you’d get tired of hearing it? Absolutely. Every single day. But if we’re

going different directions, I will need your phone number. I’m told my shouting doesn’t carry

all the way over to England.”

“Smooth,” she giggled and opened her mouth to continue.

They came out of nowhere. One minute the evening was peaceful and still, the next a

dozen or so armed men in masks and sand-coloured fatigues swarmed around them,

brandishing sawn-off guns and shoving them face down in the sand.

Nick struggled to understand how Axel would have been able to pass on the message so

soon; he was certain this was a King operation.

Maybe Axel had learned how to use a mobile phone, of late.

More likely, King had his little battalion of mercenaries stationed just out of sight, over

the ridge behind the deserted beach.

Quietly, Nick cursed his inattention. He should have foreseen this, he should have read

the signs. Tequila should have seen it, too. Maybe it was a good idea he was planning to

retire – he was clearly getting careless, losing his edge.

He was glad Tequila had taken off, though her skills would have come in useful at a time

like this. And he felt lousy for drawing nine innocent people into King’s trap.

They could get out of this, though, if no one did anything stupid. It was clear the masked

men were after Nick. What would they want with a bunch of wasted tourists? Whichever

way, there was no one else there who could take command and lead them all to safety. It was

his duty to try everything in his power.

Nick moved slowly to his knees. Time to test his theory. If they wanted him, they would

keep him alive; he would be of no use to King dead. If they didn’t want him, well, at least he

would pull their attention away from the others; maybe that way they would let them go.

Maybe one of them could sneak away and raise the alarm.

A gun shoved hard in his back. He staggered but didn’t get back down; he continued to

get to his feet, his hands held up. They weren’t going to shoot him, he was almost certain;

they would have done that by now – if nothing else, to teach the rest of the crowd a lesson.

A heavy-set man slid in front of him “Make one wrong move, and they die,” he growled.

“One. By. One,” the man enunciated slowly, his hard, cold eyes locking on Nick’s.

“Painfully,” he added, glee stretching his features into an ugly grin. His breath reeked of rum,

but his teeth were well cared for. Money wasn’t something he was short of, then. Definitely

King’s men, Nick decided.

“What do you want me to do?” Nick asked quietly.

“Get on the boat,” he gestured to the water’s edge, where a small yacht could be seen

moored a few yards into the water.

Nick nodded. He could see that he would have to play by their rules for now; he wasn’t

armed, and even if he were able to give these rogues the slip, that still didn’t make the other

nine people whose lives he’d endangered by his mere presence safe. Besides, he’s been

planning to find King in the morning and clear any lingering misunderstandings regarding his

employment status anyway. This would merely speed things up.

“Ok,” he said in a tone he hoped sounded defeated.

He’d taken a few steps down the beach, when he heard muffled expletives behind him.

He turned to see the others being roughly herded into a line. That was not what he’d

bargained for. Having additional hostages on board when the time came to fight his way out

was only likely to complicate matters.

“What are you doing? You’ve got me, what do you need them for?” Nick yelled at the

man directly behind him.

“Extra insurance,” came the dry reply.

Nick stopped dead and planted his feet. “If you want me to go quietly, let them go.”

“Mr. Hunter,” the man smiled pleasantly as he spoke, revealing a yellowing canine right

next to a gap in his teeth, “I don’t think you are in any position to bargain here. We’re

playing the tune. Please dance along.”

“Let them go!” Nick hollered, his eyes taking on a mad tinge. He could feel the blood

starting to boil in his veins, the way he always felt when his body turned into the destruction

machine it had been trained to be.

The man holding the gun saw the change, too.

“There’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity. You’re walking it right now, Mr.


He shoved hard with the gun into Nick’s chest. Nick didn’t budge, though his feet sank a

couple more inches into the soft sand.

“Shoot me, then,” Nick challenged through clenched teeth.

“No need,” the heavy leered.

The strike came from behind. As darkness closed around him, Nick felt he was losing his

edge for the second time in the last ten minutes.

There was no one on the deserted beach to watch the small group of people being steered

through the shallow water to the diving platform of the yacht and bundled unceremoniously

into the small cabin. The one draped limply over one of the bigger men’s shoulder did not

regain consciousness during this short journey. His head hit the doorframe as he was carried

down the few steps, but no one bothered to check if he was all right.

He was still out for the count when the boat’s passengers were shepherded back to shore

through the shallow water a few hours later, and then locked in a large concrete bunker

hidden in the thick foliage of the tropical jungle.


The small pack of men stole closer to the ruined house, barely stirring the dust in the

deserted lane. A small movement to the left made Corporal Nick Hunter of the Special Forces

spin around and line up his C8, shoulders braced, ready to fire. Then he relaxed. Just a goat,

rummaging for scraps in the dry, dead shrubs at the side of the pile of rubble that had been

someone’s home. The gormless animal still had a scrap of twine tied around its neck, shining

silver in the feeble moonlight.

That, right there, should have alerted him. In a country so ravaged by warfare, so broken

that the entire population had either joined in the combat or fled over the treacherous

mountains, to own a goat would mean survival, it would mean being able to feed yourself and

make it through one more day.

But he missed the subtle clue and led his men on.

Nick’s nerves were taut, senses sharp and focused, ranging ahead for trouble. The enemy

could jump out at them from anywhere – any number of ruined houses, any number of

derelict walls could hide a sniper, and death could swell up and take them without warning,

swift and imperceptible, like the strike of a cobra.

They made it through the rest of the village quietly, and now they could see the last

ruined hut, and then the road snaked on to the right, and then down the hill.

So far so good. Nick dropped to his knees and reached under his balaclava to his radio


That’s when they attacked. The blast flattened him to the ground, his arm still caught in

the folds of the ungainly garment. They only wore them as a precaution, to blend in and slip

through the net of the few remaining, resilient locals.

Shrapnel sliced through him with the sharp pain of a hundred daggers as he lay trapped

flat on his face, smothered under the soft, warm weight of his comrades.

The blast had come from behind. Nick had been at the front, leading the way to certain


A sub-machine ripped through the early morning silence and Nick felt the bullets shake

the stillness of the bodies shielding him.

The swirling dust made him choke but he kept still, lips mashed together, eyes closed,

deathly quiet until the rush of sandaled feet faded away.

Worse than the dust, anguish choked him. Grief and despair weighed him down,

drowning him.

They died because of him.

He had not killed them, but he might as well have done. Hadn’t he been the one who

decided this would be the best route to take?

His men. His responsibility.

His comrades. His innocent brothers.

Shattered families forever mourning because of him.


Slowly, very, very slowly, the agonizing guilt of his habitual nightmare ebbed away into

the fog of his brain, to be replaced by a thumping headache and the feeling he was bobbing

about aimlessly on choppy water. As the drowsiness cleared, Nick noticed the waves were

getting gentler, until they stopped rising and falling altogether.

Snippets of the last few hours’ memories wove in and out of the fog; he found it hard to

link them together. He remembered the sizeable legion of mercenaries swarming around the

tiny beach-hut bar out of nowhere.

King’s men. Not exactly polite company. Especially when holding guns.

Nick tried to recall the sound of gunshots. None were fired, he was almost sure.

He listened intently, counting the breaths nearby. They were all there. No one was dead.


As he listened, Nick forced himself to take deep, steady breaths. He kept his eyes closed

and reached out with his other senses, like he had so many times before. Like he had on that

dusty lane, pinned down by the combined weight of his grief and his little band of brothers.

It smelled musty here, like forest floor, only wetter…

The only noise came from nine sets of lungs breathing, plus his own.

He risked a peek through barely open eyelids. It was dark but he could sense no looming

threat, so he perched himself up on an elbow to better inspect his surroundings.

Not good. What he saw wasn’t going to make getting away easy.

The room they were in was concrete all the way around – concrete floor and walls and

ceiling. The wall directly behind him had had a large section removed and replaced with

inch-thick iron bars. A new noise reached his ears together with a whisper of feather-soft

breeze – the rustle of large leaves in the wind, somewhere not too far away.

His eyes had not adjusted enough to make distinguishing any other features easy.

“Hello, sleepy-head,” a familiar voice called from the shadows quietly. “How’s the


Nick blinked, trying to focus on the source of the voice. Maxi – the girl he tried to chat up

earlier on the beach, drawn in by her sad eyes – was watching him from two feet away, her

hands locked around her knees. The spikes of her silvery gold hair caught flickers of faint

moonlight and threw them like a disco ball all over her shoulders, giving her the look of an


Nick’s hand automatically reached to the back of his head. He winced when he felt the

swelling – hard and large, about the size of an egg, throbbing viciously.

His whole body ached as if he had been rolling down a particularly rugged hill. He

groaned as he sat up gingerly, head spinning, ears ringing. Taking all his symptoms into

consideration, Nick guessed he’d been unconscious for a good few hours.

“Where are we?” he asked in a scratchy voice. His throat felt dry. He tried to clear it but it

was no good; he needed water.

He cast his eyes around, making an effort to pierce through the darkness. It was easier to

see now, though he could distinguish no more than faint shadows. He could just make out

something looking like a loudspeaker mounted into the ceiling, close to, but the other side of

the bars, and a small light bulb fitting – no bulb – this side, farther back.

“The Ritz. What? Can’t you tell?” Maxi replied sarcastically.

Nick threw a scowl in her direction and dragged himself up into a standing position,

holding onto the bars.

Maxi was obviously in a bad mood, he mused. Still. So it was probably best to keep quiet

for now and wait for her to get it all out of her system. She seemed an intelligent girl; she’d

probably already worked out that they were here because of him. Because he wouldn’t give

King what he wanted. He sighed as he realised this little incident all but killed his chances of

getting to know her. And she had seemed so worth knowing… Pity. He allowed a grimace to

twist his face as he forced himself to accept this likely outcome.

She’d probably start shouting soon; girls did that, right? Nick’s shoulders tensed up

against her likely fury, but Maxi was quiet. No whiff of tension could be sensed in the air

between them. No sobs, no accusations, not even a peep escaped her lips.

Was that because she was scared? She hadn’t seemed the timid, mousy type, back on

Long Bay beach. She wouldn’t hold back just to spare his feelings; if she had something to

say, Nick was certain she would say it. He scrutinised Maxi’s face for a moment, trying to

understand her reaction.

The others were also silent, irregular bulges on the floor, asleep by the looks of it. Or

terrified into silence.

After a short while, Nick gave up on analysing his fellow prisoners’ likely feelings and

decided to put some effort into investigating escape routes, although, if he put himself in his

captors’ position, he would have made damn sure there were none. It was what he would do.

He was still staggered by King’s cheek; the fact that someone – anyone – would attempt to

coerce a professional murderer into doing something he did not want to do beggared belief.

The man must be insane to think he could get away with it.

Which was probably the case, Nick allowed. When you are as putrid rich as King was,

you start to believe you can buy people or wipe them off the face of the earth as and when

you wish.

Nick turned slowly in a tight circle, focused intently on anything that might make getting

away easier. There was no obvious door or gate in the walls or the bars; it looked like the

whole wall of iron poles had grown straight from the concrete. But how do you put people in

a room without a door? A sliding wall? No hope of shifting that sort of weight from this side,

then. There must be a pulley mechanism of some sort on the outside. Probably electric; the

wall of bars looked too heavy to be easily operated by hand, and Nick had yet to see a villain

likely to put a lot of effort into something that could be made easier by technology.

Nick peered through the bars, but could see nothing useful. No promising tools jumped

out on quick inspection, either. A huge amount of assorted bits of rubbish littered the area

immediately outside their crude prison – all markedly out of reach. It was too dark to make

out clearly what they all were. By contrast, their concrete cell was incredibly free of debris.

He slid an arm through the bars, just to check if he could reach anything. He couldn’t

touch even the closest soggy scrap of paper – not that it would have been much good – not

even at full stretch, with the bars digging into his shoulder and collarbone. He ran his fingers

methodically up and down each bar, from the floor up as far as he could reach, but found no

fissures, no helpful flaws in the slightly corroded metal.

“Have we been here long?” Nick whispered as he worked.

He tried to remember as far back as the balmy evening on the beach. The bride’s name

was Summer. And the groom was Charlie. No, Charles. That’s right, Summer and Charles.

Other names percolated to the surface: Fiona, Alastair, Natalie, Sophie, Michael… Jake…

No, Jack. And one more… He shook his head, searching for the last forgotten name. After a

wasted minute, he gave up on it.

“A couple of hours, I think,” Maxi mumbled, scooting over by the bars to lean against

them and locking her arms around her knees again.

“The others?”

“Asleep, for now. Thankfully.” She sighed. “Summer was a little hysterical on the boat,

but I managed to calm her down. Charles – the groom – tried to make a run for it as they

brought us here and earned himself a headache, a bit like yours.”

“Hmm.” Nick spent a couple of minutes reflecting on her words and wondering where the

mercenaries had taken them. “Did we travel long? In the boat, I mean?”

“Felt like an eternity.”

“Can you be more specific? I’m trying to work out where we might be.” His voice came

out sharper than he’d intended, barely masking his impatience.

Maxi snorted quietly. “Pity your eyes were shut. You could have watched the sunset with

the rest of us.”

Nick sighed heavily, annoyed at himself, his eyes scrunched up closed and an annoyed

grimace on his face as he realised she did not deserve his unreasonable ire. She was not the

cause of all this, he was. And it was therefore his job to sort it out calmly and patiently, and

preferably without turning it unnecessarily into a bloodbath.

“I’m sorry, Maxi. But this is important. Please. Is there anything at all, any tiny detail that

you might remember?”

Maxi let out an irritated sigh of her own, but she kept quiet, thinking for a minute.

“I think we went east. Mostly. Or maybe south…” She was quiet for another minute. “I

don’t remember hearing other boats nearby, so I’m guessing we didn’t sail too close to the

other islands. The only sounds came from above – the deck, I mean. We were in the cabin,

windows blacked out. We didn’t really see the sunset.” She smiled wistfully, as if she’d had a

pleasant thought.

“It was already dark when we were brought here. One of the thugs said he’d see us in the

morning, what was left of us. Bit unnerving, but I didn’t give it much attention. Didn’t really

know what he meant up until the point when we found what looked like human remains and

shattered bones at the back of the room… At least, we assumed it was the back. We couldn’t

see the back wall and the floor slopes away under the muddy water.”

She shuddered at the memory and shook her head.

“Summer took it badly. She screamed like she’d been stabbed and then passed out. We

rolled both her and Charles into the recovery position, after we checked their breathing, of

course, and then we spread a couple of jackets over them to keep them warm. They’re right

there, next to each other,” she motioned to a heap almost directly to her left. “I’ve been

keeping an eye on them. And you.”

“Thank you,” Nick smiled warmly at her. “You’ve done a good job. And I am sorry about

ruining your evening.”

“It’s ok, it just… goes with the rest of the day... So, does this help you at all?” Maxi

whispered after a short while. “Where do you think they brought us?”

“Small cay,” Nick answered, keeping his voice down, so it wouldn’t betray his alarm.

“One of the Ambergris, maybe, or the Seal cays. Probably too small to even have a name.

Uncharted. They’re all uninhabited. They call them ‘flats’ over here.”

Nick rubbed his forehead and rolled his head a couple of times, trying to ease his

headache. Maxi watched in silence, obviously waiting for more of an explanation.

He forced his voice to stay calm and composed as he continued.

“Which means that you were more or less right about the direction of travel. That’s the

good news.”

“There’s bad, too?”

Nick sighed quietly, wondering whether explaining further might scare her unnecessarily.

It was bad enough that they were involved in the murky underworld of the Caribbean because

of him.

“Please tell me.”

Her whisper was part of the darkness, soft and magnetic, like the call of a cupid. Nick

found it hard to concentrate, lost as he was in the depths of her clear eyes, trapped by her


“I think… I think it would probably frighten you.” She hadn’t seemed the hysterical type,

but Nick didn’t like taking any chances. Not now, when she looked like she didn’t mind his

company even here, in this damp, crude prison that could well prove to be the end of them


“I still want to know.”

“If you insist.” Nick cleared his throat, and then spoke in a voice as reassuring as he was

capable of. “The islands of the Turks and Caicos lay at the heart of a very dangerous

crossroad. Several drugs highways pass through here. You see, it occurred to the drug lords

of South America that distribution would be much easier if the sorting took place somewhere

less watched, less rigorously policed and also much more accessible, with no clear boundary

control as such. The Turks and Caicos islands are ideal from that point of view because they

are physically impossible to police. There are so many of them… there simply aren’t enough

people to regularly check each and every little, insignificant and, most importantly,

uninhabited little cay.”

Nick took a deep breath and then went on.

“In time, some of these desolate little islands have been transformed into nothing less

than drug storage warehouses. They are mostly marshy, barely over the sea level at high tide.

You couldn’t even moor a boat safely on most of them, let alone build a house. So these are

the ones that easily escape scrutiny. I could bet my life that this is where they brought us.” He

sighed. “The bad news is that there probably is no way for anyone to tell where you have all

disappeared to, unless one of you has been fitted with a tracking device. Highly unlikely, I

know. I might be able to get away and raise the alarm, but that’s not really a viable option.”


Nick answered in a low growl, “I can’t leave you all here, unprotected. Even if I manage

to get away, they’ll have got it covered. They’ll just kill you all and then drop a call into the

nearest police station, telling them where to find your bodies. In fact, there’s nothing to stop

them killing you as soon as we are separated. One wrong move on my part and you’re all

dead. So I can’t leave you alone; it’s too risky. Plus, they’re sure to have witnesses ready to

testify that you were seen in my company minutes before you disappeared. Some people

would do almost anything for an ounce of white dust… King would end up blemish free

again…” He sighed. “I can’t twist out of this one.”

He turned to face her, scrutinising her expression. She didn’t look scared yet.

“Anyway,” Nick picked up where he left off, “the worse news is that we won’t be really

safe until we’re on a boat. The reason I say that is because, whilst pretty hard to detect, no

drug den is ever left unguarded. Not always by human guards. People would be easy to deal


“What are you talking about?”


“Pets? Like, what, guard dogs? I thought I heard some barking, earlier.”

Nick’s expression froze. “You heard barking?”

“Yeah, only it sounded rougher, eerie, you know?”

Nick nodded. “I know. And that tells us what we have to deal with.”

“What do we have to deal with?”

Nick loped over to the back of their cell. He stopped when his feet slipped on thick mud.

“What are you doing?” Maxi whispered urgently behind him.

“Shh. Get back,” Nick ordered. He squatted by the water’s edge and picked up a smear of

mud which he then proceeded to sniff at intently.

Maxi leaned over his shoulder. “What are you doing?”

Nick caught her roughly by the arm and pulled her back to the walls of bars.

“I told you to get back. Do you have a death wish?” His whispers poorly disguised his


Maxi jerked her arm out of his grasp. “Let go of me.”

“Just stay as far away from there as you possibly can.”

“Why? What’s there to worry about? Dogs?”

“Not exactly. Dogs do not do that well in swamps.”

“So what does?”

“Think about it.”

Maxi shrugged. Ugh – tourists from so-called developed countries had zero survival

skills, Nick thought, frustrated. And then he remembered that if it weren’t for him, they

wouldn’t have needed any survival skills in the first place. He took a deep breath to calm

himself and continued, keeping his voice muted.

“Salt water crocs, green anacondas… These marshes are the perfect habitat for them.

They’re aggressive and short-tempered. Even more so when they’re short on dinner.”

A flash of fear crossed Maxi’s face, but she controlled her expression quickly. “Oh. But I

always thought snakes live on dry land, or in trees… And salt-water crocs live in Australia.”

“Australian salties are bigger, it’s true. But there are plenty of them in the Florida Keys,

for example. If anything, they would like it better here, it’s warmer. And that barking sound

you heard... Well... that could be a mating call.”

Maxi shuddered. After a moment, she found her voice again.

“That’s what you were checking? With the mud?” Nick nodded. “And you think that’s

what those thugs might have here?” She glanced involuntarily towards the back of the room.

“I guess that would explain the bones, as well,” she said, another small shudder shaking her

small frame again.

Nick kept quiet, waiting for her to process all this new information. Would she panic?

Would she turn hysterical like her friend, Summer? How would he calm her down if she did?

But Maxi was quiet, too, thinking it through.

“Is there no hope of escape, then?”

Nick didn’t answer. He sighed heavily and sat down next to her, covering his face with

his hands, like a toddler trying to hide.

“Hey,” Maxi’s voice was soft and anxious. “Are you ok?”

Ironic – instead of him looking after her, she was the one doing all the comforting. How

could he tell her that it wasn’t him she should be worried about? If it had been just him, he

would have taken his chances making his way out through the marsh. But he couldn’t expect

a bunch of people more used to wine bars and cocktail parties to suddenly turn into a band of

heroes and fight their way out through this. It would be too risky, for one; were they even

able to swim?

And then, when they were out… what would he do with them then? If he was to have any

hope to ambush his captors in the morning and ‘borrow’ their boat, the last thing he needed

was a gang of useless dead-weights hanging around his neck, slowing him down and messing

up his plans.

He couldn’t leave them behind, either. What if King’s men returned and discovered his

absence? That was a death sentence, right there.

No. There had to be another way. He would think of something.

“I’m sorry I’ve put you through this. It’s my fault,” Nick whispered eventually.

“How is it your fault?”

“It’s me they’re after, these… these psychos. Not you. You didn’t do anything wrong.

You just happened to be on the wrong beach at the wrong time. Bad luck. Coincidence… that

you were there… that Tequila took off minutes before they pounced.” He was quiet for a

minute, then he continued in a tone full of self-directed hatred. “I should have been on my

guard. I knew that’s where it was heading all along. I should have kept away from people, so

when they caught up with me I would be the only one affected. Instead… I drag a bunch of

totally innocent people along with me…”

Maxi took his hands and pulled them gently away from his face. She let go of one and

held the other tight in both of hers.

“Can you at least tell me why they are after you? I might be able to help if I


Nick repressed a shudder. For the first time in a long time, he felt discomfort thinking

about his life. And shame. Acute shame and embarrassment, unpleasantly twisting his insides

into knots.

He wished he had something less repulsive to say about his existence. Something normal,

acceptable, enviable even. In his mind’s eye, he could see Maxi cringing away from him

when he told her the truth. His mind knew what he should do, but his heart resisted the idea,

the unexplained fear of losing her.

So, instead of serving it up raw, bare and unadulterated, he chose to make light of it.

Allowing a mischievous, lopsided smile to stretch on his face, he took her hands into his

now and began playing with her fingers.

“I could tell you…” he started, trailing off.

“But?” Maxi pressed.

“Well, if you knew too much… I might have to kill you,” his voice was too playful to be

taken seriously.

Maxi spent a while staring straight into his eyes, moving only to blink. Eventually, she


“Are you trying to tell me that you are dangerous?”

“To a bad judge of character, every man is dangerous,” he hedged, surprised that she

should work it out so quickly.

“Very bad judge of character,” she amended, blushing at the memory of their earlier

conversation and looking away.

Nick kept hold of Maxi’s hands as he appraised her expression. Would she heed his

warning? He couldn’t help wishing she would ignore it. He liked the way he felt when he was

close to her; he’d never felt so comfortable next to a woman ever before. Well, except for

Tequila, but she didn’t count – she was merely a mate, never more than that.

Maxi was staring at her feet, looking embarrassed and something else – hopeful?

Nick gathered her fingers in one hand, and pulled her chin up gently with the other.

“Maxi,” he said softly. He waited until she met his gaze, then he whispered. “What is it?

What worries you?” Maxi shrugged, but said nothing. “Look, if it’s about this,” Nick looked

pointedly at the damp cave around them, “there’s no need to be frightened. I’ll think of

something. I’ll get us out of here,” Nick promised, his voice a little softer, a little warmer

than usual.

“I was hoping you’d say that,” she answered with a half smile, and the stiff set of her

shoulders relaxed a little. Then she turned her head to look around, as well. “But I can’t help

asking the obvious question. How?”

Nick smiled, too, and stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. It was easy to

understand her reaction, now that the reality of their predicament had finally sunk in.

“Have a little faith. I know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah? Well, I don’t notice you doing anything much,” she challenged, her voice full of

mock belligerence, but her lips pulled up a little at the corners and her hands tightened around

his. “Or is inactivity part of the plan? Are we going to play dead?”

Nick chuckled quietly.

“No, we’re not going to play dead,” he chuckled again. “But I may need an assistant.

What’s your skills bank?” Nick asked, an amused glint in his eyes.

“Skills bank?”

“Yes. What are you good at?”

“Um…” Maxi’s forehead crumpled up in puzzlement.

“What did you use to do, back in England?”

“Doesn’t matter. I do not intend to go back to that life. I quit. I’m going to go back to ‘go’

and starting all over again.”

“It might work out worse, you never know.”

Maxi shrugged and shook her head stubbornly. “I’ll deal with what’s coming. What about

you? What are you going to do?”

Nick sighed and turned away from her. This was the hardest part. Getting close to her had

been easy. Keeping her close once she’d found out about his past… that might be a little

harder to achieve. He wasn’t sure he was ready for that yet.

“What?” her voice sounded curious, not prying. Not scared, as it would be as soon as she

learned the truth. “Are you married? You have a dozen children or so… scattered all over the

world, maybe?”

“If only it were that easy,” Nick mumbled, his words less than a whisper.

She picked up his hands again, holding them tight into hers.

“You can tell me. I won’t judge you,” she encouraged.

Nick stared straight into her eyes – so clear, so absolutely pure – trying to decide whether

to believe her. She looked like she meant it. And he owed her the truth, if they were going to

have any chance of exploring their relationship further.

“I will,” he vowed, sighing in resignation. “Later. I promise I’ll tell you everything. When

we’re out of here and lounging on a beach, sipping cocktails on sun loungers. I owe you a

decent evening after this one anyway,” he laughed.

Maxi nodded, accepting. “Ok. I’ll hold you to that.”

It was quiet for a minute.

“Why did Tequila go?” Maxi asked suddenly.


“Just before these bad guys appeared. Why did she go? Did you two have a fallout or


“There’s nothing to have a fallout about.”

“Oh. I thought… I thought most couples argue now and then.”

Nick laughed quietly at Maxi’s awkward attempt at figuring out the nature of his

relationship with Tequila.

“We aren’t a couple. Never been, never will be. Comrades, maybe… Friends. We’ve been

through many sticky situations together. Tequila makes a good ally. She’s got a disturbingly

accurate instinct for evasion.”

“Hmm. She got away at the right time, then.”

“What are you trying to say?”


“I trust her.”

“So you should.”

Nick mashed his lips together, frowning at the floor. Tequila had always behaved beyond

the faintest trace of doubt. Her timely departure earlier tonight had been merely coincidental,

he was sure.

“So… you never said... once this is over… then what do you plan to do?” Maxi

whispered, peacemaking.

“I don’t know, I never got as far as working that out.” He sighed. “I’ll probably go hide

somewhere. Somewhere no one can find me. Alone.” He made a face at the word, scowling

into the distance through narrowed eyes, suddenly anxious. So many questions racing through

his mind… He wished he could ask her to join him. Should he? Would she say yes? Would

that put her in danger? Would that make him selfish – wanting her close knowing he might

never be allowed to rest and have a normal life? And if she said yes, where would he take

her? Where on this earth would it be safe for him? For them?

“How? W-where would you go?” Her voice shook a little and she blushed.

“I’d get a boat. Load my bike on the boat, then sail away. Maybe get a parrot or two, to

keep me company. Emergency provisions, in case I can’t catch any fish,” he joked, trying to

lighten the mood.

Maxi didn’t smile. She hesitated, scowling at the floor, then she sucked in a breath as if

she was ready to speak, but she closed her mouth again and stayed quiet.


She was quiet for a long time. Nick waited patiently, determined to make her speak what

was on her mind.

“Take me with you. I’d keep you company,” she breathed, her voice betraying her

embarrassment. She couldn’t make herself meet his eyes.

Nick stared at her, incredulous. Could it be that simple? Did he hear her right? She

wanted to be with him?

“You would get on a boat with me?”

She nodded, a cautious expression on her face, as if she was worried she might upset him.

Then she found the courage to look up. “Please,” she said.

Please. Please, she said. Pleaded… as if she was afraid he would say no. Staggering. Nick

was too stunned to form coherent sentences.

“But… You barely know me.”

“And you barely know me,” she countered. “For all you know, I could be an axe

murderer.” She shrugged. Nick chuckled at the irony. She thought she could be a danger to

him. He couldn’t stop a smile stretch slowly across his face.

Her eyes tightened, then she continued quickly, as if she was afraid her nerve would

dissipate if she didn’t keep going. “I like you. You’re fun and… unconventional. Exciting.”

He could see the small movement of her shoulders as she shrugged again.

“We’ll get out of this. You said so. And I trust you. I might even be able to help, you

never know.” And when he didn’t answer. “If you’re worried I’m just another girl likely to

make trouble, I promise you I won’t. I won’t get in the way. And if it doesn’t work out, all

you have to do is drop me off somewhere and I’ll get myself a plane ticket home.”

Nick grinned wider. A girl that most likely had never seen the outside of the city thought

she might be able to be of help to him here, in this unnamed swampy wilderness. Or on a

boat. He’d probably have to tie her up to the mast or she’d fall in the sea at the first wrinkle

of a wave. Besides, girls were always trouble; it was in their nature. But Maxi would

certainly be fun to be with; she had a spark about her, something intangible yet compelling,

magnetic even. What a turnaround, he mused. From not knowing how to get close to Maxi to

her virtually begging to be his long-distance mate on some undetermined boat trip to nowhere

in particular. How to say yes without sounding too eager? And would saying yes be fair to


“What if I turn out to be a bad person?” he asked, half-serious, half-teasing. “I might be

luring you onto my boat to take advantage of you. Hurt you. Maybe even murder you.”

She stared at him, her eyes narrowing slightly.

“If you’re trying to scare me away, Nick Hunter, you’ll have to do better than that. One, I

don’t think you’re a bad person. Two, I’ll let someone know that I’ll be with you, and I can

keep in contact by mobile phone – technology can be a good thing, sometimes. Three, don’t

flatter yourself about luring me anywhere. I decided I wanted to turn my back on my life

before you even mentioned a boat. And four, if you wanted to hurt me, you would have had

plenty of chance to do that already. What’s stopping you right now?”

Nick ignored her question. The least he owed her was honesty. His face was serious, his

voice composed, but he couldn’t quite rein in the sadness when he spoke. “I’m not an easy

person to be with, I know that. And you admitted yourself that as far as judgement of

character is concerned, you could do better…”

“Yes, but you said I was bound to get it right one day.”

Nick laughed.

“Still… To just hop on board a boat with just any old –”

“You’re sort of good looking…” she cut him off.

Nick laughed again. “I haven’t shaven for three days.”

“Rugged look,” Maxi shrugged. “I like it.”

“My hair is longer than yours.”

“Well, that’s not hard to achieve,” she pointed at her own short spikes.

“I’ll never fit in the world; I don’t play by the rules.”

“So you’re unconventional.” She said the word in an admiring tone. “Just like I said.”

“Rebellious.” Nick’s eyes tightened to narrow slits.



“Passionate,” Maxi smiled. “Pretty sexy, if you ask me…”

Nick shook his head, smiling. “I’m sure I can find something to change your impression

about me. Just… give me a couple of days.”

Maxi folded her arms across her chest, a stubborn expression on her face.

“Why are you so determined to push me away?”

“Because I’m sitting on a self-destruct button and I’ll be damned if I’ll take such a sweet,

innocent, adorable creature like you with me when I blow up.”

She fought a smile for a minute, then gave up and let it spread across her face.

“What?” Nick asked, confused about her reaction.

“Nothing. I just thought that, for a cold-blooded stranger who might lure me away to hurt

me… well… I thought… perhaps… you seem to care about me a bit too much to do that.”

She grinned wider.

“You’re impossible.” Nick shook his head, sighing deeply. “And you said you wouldn’t

be any trouble! Now I find out you’re a first-class liar, too,” he grinned in mock horror.

Then a mischievous expression settled on his face.

“Well, if you’re going to be my first mate for any length of time, you’d better tell me

what else you’re good at.”

She blinked, startled by his sudden acceptance.

“Er… I’m… er… fit and healthy. And I can speak French and Spanish.”

“So can I. I don’t see how that’s helping me.”

“I can cook,” she declared, sitting up straight. “And I like fish. I’ll never complain about

the limited diet.”

Nick chuckled, then turned his hand around and clasped both her hands into his, bringing

them to his lips and kissing them softly. Maxi’s golden-green eyes were living stars, probing

and inviting at the same time. Nick found himself unable to move an inch. Maxi seemed to

have the same problem.

Nick was the first to find his voice. He swallowed loudly, cleared his throat and


“Position’s yours. Welcome on board.”

Maxi beamed.

“Now,” Nick pulled himself up to his feet, towing her up with him, “How about you give

me a hand to get us out of here?”

He felt her body freeze at his words.

“Are we going to try to swim out, through that muddy water?” she whispered warily.

Nick chuckled again, thinking he’d been right not to suggest that – they were all softies,

these city types. “No,” he said. “We’re going to keep as far away from that as possible.” He

pointed to the spotlight outside the bars. “First, we’ll just try to use any tools available to

make our escape.”

Maxi looked up, confusion clear on her face.

“That’s a tool?”

“Not yet. But it could be.”


“Spotlight. On a deserted island. No electricity, so it must work on batteries. We get the

batteries out and as much cable as we can. Then –”

“We make an electromagnet and see what we can pull in from that pile of useless stuff,”

Maxi blurted out, gesturing towards the mess outside their cage.

“Very good,” Nick said, amazed that she could pick up on his plan so easily. “I’m

impressed. Were you an electrician, back in England? Or a bank robber?”

“Insurance executive,” she grimaced as she explained. “But I did listen to my science

teacher in school. I sort of had a crush on him.”

Nick laughed and squatted next to her. “You’re full of surprises. Come on then, little

scoundrel, hop up on my shoulders. You’ll have to stand. Don’t worry, I’ve got you.”

They managed to get the batteries out, but the cable wouldn’t budge. They had more luck

with the bulb-less light fitting in the middle of the room. Maxi wobbled on Nick’s shoulders

and then jumped, Geronimo-style, all the time holding tight onto the fitting. It turned out she

needn’t have put all her weight behind it – whoever did the work had not bothered to tidy up

after themselves, but simply left the spare unwanted electrical cable coiled just the other side

of the ceiling. Maxi landed on the tips of her feet, and then rolled over, bringing more than

enough cable with her.

They borrowed Summer’s long silver hairpins and she yelled at them when they snapped

the rhinestones off. Nick and Maxi exchanged an incredulous look at that, but went on

regardless, Maxi stripping the plastic casing off the copper core with her new acrylic nails –

‘weapons in their own right’ Nick had called them – and Nick coiling the wire in tight loops

around the hairpins.

With their makeshift magnet, they scoured the rubbish pile outside the bars until they

pulled an old rusty hacksaw blade into the cell. Nick managed to snap it in two, and then he

ripped a very expensive suit jacket into shreds to make secure grips for the blades.

Maxi organised everyone into shifts. Together, they hacked through two of the bars in

less than an hour. Phase one of their island escape was complete.

Nick left Maxi some way back, deep in the cover of the thick wedge of vegetation, and

instructed her to keep the others quiet whilst he sneaked over to the water’s edge. She was to

approach only when she heard his clear command.

Luck was on their side. A small yacht was dancing on the gentle swell – brightly lit, but

quiet. King must have decided to leave some guards on watch, just in case.

Nick slipped quickly under the water, until just the top of his head was visible. He kept

under, first crawling, and later, when it became possible, swimming gently, with regular

strokes that barely caused a ripple. He made a wide arc and approached the boat not from the

island, but from the deeper sea.

Nick stayed hanging on the edge of the boat for a minute, his eyes closed. He let his

hearing range farther and farther away, until the light sounds of the swell against the hull

become nothing more than background noise. When he could ignore it, he listened more

carefully still, and then he was sure he could only count two breaths – one gentle, regular and

rumbling, the other more laboured and closer. Had King only left two guards behind? On the

other hand, two were more than enough when the prisoners were locked safely away, with no

chance of escape.

There was only one sentinel on deck, the other guard obviously getting some sleep in the

cabin. They must have had a party, Nick decided, probably celebrating their successful

capture; the smell of cheap, homemade sugarcane rum was really strong. If he hadn’t needed

the boat to get away, Nick supposed he could have simply struck a match and the boat with

all that was on it would have gone up in flames without a hold-up.

That might have been his first instinctual thought, but he knew it would have been both

unnecessarily cruel and wasteful. He didn’t feel much pity for the thugs who captured and

imprisoned Summer and her wedding guests, but even they didn’t deserve to die this way,

and besides, they could prove to be useful witnesses, back on land, if he could convince them

to testify against King.

The sentry on the deck sat down with a groan, and leaned forward on his gun, as if he

found it hard to keep upright. Genius. Nick’s arms reached from behind, his strong fingers

finding the right grip around the man’s neck with unerring ease. The unconscious man’s head

thuncked loudly on the deck when his body slumped over, the noise echoing in the darkness;

Nick held his breath, waiting for the steps that would confirm the other one was rushing up to

check on the source of the noise, but he needn’t have worried. All was quiet.

A minute later he pulled himself silently over the edge of the boat. It rocked gently, and

Nick froze for a moment, listening intently through the light dribble of sea water from his

soaked clothes. Still nothing. He sniffed at the deck – drunk and stoned? Some party...

Nick listened to the breathing of the unconscious man – he really only wanted him out

temporarily. Still alive. Good.

He tiptoed to the cabin and creaked open the door. The only other guard was sleeping on

his belly and one of his arms had flopped onto the floor, resting against his gun.

Very, very carefully, Nick slid the gun out from under his hand and tiptoed back to the

deck with it.

Next, he picked up his unconscious mate and carried him to the cabin. He was much

heavier than he’d bargained for; by the time he stood, hunched, in the cabin doorway, Nick

could almost feel his thigh muscles burst with the effort.

Oh, well, maybe keeping silent wasn’t that important anymore. He made a snap decision,

trusting on the surprise element to slow the sleeping guard’s thinking. The thud made by the

unconscious man hitting the floor was covered up by the click of the lock on the cabin door.

Nick’s voice rang loud and clear over the commotion that promptly developed down, in

the cabin.

“Ok, Maxi. Boat’s safe.”

Nick kept a tense vigil all through the thunderous splashing noise the others caused while

they made their way, as fast as they could, over to the boat – how could nine people be

noisier than a hundred stampeding elephants? He cringed, his eyes scouring the tiny island’s

shore for signs of trouble, but there was no one else there. Obviously, King’s men had been

overly confident, thinking their quarries would be incapable of causing any trouble. They

should have known better.

Maxi stayed close by Nick’s side from then on, ignoring her friends and noticeably

keeping out of Nick’s way while he confidently pointed the boat north with practiced hands.

She was sitting, back ramrod straight, on one of the side benches, looking straight ahead,

but peeking sideways at Nick when she thought he wouldn’t notice. Trying to prove she

wouldn’t be a nuisance, Nick guessed.

He was shooting glances her way now and then, too, and his half-smile gradually turned

into a full one, and then into a wide grin.

He even chuckled once or twice, when the rocking motion of the boat made her grab

tightly onto the side to save herself from toppling over. Each time that happened, her

carefully calculated air of imperturbable cool broke away to reveal a mix of sudden shock

and alarm for a couple of seconds, swiftly followed by a quick, sly glance to make sure no

one saw her slip-up.

Maxi managed to keep quiet for almost half an hour, but then her curiosity got the better

of her.

“What are you grinning at?”

“I’m just… happy,” Nick answered, laughing quietly.

“Because we got away? Or because you’re on a boat?”

“Both. And because you’re here, of course. For now, anyway,” he added, his smile


“I said I would be,” Maxi said, smiling at him. “I meant it. And not just for now.”

“You did,” he agreed. “Though I’m not sure how long you’ll last. You look a little

uncomfortable.” Nick threw her an appraising glance. “Feeling queasy?”

“No. Not even a tiny bit. I’m fine.”

“Ok,” Nick allowed.

“Where are we going?”

“Cockburn Town, Grand Turk,” he stated confidently. “It’s the quickest way to get you

all back to Providenciales. And those two into a jail,” he nodded towards the cabin.

“You know how to get there?”

“I know enough to find my way,” he shrugged and smiled at her again.

Maxi smiled back, looking awed.

Nick navigated them effortlessly to Cockburn Town, where they handed the two

unfortunates King had trusted with hostage supervision straight to the police station. They

would certainly be safer in jail than facing King, at least until his fury cooled a little.

Every one of the nine tourists filled in forms and signed statements detailing their

kidnapping but the two heavies insisted they had nothing to do with King and so King could

not be linked to the kidnapping.

The incident had not resulted in loss of life or injury and therefore the file was closed

within a few short days.

Maxi and her friends boarded a small island-hopper plane and were back in their hotel

that same afternoon.

At Maxi’s request, Nick waited in the hotel lobby for her to change and then they went to

look for Tequila and retrieve Nick’s bike.

Tequila was not at home. Nick trawled the neighbourhood but could find no trace of her.

It was early evening and the sun was just kissing the horizon when Maxi and Nick were

heading back after a visit to the conch farm, when they tripped over Raphael. His son,

Panchito, was proudly carrying a woven basked brimming over with freshly caught lobsters.

“Hey, man,” Raphael smacked Nick’s shoulder with his large hand. “Ooh, nice lady. Will

you introduce us?”

Maxi giggled and held out her hand. “Maxi,” she said.

Raphael grabbed hold of her hand and pulled her in for a quick hug.

She gasped and pulled back as soon as he released her, blushing in embarrassment and

looking anxiously at Nick, but Nick laughed and wound his arm around her waist.

“Sorry,” he apologised for his friend’s behaviour. “That’s the only way Raphael can say


“He didn’t hug you,” Maxi mumbled, still looking embarrassed.

“Yeah,” Raphael laughed, unperturbed. “But I’ve known him for a hundred years.”

“And me for ten,” Panchito chipped in. Nick reached over and mussed the boy’s hair.

“That’s a hundred and ten altogether,” Raphael grinned.

“Well, I’m gonna beat that,” Maxi whispered quietly into Nick’s ear, low enough that

Raphael couldn’t hear.

“Besides,” Raphael was saying, “I always make sure Nick gets a good match,” he drew a

curvy, womanly shape in the air with his hands.

Nick and Panchito laughed. Maxi wasn’t sure how to take it, but eventually decided that

Nick’s friend was no threat, especially with his son in tow.

She smoothed her expression, looked straight into Raphael’s eyes and asked boldly,

“Well, then? What’s your verdict? Let’s hear it.”

Raphael pretended to assess her for a minute, looking her up and down. Then he grinned


“Hell, yeah. He found his match in you, Maxi.”

“And did you have to do a lot of matchmaking, over time?” Tequila wondered in a

subdued voice.

“Err...” Raphael averted his eyes, hesitating.

Luckily for him, his son saved him from having to think of a diplomatic answer by asking

a question of his own.

“Are you two getting married?” Panchito quipped.

Nick gulped noisily and shot a sideways glace towards Maxi. She had stopped breathing

and her eyes were slightly unfocused. Her face was bright pink. Panchito started to giggle, a

thin, boyish, mischievous sound. Raphael stopped in the middle of the track and started

laughing raucously. He was so entertained, he looked in danger of falling over. He braced his

hands against his knees and laughed until he began to wheeze.

“Well?” Panchito pressed.

“Got to love children,” Raphael choked out, gasping for air. “There’s no one better to see

straight to the heart of things.”

“He certainly got mine right,” Nick muttered under his breath.

His eyes locked with Maxi’s and he caught her hands in his own. His face was serious,

his eyes intense. He felt a smouldering hot wave of emotion sweep through his body. And

right there and then, Nick knew the time was right. He dropped on one knee, still keeping

hold of Maxi’s hands, his gaze still locked in hers.

“Maxine Hamilton,” Nick started.

“Wait, wait,” Panchito stopped him.

All eyes turned to the boy who had tipped the lobster basked upside down in the middle

of the road and was searching for something in the small pile of shells he’d obviously

collected on the beach.

“I’d found just the right thing,” Panchito mumbled as he searched. “It’s here, somewhere.

A-ha!” Panchito straightened up, holding his hand out to Nick, victorious.

Nick let go of Maxi’s right hand to take Panchito’s offering. It was a circular piece of

shell with a round hole in the middle, smooth and pink – a perfect ring shaped by the waves

out of a conch. Nature’s way of making this most beautiful evening perfect.

“Thank you, Panchito.” Nick turned back to Maxi. “Maxi, would it be too presumptuous

of me to assume you like me enough to consider spending the rest of your life with someone

like me?”

End of day sun filtered through her lashes, painting them russet and making them look

long and mysterious. A strange expression crossed her face and Nick’s breath caught in his

throat. His brow creased as Maxi took the shell ring out of his hand.

“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with someone like you, Nick.” Nick’s eyes

dropped to the dusty lane he’d knelt in and he swallowed hard. He knew it. Who’d want to

live alongside a murderer? He couldn’t even blame her – if he’d been in her place, wouldn’t

he do the same? Think the same? Sudden movement caught his eye and he lifted his face to

see Maxi get on her knees in front of him. “I don’t want somebody else, Nick,” she said in a

soft voice. “I want you. Forever.” She pushed the ring on his finger. “Nick Hunter, will you

marry me?” she asked simply.

Nick threw his arms around Maxi and drew her to his chest. He held her tight and leaned

his face to whisper in her ear. “Oh, Maxi. Of course I’ll marry you. There’s no one on Earth

I’d rather be with. For better and for worse, till death do us part.” His mouth found hers then

and he kissed her softly at first, then more and more intense, more impatiently, more

feverishly, until he heard Panchito’s voice behind them.

“Ugh! Get a room, will you?”

Raphael chuckled and started throwing the lobsters back into the basket.

“Are you coming back to my place to get a bite to eat, or would you rather spend the rest

of the night here, in the middle of the road?”

It was later, as they discussed the previous day’s events over barbecued lobster, that Nick

was reminded of Tequila’s well-timed departure just before King’s men had shown up.

“Happen to know where Tequila is?” he asked Raphael.

“Oh, right,” Raphael smacked his forehead. “I forgot. She posted a note under the door –

must have been during the night ‘cause we didn’t hear her, did we, Panchito?” The boy shook

his head to back up his father. “And we were up at crack of dawn. Son, go get it, man.”

Panchito ran off and reappeared almost immediately clutching a small piece of white

paper that looked like it had been torn from a small booklet, like the sort waiters use in

restaurants when taking orders.

The message was short.

“Business calls. Still got the bike, sorry. I’ll get it back to you at some point, Nick. I’ll

find you. Don’t try to find me. Tequila.”

Nick read it twice, then he shrugged and threw the paper on the dying fire.

“Pity. I would have liked her to be there tomorrow, at the ceremony.” His hand found

Maxi’s and he squeezed it as they got lost into each other’s eyes again.

“You want me to pull it forward to morning instead?” Raphael’s voice seemed so far

away to Nick, though he was only the other side of the table. “It doesn’t look like you can

wait till evening,” he chuckled.

Nick pulled himself back to the present with a little effort. “No, evening’s fine. I’m so

grateful you could get it all sorted so quick...”

“What’s Paradise without the odd miracle, hey?” Raphael interjected.

“And we have a few things to take care of, anyway. We’ll need a boat, for a start. And

Maxi needs to check out of her hotel, maybe invite a few friends.”

“I don’t... particularly... want to. I only came as the ‘plus one’ for Summer’s brother.

She’s probably a nice person, though her brother is a jerk. I don’t know her well enough. And

the others are her friends, mostly.” She shrugged “I’d rather share the moment with people I


“And I need to get you a proper ring,” Nick looked at the pink shell ring around his own

finger. “We’ll get a matching pair.”

Panchito opened his mouth to protest, but Raphael shushed him before he got the chance

to speak.

The evening ceremony took place on the exact spot Nick and Maxi had met. Out, on the

shallow water, bobbed a white old-fashioned yacht with “Just Married” scrawled in

Panchito’s writing on the hull.

Nick couldn’t contain his smile. He smiled when they walked barefoot from the hut

through the sand to the water’s edge. He smiled at Maxi’s awed expression as her eyes swept

over the ocean of flowers surrounding them. Pink orchids poked their heads through petals of

oleander, bougainvillea and plumeria – the whole beach was covered in different shades of

pink. The sunset added more rich hues to the panorama, giving it a magical feel.

The ceremony was short and simple; neither Nick nor Maxi had wanted anything

complicated. Their only extravagance was the wedding gift they had bought to themselves –

the boat that would be their home for the time being – and the pink shell and gold matching

rings which Panchito brought over on an ivory satin cushion. Their eyes never moved from

each other’s as they said ‘I do’ and when Nick bent over to kiss his bride, a thousand lanterns

came to life, sparkling like fireflies against the soft velvet of the flowers.

A light breeze played with Maxi’s dress and whipped the strands of her white Hawaiian

style hula skirt. The top part was not much more than a narrow piece of satin knotted at the

front. “My mum would have a fit if she saw me in something like this,” she’d said to Nick as

he stared at her bare midriff breathing hard. “Steady,” she’d cautioned when she’d seen the

hunger in his eyes, “We are in the middle of a shop, remember?”

They’d chosen a pair of white linen slacks for him and a cotton shirt which Maxi insisted

he wore unbuttoned. The wayward breeze was making it exceedingly hard for her to take her

eyes off the tightly coiled muscles on his chest and stomach. She was counting the seconds

until she would be alone with him; she would have to make do with gawping for now.

Instead of a threshold, Nick carried Maxi in his arms to the boat and lifted her in. As he

prepared the boat for departure and waved goodbye to Raphael and Panchito, he felt like the

luckiest man alive. He didn’t know what he’d done to deserve this much good fortune, but

whatever it was, he was not going to spend too much time questioning its validity.

Maxi’s decision to quit her job, marry and go sailing with what was practically a stranger

she’d met two days previous on a Caribbean beach was frowned upon by her friends and

family, but this didn’t intrude into her perfect bubble of happiness.

Nick wondered about Tequila once or twice, but she’d been trained at the same school of

hard knocks as he’d been. She would send word if she was in trouble or get in touch when or

if she wanted to.


Nick lifted his head out of his hands and shrugged out of the fire blanket.

Five years, just over. Five short years of happiness was all he’d been allowed.

Where was the fairness in that? Maxi, his sweet little wife was gone – her life lost

because she’d made one mistake: she’d loved him. Cameron... Who knew where Cameron

was by now? Nick wanted to believe his son was still ok, needed to believe there was still a

chance to save him. Panic raked bitter gashes all through his body, biting at the thin strands

of hope that were just about keeping him afloat.

NO. Nick gritted his teeth. He couldn’t let that hopeless feeling take over. He wouldn’t.

He’d lost Maxi, but he would get Cameron back, even if it meant taking on the whole world

singlehandedly. He would hunt down the bastards who had done this to the end of the galaxy

if that’s what it took. One by one. They stood no chance now that they’d crossed the line.

The fire fighters were scouring the ruins. Others were with them – police officers, Nick


It didn’t matter.

They had removed the body already.

Nick didn’t want to see it. It wasn’t his Maxi. Just some charred hunks of flesh that had

once been a human being. His Maxi had smiled and waved at him. Her last act on this Earth

had been to show him her love again.

Nick could see how that picture – Maxi smiling and waving at him – would come to

haunt him, would superimpose itself over everything else, so that she would always be there,

living by his side, watching him, smiling in encouragement and staying close, holding his

hand through what had to be done now.

Earlier, a plain-clothes Detective, Chief Inspector Newton, came to talk to Nick. Well,

Detective Newton talked, Nick listened. There were no suspicious circumstances, but they

were going to do a post-mortem anyway. Gas explosion – almost one hundred percent.

Now he could see Newton approaching again. Nick rose to his feet, feeling drained and

sick with worry about his son.

“I’m sorry to disturb you again, Mr. Hunter.”

He stopped about a foot in front of Nick. Too close. Nick resented the intrusion on his

personal space, and promptly took a step back, his eyes narrowing. The rage was still spitting

and spluttering inside him, only barely under control.

The Detective grimaced, but stayed where he was. He frowned and spoke fast, as if he

didn’t want to be there any more than Nick did.

“I know the death of your wife must seem like the end of the world right now.” He

watched Nick flinch. “But you can’t let that bring you down.”

Nick’s jaw tightened, his nostrils flared. Who was this idiot telling him what he should

feel? What he should do?

The Detective must have seen the unadulterated hatred on Nick’s face and he looked

quickly away from his hostile, hard stare. He cleared his throat and went on.

“You have a child to think about now.”

Nick looked away from Newton’s face, over his shoulder and into nothing. He nodded in

passive acknowledgement, as he had so many times before, when he’d bluffed his way

through scores of military assessments, both physical and psychological. He’d become an

accomplished actor in a matter of weeks; he knew only too well what was expected of him.

“Well, at least there is some good news there.” Newton appeared to be struggling to find

something adequate to say. “We’ve had a call from a Mrs. Anderson. One of the neighbours –

Mr. Farlow from number 12 – called and told them about the… the… tragedy. She wanted

you to know that Cameron was safely collected by the family friend you sent over. She said

she did offer to keep Cameron there overnight, but Axel – the family friend – assured them

that Cameron would be well looked after.”

Nick managed not to stagger back. It was exactly what he’d expected.

The thought of Axel’s blood-smeared, murderer’s hands touching his sweet, immaculate

son turned his stomach, but he held it together, his face frozen like an ice sculpture.

He felt icy cold now, even with singed hair and no eyelashes. His body felt shut down,

dead. Like there was no movement of blood through his veins. His brain was arctic desert,

too, weak and impotent like January sun. There were no thoughts, no strategies now, no rage

and no determination.

Nick turned his back on Maxi’s grave with a slow, mechanical motion and started

walking towards his van. He felt the Detective’s stare on his back, but he was past caring.

Someone had turned the engine off. He slid onto the driver’s seat and slumped over the

steering wheel, eyes open, staring unseeing at the dashboard. He felt a bruise on his

cheekbone throb painfully as it pressed against the unyielding surface, but he ignored it.

What was physical pain, when your entire life was a black hole? Every hope, every last

scrap of positive thought sucked out until there’s nothing left, but misery and despair?

What becomes of one half when the whole gets ripped to shreds? When you have no

hope, how do you continue to exist?

“Who is this Axel, Mr. Hunter?” Detective Inspector Newton was leaning against the

passenger window, the fire blanket twisted around his fist. The window was still down, left

that way since the time Nick stopped to talk to JB.

“The family friend who picked up your son?” Newton insisted.

Wouldn’t this pest ever go away?

“Only Mrs. Anderson didn’t appear to remember ever having seen or heard of your

family friend before… Any family friend, for that matter...”

Nick didn’t move a muscle, didn’t even blink.

“Ok,” Newton said, a resigned tone to his voice. “You’re not ready to talk about what

happened yet. I understand. Why don’t you go to a hotel for the night – the Travelodge,

perhaps – and I’ll speak to you in the morning. We’ll need to establish some facts, but it can

wait until tomorrow. Can you get to the station, say, by about nine?”

When Nick didn’t answer, Newton offered, “Would you like me to give you a lift to the


“No, thank you. I’m fine.” Nick managed to utter in a rough voice, still staring, his eyes

opaque and unfocused, at the dashboard.

“See you tomorrow, then.” The Detective pushed away from the car. Then he paused.

“You’ve got a message,” he pointed at the mobile in its cradle. He shot Nick another glance,

then he turned and walked slowly back to the squad car.

Nick’s gaze promptly focused on the phone. The message icon was flashing.

He stretched his hand over and pressed the button unwillingly, reluctant to confirm his

fears. Had they killed his little boy, too? Had they hurt him?

Stay in the van and keep away from police if you want your son to see another day, the

message said. We’ll call you.

Nick’s head snapped up. Cam was alive. Of course. How else would they be able to

persuade him to do whatever they wanted him to do?

And then he knew Cameron would be ok.

He felt extremely focused, his mind suddenly clear as ice, razor-sharp thoughts falling in

place next to each other with incredible ease.

Because now he knew beyond any reasonable doubt that they meant it.

And he also knew that he would do whatever was asked of him, every single thing,

without quibbling.

Because they had the only thing worth living for. The only thing he would gladly give his

own life to save: Cameron.

Nick sat in the van, afraid to move a muscle. But the storm inside his body raged on. The

cracks in his heart were sealing over, and though it was a long way from being mended, he

sensed a new focus now. The rugged shreds of his being were converging around a new core

– his son. His son needed him.

Maxi had been his life, and still was to some extent; something inside his brain had not

allowed her to disappear. His heart rejected the idea that she was gone. His soul still felt her

near. Was this meant to be part of the grieving process? Oh, who cared? To him, mourning

her did not feel right for now. So he would wait until it did. Until such time that her loss sunk

in, he would allow that hesitant feeling of closeness to continue. It couldn’t hurt.

And Cameron was part Maxi. He simply had to carry on living. He was her in so many

ways now.

Nick briefly wondered what a psychologist would think of the mess in his head right now.

Not that he would let anyone close enough to see. Good job brains were safely hidden,

inaccessible still to anyone but their rightful owners, despite all the extensive medical

research and advances in technology. All anybody ever managed to do was dumb down, slow

down a brain’s function, but not suppress it entirely. Not without killing it. You still couldn’t

tell what someone else was thinking, still couldn’t change their mind.

Nick smiled at the thought. Yes, his brain was still his own, his thoughts were still his

own, all that knowledge, the life experiences he’d tried to suppress and forget were not lost,

but simply stored away in a broom cupboard at the back of his mind. Everything he needed to

make his son safe again – neatly stowed and in full working order. Determinately, he reached

over, deep in his mind, grabbed hold of the handle and yanked the cupboard door open again.

As he let the memories flood back, Nick slipped right into well-worn shoes. He knew

what he must do next. He would think it through from the enemy’s angle. What would they

think? What would they do? If he was them, what would he do?

He knew all the answers the second he’d thought of the questions. He would watch. He

would wait. He would feel powerful and over-confident and eager to set ridiculous targets

and issue stupid instructions. Dense people like Axel often did that.

The question was, how high up the ladder was Axel? Because Axel was not working

alone. Dollar’s name had been mentioned for a reason, and Nick knew Dollar well. Dollar De

La Rue was not thick. He would not risk the success of such a delicate operation on one

shoddy screw case, such as Axel. He would keep Axel in check. The others, too. So, then,

who else was likely to make up the rest of the team?

The given, sure quantities were Axel Stern and Jesse Bent. The thick and the vain. Dollar

must be the head; he was good at scheming, but not at delivering. Plus, he wouldn’t want to

risk his own skin. So Dollar would be stationed somewhere far away, probably closer to

facilities such as clubs, restaurants, women… Probably London if he was in England at all.

So, assuming Axel was over at the Andersons, keeping an eye on Cameron, and Jesse was

talking to Nick, it followed that there had been a third person somewhere closer to the house,

someone whose job had been to press the button.

At least three. One of which would be tasked with looking after Cameron from now on –

could be female, as they were more likely to be able to cope with the demands of a young

child. And another who would most likely monitor each and every twitch of Nick’s fingers,

his every move, his every breath – probably not Axel himself.

Nick felt like a lab rat in a cage, all of a sudden. Watched. Studied. The helpless object of

a madman’s insane experiments.

Stomach churning, he twisted around in his seat and stared out of the dusty windows.

Daylight was fading, grey shadows devouring all colour out of this hostile world. He wished

he’d listened to Maxi and cleaned the windscreen when she’d suggested it.

It wouldn’t have made much difference anyway. It was going to be dark soon.

The police had cordoned off the house and garden and cleared away the debris that had

landed in the road.

For a while, Nick was aware of curtains twitching, wary eyes staring at him unashamedly.

In time, they stopped. One by one, lights went out and the darkness enveloped every house in

the neighbourhood.

It was quiet. Eerie.

Nick had never been faint-hearted, but he still jumped when his phone rang.

He picked it up with sure fingers and pressed the call button.


“Nick Hunter.” Axel’s voice.


Nick took a deep breath, willing himself into composure. Screaming at Axel wouldn’t

achieve anything. Neither would threatening him. He needed to know first that Cameron was

all right. And second, as much as possible about his enemy.

Axel sniggered. Nick could hear more than one voice join in, but they were too faint to

work out if he’d heard them before. Not a squeak from Cameron, if he was even there.

Axel cleared his throat. “We’ve got your son.”

“I know.”

“You’re smart enough to know the deal, right? You get him back in exchange for a little

service.” Axel sniggered again.

Nick forced himself to take another breath. The crushing weight he’d felt earlier had

settled back on his chest again.

“Is Cam all right? Let me talk to him.”

“Not now. Maybe next time.” Axel paused. “He’s sleeping now. You don’t want to wake

him up, do you? He was a little upset to start with, hard to settle, you know. He kept

muttering something about Gizmo. Who or what is Gizmo?”

Nick’s breathing turned to gasps. He fought hard to control it.

“Gizmo is his giraffe. He can’t sleep without it.”

“Well, then… call it a first.”

Nick swallowed loudly, biting his tongue through Axel’s snigger. His son had been

robbed of the comfort of a mother’s hugs before bedtime forever, and now he could not even

cuddle up with his best friend. That seemed such a huge lot to weigh down on such tiny


He wondered for a moment exactly how had Axel managed to ‘settle’ Cameron, but the

speculations scuttling through his head were anything but comforting, and so he worked on

channelling his thoughts on the possibility of replacing the toy instead. Would Axel agree to

pass the little plush animal to Cameron, presuming Nick was able to find it or another one

like it? Would Nick ever be in a strong enough bargaining position to insist on this small


“Listen very carefully, Nick,” Axel advised unnecessarily. “Go get a room in the

Travelodge tonight. You need to sleep and have a shower, freshen up. And eat something.”

“I’m fine,” Nick muttered.

“You’re in shock. So, just for once, do as you are told. We need you to be fully awake

and aware tomorrow. Especially since you’ve got to talk to Detective Inspector Newton in the



“Never mind how we know. We just do,” he cut Nick off. “So, tomorrow morning your

first task is to dispel any suspicions Newton may have and get him off your back. You need

to have at least three clear days ahead of you, and the last thing you are going to need is some

nosy uniform hot on your trail. They have never pinned any of your previous jobs on you

before, have they?” He took Nick’s silence for acknowledgement, and then went on. “After

you do that, drive towards the motorway. Follow the signs to M25. Fill up at the first Texaco

on the way; you’re going on a long journey. Oh, and buy yourself a sandwich.

“Next time I ring, I expect you to be parked in the South Mimms service station. Alone,

of course. Right in front of the entrance, so I can see you. Make sure you do exactly what I’m

telling you to do, or little Cam will learn a hard lesson early on in life. I’ve never liked

whiney toddlers anyway. You wouldn’t want your only son to go the same way as your wife,

right? Your late wife, I mean.”

Nick squeezed his eyes shut. The fury boiling up inside of him warred with the instinct

telling him to keep his temper in check.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Nick couldn’t help hissing through his teeth.

“You’re not threatening me, are you, Nick?”

Nick clenched his teeth to stop his temper from running away with him.

“’Coz if you think you’ve got the upper hand, you’re making a huge mistake.”

“I’m not. I don’t…”

“I’ve never been to anger management classes and four-year olds bruise so easily...”

“Don’t hurt him. Don’t you dare hurt Cameron, Axel… I will do what you want, but don’t

fool yourself into thinking you have a right to terrorise my son.”

Axel guffawed. “And what exactly are you going to do about it? I just love it when you

get on your high horse.” He laughed again.

“Yeah. Ok,” Axel said away from the phone. Then, after a short pause, he spoke to Nick

again. “Do what we say. Sleep tight. I’ll talk to you later.”

Nick sat listening to the tone until a mechanic, pre-recorded female voice told him to

hang up.

Axel’s words kept playing in his mind, again and again, like a broken record. ‘And what

exactly are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it?’ He’d never felt so

helpless, so completely vulnerable in his life before. Not when he’d found himself carted off

to the sixth set of foster parents a week after his eighth birthday, not on his first mission in

enemy territory as an eighteen year-old. Not even listening to fading footsteps, buried under

the combined weight of six people a few years later.

Desperation threatened to overwhelm him, panic was dragging him down.

No. He couldn’t allow this weakness to hinder his judgement.

Now more than ever, someone’s life depended on him. Not just someone’s but the only

person that mattered anymore.

Gradually, Nick forced his chaotic emotions to settle, and his thoughts to follow a logical

path. He would think of nothing but the task of saving his son until such time that he could

feel Cameron’s warm body curled up against his chest again.

The Travelodge was not a problem, and though sleeping might not be an option, it was

true that he should eat something and maybe even track down some clean clothes.

He didn’t see Detective Newton as a problem either; the man appeared to be of average

intelligence. Nick was relatively sure that he could hold his own under his scrutiny, especially

since there was nothing likely to raise suspicions in the first place, at least as far as the police

were concerned.

The toy, next. Aside from the fact that Cameron would most likely gain huge comfort

from having Gizmo by his side for the time he was away from his father, the kernel of an idea

was taking root in Nick’s practical, analytical mind. If he was able to pass a toy to him,

something he would be sure Cam would latch onto and not let out of his sight, maybe that

would provide Nick with an opportunity to track his son’s movements, too. Putting a tracking

device inside a toy would be nothing – he could do that in his sleep. Most of the things he

needed he already had in the van. The bigger challenge would be getting the toy past Axel

without arousing his suspicions. Axel knew Nick well enough to expect foul play.

Fighting the tightness in his chest that the small sliver of hope had brought about, Nick

got out of the van and walked slowly to the place he still couldn’t bear to look at.

He could still see Maxi’s last smile when he looked that way. He could still see her wave.

“Stop it,” he admonished himself and then he crouched under the police tape and trudged

on determinedly through the rubble.

Cam’s favourite animal had likely travelled to the Andersons with him, but Maxi would

almost certainly bring the much-loved toy back home, so it wouldn’t get lost. In which case

either it had been in the house or, if she’d taken him over in his favourite pedal car, it could

still be in its basket.

Nick turned towards the edge of the garden and started working his way methodically

back and forth in straight, parallel lines. Then he did the same thing again, at right angles to

the first.


The slender woman dressed in black swished her ponytail in an impatient gesture. She

was starting to feel stiff, crouched in the tight loft space where she had spent the last few

hours, watching the terrible events unfold.

She had followed the gang of criminals all the way from London, and they had not

noticed her. She allowed a small smile to light her tired, thin face as she thought about that.

They might think they were clever, but she was still a step ahead.

Then she sighed. If only there had been a way to attract Nick’s attention. But, even as she

thought that, she realised that idea was not a possibility. It would give the game away. Nick

was good, but even he wouldn’t be able to control his reactions once he knew the truth, and

that could blow the whole operation.

Nevertheless, it was hard to watch him look so hopeless, so lost and vulnerable. She’d

never seen him like that before, and she’d seen him plan and handle a fair amount of complex

missions in the ten years or so she’d known him.

She became a little fidgety as she waited for Nick to make a move, but he’d spent hours

sat in his van – not asleep, but still as a wax replica of himself. She was certain she’d seen

him throw vicious glares towards the neighbours peeping out of their warm, cosy, safe

homes, every now and then.

Just as she was about to risk getting out, Nick took a call on his mobile. She couldn’t see

his expression too well; it was dark now and his face was only dimly lit by the nebulous glow

from the tiny screen, but it didn’t look like good news.

A little after terminating the call, Nick got out of the van and made his way slowly,

reluctantly almost, to the charred wreckage of his house.

He started scouring the garden and house systematically, looking just a bit more like the

Nick she used to know.

Now and again, he would bend over and rake through the grass or rubble with his

fingertips. He would examine his find more closely and then throw it back. More than once,

though, she thought he slipped something into his pocket.

It took a really long time, but eventually Nick ducked back out of the area the police had

cordoned off and walked back to his van. He was carrying a floppy, indistinct object in his

left hand. It looked like a flannel, or a child’s fluffy toy, maybe.

The woman tiptoed quietly across her hiding place and slipped through the tiny dormer

window. One small leap to the right and she landed on a compost heap with only the tiniest


Over the fence and to the end of the narrow lane.

She straddled her bike and rolled away without turning the engine on, at first. When she

was far enough away, she kicked it to life and rode all the way to the end of the main road.

She stopped in the car park in front of The Rifleman, a sizeable pub with a large board

advertising Sky TV right by the roadside. She turned off the lights, but let the bike idle, and

then leaned against it, looking like she was very much part of a group of rowdy youths

laughing, smoking and fooling around amongst the other parked cars.

First Nick in his blue Berlingo, and then two more cars – a gold coloured Jaguar and a

Volkswagen Touareg, midnight blue – rolled slowly past the pub car park and headed for the

Travelodge at the south end of town.

On the back seat of the last car, a smaller outline stood out in the band of heavy-set,

muscly men. It was the small shape of a woman. She looked asleep; her head lolled to the

side as the car jolted through a rough patch of tarmac.

Unnoticed, the motorbike pulled out and followed them slowly and quietly, with its lights


At twenty to ten, the young man on reception in the Travelodge came out of the back

room, yawning, just as the bulky gent with a sinister grin who had rented four ground floor

double rooms earlier in the day walked through the front door as if he owned the place.

Only twenty more minutes and he would be able to go home.

He trudged back to collect his coat, wondering idly why they’d asked for a babysitter

when there were so many of them – couldn’t someone stay behind and look after the little

boy? It would have saved a huge wodge of money.

The bell rang and he sloped back to the desk. A late booking. Single room. One night

only. Jeez, this bloke looked like he’d burrowed underground for a week or so. And he

smelled smoky, like he’d watched over the barbecues in hell for a double shift, too.

He’d have to leave a note for housekeeping to allow extra time for cleaning his room

tomorrow. In fact, he would ask for an extra twenty pounds in advance – this Nick Hunter

guy looked dead with exhaustion, but he also looked like trouble.


“Thank you,” Nick threw at the girl on reception as he dropped the key on the counter.

She picked the key up and jumped to her feet. “Just a minute, sir. Sir…” she raised her

voice slightly, but he was already through the door and it was raining outside. She wasn’t

going to go running after him through that, right at the start of her shift; it was hard enough

being polite and smiling at people for hours on end anyway. In sopping wet clothes that

would be surely impossible. After all, it hadn’t been her mistake – overcharging him by

twenty pounds. Someone else would have to figure out how to reimburse the money to him,

someone who was paid well enough to go running out in the rain.

A moment later, a large gentleman with a beefy face and pudgy fingers leaned over the

counter to advise her that he would need the bill for the four rooms he and his party occupied

to be ready by ten o’clock at the latest. He gave her the room numbers and smiled a creepy,

toothy smile.

“Will you be requiring our babysitting services today?” she asked, repressing a shudder

and trying to look efficient. “No, thank you,” he replied dryly. He peeked briefly through the

door before opening it and walking out into the rain.

Nick pulled his van into the Asda car park very carefully and as close to the entrance as

possible. He had resolved to drive at least ten miles an hour slower than his usual speed,

although he knew every road and every bump in the road better than the back of his own

hand. He was tired and he was not going to jeopardise his chances of getting his son back by

being involved in a traffic accident, however inconsequential that might be.

Last night had been particularly brutal, images of Maxi waving and smiling overlapping

the usual horror and choking dust of his old nightmares. He still felt the weight of his

comrades pressing down on his back but this time he knew he should get up and run towards

the fire. His struggle was futile – his brothers were dead weights and Maxi’s face contorted

into a mask of fear as she was swiftly surrounded by the unforgiving flames, and then she

was screaming. He held his hand out to her, in an effort to pull her out of the fire, but her eyes

were reproachful, condemning. She stepped away, a disgusted grimace on her face as she

kept staring at him. She looked like she didn’t want to know him, now that he’d failed her.

He woke up freezing cold, yet covered in sweat. Trying to sleep again would be a

mistake, he knew that. He didn’t even dare close his eyes again. Though he wasn’t really

asleep, his mind dredged up other memories best forgotten. Being escorted out of his private

intensive care room where he’d been treated for shrapnel wounds. That first meeting in

Hereford when he was commended for his ‘bravery’ and told his place at Sandhurst had been

provisionally booked for six months’ time, to give him time to recover emotionally and

physically. The first meeting with the psycho doc who dug and scoured through wounds so

deep and excruciatingly painful that Nick started screaming; it had taken two shots of

sedative to calm him down that time. The feeling of helplessness as he fought the fire blanket

and the people dragging him away yesterday afternoon. Axel’s voice uttering the dreaded

words, ‘We’ve got your son. What exactly are you going to do about it?’

After almost an hour of waking agony, Nick had got up and taken a long, hot shower,

letting the heavy jets work on loosening the tension in his muscles. It helped relax him

slightly, but he was still cold when he came back out and wrapped himself in the clean sheet

on his bed. He could almost sense Maxi’s presence close by, just like yesterday. It was as if

she was hanging around, watching and appraising his efforts to save their son.

He wrapped himself in the blankets, too, and put the TV on, trying to keep his mind

sufficiently occupied until it would be late enough to go shopping for clothes and a cheap

radio and then meet Detective Newton as arranged.

Twelve minutes after entering the supermarket, Nick emerged with two large brown bags,

the reusable sort, made of some stiff, woven fibre. It was impossible to make out what was in

them. He sat in the van for two minutes, and then ran back to the customer toilets hunched

against the heavy rain, one of the bags under his arm.

When he came out again, Nick Hunter looked like any other man on his way to work. He

wore khaki chinos and a black leather jacket, just showing the top of the crisp collar of a light

cream shirt under a charcoal light knit. His hair was tidy, his teeth were gleaming and he even

had the hint of a smile on his freshly shaven face.

He felt good again – as good as was possible under the circumstances – as he filled up in

the supermarket filling station and then drove on to his meeting with Detective Newton.

But that was not what made him smile.

Nick couldn’t wait to get moving now. He felt a trepidation just like he usually did just

before a well-planned, watertight mission. He knew what he was doing and was looking

forward to putting his plan in action.

When Detective Newton entered the room, clutching a large cup of coffee – the

disposable kind – so tight one could easily think his life depended on it, he looked sickly and

old. He shot Nick’s jittery feet a suspicious glance and slumped into a chair across from him.

Nick’s face was carefully composed while he tried to read the Detective’s expression. The

man looked like a hobo that had spent the night curled up on a pile of cardboard boxes. His

hair was stuck to his head on the left side, as if he’d slept on that side and sweated profusely,

his face was grey with stubble and his eyes were red rimmed, with dark circles underneath


Eventually, Nick fixed Newton with a disgusted stare and let out a barely concealed,

disdainful snort aimed at provoking a reaction.

It worked.

“Hmm,” the Detective mumbled into his coffee.

He peered at Nick under his lashes, his brow creased in a severe frown.

Nick waited, his jaw locked. He scowled at the table, anxious now; it was good practice

to get the other players to disclose their hands first but, annoyingly, the Detective seemed to

play by the same rules.

What made Newton stare with such a suspicious expression?

Had Axel been careless enough to drag the police into this? Why ask Nick to make sure

they weren’t suspicious, then? Had they somehow worked out that Cameron had been


Newton put down his coffee gently, as if the cup was made from the most fragile, brittle

glass, and leaned back in his chair.

“Mr. Hunter,” he started, his tired eyes fixed on Nick, “is there anything you forgot to

mention yesterday?”

Nick felt a mixed wave of apprehension and confusion; he kept the former hidden and let

the latter show on his face.

“Let’s go back through your statement. You say you saw your wife, Maxine, look at you

from the living room window moments before the explosion.”

Nick blinked and stared back. “Yes. She saw me and waved.”

“Where were you and what were you doing when she…” he paused for a moment,

blinked, and then continued “…waved?”

Nick swallowed. It obviously wouldn’t be wise to mention Jesse’s visit; they shared too

much unpleasant history. He decided to keep the release of information to an absolute


“I was driving down the road. Driving home, I mean.”

“Mr. Hunter, are you saying your wife was watching for your return?”

“I guess so… She was anxious I would be back in time to pick up our son from a birthday


“The Andersons,” Detective Newton acknowledged. “Ok. Perhaps you could explain

instead why your van was parked so far away from your drive, then.”

“I… I don’t know…” Nick floundered. “What is this? What are you getting at?” he glared

at the Detective, infusing his voice with outrage to cover up his hesitation.

“All in good time. You say you were in the van at the time of the explosion.” Newton

waited to see Nick nod stiffly once. “Seconds before the house went up in flames you saw

your wife wave from the living room window.” Nick nodded again. “Did you see anything

else? Anything at all?”

“No. I was driving. I didn’t stare at the house, I was looking at the road.”

“So that you could park neatly by the kerb more than twenty yards away from your own


“I didn’t park. I… I sort of... just stopped… When I saw the explosion.”

“Um-hum,” Newton agreed. “You… stopped, wheels two inches away and perfectly

parallel to the kerb, put the van in neutral, handbrake on, and then you got calmly out and

started running to the house.” Nick swallowed nervously, but kept quiet. “Why not continue

driving, and get out when you’re right outside the house?”

“I… I don’t know. I was shocked. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

The Detective snorted quietly to himself, not bothering to hide his scepticism at Nick’s

ineffectual explanation. His eyes narrowed and he fixed Nick with a cold, hard stare, his fists

clenched tight on the table between them, his face expressionless. Nick held his gaze, defiant.

“Ok.” Newton sucked in a deep breath and then sighed. “Something else bothers me,” he

continued. “The fire station registered the call to attend a fire at 4.20pm. As the engine

crossed the main street, the driver heard the explosion that started the fire.”

Nick was beyond being capable of speech; he could only stare. Droplets of sweat were

taking form on the back of his neck and a wintry finger of ice swept down his spine. They’d

planned this. Before they even got to talk to him, they’d set it up. As if they knew his answer.

Or it didn’t matter what he said.

Maxi never stood a chance.

“Could you perhaps explain to me why the call was made before there was a need for it?”

the Detective pressed his point.

“I don’t know. I didn’t make the call,” Nick said, subdued, face ashen. He made an effort

to collect his thoughts, his breathing erratic. 4.20pm. 4.20 – that must have been the

approximate time he rounded the corner and stopped to talk to JB.

“It was a male voice. The caller did not identify himself, but I dare say voice recognition

technology should easily confirm – or deny – your statement. I’ll let you know as soon as I

have the results; I’m sure you’re dying to know.”

A spark of annoyance broke through the eddy of Nick’s thoughts, not enough to make

him speak and thoughtlessly give away incriminating details; he was far too experienced to

allow this repulsive, second-grade detective trap him with such a lousy provocation. Nick

shrugged and pulled a disgusted grimace on his face. He decided attack would be the best


“Are you trying to tell me you haven’t checked yet? You say it bothers you, and yet

you’re happy to just... sit on it? What are you waiting for? Help from above?” Nick shook his

head in dismay. “Christ… if this is the best the police can do…” He left the sentence


The Detective didn’t bite. He looked back at Nick and leaned back in his chair without

shifting his focus away from Nick’s face.

“You know what’s really puzzling? Really tying me in knots about this, Mr. Hunter?”

Newton didn’t wait for an answer. “The body we removed from the ruins of your house did

not die in that fire.”

Nick felt his eyes pop out of their sockets. What was going on?

“So, Mr. Hunter,” Detective Newton pressed his point, his eyes locked on Nick’s

crestfallen expression. “You see my problem. Either your wife was already dead when she

smiled and waved at you… or you were parked twenty yards away from the house for quite

some time before the explosion.”

The silence stretched on for a few minutes this time. Nick didn’t dare break it, he needed

time to think. Maxi was already dead? No, it couldn’t be. She’d smiled and waved at him.

She couldn’t have been... Who could have acted do fast? How? Were they trying to frame

him? Why, though, if they were trying to give him some unknown assignment, why would

they make the police suspicious now, why not keep them out of it until after it was all over? It

just didn’t add up.

“Why, though? Why didn’t you drive straight home?” Detective Newton had a slight

smirk on his face now, like a cat that had finally cornered a mouse.

Nick stared back, blank faced, his mind running again and again over the sequence before

the fire. He was certain Maxi had moved quite deliberately towards the window. Definitely

under her own steam. She’d looked out, spotted him, and that was when she’d smiled and

waved. Her face had been calm and aware, not anxious, and not slack like a puppet’s, either.

“Mr. Hunter, would you say you and your wife had a normal relationship?”

“What?” Anger swelled inside Nick, making him feel hot and under pressure. He

struggled to stay calm and play his role until the very end. He had to get out free. He had to

find his son. Nick gritted his teeth and used his anger to counterattack. “What exactly are you

getting at? And how stupid are you?” he spat out at the Detective.

“You see,” the Detective calmly brought his hands together and interlaced his fingers.

“What I’m trying to understand is how your wife could have died from stab wounds in the

short time between you seeing her wave and the house blowing up.”

Nick felt like a huge hole was opening up right under his feet. Maxi had been stabbed?

When? She’d spoken to him moments before he’d seen her wave. She’d sounded fine, her

usual self.

“Stab wounds? C… Can’t be…” he managed an incoherent mumble. “I don’t


“My sentiments, entirely,” Detective Newton pulled up a corner of his mouth, fixing Nick

with his most penetrating stare yet.

Nick was staring, too, unblinking, into the distance, his breathing fast and erratic.

“Can you account for your actions for the thirty minutes prior to the explosion?”

“Er… Yes, of course I can.” Nick blinked repeatedly, trying to collect himself. “I was at

12 Princess Drive, changing a battery in Mrs. Budleigh’s smoke alarm.”

“Bit of a small job for an electrician, wasn’t it?” Newton grinned fully now, suddenly


Nick threw him a contemptuous look. “It was no laughing matter to my customer,” he

said in a hard voice, unsmiling. Detective Newton was getting on his nerves, annoying,

unpleasant, insensitive git that he was.

The Detective’s smile died on his face. “Where is your son, Mr. Hunter?”

Nick swallowed hard again. He drew in a jagged breath.

“I don’t know,” he whispered. He felt so helpless, so utterly vulnerable. A second later he

redressed his moment of weakness. “I mean, Axel will look after him for as long as I need

him to. He’ll keep Cameron entertained, take him to the beach, maybe, or a fun fair...”

“You don’t want to be with your son at a time like this?”

Not good. The Detective was becoming suspicious. Nick scrambled around for a

justification that would have even half a chance of sounding plausible whilst fighting to even

out his breathing, so that his sudden anxiety wouldn’t give him away.

“I do, of course I do. Only… last night… I didn’t think I would be safe to be around a

young, impressionable child. My emotions were all over the place. Cam doesn’t know, yet. I

plan to tell him in a day or two, when I’ve settled my own thoughts a little. And I was also

hoping you’d have some answers for me, Detective,” he continued accusingly. “Like how

could the explosion take place in the first place, when the boiler is two years old, has been

serviced on time and vents straight to the outside of the house. Like knowing for sure

whether my wife was murdered – it seems to me that’s what you are insinuating. And instead

of blaming me, I would expect you to know that I could not possibly have been involved.

Maybe even have a lead or two. Something I could tell my son when he starts asking about

his mother, since you are so concerned about his wellbeing. Something you have not the

smallest shred of clue about, by the looks of it. Where are your witness statements? What

strange cars drove down my street yesterday? You’re a Detective, for God’s sake. Don’t just

sit there expecting ready answers! Do your job! Detect!”

Newton’s face turned purple with annoyance at Nick’s accusations, but he controlled it.

He stared back at Nick for a long moment, then he straightened his back and growled.

“Oh, don’t you worry, Mr. Hunter, I promise you, I will.” Newton’s eyes narrowed again.

“I did not have a very good sleep last night; I was too busy trying to understand the details of

this series of events, which do not make sense.” He stressed the last few words. “I do not like

things that do not make sense. And for now, in your case, very little does. Don’t worry, Mr.

Hunter,” he repeated slowly. “I’ll get your answers… and mine.”

The two men measured each other up, unsmiling, for a long time. Nick didn’t even blink.

His face gave away nothing.

“You can go for now, Mr. Hunter,” the Detective said. “But make sure you don’t go too

far – no trips abroad, please. Not that I couldn’t find you, but it would really piss me off to

have to go through all that trouble. Oh, and leave your mobile number at the front desk on

your way out, will you? I might need to get hold of you again soon.”


Nick’s half-hearted optimism at having a purpose had left behind only a miserable,

deflated feeling after his meeting with Newton. He was angry now, unable to make sense of

the Detective’s accusations. He felt out of balance, like walking a tightrope while some clever

guy was shaking one end, trying to make him fall off.

Nick’s brain felt overloaded to the point of bursting. He resented this new discovery that

wound its way through his thoughts like poison ivy, causing him to lose focus and diverting

his energies and attention away from his plan to rescue his son – his four-year old little boy –

who was right now taking a trip around the country in the company of people more used to

taking lives than preserving them. The last thing Nick needed was having to deal with the

additional, nagging worry of being suspected of murdering his own wife, too.

Yet, what was stopping him from concentrating more than anything else was not the

Detective’s suspicion, and not even the worry about Cameron’s safety; he could deal with

them both and keep going. The real problem was that he could not reconcile the images of

Maxi’s last few minutes with the police theory that she’d been dead – stabbed – before the

explosion. It must have happened quite some time before; stab victims rarely died


That little detail was not – could not – be true. He’d seen Maxi walk to the window, her

eyes found him and then she smiled and waved.

Were they trying to confuse him? Why? More likely, he was being stitched up.

But through all that, one thought was becoming crystal-clear. As he felt a tidal wave of

pure rage purge every compassionate thought inside him, Nick vowed to make them pay. All

of them. Every single one of them. Dearly.

He drove slowly towards the motorway and turned absentmindedly towards M25 only

half-aware of what was going on around him. He didn’t notice the gold Jaguar three cars

behind him and, in his abstraction, he kept going without stopping all the way down to South



Detective Chief Inspector Newton woke up from his uneasy twenty-minute nap on the

visitors’ couch to the shrill jingle of his mobile phone.

His eyes felt sore and he ached all over because of sleeping cramped and twisted on the

too-short, too-hard mattress. Stretching and yawning, he crossed the small room in two steps

and sloped off down the corridor to the staff restrooms, to splash some cold water on his face.

Considering he’d spent much of his life not on any kind of regular schedule, Detective

Chief Inspector Newton was having enormous trouble adapting to this twenty minute powernapping

concept. Indeed, he thought he would have been better off to simply keep awake all

the way through the night, and until such time that the case was pretty much cracked. It

couldn’t be long now – somehow, that little hard nut, Hunter, was going to spill all his

secrets, and soon.

Ten minutes and two strong black coffees later, Constable Tim Marsh passed him the full

autopsy report. Newton frowned and squinted at the top piece of paper, forcing his tired eyes

to scan through the text at high speed. But before he got half way through, his eyes widened,

his mouth popped open, and he let out a low whistle. He sagged back onto the sofa that had

become his temporary quarters, feeling the full weight of his sleepless night.

“Marsh,” he called in an urgent tone two minutes later.

The twenty-year-old burst through the door, alarmed by Newton’s aggravated voice.

“Incident room. Now. We’ll need to set up a team. Ask your sergeant how many men he

can spare.”

By the time the small team of four young constables sidled into the room and took their

seats, Newton had already filled the whiteboard with his scrappy, angular scribble. On the

left, he had listed the main facts. On the right – the action plan.

It took less than five minutes to go through the concrete information. Copies of Nick’s

and some neighbours’ statements were passed around. Lastly, Newton circulated the autopsy

report, too. Gasps and low murmurs filled the room for a moment. Newton waited until

everyone had a chance to read the summary page.

“What bothers me most is not the fact that the body removed from the scene of the fire is

not that of Maxine Hunter. I was half-expecting that. And I already knew that the cause of

death was stab wounds to the chest.” He paced slowly across the room, his steps echoing

loudly in the perfect silence. “Of much greater importance is the fact that the gashes had been

carefully taped shut. As you can see, besides the direct hit to the heart, a main artery was

lacerated in more than one place. The blood should have been spouting out of this poor

woman like a garden hose on full.”

He stopped and stared back at each face, his sharp eyes impenetrable.

“Yet every orifice was carefully taped shut,” he spoke slowly and deliberately, his eyes

moving rapidly from face to face. “Which means, what?” He raised a hand and pointed

suddenly to the first in line. “Buckley.”

The constable in question responded at once. “Whoever stabbed her knew they wanted to

move her later. Taping the wounds would minimise the mess.”

“Good,” Newton acknowledged. “What else? Watson?” he pointed at the next one.

“They didn’t want to leave any traces at the location where the attack took place?”

Newton nodded fervently, then pointed again. “Ashton.”

“Er… since the lung was perforated, too, I assume the victim actually drowned. In her

own blood...”

Ashton’s eyes became a little unfocused as he uttered the last few words.

“Concentrate, Ashton,” Newton barked at him, stamping his foot.

“What were the stab wounds taped shut with?” Marsh asked in a small voice.

Newton resumed his pacing, pointing at the young constable.

“Hmm, hmm? That’s the first question you should have asked.” He fixed them all with a

penetrating glare, appraising them, then his head snapped back to Marsh and he answered,

speaking the words slowly, distinctly. “Electrical tape.”

“Hunter is an electrician, right?” one of the others muttered in a low voice.

No one bothered to answer his question.

Newton let the silence hang there for a minute, then he snapped his fingers at each of the

men in turn.

“Buckley –”

“Yes, sir.”

“I need the victim’s identity by end of shift tonight, together with as much history as you

can dredge up. Did she ever meet Hunter before? When, where and how. Watson?”


“Take every house in the neighbourhood in turn and find out every little scrap of useless

information you possibly can, both on the neighbours and the Hunters. I want to know

everything: when they hang their washing out, when they mow the lawn, when they last had

sex, what they watch on TV – everything. And when you’ve done that, go around town and

start asking pertinent questions of the main shops – supermarket, post office, etcetera. You

have until seven.”

Watson turned about heel and ran out of the door.

“Ashton. Hunter’s van says ‘electrical services’. Start from that. Trace his work, starting

with Mrs. Whatshername on Princess Drive. He was there yesterday, apparently, changing

the battery in a smoke alarm. I want to know exactly what he did, how well he did it and for

how long people have known of him. Did he ever mention previous jobs? Find out where and

what they were. Any dissatisfied customers, too. Clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And me?” Marsh mumbled, looking at his shoes.

Newton turned slowly to face him and waited until the youngster lifted his gaze


“You and I, Constable Marsh,” Newton sighed a barely audible sigh, “are going to find

out as much as we can about Mr. Hunter’s past. Including the reason why someone might try

to frame him for this murder.”

The young man’s eyes widened slightly with surprise, but he was determined to make a

good impression, so he controlled his reaction.

“You think someone is trying to frame him?”

“For this murder – positive. I wasn’t sure until I read this,” he waved the autopsy report in

his right hand. Hunter seems both intelligent and slippery. A very good actor, certainly,” the

Detective murmured looking grudgingly appreciative. “But he would not be so stupid as to

tape up a four inch gash with electrical tape. Clean electrical tape, no less. Not greasy, not

dusty. Clean. The roll that piece of tape came off has never seen the inside of an electrician’s

toolbox, I’m willing to bet my life on it.” Newton scratched his stubbly chin as he spoke

quietly, staring absently at the door through which his hastily assembled team had rushed out

a minute ago. “And he was both too upset and too convinced the woman in the burning house

was his wife to have set this up himself.” Newton paused again. “But if not him, then who?

And why? And how? Too many unanswered questions,” he muttered, shaking his head.

“Shall I get someone to locate Hunter?” Marsh offered eagerly.

Newton’s lips turned down at the corners, then he looked back at his young sidekick.

“No. Not yet. I want to give him a little head start. There’s something he’s not telling

me.” Then, in a lighter tone, “I bet you we’ll be really surprised at his whereabouts and his

company when we do get hold of him next.”


Axel’s call caught Nick halfway through dismantling the radio. He’d bought himself a

kids’ meal and, after throwing away the food, he started work on assembling the simple

tracker, his hands hidden inside the cardboard box, just in case he was being watched.

“You’ve been a very naughty boy, Nick Hunter,” Axel’s voice rumbled chillingly.

Nick felt his body freeze, his brain scrambling over his actions of the last few hours in an

effort to comprehend what he’d done wrong, what had given the game away.

“I told you to obey a set of perfectly clear instructions, and for some reason you still seem

to think you don’t have to,” Axel continued threateningly.

“What do you mean? What have I done?” Nick tried to inject an anxious edge to his voice

and keep the exquisite relief he felt hidden inside. He’d jumped to the worst conclusion, as

usual. But everything was ok. It must be only the fact that he’d refuelled somewhere else that

niggled Axel; he could explain that easily enough.

He was expecting this. He knew only too well that his slight deviation from Axel’s orders

would be viewed as an act of defiance. No heavy likes to see a lack of respect from what

should be a panicky, snivelling victim.

But Nick had never been that good at being a victim.

His life philosophy had always been ‘when someone threatens you, make sure you hit

them first’. That was probably why he’d got so many battlefield commendations for his

bravery. He never charged right in like the proverbial bull in a china shop. No. What set him

apart were his multi-layered, intelligently thought-out strategies.

As he spoke to Axel now, he went through his morning movements one by one, hastily

searching for acceptable justifications.

“I told you exactly where to go and what to do, Nick.” Axel paused for emphasis. “Who

shall pay for your misdemeanour?” He laughed loudly, a slow, building, disturbing laugh.

Nick could feel his pulse quickening, raw fury building up inside him like a long-overdue

volcano eruption. If he could stand face to face with Axel now, he would estimate the

villain’s life expectancy at maximum two minutes.

Suddenly, from the other end of the line, Cam’s shrill scream hacked straight through his

chest like a chainsaw, his little son’s sobs ripped at his insides.

Nick shuddered, his shoulders hunching in response to the child’s pain as if he could

somehow protect him by curling himself around his missing form from a distance.

“Axel,” Nick shouted. “Axel, stop!”

Through his heavy breathing, Nick could hear Axel’s snorted laugh, like a warthog on

dope, a revolting sound that failed to cover up Cam’s disconsolate howls.

“Once more,” Nick snarled at the phone, his voice rough with suppressed violence. “If

you hurt him once more, scum… If you so much as touch my son again, I shall haunt you and

I shall find you and I shall rip your miserable head off your shoulders and kick it into orbit.

Do you hear me?”

Axel’s laugh abruptly stopped, but there were others chortling in the background; Nick

could hear them through Cameron’s quietened sobs. At least two more.

“Now put Cam on the phone,” Nick ordered.

“Not so fast, Mr. Hunter,” Axel’s voice sounded serious, Nick could pick up no trace of

hilarity in it. Good. He smiled at hearing Axel switch to a more respectable ‘Mr. Hunter’, too.

“First things first.” Axel cleared his throat. “I want to know what you were doing in the


“If you’re looking at me now that should be obvious. I needed some clean clothes. I

thought Inspector Newton would be suspicious if I didn’t smarten up a little, he might have

even insisted on arranging some kind of temporary care for me or something. You said I had

to have three clear days… and you didn’t want them to be suspicious…” Nick wondered if he

should mention something about the fact that the police had been given plenty of reasons to

be suspicious already, but he wasn’t sure how that would be received. If they should decide it

was his fault for not dispersing the suspicion, would they hurt Cameron again?

“Hmm,” Axel grunted, seeming to accept the explanation. “What about fuel? I told you

exactly where to fill up, or were you not listening?”

“It was just there, as I drove out… So I just pulled in… Force of habit, I guess. Once the

tank was full, there really was no need to stop again. I drove here as fast as I could. Though

I’ll have to fill up again, before I go on, you know that, right? Unless what you want me to do

is right here.”

Axel took a deep breath and mumbled something away from the phone. He must have had

his hand over the mouthpiece, because the sound was heavily muffled. Nick couldn’t make

out anything at all.

“Ok,” Axel spoke again, giving no explanations. “Here’s Cameron. You have two

minutes. You’ll be on speakerphone, so no funny questions or code words, or else.”

“How stupid are you, Axel? What code words could a distressed four-year old possibly

know –”

“Enough!” Axel cut him off. “Here’s Cameron.”

“Daddy?” Cameron’s shaky, frightened voice came through. Nick felt almost sick with

relief at hearing him again.

“Cameron, it’s me, Daddy.”

“Daddy,” Cameron’s voice rose a little. “Come and get me, Daddy.”

“I will. I will, son. I promise. I won’t be long now.”


“Soon. As soon as I can. I’m on my way right now.”

Cam let out a heartbreaking sob.

“Listen,” Nick urged his son. “Cam?”

“Yes…” Cameron whimpered.

“I’m gonna come and get you. And then we’ll go on a nice trip, just you and me. We’ll go

somewhere nice and warm. We’ll go swimming with turtles and dolphins and Nemo fish, all

right? You like Nemo fish, don’t you?”


“All right, son. Now, you be good and make sure you tell me if anybody hurts you, ok? I

want to know that. Then I can have a nice little word with the bully before you and me go

away to see Nemo, ok?”

“And Mummy…” Cameron demanded, his voice ringing strong and clear this time.

Nick felt his chest constrict at the mention of his dead wife. How could he tell his son

mummy couldn’t come? That she will never cuddle him again?

But not now. Not here. There would be time enough for that later. Time to grieve, time to

think, time for retribution.

‘Pull yourself together’, Nick admonished himself, ‘you’ve got a kid to look after first.’

But he didn’t get to say another word, as Axel’s voice came back sharp and… anxious,

somehow. Fearful, almost.

“Your two minutes are up.”

“Already?” Nick sighed. “Ok. Listen,” Nick decided to seize the chance, “I’ve managed

to find Gizmo, Cam’s favourite toy, last night. It’s a bit charred, but… I’m sure he’d still

want it, regardless. How do I get it to you? Can I drop it somewhere, so you can give it to

him? Are you close, around here?”

He spoke in a determined tone, hoping Axel wouldn’t notice the fact that he wasn’t

getting the chance to say no to this little transaction. Would Nick’s thin attempt at finding out

their location throw Axel off the scent?

“Nice try,” Axel growled down the line. “But you can’t think I’d be so thick as to tell you

where we are, surely.” Axel laughed.

Nick waited, fingers crossed in his kids’ meal box, for Axel’s next words.

“I’ll have to go,” he spoke, finally. “I’ll let you know where to go next. Wait where you

are.” And the line disconnected.

Nick let a small smile stretch across his face. Axel hadn’t said ‘no’ to passing the toy to

Cameron. He hadn’t said ‘yes’, either. But, provided he didn’t bother to ask for advice from

someone else, like Dollar for example, Nick felt pretty sure his plan would work.

Axel was likely to be the kidnappers’ leader, head of operations on the ground, as it were.

And as such, he probably wouldn’t want to be seen to need guidance from someone senior to

him. If Dollar was the architect of the bigger venture, Axel would probably be envious of his

position, even if he did recognize the huge difference in intellectual abilities between himself

and Dollar. No, Axel wouldn’t want to ask. Axel was definitely not the brightest button, and

his personality wouldn’t help keep him alive, either.

Nick chuckled quietly to himself and went back to assembling the tracker.


The willowy figure dressed all in black was one with the tree. Not enough light sifted

through the heavily clouded sky to make distinguishing her silhouette an easy task, unless

one knew she was there.

She was lithe and graceful, her movements completely silent as she found a better perch

and brought the pair of small, collapsible binoculars to her face. The ripple in the branches

could have been caused by the warm afternoon wind, now threatening to turn wilder and

lashing at the low, dense shrubs every now and then, like a cowboy trying his whip.

Suddenly, she gasped.

“Bastard,” she muttered, shocked. But her voice was softer than the wind; it didn’t carry.

She stashed away the binoculars and with quick, rushed movements, she let herself drop into

the bushes, and took off towards the hotel’s fire exit skipping from car to car like a ghost,

lightening fast, unnoticed.


Nathan Hicks cut himself two generous lines of coke on the small polished tabletop

between the two tiny armchairs by the window. The standard design hotel room was dark, so

he slid the curtains aside to let some of the heavy, grey light reach into the room. He was

under strict instructions to keep the lights off, and there was no reason to argue with that.

He threw the limp shape on the double bed a quick glance; the woman moaned softly and

her right arm twitched.

Better not to leave it too late. He’d get her sorted and then he could enjoy his fix in peace.

With expert fingers, he prepared the small syringe, then he went to the bed and injected

the sedative into the woman’s left arm. She turned her head towards him and moaned again,

but her eyes stayed closed.

He had left it late this time. Nathan made a mental note to adjust his timing for later, and

then he wandered back to one of the chairs by the window.

He sat down, contemplating the two white lines awaiting him for a moment. The

anticipation was almost as good as the drug itself. But who knew how long the others were

gone for? He wasn’t going to share. Not if he could help it. He snorted the coke loudly.

The drug’s powerful kick soaked right through to his bones, warming his body and

making his blood rush. He looked down at his involuntary erection for a minute, as if

considering what to do with it.

He glanced around the sparse hotel room. If only he could be certain he had a clear ten

minutes… He ran his trembling hand over his sweaty, freshly shaven head, thinking it


Axel said to keep an eye on her, keep her down, keep her quiet. He said they mustn’t

touch her. But they only needed her to stop the kid from crying. They weren’t intending to

keep her alive for anything else, as far as he knew – for God’s sake, they hadn’t even fed her

yet – so why should he be so shy?

Besides, she was under so deep, she wouldn’t even notice. He would put her knickers

back on before the others came back and then no one would be any the wiser. Who would tell


Smiling to himself, he stood up and clicked the safety on the door lock. Then he sidled

over to the bed and dropped to his knees on the floor. He reached under her skirt and pulled

her knickers awkwardly off. White, lace trim. He spent a moment looking at them, feeling his

erection harden. He always liked white lacy knickers.

With a low groan, he lifted her skirt up to leave her bare to the waist and unbuckled his

belt. He laid the white lace carefully over the top of her dress so he could look at it all the


He dropped his trousers, leaving them tangled around his right ankle and then put his left

knee on the bed between her legs. He watched her face, but she didn’t react at the movement

of the bed or his touch.

He had his hands on her knees, drawing them out and open when the short rap on the door

interrupted him.

He hesitated, uncertain. It couldn’t be his mates – they had a key. So who was it?

He decided it didn’t matter, they couldn’t get in anyway. His attention returned to the job

in hand.

“Sir?” a woman’s voice could be heard loud and clear from the other side of the door,

together with another insistent knock.

Annoyed, Nathan stood up.

“What?” he asked, irate. “Who is that?”

“Room service.”

“I didn’t ask for anything.”

“Would this be a good time for the maid to give your room a little tidy up?” the voice


“No. Go away.”

“Sorry, sir. For disturbing you.”

Nathan sighed, frustrated, surveying his now flaccid cock. “Bloody room service,” he

swore as he pulled his trousers back up and then went to get her dressed again. Never mind,

there will be another chance later.

By the time he’d managed to lay her back in approximately the same position, he could

hear familiar voices approach with the kid outside the window.

He skipped lightly to the door and unlocked it, so the others could let themselves in.

Nick was just tidying away the unwanted pieces of radio when the message beeped.

“London Gateway Services on M1” it said simply.

Nick twisted the key in the ignition, then pointed the van towards the motorway, stopping

only to fill up on the way. It had started to rain, a slow, persistent, heavy drizzle that turned

the day to night in a matter of minutes, but Nick’s mood was still light, hopeful.

The short intermission allowed the slick silver BMW Gran Turismo to catch up to him

and tail him through to his destination.

At the same time, the black BMW GS bike was already speeding down the road, ahead of

them both, its chunky, powerful wheels leaving a clear streak of dislodged moisture in the

wet tarmac.


Through the thick haze of her brain, Maxi heard Cameron’s quiet sniffle. She reached out

a shaky arm and pulled him closer to her shape.

“Shush, baby. Mummy’s here. Shush.”

A memory, or maybe just a thought, was struggling to break through. She remembered

hearing a voice – not clear, and not close by, either. The back of a half-naked, bald man

standing by the corner of the bed, looking towards the door seemed to weave though the nonfeeling

and the stillness of her brain. She couldn’t remember any faces, though. No words, no

thoughts, no feelings. Nothing concrete to go by, to make sense of this heavy mood.

Her arms felt like they weighed a tonne as she wrapped them around Cameron’s little

body. The last thing she heard was his whimper as he buried his face into her chest.

Comforted by his closeness, Maxi let herself sink into the deep, black waters of

unconsciousness again.


Tequila was struggling to make a decision. Again. That had always been her weak point.

It always held her back.

Physically, she had no worries; she could take on every other cadet in her unit and win

with one arm tied behind her back and her eyes closed. But when it came down to devising a

strategy… Or even choosing one simple path over another…

She sighed, pushing the envy she felt towards Nick back to the place in her mind reserved

for unworthy thoughts and stupid ideas. She should learn from him, not waste her energies on

such a noxious emotion as envy.

Nick had always excelled at both the planning and practical stages of any operation. That

was why he’d been promoted so quickly. It was easy to see the absolute genius of his mind.

He could put his men at ease, he could make them love him like their blood brother, and at

the same time, he could come up with ideas guaranteed to surprise and awe his superiors into


That was why there was no hesitation in making him Corporal when the need arose – a

rank he deserved… A task that broke him…

She hadn’t been around when the ambush on Nick’s team took place; her deployment had

been sub-Saharan Africa at the time. But news about people travel fast in such closed circles,

and besides, Nick had been well known and liked. She hadn’t been the only visitor to his

bedside during his convalescence.

They say some wounds heal faster than others. It was abundantly true in his case.

Tequila saw the shrapnel cuts heal to red scars, paling to pink after a while. She had

stayed close and even drove him to some of the psychological and physical assessments prior

to him taking up his place at Sandhurst.

She could tell part of Nick’s soul had died away that awful night, alongside his men. He

blamed himself for their deaths; no one had ever managed to convince him otherwise.

When he quit the army, it came as a shock to everyone but her. She alone had seen it


There was something about Nick that was not quite right anymore. Why had no one else


Perhaps she knew him better. Perhaps it was some extra sense.

She’d seen the effort it took him to act normal whenever he stepped out in public. The

forced smiles, the unfocused stare. The pain of self-loathing that had etched yet more lines

across his forehead and down the corners of his mouth.

It came easier to him, in time, almost like he would zip up this alter ego around his real

self like a coat, as he walked out the door. She could see him in her mind’s eye – putting on a

smile, squaring off his shoulders…

But she could always see through that. She could see through to his core and she still

liked what she saw. Being his rock became her first priority.

For no reason she could determine, one day the fieldwork got in the way, or maybe it was

just that other things were more important to her, and she resigned, too. When contracts

came, both Nick and herself were available and free. If you could live with your conscience,

it was easy money. And since their targets were hardened criminals in their own rights, her

conscience kept pretty much silent.

She shook her head to clear her thoughts, her ponytail swishing wildly from side to side.

If only she could talk to Nick now, he would know what to do. It would make everything

so much easier. But she didn’t even have his phone number.

When she’d got wind of King’s plan to send Axel to the UK to look for Nick – from a

grass who squealed a bit too much when she was persuading him to talk; no big deal, his

knees would heal, in time… – all she’d had time to do was ship Nick’s bike over and set her

affairs in order before she came. There was no time for details such as tracking addresses and

phone numbers. So she’d latched onto the villains’ tails and hoped they’d lead her right. And

they had.

The problem was that she simply couldn’t be in two places at once. She needed to keep

close to Maxi and their child in case they needed protection, and she needed to tell Nick what

was going on.

It was clear that the thugs who kidnapped Maxi and Cam wanted Nick to believe his wife

was dead. There could be only one explanation to that – it was a convincer. He was supposed

to believe they meant business. And it looked like he believed them.

Obviously, every single one of Nick’s actions since the fire had been in response to their

blackmail. It was only natural that he would do anything to get his son back. But if she could

tell Nick about Maxi, she was sure he would act differently. There would be no need to

follow the blackmailers’ instructions; it would all turn into a rescue operation. And as long as

she didn’t lose track of them, that would be easy.

But Nick was watched, so how could she get to him? Write a note and throw it at his

windscreen? Would he notice? Would the gangsters see it? What would they make of it?

Would they want to read it? And when they did, would they hurt Maxi and the kid?

Just then, raised voices from the window above drifted down to her hideout under the

dense, dusty bushes strewn with drink cartons, sweet wrappers and empty beer cans. She

rolled over awkwardly in the filth until she was on her belly. She swept a look around to

make sure she was not being watched and then she closed her eyes and lay her forehead

against her crossed forearms. Depriving herself of one of the senses sharpened the others.

Nick had taught her that trick, somewhere in an Indonesian slum that smelled strongly of fish,

spices and raw sewage, many years back.

Right now, she could smell the dry dust whipped to peaks and swirls by the rising wind

and something sweet, like honey – most likely a caramel smear on one of the carelessly

discarded chocolate wrappers in the foliage around her. She could hear the harsh rustle of

leaves in the wind, and a softer one, of sparrow wings taking a dust bath by the kerb. A

bumblebee whizzed through, bumping into and crackling inside the sweet wrapper for a


Tequila let her hearing range farther, imagined her ear at the top of a magic beanstalk

growing up, level with the windowsill of the middle room where they kept Cam and Maxi,

the room where baldie-locks had been left alone to guard her earlier that afternoon.

“… not the best timing, Nathan, is it?” she could hear Axel’s voice boom. “Couldn’t you

wait till we were back to give her the shot?”

“She was starting to wriggle,” the one called Nathan explained, sounding defensive. Ah,

so the bald guy must be Nathan. “I didn’t want any trouble,” he went on. “Plus, you said to

make sure she wouldn’t be able to sneak a look at us…”

“So? You could have tied a towel around her head, you lazy moron. Now we’ll have to

stay here until she’s able to walk again. Well, at least until she looks like she’s walking

convincingly enough not to raise suspicions. The only way out is past the reception desk.”

They were all silent for a minute. It started to rain. Tequila could hear the soft splashes of

raindrops on the leaves above her head, but they weren’t heavy enough to make it through to

her yet.

“Maybe we should wait till night time, and move her then,” a third voice joined the

conversation. “I could carry her, whilst you settle up, Axel. Or you could carry her, if you

like. She’s only a little thing.”

Axel grunted incomprehensibly.

“We should get her something to eat, too,” voice number three continued. “We need her

to look after the kid and –”

“Oh, give up, JB. What are you? A soppy mother hen? We fed the kid, didn’t we? We

even bought him an ice-cream.” Nathan’s voice. “And what does she need her strength for?

We ain’t gonna ask her to climb mountains. All she has to do is lay there and look pretty.

Though the picture would be much improved if we stripped her first,” he said, a leer in his


“Nathan,” Axel cautioned.

“Well, she’s not gonna know, is she? She’s out cold.”

“We are not going to touch her. She has a clear purpose and Dollar wants her as collateral

afterwards. Good as new.”

JB? Tequila thought she’d recognised Jesse’s slight American accent. She wasn’t too

concerned about him. She’d met him during an operation in La Paz, and all he’d done then

was keep well away from the action and reappear when the fight was over.

Dollar, on the other hand, was another matter entirely. Dollar De la Rue made his name at

the tender age of eighteen for masterminding a brilliant operation involving two major banks

and a museum in Paris. A seven-digit bonus on top of the fee he’d charged for services

rendered convinced him of the fact that he had found his niche, and he hadn’t looked back


Those who worked in close proximity to him would say he was heartless and vindictive,

and hated any sort of competition. Some would claim that was putting it mildly.

To question his plans would generally mean to lose him as architect and, in extreme

cases, even end up on his black list and acquire a police record. He was always in need of a

scapegoat and somehow the police seemed to get hold of tips – from safe and anonymous

sources, of course – on people who had been known to cross him. Since very few of them

could boast a blemish-free existence, the mud would usually stick.

“What for?” Nathan grizzled. “She wouldn’t even know if we had a bit of fun first, would

she? She’s asleep, for God’s sake. You never know – she might think she’s having a nice

dream.” He chuckled. “We could take turns looking after the kid in another room… Or we

could knock him out, too, and get him to join in the fun...”

“No.” Axel’s voice rang with finality. “You make me sick. If you can’t keep your pants

on for three days, you should go now, Nathan. Lonely old fool…”

“I was just saying… Don’t tell me you don’t fancy her. She’s a fit bird… Blonde…”

“Enough. We have our orders and they are not up for discussion. Do your job first, then

you’ll get paid and you can spend as much as you like on hookers.” There was a moment’s

pause. “Now, I need a relatively safe location, secluded, preferably in a park or wood or

something, and not too far out of the way to our end destination. Any ideas?”

“Geoff grew up in these neighbourhoods,” voice three offered.

“Yeah, Jesse’s right. And I think I know just the place,” Geoff answered. “We could

make him stop in front of a café on the way, to make sure he’s clean, and then tell him to

follow one of us to the woods, with someone else tailing him, maybe.”

“How long would it take to get there?” Axel asked.

“Just over an hour, I think. Depending on the traffic.”

“We want to meet him in the dark, so we won’t tell him just yet. He can stew by himself

for a little longer – won’t do him any harm…”

Four distinct voices laughed.

“Jesse, give Geoff Nick Hunter’s mobile number for later. He’ll have to explain to Hunter

where he’s going to meet us. I don’t want to run the risk of him figuring out that I am not

fully familiar with the location.”

A couple of seconds later Jesse reeled off the number.

Tequila blessed her lucky stars and repeated it twice in her mind, to commit it to memory.

There was the break she was hoping for. A quick text to Nick should solve her problem.

“Right, I’m going to grab some dinner,” Axel announced. “Whatever you do, Jesse,

Geoff, don’t leave that moron alone with the captives. He’s thinking through his dick today,

he can’t control himself.”

The door slammed behind Axel. Jesse and Geoff could be heard chortling and making fun

of Nathan, but Tequila wasn’t paying them any attention.

Now that her immediate worries about leaving Maxi unsupervised had been lessened, if

not completely erased, by Axel’s request that baldie not be left alone with her, it was much

clearer what her next step must be – she must make contact with Nick. Maxi and Cam would

be safe, as safe as any hostages could be expected to be, without her keeping an eye on them

for a few hours – until the sedative wore off, at least.

The mention of Dollar’s name pointed at London. Dollar would rarely leave his city

sanctuary, and then only for considerable fees. So it followed that their next destination

would be London, then.

Tequila spent five minutes weighing the positives to be gained by contacting Nick against

the negative effect of unsettling Axel’s gang when she took Nick out of their direct scrutiny

for a short period of time.

Because it was obvious that she would have to get Nick out of there; he was being

watched. Axel would hardly look the other way and shrug his weightlifter shoulders at Nick

getting in contact with a third party. He would take it out on Maxi and Cameron, most likely.

Once Nick and her met up and had a chance to talk, they could fabricate a good

justification for his unexplained, temporary disappearance. It was always easier thinking

things through when there were two of you.

But if Nick heard her voice, how would he react? They hadn’t spoken for five years or so,

since the day he first set eyes on Maxi, back on that beach in Providenciales. The last thing he

did was hand her the keys to his beloved bike when she’d won the bet. She hadn’t even been

able to attend their wedding, not that she had much notice of that happening.

Tequila shook her head, trying to concentrate back of the best plan of action. It would

take too long to explain everything on the phone. Axel’s guys might ring and if the line was

engaged… No, that would be too risky. She’d send a text instead, asking him to meet up.

Still, if Nick worked out the directions were not from Axel, would he come? Or would he

keep following their instructions to the letter? If his son’s life was at stake, Tequila felt pretty

sure Nick would do exactly what was requested of him so as not to endanger it.

So then, she couldn’t take that risk, either. She would have to tell him only the absolute

minimum necessary to get him out of here and hope he would mistake it for the kidnappers’


Praying that Nick wouldn’t scrutinise the number on the caller display too closely,

Tequila started pressing the tiny keys.

It took a little while – the raindrops were now rushing down in a steady stream, raising

the dust in tiny puffy clouds where they hit the earth and making little plunking noises against

the back of her leather jacket – but finally, she pressed ‘send’. The message was only five

words long.

“London Gateway Services on M1”

Before she realised she’d forgotten to mention a time, she saw Nick picking up the phone,

then he slid it back in its cradle and started up the engine.

Above her, Jesse’s voice came shrill and urgent.

“He’s going. Where’s he going? Shit. Where’s Axel when you need him?”

“I’ll go find him,” Geoff said and a second later the door thumped shut.

Tequila hadn’t banked on them noticing Nick’s disappearance so quickly. She would

have to get going, too, as soon as possible, if she were going to have a chance to talk to Nick.

“Why me?” baldie’s voice drifted down from above.

“Because you’re a useless piece of shit and you can’t be trusted with much else. Now, go.

Lose him, and you lose more than your fee for this one. Heaven help you when Dollar

catches up with you, and he will, believe me.”

Nathan cursed under his breath and said something too low to be intelligible.

“You do know he eats human liver for breakfast – Dollar – don’t you? That’s not just a

rumour,” Jesse threatened.

The door banged again and Tequila lifted her head enough to see the bald man, Nathan,

stalk over to a silver BMW and drive out in a squeal of wheels.

Tequila waited a full two minutes, counting slowly in her head, and then she slipped

carefully out from under the shrubbery and strolled casually towards a black GS off-road

motorbike parked in the far back, behind two lorries with Polish plates. As she slid her black

helmet on, she saw Axel and a smaller framed man – obviously Geoff – walk hurriedly back

to the hotel. She stared at Geoff for a moment, making sure she remembered the face well.

She could recognise all four now; Nick would be pleased with that bit of information. She

smiled widely under the helmet.

That would be a good conversation to hear, she mused, watching Axel and Geoff’s

retreating backs, but she was short on time as it was, and it was more important not to mess

up her chance of talking to Nick.

The rain was a heavy curtain on her back now, but Tequila had no problem distinguishing

baldie’s BMW and Nick’s little blue Berlingo three cars ahead of that as she rode past them

both and weaved through the traffic, aiming for the M1 turnoff.


Nick kept his foot steady on the accelerator. He was itching to go faster, but too much

speed in this traffic and with this amount of rain was only likely to land him in hospital. He

did not have time for that today.

The tyres on his van were not intended for high-speed races and the rain was now

hammering down with the insistence of a toddler asking for attention; small rivulets of

muddy water were running off every slight incline, and the spray flying off the road and other

vehicles made his wipers work hard for their keep.

His eyes slid off for a short second to a black BMW motorbike looking a bit like his old

bike – it even seemed to have the same style crash guards – the rider dressed all in black with

black helmet and black and red boots, water cascading off his back and bouncing off the

saddle. It disappeared in a flash, heading west on M25.

Nick was glad to be in a car with a solid roof that kept the rain off. Bikes were too

impractical for England. He would get in contact with Tequila and tell her she could keep his

old bike, when all this was over; it had always seemed to fit better on a tropical island,


When all this was over… The words had a depressing sound to it, hard to make sense of.

On the one hand, the sooner he got his son back, the better. On the other, he wasn’t looking

forward to closing off this chapter of his life and beginning another one, one without Maxi.

He felt weighed down again, as if a boulder the size of a whole planet had settled

permanently on a spot just between his shoulder blades. His foster father would have called it

the weight of responsibility. ‘Responsibility for the people whose lives you touch is a heavy

burden,’ he used to say. ‘For their wellbeing, for their happiness...’ And now those words,

though they’d often rang in his head, finally made complete sense to Nick. He felt in every

respect responsible – for Maxi’s fate, for the destiny of his son... As soon as one got close to

people, one became responsible. Nick could certainly feel the weight of responsibility now.

The heavy weight of responsibility.

He sighed as his mind raced ahead, towards the decisions he would have to make in the

not too distant future. First, to get Cameron back. How many lives would weigh heavy on his

back before that happened? How much blood? What would be the weight of the shed blood?

And after that, to make Cameron safe. He would have to find a boat and then he would take

Cam on a trip across the Atlantic first, back to the place he’d met Maxi – he owed her

memory at least that much... Life had seemed so uncomplicated back then…

He sighed and blinked back a tear as he struggled to push the wave of sadness back,

shove it far enough back that it would not cloud his mind.

Now that Axel seemed to have finally agreed to his son getting his toy back, Nick felt

certain that the wheels of fortune were finally turning. There was a good chance of getting

Cameron out of this unharmed. As long as he kept focused, it shouldn’t be that hard to do.

Nick imagined Cameron running towards him. He would squat down, arms open wide to

catch his son when he would launch himself at him from four-five feet away, grinning,

confident that he would be caught and then whirled through the air at high speed. It was their

daily ritual, when Nick returned home. Maxi would stand in the doorway, arms crossed,

watching the two most important people in her life with a proud, smug smile on her face that

said ‘yeah, they’re mine and I love them to bits’.

Nick’s thoughts turned to Maxi again, but he still couldn’t bring himself to think of her as

gone forever. He saw her in his mind’s eye standing by the hob, in their bright and sunny

kitchen that often smelled of cinnamon and honey, or some other surprise treat she may have

found in a magazine or seen on TV and decided to make for them.

She liked surprises, Maxi. She loved the flowers Nick brought her on an almost daily

basis – she preferred the wild ones, she never had much patience with things like orchids or

calla lilies.

Nick smiled and he allowed his mind to slip back and relive their first few days together,

revelling in the small comfort his memories provided.

Maxi had proved to be as good as her word, never once complaining about the boat and

their limited culinary choices. She took about two days to get used to the normal running of

things and then only two more to stop mentioning her previous life at all. It was as if she’d

been brought to existence there, on the boat, by his side, up for anything he might have

suggested, however insane it might have seemed, and smiling. Always smiling.

Nick smiled in response to the memory, remembering a moment when they’d floated past

a huge swathe of seaweed and he’d plucked up a handful, shook the water off and offered the

soggy mess to her like one would a bunch of flowers. Instead of chucking it all back

overboard, Maxi had smiled, said ‘thank you’ in a grateful, appreciative tone and gave him a

peck on the cheek. She then insisted on keeping the ‘flowers’ in a vase she’d fashioned out of

an empty can of corned beef, until they got too smelly and had to be returned to their rightful

home. ‘Shame’, she’d said, and then, a twinkle in her eye and hugging herself close to him,

‘we’ll need some fresh flowers, soon’.

It wasn’t until a week or so on the waves that she’d had her first glimpse of his real

nightmares. He’d known that he couldn’t repress them for long, and he’d been right – the

night in the dusty lane had returned, the sound of shrapnel flying through the air and the stir

of bullets in the bodies on top of him strong and fresh and choking, as bad as he’d ever felt

them before.

Maxi had been worried, but she held him close and she soothed him with kind words, and

she wiped away his tears and his cold sweat and told him everything would be all right.

And she’d been right. In time, the nightmares had receded, from almost daily to weekly,

and then to once or twice a month, and after Cameron was born they’d almost totally fizzled


He shuddered, remembering last night and the rough force with which the horrendous

images choked him, empowered and multiplied by his renewed torment.

But he wasn’t going to let them take hold of him now. He could control them. It was all in

the mind, of that much the doctors had managed to convince him. He was only going to allow

positive, constructive thoughts through now. He imagined a steel locker, an army grade one,

in which he pushed the bad thoughts. He imagined slamming the door shut after them and

then a safe dial, which he spun, paying no attention to the combination so that he wouldn’t be

tempted to let the horror out again.

Concentrating on taking deep, slow breaths, he opened the window and leaned his elbow

on the ledge, letting the raindrops prick at the exposed skin of his neck and face like a

thousand small bee stings. The calming effect was almost instantaneous. He’d never been at

an acupuncturist, but from what he’d heard, that was what it must feel like.

He’d always liked the rain, he mused, as his gaze slid over a signpost to the golf course

on his right.

He remembered Felicity Whitbourne-Philips, his last – the only proper – foster mother

running out in the front yard of the huge Georgian house they lived in to search for him in the


Felicity hated rain; that was one of the reasons why she and her husband Randolph had

moved to the West Country – to get away from the incessant London rain. The rain stalked

them still, but they’d fallen in love with the place and stayed.

That afternoon, Nick had sprung out from under the enormous rhododendrons and ran as

fast as his nine-year-old legs could take him past the sodden woman and down the vinecovered

archways to the side of the house into the back garden. He knew she stood no chance

of catching him, if he didn’t want to be caught. He’d watched her rush from hideout to

hideout, calling him and getting more and more drenched, until she finally stopped and stood

stock still in the middle of the open yard, her small battered umbrella twisting in the wind.

She started to tremble soon after, and her lips turned blue, but she still stood there,

waiting for him, her kind eyes worriedly searching the shrubs and trees for a sign of life.

After a while, he’d come out, humbled by her devotion, walked over to her slowly and slid

his small hand meekly into hers. She hadn’t hit him, she never would, and she never said a

word, but in her eyes he saw how much she hurt and he vowed to try harder than ever to be

good from then on.

It had been her kindness that stopped him from running away as he had the previous five

times – three times in one year alone. She cared and she loved them all, no matter whom they

were and what their paperwork claimed they’d done, and every spoken word had a purpose –

to soothe, to encourage, to praise and to admire. Never to put down, never to condemn, never

to judge or point a finger.

He wondered idly what had become of the old High Court Judge and his wife. Were they

still fostering? Unlikely – they must be in their late sixties by now, or maybe older.

He wanted to take Maxi over and introduce her to them. Show them how proud of his

wife and child he was. But he’d been afraid to get too close to Randolph. He had the sort of

hardened stare that could effortlessly shatter granite. Where Felicity had been loving and

kind, Randolph had been strict and unyielding. Would he be able to sniff out Nick’s secrets

with his highly trained justice-maker’s nose?

Nick made a right and right again. Only a few more minutes and he would be that much

closer to Cam.


Where Nick approached the services from the south, Tequila did from the north. Keeping

to motorways proved to be faster than Nick’s A1 route, and she had already parked the bike

behind a large clump of vegetation. She was leaning casually against a tree, watching the

road, as he drove in.

She kept her helmet on, though the rain had quietened down to a light, fine mist that was

gently sifting through the branches, making everything look as if it were coated in black

diamond dust.

It wasn’t dark yet, but the clouds still hung heavy and menacing, low above the ground,

turning typically bright colours into dreary shades of grey.

Tequila watched the road for one more minute. A small rented removal van drove in first,

and then Nathan, the bald one, in his silver Gran Turismo.

Nick stopped in a space right in front of the brightly lit building. The BMW drove slowly

around the car park as if to work out what the best spot would be, and then pulled into a space

right at the back, where people who want to take an hour’s nap would go, away from the

lights and the noise.

On the good news side of things, it looked like Tequila could use the thick cover of the

established trees and shrubbery to get really close to the BMW and try to listen in on any

conversations between baldie and the rest of the gang.

The bad news was that from the back of the car park Nathan could see Nick only too

easily; his van was bathed in bright light. There was no way to sneak up to him or attract his

attention without getting him in trouble.

Great! Brilliant plan, Tequila, she muttered, annoyed at herself. Another failed attempt at

devising a viable strategy.

So now – what? Stride past Nick’s van and pretend to trip over by his window? Rap on

the door?

Maybe she should take Nathan out first. None of the others would know what happened,

and she imagined none of his mates would feel particularly sorry to see him gone. They may

even think he’d done a runner.

Tequila sneaked over to the bushes behind the BMW like a ghost, making no discernible

noise. She was good at that, at least. Tequila allowed herself a small smile of recognition.

Two steps past the old, thick oak tree and then one more to the right of the maple. She

stepped carefully out of the wet, green mass, feeling naked and exposed, as if several pairs of

eyes were watching her from each and every vehicle parked in the near-darkness.

Just then, the close whirr of the window being rolled down startled her and she dropped to

a low crouch behind the car’s back bumper.

Nathan was on the phone to Axel, it seemed.

Perfect. A bit of valuable information before he died – who said druggies were useless?

She could hear every nuance in his muted voice from where she was, there was no need to get


And it was lucky that he was talking to them. If she’d got rid of him before he could make

contact with the others, they might suspect Nick of foul play. This way, maybe she could

choose a better location, a moment when Nick could be beyond suspicion.

“Yeah, I can see him now,” Nathan was saying, staring straight ahead at the brightly

illuminated van with steamed-up windows. “He’s parked like he did before – right in front of

the entrance. There’s no cars either side of him. I don’t think he could have planned this. He

looks like he’s waiting for the next instruction.”

There was a pause.

“Well, I don’t know – I didn’t send him here, did I? For all I know, you did.” Nathan

sounded vexed; his voice rose a little. “‘Cause I was in the darned room, having the piss

taken out of me by Bent and Turner thanks to you, that’s why.”

He was quiet for a couple of minutes.

“Yeah. Yeah. Of course I can.” The seat creaked quietly as he adjusted his position.

“Keep on his tail until… where, again? The café at Chandler’s Cross. Yeah, I know it. And

then? Oh, Jesse’s on his way, is he? Ok. Harrock’s Wood. Got it. And you? Where’s the next

meet up? Exeter? You’re flamin’ joking. No. No problem. Will do. No worries.”

Nathan ended the call and leaned back in his seat. There was a match strike noise and

then thin smoke of cheap tobacco wafted out of his half-open window.

It seemed they were planning to send Nick to Harrock’s Wood via the café at Chandler’s

Cross. Nathan was supposed to tail him. But Axel was sending Jesse Bent. What for?

Obviously, JB was to go straight to Chandler’s Cross and Nick would be told to follow

him from there. It was unlikely they would tell Nick all the details – it was what she would

do. Most likely, he would be told to follow Jesse and, even if he knew he was also being

tailed, what could he do about it?

But why take him to the woods? It was getting dark and late, fewer and fewer people

would be left roaming about...

Darkness could be a powerful ally, though, Tequila thought.

Maybe that would be the ideal location to take out baldie. She clearly couldn’t touch him

before Chandler’s Cross because one, JB would be alerted and two, they would assume

Nathan’s disappearance was down to Nick. That would be bad for Cam and Maxi. Everyone

would be more vigilant and suspicious now that Nick had done something inexplicable,

thanks to her; she couldn’t afford to make it worse.

So then, she would have to wait until they got to the woods.

But instead of following them, she would go on ahead. That way she could do a bit of

reconnaissance and find a suitable spot to hide the bike. She’d grown up in Watford, so she

knew the place, though she’d preferred to spend her time in Whippendell Wood – more

spacious, wilder, better suited to teenage moods and er… activities.

There was only one car park, as far as she could remember, so she could easily find them,

even in the dark.

She wondered if they’d send Nick back up to M25 and then down to Chandler’s Cross. It

would be a longer journey, but also easier to keep him under strict control. The shorter route

would be through Watford, but that would also be riskier, with perhaps too much chance to

‘lose’ him at roundabouts.

No. Thinking about it, if she put herself in their position, she would send him via the

motorway. And he would have to meet up with JB outside the café. Together, that would buy

her an extra fifteen to thirty minutes.

Tequila slithered at a crouch back into the shrubbery and proceeded to wind her way back

to her bike.

Nick just caught sight of the black bike in his rear-view mirror as it sped past towards the

exit. He would have spent longer wondering about it if his mobile hadn’t rang at that exact



Nathan Hicks watched Nick Hunter pick up his phone from its cradle and wondered what

exactly was going on.

It sounded like Axel didn’t know anything about Nick coming here, and if he didn’t, then

who did? Both Jesse Bent and Geoff Turner had been in his field of vision when they’d

spotted the blue Berlingo start up and drive away, and unless they were accomplished actors,

they had both seemed genuinely surprised by that turn of events.

On the other hand, he was starting to believe the rumour that Nick Hunter was more

slippery than a bar of soap in the hands of an obsessive housewife with a hundred children.

But even so, what was he doing pulling a stunt like this? Didn’t he get it? They had his kid,

for God’s sake, and his wife.

Not that Hunter knew about the latter. There was no way he could have seen them drag

her out and leave Miriam Whitbourne’s body in her place. They were quick as a flash and

Hunter had been distracted, talking to JB way down the road. The whole thing had taken just

under forty seconds – the swap, the wrenching of the pipe, Bent flicking his cigarette butt out

into the road, and then, whrooom, the thunderous roar of the explosion, so violent, it shook

the earth under their feet.

So if it wasn’t on Axel’s instructions that Nick Hunter drove here, and it certainly wasn’t

himself who told him to come, and it can’t have been Bent or Turner…

Hang on. Geoff Turner was supposed to ring Hunter and tell him where to meet up next.

What if Turner… but he didn’t have the time, surely. JB also had Nick Hunter’s number,

Axel got him to reel it off to Geoff Turner. But JB wouldn’t have had the time, either.

Maybe he should widen his circle of suspects, Nathan concluded.

What if all this originated from higher up the tree? What if Dollar, or one of his cronies,

set this up as a test? Or to get back at Axel for something? What if they would all fall with

Axel, innocent victims of bigger boys’ squabbles?

Hm. Nathan Hicks started up and rolled the BMW quietly down to the exit, staying quite

close on the tail of Nick Hunter’s van. He could not afford to make mistakes; this game was

starting to feel uncomfortable and far too complicated. As he drove, he hit a button on his

phone – it was time to buy himself some insurance.

“Lucy?” he said, injecting a hefty dose of honey in his voice. “My sweet.” He waited

while Lucy chattered at him, holding the mobile a little distance away from his ear. “You’re

busy tomorrow. I understand. How about the day after? U-hum. Yeah. You could treat

yourself to a whole day’s pampering at Sylvie’s new spa – my treat. And I’ll see you in the

evening, or it might be early morning. Get some... stuff. Yeah, you can use my account. Miss

you too, juicy. Bye, babe.”

He sniggered as he put the phone down; you could always rely on people who owed you

one – and Lucy owed him several – especially when you treat them right. Now all he had to

do was wait for the right time and take off as soon as the opportunity presented itself. With a

smile on his face, he started whistling quietly to himself.


Tequila sliced her knife across the top of a branch in front of her, just enough to make it

flop a little lower and allow her a better view of the Harrock’s Wood car park. She wiped the

blade carefully on the soft cotton of her t-shirt and put it carefully back in its sheath.

There was no one here when she rode in off the road. She’d made a wide circle, checking

for any sign of innocent people who might get caught inadvertently in the middle of an

altercation likely to involve some use of fire arms and – or – sharp weapons.

But there was no one. None of the local residents found it fit to take a stroll in the rain,

thankfully, or walk their dogs anywhere near here. Good.

The bike was camouflaged behind a small clump of fir trees, tipped almost completely

over and covered in branches. She’d left no boot prints in the soft mud leading to or from it,

she was quite certain.

So now, all she could do now was wait.


Nick Hunter drove quietly, keeping a safe distance behind the blue Volkswagen Touareg

with Jesse at the wheel.

Part of his mind was trained on making the necessary adjustments to the speed and

direction of travel, while another, much more insistent part of it, kept turning his last

conversation with Axel around and around, analysing every word and every intonation to the

point of nausea, trying to make sense of it.

Axel hadn’t sent the last text, the one that said London Gateway Services. In fact, his

indignation, his out-and-out rage at what he considered to be ‘Nick’s insane defiance’ had

been so intense, it had taken every trick in the book to stop him from hurting Cameron, who

was already whimpering and calling for his mummy over and over again in the background.

So if Axel hadn’t sent the text, who had? And why?

JB? Jesse had known Nick for years, but there was no love lost between them. Even if

Jesse did know something likely to be of use to Nick, he wouldn’t have bothered to warn


Someone else then? He’d already deduced that there would have to be at least three of

them, maybe four, to set up the kidnap operation. So then, it was conceivably possible that

one of the others did this. But why?

What could they know? Besides, why risk their share in a seemingly lucrative business

just to help him, a complete stranger?

And if it wasn’t one of Axel’s gang, who else might have his mobile number?

It was unlikely it would have been Chief Inspector Newton. The police don’t do texts.

They would have just rang, surely.

Nick sighed heavily as he turned into the deserted car park, feeling like he was missing

something really obvious.

He let it rest for now. There was other business to attend to first.

After long deliberation, Axel had decided to still allow the toy to be passed back to

Cameron, or maybe that was because Nick offered to show them the offending text as proof

that he only followed what he believed to be genuine instructions. Maybe that way they could

work out between themselves exactly who was the joker that had put all their hackles up and

deal with him accordingly. Nick had no wish to become embroiled in gang politics, though

having them fight among themselves was a good thing, as far as he was concerned,

something that might come in useful later.

Nick pulled the handbrake on, lifted the toy from the passenger seat and the phone from

its cradle. His right hand brushed past his pocket, feeling for the firm shape of the small

tracker, and then he opened his door and stepped out.

It was dark and damp, the air was cold as it stuck to his skin with the feel of chilled cling


Jesse gestured at Nick to follow, and Nick made his way to the place in the trees where a

narrow path began winding its way, slightly lighter than the surrounding vegetation.

JB had a torch – its narrow beam hit the forest floor with a shimmery glimmer, thin and

well defined like a light sabre. Nick had the surreal feeling that he was part of some

incredibly realistic, interactive computer game, one where you made the rules as you went


Another set of headlights swept into the car park, but Nick didn’t turn. He’d noticed the

silver S series Gran Turismo on his tail, but he wasn’t interested in the driver. The main focus

for him had to be Jesse now. Jesse and some way to plant the tracker in the toy or, if all else

failed, on Jesse himself.

That was his back-up plan. There was no guarantee that Jesse would stay close to

Cameron, but he still had a lot more knowledge about his whereabouts than Nick had.

Besides, people tended to share knowledge if they were faced with the right sort of

encouragement... Even without a weapon, Nick felt sure he would be able to make Jesse talk,

if needs be; the villain was a bully but also a coward.

JB stopped and turned to Nick.

“The mobile,” he barked, his voice sharp and unfriendly. “Let me see it. And don’t try

anything funny. If Axel doesn’t hear from me in the next ten minutes, your son is toast.”

Nick dropped the phone, with a dry smile, in JB’s outstretched hand. Jesse’s face looked

deathly pale against the dark green background, as if he were a ghost. He’d get to be one soon

enough, Nick thought wryly. None of them was going to live one day longer than absolutely

necessary, after what they’d done to him.

“What’s the matter? Don’t you trust me, Jesse?” Nick mocked.

JB ignored Nick’s question. His eyes narrowed slightly as he appraised Nick’s

expression, torch trained on Nick’s face, then, satisfied that he wouldn’t cause trouble, they

slid away, to the small screen.

Nick hooked his thumbs into his trouser pockets. He smiled when Jesse took a small,

defensive step back in response to that action, before going back to pressing buttons.

“You’re jumpy today,” Nick taunted him, amused to see the involuntary mark of respect.

Obviously, JB still saw him as a possible threat. And he was right to think that, Nick mused.

“Reflex,” JB muttered, his eyes flickering to Nick’s grin and then back to the phone.

After a minute, he lifted his gaze and held the phone back. “It’s what kept me alive so far,” he

added as he took a small silver phone out of his own pocket and hit a hotkey.

JB stared at Nick as he spoke.

“Axel. Yeah, he’s telling the truth. I’ve seen the text – not a number I recognise. Er…

don’t know that. It only says ‘London Gateway’. Might have been a wrong number, but I

think that’s unlikely. It would be one hell of a coincidence.”

JB’s eyes slid off Nick’s face to the battered toy in his left hand.

“Yeah. He’s got it.” JB kept quiet for a moment, listening hard. “Will do,” he assured his

boss. “Say again? Cullompton. Yes. I’ll call you back.”

JB put his phone away and straightened up.

“Is that the next check point?” Nick asked dryly. “Cullompton? I have to say, you’ve got

me totally confused. Why are we going to the West Country? I thought London was where all

the action –”

“Just shut up and do what you’re told.” Jesse’s face was sour. He looked on edge. So the

text message hadn’t been from them. Who else knew about this? “Here’s the plan,” Jesse

interrupted Nick’s musing. “Cullompton services, via M4, M5. You’ll have a tail, so watch

what you’re doing. Leave your mobile in the van when you use restrooms. Use a card to pay

for fuel at the pump. Ten minutes out of our sight, and you can start preparing for a funeral.

Now, pass me that toy.”

Nick bit back a retort, his face immobile, thinking hard. He pushed all the other stray

questions and thoughts to the back of his mind so he could concentrate.

This was it.

He breathed in the cool, humid night air and held up Cameron’s giraffe. He prayed his

plan would work.

Nick’s uncertainty stemmed from the fact that he had expected to be dealing with Axel,

not JB. All his preparations had been centred on a much slower, less intelligent being.

JB was likely to be more difficult, he was more of an unknown quantity. Smarter than

Axel by a long way, and far more suspicious, though less daring and less of a risks-taker.

JB’s policy was deceit nine times out of ten, Axel’s was brute force and ignorance.

He’d have to try and use JB’s character against him.

Nick watched as JB turned the plush toy around and around in his hands, watching Nick’s

face from the corner of his eye.

Inspiration came to Nick like a bolt out of the blue.

“I know,” he said, stretching his hand over, “Axel told you to make sure I haven’t put a

tracker in it, right?”

JB didn’t answer; he just stared at Nick, trying to work out what he was doing.

“Give it back a minute.” Nick nodded towards the toy, encouragingly. “Go on.”

JB passed it back slowly, uncertainly.

“Right,” Nick turned it around in his hands, pretending to scrutinise it closely. “The eyes

and nose are sewn on, the ears are soft, and the rest of it is too thin to hide anything of

consequence. Oh – I know.” He looked up at JB with a sparkle in his eye. “The squeaker.”

Nick pressed against the toy giraffe’s underside; a muted squeak issued from within it. JB

looked back, perplexed.

“The squeaker is the only hard piece of plastic,” Nick explained. “So, if it take it out,” he

wriggled a finger against the seam on the giraffe’s tummy, then there is nothing more to

worry about, right?

“Suppose…” JB muttered after a moment, frowning.

Nick made quite a performance of hooking the small plastic device back out through the

small hole, then he held it up, so that JB could see it.

“Here it is. See?” He pressed it gently; this time the sound was louder, almost too loud for

the size of it. “There you are – one embarrassed little giraffe frisked clean of any devices.”

He smiled and pressed the squeaker again, then he threw the giraffe back to JB, who caught it

and held it limply in one hand, his expression unsure, eyes still on Nick.

“Look, I’m sure you’ve been warned to be careful about me. In fact, you would probably

do it even without warning. But I got it now. You guys are serious and I love my son too

much to put him at risk. I would do anything to protect him and if I can’t look after him for a

couple of days, then the least I can do is make sure he is comfortable. So, if he can’t have me

or his mother to give him a cuddle at night, at least he can have Gizmo,” he pointed at the

floppy toy in Jesse’s hand. “And I’m pretty sure he would rather have his toy back with no

squeaker and a hole in it than no toy at all.”

A strange expression flickered on Jesse’s face, but he controlled it. He opened his mouth

to say something.

However, whatever JB had to say was drowned by a car door slamming loudly shut,

followed by an unexpected loud crack, like a cricket bat hitting metal. There was a sound of

shattering glass, and then the sudden, flickering glow of fire lit the clouded sky.


“What the…?” JB’s voice was scared.

“It came from the car park,” Nick pointed out unnecessarily.

“If you did anything funny…”

“How could I, you dipstick? I was right in front of you, wasn’t I?”

They were running back down the path. To the left, the silver BMW was a smouldering

pyre, the flames working their way slowly out from the inside, licking at the doors and

slithering out through the smashed windows.

Nick hurried to it, Jesse one step behind. JB tried to open the driver’s door, but he pulled

his hand back with a yelp when the hot metal handle burned him.

They could see Nathan’s body, ramrod straight in his seat, as if he was still concentrating

on the road ahead. But there was no movement, not even the slightest twitch when the orange

tongues of flame licked at his face.

Through the gaping hole that had been the window, even with all the billowing smoke

and flickering flames, the glass green and gold hilt of a knife could easily be seen protruding

out of Nathan’s chest. It had been slammed into his body so hard, it had pinned him to the

back of his seat like a moth on a school project board. Only he didn’t make as good a picture.

But that was not why Nick was standing stock still, much too close, immune to the rustle

of the fire and the creaking of the scorched car, not hearing what JB was shouting at him over

all the noise, not feeling the heat, not caring about the choking smoke or the blistering flames.

Seeing the body did not faze him – he’d seen worse sights before.

Even the excellent skill with which the strike had been applied – perfect aim, straight

between two ribs and through the heart, then twist – was not uncommon among his kind.

Nick was staring at the knife.

Because he knew that knife.

He’d seen that hilt in someone else’s hand before. That knife was Tequila’s. She had

acquired a dagger just like that in Jeddah, once upon a very distant past, a dagger with a very

long double-edged thin blade, certainly long enough to pierce through a man’s chest and

come out the other side. She had traded for it a small barrel of arrack and a promise to forget

she had ever met its previous owner.

Nick yanked his coat off and used it to wrap around his arm as he carefully reached over

through the smashed window and pulled the dagger out, holding his breath. The dagger

singed a jagged black mark into the leather, and his arm and hair caught fire.

He staggered back a few steps and patted the fire out, thankful for the typical English

weather that made him wear two layers of clothing beneath his jacket. His eyes were stinging

from the smoke and there wasn’t enough air in his lungs.

He braced his hands against his knees and stared at the dagger, his mind in turmoil.

Tequila had been here? She’d killed this guy? But why? What did she know about all this?

Was she here to help? How did she even know about Nick’s predicament? What exactly

did she know? Since when? And why didn’t she get in touch with him? Did she have

something to hide?

Shreds of old doubts and unsolved enigmas swirled indistinctly through Nick’s head,

mingling with this new discovery. Could Tequila have been the weak link right from the

start? She was always so close to him. She knew his whereabouts, she knew him much too

well. She’d known where he was going to buy his bike from and when, for example. It had

been her job to make sure there would be no intruders at Panchito’s party. She’d had proof

that Marty’s death was no accident and yet she insisted it would be too risky to share it with

the police. She had been on the beach right before King’s men had stormed it and took off at

just the right time. She was nowhere to be found afterwards, when he wanted to invite her to

the wedding. Why? Were all these coincidences? Maxi had picked up on it right away. He

didn’t believe her at the time, but could Maxi have been right all along?

From the deep recesses of his mind, the image of a leather-clad rider on a black GS bike

slowly floated up to the forefront. Nick had thought at the time that the bike looked familiar.

Now, he was certain that it was his bike.

Didn’t Jesse say just a minute ago that he’d been tailed? That he would constantly be in

their sights? Nick had assumed that Jesse was talking about the silver Gran Turismo. But

what if Tequila was his tail? She rode past him just outside South Mimms. And she was at the

London Gateway Services, too.

Now she’d obviously been here. But if she wanted to keep her presence a secret, why

didn’t she take her knife back? Did she forget that Nick had seen it before? Did she think he

wouldn’t remember it?

His blood ran cold. She was on their side and she knew too much. He hated himself for

allowing that thought into his mind. Tequila was a trusted comrade. She’d known him for so

long... She’d fought by his side, she’d driven him to the doctors, she’d given him support

when his burden was too much to bear. He didn’t want to believe that she could have crossed

the line. But what was he supposed to believe?

Could there be another explanation? Did she leave the dagger behind with a purpose? A

sign for him? Had she infiltrated their ring in order to gain inside information? If that was the

case, wouldn’t it make more sense for her to wait for him? Maybe she was still waiting,

hidden in the darkness. He would have to get rid of Jesse and then sweep the woods. Fast.

Harrock’s Wood was not the back of beyond, someone was bound to notice the fire and then

the place would be swarming within minutes...

A small voice at the back of Nick’s mind wondered if he should he be taking risks when

he should be concentrating on looking after his son. If Tequila was now one of his enemies,

meeting her face to face would represent a risk.

JB’s hand closed on Nick’s arm, and he reluctantly straightened up to hurry away from

the inferno – the flames were gathering pace, already the paint was blistering and the tyres

were starting to melt; soon it was going to reach the fuel tank and then…

“Come on.” JB tugged again.

Nick retreated a few more steps, but then he had a thought. He dug his heels in the mud

and pulled his arm back which stopped Jesse, too.

“What?” Jesse’s voice was annoyed.

“Give me your torch.”

JB stared back at him, an ‘are you completely mental?’ look in his eyes. Nick could see

the reflection of orange flames flickering in Jesse’s blue irises.

“Just for a minute,” Nick insisted. “I’ll be right back.”

“That thing’s gonna blow any second now,” Jesse argued.

“Then get out of here. I do remember – I won’t be out of your sights for more than ten

minutes. I’ll be outside the Chandler’s Cross Café in five. And… here,” Nick offered him the

bloodied knife.

“What do you want me to do with that?”

“It’s the murder weapon. When the police come flying down – and they will, soon – they

are going to try to trace its owner. If it’s one of you lot…”

“Throw it back in the fire,” Jesse commanded, turning towards his car.

“You’ve forgotten something.”

Nick reached out and snatched the torch out of Jesse’s hand. He turned his back on Jesse

and dashed back towards the fire.

“Don’t you dare get killed for some stupid idea, Hunter,” JB hollered at Nick’s retreating


Nick smiled. Typical Jesse Bent reaction; he wasn’t worried about Nick’s safety, but his

own skin. What would Dollar say if Jesse ‘lost’ Nick?

It was tempting to do a disappearing act right now, Nick mused. After all, how often

would one get such conveniently placed, perfect conditions such as these?

But there was no way that he would risk Cameron’s safety. He would play straight for the

time being, get closer to Cam, and then make his move. The closer he was to his son, the

easier it would be to quantify the hazards to which he was exposed.

The Touareg revved loudly behind Nick, almost loud enough to cover up the noise of the

fire, and from the corner of his eye he caught sight of its headlights sweeping the deserted car


Nick shone the torch light into the trees but there were only shadows, black and dark

green, chasing each other from tree to tree, as if trying to escape his scrutiny.

If he knew Tequila well, she would have hidden the bike out of sight, so maybe following

the tracks would lead him to her, if she was still here. He found them soon enough, two wide

tracks with the tell-tale signs of the off road tyres he knew so well, turning into the trees. One

of the mud casts had even preserved the small triangular nick he’d carved with his own hand,

just left of the centre line.

Wondering idly why Tequila never changed the tyres in the five years she’d had access to

his bike, Nick followed the tracks into the trees.

Soon enough, he came to a pile of freshly-cut branches that had obviously been layered

over something. They’d been shoved roughly aside as the rider made her hasty exit.

She hadn’t waited for him. Therefore, she must not want to meet him.

And the only reason for that, as far as Nick could work out, was that she wasn’t there for

him. There was no other option – he didn’t like it at all, but he would be a fool not to consider

the fact that Tequila was now one of them. She was not here to help him. She was fighting

against him. They had roped her in and she’d just taken one of them out for the sake of

settling an argument or a better share of the profits, or any one of a million other reasons.

And if she worked for them, that would explain why she wanted to keep her distance. That

would explain why she left her knife behind. She probably ran out of time, when Nick and

Jesse rushed back from the woods.

The knowledge that Tequila was now his enemy pierced Nick through with a pain so

sharp and real, it was as if she’d stabbed him with the dagger still hanging loosely from his



Already almost twenty miles away, Tequila was pushing Nick’s bike as fast as she dared.

The black strip of tarmac was flying under her wheels, cars and trucks alike were a blur to her

left; they looked to be rushing backwards and cowering out of her way as she raced on,

focused on her destination.

She hadn’t waited to see JB and Nick’s reaction at finding baldie in the slow-roaster. It

was not important. It would have wasted too much of her already limited time. On a more or

less personal level, of course she would have liked to stay and talk to Nick – that would have

solved so many other problems. But she could be of far more use to him if she kept focused.

There would be time for thank yous later, when all this was done and dusted. Still, she could

not help wondering. Would Nick spot her dagger? Would he recognise it? Would he realise it

was a sign that she was here for him?

Finding one of their men down was sure to put the rest of the gang on edge, and Tequila

knew that all it took to get them on the move again was one short phone call. She couldn’t

risk losing track of Maxi and Cameron, not now. The odds were evening out – there were just

two guards to the hostages right now. If she could either take the villains out or make Maxi

and Cameron safe, all Nick would have to do is to get rid of Jesse. A simple ‘boo’ should

take care of that.

If all worked according to plan and they were still there. Damn this incessant rain. Damn

the dark. She clenched her teeth and leaned over the bike, willing it to fly faster. Conscious or

not, she could hazard a guess that they’d want to move Maxi and Cameron now, under the

cover of darkness and before whoever got to baldie would get them, too. No way would they

wait till morning.

That meant a cold, damp vigil of some indeterminate time, from a few minutes to about

six hours. Tequila spent a minute mentally cataloguing the energy bars and caffeine strip she

had left. Not that she hadn’t had countless night time operations before, but that still didn’t

mean she enjoyed them much.

The more she thought about it, the more she found herself wishing they’d let Maxi sleep

off most of her sedative, for no other reason than that it would be difficult to take Maxi away

on a motorbike when she was half-unconscious, especially since she would need her own

hands to drive and hang on to Cameron, too.

If ever a woman could do with having eight arms, like an octopus…

She sighed as she pulled into the services, steaming up her visor in the process. With an

impatient gesture, she pushed the visor up but left the helmet on, so she could remain

inconspicuous in the darkness.

She’d made it – they were still here. She glanced around from Axel’s gold Jaguar to the

windows she knew to belong to them. Only one was lit. They were all in one room, then.

Careful to keep out of the glare of the sparse streetlamps, Tequila slipped quietly closer to

the building, slithered through a narrow gap in the shrubbery and stopped immediately

underneath the window.

There were no voices, but it sounded like there was a lot of activity in that room.

That was a bad sign. It sounded like they were getting ready to move now. What should

she do? She hadn’t had time to think it through yet.

JB must have called already, and since there was no one else to keep an eye on Nick, the

task would have become his. And now Geoff and Axel would have to get a move on and

catch up to wherever they’d sent Nick next, taking their two hostages with them. If only Nick

would think to use his initiative and take out JB. Would he?

A door opened and then clicked quietly shut up above her head. Five minutes later Axel

walked out through the front door. He was tucking a folded piece of paper into the inside

pocket of his jacket and carrying an enormous navy canvas holdall in his other hand. It

looked heavy. Getting rid of the luggage before they moved the hostages. He must have just

checked them all out, too, Tequila concluded.

She watched Axel get to the Jaguar, open the boot and place the holdall carefully inside,

next to another bulky package draped in a what looked like dark grey tarpaulin. Then he got

in the driver’s seat and drove the car around to a space closest to the hotel’s fire exit.

“Very subtle, Axel,” Tequila whispered scathingly under her breath.

She waited until he disappeared back inside the building and then she made her way

swiftly to the back of the villains’ car. It always paid to know what you were dealing with; if

these guys carried sophisticated gear or heavy weapons, she surely wanted to know.

She tried the lid – it hadn’t clicked shut. That was odd. They wouldn’t leave a boot full of

weapons unlocked and unattended, would they? Unless Axel was so distracted that he hadn’t

thought to check. Not very good at coping with stress? Tequila chuckled. Axel could take

some lessons from Nick.

She tugged at the zip of the navy holdall. There was a small luggage lock on it.

Damn. She didn’t have the time or the patience to play with locks.

She took out the small knife she’d used in Harrock’s Wood to clear some branches out of

her way, and made a long incision in the canvas. There was a trace of fresh blood on the


Anxious, she wiped the blade hastily on the side upholstery lining the boot and slipped

the knife back in her coat pocket. Then she grabbed hold of the tear with both hands and

pulled hard. The canvas split with a loud ripping noise, making the hair rise on the back of

her neck.

Maxi’s peaceful expression drew her eyes. There was a long, thin gash down the length of

her upper arm; that was where the blood came from.

Was she alive or had Axel just killed her? She was colder to the touch than a normal

human being, but that could be the effect of the sedative. Whichever way, there was no time

to check exactly how dead or alive Nick’s wife was right now. Tequila forced herself to count

to three and then make a decision.

She gathered the holdall handles together and lifted the bag out.

Boy, she was heavy. You wouldn’t have thought it, to look at her tiny frame. Or watching

Axel carry this weight across to the car as if it were a handful of fluffy woolly jumpers.

Tequila tugged at the bag until it was on the grass, then she turned back to the car. She’d

just touched the edge of the grey tarpaulin, when she heard the creak of the fire exit door.

She straightened up hastily, reaching up to close the lid on the Jaguar’s boot. The top of

her helmet clonked against the edge of the lid. Damn. She’d forgotten she still had the helmet

on. On the other hand, good job she did, or they could have acquired a third hostage, waiting

unconscious right by the boot. All they would have had to do was sling her in.

Inwardly cursing her clumsiness and inattention, Tequila shot a glance at the fire exit.

Geoff was backing out, seeming to have some difficulty with the door, or maybe the thing he

carried; it looked like a large bundle of blankets and coats. He didn’t react at the sound of the

metal scraping on the helmet.

Tequila brought the lid down gently the rest of the way, and then leaned on it until she

heard the faint click. Then she backed away to the bag on the grass and began to half-carry,

half-drag it to the nearest bushes.

She reached their welcome cover not a moment too soon. Axel came out through the front

door at the same time as Geoff reached the car.

Tequila watched as Geoff struggled with the blankets and coats as he tried to open the

back doors of the car. A limp toddler’s arm flopped out of the bundle just then.


Tequila looked back to the entrance. Axel was almost here.

To her right, Geoff had finished bundling Cameron into the back and was walking around

to the passenger side. Axel marched past right in front of her hiding place, so close she could

have touched him if she wanted to, heading for the driver’s side.

Should she attack him? What if Geoff drove away with Cameron, never to be seen again?

One, two, three and the moment had passed. Axel climbed in, turned the key in the

ignition and the car started up with a low, well-tuned purr.

Tequila watched it roll slowly towards the pumps, thinking hard. Well, at least she had

Maxi. That had to count as a victory, still. She bent over the motionless shape of Maxi and

checked her pulse. She was alive, her breathing so shallow, it was barely noticeable.

Tequila fished into the side pocket on her right thigh and pulled out a small, slim box. She

forced one of the thin, brown caffeine strips into Maxi’s mouth.

“Wake up, Maxi. Wake up,” she whispered urgently.

She needed Maxi awake as soon as possible. In fact, in about five minutes Axel was

going to drive away with Cameron and she would have no way of knowing which way they

turned once they reached the motorway. She simply had to keep them in her sights.

She looked back at Maxi and shoved a second caffeine strip in her mouth before she ran

flat out to get the bike.


Detective Chief Inspector Newton slammed the phone down and cradled his face in his

hands, rubbing gently at his temples.

So much red tape, so many rules, so little efficiency. No wonder so many Detectives

ended up in psychiatric wards. It was enough to drive anyone mad.

There was a tentative knock on the door.

“Yes?” his voice sounded sharp and rough, as if he were a lout lurking outside some pub

late at night, looking for trouble.

Well, it was late at night, at least.

Constable Marsh looked up from his computer screen, momentarily distracted from his

searches. His eyes flickered from Newton’s annoyed expression back to the door. He hid

behind his monitor again.

The youngster is showing talent, Newton thought with a wry grin. Marsh could

impeccably interpret people’s moods already. He might, one day, make a brilliant Detective –

if officialdom didn’t kill him first...

The door opened quietly and Constable Buckley stepped in timidly, holding a sheet of

paper in his slightly trembling hand.

“Buckley,” Newton barked. “You’re late. Shifts changed two hours ago.”

“S-sorry, sir. I stayed on. I was waiting for a phone call to confirm the –”

“Victim’s identity,” Newton finished his sentence. “I can remember pretty clearly what I

asked you to do, Constable.”

Buckley looked down and swallowed loudly.

“Well?” Newton demanded.

“Here it is, sir.” He held out the piece of paper. “Though it doesn’t seem helpful,” he

added in a hesitant voice.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Newton muttered, clutching the paper tightly in his hand.

His eyes narrowed until they made him look cross-eyed, then he crumpled the paper up in

his hand.



“Come out of your hidey-hole. We have work to do.”


“Buckley. Go home and get some sleep. Good work done.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Miriam Janice Whitbourne-Philips, previously known as Miriam Janice Hillier.”

Detective Newton’s voice was a low growl, chilling and menacing as a stalking lion’s.

Constable Marsh gasped in recognition.

“What are you thinking, Marsh?”

“Whitbourne...” Marsh whispered.

Detective Newton nodded encouragingly, waiting for him to continue.

“Isn’t Whitbourne the name of Nick Hunter’s foster parents?”

“Correct. A well-known Judge, Randolph Whitbourne-Philips QC.”

“Which means Hunter knew her. The victim, I mean.”

“It is a strong possibility.”

“Possibility, sir?” the youngster asked, looking confused.

“Mr. and Mrs. Whitbourne-Philips have fostered twenty-four children over the years. We

know that from our earlier searches, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“It is therefore quite possible that not all of them knew of each other. Once foster children

move on, you rarely see them again.” Newton started pacing heavy-footedly around the small

space between the desks, hands in pockets, deep in thought. “But I do wonder exactly when

they adopted Miss Hillier. And if she is mentioned in their will at all. Hunter, too.”

“They adopted her?”

“They didn’t have any children of their own. This complicates things. I wonder if...

Just… look up her name. Get a list of all the children the Whitbournes fostered, too. With the

exact dates they were in the couple’s care. I want to see if at least two of them coincide.”

“Nick Hunter and Miriam Hillier, you mean?”


Marsh set to work, typing fast.

“They live somewhere in Cornwall, the Whitbournes, right?”

“Yes, sir,” Marsh looked up for a split second, and then leaned over his keyboard again.

“Get me a line to the police station nearest them. I have a really bad feeling about this.”

Newton slumped against the wall nearest the door, arms crossed, face set in a hard scowl.

“Sir?” Marsh muttered hesitantly after a short pause.


“How old was she? This Miriam girl, I mean.”


“My age,” Marsh whispered and his lips tightened in a determined grimace.

Newton slumped back on his chair and pulled out a fresh sheet of paper from the printer

drawer. He perched his pen above it for a while and then replaced its cap and set it back down

on the desk without writing one single word. Usually he would jot down names and dates and

facts and try to find a common, connecting point between them.

This time, he didn’t need the paper. Everything flowed from one step to the next as if

someone had taken great care to connect the dots. He could see how these incidents were

related, but they were too obvious, too in-your-face. Much too plain and simple and clear-cut.

They did not require the one thing every other investigation needs: deduction work. It was as

if they were being told what to think, what searches to conduct, what they should do next.

Newton didn’t like that one little bit. The whole thing smelled fishy.

Nick Hunter wouldn’t be stupid enough to get himself into such a muddle, anyway. He

wouldn’t have returned home. He wouldn’t have come in or left his phone number. And there

was still the problem of his wife’s disappearance. And the boy. Where was the boy?


Axel put his foot down hard as he hurtled down the motorway, the Jaguar eating up the

miles as if they were mere inches. That was exactly why he liked this car so much. Even at

this speed, and driven with not much consideration – for itself and its passengers alike – and

still you didn’t feel even the slightest jolt. It was like riding on the back of some silent killerbeast

in full flight.

It left the mind free to wander.

And Axel’s mind did. With a vengeance.

Axel was a doer, not a thinker. He never spent much time thinking, not even when he had

nice things to contemplate, like Lola Alvarez, for example. Lounging and drinking and

listening to other people’s talk was much easier, especially with Lola on his lap.

Unfortunately, there were times when thinking kept a man alive and right now, Axel

decided, was such a time. His heart squeezed painfully in his chest at the thought, sending

shooting pains down his left arm, until it made his fingers tingle. He tightened his hand in a

fist a couple of times, to get the circulation going.

He never did like the idea of coming to the UK and scouring through the muck to get

Nick Hunter back out of his burrow. He hadn’t forgotten Hunter’s threat back on that beach

in Providenciales five years ago.

Still, a job’s a job and Mr. King was a good employer if you did your work well.

A bit of a nut job, Mr. King, Axel always thought. The trouble was that Nick Hunter was

a nut job to match. At least he didn’t have to see Hunter face to face. After the job was done,

all Axel had to do was to deliver Hunter, his kid and his wife, dead or alive, to one of

Dollar’s safe houses in London, collect his cash and go back home to Turks and Caicos.

Someone else would take it from there.

Axel could see his side had the upper hand for now, so there was no need to panic, but

still he shuddered; there was something disturbingly vicious in Hunter’s eyes sometimes, like

the man didn’t know fear.

He resolved to watch his back for a while, when this was over. Even from a different

continent, Nick Hunter was perfectly able to give him nightmares.

Axel rubbed absentmindedly at his chest for a while, to loosen the tightness.

The complication of losing Nathan Hicks was one more worry he could do without. No

doubt, this constituted a serious enough incident to warrant a phone call to Dollar, at his

London residence.

But Dollar De la Rue was another frightening man – big and beefy and dark. Alien

looking, somehow. He didn’t exactly fit any race on earth. Not really black, more Arab than

European in his features, Dollar’s face looked permanently set into a cruel mask of contempt.

When he looked at you, you felt like you should be apologising for your existence and hasten

to beg for mercy and forgiveness. And that’s if you hadn’t done anything wrong.

Axel wiped the sweat from his brow and his palms with a crumpled blue and white

striped handkerchief, and then turned the air conditioning up one.

He hadn’t told Dollar about Nathan Hicks yet. He’d postponed ringing him for two

reasons: one, he was genuinely afraid of his reaction, and two, at this time of night, Dollar

was sure to be engaged in the sort of activities from which he should not be disturbed. His

private life, if only half the rumours were true, was as infamous as the man himself. Not that

Axel’s moral compass was always true, but given a choice, he would have steered well clear

of a man like Dollar De la Rue every day.

So now, his desire to show good leadership warred with his survival instincts. In his

mind, this simmered down to a no-contact and minimum communication policy with Dollar.

Besides, they could still pull this stunt off with just three men, plus the two that went on

ahead; it was easy. He could always tell Dollar that Hicks tried to do a dirty on them, and

therefore had to be eliminated.

And having Hunter’s son as hostage was enough to ensure his cooperation, however

reluctant it might be.

Good riddance to Nathan Hicks.

He’d always had doubts about his suitability – the man was perpetually stoned. Most

likely, his drug habit was at the root of what happened to him in Harrock’s Wood.

Londoners never did have the discipline to keep their minds on the job. Look at what

Nathan’s mind was on – Nick Hunter’s wife. It would come as no great surprise to find out

that he’d already had his way with her and with that Miriam girl, too. He’d certainly had the

opportunity and the motivation. That, right there, was reason enough to get rid of Nathan


Slightly calmer, now that he’d come up with a decent excuse, Axel’s thoughts turned to

refining the details of their final task.

He might not be ready to admit publicly that they had a problem, but there was no need to

push his luck. Whatever the reason for Nathan’s death, it was a well-known fact that once an

operation started to go wrong, it would continue to do so.

He had to find a way to turn it around.

A new line of attack – quick, ruthless and smart.

Timing was of the essence. They had to get there at just the right time, after dark – he

didn’t want to risk Hunter throwing a wobbly when he found out exactly whom he was

supposed to take out. He had no time for tantrums.

His instructions had been crystal clear – no deals, no bargaining, no compromises. By the

end of the day there had to be no soul left alive with a right to that property.

The young druggie, Miriam, they’d taken care of before they even made a move on Nick.

That had been his idea.

A small smile of satisfaction at having come up with a secondary trap for Hunter

stretched on Axel’s suntanned face. Nick Hunter deserved what was coming to him. And if

Dollar didn’t get him, Her Majesty most certainly would. They’d leaked enough material to

bury Hunter under several life sentences.

Axel chuckled darkly, his piggy eyes sparkling with malice as he allowed his imagination

to run wild for a couple of minutes.

On the back seats, Cam stretched and let out a quiet sob before drifting back to sleep.

Axel’s eyes flickered to him in the rear-view mirror and then back to the road again.

He’d been told to kill the kid if it got serious, but only as a last resort. Inflicting pain on

him would have much more effect. They wanted to concentrate Hunter’s mind, not drive him

to rebel against them.

That was why he was supposed to think his wife was dead, too. What could convince him

more thoroughly that they meant business?

Plus, they could always bring her back into play if the kid copped it early by mistake.

Thinking of Maxi brought Nathan Hicks back to Axel’s mind. Really, it was quite lucky

to have Nathan Hicks out of the picture. There should be a bit more cash for each of them,

now that one had dropped out of the calculation. And on top of that, they could take what

they fancied out of the big manor house before they set fire to it. Spoils, as it were.

Axel’s mind drifted back to Nick Hunter and the tidy little life he’d arranged for himself

back here. As if you could ever forget what it feels like to kill a man. It had to be all for

show. Mr. Cool as a Cucumber with a beautiful wife and kid…

Maxi’s face filled Axel’s mind for a minute. She was beautiful – rocking body, perfect

features... What did Hunter do to make her stay with him? Men like him didn’t deserve

women like her.

Maybe he should call her a spoil and have her instead of some innocuous silver

candleholder or some silly painting that would never make it through Customs and out of the


Maybe Nathan’d had the right idea all along. Who would ever know? Maybe… maybe he

could take a few ‘special’ pictures of Maxi and then send them to Hunter to keep him

company during the long, lonely nights in his cold isolation cell.

Axel snorted loudly, and then looked to his left, suddenly worried Geoff might have been

able to read his thoughts on his face, but Geoff was asleep, his mouth slack and open,

breathing evenly.

With a sigh of relief, Axel turned back to the road, his thoughts circling the same

subjects, like sharks after a wounded seal.


When Maxi first opened her eyes, she thought she was still dreaming. There were people

in her dream again, bad people who wanted to hurt her and Cameron and indifferent people,

too, and she was frantically searching for Nick, but he was nowhere…

Her eyelids drooped closed again, shutting out the grey-green tapestry of criss-crossing

branches. The raw light of dawn was seeping through the thick cloud cover and it was bitterly

cold. In fact, she didn’t remember ever feeling this cold before. Her thin dress was rippling

around her legs, sending shivers up and down her body with every touch. She could barely

move her fingers and toes and the thing she was laid on felt rough and scratchy, like a bed of

needle-sharp icicles.

She tried to stretch an arm out towards Cameron, to draw him closer, but her hand closed

around wet blades of grass.

That couldn’t be right.

Maxi dragged her eyelids back again and sat up in one swift motion. At least she told her

body to move, but all that happened was a small flop of her torso, as if she were a fish out of

water, and her head started spinning sickeningly.

There was a very persistent thumping deep inside her head and her body ached all over.

She felt as if she’d lost a fight with the whole herd of enraged bulls in Pamplona, and every

person in the crowd had punched her, too.

Her eyes squeezed shut and her face scrunched up against the pain.

“Here, drink this. It’ll help clear your head.”

It was a woman’s voice. Not one she could immediately recognise. She felt a hand lift her

head gently and the touch of polystyrene to her lips.

She took a sip obediently and then spat it back out. Cold coffee. Black. Without sugar.

“Ugh. What is this?”

Maxi forced her eyes to open again, and this time she could focus on a small, thin face,

not unattractive, framed by shiny blond hair that had been gathered tidily into a tight ponytail.

The head was hovering about a foot above her face, and seemed to be attached to the arms

that had lifted her head and held the polystyrene cup.

When she’d spat the coffee out, some had hit the woman’s face; Maxi could still see the

tiny bubbles of brown liquid hanging onto her cheek. She didn’t remember the face, but

something told her she should be able to. Her mannerisms were familiar, as was her kind


She didn’t feel in danger anymore; the only enemy here seemed to be the cup, which

floated nearby, threatening to come closer again.

“It’s coffee,” the woman said. “Double espresso.”

“It’s cold,” Maxi moaned, shivering.

“Yeah. Sorry. I didn’t want to leave you for too long and risk you waking up alone. You

might have got yourself in trouble again. I got this about an hour ago.”

“An hour,” Maxi repeated, a disgusted grimace on her face. “Ugh. I don’t even like hot

black coffee.”

“That’s beside the point. It’s coffee. Drink it. It’ll do you good,” the woman insisted.

“I’m not sure I believe you,” Maxi mumbled, eyeing the cup doubtfully. Then she stared

straight into the stranger’s eyes. “Do I know you? I feel like I should. Sorry… I’m finding it a

little difficult to concentrate; my brain feels like congealed porridge. I’m freezing, too…”

“That’ll be the sedative wearing off. You’ll be all right in a few minutes. In fact, I’m very

much counting on you being awake enough to balance on the bike all by yourself this time.

You won’t believe how hard it is to ride one handed, holding a deadweight straight in the

saddle, even one as small as you are, whilst not losing sight of Cameron.”

“Oh, sorry to be a burden…” Maxi replied sarcastically. And then, when all the words

seeped through, “Cameron? What do you mean? Why would you lose sight of him? Has

anything happened to him?” Her voice rose with every question, as the old sense of fear and

danger returned, stronger than before.

“Shh,” the woman soothed. “Don’t worry. Cameron is fine. He’s… nearby. Nick will get

him back. Your only job is to look after yourself right now and get your body… and your

brain in good working order again. So here, drink.” She pushed the cup closer.

Maxi’s eyes narrowed at the way she’d said Nick’s name. And then the word ‘bike’ and

the hand holding the cup and the swish of her ponytail made it all come together.

“Tequila? Is that you?” Maxi rubbed weakly at her forehead.

Tequila smiled. “Good memory, but don’t change the subject. If I were you, I’d stop

acting like a child and start behaving more responsibly. Drink it up.” She put the cup on the

grass, by Maxi’s side, with a decisive gesture. “I’ve run out of caffeine strips, so this is all we

have left to get you back in shape. When you can sit up straight, I’ll go get you a burger. You

haven’t eaten for two days.”

Maxi looked around bewildered, propping herself up on one elbow. She swayed, but

managed to hold her position with some effort.

“Two days?” she whispered. She could well believe that. There was no substance in her

arms; she only managed to stay propped up by sheer willpower. “I’m confused. Where am


“Cullompton Services on M5.”

“I’m in Cullompton...” Maxi struggled to make sense of this new bit of information.

Tequila nodded. “Technically, the service station,” she clarified.

Maxi shook her head impatiently. “What I don’t understand is why Nick would bring

Cameron to Cullompton. It doesn’t make sense.”

“You drink,” Tequila said gently, rubbing one hand soothingly on Maxi’s arm – there was

a long dressing there, Maxi just noticed, held in place with Micropore tape – “and I’ll tell you

everything. Oh, and… sorry about the bruises. I probably caused most of them.”

Throughout Tequila’s explanation, Maxi kept quiet, her blinking and the odd scowl the

only discernible signs of awareness.

She made a face at every mouthful of coffee, but finally the cup was empty. Tequila

helped Maxi sit up, propped up against the thick trunk of a spruce.

“How do you feel now?” Tequila stared anxiously at Maxi’s white face.

“Sick,” Maxi closed her eyes to stop her head spinning. “Though that might be just the


“And lack of food, I think. Stay here. I’ll be back in five minutes.”

“Well, I’m hardly likely to go prance about the car park,” Maxi answered sarcastically,

forcing her eyes open with some difficulty. But there was no one there. Tequila had already


For a while, Maxi concentrated on taking deep breaths as she tried to regain some

measure of control over her body and the tangle of thoughts spinning wildly inside her head,

but before long the need to see Nick, or even some portion of his van became intolerable.

Tequila had said that he was here, parked somewhere, all alone, convinced that she was

dead. That thought alone was unbearable.

He must be already out of his mind with worry about their son’s wellbeing. If only she

could let him know that she, at least, was fine. That she was ready to help him get Cameron


Unthinking, she moved one hand to the other side and twisted, pushing with her feet and

shoulders in an attempt to get up. But her body felt like jelly and she fell face-first on the

grass, hitting her nose hard against an exposed stretch of tree root, her arms folded

underneath her.

Pain shot through her nose and she felt the wetness of blood oozing out. With some effort,

she managed to twist her face to the side. This provided some relief from the pain, but the

blood kept flowing. Her tears decided to follow suit.

How pathetic… Much good she was going to be…

How could she even begin to think that she could help rescue Cameron when she couldn’t

even sit unaided? She didn’t feel like his mother. She felt like a useless hunk of flesh with

dubious balance and not enough energy to flick a light switch.


A complete deadweight, just like Tequila had said. A liability.

Tears of frustration gushed down her cheeks, swiftly followed by a crushing sense of

guilt. It wasn’t fair, not being able to do something, anything, to help.

It wasn’t fair letting some stranger turn Nick into their weapon. He didn’t want to be that.

He’d turned his life around. What would all this do to him now? Because she had no doubt

that Nick would do anything, would become anything to save their son.

He was a husband and a father.

He would become a murderer if that’s what was required of him.

But worst of all, it wasn’t fair that Cameron, her sweet, little, cuddly Cameron should

suffer for this.

She shouldn’t be here, flopped in the grass. She should be by her son’s side as he woke up

this morning. She should be able to protect him, throw herself between him and danger,

shield him like a proper mother would do…

“What were you thinking?” Tequila’s voice was sharp with disapproval. “See? That’s

exactly what I mean when I say you’d get yourself in trouble. You can’t be trusted to stay

safe for one minute, can you?”

And just like that, all Maxi’s self-loathing turned to rage, a rage so raw and powerful, it

shocked her to see that she was capable of such a strong reaction.

“I hate you!” Maxi growled through her teeth, fixing Tequila with a vicious, hateful stare.

Tequila started, her knees locking. She looked swiftly around as if she expected some

attack, and then her gaze finally fixed onto Maxi’s furious expression. Confused, Tequila laid

the small paper package carefully on the grass a safe distance away and knelt down to help

Maxi back up to a sitting position.

“I’m sorry,” Tequila apologised. “I thought you would be safe. I didn’t mean for you to

get hurt. I would have stayed if I thought you wouldn’t be able to –”

“I hate you so much, I could kill you with my bare hands right now,” Maxi screamed at

her, a vein popping out in her outstretched neck, her breathing laboured and uneven.

She looked demented, Tequila thought. What had she done, to earn herself such a

reaction? She thought through the few words she had said to Maxi wondering what had made

her so irate.

“W… What did I say?” she asked in the end.

Maxi growled like a caged animal, lashing out with her arms. The movement threw her

out of balance, but she managed to prop herself up again.

“How could you be so cruel? How could you be so heartless? My son is somewhere,”

Maxi jabbed a finger in the general direction of the car park, “somewhere where I can’t be,

because you took me away from him. And he is terrified and alone, surrounded by horrible,

scary-looking strangers who might be hurting him right now. He’s four, Tequila, four.”

Sheer hate was rolling off her in waves. Tequila was silent, unsure of what to say. What

could make this better? She could see where Maxi’s anguish came from now, but didn’t know

how to diffuse her fury.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, subdued. “I… I’m sure he’s fine. Nick would make sure of

that. They wouldn’t play games with Nick; they know his temper…”

“Ugh,” Maxi shrieked, her fists curled up so tight, her knuckles threatened to burst

through her skin. “What do you know about what they might or might not do? How can you

be sure my four-year-old son is safe? How do you think I can even live without seeing him,

without knowing he’s ok?”

Tequila didn’t say anything, waiting for her to get it all out of her system. She knelt on

the damp grass a small distance away – looking down, hands resting on her knees – close

enough to reach Maxi if she fell, but far enough to discourage her from lashing out again.

“You don’t have kids, do you, Tequila? I know you don’t, because if you did you would

know a mother’s place is by her child’s side. A mother’s duty is to protect her child. What

you did prevents me from carrying out that duty. What you did puts you on a par with them,”

she pointed in the car park’s direction.

Tequila looked down, guilt and shame wrestling for pole position on her face.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t think… It was too quick...”

Maxi was gritting her teeth, trying to keep her torment under control and her tears locked

up inside her eyes. It didn’t work for long; when the tears brimmed over, she hid her face in

her hands and started to sob.

“You shouldn’t have got me out,” she mumbled through the tears, disconsolate. “You

should have left me…”

“I’m sorry, I could never have done that,” Tequila interrupted, her own eyes tearing up. “I

really couldn’t. It was a split-second decision – I found you in that bag,” she pointed at the

rough cloth on the grass, “and I just… pulled you out of the boot. There was no time…” She

took a deep breath and then continued. “But even if I’d had all the time in the world to think

about it, it still wouldn’t have changed anything.”

“You would have taken me away from Cameron even if you knew I didn’t want that?”

Maxi lifted her face up, incredulous; it was streaked with blood and tears.

She looked so lost and vulnerable, shivering as she was in the cool morning breeze.

Tequila shuffled over and got out a small pack of travel wipes. She sighed and pulled the top

of the pack open.

“I would have taken you away from the bad guys, yes. And we shall get Cameron back,

too.” She fixed Maxi with a serious, determined stare. “Now, just so that I know where I

stand, will you try to punch me if I clean you up?”

Maxi shook her head, sniffing. But the tears kept coming.

“Look, you’ll have to try to stop crying,” Tequila chided her in a gentle voice. “You’re

messing up my work. I’ll have to start all over again in a minute.”

Maxi sniffed again, and wiped her shaky hands under her eyes.

“Does your nose hurt?” Tequila asked, dabbing carefully around it.”

“Not really,” Maxi replied, but she gasped and closed her eyes when Tequila got too


“I thought so,” Tequila muttered. “Grit your teeth, I want to check if it’s broken.”

“No,” Maxi pushed at her limply.

But Tequila’s fingers were already moving swiftly over the damaged area.

“Ow.” Fresh tears gushed down her cheeks.

“Well, there’s a bit of swelling, but I don’t think it’s broken.” Tequila tilted her head to

the side, the better to inspect Maxi’s profile. Then her eyes slid over to lock Maxi’s gaze into

hers. “Do you think, from now on, you might be able to refrain from doing stupid things

whilst in my company, please?”

“I just wanted to see Nick,” Maxi explained.

“And I just want to have a million dollars,” Tequila replied, putting the wipes away. “But

life doesn’t work that way. Don’t you think I’ve already done my best to get to talk to him?

You’ll have to be a bit more patient.”

“I don’t want to be patient. I want to see Nick. And Cameron. What will he think when he

wakes up and I’m not there anymore? He’ll think I’ve left him. What if he’ll never trust me

again, even if he does get out of this unscathed? You didn’t think about that when you took

me away from him, did you?” Maxi accused in a trembling voice.

“As a matter of fact, it was him I was going to get out first. I just happened over you and

then… I… ran out of time.” She sighed heavily, wrapping her arms around Maxi’s limp

frame and hugging her tight against her chest. “I could be wrong, but it looks to me like you

might need a hug more than Cameron does, right now. Don’t worry about him; he’ll be all

right. They don’t have a reason to hurt Cameron. Did you know they even bought him an icecream

yesterday, to keep him happy?” Tequila soothed, rubbing gently against Maxi’s


But she kept quiet and didn’t say anything about the child’s miserable bawls she’d heard

coming from the direction of the gold Jaguar when Axel pulled in right at the far edge of the

car park. Sobs that intensified in direct correlation with the shouting when they discovered

the canvas bag containing a certain kidnapped young woman was missing.

At the moment, the Jaguar was quiet. Maybe they managed to get Cameron to go back to

sleep. Maybe they’d hurt him to make him stop. The possibilities were making her feel

nauseous, so she kept her thoughts to herself.


Nick stretched a heavy hand to pick up his phone. He felt so tired, as if he had lived a

hundred lives without a break.


He let his head fall back against the headrest, to stare at the van’s roof.

He had nodded off at some point, close to morning, although he wouldn’t have thought it

possible, not with everything chasing around and around in his mind like an out of control

carousel of Hell.

When sleep came, it didn’t bring with it the relief he’d longed for.

His old army comrades had made an appearance once more, and this time they stood up

after the bullets tore up their bodies and proceeded to throw water over the blazing inferno of

a house. They were making progress - the fire went down until it had shrunk to the size of a

car. And then the car exploded and Nick got showered in flying chunks of flesh. He lifted his

arms to protect his face and hit the van’s roof. That’s when he woke up, breathing harder than

normal and drenched in cold sweat, as always.

They had died for him all over again. And again, he was to blame. It was no one else’s

fault. They died, Maxi died… and he lived. Was this the curse of his existence? To live –

simply live – and watch others die? Strangers and loved ones alike? Somehow, he’d never

noticed the fleeting lives of other creatures, human or otherwise, before. They were

irrelevant, in the great scheme of things... What did it matter if an animal was killed when it

flushed out of his hiding place a long-lost target? What did it matter that, when a cruel, coldblooded,

powerful man who controlled the lives of a whole province full of people died, his

four concubines had to die first, forming a human shield around him? Death was just a part of

life. A significant part. The sooner people got used to the idea, the sooner they would

understand that life was made for living. And since you only ever had one life, and no one

had managed to stem the unforgiving gush of flying hours yet, there was no time to waste.

As with any game, the better player you were, the longer you would survive. Nick had

learned the rules fast and excelled at every action sequence. And then he decided he’d had

enough; he didn’t want to play anymore. It wasn’t a case of quitting while you were ahead.

More that he’d outgrown the game. His shifting scene transformed further when he fell in

love. Like some stereotypical floodgates bursting open, that love was what made him begin to

feel the lives twining around his own. Maxi was the one who made him see, really see, that

there was more to life than rigid rules – there was so much depth to it, so many layers, such

vivid colours. It was as if he’d been colour blind, so self-absorbed playing his twodimensional

game, that he’d created this fake, empty, meaningless ecosystem for himself,

some place where nothing and no one could touch him. Nothing got in, and he felt nothing in


So what would happen now? Not for the first time, Nick found himself wondering quite

how did his life’s wild rollercoaster twist its tracks so that he was once more lined up to do

exactly what he’d rather he didn’t have to. Always the same, in hindsight. Every time he’d

decided to do something right, it somehow twisted back on itself and ended up wrong.

Instead of a caring family to belong to, he got the ‘care’ – no family. He joined the army and

did his best, always his best, and for a while it looked like he would finally make it. He did –

until the day when he could kill no more.

Soon, he would have to kill again, or Cameron would die. That seemed to be what was

expected of him. Could he live with that? His features twisted with the bitterness of knowing

that he had no choice. This time, it was unavoidable.

Bad enough – having to kill on someone else’s orders. Horrendous that you would find it

in yourself to commit murder when you had an option not to do so.

In a war, soldiers were pawns; it was the bigger picture that mattered. Nick had grasped

that. The years that followed had given him, if not a sense of purpose, at least a small degree

of satisfaction. He felt a bit like a vigilante hidden in the shadows, ridding the world of bad

blood quickly and efficiently. That was the argument his mind usually put up whenever his

conscience’s feeble voice poked through. Each time he’d had a choice. At least, he always

felt he did.

But now, with his own son’s life at stake, was there anything he wouldn’t do?

He knew the answer to that one.

“I’m bringing the whole thing forward,” Axel spoke, his voice rough, his breathing

laboured. “We’re moving onto the target tonight.”

Relief – it would be over soon. He was going to get Cameron back in only a few short

ours. Anxiety – something was up. Nick could feel a chill draft crawling slowly up his spine,

wiping away every trace of warm relief as it went. It was not unheard of, changing the details

of an operation halfway through. But generally, timing was the last thing to change. That

Axel would be so intent on hurrying things along was a sign of things starting to go wrong.

But where? His side or theirs? Had the police become involved yet?

“What’s the rush?” Nick prodded, his eyes flickering back to the screen on which

Cameron’s dot featured brightly, dead centre. It didn’t look like Jesse had managed to pass on

the toy yet. This did not surprise him. Nick could see Jesse’s Touareg in his mirror, parked in

the back row and a little to the left of an empty Ford Duetto campervan. Jesse had only left

the car for two minutes, probably to nip to the gents’, and he’d been sat in the driver’s seat

ever since. He would probably meet up with the others later in the day, when they changed

shifts. Nick would have to keep a close eye on Jesse’s movements later.

“No rush in particular,” Axel’s voice drawled on, a touch defensive. “It’s just that

everything has fallen into place remarkably flawlessly and I don’t want to delay booking my

flight home,” he taunted. “Never did like the weather here.”

Nick didn’t buy it. “Something’s wrong. I can feel it.” There was movement behind Nick,

now. The owners of the campervan had returned, and the Ford was half-way out of its space

and temporarily cutting off Jesse’s perfect view. Nick didn’t like that; he liked being able to

watch Jesse. Hmm, watch Jesse... Who was supposed to be watching whom, here? The notion

of a watcher being watched would have probably made him smile in less critical

circumstances.“Have you found out what happened last night? And can you control your foot

soldiers or should I expect a closer interaction with the police?”

“I told you not to worry. Everything’s rolling on nicely. Now, concentrate please. You

need to remember what I’m telling you now because I don’t like repeating myself.” Nick

watched the van finally crawl slowly away, in his rear-view mirror. “Mind on the job now,

and then you can have your son back.”

Nick spoke through his teeth. “Where do you want me to go next? Land’s End? Are we

even staying in the country?”

“Ha,” Axel let out one hard laugh. “They told me you had a sense of humour. I’ve never

seen it, personally, but –”

“I thought you were in a hurry,” Nick interrupted him impatiently.

“Yeah. Fine. Suit yourself. You’re going to enter Cornwall on A38. At one o’clock

precisely you are going to stop for lunch at Route 38. It’s on the roundabout –”

“I know where it is.”

“I keep forgetting – you grew up around here, didn’t you?”

Nick felt his heart skip a beat as he realised quite how deep Dollar had gone this time. If

this had been a simple operation where he was required to do the dirty job in order to keep

someone else’s fingernails pristine, why would Dollar need so much information? Nick felt a

wave of apprehension rattle through his insides and settle in his stomach. This was not good.

Not good at all.

“Anyway,” Axel’s voice continued, clear and sure, as if he was reading from a book –

which he probably was, Nick reminded himself; Axel would never win Mastermind without a

gun in his hand. “Park as close to the entrance as possible, as per usual. Walk in, get a table,

order a burger and a banana split to be served at the same time, then go to the gents. Lock

yourself in a cubicle and wait five minutes on the clock before you go back to the table. The

next set of instructions, together with details of the targets will be sealed to the bottom of

your salad bowl.” Axel took a deep breath and went on. “You do not open it in the restaurant;

wait until you’re back in your car. You pay at the table. You speak with no one. If you do, I

shall know.” Axel’s voice turned bleak and cold next. There was a hint of fear there, too,

Nick thought, but he couldn’t be sure. “Do not play games, Nick. I am under strict

instructions and I won’t gamble my life for the sake of yours or for your sprog’s. Play by the

rules and no one needs to suffer. Oh, and no need to rush through your meal. You’ll have

plenty of time to get in position by nightfall, no need to get indigestion over it. Bon appétit!”

The line went dead. Nick frowned at the small screen of his mobile phone, trying to order

his thoughts. He listed the few clear facts in his head. One, the target had to be within, at

most, twelve hours’ radius from where he was sitting. Targets, not target, Axel had said.

More than one, then. How many? And what weapons was he supposed to use? Cornwall was

a pretty rural county; sometimes your closest neighbours were miles away. But still, it would

have been good to get an idea of the lay of the land before it was too dark. It didn’t look like

Axel had allowed for a reconnaissance trip. Why? What was the hurry?

Nick gnashed his teeth, considering the possible options. He gave up after a fruitless

minute. There was too much he didn’t know. A lot of questions he needed to ask. A frustrated

sigh escaped his lips. Hopefully, most of these would be answered at lunchtime. He felt quite

comfortable with the main routes through Cornwall; he had spent ten years here, with his last

set of foster parents. At least getting away on a boat should be easy enough, once he got

Cameron back. There would be plenty to choose from, and he knew where to go to find them.

It would also give Cameron a buzz, letting him choose.

Thoughts of Cameron made his eyes wonder back to the tracker, and then Nick gasped,

eyes wide, thoughts in a snarl – so tangled were they, it took a few seconds to comprehend

why the screen was blank. Nick hit the zoom out button, twice, and then he could see

Cameron’s dot moving swiftly west, almost off the map.

How did that happen? Frozen by shock, Nick watched Jesse adjust his radio, in his rearview

mirror. Then his hand shot to the ignition, while his left cranked the gearlever into



The two workmen leaning on spades in the middle of the dusty, narrow lane looked up at

the sound of the approaching car. Police vehicle. The taller one passed his spade to his mate

to hold and went over to pull back the red and white barrier that was blocking the road.

The officer at the wheel motioned for him to approach and the man walked over, his step

quick, his shoulders slumped. A short while later, after a lot of head shaking and shoulder

shrugging, the police car clanked over the metal sheet covering the narrow, freshly dug trench

that severed the lane from side to side, and disappeared from view.

“What did they want, Pat?” the one with the spades asked.

“Exactly what we thought – asking about the job and how long we were going to be


“Good thing the boss warned us this might happen.”


After a minute of silence, during which they both stared after the out of sight car, Pat dug

a mobile phone out of his pocket.

“Think we should call the boss, Ben?”

“Nah. Let’s wait and see how it pans out.”

Ten minutes later, the police car appeared again. This time it drove straight through, not

bothering to stop and ask more questions. The workers waved at it as it went, then pulled the

barrier back across the lane.

They moved the barrier one more time, just after lunchtime, to allow the campervan back

in, then they packed up and left for the day.

Eight miles down the road, Judge Randolph Whitbourne-Philips (retired) leaned back in

his lacquered wicker chair and settled his slippered feet on the padded footrest, just as his

wife, Felicity, brought in the silver tray laden with tea and the customary platter of assorted

fresh cream cakes. She set the tray on the small, glass-topped table and, after pouring tea for

the two of them, she let herself drop into the other chair with a quiet groan.

“Hip giving you trouble today?”

“A little,” she lied. “No more than usual. And you? How do you feel?”

Randolph made a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat but didn’t otherwise


“Still worried about Constable Pethick’s visit?”

Randolph fixed her with steely eyes, as if trying to determine an ulterior motive to her

question, but Felicity was smiling gently, her face showing nothing but concern for her lifelong


Having decided she spoke from her heart, Randolph’s expression softened. “Does it


“Only to me, dear. Only to me.” She smiled wider. “Though, your hands do betray your

mood, sometimes.” She eyed his hands as he held them, fingertips touching, in a tepee shape.

“Your fingers tell me you are deep in thought.”

Randolph let out one low chuckle and picked up his cup of tea. “You know me better than

I know myself.”

“I should. After so many years...” She let the sentence drift off unfinished. The silence

lasted for a few minutes. “So, are you going to share your worries? A worry shared is a worry


Randolph pulled in a deep breath, wincing a little. “I’m not worried. I always knew that,

in my line of work, it would be foolish to assume we would be safe. I always expected that

some villain or other, at some point in time, would try to come after me and those I love. That

doesn’t bother me; I am prepared for that.” He stopped for a moment and took a sip from his

cup. “What annoys me is that some snotty-nosed teenager who calls himself a Constable

would think it acceptable to treat me so condescendingly. How would he think I was able to

do my job and not notice when I am being lied to, I don’t know.”

“He didn’t mean to be condescending, dear, I’m sure of it. He just didn’t think...”

“Didn’t think,” Randolph repeated her words sourly. “That’s even worse. He should

think. Only animals don’t think. And what good would it do, not telling me what he knows?

The more he tells me, the more I can prepare. I may even be able to help them catch the fiend

before he can get too far. Before anyone gets hurt.”

“He probably didn’t want to worry us,” Felicity argued in a conciliatory tone.

Randolph sighed. “Yes. I suppose you’re right. Still, make sure we have everything

packed and ready. The police will keep an eye on the house tonight, and we have the alarm,

as well. We should be fine if we leave in the morning.” Felicity nodded in agreement. “I can’t

decide whether the water company digging a trench in the road is to our detriment or benefit,

yet. It would make driving here a little more complicated – a car would have to slow down,

the workers would be able to see the driver and any passengers, someone might even

remember part of a license plate. No, I don’t think any self-respecting villain would risk it.

That trench in itself might be a good enough deterrent. Like a moat around a castle, only on a

smaller scale. But it could also stop us getting out fast.”

Felicity stretched her arm across the table towards her husband. “Stop worrying, dear.

What will be will be.”

Randolph caught her hand and brought it up to press it against his cheek. His eyes were

moist when he spoke again. “It’s not me that I worry for.”


It had taken almost twenty minutes for the Touareg to finally catch up to Nick’s Berlingo,

and the delay was not caused by the heavy traffic. Tequila had stepped on it, to start with, but

now she stayed well back, hiding behind vans and removal trucks as much as possible.

It had taken her by surprise, Nick taking off like that, but she was ready. They were ready.

Maxi was almost completely herself again, and she was wearing clothes more suitable to the

task at hand, thanks to common folk inattention and Tequila’s swiftness of hand. Not good

enough for motorcycle racing, it was true, but better than a flimsy summer dress and no coat.

Miles better than a canvas holdall.

Despite the warm fleece and Ugg boots, both two sizes too big, Maxi’s teeth were

chattering in short, staccato wild bursts. The absence of rain had not made much difference, it

seemed, to her core body temperature. The sun shone hazily though layers of grey cloud, here

and there fooling them into believing that warmth was on the way. It was almost lunchtime;

Tequila frowned at the sun and wished it would quit playing games. The three vehicles – two

cars and a motorbike – drove on westwards at equal distance from each other, as if they were

beads on a string.

The bike rode straight past when Nick and his shadow turned into the Route 38 diner’s

car park. This was a much smaller place, they were sure to be noticed. Was Axel checking to

see if Nick was indeed alone? A little way up the road, which appeared to lead to a place

called Liskeard, Tequila pulled over on the hard shoulder and waited for a gap in traffic. A

quick U-turn later, and then back down to the roundabout with the restaurant. Luck was on

their side. The other side of the road, half-hidden behind trees thick with summer greenness,

lay a large clothing store, complete with its own restaurant and large car park. They left the

bike close to the exit; it was still well hidden, thanks to the lush vegetation. Tequila gave

Maxi a wodge of cash and the strict instruction to fully clothe herself as fast as possible,

preferably in dark colours and get some sensible shoes, too. Then, she crossed the busy road

boldly, ignoring the stares her biker outfit attracted.

She stepped through the last line of bushes at a crouch, and then sat down on the grass,

deep in the shadows, to better survey the scene. She spotted Nick’s van and Jesse’s Touareg

quite close together, by the entrance into the diner. Just as she was deciding what to do,

Tequila noticed a skinny man in a kitchen helper’s outfit wandering through a side door. He

peered up and down the car park, but didn’t spot her. He loped back in through the door and,

a few seconds later, he emerged again carrying a grey canvas bag, which he slung into the

back of Nick’s van. A grey canvas bag, just like the one in the back of Axel’s gold Jaguar. A

bag that looked full of angular, heavy objects. Tequila didn’t need X-ray vision to work out

what was in it.

They were close, now. You don’t provide weapons until you know they’re going to be

needed. Considering the time of day, and allowing for reconnaissance, she estimated the

target to be somewhere, around seven hours’ worth of travel to the west. There would be no

point stopping here, on the main road into Cornwall, if you were going to London or

Manchester or Scotland. The target was in Cornwall. And so was Cameron. If that bag was

the same one Axel carried – and it looked like it was – then Axel had already been here and

dropped it off. And Axel would not jeopardise the mission by losing sight of the best way to

blackmail Nick into submission. Axel must still have Cameron. Somewhere, west of here.

Quick as a flash, Tequila darted back to the bike, hoping Maxi was a quick shopper.

Across the road, in his van, Nick’s world imploded.


At six twenty-eight pm a gold Jaguar stopped at the red and white barrier in the access

track to the tiny village of Treworley Downs. There were only twenty-or-so houses scattered

along the narrow lanes twisting around the reservoir, and half of these were holiday homes,

still waiting for full summer season. By far the biggest, High Moor was an exquisite

Georgian manor house, set in the middle of a private, picturesque wooded hillside. The

woods covered approximately four of the eighteen acres belonging to the property. The rest

was fields, not used for any purpose other than to provide sanctuary to the plentiful wildlife.

Judge Whitbourne-Philips and his wife had, once upon a time, rented out some of the land

for use as caravan parking during the summer months, but that stopped when the Judge

retired. He liked the tranquillity his vast property afforded him and moreover, he hated

visitors. Even when the visitors were only knocking on the door to pay their dues for the use

of the land. He didn’t need the money, but he wouldn’t let them use the land for free because

that set a bad precedent, and as a man of law, he was well aware of that.

That fateful day, a number of assorted vehicles started to assemble on the pitch previously

used for caravan parking. If anyone noticed, they didn’t question it. At worst, maybe some

adventurers had decided to use the Judge’s land without his express permission. No one was

going to risk disturbing the old man, just to check if he knew; it was easier to let the

holidaymakers move on when they’d had their fill of sun, sea and Cornish pasties. At best,

maybe the Judge had started renting his land again.

Since ten o’clock that morning, the Road Ahead Closed sign could be seen on the side of

the lane, and the barrier lifted only once for access and then again for a handful of choice

vehicles, all of which congregated onto the caravan field.

The hedges around the field had been allowed to grow wild, and there was a farm gate

against which a beefy looking man leaned, chain-smoking and muttering into a mobile phone

from time to time. He wasn’t needed; no one even looked his way.

At six thirty the beefy man, answering to the name of Elton, pulled the gates back to

allow a gold Jaguar into the field. As the Jag slowed carefully to a stop, the door of the

campervan popped open, and a hand motioned Axel inside.

“What’s left to do?” Axel asked, hefting his solid frame through the narrow campervan


“Secure the kid – that’s Dipper’s job – and then go say ‘hi’ to the Judge and his missus.”


“They’ve already paid a visit early morning. Enquired about the road works, but left soon

after. Stayed away since.”

“You think they know something?” Axel’s brow crumpled in worry.

“Even if they do, our contact, Reed, will lose the evidence and tangle the leads. No worry

there; this guy is tried and tested. Dollar’s got too much on him. He can’t get out. Not that he

wants to. I hear he’s building up a nice nest egg for early retirement.” A low chuckle rumbled

out of his throat. “Good luck to him. He knows too much to retire.”

Axel could not repress a shudder.

“Listen, Nigel –”

“Don’t say my name,” Nigel interrupted. “I’m known as ‘Buzzard’.”

“Buzzard,” Axel amended, “I’m a bit concerned about my men... and yours, for that


“Huh? How come?” Buzzard looked at Axel enquiringly.

“They’re not safe,” Axel elaborated. “I’ve already dealt with one. Don’t worry, it’s nice

and tidy, he can’t be tracked back to me,” he explained when he saw Buzzard’s wary

expression. “But there’s still Geoff and Jesse, and your team of... how many are there? Six?”

“Five.” Buzzard looked at the floor for a moment, deliberating. “I’ll take care of them.

They’re all expendable. Do you need them for after?”

“No, I’ll feel much better when it’s just you and me. Your men I don’t know from Adam,

and they’ve seen too much. I don’t want to go through plastic surgery at my age. Geoff

Turner I don’t know well enough to trust. In fact, Dollar sort of pushed him onto me – what if

he came with a hidden agenda? And Jesse’s a coward – any trace of a threat and he’ll go hide

somewhere. Not that Dollar couldn’t find him, but it would be more trouble than it’s worth.”

Buzzard smiled. “It would be fun chasing him down, though.”

“Yeah. If you haven’t got anything better to do. I just want to go home, rest a while.”

“No problem, big man. I’ll get it done.” Axel sighed, reassured. “What about our killer, is

he ready?” Buzzard threw out of the blue.

“He’d better be. The link-up flowed without a hitch. He has all the necessary information,

and the weapons. Just no ammunition yet. He’ll be picking that up here in...” Axel checked

his watch, “... in about two and a quarter hours. We can leave it with your man at the gate.”

“Think he’ll do it?”

“Doesn’t have a choice. Would you risk your only child’s life?”

“Wouldn’t know. I’m wise enough to keep away from such commitments. You?”

“I don’t have kids, either. Too noisy for me.”

As if to reinforce his words, Cameron started wailing.

“Shut up.” Buzzard shouted towards him. The wails didn’t cease. “Shut up or I’ll make

you,” he threatened. At that, the wails subsided, but broken sobs still emitted from under a

blanket at the back of the campervan.

Axel covered up his ears, making a face, then pulled out his phone.

“Let’s ring daddy, shall we?”

Cameron sobbed louder. “Daddy...”

“I’ll let you get back to daddy later tonight. But until then you’ll have to be quiet. You


“Yeah,” Cameron whimpered, rubbing his eyes with his toy giraffe.

Axel finished dialling.

“Hunter.” He said the name with relish in his voice.

“Put him on speakerphone,” Buzzard whispered.

Axel pressed the button.

“... just can’t do that,” came Nick’s strangled voice.

“What can’t you do?” Buzzard asked roughly.

“Who’s that?” Nick asked after a moment of silence.

“Fairy godmother,” Buzzard answered joyfully. “Or the big, bad wolf. I can never work

out which – I have a... what do you call it... split personality disorder.” He laughed.

Nick was quiet.

“Still there, Hunter?” Buzzard goaded.

“Axel, please, listen to me. You must understand. These people looked after me. They

gave me a home. They raised me like their own.”

“My heart breaks,” Buzzard chortled.

Although he heard Buzzard’s comment, Nick continued to plead, undeterred. “Anyone

else. Anyone but them. Please. They’re not even the ones you’re after, are they? If it’s just a

test to see if I’ll do it, then just pick someone else. You know I’ll do it, you’ve got my son.”

“Anyone?” Buzzard took a couple of steps towards Cameron. “Really?”

“Please,” was all that Nick could say.

Cameron’s shrieks suddenly filled the air.

“Daddy. Ow... Make him stop, daddy,” Cameron shrieked again, at the top of his voice.

“Cameron? Axel, stop hurting my son,” Nick shouted down the phone.

“Stop? Oh, but I was having fun... But I can stop your son’s wailing allright, ” Buzzard’s

voice was smooth with evil. He drew out a gun and a silencer. Cameron was crying so hard,

he started hiccupping.

“No,” Axel’s voice came out in little more than a whisper. “Don’t do it.” There would

have been more life in a drifting leaf.

Buzzard winked at Axel while screwing the silencer. Then he pointed it at Cameron. He

cocked it. Cameron stared at the gun, then started to cry louder, his little frame shaking.

“What are you doing?” Nick asked, panic stricken. “Axel, what is he doing?”

No one said anything. Cameron continued to sob.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Nick’s voice was shrill with anguish.

Suddenly, Buzzard lurched towards Cameron and covered his face with his big hand. At

the same time he fired two shots in quick succession into the floor of the van. The shots were

muted, but loud enough for Nick to hear.

“NO,” Nick shrieked. “NO! YOU BASTARDS! NOT MY SON!”

Buzzard took his hand off Cameron’s face and slapped him hard, splitting his lip.

Cameron shrieked with pain, his screams reverberating in the enclosed space once more.

“Oops, I missed,” Buzzard whispered into the phone. “So careless of me.” He sniggered.

“You get the idea, Hunter?”

Nick swallowed hard before he could choke out a single word: “Yes.”

“Good boy,” Buzzard said approvingly. “Glad to make myself understood. See you

soon.” He clicked the phone shut.

Axel slipped the phone back in his pocket, and then proceeded to massage his chest and

left arm unconsciously.

“Now we know he’ll do it. Shush, child, you’re giving me earache. Still,” Buzzard

drawled, looking back to Axel, “we two need to prepare for plan B. Come on. Time to go.”

“Plan B?” Axel repeated numbly. He hadn’t counted on being left alone with this psycho

when he’d asked him to get rid of Jesse and Geoff. Now he wished he could turn back the

clock and ask the others to get rid of Buzzard.

“Watch and learn, big man. Watch and learn.”

18. TIME

The woman moaned quietly and opened her eyes. They wheeled around searching for

something to focus on, but the room was dark and unhelpful. Buzzard looked up at her, a

small smile playing on his lips.

“Awake, now, are you? I didn’t think a small nudge like that would make you fall into

such a deep sleep...” He sniggered and stood up. “It seems I came overprepared. Your

husband is a bit tougher. Though... sadly uncooperative. This is where you come in.” He

winked at her and approached slowly.

“Leave my wife alone,” the old man commanded. His voice, though rough with pain, was

still strong enough to sound impressive.

“Yeah, yeah,” Buzzard waved a hand at him. He spoke softly, unhurried, as if he was

explaining the times table to a child. “I know. You said that before. Trouble is, I suffer from

selective hearing. I can only hear what I want. Plus, there are certain words that bring me out

in a rash. You know, the negative kind. Words like ‘no’ and ‘never’ and the like. And when I

come out in a rash, I get a touch aggressive.” His right hand came out and the horsewhip he

held caught the woman across her neck and face. Blood spurted out of her nose and started to

seep out of her new wound.

“Felicity, I’m so sorry,” the old man whispered. “So, so sorry.” She groaned quietly, but

didn’t scream. She looked like she was fighting for breath.

Buzzard brought his hands up in front of him, the picture of compassion. “Oh,” he

muttered, “this is so moving. So sad that she would have to suffer for your stubbornness.” He

sighed. “Maybe if I gave you a few minutes together. Yeah? Would you like that? See? I’m

not a heartless monster, really. Besides, I have a little surprise to arrange for you.”

He whipped her once more across the chest before he turned and skipped lightly out of

the room, leaving the couple alone in the dark.

She muffled her sobs and struggled to calm her breathing. The old man started to cry

quietly in his chair.

“Shush. Don’t cry, my darling. It can’t last much longer.” He let out a loud sob. “What is

he after?” Felicity whispered quietly again, trying to distract him. She pulled at the cords

binding her wrists, but they were taut, unyielding. She was spread eagled against the bedroom

wall, the bed pushed roughly aside, towards the bay window. She couldn’t see the ends of the

cords, but it felt like they ended up in the top corners of the wall. She tried to shuffle her feet,

but they were tied, too, and she lost her balance. It took a little struggle to get back straight,

but eventually she managed. She couldn’t see her husband.

“He wants me to sign over the deeds to the house. And some other paperwork, probably a

will. I don’t know... Or it could go deeper. I thought that book was forgotten...”

“Oh, Randolph.”

“I would sign anything, do anything, if I thought that he would leave us alive. But there’s

this lunatic light in his eyes... I know he’ll kill us the moment I put pen to paper. I was trying

to delay him... But you don’t look like you’ll last till morning...”

“We’ve got to try. And if I don’t... then, I’ll see you on the other side, dear. I love you.”

“Felicity,” he choked out and another sob ripped through his chest. Then, after a moment,

a little more composed. “I love you, too.”


Just past St Austell Maxi and Tequila watched from the supermarket car park as Nick and

Jesse drove on towards Truro. The layers of clouds had overlapped to form a thick quilt

threatening a downpour. The sky had darkened enough to make it look like night-time


“There they are. Let’s go.” Then, under her breath, “I wish I had a better idea of where

they’re heading, but I can’t think of any likely targets in the area. What are they playing at?”

She sounded frustrated.

“The only people I can think of, related to Nick, in this area are his foster parents. But I

can’t imagine that’ll be a lot of help,” Maxi shrugged.

“His foster parents? You mean the High Court Judge?”

Maxi nodded. “I don’t know much about them, just that Nick is quite attached. He wishes

he could have been a better son for them.”

“Do you know where they live?”

“No. We’ve never visited. I think Nick thought his father might be able to smell the

criminal in him and have him arrested.” Maxi grinned. “He didn’t want me to be a single

mum and Cameron to grow up alone, I guess. It would have been nice to meet them. And see

the house and gardens – it sounded quite grand. I’ve never even seen a picture.”

“Hm. I have a really bad feeling about this,” Tequila mumbled. “Come on, are you

holding on tight? Let’s get going.”

The bike melted discreetly into the traffic and kept behind a delivery van until the turnoff

to the reservoir. Where Nick and Jesse turned north, Tequila rode on west and took the next

right turn, a narrow lane that led to a country inn, The Witches’ Cauldron.

“Nothing like a good, traditional Cornish welcome,” she muttered as she slowed to a stop

and then motioned to Maxi to get off. “We’ll have to stash the bike somewhere, we’ll be too

conspicuous on it. Now, are those trainers comfortable enough for a long trek?”

“They feel awful, actually. It was the best I could do,” she explained in a defensive tone

when she saw Tequila’s exasperated expression. “Honestly. You should have seen the

selection: only men’s golfing gear and a few Italian-made ladies’ fashions. The rest of the

place was full of toiletries and vanilla fudge. A nightmare. It feels so wrong wearing men’s

golf shoes and trousers. You should have seen the looks they gave me when I walked out of

the Ladies’ in my new outfit.”

“Well, sorry we didn’t have time for Laura Ashley,” Tequila replied dryly.

“I know, I know. I didn’t say anything, did I? Just don’t have a go at me when I start

limping. It won’t slow me down.”

“Hmm,” Tequila sighed. “Don’t think I’ll make allowances. If necessary, I’ll tie you up to

a tree and go alone.”

Maxi’s expression was murderous when she threatened, “I’d like to see you try!”

Tequila kept quiet, but she couldn’t help the smile pulling up the corners of her mouth.

This wilder side to Maxi, more like a cornered tigress than a sweet English rose, must have

played a big part in the attraction Nick felt for her. It would have complemented his feral

instincts perfectly. Thoughts of Nick kept pulling her forward at a quick, determined pace,

with Maxi stumbling along beside her.

Soon, they vaulted over a low stone wall smothered in brambles and landed in the lane

down which they’d seen Nick disappear. They were on the right track.

Keeping close to the edge, the two dark silhouettes made it to the sign warning the road

ahead was closed, and then the trench across the lane. There was no metal sheet laid over it

now, no way to drive over, unless you brought your own ‘bridge’ with you.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Maxi asked in a worried tone.

“You bet. And then some.”

“Nick wouldn’t be able to drive back out again, with or without Cameron, unless he

suspects foul play. But would he?”

Tequila snorted quietly. “Oh, he would. He’s not stupid. Question is – in his state of

mind, does he care?”

Maxi’s sudden intake of breath reminded Tequila that she was not speaking to a battlehardened

mercenary. She immediately set to make it better.

“Hey. No worrying about Nick, now. He’s a big boy, he knows what he’s doing. We

should concentrate on getting Cameron out, and then we’ll see what else we can do.”

“Cameron,” squeaked Maxi.

“Right. Now, keep right behind me and try to be quiet.”

For a while, the two women walked in silence.

“You aren’t really going to tie me to a tree, are you?” Maxi whispered.

“No. I was just making a point.” Tequila smiled in the darkness, though she knew Maxi

couldn’t see her smile.

“Good,” Maxi whispered back. “I wasn’t sure I should tell you, but I guess it’s best you

know. My feet are killing me.”

Tequila opened her mouth to serve back an appropriate retort, but at that moment

something else caught her attention. She reached back to catch Maxi’s wrist. Maxi struggled,

thinking that Tequila was indeed going to put her plan into action, and rid herself of such a

useless companion.

“No,” Maxi started.

“Shh,” Tequila turned back to Maxi, covering her mouth with a black leather-clad hand.

“Shut up. I think we found them.” Maxi’s eyes scrambled from dark shadow to dark shadow,

trying to see what Tequila had seen. “There,” Tequila pointed, releasing Maxi. “Can you see

that taller shape, behind the gate?”

“Is that... a campervan?”

“We’ll check it out. Only...”

Maxi’s voice was a mere breath, high with anxiety. “Only?”

“I don’t understand why there’s no one else here. No guards. No cars. It’s too quiet.”

Maxi swallowed hard but followed, working extra hard to keep her awkward new shoes

from making a sound. They scaled the wall a little short of the gate, despite the brambles,

because Tequila worried about being too exposed, and then walked purposely towards the

campervan, watching and listening intently all the time. Maxi knocked on the door politely,

while Tequila pressed her back to the van’s wall, looking little more substantial than a


There was no answer. No movement inside, no snores, not even breathing. Gingerly,

Maxi opened the door.

“Hello?” she whispered to the darkness.

Tequila burst through the door and rolled onto the floor. She clicked on a small torch, but

the narrow shaft of light found nothing threatening. Maxi climbed in and started pulling

blankets aside, looking, sniffing.

“He was here,” she declared, her nostrils flared. “Cameron. I can smell him.”

“You sure it’s not just old socks?”

“I would know my baby’s smell anywhere.”

“Well, he’s not here now,” Tequila observed unnecessarily, switching off her light.

“They must have hidden him somewhere else.” Maxi’s breathing hitched and broke.

“Or Nick might have got him already,” Tequila offered.

“You think so?” Maxi sounded hopeful.

“No. Not really.” Tequila’s voice was hard and cold. “I think you’re right – they moved

him. But there would have been no need to do so if they were comfortable here. So,

something upset the peace.”

“Maybe the police have caught up to them,” Maxi said, her voice hopeful again.

“Nick wouldn’t have said anything to the police. Not if he wanted to find Cameron alive.

No. My guess is that all this,” she gestured at the dark shadows around her,” all this was

caused by him. By Nick, I mean.” Maxi kept quiet, not daring to interrupt Tequila’s spoken

thoughts. “He did something. Said something or saw something that made them worried, so

they moved camp.”

“Moved where?” Maxi asked quietly, sounding disheartened.

Tequila sighed. “Looks like we’ll have to find out the hard way.” And she led the way

back out to the gate.


The comfortable Astra was flying. At the speed limit, no more, no less. Over the Tamar

Bridge and pointing west, snaking through the sparse late night traffic as if it were some

weird dodge ball game with odd, motor vehicle rules, it moved on steadily and without

incident. Only the Spartan interior would lead one to think of it as a company car.

Detective Chief Inspector Newton turned his head over to the young man sitting next to

him and spoke in a belligerent voice.

“What’s with the smug smile, Marsh? Think you could do better?”

Marsh shrugged his shoulders, but didn’t otherwise acknowledge the verbal poke in the

ribs. He’d only known Newton for about thirty-six hours, but that time had been enough to

ascertain that the dog was not as bad as the bark, and definitely meant well. So he would treat

it all as normal conversation, and pretend he was speaking to a polite person.

“Go on then,” Newton insisted. “Let’s hear it. What are you thinking?”

“I was just wondering why you haven’t told anyone where we’re going, sir. Not that I

mind,” Marsh hastened to add. “I quite like a little variety in my day’s work. Photocopying

can get boring after the first six hours.”

Newton snorted and shot out around a tractor and back in again expertly.

“Yeah, but there’s nothing dangerous lurking behind a photocopier. It’s much safer than

chasing criminals across the country.”

“You never know,” Marsh played along. “What if you get your tie caught in the paper

drawer? You could end up with yearly projections tattooed on your face for everyone to see.

The way they stand at the moment, that could be an embarrassing experience.”

Newton laughed. Marsh waited for his laugh to die down before asking again.

“Seriously, sir. I don’t get it. If we’re going to crash some criminal gang, surely we

should let someone know, fill some forms, get some back-up... And if not, then why couldn’t

we ask someone from a local police station to do what we’re doing now?”

Newton’s face sobered up completely by the time Marsh finished, and then he spoke in a

quiet, sure voice.

“Marsh, I don’t want to spoil your rosy view of life. But don’t you for one minute think

that there aren’t any bad apples in every cart. And that includes the ones marked ‘police

force’. We’re going to pay Judge Whitbourne-Philips a visit tonight because I believe he is in

danger. The reasons are multiple and complex, as you well know. By the time I’ve filled in

all the forms and attended all the meetings with the relevant people, the man I am trying to

protect could get hurt. I’ve already organised a visit from the local station, but the response I

got was so vague and worthless, it was clear they’re not interested. Then, we also have Nick

Hunter and his boy. And possibly his wife, too. Someone tried to set him up for the murder of

that Miriam girl, the one the Judge and his wife adopted. Can’t you see? It goes back to them,

again. And it bothers me that Hunter should be so convinced that he saw his wife die, when

she couldn’t possibly have been there. She’s not there, the kid’s not there and their marriage

seems perfect. I don’t believe in perfect, Marsh. If my nose leads me right, we’re going to trip

over Nick Hunter in the very, very near future.”

Marsh scowled at the floor. “And if we’re wrong?”

Newton laughed again. “You mean, if I’m wrong. It’s not your neck on the line,

regardless. And I’ll be fine, I always land on my feet. I’ve thought about that. We’ll just drive

to the house and have a little look. If everything is nice and quiet, we ask the Judge and his

wife a few questions about the children they fostered, maybe ask to see some pictures... We

could keep going like that for a fair few hours.”

“At this time of night? Wouldn’t that look a bit suspicious?”

“No. I didn’t mean right now, as soon as we arrive. First thing in the morning. For now,

we’ll just keep watch and wait.”


Nick moved in slow motion. He felt like he was ambling through treacle, his mind as

gluey as his muscles. There was no will left in him, no resistance. He didn’t see. He didn’t

feel. He didn’t hear.

The atrocity he had committed to perform had sapped the last trace of energy out of him.

He wasn’t a person anymore – he was a husk.

He kept hoping, right up to the last minute, he kept wishing and hoping that something

could be done, that he could find a way to prevent all this pointless bloodshed. He didn’t

want to kill anymore. He could see it all now, the burden of blood on his hands – it was

weighing him down, cloying his thoughts and setting like molten lead around his ankles.

Today would be the last day, the last time. He would do what it took to make Cameron

safe, he would make sure there was no one left to sniff their trail and he would build a new

life for his son, somewhere far away from here. Somewhere with no memories and no

nightmares. Because he knew the nightmares would only get worse.

How many more would die tonight? There was so much darkness around him, waiting to

invade his mind, so many souls to haunt his dreams. Maxi – sweet and innocent, perfect to

her last breath. The gang members who must die tonight because he couldn’t risk leaving

them alive. And... He gulped when the faces of the only parents he knew floated in front of

his eyes, blurring his vision. Felicity and Randolph. He’d never called them ‘mum’ and ‘dad’.

Would they ever forgive him? Would he ever forgive himself? He knew he never would.

What could he do, how could he even begin to justify doing what must be done now?

Would he at least be allowed to shoot from the shadows, so his victims wouldn’t get the

chance to see what’s coming and feel the fear? So they wouldn’t glimpse their killer?

Knowing the way Dollar worked, that was unlikely. They would love to humiliate him, to rub

it in. They’d want him to stand in front of Randolph and Felicity and stare into their eyes as

he pulled the trigger.

At least in was in his power to make it quick. As quick and painless as he could manage.

He would have to say something, to explain how sorry he was, to tell them about Maxi’s

death and how Cameron’s life was in danger...

But how could he do that? What words could he use? Sorry I’ve kept away for so long. I

wanted to visit, but it was never the right time. I’m here now. I’ve got to kill you, to save my

son. No hard feelings, hey?

So far, he had done exactly what he was told. Cameron’s screams and the gunshots

convinced him there was no way around it. Up until now, his son had merely been hurt, but

his life could end in a split second, faster than lightning. Nick couldn’t bear that thought. So

he’d behaved. He had driven to the farm gates. He had stopped and he’d allowed them to

search the van. He’d spread the weapons on the seat beside him, and chosen the semiautomatic

rifle and a long-bladed dagger. He’d also taken the night vision goggles – more a

gut feeling than deliberate judgement. Earlier, whilst driving, he’d hidden Tequila’s dagger in

the back rest and Cameron’s tracker device in the lining of the passenger seat. One last glance

at it had told him he was very, very close to him. He was heading the right way. He’d done

all that on autopilot.

Nick made a conscious effort not to think, now. How could he allow himself to think,

when thinking brought back the nightmarish shrieks, Cameron’s plea... Make him stop,

daddy! Make him stop! Fire raging through his brain, behind his closed eyelids, Maxi smiling

and waving. Make it stop! He felt like shouting it aloud himself.

When he’d asked to see Cameron, Axel glanced back at the campervan with an

uncomfortable expression on his face and answered quickly that Cameron was close, just out

of the way. But his voice shook slightly.

“I need to know that my son is safe,” Nick had insisted. He stared at the campervan,

realising Cameron wouldn’t be that close. They knew what he was capable of and they

wouldn’t risk it. Cameron would be hidden somewhere out of sight, probably watched over

by the psycho whose voice he’d heard earlier on the phone, the one who’d hurt him and fired

the shots.

“He is safe. For now,” Axel whispered the last two words. “You’ll have to trust me on


“Trust you...” Nick started to say. And then he heard the double meaning. What was Axel

trying to say? Was that a warning? What happened to make a bully and a killer look afraid?

There really was no doubt about that – Axel looked positively terrified.

Nick tried to think of the possibilities. He believed Axel when he said that Cameron was

safe. The critical factor here was the ‘For now’. What did Axel know that would happen

later? That could change things? Nick took a minute to look around himself, really look. And

though the details didn’t prove instantly helpful, his insides shuddered awake. The treacle

changed, morphed into molten lava. It wasn’t cloying his mind anymore. His limbs were

jolting free. The rage he’d kept buried, smothered beneath the terror of losing Cameron as

well – his last piece of normality, his last solid tie to Maxi – was blazing freely now. Feeding

on itself, fire rising out of fire, the rage sharpened his focus until it hurt to keep it tethered

inside him, where no one could see it.

But Axel did see it. He took a couple of steps back, then caught himself and whispered to

him again. “Don’t play with them. For all your sakes, don’t play with fire.”

It took a good few minutes, walking up that lane. Nick kept turning Axel’s words around

and around in his mind. He needed to fight the confusion, he needed to stay sharp. Still,

childhood memories mingled with snapshots of other dusty lanes in Nick’s mind. Death then,

and more death here, now. The familiar and the dreaded, all mixed up and twisted together,

like a tornado of thoughts. They were getting more defined, less hazy now. Scenarios, ideas,

clear thoughts. Bright and sharp and icy, a flurry of needle-sharp icicle-thoughts whipped

faster and faster, until there was no way to catch hold of one without being shredded to

ribbons by the others.

The van was whining quietly behind him, Elton, the gate-keeper at the wheel, Axel in the

passenger seat. Nick didn’t mind. He didn’t care about the car and he’d far rather walk than

drive. He’d far rather sail than walk, but that couldn’t be helped yet. Walking helped sort out

his thoughts, and he was grateful for that. A little structure to whatever was happening inside

his head would be welcome. Nick took a few deep breaths, willing the cool night air to

penetrate every forgotten fragment of his body. A little calmer, he began to plot.

First, he had to accept that Cameron was fine. His intuition was rarely wrong. But what if

it was wrong tonight? What if, because of his so badly misplaced trust, his son would die


Cameron is fine. Cameron is fine. Nick chanted the words to himself, pushing the

negative thoughts to the back of his mind. He needed to believe in one hard fact. One thing to

form the base, the point from which he could go on. So, assuming that Cameron was fine,

what should be his next step? Would he be able to avoid hurting Felicity and Randolph, the

two innocent people who had been unlucky enough to be linked to him before all of this

started? They had parted company after only ten short years, before Nick even knew what he

would become. Their only fault, as far as Nick could see, was that they had given him a home

when he was eight and loved him. Maybe Randolph not quite so much, but Felicity for sure.

No one could doubt a love as open and unconditional as hers. She was made to love people.

Like some people are made to dance, or sing, or act, Felicity was made to love and care.

So, he would try to leave her for last. See if the opportunity arose to spare her. But then

Randolph, though more severe, less likely to allow for human weakness and character flaws,

was no less innocent than his wife. What could he have done to deserve this? Was there a

way to save him, too?

Nick sighed and tried a different track. How many people were there, standing in his

way? How many skittles would he have to topple before he could get to the prize? He’d seen

the bloke on the gate, Elton, and he knew Jesse was here, somewhere. Then, there must have

been someone else around, to look after Cameron when Axel was busy. The psycho, maybe.

And Tequila. So, five then? At least five. He could deal with five. Five was nothing; he’d

been in deeper than this and came out on top. But if they had Tequila, she could advise them,

she could tell them a lot about his way of doing things. That would make things a little more


High Moor came into view, solid and resplendent, looking just as distant and unfriendly

as always, as intimidating as it had looked to him when he’d been a scrawny eight-year old.

There were three cars parked in the front, but Nick did not turn to check if he could recognise

them. His gaze fell on the two men standing in the doorway, blocking his way. They looked

at him for a moment, and then past him, down the lane. Seven, he amended the numbers in

his head. How many more were there?

Nick took the few steps to the entrance, and the two men on the door drew out guns and

pointed them at him in one fluid motion. Axel got out of the van grunting and approached


“It’s ok, guys. This is Nick Hunter. Buzzard is expecting him.”

The two stepped aside and Axel led the way into the grand hall. Nick took a moment to

look around and reminisce. He hadn’t seen the house since the day before his eighteenth

birthday, but the décor hadn’t changed at all, it seemed. Same carpet runner from the door to

the stairs and even the same pattern wallpaper on the walls – this one must have been

changed, but replaced with an identical one. Nick wondered idly if Felicity had a stash of

identical wallpaper rolls in the cellar, or maybe Randolph had his own personal line at one of

his old London printers. Whichever way, High Moor was certainly a house where time stood


As Axel led the way upstairs to the bedrooms Nick glanced back to the front door. The

two that had barred his way in were now busy dragging in crates full of what looked like old

plastic containers that might have, at some point in their lives, housed some sort of industrial

cleaner, or maybe weed killer. Now they smelled strongly of petrol.

It was easy to work out where this was going. Nick’s stomach churned at the thought and

he said a quick, silent goodbye to the place that had afforded him sanctuary, however fraught,

for the best part of ten years. When Axel had told him earlier that there was yet another small

change to the plan and Buzzard was waiting for them at the house, Nick wondered if they’d

merely taken it over like some makeshift headquarters. Had probably locked Felicity and

Randolph in a room, somewhere, and were searching the house for hidden treasure. Some of

the paintings in the hall were worth more than the house and grounds put together. But now,

watching Elton splash petrol carelessly around the floor and walls downstairs made it final.

They didn’t want the house. Nick was supposed to kill its owners and these mercenaries were

ready to burn it down. For the first time since he had heard Maxi saying Dollar’s name Nick

wondered if he’d merely scratched the surface of what was being set up here. Here was just

the beginning. Here was so insignificant that loss of a few lives was nothing, meant nothing

in the great scheme of things.

If this was the beginning, then they had no intention of returning Cameron to him tonight.

A ball of razor wire twisted uncomfortably in Nick’s stomach as he realised this was not a

scenario he was prepared for. He’d counted on being able to squeeze his son in his arms in a

tight hug within mere hours, minutes maybe. But if there was more to come, they certainly

intended to use him; there would be no point to putting this amount of effort into ensnaring

him if all they wanted was one solitary hit and maybe a little fun along the way. And they

would need to keep hold of Cameron – alive – so that they could control him. It would have

been too dangerous to keep the child locked up in one of the many rooms in High Moor, or

even in the boot of one of the getaway cars; they wouldn’t risk it. Cameron was not around.

Without the tracker, Nick couldn’t be certain, but his logic seemed right.

So then, he would have to clean up here first – his eyes swept the house again, checking

for more people – before he could get the tracker out of the van and find Cameron. Would he

be guarded? One man or two? No matter. The way he felt right now, they would be no

obstacle at all.

Axel knocked at the master bedroom door, and then confirmed who they were. The door

opened without a noise to reveal nothing but billowing waves of darkness. Axel motioned for

Nick to enter and then reached for the handle.

“When Dipper and Valentino show up, send them up here, big man,” a voice said, from

the depth of the darkness. Nick recognised it immediately as the one who had hurt Cameron

earlier that evening. The one who had fired the muffled shots.

“Will do,” Axel responded meekly, and then the door closed out the last glimmer of light.


Blinded by the sudden change from the brilliance of the entrance hall to complete

darkness, Nick blinked furiously, willing his eyes to adjust. He could just about distinguish

shadows now, and he turned his head to the source of the voice that issued the instruction –

Buzzard, Axel had called him.

“Look away,” Buzzard ordered, “or she gets it.”

Nick couldn’t make sense of the threat. Who would get it? Was there someone else in

here? He looked away nevertheless, down to the floor, and then to his right. There was a

slight form against the wall there, a human shape stretched at an unnatural angle, almost like

it was crucified. His stomach heaved and he swallowed back bile.

“Felicity?” he mumbled, almost inaudibly.

The answering reply came from the other side of the room, though, deep into the

shadows. “Nick? Is that you, son?”

Randolph’s voice was just as deep and strong as always. Age had not altered the sure

timbre of the Judge in him. Authority still rang loud, clear and accusing in every syllable he


Nick was breathing harder now. He willed his mouth to move, his frozen lips to say the

words that would prove to Randolph what he had always suspected about him: that he was

bad, evil, rotten to the core. Scum of society, the lowest class, a criminal.

Instead, all he could say was “Randolph?” in a high whisper, feeling like a child again,

expecting harsh censure or punishment for some unacceptable deed he might have done, or

mentioned, or merely thought of.

“Nick,” Randolph’s voice was softer now. “I’m so pleased you’ve come back.”

“It’s good to be back,” Nick replied in less than a whisper.

“Is it true? What this man is saying? Is it true? Are you here to kill me?”

Nick couldn’t speak. He wished there was a way to disappear, to sink right through the

floorboards out of sight, to drop dead there and then, before he would be forced to hurt them.

There was a trace of badly concealed pain in Randolph’s voice when he spoke again.

“I guessed that much. I won’t blame you, son. But can you at least tell me why?”

After a long moment, Nick answered, in a hollow voice. “They’ve got my son.”

“Ah,” came the reply. “I understand the reason why you shall have to do it. But I still

wonder why they’ve chosen you. Who are they, son? Friends of yours? Why you?”

“No. Not friends.” Nick scowled in the darkness, not daring to elaborate. He didn’t want

to lie to Randolph, not now, knowing he didn’t have that long to live. And yet, he could

hardly say ‘I’m good at my job. Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing.”

“Ok, enough of the pleasantries, guys. You’ve said hello, now let’s get down to

business.” Buzzard’s voice scratched and irritated. Nick’s muscles coiled, ready to lash out at

him. “Oh, no, you don’t,” the voice pre-empted Nick’s reaction. “All I need to do is press this

button.” Nick could distinguish a gloved hand clutching a small remote.

“I would never risk my son’s life, son. Do what you have to do. I’ve lived long enough.”

Randolph sounded accepting, resigned but not regretful. “I just wish I could spare Felicity. I

feel responsible for her fate – that’s a huge weight to carry.”

Buzzard started laughing, a maniacal laugh that made the walls reverberate. Suddenly, he

stopped. The room rang with the silence.

“You’ve changed your mind, then, Mr. Judge?” Buzzard observed condescendingly. “Are

you ready to sign the papers?”

“I’ll trade that and all I own for the life of my wife.”

Nick swivelled to look back at the unconscious form slumped against the wall.

“Stay where you are,” Buzzard warned. Then he mumbled into his phone. “Get me the

papers,” he ordered.

“What did you do to her?” Nick asked in a tight voice. Buzzard didn’t answer.

Two breaths later, the door opened to allow Geoff in. Nick had his back to the door.

Before he could turn around, though, Buzzard warned: “I wouldn’t. I really do not need her

alive at all.” Nick became a statue.

To Geoff, he said: “Use your torch. Careful where it’s pointing.” To Nick: “Look down.

Real down. Chin on the chest.”

Nick did as he was told. He could sense a lessening of darkness by the back wall and then

heard pen scratching paper. Every now and then, Geoff would point out a place Randolph had

missed. “Here,” he would say, “and here.” When they were done, Geoff brought the papers

back to Buzzard.

“You need to witness,” Buzzard said in a disinterested tone, “so no one can doubt that

Judge Whitbourne-Philips signed these of his own free will.” Some acid leaked into his voice

when he pronounced the Judge’s name.

Geoff knelt down without a word and rested the papers on his knee, so he could fill in the

witness section. What happened next took them all by surprise.

As soon as Geoff lifted pen from paper, Buzzard snatched them from his grasp. With his

other hand, in the same motion, he fired two shots in quick succession. Geoff hadn’t even had

the chance to get back to his feet. He slumped forward, hitting the floor like a sack of


Nick stared at the gaping hole at the back of Geoff’s skull and swallowed hard. He could

taste gunpowder on the back of his throat. Obviously, Buzzard did not want witnesses. Which

meant that no one in this room would make it out alive. Not Randolph, not Felicity, not even

himself. Even if they did keep him alive for whatever they had planned to do next, they

would undoubtedly kill him, in the end. And if Cameron survived this ordeal, he would end

up in care, just like his father had. The unfairness of his son’s fate brought a reddish tinge to

Nick’s vision. It was all he could do, to lock his muscles so that he wouldn’t spring at

Buzzard’s throat.

And then he realised there was no reason not to. With the gun in his right hand and the

left still clutching papers, he was vulnerable. Whatever button Buzzard needed to press in

order to obliterate Cameron, he couldn’t reach it at this exact moment. Any sound of a shot,

apart from the one emitted by Buzzard’s own gun, was sure to have the others running up the

stairs to his aid, but if he managed to keep it quiet...

Nick launched himself at Buzzard, hitting him hard in his chest with his left shoulder.

Buzzard grunted but did not fall. The butt of his gun connected painfully with the side of

Nick’s head. A wave of nausea brought Nick to his knees, but he knew he needed to keep

going, so he shoved hard towards Buzzard with the rifle. He felt it connect with something

soft, heard a grunt and then Buzzard backed up to the wall.

Still seeing stars, Nick lurched to his feet and swung a left uppercut at Buzzard, but

somehow managed to hit something sharp and hard instead. Buzzard was flailing, trying to

stay upright. Nick dropped his rifle and grabbed Buzzard’s right hand, the one with the gun.

Finally letting go of the papers, Buzzard struggled to deflect the path his gun had taken,

but Nick was in control now. The gun was pointing at Buzzard’s chest. Nick locked his teeth

and squeezed the trigger, once.


The small pantry window creaked open and the two lithe figures slipped in one after the

other. The second one tripped over a small stool, and then some empty pickle jars which

rolled down the floor and stopped at the door.

Tequila listened intently, but there was no sound the other side. They creaked the door

open, and then sneaked into the kitchen. Around the island, with its modern bar stools – who

would have thought the Judge had such eclectic tastes, Tequila thought – and past the shiny

fridge-freezer with ice cube maker attachment, and to the door.

They pushed the door gently. It swung quietly on well-oiled hinges to reveal the main

hall. There was a strong smell of petrol coming from that direction. Two men were standing

close to them, at the back of the hall, and there was one more by the front door. Voices were

drifting from upstairs.

Tequila did a quick head count, counting the voices, too – at least eight different people.

“I think you should get out,” she whispered, turning halfway towards Maxi. “It’s too

dangerous for you in here.”

“Not a chance,” Maxi hissed back at her.

“If I get you in trouble, if I let you get hurt... Nick would be sure to string me by the balls.

If I had any.”

“It’s my choice. I’ve got to go find my son.” Maxi started for the door.

“Whoa. Where do you think you’re going?” Tequila dragged her back. “Wait a minute.

Let’s think of a plan.”

“We have time for that?”

“Just something simple,” Tequila whispered. “If you walk out of here, you’ll be seen. We

could do with taking a few of them out first.”

“Take them out?” Maxi asked, anxiety colouring her voice. “You’re not going to kill

them, are you?”

Tequila rolled her eyes and sighed at Maxi’s naivety. “Not if it bothers you, but what do

you think they’re planning to do to you, by the way?”

Maxi frowned. “I don’t know, but I don’t like killing people. All I want is Cameron back.

And Nick.”

“U-hum,” Tequila retorted sarcastically. “I’m sure those thugs will follow your logic, if

you explain it patiently enough. Now, can we please be serious? Open the door a little. See

those two guys, the ones closer to us? Think you can attract their attention? Quietly, though.

We don’t want the whole gang in here at once.”

Maxi whipped her top off to expose her bra, then opened the door and stepped half out of

the kitchen.

“Anyone for tea, boys?” she called quietly to them.

The two men whirled around at the sound of her voice and looked perplexed in her


“You want to have some fun?” Maxi whispered in a husky voice, running her fingers

along the edge of the soft material and smiling alluringly.

They looked at each other for a split second and then walked to the kitchen without delay;

whatever they may have thought, they were certainly not thinking Maxi was dangerous.

They were right; she wasn’t. But no sooner they’d made it through the door that Tequila

stepped right behind them and crashed two enormous, cast iron pans on their heads. The

noise was much more than they’d expected, and then they made more noise by dragging the

two dead-weights to the pantry and locking the door behind them.

“I’ll take care of that.” Maxi took the key out of the door.

“I wasn’t going to kill them,” Tequila said, eyes wide in astonishment. “Don’t you trust


“Yup. With my life. Just not theirs.”

They both turned their heads up to stare at the ceiling as a loud crash from upstairs sent a

shock through the floorboards. In the same second loud footsteps came rushing their way.

Tequila dragged Maxi down to the floor and behind the island as the door opened. She could

see the heavy set figure of a man limp through the kitchen. His breath was laboured and

irregular. Was that Axel? The man reached for the handle of the pantry door, but the door

wouldn’t open, so he turned around and almost ran out of the kitchen, leaving the door open

behind him.

“What is going on?” Maxi mouthed at Tequila.

Tequila shrugged. She slipped to the door, hugging the walls, and drew the door shut.

“I think we need to wait a minute and see what happens. Here, put your clothes back on.”

Maxi did what she was told and then sat down on a stool. “I think I feel sick.”

“What, now? Can’t it wait?” Tequila turned, expecting to see a smile on Maxi’s face.

But Maxi’s expression was completely blank as she wobbled to her feet and staggered

towards the sink. She stretched her hands weakly ahead of her, but before she could get there

her knees gave way, her body slumped and she smacked her head hard against the corner of

the marble worktop.

21. FIRE

As soon as Buzzard’s body slumped to the floor, Nick turned to Felicity. He drew out the

dagger and carefully sliced through the cords holding her up, supporting her weight at the

same time. Then he lowered her limp body to the floor. He lined up her neck and head, and

felt her pulse.

“She’s alive, thank God,” Nick said, more to himself than Randolph, and he heard

Randolph’s sigh of relief. “Are you hurt, Randolph?”

“No, not really. Think you could untie me, too?”

Nick picked up the tiny torch Geoff had dropped when he’d so suddenly departed life and

shone it around Randolph’s direction. The Judge blinked and pulled away from the light

when it hit his face. He’d been tied to a chair, hands behind his back and each ankle to a chair

leg. His face was streaked with dried blood, and a vivid blue bruise stretched from the corner

of his mouth to his left earlobe. When he stood up to move closer to his wife, he groaned and

held his breath, his lips pressed firmly together.

Nick frowned. “I should get you both to a hospital, but I have a sneaky feeling we’re cut

off from civilization right now.”

“Ah, the road works,” Randolph whispered. “That Constable said something about that,

this morning. Water Company, he said.”

“Yeah, right,” Nick mumbled, working to release the tightness of Felicity’s clothes; most

of them were ripped already and her skin was slick with her own blood. Then his head jerked

up. “What Constable?”

“Pethick, from the local station. He said a Detective – Newton or something – called last

night and asked him to come and check we were all right. Wouldn’t say why. Patronising


“Great,” Nick whispered under his breath.

Randolph didn’t hear him, or if he did he decided to ignore the comment.

“I’m not sure I can get far on foot,” he said after a while.

“I don’t expect you to,” Nick said. “I just have some loose ends to tie before I ring for an

ambulance. I’m sorry,” he looked Randolph straight in the eyes. “I wish I could tell you, but

you’re better off not knowing. Trust me.”

The Judge held Nick’s gaze and spoke without moving his eyes away. “Heavy burden,

trust. Don’t you think?”

“Blood is heavier,” came from the darkness. “She’s on your conscience. And Junior, too.”

Nick jumped towards Buzzard, hands stretched for his throat. Buzzard opened fire.

How did that happen? Nick couldn’t wrap his head around it. He’d dropped Buzzard’s

gun at Felicity’s feet. Mid-flight, he turned his head around to check. The gun was still there.

Beneath him, semi-automatic fire split the darkness.

Buzzard ducked and dropped to his knees, but the spray of bullets didn’t halt. Out of

balance, Nick smacked hard into the wall and dropped heavily to the floor. Winded, he

snapped his fist forward, expecting it to connect. Instead, he hit fresh air. The momentum

pulled him forward and down to the floor. His knee landed on something hard and angular.

The remote. To his right, the door flew open. Bright light blinded him momentarily.

Nick was on his feet in one swift movement, blinking red and green spots out of his eyes.

He turned to the door, but a harsh gurgle pulled his attention back to Randolph and Felicity,

where he’d left them on the floor.

“Randolph? Felicity?” he asked stupidly.

He changed course and bounded to the raised heap of bodies he could just about make out

on the floor. Randolph was stretched over the unconscious form of his wife, as if he was

embracing her. When Nick touched him, Randolph groaned.

“Stay still, I’ll get you out of here,” Nick instructed him and then ran to the door, pausing

only to pick up Buzzard’s gun and the dagger off the floor. In the doorway, he cursed loudly

and slammed the door shut. “That’ll heat things up a little,” he muttered.

“Nick,” Randolph called from the darkness.

“I’ll get you out, Randolph, don’t you worry,” Nick assured him, stashing the weapons in

his belt. “Only we can no longer use the traditional way out; they’ve set the house on fire.

This room is directly above the kitchen, if I remember correctly. Right?”

“Nick,” the Judge repeated, “the papers. Get the papers.”

The papers? This was hardly the right time for studying small print. Nevertheless, Nick

turned around, spotted the papers and grabbed them roughly; the impulse to always do what

Randolph asked for was too ingrained in him. Then he ran to the window and threw it open.

If he could carry them to the window one by one, he could lower them gently onto the

pantry’s flat roof and then down to the path below.

Randolph was on top – he would have to be moved first. Nick pulled him carefully in his

arms and carried him to the window ledge.

“I’m going to hold you tight under your arms and dangle your feet over. Tell me when

you can feel the roof.” The Judge grunted in assent.

Nick locked his arms around Randolph’s chest and lowered him slowly and steadily

towards the roof. He heard the sound of Randolph’s shoes scuffing against the tiles, but the

old man said nothing. Still, he must have been conscious, judging from the heavy breathing

and occasional grunts.

“Randolph, are you touching the roof yet?”

“Um... I don’t know. I can’t feel anything.”

“Can you kick your legs?” Nick asked, his chest constricting painfully as he guessed

where those bullets had hit him. He watched the Judge’s legs, a paler shadow than the night

around them. They were unmoving. “Ok. Don’t worry about it, we’re there now. Can you

grab my arm?”

Slowly and gradually, Nick moved his grip to hold Randolph by the arm, and then only

by the hand. He watched as his body slumped lower inch by inch, until it was a dark heap

onto the roof.

Then he turned back to the room, to get Felicity. The floor was warm as he picked her up

gently and cradled her against his chest. She was much lighter than Randolph, but her

breathing was quick and shallow – not a good sign. Thanking his lucky stars for the fact that

they were still alive and also for the fact that he was still – inexplicably – unscathed, and

thirdly for knowing his way around the house and grounds, Nick jumped from the bedroom

window with Felicity in his hands and then vaulted again, to land by the lattice fence around

the vegetable garden. He laid her down on the path and used the pantry window ledge to

scramble back up to Randolph. He carried him down and laid him alongside Felicity and then

ran around to the front of the house to look for a means of transporting them both to safety.

As he rounded the corner, he caught sight of the Touareg’s back lights disappearing down

the hill. Two men jumped out of the speeding car’s way, into the trees. They recovered

quickly and then started running towards the house.

What normal human being would run towards a house on fire and not away from it? Nick

stood stock-still, not comprehending. For a moment, grey in the orange and indigo colour of

the fire and night, they looked like his comrades, fresh off the sandy lane, running to help him

once again.

“Over here,” he shouted, not stopping to look at their faces. Then he turned back to the

side of the house.

He could hear the men running behind him, following, their breathing fast with exertion.

He dropped to his knees when he reached his parents and slid his hands under Randolph’s

shoulders, pulling him half off the ground.

“Take his legs,” he barked to the pair of shoes that had stopped right in front of him.

“Hurry, we must get them out of here,” he shouted when the man didn’t obey fast enough.

“Told you to ring me if you need help, didn’t I?” the man replied in a voice Nick hadn’t

expected. Then the man grabbed Randolph’s legs and started towards the front of the house


Nick looked up to see Detective Newton’s crooked smile briefly illuminated by a brighter

tongue of fire. “I don’t need the phone; I’m psychic,” Nick muttered quietly as they

continued to move the Judge to safety.

“That’s how I knew where to find you.”

They dropped Randolph behind the first line of trees, away from the burning building but

still close enough to the large driveway to be easily loaded into an Air Ambulance. The man

with Newton, a Constable by the name of Marsh put a call through to them as soon as Nick

started shouting for help. They went back for Felicity.

“Where is your son, Nick?” Newton asked in a gentle voice. Nick didn’t answer; worry

had his jaw locked in an instant. “All I want to know is that he’s safe,” the Detective added.

“He’s fine,” Nick hissed through clenched teeth, his face hard.

“The body in your house was not your wife’s, you know that, right?” Newton threw in, as

if he were merely making conversation.

“You’re sick,” Nick spat at him. “Take care of my parents,” he instructed Marsh, keeping

his eyes away from Newton.

He scrambled agilely back up to the bedroom window.

“Where are you going?” Marsh asked, startled by Nick’s sudden change of mood.

“I’m going to go make my son safe.” And with that he ducked back in through the


The smoke was seeping through the gaps around the door, thick and noxious. Nick took a

deep breath right by the window; it would only be worse later. Then the plunged into the

darkness and started feeling his way around the edges of the room, combing the floor, his

fingers searching, searching... His lungs were at the point of bursting when he finally found

it. Clutching the small object tightly, he vaulted over the bed and jumped out of the window


Muted cries for help reached his ears before he touched the ground. He would have

thought he’d imagined it, only he recognised the voice – the traitor’s voice. She was trapped,

was she? Good. She only got what she deserved.

He turned his back to the house, his thoughts a riot of emotions. Still, his legs wouldn’t

take him away.

There was a knock on the small pantry window. He turned to look. Through the smoke

and the darkness, he could distinguish Tequila’s slight frame, only it looked bigger.

“Nick!” she shouted. “Help me! Nick!” Then she broke into a coughing fit.

Nick walked slowly back to the window, a disgusted grimace on his face.

“You, slime. How dare you ask for help? How dare you talk to me? Traitor!”

Tequila ducked out of sight, then came back into view, the figure of a man draped limply

over her shoulder. He could see the trousers and golf shoes; the rest was hidden from view.

“Maxi. I’ve got Maxi. Help me get her out or we’ll both burn alive.”

“Maxi...” Nick mumbled, his face twisting in pain. It wasn’t fair, he shouldn’t have to

utter her sweet name now; he wasn’t ready to accept her death. Tequila shouldn’t make him

see those last few moments of Maxi’s life, she shouldn’t make him have to live through it

again. It wasn’t fair. Saying the words aloud would make it final, real. He didn’t want it to be

real. He’d counted on Maxi’s spirit being with him all the way. He needed her strength to

deal with this, to rescue Cameron, to make him safe. Eyes wet, he let go of the last shred of

hope. Inside, he could feel his heart crumble to pieces. “Maxi’s dead,” he whispered, his

voice breaking on the last word.

“She’s not,” Tequila protested. “I’ve got her here. Help me. Help us out of here.”

“Maxi is dead,” Nick shouted, throwing the words to her like they were poison daggers.

“Nothing can help her now. Your masters had her killed. Why don’t you go ask them for


“They didn’t kill her, Nick. They killed another. Some other poor girl – Miriam. It was a

convincer.” Tequila was frantic, desperately searching for something that would make sense

to him, something that would convince him she was on his side. “They kidnapped her, and I

got her back. In South Mimms, Nick, she was there. I got her out of Axel’s car.”

Nick drew the gun and pointed it at the window. “I should just shoot you right now,” he

growled. Tequila did not try to move away. Then something clicked in Nick’s mind, some

vague connection that had previously escaped him. Tequila’s words brought Axel to the

forefront of his mind, and Axel had said, back in the field, ‘For all your sakes, don’t play

with fire’. ‘All your sakes’, not ‘both’, as in Cameron and himself. Was that a slip of the

tongue? Did Axel know she was alive? Nick had interpreted his words to mean a warning

addressed to Nick’s whole family, the Whitbournes included. But what if he... What if Maxi

was alive, just like she’d always felt to him, what if Tequila was right? He shouldn’t play

with fire. Didn’t that Newton guy just say that the body in the house had not been Maxi’s?

Nick stood still, staring blankly at the smoky window.

“Nick,” Tequila choked and coughed but soldiered on. “Nick, shoot me if you must, but

get her out. I love you enough to want you to be happy, and Maxi makes you happy. That is

enough for me. Don’t let her die in my arms, Nick. Not now, not burned alive.”

Nick swivelled the gun in his grip and smacked its butt hard against the window. He

could see flames licking at the bottom of the door to the kitchen.

“Quick, it could blow any minute,” he warned.

Tequila choked and coughed again, then muttered acidly, “Now he’s in a hurry.”

Nick pulled Maxi in his arms and carried her to the car park, his eyes never leaving her.

To see her face, to hold her again, it was more than he could ever ask for. Despite the

darkness and the fire and the worry for his son, he felt like the luckiest man in the world.

The Air Ambulance had landed and Randolph and Felicity were being strapped in.

“You’ll have to explain everything to me later,” Nick said to Tequila. Look after her for a

few more minutes, please.”

“Of course,” she smiled back at him.

“Here,” Nick whispered and sneakily passed her the gun and the dagger. “I’ll bring yours

later. Where have you stashed the bike?”

She smiled knowingly. “Knew you’d work it out in the end. By the south side of the

reservoir, on the lane to the weirdest named Inn in Cornwall.”

“You’ve seen nothing yet,” Nick said by way of goodbye, then he stood back, out of the


“Where are they taking them, do you know?” Nick asked Newton. “Truro or Plymouth?”

“I’ll let you know as soon as they tell me. Promise.”

The back lights of Jesse’s Touareg were approaching rapidly. Nick grabbed Newton’s

arm and pulled him quickly to the shelter of trees.

“It’s Marsh,” Newton said. “But thanks anyway. The bloke driving this came to the ditch

in the road, got out, jumped to the other side and borrowed my unmarked car to make his

exit. Obviously didn’t imagine I might remember the reg plate. If they’re all as clever as him,

I should have this case wrapped up by Sunday.” Newton smiled widely and then remembered

something. “Weren’t you in a hurry to go and get your son?”

Nick patted his pocket. “He’s fine,” he said confidently. “Look after my family until I get

there, will you? This game is far from over.”


Tracker in hand, Nick walked quietly and confidently forward. The trees were his allies,

darkness his second in command. Six minutes, seven. A couple more, and he should be there.

His feet squelched through soft mud. Could this be the edge of the reservoir? Already? He

pushed aside a curtain of reeds and gasped. The water’s edge was less than a foot in front of

him. But that would put the dot in the middle of the water. How could Cameron be in the

middle of the water?

Nick lifted the night-vision goggles off his face and onto the top of his head and stared at

the dot again – it was unmoving. Something didn’t make sense.

“Hands up, Hunter,” Buzzard’s voice came from behind and a little to the right of him. “I

see we use the same equipment. Snap.”

The tracker? No. Most likely, he was referring to the night-vision goggles. That must

have been what he’d hit when he punched Buzzard, back in the Randolph and Felicity’s

torture chamber.

Bracken and stems of small plants protested when Buzzard stepped over them and came

into view.

“Naughty, naughty,” he leered. “When did you manage to plant the tracker on the boy,

then? Someone must have been careless. Not that it matters. They paid for it already.”

Buzzard laughed manically. “Go on,” he cooed at Nick in an attempt to sound like an

innocent child. “You can tell me, I won’t tell a soul. There aren’t any left to tell.” He laughed


Nick adjusted his position, trying to find a better footing; reedy mud was hardly helpful if

it came to a fight.

“Your men aren’t that clever. I did it all by myself.”

Nick’s eyes shot left and right, searching for a small patch of dry land to drop the tracker

on, when it came to needing both hands for fighting. Unfortunately, his night-vision goggles

were still perched atop his head, while Buzzard was wearing his. That inequality would have

to be remedied fast.

“Throw me the tracker,” Buzzard instructed, his voice harsh and cold.

“What’s the problem,” Nick stalled, thinking hard of a way around it. “Don’t you

remember where you hid my son?”

“He’s not where I told Dipper and Valentino to put him. And I didn’t notice that until

after I silenced them. Either your son has turned invisible, or I was double-crossed. But that’s

irrelevant,” Buzzard shrugged. “You’ve got the means to find him for me, and I’ve got a gun.

We can do this the easy way, or...” He didn’t finish his sentence.

Suddenly, it dawned on Nick why Buzzard hadn’t shot him yet. He was standing too

close to the water’s edge. If he should fall in, the tracker would become useless.

“Throw me the tracker, Hunter,” Buzzard ordered again.

“Ok.” Nick agreed with a smile in his voice. He threw the small device at an angle, mere

inches out of Buzzard’s reach. He prayed the villain would fall for it.

Buzzard twisted around and stretched, but the little box glanced off his fingers and landed

in the mud. By now, Buzzard was out of balance, the arm holding the semi-automatic

pointing randomly at the sky as he struggled to redress. It wouldn’t take a lot of effort to help

him the rest of the way. Nick’s boot hit him hard in the back and Buzzard landed face down

in the mud, rifle, goggles and all. Nick allowed himself a little smile, and then stood on

Buzzard’s back, squashing him deeper into the mud.

“And here’s the dry spot I was looking for,” he muttered to himself.

Buzzard was squirming and making unintelligible sounds, his arms flailing. He looked

like a beetle caught in a puddle, buzzing menacingly but otherwise making no progress. After

a minute, Nick hooked the rifle out from under Buzzard and lobbed it into the water. Buzzard

was still struggling.

“What was that?” Nick asked, amusement in his voice, and he pulled Buzzard’s face out

of the mud a little.

“I can’t breathe,” the psycho answered, spitting mud.

“Ah,” Nick said, echoing Buzzard’s words when he’d terrorised his son. “What was it

you said? I remember now – ‘my heart breaks’.” And he pushed Buzzard’s face back into the

mud. He held it down for a few seconds, and then pulled it out again. “And there was

something else, wasn’t it? Yeah. You said ‘I was having such fun.’ Question is – are you

enjoying yourself now?” Nick shoved Buzzard’s face back in the mud again. After a while,

Buzzard stopped struggling. Carefully, Nick felt for a pulse. Still alive. Sighing, he got off

and pulled Buzzard out of the mud with some difficulty; his body was limp and unresponsive.

“A pain even when you’re unconscious,” Nick muttered to the muddy comatose body,

and then dragged him into the water.

Aiming roughly in the direction he’d travelled on land, Nick swam with wide, regular

strokes, pulling Buzzard with him. He wasn’t certain what he would do with the villain yet,

but felt sure something would come up at the opportune moment.

Away from the shore, it became obvious that small, floating reed islands dotted the windsheltered

side of the water. The deeper the water, the quieter the night seemed to be. Nick

wondered what would be his best bet. Should he be shouting Cameron’s name, in a hope that

the child might hear him? But what if he was unconscious? Should he search every island?

Nick stopped swimming for a moment and listened harder. He thought he’d heard muted

sobs. He kicked hard towards the source of the sound and then he was sure – though Cameron

rarely cried, there was no mistaking a four-year-old’s voice.

“Cameron?” Nick called, hopeful. “Son? Is that you?”

The sobs halted. Reeds parted almost imperceptibly; Nick wouldn’t have noticed it if he

hadn’t been staring straight at the gap. Then Cameron was on his feet.

“Daddy,” he shouted, unconcealed joy in his voice. Then Cameron put his hands on his

hips. “You took your time.”

Nick couldn’t restrain his happiness. He pretty much threw Buzzard’s limp body onto the

reeds and lifted himself on the edge of the island in one swift movement. And then Cameron

was in his arms and he was squeezing him tight. He could feel Cameron’s thin little arms

around his neck and his warm cheek on his shoulder and then he was crying with relief that it

was all over, at last.

“Careful, Daddy,” Cameron said after a minute of absolute bliss, “you’re going to

squeeze all the love out of me.”

Nick laughed, giddy with delight that there was nothing wrong with his son. Well,

nothing physical. What this ordeal would have done to his mental state, he wasn’t prepared to

think of, yet. He pulled Cameron a little way away from his chest and held his little

shoulders, the better to inspect his appearance.

“Are you all right, son? Does it hurt anywhere?” Cameron shook his head. His little body

was trembling, though. Only then did Nick notice that Cameron’s clothes were as sodden as

his own. He also had a dynamite belt lashed twice around his middle.

That’s what the button was for. Nick shuddered, remembering how close to pressing that

button Buzzard had been. And then he knew why he had dragged the villain with him all the


With trembling fingers, Nick unfastened the belt from around Cameron’s body. Had they

told him what that was? Was he frightened?

“Interesting belt, this,” Nick probed.

“I don’t like it,” Cameron declared. “It’s heavy.”

“I don’t like it, either,” Nick agreed. “How about we give it to someone else to wear?”

Cameron nodded. Nick proceeded to fasten the belt around Buzzard’s neck and shoulders,

feeding it under his arms, like in a headlock; bullet-proof vests stopped at the neckline,

usually. While his hands worked, his eyes returned to his son. “Say, how did you get here,

son? Did someone row you here in a boat?”

“No. Of course not. I swam here.”

“All the way?” Cameron nodded, looking insulted by the suggestion that he might not

have been able to manage the distance. “On your own?” Nick couldn’t believe his ears. He

knew Cameron was a good swimmer, but that was in a clean pool with clear water and pool

supervisors every two or three feet. That he would daringly wade into muddy water, in the

dark, and in a strange place, it was beyond comprehension.

“Gizmo came with me. I put him inside my T-shirt, ‘cause he was afraid of the dark. Silly

Gizmo,” Cameron said, and then he stroked his best friend lovingly.

“What made you come all the way here?” Nick asked, still bewildered.

“I didn’t like it where the strange man told me to stay, so I backed out of the tent. It

wasn’t even a real tent,” Cameron explained indignantly. “Then Gizmo said we should find a

better place, so we did.”

Nick wrapped his arms around Cameron again.

“Can we go and get mum now? She got lost last night.”

“Don’t worry, son. I found her. We’ll go right now. I have a very important thing to tell

her. And a little question to ask.”


It took only ten minutes to make it back to the house. Nick had been surprised to see a

second Air Ambulance waiting in a nearby field, but grateful for the chance to get Cameron

to a hospital where he could be checked out properly. They were sitting next to each other,

and Cameron was fascinated by the lights and levers in the cockpit.

“What is that?” he kept asking. “And that?”

“That’s what they use to talk to the people on the ground,” Nick explained.

“I wish I had one of those,” Cameron whispered.

Nick pulled the small remote-like gadget from his pocked, weighed it in one hand for a

moment, and then passed it to Cameron. “There you go, son. You can play with this for


Cameron started pressing the buttons eagerly, pretending to speak into it, now and then

holding it by his ear.

The small explosion would have been too insignificant to attract the pilot’s attention, but

Nick kept looking out the window long after it had bloomed. The arm around Cam’s

shoulders squeezed a little harder for a second, and then he relaxed, watching the child play.


It took four attempts, but eventually Nick got the ok to take Maxi in a wheelchair around

to see his parents. Tequila followed with Cameron by the hand, whispering to him about

cream donuts and Danish pastries and other goodies she’d scouted around the hospital’s

ground floor shops.

Those two get on like a house on fire, Nick thought, and then he grimaced at the mental

picture the words had painted. That was one thing he certainly would not think about for a

while; he’d had enough houses on fire to last him a lifetime. It took the fire crew over ten

hours to put out the blaze at High Moor – due to the sumptuous internal furnishings, they’d

said. The explosion Nick feared never did happen, because the gas supply had been correctly

isolated when the property had been last extended and the new kitchen fitted. Money well

spent, Randolph would have said.

Nick had kept vigil through the night, moving from Maxi to Cameron to Randolph and

Felicity and back again. Through the long hours Tequila brought him up to speed with

everything she’d done since she got there and how it was that she’d found out about it, and

then she kept the boredom at bay by regaling him with stories of the islands after his

departure, more than five years back. Not once did they mention High Moor or Tequila’s

pleas, or what she might have meant when she spoke the words that finally swayed him.

Cameron had been least affected by the night’s events, the paediatrician declaring him fit

to go home as soon as he was ready. He had a greenstick fracture in his left radius and a few

insignificant scrapes and bruises, probably caused during his trip through the marshy

undergrowth, but otherwise he was fine.

“Not even a hint of hypothermia,” the doctor had said, his voice full of unconcealed

admiration. “You’re a strong, fit lad. If only half the kids were as hardy as you, I’d be out of a

job.” Then he’d smiled and declared Gizmo fit and well, too.

Maxi was awake by the time Nick and Cameron went to look for her, Tequila sitting with

her back against the wall, right outside her room; obviously she’d taken Nick’s request to

look after his wife very seriously. After an X-ray, to determine the extent of the damage High

Moor’s marble worktop had done to Maxi’s skull, it was recommended that she remain under

medical supervision for another twenty-four hours, which was the norm for concussion.

As soon as she was settled back in her bed, Nick walked in quietly and shut the door

behind him. He sat by her side, a cautious expression on his face.

“What’s wrong?” Maxi asked, stretching an arm over to him. He didn’t take her hand in

his, as she expected, but clutched the edge of the mattress, his eyes shifting to the floor. “Did

I do something...” Maxi started, looking anxious.

“No...” he said, shaking his head. “And it’s not what you did – more what we might have


“I don’t understand,” she whispered quietly.

“When I went to look,” Nick swallowed hard then continued, “through the ashes...” He

took a deep breath and cut his eyes to hers, holding her locked in his gaze. “When I thought

they’d killed you... I found this.” Nick pulled a half melted white plastic stick out of his

trouser pocket. He held it out for her to see with a slightly shaky hand. Maxi took it from his

hand. She blushed and her eyes misted over. “It says ‘positive’,” Nick mumbled. “I... I

suppose the fire might have interfered with the result, the chemicals might have been, I don’t


“No,” Maxi interrupted his stammers. “It says just what I remember it to say. I was going

to tell you that night, after dinner. And... it has just been confirmed. I’ve asked them to check.

I didn’t know if the sedative would have harmed the baby...”

That was all she got to say. On her last word, Nick’s strong arms wrapped tightly around

her and his lips made speech impossible for a few minutes. “I love you, I love you, I love

you,” he kept repeating between kisses. Maxi just giggled contentedly.

There was only one cloud darkening their blissful horizon. Both Felicity and Randolph

had been taken down to the operating theatres for emergency surgery and it was almost seven

before Randolph made it back to the intensive care ward. Felicity was going to take even

longer. Detective Newton had already had a short chat with the old Judge and taken copious

notes before Nick got there.

Tequila held the door open and Nick pushed the wheelchair as close to the edge of the

bed as the many tubes and cables monitoring Randolph’s progress allowed.

“Dad,” Nick said proudly. Randolph smiled as he heard Nick call him ‘dad’ for the first

time in his life. “Meet my wife, Maxi, and our first son, Cameron.”

The Judge smiled wider and repeated in a feeble voice, “First?” Even in this sorry state

he’d picked up on the key word. No wonder he’s made it this far in his career, Nick mused.

Maxi looked up at Nick, making a face. “I’ll make sure it’s a girl this time. I don’t like

being in minority.”

“It’s a boy,” Nick insisted. “Dads just know these things.”

Maxi and Tequila laughed, then Tequila took a look at Randolph and said quickly, “How

about a donut? Let’s leave these two to catch up for a minute.”

She pushed Nick’s hands gently off the wheelchair handles and turned it expertly around.

Cameron skipped happily behind her, much more concerned about a donut than his newly

acquired granddad.

“What’s the verdict, then?” Nick asked, when he was sure they couldn’t be overheard.

“Has the jury come to a unanimous decision? What did the consultant say?”

Randolph groaned and pulled at the oxygen tubes fixed to his nose.

“Irritating little things. I’ve always hated being ill.”

“Are you avoiding the question?” Nick asked patiently, in a low voice.

Randolph’s lips stretched weakly over his sallow face. “I guess I am. If I don’t repeat

what they told me, I don’t have to believe that it’s real for a little while longer. They did all

they could.”

“Are you in pain?”

“No,” Randolph hastened to say.


“Listen, Nick. I’ve been thinking. All the way in the helicopter, instead of worrying, I’ve

been thinking. And there is something I need to tell someone about. That Detective guy... he

seemed genuine, but I just couldn’t bring myself to tell him. It’s too...” Randolph spent a

moment searching for the right word, “... unbelievable – there really is no other word for it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just shut up and listen for a minute, son. I’m not finding this very easy to say... or think,

for that matter.” Nick pressed his lips together and waited. Randolph spoke in a brittle

whisper, his eyes clouding over at the memories. “When I was young, in Cambridge, I

foolishly joined a highly prestigious club. The Brotherhood of Death. Only the very best were

allowed in. It was considered a great honour, and it took years until I fully understood why. I

know what you will say, but I honestly thought it would be nothing more than a boy’s

drinking club, harmless fun... Poker from dusk till dawn, girls, that sort of thing. In those

days, and even now, such fellowships are quite common.”

Randolph stopped for a moment, appearing to concentrate hard on breathing evenly in

and out.

“Dad, why don’t you wait a day or two, until you feel better?”

“There’s no time. I’ve got to tell you now, or it will be lost forever. I know I shouldn’t

burden you with this knowledge, but you are a father, too. You need to know this. What you

do with it is up to you; you can ignore it if you wish. But it worries me that my shadows

might fall onto you and those you love and onto others if I keep my silence. It is best you

know, so you can be prepared. I have been very careful. Not even Felicity knows. But the

mistake of teenagehood caught up with me when I started to be a recognised name in criminal

law. One night I received a visit – of a very disturbing nature at that point – in which it was

explained to me that I would need to return a favour. I wasn’t aware that I had ever received

favours, and even less that I would be required to return one. In all honesty, I had forgotten

all about the secret society of my youth. It unnerved me and also made me curious. I started

asking questions. Needless to say, more doors shut in my face than opened. But the need to

know had become very powerful, it burned inside me obsessively, it was all I ever thought

about in my spare time.”

A deep sigh interrupted the flow of words. Randolph closed his tired eyes for a minute,

and Nick wondered whether it would be better to let him rest, when the Judge opened his

eyes and fixed him with a penetrating glare.

“They’re everywhere, son. They own every government, every important, high ranking

position you can think of. They even own the air you breathe. You can’t fight them, and you

can rarely join them. Once in, you can’t get out. I tried, and look where it’s got me.”

“I’ll get them for what they did to you,” Nick vowed.

“I knew you’d say that,” Randolph smiled. “I worry so much that you’ll get hurt in the

process. Instead of vengeance, I want you to promise me something else. I want you to

promise me that you’ll make your family safe. Promise,” he insisted.

Nick stared at the sparkle in the old man’s eyes, his own eyes narrowing slightly. In some

ways, it was an easy promise to make – of course he’d make his family safe; it was a primal

need, inborn and instinctive. What man wouldn’t want his family to be safe? But his blood

still boiled with the rage, now hardly muted, at the injustice of the last few days. The

bloodlust was so strong, resisting it was sapping him of energy, was making his legs weak

and his mind muddled. Until the scores were settled, he knew he wouldn’t rest.

“I know what you are thinking and I can’t let you make the same mistake I made. I can’t

let you put yourself in more danger than you are in already by association with me. So listen

to me, and make yourselves safe.”

Randolph had spoken with such effort and such intensity, that his breathing became harsh

and laboured. He leaned back, eyes still glaring, struggling to breathe. This was not the best

moment to antagonise him. Reluctantly, Nick nodded.

“Thank you,” the Judge whispered, his breathing still erratic.

The door opened and a skinny, gangly doctor walked in, a sombre expression on his face.

He walked to the bed, and took one of Randolph’s hands in his own, thumb on the pulse, but

not obviously so.

Randolph looked him straight in the eye, and then said just one word. “Felicity?”

“I’m so sorry,” the doctor said, looking down. “Too many vital organs hit, she was much

too weak to make it.”

Randolph drew in a rugged breath. “I guess I knew...”

“You should let him rest,” the doctor said to Nick.

Nick nodded and started towards the door. The other side of the bed from him, the doctor

gasped, and then hit the emergency button. The door burst open and two nurses rushed in,

closely followed by two more. With his path to the door cut off, Nick drew back to the

window, out of the way. All that he managed to see between the bustling bodies was

Randolph’s eyes rolling back, his face ashen and lopsided.

Despite the number of people crowding around the Judge’ bed, the room seemed too

quiet, their movements too perfectly synchronised. In movies, such scenes were usually full

of panic, people shouting, machines making infernal beeping noises, drama... Not so, now.

Some remote part of Nick’s brain acknowledged that yet again reality differed from the

human perception of it. Life, playing games again. No matter how well you think you know

the rules, the scene always changes when you least expect it... Was that what he should

prepare himself for, what Randolph tried to say? Should he be worried, now that things

appeared to have settled down once more? Where was the danger? What form was it likely to

take now?

“He’s stabilised,” one of the nurses said after a few anxious minutes.

Randolph’s eyes opened, and they were wheeling, searching for something. The doctor

leaned in, closer to his lips.

“What’s that? Nick?” He straightened up. “Are you Nick?” he asked. Nick nodded.

“He wants you. Two minutes max. We knew something like this might happen. He’s not

out of the woods yet.”

Nick took a deep breath and moved closer to the bed. Randolph was struggling to form

words, but his lips didn’t appear to function properly. Finally, he spoke.

“The papers,” he whispered. “The agent’s name...”

Nick couldn’t make sense of his words. What about the papers? What agent?

“Must go,” Randolph said again, quieter than a whisper. “Felicity is waiting.”

“No,” Nick took his dad’s hand and squeezed it lightly. Randolph squeezed it back, soft

as a feather, and then his hand went limp.

Cameron and Maxi were sleeping cuddled-up in Maxi’s hospital bed. Nick picked up

Gizmo off the floor, where it had dropped when Cameron’s grip had relaxed in sleep and

placed the much-loved toy on the pillow next to him. Walking so softly, that there was no

discernible sound, Nick left the room and closed the door behind him.

“Sleeping?” Tequila called from a chair along the wall opposite the door. She patted the

one next to her, and Nick took it.

“Yeah, thankfully.”

Tequila put a consoling hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry about your mom and dad.”

“It was inevitable,” Nick spoke slowly. “First they beat them up, they whipped Felicity

and broke her jaw. And they broke Randolph’s ribs. At their age, that kind of injury is hard to

get over. Randolph had a punctured lung, too. And then, he also took the majority of the

bullets intended for her. Not that it made much difference.” Tequila rubbed Nick’s back with

comforting circular movements. “He knew, you know? Randolph. He never really expected

to recover. That’s why he told me. He would have kept his mouth shut otherwise.”

“About what?”

Nick looked down to his feet, then pulled the wad of scrunched up papers from his inside

pocket. “I think it’s time we found out.”

Most of the dirty pages were inconsequential. They looked to be part of some standardworded

transfer of ownership type contract, not in sequence and incomplete, so he could not

be sure. The other party to the contract was a certain Alastair Lloyd Campbell, with an

address in Notting Hill. Nick looked at Tequila enquiringly.

“Never heard of him,” she said.

“A link to King, maybe?”

“Don’t know. Worth checking, I suppose.”

Nick lifted his head at the sound of hushed footsteps. Detective Newton started speaking

before his footsteps halted.

“They need you at the station. I said I’ll drive you over – to sign the statement.” His eyes

locked on the papers in Nick’s hand. “What is that?”

“Nothing,” Nick passed the papers swiftly to Tequila. “Just letters from my friends.

Nothing to do with all this...”

“I’ll go see if Maxi is awake. She might like to read them, too.” Tequila stood up

promptly and disappeared into Maxi’s room. Just inside, she turned and shook her head at

Nick, her eyes narrowed.

Newton waited until the door was closed and then sat down next to Nick.

“You look like you’re about to arrest me,” Nick accused.

Newton laughed. “And you look tired. Not for me to say, of course, but maybe a good

night’s sleep might make you see things in a different light. Or maybe you need a longer

break away from here.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Nick answered wryly. Then he looked longingly towards Maxi,

as if he could see her through the solid, white walls.

Newton pulled the car keys out of his pocket and let them drop to the floor. Nick turned

his head towards him, trying to catch his gaze, but the Detective was looking away.

“Nice place for a holiday, Cyprus. Don’t you think?”

Nick snagged the keys, stood up and walked towards the door.

“Look after them for me, will you? And thanks.”

Newton smiled. “Whatever for? I never said anything.”


If you have enjoyed my writing, please have a look at an excerpt from my


See www.ellamedler.com

Martin Little, Resurrected

1. The Horrifying Price of Hot Chocolate

That’s right. It all started with a cup of chocolate.

And the killer part is – I only said I’d drink it because I didn’t want to upset Michelle.

“It’ll do you good,” she said, and like the inept fool I am, I thought what the hell, it can’t

hurt, can it? I mean, apart from the calories, you know…

I’ve been told to ‘watch the calories’ as I am a little pudgy around the edges. And I have

been watching them. I’ve been watching them hug me tightly, all the way around.

But I can deal with that. However, the consequences of that fateful cup of chocolate I’m

not sure I can deal with quite as easily.

My eyes scanned the smudged grey walls for the umpteenth time in the past two hours.

No changes. The same scuffs, the same neanderthallian graffiti. Primitive. Not at all creative.

‘Lenny woz ‘ere’, it said in black marker pen. Well, Lenny, whoever Lenny was, didn’t have

an original bone in his body. And he couldn’t spell.

Maybe Lenny lacked inspiration. Glancing around the dingy room now, I thought I could

understand why.

I sighed quietly, the only sound I allowed out since setting foot in here.

Should I make an effort to strike up a conversation with one of the others? I let my eyes

sweep over them one by one, judging and discounting them as I went along.

In the far corner, two teenage girls stood muttering to each other in a quick staccato,

which made me think they spoke a different language. Well, it must be about a decade since I

was their age and besides, I would never stoop to using slang when I could speak perfectly

good English.

What could these kids have done to land themselves in here? I gave a few theories a go

and settled on trouble in a club, most likely to do with boys or alcohol-related.

A tramp, dishevelled and smelly, no doubt – not that I would get close enough to check –

was leaning against the wall facing me, hands in pockets, making small, garbled noises now

and then, as if he was talking to himself. His wasted expression made me suspect he couldn’t

make sense of his own mutterings.

What could I possibly have in common with someone like that? I supposed we could talk

about his shoes – I liked his shoes – his hand made, elegant, polished, brand new shoes. I had

a theory about how he’d acquired those; I could check to see if I was right.

My eyes lingered on the tramp’s shoes for another second, and then moved on to my last

option – a hippy. Just as dishevelled, only hiding it under the pretence of fashion, or

hippyism, or whatever you called it these days. I examined her more carefully – from the

cinnamon, loose-knit cardigan, about four sizes too big, clashing wildly with her rainbow

coloured maxi dress, and down to the tan cowboy boots, complete with fake spurs, lurid

embroidery and leather cords, she looked the absolute part. Strands of beads hung from her

skinny neck and more beads seemed to be tangled in her hair. I suppressed a chuckle. This

clothing must be to hippies what a burqa and veil is to a Muslim woman. Trademark look.

And that was it – those were my choices.

I spent a moment turning around in my head the idea of being trapped alone on a desert

island with the hippy and the tramp. I would perhaps keep one of them as a companion, and

roast the other on a spit. Yes, it probably is a cruel thought, but we’d have to eat something,

right? And I’ve never been much good at fishing – something to do with hand-eye

coordination, or lack of, to be precise.

So… Which one would I marinate?

The tramp looked and smelled disgusting, so I’d have to camouflage that with plenty of

spices, pretend he’s a venison joint, hung up to mature the flavours... Ok, I could do that.

Hippy-girl was probably better company anyway. She was sort of pretty, when she wasn’t

scowling… But she did scare the living daylights out of me; she had an air of visceral

wildness about her… Maybe she would be more pleasant cooked...

I was still staring at her when the relative silence exploded.

“What’ cha staring at, creep?” she demanded in a scratchy, unpleasant voice, shattering

the pattern of my carefully un-focused thoughts.

Her tangled ginger hair was crackling with static. Or, it could have been the fire in her

eyes singeing its way out. Her face reddened, as if her blood was boiling, too. Which it

probably was, to be fair.

I briefly considered unlawful escape, perhaps by clawing my way out of the room straight

through the brick wall behind me, when her head levelled up. She was glaring at the tramp,

thankfully. Her face was screwed up in a half-hateful, half-aggravated expression and her

hazel eyes were narrowed with hostility. It didn’t quite fit in with her hippy-like appearance –

weren’t hippies supposed to be all laid-back and loving and peace-making and stuff?

The two teenage girls in the far corner abruptly stopped their quiet gossip, the better to

concentrate on the exchange that was now showing all the signs of turning into good


Yup, the tedium was, without a doubt, getting to us all. Five people shut in a small, dingy,

windowless room… not the best set-up for patience and good manners.

Well, I for one felt pretty good about not getting drawn into any of their arguments so far.

Especially since patience was definitely not one of my strong points. I just hate


“Hah!” the tramp sneered back at hippy-girl, an insolent expression twisting his grimy

features, “what makes you think you’re something to look at, luvvie?”

Her eyes were ablaze as she hissed through clenched teeth. “Don’t you dare ‘luvvie’ me,

you revolting old… thing!”

Her face screwed up in a disgusted grimace. She looked as if she was annoyed for not

being able to think of an insulting enough description for the tramp.

“Sorry, sweetheart, we haven’t been formally introduced… Gary Mackie. And you are?”

I had to give it to him – he had some balls to keep going when her eyes looked that

vicious. If my shoulders hadn’t been stuck to the wall, I would have taken a step back.

I watched the leer spread on the man’s stubbly face as he took in her astonished

expression, and braced myself for the girl’s response.

I wasn’t disappointed. Her hands clenched into rigid fists at her side, and she looked like

she was making a considerable effort to keep her lips sealed shut. Her knuckles were white

with the effort. Her stare, on the other hand, was a roaring furnace, so intense it could have

turned the Polar ice cap to blistering desert in an instant.

My eyes flickered quickly back to his face. I felt an odd jolt of anxiety for just one beat. I

don’t know what I expected – to see him turn to cinders, maybe, or hiss up into vapour like

my stirrer had in my first chemistry lab. But the tramp was resilient – he still gawked back.

He was clearly finding her annoyance amusing; his eyes crinkled around the edges as he

started to snigger brazenly.

“Drop. Dead.” She spit the words in an inflexionless voice as she continued to glare at

him through narrowed eyes.

After another minute, and having obviously decided her threatening words must have hit

home, she went back to scowling at one of the many strands of beads hanging around her

neck; her thin fingers had been twisting and untwisting her necklaces relentlessly for the last

two hours.

The tramp snorted quietly to himself and muttered something unintelligible – it sounded

like ‘don’t get your hopes up’ – but he turned his face down to leer at his shoes instead. She

didn’t seem to have heard him.

The sound of a twisting lock made us all turn towards the door, expectant. Will they let us

go now? I felt sober enough… Well, at least I could stand up straight all by myself, I thought


The two teens looked more scared than expectant; they gazed at each other, brows

crumpled with worry, and grasped hands tightly.

“You two,” the uniform looked at them, then motioned them forward. “Your dads are

here. You’re in luck.”

The young girls exchanged another anxious glance, looking as if they strongly disagreed

with his supposition. The furrows in their brows deepened as they walked nervously through

the door, still clutching hands.

Not my turn yet. Relief warred with impatience deep in my chest. The former won and

caused a deep sigh to escape from its confinement.

Usually, I did a good job of keeping my emotions locked up inside. My mum had proven

time and time again that anything you let the outside world see, sense or hear could, and

would, be used against you. She certainly did. Frequently. So I made the most of that

experience and learned how to shut it all in.

It didn’t fully keep me out of trouble. No, Lady Luck was certainly visiting distant shores

when I was born…

I knew it would be lucky, extremely lucky – a miracle even – for the current embarrassing

experience to escape my mum’s knowledge, even if I did manage to keep my cool in her

presence and not let it slip myself. That woman’s better connected than the World Wide


She’s in a home now, thankfully, and before you ask – no, I didn’t put her there.

My sister Celia did. What I mean is, she did the research and filled in the forms, etcetera.

We’re not violent people, my sister and I, despite being raised by her.

I live in mum’s perfect, suburban, detached house now. Reluctantly. She worries about


I worry about disagreeing with her.

Sometimes, I feel like I am squatting, too. She’s the sort of person who would be certain

to prove at some later stage that it was my fault that: a) a spider was allowed in without her

permission, b) it was allowed to attach its web to something belonging specifically to her, and

c) this inconsiderate action has caused irreversible damage to the building.

I only touch the pieces of furniture I absolutely have to, like the bed and the sofa, for

instance. I tiptoe around everything else, especially the rocking chair in the corner of the

living room; I managed to smash her favourite blue china dragon when I capsized that one on

my sixth birthday. I’ve given the thing a wide berth ever since…

And today – how do I keep today off her radar? I’ve made such a mess of things in one,

single, day!

Twelve hours, in fact. That’s all it took me to flip the remainder of my upright world

upside down.

I wondered if they’d let me go in the morning. Could I at least make a call? That’s what

they say in films, that you’re allowed one call. I would ring Michelle and ask her to come in

and explain. It was her idea in the first place, the least she can do is help get me out. She

owes me!

Then mum might never know. I wasn’t due to visit her with the new interior decorating

magazine until Sunday at ten. Precisely.

My shoulders slumped. Of course she would know – Maisie from the bungalow at the end

of the lane must have seen the house in darkness last night as she walked her manky, yappy

terrier past the front gate. And possibly early this morning, too. Since my love life is

practically non-existent, she’s bound to ring mum to discuss the change in my routine. And

all imaginable consequences resulting from my inconsiderate, foolish actions. I’d better get

ready with a good excuse…

I should have said ‘no’ to that cup of hot chocolate… Or maybe things had always been

destined to go this way. I cringed as the memories came flooding back.

I was in a hurry – late leaving home, again. And I did try to make up for lost time, but I

am a responsible driver and I wasn’t going to start my day with a murder charge by careless

driving. Not to mention that the poor old dear would have messed up the car big time if I

hadn’t stopped and waited for her to drag her tartan shopping trolley across the road.

By the time I got to the B&Q car park, my new car-share mate had gone. Self-righteous

bastard. So now I had to wrestle my way back into the gridlocked traffic from the wrong side

of the road, and then find somewhere to park in the city centre. In Plymouth, that’s an

expensive mistake.

I ended up in Mayflower west. The small bag of change I unearthed from the debris in the

door pocket revealed a couple of twenty pence pieces and some copper. Nowhere near


That meant a sprint, trip, ‘ow’, curse and sprint again across the road to the baker’s by the

market, to buy a doughnut with a twenty-pound note. I earned myself a scowl, of course, plus

some mumbled abuse under the baker’s breath.

I responded to that one, but only after I was out of hearing range – too far behind

schedule for starting, and losing, another fight right now.

Back to the car park for the ticket. Then, pockets considerably lighter, I sprinted for

Armada Way.

By the time I got to the office, I was hot and sweaty and clutching an unappetising greasy

bag containing one equally unappetising squashed doughnut – jam, and I hate jam with a

vengeance. Yes, I could have left it in the car, but I hadn’t thought about it at the time and it

didn’t feel right to just drop it on the floor at this late stage.

Too strapped for time to wait for the lift, I took the stairs up to the second floor two at a

time. I crashed through the swinging doors to the ‘pride rock’ section of the bank floor,

gasping and clutching at a stitch in my side.

I took in a big gulp of stagnant office air and choked. Don’t you find all offices smell the

same? Airless, somehow…

I heard Michelle’s soft, languid voice call my name in the middle of my coughing fit but,

struggle as I may, it was another couple of minutes before I made it through the door of Mr.

Charmsworth’s well-lit, executively furnished sanctuary.

For some reason, whenever I stepped in here, I imagined a little leprechaun in the corner,

feather duster in hand, ready to jump out and tidy the tiniest trace of mess or disorder.

“Sorry to keep you waiting...” I mumbled, taking in enormous lungfulls of cool,

conditioned air. Another little cough escaped my tightly locked lips.

Oops. Worried, I sneaked a quick look at Mr. Charmsworth.

I should explain. Coughing is a no-no anywhere in close proximity to Mr. Charmsworth.

So is keeping him waiting for any matter whatsoever, or being late. Mr. Charmsworth

believes thoroughly and unequivocally in being in control. There are no acceptable excuses

for being late, or clumsy, or ill. There are no such things as accidents or even coincidences.

And most certainly, there is no such thing as luck.

On the wall behind his desk hangs a corporate motivational picture. “You model your life

by the actions you take and the choices you make” – a movie-star lookalike bloke on skis

claims, his winning smile dazzling, customary daunting, snow capped mountain in the


A great big sigh proved me right. Mr. Charmsworth was not in a mood capable of

glassing over mundane slip-ups such as tardiness or choking. His fleshy, sweaty face was

angled downwards, shining like a whopping full moon above a stack of terracotta coloured

folders. He squinted at the label pertaining to the topmost one, then opened the cover

delicately with two fingers and took out a pale yellow sheet.

“Martin Little,” he read, “aged twenty-six, no legal dependents... Assistant Relationship

Manager... You’ve been with the bank... how long now?” his face twisted in a fake smile.

“Two years this November.”

And just like that, I was certain that this conversation couldn’t lead anywhere good.

I stared carefully at him now, working hard to figure out what the reason for this meeting

was, preferably before I panicked.

Ok, so it was too late for that – I could already feel the icy chill of pure, unadulterated

dread steal down my spine. A sheen of cold sweat was dewing up on my brow as I floundered

around in my brain for a bit of calm and control.

“Two years...”

The otherwise harmless words seemed to have acquired a nasty ring to them; off Mr.

Charmsworth’s lips, they sounded almost insulting.

The old man’s perverted smile turned into an unsympathetic, derogatory grimace in an

instant. He was looking me up and down, closely scrutinizing every aspect of my appearance;

from the jet-black curly hair to the budget shoes, no feature seemed to change his opinion.

His eyes locked briefly onto the greasy paper bag still clutched in my left hand. I whipped

the offending hand promptly out of sight, behind my back. Too late…

Mr. Charmsworth nodded to himself as if this was nothing less than expected, a bored

expression now slipping over his chubby face.

“Humph...” he sighed bleakly. “I’m afraid the bank has had to reconsider, in view of the

current economic climate, its main costs and potential income sumps. Therefore it is with

egret that I must inform you that the Business Accounts Department within the Plymouth

office has been relocated to Glasgow with... er... immediate effect.”

He gave a weak smile, in complete contrast with his alleged regret.

“It was a pleasure working with you, Martin. Human Resources on level one will deal

with any queries you may have, and supply you with any references you may require in your

future career. Please, could you close the door behind you on your way out?” He said the last

sentence as a statement, not a question.

I struggled to close my gaping mouth, my jaw aching with the effort.

“Excuse me?” I managed a meek whisper through frozen lips. “W... w... what do you

mean?” That was me, keeping my cool.

The paper bag slipped from between my numb fingers and hit the shag pile carpet with a

muffled thud.

Mr. Charmsworth looked up, gave me a reproachful stare, and pressed a button on his

intercom. “Human Resources will answer any questions you may have... Good day, now.”

I couldn’t think. My brain had stuck on my best option for now – denial.

Moments later I felt Michelle tug gently on my arm. I turned and followed her numbly

out of the door. I can’t remember if I ever said goodbye, or words to that effect. Probably not.

And for once, I didn’t care.

Desperation, thick as a stormy cloud over Ben Nevis in December, swept over me.

And then came the anger. Which infuriated me more than losing my job. What was wrong

with me? Was my adrenal system wired the wrong way around, was my brain designed with

a delayed reaction?

I could feel the heat of my fury tensing the muscles of my arms; I wanted to lash out,

punch, smash and shatter…

But it was too late now to put this slow-building rage to good use. It would do no good to

go back in and punch the repulsive man squatting like a toad behind his polished desk, I

realised, my resentment ebbing away already.

And what would be the point of kicking up a fuss, anyway? Nothing ever went my way in

my entire life. Why should that suddenly change now?

So I stood, shackled by my own bad luck, in the middle of the lobby, staring transfixed at

the panel of high achievers on which my photo was still pinned to the left of Annie Taylor

from Property Portfolios, until Michelle pushed firmly the cup of steaming hot chocolate in

my hand.

“Here, drink this, it’ll do you good!” Then her smile widened. “I hope you weren’t too

attached to that doughnut, I’ve just binned it.”

I blinked myself out of my reverie.

“Where did all that come from?” I managed a weak mumble. I searched Michelle’s face,

hoping to see my incredulity mirrored there. She didn’t look at all surprised. “Did you know?

That we’re being shut down? Were you in on this?”

“What do you mean, ‘in on this’?” she snapped, looking offended. “You make it sound

like it’s all my fault! I’m a secretary, not the Chief Executive! Nobody asks for my opinion.”

“No, I – I didn’t mean it like...” I backpedalled swiftly. “Of course you couldn’t... But

you knew?”

Her understanding, compassionate smile said it all.

“You must have seen the signs,” she said softly, soothingly. “Countless high-level

meetings behind closed doors, no new faces for a while now... They’ve even cancelled the

Summer Ball!”

Trust Michelle to worry about a stinking dance!

I stood there, seething, for a short while. Finally, I rebelled.

“That meeting can’t have lasted more than five minutes, if that! I should have said

something. I should have…” What? What could I have done? Begged? I knew I wouldn’t

have done that. The corners of my mouth turned down in disgust at the mere thought. “I just

stood there like a lemon…”

“It certainly did seem to be the shortest dismissal today... Maybe he’s hungry, probably

already ordered a burger…” she laughed, then her face turned serious, all traces of

amusement gone. “The others took a couple of minutes longer. Jason Donoughue was in there

a full half hour.”

It was quiet for a minute.

“I don’t think it made any difference…” Michelle shrugged and dug out a battered

looking diary from beneath the Yellow Pages and an open Phone Book. “How’s the


“Great, thanks.” I shot her a small smile, more out of courtesy than gratitude.

There had been others... I wasn’t happy that others had also been made redundant, but

still… I couldn’t deny it… that bit of news did make me feel a little better.

Michelle picked up her handbag. “Feel like lunch?”

“Not sure I can afford it… now that I’m jobless...”

I really didn’t feel in the mood for lunch, or anything else for that matter, but Michelle is

good looking, and… well, it would be awfully impolite, wouldn’t it, to refuse a lady’s


“My treat.” She smiled and steered me to the door by my elbow.

She led the way down the stairs and out of the crowded main lobby, where early lunchbreak

queues were already forming in front of the dozen or so cashiers.

I blinked at the sharp sunlight. Bright light always made my eyes leak.

I was certain that it was the sun, my emotions had nothing to do with it. Quite certain. I

sighed and nodded to myself, pretending to believe the lie.

The afternoon was going to be warm and sunny, quite at odds with the cold dread that felt

like a ball of barbed wire in my stomach.

“Two cappuccinos, please and...” she looked quizzically at me, “what do you think?

Those éclairs look good.” I must have nodded, because I heard her say, “And two éclairs,


She took the tray outside, under a blue and yellow striped parasol. I’d never noticed the

colours of the parasols before, despite spending almost every lunch break beneath one or

other of them... Too wrapped up in my own failed existence to see…

I stared unseeingly at the people milling around me now, busy with their lives and dreams

and ambitions… It seemed as if mine were disintegrating in front of my eyes.

“What’s happening to me, Michelle?” The words burst from me unexpectedly. “What am

I doing wrong?”

“It’s not you, silly. It’s... restructuring and... whatever economic conditions...”

She put my cappuccino in front of me. “Sugar?”

I didn’t answer.

“Sugar,” she decided. “You need it – you look like you’re in shock.”

She busied herself with the coffees and then craned her neck to catch my gaze.

“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I just… can’t get my head around it. I’ve been to a decent school,

I’ve got a good degree, I’ve got – I had – a decent job,” I corrected. “And despite all that…

things go so badly wrong for me… I must be jinxed. Seriously unlucky.”

“Rubbish. You did nothing wrong. It was just a set of circumstances over which you had

absolutely no control. Besides, you’re not the only one,” she pointed out.

No, I was not the only one. But I might have been the only one who couldn’t take it like a


I looked up in time to see Michelle bite into her éclair; the sugar rush made her close her

eyes in pleasure.

“Mmm”, she mumbled with her mouth full, “this is divine... Go on, try it! I guarantee it’ll

make you feel better.”

I obeyed, reluctant. Allowing something as creamy as this éclair slip down into a stomach

as uncomfortable as mine was probably a decision I was going to regret later… Still, she was

right about the taste. That certainly explained why I came here for my lunch day after day –

I’d forgotten how good the food was.

“Now, back to my predicament.” She wiped imaginary crumbs from around her plump

lips. “I’m supposed to organise a Hen Party for Mr Charmsworth’s youngest daughter.”

I nodded in agreement, my mouth too full to speak.

“I wouldn’t normally have a problem – I’ve organised Hen Parties and even Wedding

Receptions before – but this time I have a specific brief. She wants a club – not any club, a

sophisticated one. Also, quiet enough to prevent gatecrashers. And she wants to bring her

own music.” She scowled at her empty plate and wiped off some icing with her index finger.

“In Plymouth.” She placed the sugared finger in her mouth and left it there, looking

quizzically at me.

“If it’s nightclubs you need, you’re barking at the wrong tree. I’ve only ever been in one

for Rob’s Stag do last April... I’m not a nightclub sort of person.”

She looked at me with an ‘I thought that much’ expression that made me feel inadequate

and ancient at the same time, like I was too old to understand what pleased my

contemporaries. Then she pulled her expression together.

“No, I didn’t mean that. I have names, I know where to go. That’s not what I need. It’s

just that I think I should do a bit of reconnaissance ahead of time, you know... go in and see

what they’re like, talk to the man in charge… ask a few questions... Only, I don’t like to go

on my own... Could you – just for one night – could you come with me?” She scrutinised my

doubtful expression warily.

“I’ll buy the drinks”, she added quickly, having clocked the apathetic look on my face.

“Go on... for old times’ sake. Call it your leaving party.” She gave me her most disarming

smile; I simply had to smile back in response.

And that was why, a few hours later, I was standing, waiting for her in front of the Rock

Café. The air was warm and still, but the clouds were gathering threateningly, as they often

did by the harbour.

It must have been past midnight. Quite a few cars were still zooming around, but the

number of pedestrians had dropped to just a few passers-by every two or three minutes.

I was meant to wait for Michelle out here, by the entrance, after which I very much hoped

she would let me go home. Or at least curl up on a bench, somewhere. I called this Plan A.

My legs were starting to feel like jelly and my eyes were making the lights on top of every

lamp post seem like a fuzzy replica of a mini Milky Way.

Michelle had been right to check the clubs. As luck will have it, the two most

recommended were also the most noisy and wild. This one didn’t seem so bad, but then we’d

only been in it for about ten minutes. True to her word, she bought the drinks, and I did the

sampling, gradually moving from cider to beer to Bacardi mixers and Mojitos, and then to

shots of something jellified and foul tasting that had to be lit before they went down.

Don’t ask! Never again! I scowled at the pitching path – I couldn’t be certain, but I

thought I should be on dry land, not a boat. Only I expected dry land to be a bit more stable

during a storm, less rickety...

Surreptitiously, I let my shoulder touch the tree at the edge of the pavement. I hoped that,

from a distance, I looked like I could keep myself upright with no outside help, just in case

someone might be watching.

Yeah, I would wait until Michelle emerged from the building, so as not to appear rude,

then I would offer to call a taxi and drop her at home – Plan B – and then I would go home

and crawl into bed… or just crawl through the door and leave it at that.

I never got to thinking things through any further, as at that point a tramp burst through

the door and crashed into me.

I caught and steadied him reflexively. He would probably make a good starting point for

my enquiries about Plan A.

In the next moment the pair of hairy arms that had caused the smelly homeless guy to

materialize opened the door again and roughly shepherded through it a small group of oddly

dressed girls. Flower-power sort of girls. Young and pretty, but intimidating.

That was when I heard the sirens. I was still holding onto the tramp – or was it the other

way around? – trying desperately to remember where I was and, with a bit of luck, my name

as well, when my eyes finally focused on the blue and red lights. The intermittent flashing

suddenly proved too much to bear and the assortment of drinks in my stomach decided it was

time to leave the show.

It was during this unpleasant exercise, bent double with brutal retching, that I wondered

about the tramp’s shoes for the first time. The last thing I remember before passing out was

seeing the girls scatter, screaming and shoving each other, and then a strong hand grabbed

hold of my hair.

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