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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Action & suspense

Cat & Mouse

 

Copyright 2016 Shakespir

By Jason Vanez

CAT & MOUSE

PROLOGUE

Alfo “The Destroyer” Pitchford lived the kind of life that made people want to kill him, but that wasn’t his biggest mistake. It was believing no one would dare to come at him.

So when his mobile rang at 2.17 in the morning and he answered it to hear his girlfriend screaming about a burglar in her house, the thought that this might be about him didn’t enter his head. He had no clue that he had less than an hour to live. He put the phone on the pillow and rubbed his eyes like a sleepy baby. By the time he’d picked up the phone again, the line was silent.

“You there?” he said.

“I said are you coming or what? I heard noises.”

“Probably that damn cat of yours,” Alfo barked.

“What fucking cat? There’s a fucking robber in my house, Alfo. Come and help.”

He checked the caller ID. It was Lara, not Jane. Jane was the one with the cat.

“Alfo, I heard movement. Please come.” She was a tough bitch, mouthy around her neighbours and a control freak in the sack, but now she sounded like his timid old mother.

He climbed out of bed. “I’m coming. If there’s no one there when I get there, you’re taking it up ass.” He hung up before she could reply. He would never speak to her again.

Despite the late hour and the obvious urgency of his task, Alfo took time to dress properly. It wouldn’t do to have one of his subjects see him in dour clobber. He slipped on a tight black T-shirt that showed his tight muscles. Jeans with that new fashion of rents and slits, as if he had been attacked by a tiger. His bright white Christian Louboutin shoes. His cornrows still held even after a week, but he ran a toothbrush through his goatee beard to neaten it. Then he checked himself in the mirror. One of his boys had joked that he looked tough, camp, and like a character out of a computer fighting game all at the same time, but Alfo didn’t mind all that. He stood out, made an impression on the streets to those who somehow still didn’t know who he was. In four hours’ time, an early morning jogger would recognise whose bloody corpse he had found because of this outfit.

He left his flat and got into his black Punto. He now had less than ten minutes to live. He drove slowly, steadily. Clear roads at this hour, but on this estate the junkies roamed like zombies day and night and he didn’t want one lurching out of nowhere and honouring him with a trip to the body shop. But he saw none of his customers out and about. A chance right there for a wandering junkie to save him, now gone.

He also passed a police patrol car that was sitting by the kerb, waiting to pounce on bad guys just for fun. The cops knew Alfo’s Punto, but tonight they let him cruise on by. Right there the police had a chance to save him, but they let him go past and onward towards doom. He was sixty two seconds from meeting his killer, and now only an old Italian man could save him.

He pulled up outside a row of takeaway shops. Got out. Eight seconds until things went bad for Alfo. One of the shops was still open. Alfo rapped the window and waved at Mario, who often threw him a free pizza when he came to visit his girl. Tonight he threw Alfo two extra seconds of life, but no more. Alfo started to jog down an alley between Mario’s shop and the one next door, and that was that. Nobody left to help. Nothing left to knock Alfo off his path towards disaster. Five seconds.

Alfo the Destroyer. His CV was impressive: enforcer, pimp, drug dealer, a right Jack of all illegal trades. When the police found this guy dead, they weren’t going to be surprised, and they weren’t going to care. No family member was going to sit at a press conference surrounded by grim-faced detectives and plead for justice. There would be no televised reconstruction showing his last movements. No cop was going to be at his desk until four in the morning, droopy-eyed but determined. If the police got his killer for the murder, it would be because he made a ghastly mistake like dropping his driver’s licence on top of the body.

The killer stepped out of a recessed fire exit in the wall of the chicken shop, where he had waited after he’d kicked in the side entrance of Alfo’s girlfriend’s ground-floor flat, just a few metres further down. He wore black biker leathers and a black helmet, and all that Alfo saw as he jogged past the fire exit was a flicker of shadows amongst other shadows. Enough to catch his eye, but not to spark concern. So when he felt a pain in his gut and his legs go weak, he did not know that he had been attacked. He sprawled on the littered concrete, cursed, rolled onto his back, and tried to sit up.

“What the fuck?” he moaned as he raised a hand close to his face. There was enough light for him to see the smear of liquid on his hand. The pain in his gut told the rest of the story.

He looked up as the black shadow moved away from the greater mass inside the doorway and took shape as a man. A man with a knife. And then Alfo’s eyes showed fear for the first time in a long time.

“Chopper,” he croaked. He tried to get to his feet, but his equilibrium was gone along with the strength in his legs. He feet slipped on concrete made slick by his own blood. He tumbled onto his back once more and stared up at the man in biker gear. He had heard about the killer called Chopper. Everyone around this part of London had. But the truth was he had never believed the guy was real. An underworld hitman who dressed in black biker leathers and rode a customised motorbike? Yeah, sure. This was some fucker playing copycat. One of his enemies playing a game. And with that thought, his fear took a hike.

“You’re a dead man,” he tried to shout, in part to show his resolve and in part to try to alert someone. Game-playing copycat or not, this guy meant him harm. Had already done him harm. But the shout came out as little more than a croak. The effort made his head spin. He tried to sit up again, but couldn’t. His blood was hot where it was smeared all over him, but inside he was starting to feel cold. Bad sign. With the last of his energy, he filled his lungs and tried again: “You’re a dead man!”

“Maybe,” Chopper said. His voice was low, maybe for effect, maybe because of the helmet, maybe because Alfo’s brain wasn’t hearing things right. “But I’ll never know until it’s too late. That’s how it works, Mr. Pitchford.”

Right then this whole thing became real. No way would one of his enemies have been so polite. The fear came back like a tsunami that washed away all hope. He felt himself starting to slip away as he accepted the inevitable, but managed to release two final words that came out as little more than gasps:

“Who? Why?”

“If you mean who sent me to kill you, I don’t know,” Chopper said, bending over him, bringing that knife closer. “And I never care why.”

****

Many a time some employee has been angry enough at his boss to consider smacking the guy and jacking his job in. Dale was one such guy. He worked a couple of morning shifts in the cafe at Athena Supermarket, the only male who did, and he had just been told to report to the office because he’d been caught spitting in a plate of food. The plate’s intended recipient had been an old lady who shopped there every Monday, bought exactly one week’s worth of supplies, and did her rounds along the aisles after a Famous Five breakfast. Last week she had complained about the beans being cold, so this week Dale put warm phlegm in her beans, and Mr Marsh saw him doing it through the hatch between the servery and the kitchen. Dale had threatened to kick Mr Marsh’s ass after the guy was gone, and this had gotten him a round of laughter from the ladies working alongside him.

So when Dale got into the office, he sat before the desk and looked not at James Marsh, but behind him, at the tiny bookshelf that held just a few paperback novels and something that looked like a picture frame that was dusty and tucked away in there as if it were a book. Above the book that obscured most of the frame, he saw a green-blue emblem and the words commando training centre, and ROYAL MARINES, and THE PARKER TROPHY. Just like the laughing ladies had said.

Dale felt his stomach lurch a little. He’d heard that the boss had been in the army way back, but had doubted it because Marsh never mentioned it. The way that picture frame was stacked in there with the books, mostly hidden, said James Marsh wasn’t one for showing off. Dale imagined it would be just like a former Marine Commando to not feel the need to.

“And here you are again, Dale,” Marsh said. “In that chair, facing me. On time today, though.”

Dale brought his eyes down to the man in question, but remained silent.

“So what was that about, Dale?” Marsh said, leaning back in his chair, arms folded.

“Why don’t you suck my dick?” had been the planned first response from Dale. He didn’t know what the Parker Trophy was all about, but he damned sure knew commandoes didn’t win awards for tidiest locker or good timekeeping. So his quickly revised opener was, “Sorry, Mr. Marsh, it’s just that that lady insulted me last Monday. I didn’t think. I just got annoyed.”

Marsh lifted a pen from the cluttered desk and spun it around his fingers. That was the only weapon these bastards in suits could threaten him with, Dale figured. A pen to write him up with. “That was Mrs Taylor, Dale. Mrs Taylor was a midwife way back. She actually delivered half the people who live on this street. Lisa from the bakery, the one whose daughter you keep asking out, she was one of them. If Lisa had caught you doing that, instead of me, she’d have torn your eyes out. Think yourself lucky it was only me.”

Dale tried not to look at that picture frame. Part of his brain was telling him the guy sitting across from him was old now: early forties, wife and kid, soft, weak, his army days long behind him. Gun swapped for a pen. Dale could still give the guy shit. But if he was wrong? Marsh was still tall, obviously, and not fat. Still had his dark hair, youthful eyes, and those nimble fingers that juggled apples to impress the checkout girls and twirled pens like mini batons when he was in boss-mode, which wasn’t often. Maybe the guy still had some skills. And wasn’t the army a brotherhood? Maybe Marsh still had close friends from those days, guys who wouldn’t mind grouping up to teach a lesson to some young punk who’d picked a fight with their pal. He decided to be cautious. The old cronies in the cafe had laughed at Dale’s threat against this guy for a reason.

“Are you listening, Dale?”

Marsh had continued to talk. Dale had missed it. Unsure what to say, he just nodded.

“We’re not the only supermarket serving this estate, Dale. It’s only half a mile to the nearest major rival, that new Tesco Express on Church Drive. Then there’s the Seven Sisters’ market. The Seven Sisters underground is five minutes away…”

The lecture continued. Some bullshit about how they needed to keep their customers. Exactly the sort of crap Dale had expected to hear. He lost interest again and stifled a yawn, then wished he hadn’t. Couldn’t get in trouble for a natural bodily function, after all. He looked at the detritus scattered on the desk, at charts and staff notices pinned on the walls, and he relaxed. This guy was no fucking commando any more. He was a suit behind a desk. Fuck him.

“…You understand?”

Understand what? He’d missed the speech again. So he just nodded again. And felt his anger rising. He didn’t need a pep talk. He was beginning to doubt that this middle-aged guy could take him in a fight. He yearned for a fight. He was good at it. He liked fighting. The cops had said so. His own mother had said so. Plenty of wannabe tough guys down the local pubs knew it. Court records proved it. But he held his tongue, because of Friday night. In fact, thinking about Friday night started him worrying. What the hell had he been thinking? He couldn’t lose this job, not now. He needed the warehouse shift he had on Friday nights. So he bit down on his pride and apologised.

Marsh seemed satisfied with the apology, totally unaware of the vile taste it had left in Dale’s mouth. He stopped twirling his pen. Boss-mode seemed to slip out of him. “So here’s what we’re going to do…”

A few minutes later, Dale left the office. He went to the cafe and collected his bag, and told the ladies there that, nah, he wasn’t in trouble, but had been given the afternoon off to calm down. And they believed him, because nobody had been fired from Athena Supermarket in over three years. He went outside, into the morning sunshine, and pulled out his mobile phone. He dialled a number from memory. He was quite scared now, because of Friday night. He stared across the road, at the Sandhorse Estate, the lifeblood of Athena Supermarket, and wondered where in that working-class maze lay the home of the silly old bitch who’d caused all this. He wanted to go there tonight and spit right in her face, never mind her beans.

“It’s me,” he said when the call was answered with a stiff Yes? “There might be a problem. I might be getting fired.”

No response for a few seconds, then just one word spoken: “Explain.”

The phone was shaking against his ear, Dale’s fear increasing rapidly. He spoke in a nervous, broken voice, while cursing himself for being such an idiot with that woman’s beans, or at least for getting caught.

“I got in trouble and the assistant manager sent me home for the afternoon. Nowt official, but he’s going to talk to the big boss tomorrow morning, when the guy comes in. A disciplinary. I…I might get fired.”

Again that silence. Then: “We need you there Friday night.”

Dale shrugged, as if they could see it. “Sorry. We’ll see tomorrow.” He had never had a problem with these people and they paid him well, but he suspected they were the sort you didn’t want to piss off. And his getting fired would certainly piss them off.

After another silence the voice spoke again. “Turn up to work tomorrow as if nothing happened. Mention nothing about the disciplinary to anyone.”

"I can't just do that. What about the manager? If I just turn up -"

The voice cut in sharply: “Don’t worry about him.”

Then the line went dead.

****

Einar was stepping up to the smiling ticket desk agent at London City Airport, to book a seat on the next plane to Nice, France, when his phone beeped. A text message.

While he read, the lady continued to smile. She smiled at him as he stepped away from the desk. One less annoying customer to deal with today. Einar rushed out of the terminal and found the car rental building. The receptionist looked concerned as he approached her, but was pleasantly surprised when he said he wanted back the Audi A1 Sportback that he’d dropped off just an hour ago.

He fired up the Satnav. It was eight miles to his destination, a gym on a side street off Northumberland Avenue, near Trafalgar Square. He spent some time trying to find a parking space, then made his way to the address on his text message. The entrance was a recessed glass door in a row of such and he found it only because of a sticker on the glass showing a cartoon man struggling under a barbell. There was an intercom, which unnerved him because he didn’t want to have to talk his way inside. But when he pressed it, no voice asked him what he wanted. The door simply clicked unlocked.

Einar took a tall flight of thin wooden steps to the next floor, where another door led into a corridor. Immediately to his left was a door that said LOCKERS. Five metres to the right, the corridor opened out into a vast area with exercise machines and thumping music and men grunting as they built muscle. He couldn’t see a reception desk anywhere and there were no cameras on the walls, so he quickly pushed through the door marked LOCKERS before anyone saw him.

The changing room stank of sweat. The lockers were tall and arranged in aisles. In each aisle was a long bench. There was a shower area at the back. Half-dressed men were on the benches, naked ones in the showers. There was laughter and swearing. Einar’s suit got a few smiles, and his lack of a bag a couple of concerned stares. But nobody paid him attention for long, which was good. Even executives liked to keep fit, apparently.

He went to the furthest aisle, the one by the long streetside window. There was just one guy on the bench in this aisle, and he was too busy drying his ball with a grimy towel to notice as Einar sat and felt under the wood. His fingers found a key taped right where the text message had said it would be: directly across from the pane of glass with a NO SMOKING sticker in the corner.

Einar took the key to the locker matching its number, 104. Inside locker was nothing but a brown envelope and a stench of ancient sweat. Pushing up close to the locker to shield the envelope, he opened it without extracting it. There was enough light pouring over his shoulder for him to peruse the contents.

There was a photo of a man in a shirt and trousers, caught in the act of leaving a building with glass double doors. Looked like his place of work. There was a yellow sticky note at the bottom that gave the name of the condemned man, the mark. On a separate sticky note was the job description in script too small to read in the dim light. He had to peel it away and hold it close to his face.

Method: “No Preference.” That was good. If the mark had been targeted by people who could be connected to him, Einar would have been instructed to make the death look like an accident, or the work of someone else. Always a pain in the ass. But in this case the paymasters did not fear police scrutiny, so Einar could set the kill up however he liked. Use his imagination.

Payment: “£25,000.” Not even close to the highest fee Einar had been paid, but some of his kills had involved convoluted planning, and the fees reflected that. But this was a “no preference” job, a simple murder, and for that £25,000 was adequate.

Einar furrowed his eyebrows as he saw the final line on the note. This was a first. He read it again, to be sure he had it right. It said the job was “not yet green-lit” and he would receive a go or abort order at 5 o’clock today, which was three hours from now. Did he understand this correctly? He was not yet hired? Come 5 o’clock, he would either get the confirmation to go ahead, or be told not to bother? He was supposed to wait around for three hours? For a job he might not get?

Einar was incensed. He had been in this game a long time, and he knew the “not yet green-lit” claim was a lie. The paymasters wanted him to think that the hit on the mark might yet be cancelled, but he knew the truth was different: they were shopping around, trying to find a better deal, as if they sought car insurance rather than a contract killer. Einar would get a green light only if they didn’t find someone to do the job cheaper. It explained why he’d been given no addresses for the mark: to make sure he didn’t kill the guy early and demand payment.

Einar took the file and left the gym. Well, he would not waste time treading water for three hours. It made no sense to begin his search for the mark after he got the green light. When the go order came, he wanted the man already in his sights.

So Einar began his hunt for his latest target:

JAMES MARSH.

***

Inkwell Court was such a rotten hellhole that they could have thrown a fence around it and called it a prison. Chopper dealt with scumbags all the time, but he didn’t trust how unpredictable they could be. And this tower block was full of them. It oozed them like a carcass engorged with maggots. He left his motorbike outside with the fear that it wouldn’t be there when he returned, and he took the piss-stained lift half expecting to be robbed of his wallet before he got to the floor he needed. But the only person he shared part of his journey with was an old black lady with a dog, and she left his wallet alone.

The doors opened on floor four and he stepped off, and three guys in baseball caps and onesies got on, laughing, sharing a spliff. They threw him a glance, then ignored him. In dark leathers and a black helmet, he knew he struck an imposing sight. One thing about scumbags: they could sense badness in their presence and take appropriate care.

As he stepped out, Chopper almost collided with a guy in a suit who was walking past. Round here, a guy in a suit was either headed to court to face a charge or representing someone else who was. The guy took the stairs and was gone, obviously eager to be away from this cesspit.

The flats were arranged on an inset deck open to the elements. He lost count of the number of screaming babies and screaming mothers he heard as he passed doorway after doorway. Heard some guy screaming at a sports event on TV. Pretty sure he heard a couple screaming while having sex or killing each other, even though the bedrooms were on the far side of the flats.

The door he needed was painted blue and white, the colours of Chelsea football team. The guy who answered his knock appeared at the door in a long Chelsea football shirt. It seemed to be all the guy wore, the garment far too big and reaching halfway down his thighs. As the guy nodded at him and turned and walked deeper into the flat, Chopper was relieved to see the shirt ride up a little and expose boxer shorts. He followed the man inside.

He was in a short, gloomy hallway with open doors in the walls. First on the left led to a living room that was quite well kitted out. Magazines were strewn everywhere, but that was the extent of the mess, although almost every piece of furniture and decoration was dated. There was a three-piece suite, a cheap dining table against a wall, under a panoramic cityscape photo in an ancient frame. The TV was a thin, new model without a stand that was propped against a wall. The carpet was floral but faded, and clean, which was a massive surprise because Davey was a straggly little man with blotchy skin and forever dirty fingertips. Chopper had expected his home to look like the inside of a wheelie bin.

Davey went to the window, knelt on the sofa beneath it and angled the horizontal blinds so that sunlight but not eyesight could penetrate. He lit the pipe he’d been chewing when he opened the door and black vapour rose from it. He collapsed onto the sofa and stared at Chopper.

“Casa suck casa,” he said, waving a hand.

Chopper didn’t bother to correct his Spanish. He looked at the new TV and saw its stand on the floor, next to a screwdriver. Something bothered him about it.

“So how did you do it, man? How did The Destroyer go out?”

Chopper didn’t answer. He had known Davey a long time, but they were not friends. And Davey sometimes needed reminding of that. Chopper stuck out his hand, his way of saying Davey should cut the bullshit small talk and get down to business. And the business was money.

Davey understood that part well enough. Without another word, he went to the old fireplace and lifted a sandwich shop paper bag containing something oblong. He held out the package and Chopper took it. It was greasy. He slid out a bundle of used notes with an elastic band wrapped around the middle. The edges of the notes curled, giving the bundle the shape of a bow tie. Some piece of melted cheese from inside the bag had smeared on the top £10 note. Chopper felt the weight of the bundle and glared at Davey.

He held out his hand again.

“Where’s the rest?”

He was surely he actually heard Davey gulp. “There’s another job for you, man. Twenty grand for this one. It just came in a few minutes ago. Well urgent and important. Same dude who ordered the Alfo whack.”

Chopper was thankful for the shadow thrown by his helmet’s raised visor. It meant Davey couldn’t see those eyes open wide at the mention of another job, this one a biggie. Chopper resisted asking about the job and continued to stare, continued to hold his hand out. Continued to keep up his pissed-off act.

Davey was in front of the TV, which Chopper looked at again. Then his eyes scanned the room and saw a box jammed between the side of the sofa and the wall. He could only see one end, but the shape was similar to that of the flat screen TV. That TV was the only modern thing in the whole flat, which Chopper knew Davey had taken over from his grandmother after her death. He must have inherited all the furniture, but he’d recently bought that TV. Very recently.

Davey rushed to the fireplace, but this time reached up to a magazine shelf above it and plucked down a brown A4 envelope from amongst the publications. He held it out. “Take this, man. New job. Twenty grand. Twenty big ones. I didn’t think you’d miss four hundred out of five grand, man, sorry, not with this big twenty grand coming your way. I thought it could be my pay for getting you this new job.”

“You thought that, yet this job just came in a few minutes ago and you obviously bought that TV a lot earlier.”

Davey’s mouth moved for a long time before he spoke. If he’d been talking himself out of what he yearned to say, he’d failed. “You never pay me, man. I do this shit for free.” He took a step back, as if fearing his latest utterance might have overstepped a line.

Chopper snatched the envelope and took a step towards Davey, who looked terrified. Davey had gotten him the Destroyer job, and now, apparently, another one that was even bigger. But he had stolen from Chopper, and the hitman couldn’t help but wonder what it might do for his reputation if he let it slide.

But Davey was a good man. He was polite to people, never caused his neighbours a problem, and never peddled the dope he got hold of. Not a guy anyone really had cause to dislike. And he had just handed over an envelope that might be worth twenty grand and a step up in the world of contract killing.

So Chopper killed his anger. He pointed at the TV. “That’s mine, you understand?” Davey nodded. “I’m going to leave it here for now so you can watch it, because I don’t need it cluttering space in my house. But the moment I need it back, I snap my fingers and you come running with it, right? I literally mean you pick it up and run down the street with it. Immediately.” Davey nodded again, fast.

Chopper moved over to the window for more light. Already he was nervous. All these years working at the low-end, and finally it looked as if word had gotten out to the right pair of ears. Apprenticeship over. Big league beckoning. Maybe next time he’d get paid in a swanky hotel room somewhere, and not some putrid tower block. The money in a briefcase, not a paper bag. No cheese stains in sight. Exotic locations, not grimy alleyways. Targets who ran corporations and governments, instead of slimy criminals condemned by other scumbags. He opened the envelope with shaking fingers.

Inside was a big colour photo of the target, a long shot taken from across the road, capturing the man as he left the entrance of a place called Athena Supermarket. Scrawled on one of two sticky notes attached to the photo was the man’s name:

JAMES MARSH.

***

James Marsh parked his Ford Transit panel van near a corner of the car park and exited. The carpark was at the rear of a terrace of shops and he had to circle around to approach the cafe from the front.

The early teatime crowd was a mix of suits from the office building across the road and builders from the scaffolding enveloping its first three floors, all men. He had to squeeze between the backs of people’s chairs to reach the table where his wife and daughter waited for him. Strangely, it was only the businessmen who seemed put out by the proximity of his ass to their heads as he threaded his way to the rear of the cafe.

He sat down and his four year-old daughter, Louise, skipped off the seat next to her mum and slotted herself onto Jimmy's lap. He had to scoot his chair back five inches to allow this, and heard a tut when it hit the back of the chair behind him. He did not look round at the three grimy builders who were devouring plates of grease moulded into sausage- and egg-shapes.

Maria looked at her watch. “Where have you been? We were about to leave. I ordered you a muffin but we ate it.”

Jimmy noted the empty plate in front of him. And the chocolate smeared around Louise’s mouth. The little lady grinned at him, showing chocolate all over her teeth. He stared at his wife, his mouth open but no words coming.

Maria was thirty-one, ten years younger than her husband, and looked good for it. She didn’t like her legs, so always wore trousers or jeans, but she was impressed with her waistline and preferred clothing that showed it off. Her shirt was elasticised at the bottom and ended above her bellybutton. Jimmy was always aware of the looks she got from other men. It was a reminder that he was no longer young and fit. He could feel men watching her right now. Corner of the eye stuff. Maybe wondering why she was with an older guy. She liked to show off her neck, too, so opted for a blonde bob haircut. Louise had a similar hairstyle and was always trying to get her daddy to dye his hair the same colour.

“Sorry, got caught up with something,” Jimmy said eventually. Massively vague, but the truth at least. “You get much work done today?”

She shrugged. She was a home agent. He didn’t know much about what she did, but the money wasn’t great and it involved a lot of time on the computer. Customer service of some ilk for an online clothing store. Aimed at mothers, staffed by mothers. She never really talked about her work because there was nothing worth gossiping about.

“And how’s my pea been?” Jimmy said, squeezing Louise’s cheeks.

“Lou Lou played in garden,” Louise said. “Finding sticky.” Sticky was her nickname for spiders. She had caught a face full of web a few days back when entering her Wendy house, and since then had developed a fascination with spiders. They often found her searching corners for them. Maria considered it abnormal behaviour for a child that should be playing with dolls. Jimmy thought it would help her later against bullies who preyed on fears and weaknesses. Maria thought that outlook was abnormal, too.

“I got a call from the estate agent this morning,” Maria said. “Apparently there was a subsidence claim against our house, back in the eighties, and because of that they need ninety-three pounds to do some sort of check or test or something. Mum never mentioned it, for some reason.”

“She probably didn’t know it would rear up,” Jimmy said. “Years ago.” He picked chocolate crumbs off the plate before him and swallowed them. It was purely to give his nervous hands something to do. Louise took his keys from his hand and started counting them aloud. He pretended to concentrate on his daughter, but his mind was in turmoil. And not because of some old claim her parents had put in against a construction company.

“She’s bought a house before. Thought she might have known.”

“Don’t worry about it. Ninety-three quid. It’s only one long day’s work.” He saw her face and added, “Hey, I know, you spend half the money you’ll make on the house trying to sell it. But you want that cottage, don’t you?”

“I do. I just don’t like being taken for a ride. Blinking estate agents. I bet this is some new trick to suck money from people, because nobody’s buying houses these days.”

Jimmy cupped his hands around his eyes. “Tunnel vision, Maria. Get in the zone. See darkness on all sides, and a shining light at the end with a lovely little cottage just sitting there, waiting for us.”

They lived in Muswell Hill in a four-bedroom home her parents had given them as a wedding present nine years ago, but recently had become bored with the area. Maria worked from home and hated being cooped up inside while a busy world rushed about around her, so she had suggested they move out of the city. There was a cottage he had found in a village called Lamberhurst. It was in Surrey, but was less than an hour’s drive from where they lived. Jimmy had already said that the commute to London wouldn’t kill him. There was a forest and a river and an adventure play park where Louise could run wild, and there were four other cottages on that plot, so they wouldn’t want for company. Maria wanted it badly. Jimmy just wanted Marie to be happy.

“I’ll sort it, then,” Maria said. “I told Anna that I’d take Louise to play with Cullen about now.” She made a show of checking her watch.

Laying on the guilt, nice and thick. “Hey, I said sorry. Work problem.”

“Bag of rice fall of a shelf?”

“That’s silly. It was flour.”

He smiled at her, but she didn’t smile back. He figured it was the ninety-three pounds thing, but then his daughter asked him why Daddy was sad, and he knew the problem was not his tardiness. He wiped his brow and felt moisture there. Both girls were staring at him, which just made things worse. He could feel his face flushing. They knew something was up.

“I’ll come with you to the car,” he said. He put Louise on her chair and stood, turning away, making a show of sliding his own chair under the table just so he wouldn’t have to face his wife. He heard Louise hop off her chair and copy his actions, but when he turned back, Maria hadn’t moved.

“Jimmy, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Unless that bag of flour fell off a high shelf and killed a kid and it was your fault, then it’s something else.”

He shrugged. “It’s nothing. Stressful day. All work-based, I promise. No big deal. Bore you to death. Shall we go?”

She didn’t buy that, but didn’t press it. They left the cafe. Maria had left their car at the front of the car park, so they kissed there and parted. Jimmy crossed the car park and climbed into his van and stared at the wing mirror, watching as Maria drove away. He waited until she was gone, then started the engine. And then killed it again. His hands were shaking. He checked his watch and saw it was just turning four p.m. He checked his face in the visor mirror and saw the worry in his eyes and a tic in his lip that made it shiver like that of a child on the verge of tears. He looked worn out, stressed, and was not surprised Maria had gotten concerned.

He rubbed his face hard. Sat back. Sat there for five whole minutes, just thinking, and occasionally staring at the item resting on his passenger seat. But mostly staring through the windscreen, at a blank brick wall along the back of the car park.

He was reaching for the ignition key to start the engine when the van rocked to a loud thump at the back. Jimmy cast his eyes to the wing mirror and saw a car behind his van, its brake lights on. The car park was barely half-full and there were easier spaces to get to near the front, but for some reason this idiot had chosen that specific spot. And now look.

He slammed open his door and stormed out. He had pent-up frustration that needed venting, so the guy who’d just reversed into him was going to eat a share for his stupidity.

The car was a black four-door Golf. It moved forward, away from the van, and for a second Jimmy thought the driver was going to flee, maybe because he had no insurance. Then the vehicle stopped. Jimmy reached the back of his van and looked for damage. He saw none, and a quick glance at the Golf displayed none on its rear, either.

All four doors opened on the Golf and four young black men stepped out, very quickly. At the same time, the car’s boot automatically popped and slowly rose open like a giant mouth.

“Jesus, mate, brake slipped, sorry,” said the black guy nearest him, the one who’d exited at the rear on Jimmy’s side. He was just feet away, moving closer, hands raised in a gesture of apology. The two on the other side of the car had vanished. Jimmy was suddenly aware of the box-like nature of the brick walls in this corner of the car park.

“No problem,” Jimmy said casually, then lifted a boot and thrust it forward, right into the guy’s chest. The guy grunted in pain and fell back against the one behind him, and down went both. Jimmy turned and started to run. He ran alongside the van and past, meaning to scale the wall to escape, and that was when he collided with the two other black guys, who had obviously circled his vehicle so they could approach him from behind. All three went down hard. A hand grabbed Jimmy’s hair and he slammed a fist hard into the face above the arm that hand was attached to. He started to rise, then fell again, this time under the weight of someone on top of him.

At first, Jimmy had suspected a carjacking, although it was beyond him why anyone would want an eight year-old diesel Transit. Then he heard one of his attackers say, “You’re coming with us, arsehole,” and he realised his error. They were after him, not his van. This was a kidnapping. And he thought he knew why.

He thrashed and shouted, but arms clamped his limbs and hands smothered his mouth. If he hoped to be rescued by a witness amongst the few people on the street fifty metres away, he soon lost that hope, because ten seconds after he had exited his van, he was thrown into the open boot of the Golf, into a world that was all darkness when the lid slammed above him.

***

The lark with the deadline of 5 o’clock meant there was an urgency to the hit, and that meant James Marsh had to be in London. It would make no sense to have a contract killer in London wait three hours before being told he had to travel to Wales, or Germany, or France, although France would have been handy because Einar had an apartment in Nice – it was not exactly his home, for he deemed himself to have none, but it was the place he most often drifted to when not working. And if James Marsh was in London, that made him much easier to find, despite the common name.

It was easier than he thought. He pulled his phone and hit the Internet. Started with LinkedIn, the social networking service for professionals. And there, third on the list of James Marshes, was the guy he sought. He recognised the face immediately. He clicked on the profile. James Marsh, manager at Athena Supermarket in the London Borough of Haringey. Before that job, he’d gained a BSc in Business Management and Statistics from Royal College London. And before that: Troop Commander, Royal Marines, 3 Commando Brigade.

Einar paused here. 3 Commando Brigade. And a Troop Commander. Tough guy, then. Einar skimmed over the rest and typed something else into his search engine. While the page loaded, he thought about what he’d just read. So James Marsh had been a Royal Marine Commando, and quite good at it. But he had left before he was thirty. It was almost ten years’ service, which would give the guy some skills, but for the last ten years or so he had been a civilian. Those skills would have rusted.

Einar shook his head, as if to clear it. What was he thinking? Worrying, just because a mark had once been a trained killer? He’d been up against killers before. He smiled at his own silliness.

The page had loaded. He had searched for Athena Supermarket, and there was only one in London. He typed the postcode into his phone’s Satnav.

It was barely seven miles. Einar loved that about London: everything crowded everything else. But he didn’t love the traffic, and it took him almost half an hour to reach his destination.

The supermarket seemed swamped by its own carpark, like a toddler wearing his dad’s shoes. It was a one-storey structure of glass and bricks painted green, like some giant kid’s playhouse.

Einar parked as far from the building as he could, right by the main road, just across from the edge of a housing estate. In the boot of the Audi was a clipboard with driving safety instructions on a single sheet of paper. Einar flipped the sheet around so the blank side faced, and carried the clipboard against his chest as he strolled across the car park.

Inside, he made straight for the customer service desk. It was manned by a girl in her late teens with giant earrings, chewing on something but trying to hide it. She was facing forward, but her eyes were cast downwards. She was pretty, but Einar felt teenage girls had no individuality. They all looked the same to him, as babies did. He approached silently, until he was close enough to peer over the counter and see that she was texting on a mobile phone. He rapped the desk, and her eyes flew up. At first they settled on his handsome, caramel face, and he saw them light up. He knew the effect he had on females. Then her eyes took in the suit, and the clipboard, and her look turned to one of concern.

“Joseph Cook, is he available?” Einar said. He had already spotted the frame on the wall behind her. Photos of smiling staff members, arranged in a pyramid, their names and roles beneath their pictures. One Joseph Cook, General Manager, a handsome black man whose smile looked legit, sat at the top. Below was James Marsh, the same photo as his LinkedIn profile. Assistant Manager. The word ASSISTANT hadn’t been on the profile.

The girl shook her head. Mr. Cook was off today, back tomorrow. Mr Marsh was the duty manager today, but he had gone out for lunch and was late back. Could she help?

In other words, What’s going on?

No, he told her. I’m from trading standards, and I need to speak to a manager, quickly. “We’ve had complaints from customers who bought a horror book here with a review on the back that said ‘guaranteed to keep you up all night.’ And they all managed to sleep fine.”

She gave him a look that was part shock and part bewilderment. Maybe she didn’t know what a book was. She recovered quickly and offered to find Mr. Cook’s mobile phone number, but Einar declined. Then he gave her a winning smile. How about an address for Mr. Marsh? So I can do this unofficially. Don’t want to shut this place down, still feel bad about the last place I was at. No letter P in the alphabet spaghetti. Such a shame.

He was aware of a security camera high on the wall behind the desk. Nothing he could do about that now. But if ever somebody decided to review them after James Marsh’s death, would they really care about a smart guy in a suit who showed up here on the same day that one of the managers died?

She left her chair and went through a door in the back wall. Came back quickly with a battered address book and showed him a page. And there was Marsh’s address and phone number. He memorised both in half a second and then looked away. Told the girl it didn’t matter, wouldn’t be polite to call a manager at home. Said he would be back tomorrow to speak to Mr. Cook. Thanked her and left.

Outside, he kicked himself. He had Marsh’s full name and could easily have found the address using his phone, or one of his many contacts in this city. So what had he been playing at, going into Marsh’s place of work? Bad enough that the surveillance cameras had logged him and that he had made himself memorable to that girl. But what if both managers had been in the office? What would he have done then? What would have happened if the girl had hollered and Messrs Cook and Marsh had appeared?

Too late now to worry about such things. So he got into his car and typed the address he’d memorised. Marsh’s house was another twenty minutes away. The time was just after four. One hour to go.

The house was a detached entity halfway down a cul-de-sac in the middle of an urban maze. It had a square lawn bordered by a low hedge. A driveway on the side led all the way to the back yard. There were children’s toys scattered on the lawn. So, Marsh might have children.

He drove past the house and towards the turnaround at the end of the cul-de-sac, where there was a small island with colourful flowers and a single wooden bench. An old lady sat there with a cup of tea by her side. Einar got the impression she was there a lot. And the bench faced back down the road, which meant she had watched him arrive and would watch him leave. But she was old, and maybe, if ever the police needed to talk to her about people who might have visited the late Mr and Mrs Marsh, her memory wouldn’t hold up.

He drove around the island. The woman ignored him. She seemed to be in some trance-like state. Maybe she thought she was in her living room, watching TV.

He drove back down the road and parked across from Marsh’s house. He pretended to consult his clipboard, while his eyes scanned the road and the houses and his mirrors. They caught movement ahead. He watched as a car turned into the cul-de-sac and came towards him. Head lowered, clipboard held right under his chin so it was high enough that anyone watching him from one of the houses could see it, he followed the car with his eyes.

A silver Mondeo, ten years old. It stopped outside Marsh’s house. Right across from him, just feet away. From the corner of his eye, he saw a woman exit. In her thirties, quite pretty, with blonde hair in a bob. She started to help a child out of the back seat. The kid looked only four or five, had the same haircut, which Einar found cute. He knew instantly that this was Marsh’s family. The knowledge dumped a heavy ball of concern deep in his gut.

He had figured a middle-aged man like Marsh might have a wife and kids, and they were going to have to die, too. It wasn’t in the contract, but Einar had a curious quirk when it came to a mark’s family. He himself was the ultimate proof why this woman and her daughter had to die. He had killed family members before, but here was the first time he had seen a mark’s loved ones up close. He didn’t like the feeling.

Once she’d freed the child from the car, Marsh’s wife turned her head and looked right at him. He twisted away from her and leaned over the passenger seat so he could rifle in the glove box. So he could give her his back, hide his face. As he did so, he looked at the house across from the Marsh’s. Or rather, the gap between that house and the next. He saw something he liked. His mind started to work on something.

He didn’t know how long he stared at the house, but it must have been a while because when he heard a door slam and turned his head, Marsh’s wife was standing on her doorstep and now wore jogging bottoms and a baggy T-shirt. Her blonde hair was swept back in a headband. She had gone inside, dropped off the kid and changed her clothing while Einar was entranced by a burgeoning plan.

This time he just stared at her, no pretending to read from a clipboard. She crossed the garden and dropped to her knees by the hedge, started digging at the soil it was planted in. He was a man in a suit, driving a flash Audi, and people would only find him memorable if he acted cautiously. So he got out and waved to the woman in the garden. She stood up, caught sight of his handsome face, and self-consciously smoothed at her grubby clothing, as if embarrassed.

“Mrs Marsh?” he called out in his finest English accent.

She dropped a trowel she was holding. Folded her arms over her chest almost nervously. “Who are you?”

He approached the hedge and extended a hand over it. His clipboard was clutched to his chest. Beyond her, he could see the child at the window, peering out. “Ronald Chester. I work for BMW.” He handed over a business card, which she briefly looked at. Then she looked at his car.

“Strange, I know. They have a million BMWs, and they give us reps rented Audis to drive around in. Have you got a few minutes?”

She handed the card back and he put it in his pocket.

Right there, with that little act of showing her the business card, he was committing himself to the murder of this woman and her family. Somebody would soon report Ronald Chester missing, and his details would go out on the airwaves, including the fact that he had last been seen at his place of work, a BMW showroom, when he took a customer out for a test drive. Nobody would ever find the car or his body, but this woman would remember meeting a Ronald Chester who worked for BMW, and she would tell the police, and they would look into it, and with luck could start to unravel everything.

Unless she couldn’t tell anyone anything.

“You okay?” the woman said. Einar smiled, aware that he must have drifted off for a second or two as he thought about that morning’s kill, and what evidence he might have left, might be leaving right now. Why he seemed to be getting more sloppy and taking more risks lately.

“Sure am, ma’am. I was wondering if you had a few minutes. We’re contacting the families of former members of the British Army. We are launching a new off-road vehicle soon, and there’s a promotion we have in the works. If your husband qualifies, you might be entitled to a free vehicle.”

She looked briefly at her own car, and he knew he had her. Free shit always got people’s attention.

She rubbed at her hair as if embarrassed by the headband. “Sure. Come on in for a minute, if you promise that you’re not selling stuff.”

“Scouts honour,” Einar said. A minute later, he was inside the home of the family he planned to kill, drinking their tea.

***

All the separate areas of fire spread like ink on blotting paper until they merged as one and consumed him. After that, it was as if his brain decided there was no further need to tell the body it was injured because it was so bloody obvious. Slowly the pain dulled to a throb all over. Jimmy found his concentration returning. He looked up at the four men who had been beating him for at least half an hour now.

Three of them wore bright jackets of mixed colours, but he focussed on the taller amongst them, whose dark clothing pegged him as the leader. He was also the one who threw his punches and kicks without a word, which showed his professionalism amid the shrieking laughter of his other tormentors.

“On the chair,” the leader said. The others moved to pick Jimmy off the concrete floor. He fought it, which was a mistake. The leader stepped forward and raised a foot. It came down on Jimmy’s head like a mineshaft cave-in.

He woke to find himself in a chair, a belt or something similar around his neck, pulled tight to force his shoulders against the backrest, preventing movement. Two of the others held a thigh each pressed down hard onto the seat. He felt the fourth man fiddling with his ankle. When all four moved away, he sat frozen. Now he saw what ankle-man had been up to. He was chained by the leg to a rusty iron gym weight with peeling paint.

He remembered where they’d brought him. An abandoned swimming pool, one of those roofless ones built in the early part of the last century. Popular and beautiful back then, but home only to rats and squatters now. And there was the pool, just a few feet before him. It was filled, surprisingly. Nice, clear water.

His kidnappers’ plan was clear. Deep water before him, a heavy weight around his ankle. Despite knowing what they had planned, he started to calm down. There was no physical fight left in him. If he wanted to survive this, he was going to have to use his brain.

The leader stepped before him, right into the tiny gap between Jimmy’s feet and the pool. He stared down and Jimmy stared up. The man now held a knife, a long beast with tape around the handle and impressions in the tape where fingers had squeezed it over time. He jabbed it sharply into Jimmy’s knee, right into the bone, and new fire burned.

“You die today, cocksucker,” the man said, grinning. A statement meant to scare.

“It’s too early,” Jimmy croaked. “What time is it?”

The leader laughed. One of his cronies checked his watch and said, “It’s quarter to five. What’s he on about?”

The leader ignored him. “Today you die violently, cocksucker. I’m asking if you know why.”

Jimmy hung his head. This made the leader laugh again.

“You was seen, cocksucker,” he yelled. “Look at your executioner when he’s talking to you.”

He lifted a knee, fast. Jimmy saw it coming, and made an adjustment, and for the second time his temple took a shot that was meant to smash his nose. His head rocked back hard enough to yank the chair over. As his head hit the concrete, Jimmy felt the rickety wooden chair disintegrate beneath him. Just before his consciousness swam away, he heard:

“Christ, we need another chair…”

“…chair, okay,” a different voice finished. Or said later. Yes, later, he realised as lucidity came back. He had gone out again. Now he was back and tied again, this time in a different wooden chair. He knew it was a different one because bits of the original one were floating in the pool.

Hands touched his shoulder, and a voice spoke into his ear. Now the man in dark colours was behind him and Jimmy knew the man’s placement was so he could tilt the chair forward and pitch Jimmy into his liquid grave.

“It’s too early,” he said.

The three men watching from the side laughed. Their leader didn’t. He told them to shut up. Then the voice was right back by Jimmy’s ear.

“What are you talking about, cocksucker?” Then to one of his pals: “Cub, Bruce Lee this guy if he doesn’t answer my next question instantly.”

What happened next took barely a second. One of the colourful trio threw a roundhouse kick. Jimmy had been fast enough to avoid the full brunt of a head-butt and a knee, both thrown from up close. But he wasn’t as fast as that kick. A training shoe hit him flush on the nose, breaking it. Blood flew outwards and fire spread inwards. He heard the leader spit something like You arse, I said if he doesn’t answer my – and then everything faded, and he thought that was good, because at least for a time these men would go away…

..."- away from us, did you?"

Hello again, lucidity. Jimmy stared into the eyes of the leader, now in front of him once again.

“Tell me why I’m to die,” Jimmy said, spitting blood that had dribbled into his mouth from his ruined nose. “I deserve to know.”

The leader grabbed his face. Jimmy tensed for another strike, but this time the man in dark colours only put his face close to Jimmy’s.

“You were seen, cocksucker. Seen snooping around yesterday, around the warehouse where we had our rave. Some supermarket manager one of my guys recognised. So why would some shop guy be in a suit, taking photos of a crappy old warehouse? And then the next day The Destroyer turns up dead. Killed by The Chopper, according to one of my guys. You snooping around that day, then my boy gets killed that night? I don’t do coincidences, so yeah, you know something about it, you know this bike riding freak, and you’d better…”

The words continued, but they faded like the end of a song. He didn’t hear the words and he didn’t feel the spit hitting his face. He heard nothing as his mind raced. Not even his own wild laughter.

***

There was a neatness to the house that Einar associated with James Marsh’s army past. Marines had to keep their barracks spotless. Either Marsh was hands-on, or he hounded the woman, Maria, to do his cleaning. Maybe he simply enjoyed a pleasant house. But maybe the cleaning was a hard habit to break, even after so many years out of the service. Einar wondered how much of the man’s combat training might also be irreparably ingrained into the man’s brain.

Einar sat on the sofa and Maria took a seat across from him. She looked him up and down while he pretended to scan something on his clipboard.

“Do you mind if I ask where you’re from? You sound like a Londoner, but…” She trailed off, and he knew it was because she feared she might say something offensive. He understood, though. His skin marked him as neither Congoid nor Caucasian, but somewhere in the middle. Some had assumed he was mixed race, but that wasn’t the case. His people descended from Polynesians and Micronesians, but he was a Nauruan. Born and bred in Nauru, a tiny island in the South Pacific Ocean, the world’s second smallest sovereign state after Vatican City. In the sixties and seventies the Nauruans had the highest income per capita in the world. Today they were the most obese people on the planet. Probably why weightlifting was one of the national sports.

“I’ve never heard of Nauru,” Maria said. “And you aren’t obese.” She eyed him up and down and made sure he saw it. He barely saw it, because part of his mind was turning back the years. These days he hardly thought about the tiny island in Micronesia where he was born, thirty two years ago. He had last set foot there twelve years ago, not a vast amount of time, but he had been through so much since that it felt like five times that, like a whole lifetime. And he was never going back.

He had been born Valdon, an only child of parents who didn’t plan him. His mother “did her best”, to quote the old cliché, but after her death, his father lost interest. He worked longer hours because he had no wife to return home to. Valdon, left virtually alone, without another’s affection, retreated into himself. It was akin to shutting a lid on his emotions, and they boiled and stewed and chemically reacted. By 13, Valdon was easily worthy of a sweeping consensus of psychopathic by any team of doctors that might have evaluated him. By 16 he was a boiler under too much pressure. By 18, he was a murderer.

Nauru’s motto was “God’s Will shall be First” Valdon adopted it and immortalised his own version in a tattoo upon his spine: “Valdon’s Will shall be First.” As a child, he had been big, brave, strong, but had suffered from a reticence that attracted bullies and bruises. Although he won every fight he got into, Valdon was still scarred by the events, and although the bullies always struck first, he was still yanked before the teachers time and again and branded a trouble-maker.

But after the incident that occurred when he was eight, he doused the flame of trouble long before it could become an inferno. At school, if he remotely suspected someone might affront him, he now struck first. He had learned the hard way the consequences of reticence, and he had also seen the benefits of imposing his will first. The choice between the two was no choice at all. And look at what he had now become.

So pre-emptive were his attacks, no one ever tied him to them. There was never a run-in or argument with the injured party that his teachers, or later the police, could use as motive. Valdon saw how a fragment of friction could escalate into trouble, and he put his enemies down before they could even sense that burgeoning themselves. There was never any clue of his involvement, and he dropped off everyone’s radar, blended in, became invisible. The only time the police ever acknowledged his existence after that was when he joined them after leaving school.

Two years in. Called at night to a domestic disturbance at a run-down beachfront tenement home. Valdon was 20, the homeowner 28. The man’s wife was hurt, clearly, but she claimed the neighbours – way down the beach, so the screaming must have been loud – had it wrong, that there had been no argument. His partner stayed with the wife, while Valdon was instructed to drive the husband around a bit, get him to talk and calm down. They drove through the ring of green encircling the outer edge of the island and towards the centre. Later, Valdon returned with a cut on his head and a tale: the husband had assaulted him and fled. They never found him again. A description was sent out of a man with a scar on his chin, almost the length of his jaw line.

Years earlier, a boy of eight had told the police that that scar was a tattoo, because he believed it had been. The police had been on the hunt for a teenaged burglar who had murdered a woman who accosted him as he robbed her house late at night. Valdon had surprised the teenager during the killing, but his reticence had prevented him from action. He’d frozen, hoping the bigger boy would hurry up doing what he was doing to Valdon’s mum and leave. The boy had proceeded to strangle her to death before fleeing past Valdon.

The crime should have been solved quickly: how many young men on that small island had such a scar on the chin? But of course they were not seeking a scarred criminal – because of Valdon’s statement, they were hunting a tattooed killer. And none was ever found.

When Valdon the police officer happened upon the same boy as a man, the reticence in his heart was barely a memory.

Many times Valdon had envisioned finding the teenager, now a man, who killed his mother. Over the years, the urge lessened, but the skills to destroy another human grew. On the day he came face-to-face with the man, the rage had long subsided, but it was still there, like a pilot light in a gas fire. Waiting for gas. Valdon hadn’t even known the light still burned until that day, but soon he learned, and it was something he still believed today. That light was in everyone, and it was for this reason that Maria Marsh and her child had to die alongside James Marsh. If they survived, there might come a day far in the future when Valdon would stand before them and suffer, just as the man who killed his mother had suffered.

Valdon had driven deep into Topside, the blasted centre of the island, to a secluded spot near a phosphate mine, murder in his mind. Before Valdon was born, phosphate mining had been big business in Nauru, and a lot of people had gotten rich off it – most of Nauru, actually. These days the phosphate was virtually exhausted, eighty percent of the land having been mined. There were many areas of abandoned, useless phosphate deposits that created great swatches of land resembling the surface of some barren, alien planet. Nothing grew here, and no one lived here. Valdon walked the man across the rocky land, which resembled a tiny mountain range, slit his throat by the disused mine and dropped the body down the black shaft. And out winked that particular pilot light. Valdon then bashed his own head and returned with to his partner with a story about a violent escape from custody.

From that day, Valdon was and forever would be a murderer. He had to hide that fact. His life became one of lies and subterfuge. But he felt no guilt over the killing, only in his deceiving those he had called friends all his life.

In Nauru he felt uncomfortable, known by so many. The island had hardly ten thousand inhabitants over 8.1 square miles, most of them living along the coast because so much of the inner land was unsuitable for habitation. There were no resorts, barely any tourism, so new faces were scarce. Every moment outside his house involved greeting people he knew, people who thought they knew him. He didn’t abhor capture so much as derision by those he had laughed and eaten with over the years. His only option: to become anonymous, to live where he could be himself and no one would know any different. Back then, of course, he hadn’t been aware of the murderous desires inside him. In his mind, he had killed the killer of his mother and that was the end of all lethal intent within him.

Nauru used the Australian dollar, relied on the Australian Government for protection, and exported most of its phosphate to Australia. Australia was Big Brother to Nauru in his eyes. There lay his answer, then. And two years later he was there, a brand-new Australian citizen, a drop in the ocean and blissfully anonymous because of it. To complete his anonymity, he had found a forger and adopted a new name. Some said Valdon was a fine, exotic name, but he hated it. Valdon had been a worthless boy and a useless man, so Valdon was cast into the depths, gone forever. He was now Einar. Old Norse name, something to do with valour, with being a warrior. Back then it had simply been a word he thought sounded cool-sounding. Today it certainly fit the man he was.

It was a shame, then, that Einar was a name so infrequently used. He owned passports and driver’s licences in many other names, and even in France, his sort-of home, he was known as Carlos. Einar these days was the name associated with his killer persona, which meant it was used only by those paying for his murderous skills. And a few others who came fleetingly into his life, like this woman right here.

“Einar?” she said. He shook himself out of his reverie, because he could feel the woman staring at him.

“You okay? Seemed in a world of your own for a moment there.” He nodded. “Do you want tea?” Einar immediately said yes, knowing it would give him an opportunity to have a quick nosey around, get his mind back on the job. He asked if he could use the toilet. Sure, she said, and pointed to the sky.

The stairs were as clean as everything else. The upper landing was spotless. At the top was a window whose sill was laden with photos in frames, too many for such a small area, as if all the ones in the house had been placed here while their usual places got dusted. The edges of some overlapped the edges of others, so tightly were they packed onto the thin shelf of wood. Einar noted that they were all collages: fragments of other pictures stuck together. There was no method apparent, or theme. Like something a child would do. In some people missed fingers where tricky cutting had been unsuccessful, in others slices of heads and bodies were missing where objects in the foreground had been removed. Einar looked closely at the jumbled jigsaw of tiny images. He ignored black & white images of family members from years gone by, skipped past all the pictures of the child who currently played downstairs. His eyes were drawn only to the snippets that showed James Marsh, some as a civilian doing natural things like dozing on a deck chair, eating a sandwich, and others as an active Marine. In the latter, the man looked comfortable in his uniform, holding his gun.

The collage was too small, though. He imagined Marsh and his wife on the sofa, cuddling as they traced their fingers across different pictures, laughing and reminiscing. Einar wanted to smash the frame. It seemed everywhere he looked, there was something else reminding him of what he’d missed over the years. A normal life.

“Toilet’s that way,” said a squeaky voice. He looked down. There was a child at the foot of the stairs, staring up at him.

“I don’t need it now.” He clumped down the stairs and past her. When he sat back on the sofa, it was just in time to take a cup of tea from Maria as she exited the kitchen. She sat opposite him and seemed to catch something on his face.

“You okay?”

He nodded. But he wasn’t. Einar had lived a transient life for years now, was used to it, happy with it. But sometimes he thought about what he lacked. It had been a long time since he had sat with a woman, he liking her company, and she genuinely relishing his. He had had his share of women around him, a lot of sex, but that company was always paid for, always from girls performing out of a sense of duty. Not since a teenager had he fucked a girl who truly wanted to fuck him back, and wanted to stay with him afterwards instead of going in search of another man, another payday.

Unlike James Marsh. James Marsh had his nice home and his friends and his stable place in the world, and if ever he forgot how lucky he was to have those things, well, he had a loving partner to fuck him and remind him daily.

The child entered the room and Einar shrugged off his melancholy. In the space between he and Maria, on a thick rug, the little girl played with giant Lego blocks, creating myriad different shapeless messes, all of which she claimed were lighthouses. Einar smiled where necessary, pretended the kid’s noises were cute, and drank his tea.

Maria asked him about the free vehicle, said her husband needed something new because he drove a shitty white van, and he expanded upon a line of bullshit he had whipped up during the drive across London. The new BMW X10 was being launched next year, and the bosses wanted testimonials from men who had experience in driving the biggest, toughest vehicles across the most uncomfortable land – army guys, in other words. Six men would be chosen. Their words would be printed in the brochure. Their payment would be a brand new X10, free, gratis, no charge, and no catch involved. Can you tell me what your husband did in the Royals Marines, and a little bit about you both for the family man angle?

This was the real reason he was here – not to play a risky game of getting up close to his enemy, but to learn about his new target. Or at least the family that might become his next target in forty minutes’ time.

Maria had no problem talking about her family. After James had left the armed forces, where he had obtained the rank of Troop Commander, he had taken a number of low-paid dead-end jobs before deciding he needed further education. They had met at university. He had been studying business, and she had been taking a course in the fine arts. They shared a dorm after year two, then got a flat after she quit her studies, and then got married once James had gotten his degree. He got a job working the checkouts in a supermarket because, despite the degree, employers considered him too old to be given fast-track routes into management roles. But at the supermarket, his business brain and tough attitude hoisted him through the ranks. Five years in, he landed an empty assistant manager’s role. A few years after that, Louise was born. And here we are.

Einar asked a number of questions designed to give him an insight into the man. Pure curiosity, rather than an attempt to fully know his current nemesis. But when Marie, clearly smitten by Einar’s charm and appearance, tried to talk about herself, he swiftly got her back on track. Here he had crossed a line. He had never before enjoyed the company of a target. He was starting to like Maria, and the girl, Louise, was beginning to get genuinely cute with her playful banter. Einar decided to excuse himself before he got so involved that he would find it hard to kill the pair. Plus, it was almost the 5 p.m. deadline.

He told her he had all he needed and rose to leave. She shook his hand and handed him a business card of her own. He stared at it. Pottery. She ran her own pottery company from home, Internet-based.

“My mother likes pottery. I’ll let her know.”

“Tell her she can purchase online. I’ll deliver if she’s local.”

She had died many years and thousands of miles away, but Einar said, “London born and bred, my family. I’ll let her know. And thanks again. I’ll be in touch about the testimonials.”

She moved over to a small table in the corner. Einar noted the phone on the table and that anyone using it would be standing right before the window. She came back with something. It was a rubber stamp. She took his hand and stamped the back. He saw a smiley face the size of a ten pence piece, and a local landline number below.

“That’s our home number, if you need to get in touch.”

Would the game be better if he fucked the target’s wife before he killed the family? Einar didn’t know, but he wasn’t about to try to bed this woman when he had no idea when her husband would return. He wasn’t keen on the idea of having to slaughter all three with a butter knife while he was naked with a hard-on.

Einar took the stamp and fiddled with it. He put a fake mobile number into it and Maria held out her hand. But Einar stamped her forehead.

“How will I explain this to my husband?” she said, giggling.

Louise came rushing over, asking him to stamp her head. He had to avoid grinning. He stamped her pale skin, centre of the forehead, and she rushed off, jumping for glee.

Maria waited at the door while he went to his car. He checked his watch. It was just eight minutes to five. He’d been in there too long, he realised. Eight minutes to get into position. He waved at her as he tore out of there with a screech of tyres that he realised the neighbours might retain in their memories.

***

He went silent and the battering continued, this time because he had laughed at them like a madman. Obviously they had no idea why – why would a guy facing death suddenly laugh at his kidnappers? He had laughed because he now knew this man had taken him because of Alfo Pitchford’s murder – not, as he had assumed, because the guy was a contract killer carrying out a hit on James Marsh. Both were bad, of course, but at least he knew he now had a chance to get out of this mess. But if he didn’t sort something out by the five o’clock deadline, he would be in a world of trouble.

So he went internal once again as his mind worked. It formulated, and constructed, and soon had a finished product ready for delivery. That was when his eyes flicked open, and right then they stopped beating him. Right at the moment they flicked open, as if they had feared him dead and had been trying to restart his heart and brain with their hard blows. Now back in the world, he felt the blood in his hair, all over his neck. One of the guys used a beaker to scoop water from the pool and toss it over him, if only because he looked such a sickly sight covered in so much of his own blood.

“Tell me what you know, and we’ll let you live,” the leader said. He and the others were panting from their exertions. “Or you go in the pool and drown. But first we’ll slice you. Ever heard of the death by a thousand cuts? The Chinese invented it. That’s what you’ll get.”

If he tried to sound intimidating, it didn’t work. How many idiots had heard of this simple torture and threatened someone with it? All you needed was a blade.

Jimmy glared at him. “I’m just a messenger,” he said. His eyes bore into the man, and Jimmy was sure he saw the first flicker of concern there. “There’s a fiery rain of hell headed your way. Ever heard of the Mall Brothers in Scotland?”

Many people had. The Malls were two brothers who had recently had their empire crumble, finally, after years of gangland terror. One of their clan had written a book from inside prison, naming and shaming. The book was unpublished, but copies were floating around the Internet, and the cops had gotten hold of one. Some murder of a sub-post office clerk in the 90s that everyone had forgotten about had come back to bite the Mall brothers on the ass. The clan member had mentioned what had happened to the knife used to murder the clerk, and the cops had unearthed it from below a kitchen on a new housing estate, where once there had been a public house whose cellar had been a common hiding place for contraband. The weapon hadn’t been much use to the cops after so many years, but they had claimed otherwise as a scare tactic that had worked. Peter Mall, now in his sixties, had fled Scotland and no one knew where he was. That had been three months ago.

Jimmy told this story and could see from the Leader’s face that it was one he already knew.

“Eighteen of his younger gang members fled with him. Worked out where they settled yet?” Jimmy forced a fake laugh. “That’s right. Right here. And Peter Mall isn’t about to relocate and shirk thirty years of gut instinct. You think he’s about to set up a furniture shop or a plumbing business?” He laughed again. “Peter Mall and eighteen tough fuckers are here to take over. Alfo got in their way. You think I had something to do with your boss’s death because you saw me scoping out that warehouse?”

The leader and his men exchanged glances. The henchmen bought it already, Jimmy could tell. But the leader’s face was undecided.

“What are you saying? Peter Mall is down from Scotland and trying to take over The Destroyer’s empire? Bullshit? And how would Peter Mall get in cahoots with some supermarket guy?”

The derision in his voice was thick, but not total. Some acceptance there, then. Jimmy’s mind whirred again: the supermarket – he’d been seen there, this guy had said. Probably a fluke sighting by some gang member who lived nearby and had popped in for milk.

“I run the supermarket closest to where one of Mall’s men got a flat. They wanted a local guy. I got threatened. They wanted me to take photos. I don’t know why. Then they wanted me to pass on a message to a man called Baz.”

The leader blanched. Jimmy relaxed a little. He threw his eyes skyward, to the clouds, just for something inert to look at. While researching Alfo Pitchford, Jimmy had heard the names of his top guys, including his number two: Baz. The guy now leading the gang. The guy who would lead any plan to exact revenge for The Destroyer’s killing. This guy, Jimmy suspected.

“Baz has a choice. I need to see this guy called Baz, if you guys truly are part of Alfo’s gang, then you need to get Baz in front of me by 5 o’clock, or a rain of fiery shit is going to come down on all of you. I mean it. Peter Mall and his men are tooled up, ready for action. Last man standing. St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”

Despite fighting for his life, Jimmy felt awkward spouting such cheesy shit. But it worked. The man he now knew was Baz was visibly scared. He whispered something to one of his men, who scuttled off. Jimmy figured the guy was going to check the windows, make sure armed gangsters weren’t about to storm the place.

“You tell me what you need to say to Baz,” Baz said. “What does Mall want?”

Jimmy gulped. He knew the five deadline was right upon him. He asked what time it was. Baz told him. Two minutes to five. Jesus.

“Peter Mall offered Alfo The Destroyer a chance to join together, expand, run London jointly. Alfo declined. So he got killed. Mall is now offering his number two that same choice. If Baz says no, Baz goes the same way and the offer goes to the next in line.”

If this guy wasn’t Baz, but the third in line, then Jimmy was doomed. The guy would decide to ride out the next few days, wait for Baz to bite the dust, then jump at the opportunity offered to him. In the meantime, the alternate killer would be en route.

“I’m Baz,” the guy said. “And bring it on. They want a war? We’ve got the home advantage, and we’ll fuck these guys up. Eighteen of them? We’ve got more.”

Jimmy’s heart lurched. He almost heard the ticking of a giant clock, counting down the seconds.

“Then let me go pass on the message,” he said, trying to be calm. He saw one of the other men check his watch and raise his eyebrows. “I’ll go back to my life. I don’t want to be around when all the killings start.”

Baz was tapped on the shoulder. His man whispered something to him. Jimmy saw fear in the speed the man’s lips moved. Baz yanked his arm out of the man’s grasp and looked at Jimmy again.

“If this is a trick, I’ll fucking cut your head off.”

Jimmy shook his head. “I don’t want any part of this. Just the messenger. I know you got guns, and I know the Mall gang has bombs and poisons and stuff, and I don’t want to get involved. I’m just a supermarket guy who got caught up in this shit.”

Bombs and poisons was a good line. It put shock in Baz’s eyes. It was there for just a second, before he blinked it away and tried to act fearless again.

“Okay, maybe I’ll consider a fifty-fifty split. What do I do?”

Jimmy reeled off a phone number he’d memorised earlier. “You need to call that number before five o’clock, or it’s too late. Don’t say anything other than you accept the job. You accept the job, that’s all you say, and then hang up.” Now he knew fear was in his own eyes. Five o’clock had to be a minute away, if that. Seconds, even.

Baz pulled out his mobile. He asked for the number again, and got it. He typed and put the phone to his ear. His eyebrows raised when it was answered with just a stiff Yes. Jimmy watched, waiting for it to all go wrong.

***

Einar checked his watch. 4.59. One minute to go. Looked at his phone, but it was dark and dead. No message to abort.

With the Austrian Steyr Scout sniper rifle’s cheekpiece firmly against the side of his face, he sighted down the scope, out through the cricket pavilion window, across the field, over the fence and back garden of the house opposite the Marsh home, through the small gap between that house and the next, over the road, and into the grass lawn where Maria was tending to the hedge again. The hide was perfect. The pavilion, which he had seen from the road, was on a rise in the field, which allowed such a beautiful angle. No cricket today, so the pavilion was empty. There were kids playing football close by, but he had bust the door without a care, knowing they wouldn’t call the cops, and knowing he only needed a few minutes and would be long gone by the time the police arrived anyway.

Maria still had the headband on, just above the hairline, so the stamp on her forehead was visible. He centred the crosshairs right on the dot nose of the Smiley face. Right there he would put the bullet. He wondered how many people would die this year while kneeling in their gardens, their minds a million miles away from the subject of their own mortality. Maybe quite a few across the planet, but for sure those would be old people, struck down in retirement by a heart attack or stroke. He wondered how long the garden fence chatter of the neighbours would take to move away from the woman who got her head blown off today and back onto the mundane matters of soap operas. Then he halted his mind, because he knew how quickly time could pass when he let his brain run with such strange thoughts.

So he checked his watch, and found his timing perfect. 5.00. He was supposed to wait for a green light or a red light, but Einar played it another way. He was green to go unless told otherwise. And no order to stand down had been given, and the deadline was here. Thus, green to go. Kill time.

But he took his finger away from the trigger.

Nineteen times Einar had killed a target, sixteen of those for money as part of a contract. And without fail the last words heard by each target had been the same line delivered by Einar. Something a little cheesy, but designed to shock right before the moment of death, and play on the mind in the afterlife. A little habit, a little game of his. An unbreakable routine, in fact. Of course, sometimes others had died alongside the intended victim – like the passengers in the car he had bombed last year – but those people had not been designated targets and did not count, so he didn’t care what might be the last words they heard on this Earth. However, because of his fear of a comeback, the wife and daughter, despite not being part of the kill contract, had each become a designated target.

But neither the wife nor the daughter had been given the line. And that bothered him.

He reached for his phone, dialled the number stamped on his hand, and put the phone to his ear. As listened to the pings and clicks of a connection being made, he watched Maria through the scope, but he thought about her daughter. How could he speak to her? Einar knew he might have to go across to the house. He hoped not.

Then he got the lucky break of a lifetime and he laughed.

And the daughter heard it. “Why you laughing?” she said down the phone.

He couldn’t believe it. When the phone had started ringing, Maria, hearing it, had stopped her gardening, turning her head, and the smiley face target, away from him and towards the front window. She had gotten to her feet, moved towards the house. But before she even got to the door, the phone had been answered, a screechy child’s voice saying Hello into his ear.

Einar cut his laugh, but continued to smile. The Gods had thrown him some luck, maybe because they needed him to succeed. If ever he failed and was caught, he might die in police custody or one of those British holiday camps they called prisons, and then his soul would fly into the world those Gods inhabited. And they wouldn’t want someone like him around. He might just take over. Better to see to it that he remained on this world, so let him have his way there instead.

“Who’s there?” the daughter screeched again. Einar hated children’s voices, and this one grated on him now, her earlier cuteness all gone. But he continued to smile. He watched Maria enter the house, then swung his crosshairs left, onto the window. There the daughter was, right behind the glass, the handset to her ear. A lock of fringe had fallen loose and curled like an upside-down question mark around the stamp on her forehead. Framing it for him. He centred the crosshairs on the stamp.

“Your life countdown has reached zero,” he breathed into the phone. He put four pounds of pressure on the trigger, leaving just one before the precipice.

Then he released the trigger.

He couldn’t kill the daughter first, because how then could he ever hope to get the mother on the phone? What mother would watch her baby’s head blow apart and then take a phone from the corpse’s hand?

And here she came into the picture, hand reaching for the phone. But her mouth didn’t move: nothing spoken. The girl turned her head to speak to her and Einar was able to read the girl’s lips.

Some man’s on the phone. Something about a countdown, mum.

The mother’s lips still didn’t move: nothing spoken. Then she had the phone. She put it to her ear. The crosshairs found her smiley face stamp again. The daughter was by her side, just her head poking above the window ledge. A slight shift after the first shot and he would fire again within half a second and the daughter would exit the world even before her brain registered that her mother was dead.

“Don’t say anything and listen carefully,” Einar said into the phone. And in a beautiful moment of Fate, she remained silent: his line was still the last thing the daughter had heard.

Four pounds went back on the trigger. He pressed the phone hard against his cheek to make sure she heard his next few words clearly.

"Your life countdown has reached -"

And his mouth froze open as the phone beeped twice loudly in his ear. He jerked it away from his face as if it had suddenly turned white hot. The gun sank in his grip. In the darkness of the pavilion, the green glow of the phone’s screen clearly showed the text message he had just received, a minute beyond the deadline:

JOB CANCELLED.

***

Baz had said, “I accept the job,” and then ended the call. He had stared at his phone, waiting for something. Jimmy had watched him, also waiting. After thirty seconds of nothing, all three kidnappers went the windows and peeked out, talking animatedly. Thirty seconds of nothing became five minutes of nothing. Now, Jimmy heard one of the henchmen say something about a trick to get a fix on the phone’s location. Baz dropped it on the floor. He raised his foot and was about to stamp it into oblivion – when it beeped. A text message.

Baz lifted the phone slowly, as if he didn’t trust it. He read the message. Then he flicked a hand, as if to beckon his men to follow him. They approached and surrounded Jimmy, who kept his head hung, staring into the pool.

The phone was thrust under his nose. He saw the text message. It gave the name of a gym, a postcode, and the number of a locker. Then: VITALCOLLECT FILE BEFORE 5.30.

“What the fuck is this?” Baz hissed at him.

Jimmy looked up so he didn’t anger the man and get another knee in the face. He thought quickly. Inside, he was heaving. If Baz got hold of the file, he would know the truth. But Jimmy needed time to think of a way out of this hole, and if Baz or one of his cronies went off across London to find a locker, then Jimmy would get that time, and one less enemy to deal with.

So he said, “I don’t know, but obviously that locker contains something you need to read. Or sign. Must be important. That postcode is the centre of London and it’s rush hour, so it won’t be a trap.”

Baz thought for a moment. Obviously he’d been wondering about a setup. But could he afford to ignore the instructions on the text message? Eventually he decided he couldn’t.

“Cub, get down there, get that file. Type this postcode in the SatNav. And rush. You gotta be there by half five, man.”

Cub looked at the phone, spoke the name of the gym and the postcode aloud, and turned and ran. Jimmy could hear him repeating the postcode aloud all the way to the boarded up front door.

Then Jimmy’s head stung from a vicious slap.

“You ain’t off the hook, cocksucker. Unless Mall wants you alive for some reason, which I doubt, because you’ve seen too much, then you’re still getting the blade. And the never-ending swim.”

***

Just seconds later, Einar got another text message. He read it and nodded in appreciation. For his troubles, it said, he was being paid £5000, to be collected from locker 106 back at the gym. There was another key hidden in the locker room. Then a clause, which he found strange: CANNOT COLLECT UNTIL AFTER 6 P.M.

£5000 was a drop in the ocean to Einar, but it wasn’t about the amount. The money was a mark of respect. These people were saying that they understood they couldn’t just dangle a master like Einar on a string, wasting his time. That gesture made him feel a little better.

He sighted through the scope again, filling it with Maria’s head. But his finger was nowhere near the trigger this time. Such a sweet lady. He thought about casting aside everything that had happened today, the fact that he had been seconds from putting her brains across the living room wall, and heading over there again. Pretty thing like that, surely she would be bored by now of her shallow, middle-aged husband. She’d probably jump at the chance for a dinner date with an Adonis like Einar.

Then he cast that thought aside. Too risky. So Einar slotted his rifle back into the guitar gig bag and left the pavilion. He crossed the field and collected his Audi from the car park, and headed back to the gym.

He managed to park on the street, right outside. Checked his watch. It was twenty-five past five. Just over half an hour to wait. If someone was coming to drop the money off, Einar was going to accost him, ask why the job had been cancelled. Just out of pure curiosity.

He saw a man park on the same side of the road, sixty metres away. The car was a black Golf and the man was black, average height, wearing a padded jacket of bright colours. Einar watched him without watching, his eyes just following movement on the street as his brain found things to think about to pass the time. Then he grew slowly suspicious. The guy stopped outside the gym and stared at it as if he’d never been here before. Was this the guy who was here to drop off Einar’s payment?

No, Einar realised. Someone had already been here to deposit the file, and that guy wasn’t this guy, because this guy was new here. And it made no sense to use more than one man for delivering things. And this guy seemed nervous.

The man pressed the bell and entered, and Einar followed him inside.

When Einar entered the locker room, he hugged the wall and made his way towards the window. From the corner, he watched the black man. The guy retrieved a key taped to the underside of a small pedal bin and went to locker 106. Einar’s locker. So, this was the delivery man after all.

But as Einar watched, the black man stuck the key inside locker 105 instead, opened it and pulled out a file. He stuffed it quickly into his jacket and looked around at the few men getting changed into or out of their gym gear.

Einar felt his anger boil. This was no delivery. It was a collection. These people had played some kind of game with the lockers. Everything was already in place. They had sent Einar to 104, while all along the full file on the target sat just inches away in 105, and inches away again, in 106, was a £5000 payoff for whichever hitman didn’t get the job.

And that was what pissed him off. The job had been shopped around after all, just as he suspected, and this idiot in the bright jacket had gotten it. And Einar had gotten the boot. It explained why he was instructed to wait until later to collect his money – so this hitman could first collect the full file and be gone.

The hitman pulled out his phone as he rushed for the door. Deciding to ignore the £5000 awaiting him, Einar followed the other hitman. He waited at the top of the stairs, hidden, and listened as the man clumped down the stairs and spoke into his phone.

“I got it,” the man said. “Some file. No, I ain’t opened it. Hey, he still alive? Don’t you go killing him until I get back, man? Okay, back in fifteen. Ciao.”

Einar grinned. Had he heard that correctly? Did he understand that correctly? This hitman was part of a team, and it appeared that team already had hold of James Marsh. That was good work – they had found James when Einar couldn’t. But early success counted for nothing against the end result. A boxer who dominates for twelve rounds has still lost the fight if he gets knocked out seconds from the final bell. Einar was going to steal the prize right from under the nose of the hitman and his team, and there was going to be no judges’ decision in this battle.

***

Jimmy continued to stare into the pool, right to the bottom. In his mind he saw himself in there, through his eyes, going through a routine based on an old memory, and repeating it. Each time, he corrected something that went wrong, perfecting it. When Baz’s phone rang, he cocked an ear but didn’t shift his gaze from the water.

Baz and the other two were on an old sofa under the balcony, against the wall right across from Jimmy. In his upper peripheral vision, he saw Baz get to his feet and answer the phone, pacing as he talked.

“What you mean, you opened it? You fucker, that’s…no, you listen. I run this…you fucking what?”

Here Baz listened for a good thirty seconds. Jimmy felt the moment of truth racing at him like a runaway train. Baz’s man, Cub, had collected the file and called to say so, and now he had called back to say he’d opened it. And now Baz knew everything.

Baz laughed, told his man to hurry back, and hung up the phone with a ciao. He stared at Jimmy from across the pool.

“Look at me, cocksucker.”

Jimmy tore away his gaze from the pool floor and stared right back at Baz. The man was grinning like the cat that got the cream.

“You been lifted up and dropped in a world of shit, pal. You got enemies on all sides. Know what was in the package my man just collected? Nowt that needs a fucking signature, I tell you. You wanna know how you just led yourself like a lamb to the slaughter, cocksucker?”

Jimmy felt he had to keep up his act. He protested his innocence. Just a messenger, he said again.

Baz laughed hard, forcing it for effect.

“There’s a price on your dainty head, cocksucker. A big one. Someone wants you dead big-time. Who the fuck did you piss off so badly?”

No denying it now. Baz knew the whole truth. Jimmy could imagine the contents of that file. Photos of his house, his car, his place of work. Taken over days, maybe weeks. Someone following him, snapping away with a camera. He wondered how long might someone have sought his death. How far must he cast back his mind to highlight someone he had wronged so badly?

But now was not the time for reflection. “This is bullshit, Baz,” he shouted across the pool. “I’ve done nothing. I’m innocent. I’ve got a family.”

“Then you should watch who you slag off, or who you fuck, or fuck over, or whatever.” Baz started to make his way around the pool. “But here’s the funny part of it all. Someone didn’t just put a bounty on your head, man. Maybe it was Peter Mall, or maybe someone fed you that line of bull so you could feed it to me. They actually got you to set up your own death. You telling me about that phone call to make. These guys tricked you into tricking me into accepting the death hit on you. In a way, you committed suicide. Man, that’s hilarious.”

Baz was most of the way around the pool, just seconds from Jimmy, and his knife was in his hand again. Jimmy stood up. At this move, Baz’s two men came running, shouting at him to sit, stop, not fucking move. Jimmy bent to pick up the weight shackled to his ankle, figuring he might be able to crack a head and run, albeit laden like some guy in a three-legged race. But he knew he needed the men to charge him, and they didn’t. They passed their leader and then slowed, and pulled their own blades, and approached cautiously, and Jimmy knew he had no chance. So he dropped the weight to the concrete with a thud. A moment later the two men leaped like cats. Punches, kicks, a head-butt, and in seconds they had him pinned to the chair. Baz stepped up in front of him and put the blade in his throat, right on the Adam’s apple, pressed right in there hard enough to hurt but cause no damage.

“You keep still now, cocksucker,” Baz said. “If it ain’t me, it’ll be someone else after you. You got nowhere to go and no time left. Maybe I’ll pass a note onto your wife, eh? Maybe I’ll fuck her first. In a couple of days, when she’s over you and starting to miss hard cock action. You want to write a lovey goodbye note?”

“Fifty thousand,” Jimmy blurted. There was real fear now washing through him. Of all the scenarios that had played through his head, this wasn’t one of them. He had hoped to delay the dispatch of the alternate killer and then create a fog of confusion in Baz’s mind, to give him time to think of a way to escape. But not this: that Baz would mistakenly think the file was actually meant for him, that someone wanted Baz to perform the hit, and that Baz would accept the job. “Fifty thousand pounds, if you let me go. I’ll get it to you today.”

With his free hand, Baz pulled his phone. “I’ll get fifty thou alright. That sweet number was in my head already. But not off you. Wouldn’t be a man of honour if I accepted a job and then backed out of it, would I? What would that do for my reputation? And you made me accept the job, remember?”

He hit a button, probably redial, Jimmy thought. Held the phone to his ear, keeping the knife to Jimmy’s throat as his men held Jimmy tight against the chair.

Nothing for a time. Baz’s face grew curious as he listened to the phone ringing. Jimmy thought he had one chance. Whoever answered needed to call Baz The Chopper, since that was who the man had hired for the hit. Baz would realise the file wasn’t for him and say so. And both men would fill with enough doubt to derail the whole thing. Jimmy could still get out of this alive.

Someone must have answered, because Baz said, “I got the file. Who is this?”

Silence as Baz listened. He shrugged. “Fair enough, man wants to remain anonymous. Listen up. I got your man here. Man in the file, James Marsh. He’s right here, tied up, ready to die.”

The knife was pressed a jot harder into Jimmy’s throat. His arms and legs were locked tight in place by Baz’s men. Jimmy felt the end fall upon him like a wave. One word from the unknown voice on the phone, and it was all over. A go, a do it, a grunt of affirmation, and Jimmy would have to await his next life, wherever that might be.

Then Baz, staring right into Jimmy’s eyes, said, “Never mind that. I’m a quick guy and I get things done. You want him dead, then we change the deal. Twenty grand is too low. It’s an insult to my skills. Fifty grand, and I slit this guy’s throat right now. You hear? You call me back within half an hour with a location for the money collection. You don’t, and I drop this guy at the police station.”

Pause. The wave washing over Jimmy turned to air and he felt he could breathe again.

“No, this ain’t a joke, pal. This is real. You’re on my terms now. Fifty grand, half an hour, or I give this guy to the cops, and they get your file and whatever fingerprints or DNA or whatever’s on it. Your man here goes into protective custody and your file goes to the forensics lab. Understand? Thirty mins max, you call back on this number. A place to collect the money, and no tricks.”

Baz hung up. His men were nodding their appreciation of his business skills. Baz was all smiles.

Even Jimmy was happier: he had just gotten an extension on his life by up to half an hour.

***

Einar hung four cars back from the Golf until it slowed on a road that ran alongside an old red brick wall the height of two men. When the Golf indicated and turned right through a gateless gateway, Einar pulled into the side of the road and put his hazard lights on. Cars beeped him as they passed, and he wanted to kill each driver. Good job he wasn’t Superman, because with his inner rage he’d have killed half the planet by now. He waited thirty seconds then drove on, and took the same turning.

Inside the grounds was a long two-storey building as old as the wall, with chipped bricks daubed with graffiti and boarded-up windows. Weeds grew at its base, and he knew this deserted edifice was where he would find Marsh. Good work from the other hitman, if he had captured Marsh already. Maybe Einar had an equal in the world after all.

Einar stopped just inside the gateway, on a road that ran along the side of the building, between it and another high wall that separated these grounds from those next door. He thought about what he was going to do once he got inside the building. Ask the other hitman to share the kill, split the money? Just watch the other guy earn his fee? Why had he even come here? Jealousy? Curiosity? Or was it part of the new game he seemed to have started playing without planning to – the game in which he performed irrationally, took risks, as if to test himself?

He caught movement off to his left and turned his head. On a square of weedy concrete in front of the building was the Golf, close to the wall and tight out of sight from the road. And stood next to it, just metres from Einar’s vehicle, was the black man. Behind the Golf was another vehicle, a white van. He cursed his blindness – how had he missed two vehicles and a man so close to his position? With no time to plan anything, Einar stepped out of the Audi, clutching the clipboard. He started across the concrete, towards the man.

“Who the fuck are you?” The man had the file in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. The file went behind his back, and the phone went to his ear. That was when Einar abandoned a half-formed lie in his head, tossed aside the clipboard and charged.

The henchman grunted as he swung a roundhouse kick at Einar. Einar let the man’s shin thump into his flank, grabbed the leg, and used his momentum to knock the guy back. The henchman landed hard on his back with Einar on top of him. Instantly the man rolled over. Einar clamped onto his back, slid and arm around his neck. He bent the arm to clamp the man’s throat and closed the vice tightly by pushing against his own wrist with his other hand.

“This is a blood choke,” Einar whispered into the man’s ear, his eyes never leaving an iron fire exit set into the back of the old building. “The Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint. Favoured choke hold of law enforcement agencies around the world.”

The man was thrashing beneath him. Einar kept his entire weight on the man’s back, legs splayed like stabilisers to prevent being rolled.

“Unlike the air choke, which restricts the trachea and can damage the hyoid bone, the vascular restraint cuts off blood to the brain. Safer, quicker, and doesn’t require as much strength to apply, so I can quite easily hold this until you go unconscious.”

Three seconds later, the man beneath him went limp. Unconscious. Einar kept the chokehold in place.

“See, that’s you unconscious. Now is when a law enforcement officer should release the grip. Because now we’re heading towards cerebral infarction. That’s brain damage. But because this choke is easy to apply, I can hold on long past that. Until you die.”

There was some kind of joke scrawled on the metal fire exit. Einar read it while he kept the choke applied. It made him giggle. How many guns does it take for America to fight a war? Two – one for them, and one to sell to the enemy so they can shoot back. He read it twice more, just to pass the time, then climbed off the man and checked for a pulse. Two minutes had passed since the guy went unconscious.

“See, that’s you dead, and my arms are hardly burning at all.” He shook them to get the blood flowing. “With an air choke, I’d be all out of adenosine triphosphate in my muscles and I’d never have the strength left to lift your corpse into the boot.” He opened the boot and bent to pick up the body. “As you can see, though, the blood choke means my arms are fine.”

Einar slotted the body inside. He was impressed by the boot space of the Golf. Might have to get himself one. He bent to pick up the discarded file. The man’s phone got kicked away. He skimmed through the file and tossed it into the boot with the body. There was nothing inside that he didn’t already know.

He slammed the lid and turned and looked at the white van. The van surely belonged to James Marsh.

His phone rang. It was the same number that sent him the text. The man paying to see James Marsh wiped off the face of the earth. Einar answered the call, but held the phone to his ear without speaking.

“Einar?” a deep voice said.

“That’s me.” He strode to his car, climbed in and parked it next to the Golf as he continued the conversation. “I feel I must ask why a man of my success was denied the simple task of removing a lowly supermarket worker.” He spoke in clipped tones, thinking two words ahead. He hated sounding so politician-like, but felt it fit the kind of man the people who hired him expected him to be.

“That is now a moot point, Einar. You were well paid for your patience. You can be well paid to a greater degree if you are willing to reconsider the same contract.”

“I take it your other hitman – and please don’t deny there was an alternate – is for whatever reason no longer a viable option?”

This time, silence.

“I earn good money for good reason,” Einar said. He stuck the phone between his ear and his shoulder while he opened the Audi’s boot and extracted his guitar gig bag. “I get the job done, and I have ways of finding information easily and quickly.”

“Then I will lay it out for you. I will up the fee to fifty thousand, but for that I must add a target. Two men, and the contract is void should either one escape you.”

Einar laid the bag on the ground and unzipped it, drew out his Steyr rifle. Connected a sling. Watched the windows and the fire exit, but none showed activity. “None will escape me. None ever do.”

“James Marsh and the other hitman – you are right, I did offer the contract to someone else. He goes by the name The Chopper. He had the gall to threaten me, and for that I want him dead. Both men. And this is very urgent. Today. I believe both men are together.”

Einar believed that, too. From inside the bag he extracted a wicked hunting knife with a serrated blade. He stuck it onto a Velcro patch on the side of the rifle. Inside that building was a man with a skillset almost as good as Einar’s – if he got a chance to use the knife instead of the gun, he would do so simply to test himself.

He said, “I suggest that is a tough ask. If killer and target are together, something has gone very wrong with your plan. These men will be hiding, and London is a bustling, convoluted city.” Einar tossed the empty bag into the boot and slammed it. He locked the car and pocketed the keys.

“I can get you whatever you need. I have the capability to track credit and debit cards, if you need that. I have a network of people in high places who can access databases, and a team who can be dispatched in various places to limit your own travel. You are already in London, so there is of course no need for you to travel any real distance.”

Einar ran along the road beside the building, cautiously, eyes far ahead, seeking movement, anything suspicious.

“I do not need help, sir,” he said. “I will find these men, wherever they are. It is what I do. I am the best in the world at hunting the human animal. Which is why I will offer you this deal, just to prove my worth. Just to show you the mistake you made when you chose another over me in order to save money.”

Silence for a few seconds. Then: “Einar, do not presume this threatening, but The Chopper offered me a deal, and it is for this reason his name is part of the contract now.”

Einar reached the end of the building. The road widened into a large car park, and at its far end was a neat row of trees behind which he could see the odd flash of brick and glint of glass. A housing estate. A housing estate had roads and exits that would provide him with alternative escape routes if anything went wrong here. And Einar liked the comfort of a tree. He could sit for hours amongst the branches, waiting. The smell of the leaves and the soft touch of the bark were things he had grown fond of over the years. He had enjoyed eroding time in trees as a child whose parents didn’t have much time for him. He rushed across the cark park.

“No threat, sir, but a genuine deal,” he said, trying to keep his breathing steady and his pounding footsteps quiet. “If I deliver you photographic proof of both men’s demise within one hour, you will pay me £75,000. Any later than one hour, and my fee will be zero.”

He reached the grass verge where the pencil-straight line of oak trees stood and slung his rifle over his shoulder like a bag. As he climbed the tree, he held his phone between his teeth. With the volume up, he was able to hear the man on the other end clearly.

“That is a deal I will accept, Einar. It will guarantee your immediate launch into action. But your confidence contrasts with your earlier attitude. Did you not say that London is a bustling city and that these men will be hiding?”

Einar settled onto a hidden branch and stared through the leaves, at the building he now presumed was an old swimming pool. Something about the smell permeating the bricks.

“Bustling but small,” he said as he raised his rifle to his shoulder, the scope to his eyes. “They may be closer than you think.”

***

A sniper needed patience, and Einar was slowly losing his.

The first sign was a wavering scope, as if he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking. The second sign was that his eyes kept flicking from the scope to the knife attached to the side of his rifle. He tried to combat the first problem by breathing slowly, and to undo the second problem by telling himself this was business, and personal satisfaction had no place in business. But it was no good. The crosshairs wavered and the eyes flicked.

Well done, Einar. Well done indeed for killing a man from a hundred metres away.

Einar cursed. No, that wouldn’t do. So he refined his plan. Instead of killing all the men as they left the building, he would put a bullet through the heads of the Chopper’s remaining henchmen and one in the Chopper’s leg. Leave him alive so Einar could stroll over and use the knife. He had faced many dangerous men over the years, but never another hitman, and a special enemy deserved special treatment. Up close and personal, that was how it should go down between two professional agents of death.

Calm again, he focussed once more on the boarded-up doorway of the abandoned municipal swimming pool and waited. But again the crosshairs started to waver.

Well done, Einar. You killed a man already injured.

Einar cursed again: no, that just wouldn’t do, either. It was a bad move to enter the building, but he had no choice. Pride was pride. The guys the Chopper had brought as back-up were just muscled henchmen, nothing to worry about, and no blow to his ego if he didn’t give them a fighting chance. He would take those guys out quickly and without alerting The Chopper to the danger about to engulf him. That would leave Einar’s special enemy uninjured and healthy. Any less than that, the guilt was probably going to keep Einar awake tonight.

So against his better judgement, Einar slipped out of the trees and, rifle slung over his shoulder, raced across the weed-encrusted car park, towards the run-down brick building. He braced himself for a shout of alarm, maybe even a gunshot. Neither happened, and eleven seconds later he was at the building.

Two floors. All the upper floor windows were gone, just gaping holes remaining, while those on the ground floor, and the entrance doors, were covered by wooden planks. Nailed on nice and thick to deter vandals and assassins. He didn’t bother trying to find a loose one, because there was a rusted drainpipe he could use to reach the upper floor. The abandoned building and car park lay on land ringed by trees and walls, so he didn’t fear watching eyes as he climbed.

The room he found himself in was bare, with cracked tiles on the floors and walls. There were pipe ends poking out of the walls in a line, seven feet off the ground. This had once been a shower room. Some comedian with a peanut for a brain had drawn a pair of testicles and legs to turn one of the protruding pipe ends into a metal penis. There was windblown dirt heaped in the corners, and dead doctors and priests and mass murderers in cell-form in three condoms stuck to a wall. There was no door in the doorway and Einar could see a balcony beyond. He approached the exit and stood to one side, peeking out.

The balcony had a metal grate floor and ran around three sides of the roofless building. Below, at the far end, was a square pool filled with clear water, while the remainder of the floor was laid with paving slabs. A hundred years ago bathers had relaxed under the sun in deck chairs on that concrete area, but today it was gone to ruin, just like the land beyond the walls. Weeds sprouted from the cracks between slabs and bushes grew thick where slabs were missing. There was debris and dirt everywhere. Einar was appalled that such a beautiful city like London could allow pieces of itself to rot, like a pretty lady ignoring a pus-filled wart on her porcelain skin. Was this any less disgusting than leaving the dead to rot in the streets?

He turned his attention to the man in the wooden chair next to the pool. He wore trousers and a plain white shirt that was grubby and torn and bloody. The man’s head, battered and also bloody, was bent forward, as if he had fallen asleep. But Einar noticed that the man wasn’t asleep, because he drummed a foot on the ground like someone enjoying a piece of music. And around that foot was a chain attached to a circular object.

Einar put his rifle to his shoulder and sighted through the scope, which put everything he saw in glorious, up-close high definition. The man in the chair was definitely Marsh, the unfortunate businessman with a price on his head. The object chained to him was a gym weight for a barbell. Twenty-five kilograms. So the Chopper had not yet assassinated Marsh and clearly did not plan to end him with anything as mundane as a bullet in the head: instead he was to be dumped in the pool and drowned. This put a fragment of concern in Einar’s brain. Torture was not part of the kill contract, so the Chopper obviously had a sadistic streak in him. There was no reason to set up such a kill method except to watch a man suffer. Einar wondered if the Chopper and his henchmen had filled the pool just for this occasion.

No, he realised a few moments later, as his eyes took in the rest of the building. There were empty doorways lining the walls on both floors, and he could see signs of habitation beyond a few of them. In one room was a table with a plate on it. In another he saw the corner of a sofa. In yet another was a portion of a mat with more weights on it, and an exercise bike. Some of the rooms trailed cables to a generator by the back wall, maybe for a fridge and a TV and lights.

Someone was living here. The abandoned building had been taken over by squatters who had kitted out some of the empty locker and shower rooms. Whoever it was must have filled the pool for their own daily morning swim. It made Einar smile. A beggar’s palace. Shame they hadn’t invested in a bin for their used condoms.

Voices now, below him. Staring down through the gridded floor of the balcony, he watched three men enter the scene and walk towards Marsh, all of them hollering at the luckless businessman, telling him his time was up. Two trailed a third, who must be the Chopper, although he didn’t wear biker leathers or a helmet. He walked like a leader, taking big, confident steps, while the pair behind shuffled like minions. He was taller and dressed in jeans and a black leather jacket. The other two were dressed the same as the dead guy in the Golf’s boot: bright, baggy clothing and baseball caps, reminding Einar of hip hop stars way back in the nineties. Wannabe Street Gangstas. Einar grinned.

In that moment an idea that was new and amusing came to him, and he tossed aside his plan to take out the two henchmen silently. He sighted down his scope, placing the crosshairs on the lower spine of the guy walking behind and to the Chopper’s left. At this distance, only twenty metres, he didn’t need the scope to ruin this guy’s day, but he wanted his shot to be perfect to the millimetre. He didn’t want the bullet to be slowed by bone.

He fired.

The bullet, travelling at an angle downwards, hit the guy in his bright yellow-and-red jacket just above the beltline. Slowed only by flesh, the slug retained enough momentum to exit from the guy’s abdomen, just above his groin. The momentum of the bullet swept out his hips ahead of him and he landed hard on his back. There was a wet slap of blood spraying across the ground and a loud crack as the bullet tore into concrete, but it was the man’s scream that alerted the other two.

They froze, and right there in that moment Einar lost any respect he might have had for the Chopper. For three seconds the hitman and his remaining henchman stood rooted in shock, their jaws hanging. A professional would have been running for cover two-and-a-half seconds ago.

And when these two did run, it was the wrong way. Seeing their comrade on his back, a great bloody hole in his front, they suspected the shooter was ahead of them and bolted back the way they had come. Towards Einar, just as he’d planned. He stood in plain sight at the railing, no fear of being spotted because the two men had their heads craned back, searching the far side of the balcony for a shooter. They darted beneath the balcony, yelling obscenities. Their pal was screaming for help they clearly weren’t about to offer him.

Einar stood very still, staring down at them through the floor. Each man had taken refuge behind a pillar holding up the balcony, their backs pressed hard against the stone, staring at each other across ten feet of space. The shot guy had stopped screaming and was now moaning like a porn star, so Einar was able to hear the men under the balcony yammering in whispers.

Over there, he’s over there.

Some wanker with a gun, man.

What the hell does he want with us?

What the fuck’s happening?

Einar slowed his breathing. He didn’t think they’d hear even heavy breathing over the thudding of their own hearts, but he was not a man for taking chances. The slightest noise, the tiniest movement, and their eyes might be jerked upwards, and he would be exposed to them. Their heads were just a yard from his feet.

But they didn’t look up. Now each man had swivelled so his chest was hard against the pillar he cowered behind.

Have a look, the Chopper whispered.

You fucking have a look, the minion whispered back, his regard for the chain of command in tatters now that he feared for his life. The Chopper poked half his head beyond the pillar and immediately jerked it back. Too quick to see anything, yet his henchman asked if he had. The Chopper shook his head. They were like children hiding from a school bully, and Einar had to suppress the urge to laugh. He was going to enjoy this game.

Einar turned his attention to Marsh. The man still had his head down, was still tapping that foot rhythmically. Seemingly unaware of the guy dying just thirty feet from him. He thought about blasting Marsh’s head right off his shoulders, just to see what that would do to the guys hiding under the balcony. Probably burst their own heads with shock. But no. He had another plan for Marsh.

He would destroy the dying henchman’s knee and watch his renewed screams pump girlish panic through his friends again. The Steyr could carry a ten round magazine, but Einar carried his ammo loose, not wanting the extra weight, so to shoot again he would have to chamber a round. The sound would surely alert those below him. If they carried pistols, they could aim up at him and blast away. No way could he shoot the first guy and swing his rifle across to kill the second man before at least some of their bullets found a path through the oblong holes in the floor and ruined his suit. So he carefully stepped back into the shower room, past the 2D man with no torso and a 3D dick, and stuck the gun out the window and chambered a round. The metallic clack rolled away across the land and disintegrated. He was about to return to the balcony when his eyes jerked downwards at a noise. He watched as the wood nailed over the entrance doors lifted up like a cat flap, and a guy came out. It was the sole remaining henchman.

Then came the Chopper.

Both men ran across the littered car park, scampering with their backs bent, heads tucked into their shoulders. Anger bloomed in Einar. He slung his rifle over his shoulder, clambered over the windowsill, reached for the drainpipe and slid down. By the time he had his rifle at his shoulder again, the men were eighty metres away, near the end of the car park, just seconds from being lost in the trees and the housing estate beyond. He put the crosshairs on the back of the Chopper’s head. He had wanted to be play his amusing game, and here they were ruining it. Well, if there was no game, it was work as usual.

The anger was affecting his aim. He exhaled and his mind cleared instantly, emotions flooding out of him as if they were carried on his breath. The rifle’s barrel stopped shivering.

Then he shifted it a fraction. He would have his game still.

The bullet ruffled the Chopper’s hair as it passed by his ear. A sliver of a second later it took the henchman in the back of the head, blowing it apart. The guy sprawled on the concrete, tumbled, and lay dead. The Chopper tripped over him, also sprawled in the dirt, came up into a sitting position, and stared back towards the building.

“Don’t move!” Einar yelled across the open land. Much louder than the sound of chambering a bullet, his shout rolled over the Chopper before disintegration. But the Chopper had no intention of obeying the order. Einar chambered another round as the Chopper got to his feet and turned to run. The Chopper didn’t hear this sound, or the gunshot a moment after, but he saw a Coke can five feet ahead of him split apart and bounce away, and after that he froze on the spot and put his hands up.

Einar walked slowly towards him, all the time sighting down his scope. Fifteen feet out, right beside the fallen henchman, he stopped and lowered the rifle to his hip, but kept it aimed at the Chopper.

“I don’t know you, man. You got no beef with me, for sure. What do you want?” the Chopper said, his voice quivering. His gaze was flicking between the two men before him, the one standing and holding a gun, and the one laying on the ground with no head.

Einar noted something in the man’s waistline, creating a bulge partway down his leg. He knew what it was. And knew the game was about to be a lot more fun.

“Your life countdown has reached zero,” Einar said, and fired.

The gun clicked on empty.

The Chopper jerked, staggering back with his hands over his face. Then he realised what had happened and his hand flashed to his hip and came wielding a long breadknife with its handle wrapped thickly in tape. This, Einar realised, was a man who had used that knife before, and not for slicing bread.

“Shit,” Einar said, forcing his smile upside down.

“You just fucked up big-style, wanker,” the Chopper yelled, and rushed him.

Einar had left the chamber empty on purpose. For the game. Now, he grabbed the hunting knife held by a push-fit pipe clip to the side of his gun, tore both killing instruments apart and tossed aside the gun in one fluid movement. Before the rifle had hit the ground, he was already moving forward.

***

Einar grabbed James Marsh’s hair and yanked his head up. The man’s face was battered, but the eyes that stared up at him were clear, not dazed. Einar saw in them something akin to realisation. Just for a second, he thought this man knew who he was. Then the eyes moved away and Einar figured he must have read them wrong.

Einar held up his knife. He held it close to Marsh’s bruised eyes, making sure he saw the blood glistening on the wicked blade. He saw, but displayed no fear. Shock, Einar guessed. The man had been ripped out of his normal life and thrust into the grip of misery and pain. Einar had left the blade bloodied so he could elicit fear, but now wiped the knife clean on the businessman’s shirt.

“I never normally ask,” Einar said, “but today’s been a strange old day. Why has someone put a price on your head? What did you do?”

No answer.

“Just for a moment I bet you thought you’d been saved. No such luck, James, I’m afraid. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Any clue as to why someone wants you dead?”

Still no answer.

“Maybe you had no idea until now. Maybe the Chopper never said, and you sat there all that time hoping the nightmare would soon end. Maybe you still hope to get out of here and back to your cosy house. Well, let me clarify something for you. You will never know why, and nor will your wife and daughter, when I visit them after I leave here. But today your life countdown just reached zero.”

Still no further emotion. No fear, no wonder. Again, it was as if the man knew. The Chopper must have told him he was going to die today, even though the other hitman, like Einar, did not know the reason someone had marked this man for death. A lie, then. The Chopper must have invented something to tell Marsh, probably because, like Einar, he enjoyed seeing emotions on faces. Especially fear.

He noted that Marsh was bound only to the gym weight, not the chair. Slipping his knife into his belt, Einar moved behind the chair quickly and tipped it forwards, pitching the businessman into the pool.

Marsh thrashed in the water, showing resolve and energy that surprised Einar, given how slumped and dead the man had been in the chair for the last few minutes. The gym weight shifted against the tug of the chain, slipping closer to the edge. Blood from the man’s shirt and face started to snake tendrils through the water.

Einar smiled as he saw the man realise what would happen if he continued to struggle. Marsh stopped yanking the chain and floated on his back, treading water, staring up at Einar. Einar stood with his left foot next to the weight. He tried to think of something profound to say, to elicit more emotion. But nothing came. Besides, he had already used his catchphrase.

Marsh opened his mouth to speak. Einar kicked the weight, scraping it across the final ten inches of concrete and into the pool. It sank and the chain went taught and Marsh was yanked under.

Einar heard the dull clack of the weight landing on the bottom. Marsh tried to swim upwards and managed to lift one edge of the weight, but that was it. He thrashed, his head a good five feet under the surface.

Einar had already been here too long and it was time to go. He pulled his camera phone and took a quick photo of the guy dying in the pool. His proof of death. He sent the picture, along with that of the dead hitman, to the paymaster’s, then checked his watch. Forty-nine minutes elapsed. He grinned. Now it was time to kill Marsh’s family, and then he could collect his £75,000 fee and go home.

***

They say a man’s life flashes before him as he faces death, but for Jimmy Marsh, it was just a few moments from the last few hours. Scenes without which he wouldn’t be here, in this predicament. Jumbled, too, non-linear.

…Jimmy tried to calm his breathing and relax. He didn’t know how long the journey would be, and if he spent too long wound tight with nervous tension, he was going to exhaust his muscles. And he knew he would need them.

As it was, the journey was no more than ten minutes according to the clock in his head. At first he tried to visualise every turn, every noisy junction, every quiet street where the Golf picked up speed, but he soon bogged down in grey areas of the map in his brain. Soon after, he gave up trying to work out where they were taking him.

And soon after that, the car stopped and he heard the doors opening. All four of them.

He knew he had two choices here. When they opened the boot to retrieve him, he could either hit them with a massive assault and try to use the element of surprise to break away, or he could try to talk his way out of this mess. The latter seemed the most likely to fail, if these people were the hitman and his cronies, but the former was the option most likely to get him instantly killed.

When the boot opened, he made his decision. He thrust his hands up, fingers splayed, like a man defending himself, and yelled at them.

“It’s too early, too early. It’s not until five o’clock!”

The four men from the Golf said nothing. Hands thrust into his clothing, and he was yanked roughly out of the boot.

“Too early,” he yelled again. “There’s a reason I can’t be killed until after five.” The man in dark colours grabbed Jimmy’s ears and drove his forehead hard into Jimmy’s face. He managed to turn his head slightly and the impact took him on the temple instead of the nose.

“Get him inside,” the leader said. “And get that car out of here.”

As they dragged him towards a doorway shuttered with wood, Jimmy cast his eyes around, seeking help. But he was in open land, walking across some kind of concrete area that had been left to rot, and boxed in by the building ahead and trees and walls all around. He doubted a call for help would achieve anything. He…

…jerked back to the now, realising his brain had skipped backwards like a scratched record. He picked up the gym weight and threw it ahead of him, locking the chain tight. He jerked his leg, dragging himself closer to the weight. He repeated this three times, and found himself right by the drain cover.

While staring into the pool, he had been rolling back the years, to a time when he was eleven and on a school swimming lesson. Jimmy had turned up without his trunks and been forced to sit out the lesson, which he had passed talking to the janitor, who had given him a quick tour of the building and a lesson in swimming pool science. Most of the crap he’d that day ingested had come out in his shit the next morning, but not everything. He’d forgotten all the stuff about flow rates through skimmers and ultra-violet disinfection and multi-cylinder Co2 Ph. control systems, but he did recall one thing. And it was this he’d envisioned in his mind. Over and over, refining the details, and playing out what he had to do.

The square cover was screwed in place. Jimmy lifted the weight and dropped it hard on one corner. He had feared this part the most, imagining wasting all his energy and breath bashing away at the screw. But the first strike missed the corner and hit the tiles, dissolving a portion of one into watery dust. Jimmy fed his fingers into the cover’s gridded body and yanked, and found that entire corner, where the tile had disintegrated, was loose. Quickly he crushed three more tiles, one at each corner, one blow for each, and when he yanked again, the cover lifted away, the screws effortlessly tearing easily out of their housings.

The shaft beyond was black, but he had no choice. His air was …

stale in the confines of the van. The windscreen was fogged but through it he saw the terrace containing the cafe where he’d met his family earlier. So this was another flashback, he understood. Back he’d gone again. First time, to the kidnapping, without which he wouldn’t in this damned pool. Now, further: to the reason he was in that car park – without which he wouldn’t have been kidnapped. No journey here, no kidnap, no death by drowning.

If he was in the van, back before they’d taken him, that meant he still had the folded sheet of paper on the passenger sheet. The sheet: another link in the chain he’d followed right to his death.

He looked over now and there it was. He took it, opened it, read it for the umpteenth time. Then it went into the glove box. He slammed the glove box door hard, as if that could help lock away the horror. Then he set his breathing on a calming routine. If he went into the cafe with all this consternation in his blood, his wife was going to smell it and see it and taste it all over him. He would give himself a few minutes here, he told himself. Silence in which to slow his heart rate.

The deadline was approaching – a quick glance at the dashboard clock showed he had barely an hour until 5 p.m. – but he needed time to think.

He closed his eyes…

He put a hand into the shaft and felt a floor two feet below. It was like a box, only one wall was missing. This, he knew, was a horizontal shaft with rungs attached to the ceiling. This was so workmen could clean the drained shaft, which was basically an escape tunnel for anyone unlucky enough to become trapped in the Balance Tank.

The hole was big enough to admit Jimmy, yet it stirred mixed emotions in him. On the one hand, thoughts and hopes of freedom, success, a continued life. On the other hand, an indelible image of his dead body wedged in this opening, just his legs showing. Who knew what twists and turns lay down there?

He skirted around the hole so he was above the horizontal shaft, then fed himself in head-first. He reached into the shaft and found the first rung, and used that to haul himself down, somersaulting so he was on his back. It was tight. He had to wiggle his legs so they didn’t jam in the ninety degree turn. At one point the heavy gym weight snagged at the edge of the opening, but eventually it fell into the hole.

He used the rungs to make quick time. The weight slid along easily behind him, no match for the power in his arms as he yanked on rung after rung.

It seemed to take forever…

…for the lift to reach the ground floor, and when –

– ah, back again he’d gone. Now, even further. He watched himself leave the lift, leave the building, and cross to his parked bike. And there was the sheet of paper, in that file creating a bulge under his jacket. He watched himself sit astride the machine. Out came the file. Out came the photo from the file.

Taken that morning, he knew. Because he could see in his shirt pocket a pen he’d never carried before today. It was still in that pocket, under his biker leathers. He tried to remember if anyone memorable – anyone with a camera, for instance – had been lurking across the road when he popped out of the supermarket for a late lunch break. Whoever had taken that photo must have vanished pretty quickly afterwards. If he’d been under surveillance half an hour later, his observers would have watched him climb into the back of his van and emerge on his motorbike for the trip to Davey’s to collect his money. That photo had gotten from the camera to a file in Davey’s flat very fast. No more than an hour between photo and delivery. Had he just missed the delivery guy who dropped off the file when he went to Davey’s flat? He thought of the man in the suit he nearly walked into. Him?

Whoever these people were, they wanted James Marsh dead for some reason, and badly. Unlucky for them that they had unwittingly hired the condemned man himself to do the job.

Next, Jimmy stared at the written sheet. 5 o’clock, it said. The Chopper had until five to call a number and accept the hit, or the job would go to another contract killer. The fee was £20,000. Once the call had been made, further details would be available.

Jimmy thought about that. It did not say James Marsh had be dead by five. The job had to be accepted by that deadline, so he had some breathing space in which to think. He was not going back to work today, that was for sure. But he had to keep the appointment for a late lunch with his wife and daughter, which unfortunately would waste some of his precious time. As was all this flashback lark, so…

The rungs ended and he found another corner to the shaft. Upwards again. A vertical shaft. He pulled himself into a sitting position and banged his head. There was some kind of gridded metal cover. His breathe was failing. His hands scrabbled across the cover, seeking a quick-release lever, which he knew there should be. He found it, cracked it, and pushed the cover open.

He climbed out of the shaft and his head cleared the water. He sat on the opening, one leg out, weighted leg hanging down, water lapping around his neck, and breathed deeply. It was still pitch black, but he knew he was in the level deck balance tank, where the water displaced by bathers was collected after running down channels in the side of the pool at fill height. If the pool had been full of bathers, this tank would be full and he’d be drowning.

He used his arms to lift his leg out of the shaft, dragged on the chain and eventually got the gym weight in his arms. He got to his feet and reached over his head, feeling the curved metal roof of the tank. The water was now around his thighs. He recalled that the technician from way back had informed him it was law to insert a hatch every three metres in a balance tank, so that those who had to get inside and clean it were never more than one-and-a-half metres from a way out. It took only four seconds for Jimmy, fumbling in the dark, to find a hatch. He twisted the quick-release handle and pushed the hatch open. He expected light, but there was none, only a slightly less blackness to the dark.

To exit, he had to lift his chained leg high enough so he could hoist the weight out first. Then he grabbed the edge and swung up, legs first. His strength was all gone and he barely managed to climb out of the hatch.

He was sitting on curved metal: the outer shell of the balance tank. He slid off, dropping like a sack of potatoes onto the floor. The weight went first and seemed to drag him faster. As he landed and crumpled, the wind was knocked out of him, forcing bile into his throat. He splashed his last meal all over the floor, but it cleared his head. He lay there, panting, staring at the dead and broken fluorescent lights on the peeling ceiling. His head spun, in part because of lack of oxygen and in part because of the feeling that he’d narrowly escaped death.

There was a square of light high in the wall, giving just enough illumination for him to see stairs leading up to a doorway, and the curves and lines of old machinery all around him. This was the plant room, where pool maintenance was carried out. The lights, the machinery: all much more modern than the building. The plant room would be underground, so the door at the top of the stairs should be at ground level.

The door was wooden, rotted, and burst open easily under one swing of the gym weight. Jimmy squinted against the light. He was out.

He found himself in a corridor, at the end of which he could see a doorless doorway. He took it, fast, carrying the weight. Another corridor. At the end, a door that delivered him into the pool area. He could see the chair, floating in the pool. He could see the dead man lying on the ground. He could see nobody else, hear nothing.

He remembered, as he floated in and out of consciousness, that his kidnappers had escorted him quite a distance to get here, which meant they had travelled around the building. The entrance was to his left, so he went right, figuring the exit from the grounds must be on that side of the building. In the wall, under the balcony, was a double mattress laying up against the wall. Poking over the top he could see a portion of a door. He struggled over there, toppled the mattress and saw a metal fire exit with planks nailed across the frame. They snapped easily under his new weapon. The fire exit looked far more modern than the rest of the building, just like the plant room. He wondered if the place had been partially renovated a few years ago with an eye to reopening it. Why had the work not been finished -

No time for such thoughts. He slapped the panic bar, but the door was jammed and needed a shoulder. It squealed open and daylight flooded in. So relieved was Jimmy that he sank to his knees.

But there was no time for dawdling.

Outside was a concrete area that might have been a small car park. He saw the Golf, and his van next to it. There was a high wall with a gateway to the left. He could hear cars rushing past just beyond the wall, and saw the flat top of a truck blast by. He didn’t know where he was, but clearly the heavy traffic proved he was not way out in the middle of nowhere. And the trip in the boot of the Golf had not been long enough for the car to have left London. He knew he could find his way home. He knew he had to get back there quickly because his wife and child might not be safe.

He had left his mobile phone in the van, he was sure of it. But a quick search of the cab said otherwise. He went to the rear and threw the doors open.

The Transit had been relieved of its rear seats soon after purchase. In the back was his Kawasaki motorbike, upright on brackets. Lining the side walls were heavy-duty plastic boxes filled with tools and other things he might need as a hitman, although nothing like a weapon, in case the police searched the vehicle. A weapon he could get later. For now he needed something to get this damned chain off his ankle.

It was risky to leave the van at a crime scene, but he had no choice. He needed speed, and he couldn’t risk getting lodged in traffic.

Ninety seconds later, Jimmy tore out of there on the Kawasaki, headed home. And prayed he wasn’t already too late to save his family.

***

Einar was back in the pavilion. Watching the front window of the Marsh house again. Maria was no longer in the garden, and he couldn’t see her or the kid through the glass. In the kitchen, maybe. Cooking dinner for a husband who wasn’t ever coming home. He thought it was a little sad when people didn’t know the fate that had befallen their loved ones and continued as if nothing had happened, expecting their lives to remain as planned.

They wouldn’t ever know, however. They had moments to live. This time he wasn’t going to mess around with smiley face targets. Or silly catchphrases. The moment the woman showed him something vital to shoot at, she was going down forever. The kid might have a few moments of shock, but then she would rush to her mother’s side and into his sights, and her pain would end, too. Or the other way around, child first. Of course, the sight of blood might propel mother or child to run or just freeze out of sight, in which case he would have to go across the road and use his blade.

He didn’t take his eyes off the window for ten minutes, except for a scary moment when the view between two of the houses on his side of the road was blocked by the passage of a truck. Some delivery vehicle, bringing someone a fridge or bed maybe. He heard the truck stop just out of view. The engine continued to growl, which he liked. It would cover the sound of the bullet going through the window. And any screams of pain, if he didn’t get the chance for a head shot.

Twenty seconds later, he saw movement and nearly fired, but it was just an arm. The kid’s arm, right in the corner of the window. The elbow jabbed in and out of view as she gesticulated. Then it was gone. He saw something hit the window and drop amongst the ornaments on the sill, knocking a few over. Some kind of doll. Thrown in a child’s tantrum, he guessed.

Maria stepped into view, carrying the child, who was struggling in her arms. He saw the woman’s mouth moving, wide and fast, as if she was reprimanding the child. The kid was hugged right to her chest, and she moved right up to the window, picked up the doll with her free hand. The further back into the room, the dimmer and hazier had been her form, but here, up close to the glass, she was lit by daylight and perfectly displayed, and Einar could not have asked for a better position for either killer or target. And the child was right there in her arms. He knew it was the moment. Despite the double glazing, a bullet in the child’s neck would pass right through and into Maria’s heart. Two dead, one bullet. No need for the knife.

Like a lens cap being drawn across a viewfinder, the image in his scope shrank from right to left, filling with white. Until white filled his view. Einar jerked his eye away from the scope and cursed. The truck. The delivery truck had reversed, fast, and stopped. There it was, filling the gap between the two houses, like a closed lid. He checked his watch. No rush. He could wait.

Then he couldn’t. Anything could happen while he was blind. He got unusually paranoid. He thought Maria would see the advert on the side of the truck and decide she suddenly needed to go buy a cooker. The police would miraculously suddenly discover all the bodies at the swimming pool and arrive here to pick up the wife and kid. The truck’s engine would melt and the vehicle would be stuck there for hours.

He slotted his rifle away in the gig bag, but kept the knife. His car was the opposite way, too far to go fetch. He stashed the bag atop a cupboard in a corner and left the pavilion. A quick walk to the cricket ground’s perimeter fence took twenty seconds. He hopped over and rushed across the back yard of the house opposite Marsh’s, tried to kick a cat that scampered out of his path, and slid the bolt on the gate. He crossed the drive.

He was calm. If Maria saw him coming down her path, she would recognise him and probably meet him at the door. He would tell her he had some good news about the new BMW, and she would invite him in. He would slit her pasty white throat and chase the kid around the house while the woman gurgled and bled to death. He figured another seven minutes and he’d be back in his car, headed away. He had already decided that this would be his last job in London. He was bored of -

Fear hit him. He could see two guys in coveralls. One was in the truck’s driver’s seat, the other guy standing by the open driver’s door, and they were talking fast, and he heard one complain about the keys, he took the effing keys. And the way the truck was haphazardly parked at a slight angle in the middle of the road. . . Right then Einar knew something was wrong.

He rushed to the house and opened the door. He went in without a care for caution, because he already knew the house was empty. Nobody in the living room. He rushed upstairs, and those rooms were empty, too.

Lastly, the kitchen. Empty. Eggs were boiling in a pan on the hob. The back door was open. He stood on the threshold and looked out. The garden was small. There was a lawn with a crazy paving path. The border was soil with some purple flowers growing. A portion of this flowery line was crumpled near the back fence, and ivy on that section of the fence was snapped and hanging loose. The scene was as good as a sign saying WE ESCAPED RIGHT HERE. Einar rushed to the fence and stood on tip-toe to peer over. Beyond he saw a house and garden much like this one, like a reflection. And, most important, a residential street at the end of the driveway. He cursed. Morse’s family had realised the danger facing them, somehow, and escaped onto a neighbouring street, from which they could have run anywhere. Somehow? Ha, he thought he knew how.

He turned off the hob in the kitchen, not wanting to let the house burn down, and went out front again. The two guys in coveralls were standing by the front of the truck now, looking bewildered.

“Guy in a dirty white shirt, by any chance?” he asked as he went over. They had no problem explaining it to him, as if they thought he was a police officer. One pointed to a black motorbike on its side on the road a few yards ahead, which Einar had missed earlier.

Yeah, one guy said. A guy in a ruined white shirt had jumped off his bike right in front of them, yanked the driver out of the cab, threatened the driver’s mate into inaction, and reversed the truck five metres. Then he jumped out and ran into that house there. You know him? Fucking lunatic’s got my ignition keys.

Einar walked away. In part he was angry, because he had been outwitted. Marsh had remembered a few skills from his army days after all. He had known where Einar might place himself to best utilise a sniper rifle, and he had blocked the view, then rescued his family. And all that after somehow escaping that swimming pool.

But in part Einar was thrilled, because he had a new game to play. The hitman known as the Chopper had turned out to be no kind of test at all, a dunce, but this guy Marsh… This guy would be a fun opponent. A real test. Hunting this guy would inject some much-needed excitement into Einar’s life.

***

Jimmy took the M1 north, originally planning to drive all the way to Sheffield, where Maria’s parents lived. But forty miles into the journey, they came across Toddington Services and Maria slapped his arm and pointed. She gave him a look that said, We need to talk, now. So he took the exit into the Services. He parked the Range Rover, stolen from the street next to where they lived, and killed the engine. They were by a grassy area with a wooden climbing frame shaped like a castle. Kids played there. Louise was in Maria’s lap, already kicking her legs to be free, so Maria let her out with an order to stay close to the car. When Louise rushed over to the castle, Maria turned to her husband. She looked at his shirt, still slightly damp, creased, dirty, with blood caked all over it. She wouldn’t look at his battered face, he knew. She didn’t speak, but he knew he was supposed to explain. Of course he was.

“There’s a man after me,” he said finally. She wouldn’t look at his face and he couldn’t bring himself to look at hers. She watched his chest and he watched his little girl performing stunts on the castle. “We can’t go home yet.”

A pause, then with a snort of disgust: “That’s it That’s all I get?”

He owed her more, of course. After he had backed up the truck to block the view from the cricket field, figuring that a guy who liked to kill with a long-range rifle would pick that spot, he had rushed into the house like a demon, telling her to follow him, that they had to leave, now, out the back. He had grabbed Louise right out of her arms, taken Maria’s hand, and like that they had fled like fugitives. Out the back, over the fence, across the neighbour’s land and into the street parallel to theirs. Maria had followed without a word. Down the street a ways, to where a Range Rover was parked in a drive with the boot open and the engine running. They jumped in and he reversed right out of there, watched by a dumbfounded guy who was in his garage, a box in his hands. And still Maria hadn’t spoken to him, instead using the time to try comforting Louise, who didn’t seem to mind the sudden change of scenery at all. All he had said since was that they were going to her mother’s house.

Now, he didn’t know what to say to her. Certainly nothing about a hitman being after them. Definitely nothing about his own role as a contract killer with ten murders under his belt. But he felt that a fiction would be wrong. So he went for a truth that he knew was implausible, as if that somehow made it okay.

“It involves the army. Someone from way back has come after me.”

The moment the last word was out, Jimmy realised how bad the story sounded. Some guy he pissed off over a decade ago had decided on revenge? Bad.

But she seemed to accept it.

“You mean your past somehow puts us in danger today? Why? How? Some supervillain is hunting down your old unit and taking them out one at a time? You need to tell me more than that. You just rushed in like a lunatic and dragged us out. I left the cooker on, Jimmy. How serious is this, because we might not have a house when we get back?”

“Let’s not talk about the reason for it right now. I don’t know the reason myself. I just know some guy came here and he wants revenge for something.”

“And how did you find this out while you were at work? Did he hide in the cabbages, ready to jump out, or smash through the cornflakes with a machine gun?”

Okay, she wasn’t accepting it at all. “Look, for now, while I think, we can’t go back home.”

“And you’re taking us to my mum’s house? What if he knows about that place and he rappels from a helicopter to get us?”

Her sarcasm was suddenly infuriating. He slapped the steering wheel. “Listen, Maria, this is serious. I don’t know what’s going on, okay. But I know there’s a guy after me, and he’s fucking dangerous. I watched him shoot a guy dead, okay. And he wants me.” He wasn’t about to tell her that the guy thought he, James, was dead, and it was Maria and Louise he was after.

If he was after them at all. Maybe it had been an idle threat made by the man while Jimmy was sitting by the pool with a gym weight around his ankle. A statement meant to panic Jimmy. Because he hadn’t seen anyone pointing a sniper rifle at them, had he? He had burst in and yanked them away without seeing any kind of threat. Maybe his family had never been in danger and the guy was long gone.

“So what do we do now?” Maria said, snapping him out of his thoughts. “We drive all the way to my parents’ house? What do we tell them? I don’t like that idea. Not if you really think some guy is after you and willing to track you wherever you are.”

She was right. Whoever this guy was, he was a contract killer just like Jimmy. And Jimmy knew first-hand what kind of research went into a hit. He had spent three days delving into the life of Alfo The Destroyer, just for five thousand pounds. He had known the guy’s habits, his local haunts, where his mum shopped and played bingo. And Jimmy was not big league. If this guy was, and Jimmy thought a weapon like a sniper rifle was pretty good proof of it, then who knew what resources he had. Jimmy tried not to imagine a map full of pins, showing everywhere Jimmy liked to eat, drink, shit. Every playground Louise had visited in the last month. Every friend that Maria went to visit for lunch. The Marsh life, mapped out.

“Hey. Snap out of it. What the hell do we do now, Jimmy?”

He looked around at the large service station at the far end of the car park. Beside it was a taller structure, the hotel. Service stations were like little towns. You could live and eat here. And no matter how long you stayed, you were always a stranger because the clientele changed hourly as people entered and exited on their journeys elsewhere. It was perfect. Here they would not stand out, not become known. At least for a few days, they could stay here and think about what to do. Everyone was anonymous here. There could be war criminals, paedophiles, and hitmen on the run with their families, and no one would know.

***

Sometimes Einar had had to call an employer and admit that he needed more time, but never before had he had to admit that he had failed. It was all because of the one-hour deadline he had set. He was embarrassed, but this was a call he had had to make. Admitting failure sat easier in the mind than lying about a target’s death. Imagine if the truth got out? It would throw doubt upon every kill he had ever made. It would probably guarantee his own placement upon someone else’s target list. Contract killers the world over would converge upon him like vultures upon a carcass.

“But you sent me a photo,” the voice on the phone said. “I saw James Marsh in a pool, weighted down.”

“Somehow he got out,” Einar said. He was driving aimlessly until he had gotten this phone call out of the way and had decided on a new course of action. “But I keep to my promise to complete the job for free. My own fault. The Chopper was a straight takedown, but with James Marsh I decided to have some fun. I suppose it was like when the villains leave James Bond in some kind of predicament that leaves the capability for escape.”

Silence. Einar had hoped for a laugh at his joke. He wasn’t taking this as seriously as the man on the phone because he knew it was just a setback. He wasn’t claiming Marsh was free and clear – just that Einar had been foiled in his first attempt to off the man.

“Your services are not needed any longer, Einar. I will use my own men. If this man has now fled London, like you say, then he will leave a record of wherever he goes. I will have him found. But you may still keep the money that was left for you, for your time. Thank you for your time.”

He hung up and Einar stared at the phone with shock. Thank you for your time? As if he had done no more than completed a market research survey. He drove for a few more minutes and got slowly more concerned. He could not let this lie as it was. Even now the man on the phone might be calling someone else, arranging another killer. If he had a middleman, that man would need to know why another killer was needed. Oh, because Einar failed. Failed? Einar? That’s not like him. Oh well, I’ll make a note of it.

Word would spread. Important people would hear about it. His name would be blackened. He would slip down the rankings. Money that ran like a river would start to trickle like a stream. And all because Einar had underestimated a supermarket assistant manager.

Angry, he called the number. The connection was made but no voice spoke.

“You were doubtful that I could find these men within an hour. But I did. I will find James Marsh again, long before your own men do. I have a reputation to uphold, and I do not take kindly to being told I failed. You will refrain from assuming I failed and spreading such a claim. And I will send you a photograph of James Marsh’s head without his body.”

He hung up and called another number. The employer wasn’t the only man with resources. Einar hadn’t hunted hidden men across the world purely by utilising LinkedIn and a phone book.

***

They bought new clothing and a pair of pay-as-you-go mobile phones and then went for a look around. Louise was quickly convinced that they were on holiday. There was an adventure playground in the back yard of the hotel, but the gate was locked after six. She spent a few moments in tears about this, but was soon calmed by an assurance that she could play there tomorrow. The family ate at a Pizza Hut inside the Services and then Louise was let loose to play in a ball pit inside Macdonald’s. Two hours flew by. Jimmy bought a bunch of snacks from a shop while Maria bought a book. They hardly spoke, except when they got moments out of earshot of their daughter. Maria asked over and over why Jimmy was being chased by someone who wanted to harm him, and he was sure she didn’t believe his assertions that he had no idea. They went to the hotel and rented one of the fifteen out of sixteen empty rooms. The receptionist, a sweet young lady who was running the entire hotel alone for this evening since the chef had left at seven, got them a travel cot from another room. After Louise was put down for the night, they watched TV for a while, and then Maria said she wanted a drink, and ordered Jimmy to go fetch her a bottle of wine from the bar downstairs.

“Maybe it’s not wise to drink, in case we…” He stopped, but the damage was done.

“In case we have to run again? That makes me want a drink even more, Jimmy. I was at home, comfortable, and now I’m stuck in a crappy hotel in the middle of the motorway, and my husband thinks someone wants to hurt him. So, I think that deserves a drink.”

He didn’t argue after that. It was past eleven and they were settling in for the night, so maybe he could have a glass of wine or eight himself. He went downstairs. The receptionist was playing with her phone and looked up when he approached. He was wearing jeans and a cardigan now and had showered. The receptionist smiled at him in a way he would have loved twenty years ago. She looked no more than nineteen.

“I need a bottle of wine from your bar, if I can.”

She shook her head. “We can’t sell them. And I don’t have the key for the bar. I’m not trained and they don’t trust me.”

“So they let the customers go without a drink all night? Great customer service.”

She shrugged. “That’s because the manager is a…” she looked around, as if the manager might be lurking “…bitch. And the Services don’t sell alcohol.”

He raised his eyebrows, surprised.

“But if you get me a packet of fags from the paper shop inside, maybe I could find the key for the store room. They have wine in there that we sometimes let guests buy.”

“Christ, customers can’t buy cigarettes here, either? Your boss allergic to money?”

She giggled. The deal sounded good, so he held out his hand for some money.

“I’m risking my job here, sweetie,” the girl said. And it was all she said. He got the message. He saluted and left the hotel.

***

Einar was enjoying an evening latte in a former public toilet now coffee bar in Oxford Circus, London’s West End, when the call came through. His man had earned his fee. A debit card belonging to Maria Alannah Marsh had just been used in a WHSmith at Toddington Services in Bedfordshire. Einar was a frequent visitor to Britain, but he had infrequently ventured outside the capital. So he had no idea where Bedfordshire was, but feared it was far away. It wasn’t, according to a map app on his phone. Forty miles or so. He left the cafe and rushed to his car. A long trip had been his fear, because he knew he was competing against a former employer who might have fingers all over Britain, and nearby teams who could reach the location long before he got there. But forty miles was nothing, and it was one motorway. It was just closing on ten p.m. He got to the Services close to eleven.

Earlier, Einar had visited an associate to stock up on things he thought he might need. In his inner jacket pocket was a Bersa Thunder .380 pistol. There were so many fine small pistols on the market that it was hard sometimes to pick one. He liked the green rubber handgrips on this one, and that name. Thunder! In another pocket was a Batangas butterfly knife, named after the Philippine region where it was made. This item he liked also for two reasons: a fine picture of a deadly spider when the two handles were closed together over the blade – and the fact that the website he purchased it from called it a “deadly weapon” right on the homepage. He had a bag of other items in the boot, but those were fail-safes, in case things went awry.

He parked as far away from the Services building as possible, in a far corner of the car park. He had made good time and could afford to slow down now. The carpark was busy even at this late hour, which was good because he wouldn’t stand out.

The card belonging to Maria had been used at WHSmith’s, and there were plenty of better places to buy food, including those that made sandwiches to take away. So he figured she had bought a book or magazine, and if she had, that meant they were here for the night. And who would spend the night in a car when they had a child and there was a hotel nearby? So he looked across the car park, eyes settling on the hotel. It was two storeys. Many of the windows he could see were black, only a few lit. For sure the family would be in one of those.

A green Nissan Qashqai drove by him and parked three spots down. Far from the shops, just like the spot Einar had chosen. That perked him up. He watched out of the window as the doors opened and three men got out. All wearing jeans and jackets. Big men around Einar’s age. They didn’t stretch their limbs the way he expected of people who had been travelling a long time cramped in a car. And although the Nissan was a big 4×4, these guys would be cramped in anything other than an ocean liner. So their journey had been short. Maybe as short as his own.

They congregated by the boot. One opened it. They crowded each other and Einar saw items from the boot being passed between them, although he couldn’t see what. He opened his door and got out. The guys jerked, probably expecting the Audi to have been empty. Einar stretched.

“What a bloody ride, eh?” he said in a Scottish accent. “Non-stop from Glasgow. Need me a bloody coffee.”

“Traffic, eh?” one said without looking at him. Another slammed the Nissan’s boot, and all three moved away. Einar locked his car and followed them. He let their brisk pace carry them far ahead. One guy looked round at him, probably just to make sure he was out of earshot. He saw them pointing, knew they were discussing their plan.

So, if these guys were part of the employer’s team, they had obviously gotten the location of the debit card Maria had used here at roughly the same time he had. And they had left London at roughly the same time.

A paved path lined both sides with lighted bollards led to the main entrance of the Services building. Another branched off across grass and towards the hotel, which had its own mini-car park with an entrance somewhere else. Only two cars there in that car park.

The three guys split up, one striding ahead, one hanging back. Trying not to look like a group of three headed towards the hotel. But all definitely heading towards the hotel. Einar stopped at a bin on the path and hunted in his pockets, finding only a couple of receipts. He tore them up and made a performance of wasting time tossing the scraps in the bin. The guys didn’t look round at him. One by one they rounded a corner of the angled hotel building and vanished.

Here lay the tricky part. Clearly the three guys, unless he had this all wrong and they were genuine guys seeking a room for the night, were heading in search of James Marsh and his family. If he was in that hotel, they would have him. Maybe they would drag him out of there, take him somewhere secluded, and kill him. Maybe they would slaughter the guy right in front of his wife and kid and give housekeeping some overtime. Either way, what mattered was that Einar got the credit. Normally he wouldn’t take the credit for another’s kill, but he had been stuffed on this job and his morals had changed. So what he needed to do was make sure the three guys never got the chance to tell their boss the job was done. They needed to disappear, leaving Einar alone to make the phone call telling the employer that the target was dead. So he couldn’t just wait for the guys to reappear. If they made the call in the hotel room, standing over Marsh’s corpse, it was game over.

Einar took the path that led to the hotel.

The double doors whizzed open automatically. Einar stepped into a reception area lit only by peach-coloured wall lights arranged everywhere. Cosy, he thought. There was a reception desk on the left, a cafe area on the right, and ahead an area with a bar and sofas and a TV tuned to some shopping channel, although the bar was closed. He saw no doorways to bedrooms or even to a corridor containing the bedrooms. Just doors to toilets and a kitchen and one for the stairs. So only the upper floor contained the guest rooms. There was a lift at the back of the cafe area, its up arrow lit.

The place was empty. Very empty. Not even a receptionist. He went to the high desk and peered over. There was an empty swivel chair with someone’s butt impression still in it, and a magazine laid across a keyboard, and a mobile phone with the Facebook app open on it. The receptionist had left her post recently, quickly. No way the three guys had booked rooms and gone up that fast, but they had definitely gone up. And would the lone receptionist have escorted them up? Or even let them up if they weren’t booking rooms?

Of course not, Einar determined. So she had gone unwillingly.

He couldn’t risk calling the lift, because then he would be announcing himself to the three guys. If they had guns and trained them on the lift doors, he would be a sitting duck. So Einar went to the stairs, pulled the door and listened. Nothing. But he got just a few steps up when he heard the door at the top open, and two voices. Quickly he rushed out and behind the reception desk. He sat on the floor and pulled his Bersa. That was when he noticed a CCTV camera above him, but thankfully it was smashed. By the guys.

Fifteen seconds later he heard the stairs door. Footsteps and voices. Two sets of feet, two voices. Not three. The footsteps moved quickly and were gone. Einar realised what had happened. The guys had found James’s room quickly, but he wasn’t there. But at this hour no parents would drag a four year-old around the shops, or leave her alone in a hotel room, so child and mother were upstairs. And if they were dead already, as well as that luckless receptionist, there would be no reason to leave a guy behind. Simple deduction: wife and child were alive and being guarded by one man while the other two went to hunt James Marsh in the Services.

And best of all, why leave a guy behind unless they planned to return with their target in custody?

***

Out of habit grown through his hitman role rather than his years as a Marine Commando, Jimmy watched everyone he saw in the Services, looking for something off, waiting for an internal alarm to sound. Nobody stood out. At this hour there were no children younger than teenagers. Mostly young couples who had the stamina to drive all night and maybe didn’t mind snuggling up on a back seat in a lay-by somewhere. A few old men. Most of the women seemed to be workers at the shops, most of which were open. Jimmy headed for the intersection, took a left and stopped at the convenience store, which was just closing. He rapped on the lowering shutter and showed a twenty pound note. The shutter went back up and he bought a packet of cigarettes and some chocolate. The guy took his money as if it were smeared in shit. Neither man said a thanks and both parted ways.

He turned at the intersection and headed back towards the exit. That was when two men walked in from the dark and immediately one veered away from his pal and stopped at the window of WHSmith’s. Jimmy had caught the guy’s eye in the moment before he veered off. His pal walked a few paces onwards before he realised his pal had stopped. He looked round at his colleague, then forward again, right at Jimmy, and then down at the strap of his watch, which had suddenly developed a problem. Jimmy didn’t automatically assume they were amateurs. They just hadn’t expected to run right into the guy they were after within three feet of the entrance. But expecting him, here in this building, they clearly had been.

A cleaner was heading towards Jimmy. Jimmy stopped the guy and asked where the toilets were. He already knew where they were. Back down the corridor and right. Thankfully the guy added a description with his hands. Jimmy said thanks and turned and strode away. He needed to warn Maria about this new trouble, but he had left his brand-new mobile in the hotel room.

At the intersection was a pedal bin with a metal dome for a lid. He tossed in the chocolate bar he had bought, using the bin’s reflective surface to determine that the two big guys were striding together again, right this way.

The Services was a large area with a domed roof and shaped like lollipop, the stick being the entry-exit corridor. The circular area was ringed with shops, while the central portion was divided into four eateries, each one wedge-shaped. The serving booths for each were set against a thick pillar right in the middle, like a food hub. Jimmy knew that the only other exit, apart from fire escapes and the rear doors of shops, was an external smoking area right at the back. But he chose the toilets because he didn’t want to make a scene.

So he turned the corner and ran on his toes to avoid making noise. The toilets were a quarter of the way around the circle, too far for him to reach before his pursuers got to the intersection. But at least the toilet doors were set recessed from the main wall, so he pushed through and into the ladies’, knowing neither man had seen which door he’d chosen.

The ladies’ was big. Six cubicles, only four sinks in a row at the back wall, though. There were at least five wall-mounted air fresheners. Above the sinks was a long mirror, and above that a pair of windows with frosted glass, only the top quarter of which opened. Jimmy jumped up onto the counter housing the sinks and thrust open one of the letterbox-like windows. He would fit, but it wouldn’t be graceful or speedy.

He threaded a leg through first, then his head and shoulders. And when he tried to force his chest through, there he jammed, with his right knee rammed into his shoulder.

He wiggled side-to-side, forcing his torso through slowly. Below him was a wooden walkway attached to the outside wall. It ran out of sight around the curve both ways. Way out there was some field that looked like a black lake in the dark, but below and all around the immediate area was an actual black lake. Some kind of pond with floating lilies and coloured lights set into stone towers that rose three feet out of the water. He remembered that the rear of the Services had a Japanese garden, and this pond must be part of it.

A noise jerked his head left. Ten feet away another window in the wall opened. The gents’ toilet. This time the entire window opened and one of the big men stuck his head out, saw Jimmy, and started to climb out.

Jimmy cursed. Of course they would have checked the gents’ first, but he hadn’t counted on the crappy window in the ladies’. He couldn’t go back because the other guy was probably waiting outside the doors, and he would never get out and onto the walkway before the bearded guy.

The guy was out in just seconds. Jimmy tried to suck his torso back inside, but he was stuck. Fear washed over him as he realised he would never be able to block or dodge a gun or knife attack from this position.

“I’ll pay you twice what your boss is paying,” he pleaded, genuine fear in his chest. The guy rushed towards him in the dark, causing the walkway to bounce and rumble like thunder. Jimmy wanted to scream for help, but knew no one would hear. The motorway was loud even at this time and distance, and there was nothing but open land ahead of him – anyone who heard from either the entrance or the smoking shelter would not be able to pinpoint the source of the noise, figuring it was way off in the fields.

“You’re mine, asshole,” the big guy said, right below him now. He reached up and Jimmy saw blackened teeth, and a whiskey-drinker’s nose. But he had no knife, no gun. Instead, thick hands grabbed his neck and pulled. The pain was terrific, but Jimmy felt his body come loose, rather than his head. He slipped free from the tight grip of the window frame, went upside down, and a second later splashed into cold water. The guy had literally thrown him overhead, he realised.

Jimmy knew the bearded goon would be coming in after him, unless he had a gun – but would a man with a gun have yanked him out of the window like that? Even as he contemplated this, he thrust his feet into the mud and launched himself out of the water. It was only as deep as the middle of a standing person’s thigh. His upper body broke free, and then he felt a tremendous weight crash against him, forcing him back down, back under.

Submerged, he clamped his limbs around the torso of the bearded goon on top of him, his legs locked around the waist in a figure-4, tight. He bucked, twisted, felt himself rising, felt his knees sink into the mud as he gained the upper position.

Now he sat astride the man like a rider on a horse. The goon was face-down. He tried to buck Jimmy, shake him off, but Jimmy leaned and rolled with the thrashing, and stayed upright.

The goon thrust his arms into the mud and arched his back, trying to raise his head above the water, but the black surface lapped inches out of reach.

Until Jimmy grabbed his ginger hair and pulled, bending the man’s spine and neck as no muscles of his own could. The pain must have been bad, but when the man’s face broke the surface, he seemed to care only that he could breathe fresh air.

“Who sent you after me?” Jimmy shouted down into the face that was pointed right up at his own, inches away. Staring straight up, the man’s eyes were filled with moonlight that clearly showed the terror in them.

No answer. Jimmy released the man’s hair and under he went again. More thrashing, but it did no good. The man tried to get to his hands and knees, but Jimmy leaned forward, submerging himself, and grabbed and yanked at the wrists, forcing the guy flat again. Once more he leaned back with a handful of ginger, pulling the face free. The goon gulped heavy lungfuls of night air.

“Last chance,” he yelled down into the face, their foreheads inches apart.

“I don’t know,” the man spluttered back.

“Last chance, I swear. Look where the fuck you are. Nobody will find you rotting out here. Who sent you after me?”

“Don’t know. Swear. Colin’s boss. He must know.”

“How many of you are here?”

“Three. Three. Capture you. That’s it.”

“And my son?”

Right then the man’s eyes changed. For a moment the terror and pain were cast aside, replaced by a confusion that told Jimmy everything. He knew the man had been told not about a son, but a daughter. If his family had been mentioned, it could only be because they were part of the plan. Which meant they were in danger, too.

He did not want to kill this man. He did not know this man or what story he had been told about Jimmy. For all Jimmy knew, this guy was a vigilante who believed he was capturing an escaped murderer. But he could not foresee a way of incapacitating the guy so he could get to his wife and child.

He saw no other choice.

He let go of the man’s hair. He rode out the struggling. He waited a full minute after air bubbles flickered the black surface of the pond and the thrashing ceased. Then he unwrapped himself and stood. The body floated up, face-down.

He felt along the man’s length, under the chest, inside the legs. He was looking for a weapon or a wallet. The man had neither, but he did own a small hand-held radio. Jimmy yanked it free and tried to turn it on. Dead, like the owner. Not waterproof. Cheap, something kids might use for fun, with low range and few channels. Surely this was how the three men – if the number of three wasn’t a lie – had been keeping in contact.

He gave the body a push down and backwards, sending it beneath the walkway. Had to tuck in one loose leg that stuck out. Jimmy wasn’t sure how clear the water might look in daylight, but for the next few hours it was dark and nobody was likely to come along to this point of the walkway, and so the ginger goon was gone.

Then a thought came to him. Three men. He had seen only two, and that was because two had been dispatched to apprehend him in the Services. There was a very good chance that number 3, maybe this Colin, the leader, was right now in Jimmy’s hotel room with Maria and Louise as captives. It would be hard for him to bypass the other guy in the Services and get into the hotel room without endangering his family. But there was another way. And it involved getting hold of a working radio. And the guy in the Services had one.

So Jimmy would hunt his hunters.

***

A knock on the door. The guard opened the door and turned away, started walking along the hallway. He seemed very jumpy about something. Didn’t even glance at the man in the doorway.

“The bitch’s top is ripped, but it wasn’t me, guys, seriously. She caught the door walking past.”

Einar just stood there, the knife in his hand, a disbelieving smile on his face. Despite seeing a lot of it over the years, he was still surprised by the idiocy of some criminals. How this one had lived so long was a mystery. Then again, if the guy had stared right at him after opening the door, Einar would have slipped the knife into his neck and let him bleed out right in the doorway. As it was, the guard was still breathing, which in a sense meant his stupidity had given him a few more seconds on this planet. Einar stepped into the hallway and fell into step behind the man. He slipped the knife away, already planning something else.

“She’ll probably say I tried something on, James, but I fucking didn’t. Fucking lying bitch.”

The guard reached a door at the end of the corridor and slapped its handle down and kicked it open. Einar saw a bedroom beyond, and there they were sat side-by-side on the bed. Maria and her little daughter – oh, and the receptionist, a young black-haired girl a skirt and white blouse. For some reason he’d imagined a big lady, middle-aged. They didn’t look harmed, only in some kind of shock. The guy was big and filled the doorway, and Einar, peeking over his shoulder, knew they couldn’t see him. So when the receptionist instinctively lifted a dangling portion of the blouse that had been ripped at the shoulder and covered her bare skin with it, Einar knew it was because of this guy. He had tried something on with her, which was a big no-no for a man like Einar.

Einar tapped him on the shoulder. The guy started to turn, and Einar grabbed the nearest shoulder to help spin him directly around. Both hands went into the hair and yanked downwards as a knee drove up, right into the gut. The guy bent with a grunt and Einar forced his head under his armpit, using his right hand to lift his own forearm up, driving the left forearm into the man’s throat. Immediately the man started to struggle. Einar jerked backwards, forcing the man to stumble forwards, onto his knees. He tightened his grip.

“This is an air choke,” he said, staring over the man, at the shocked expressions on the faces of the women and the child as they watched. “Restricted oxygen to the brain. Takes longer for unconsciousness than a blood choke. And far more dangerous than a blood choke. Here’s why.” He cranked the headlock with a jerking motion, hard, his face showing the effort. There was a series of cracking noises, and Einar let the man go. He dropped, clutching at his throat, knees and face planted into the ground. He made a gurgling sound that made the two women on the bed shift and hold each other, looking just as pained as the man on the carpet. Einar stared at mother and daughter as he spoke to the man.

“That’s a broken hyoid bone. Now your airway is in trouble, and asphyxia is on its way. Your life countdown just reached zero.”

Amazingly, the little girl pointed and said, “Mummy, that’s that man and he’s hurt that other man.”

Einar flapped his arms, annoyed. He grabbed the man’s jacket and yanked him out of the doorway, then shut the door. He bent over the wheezing guy and said, “Your life countdown just reached zero.” Then he stepped into the bedroom and shut the door, and stood facing the dumfounded women with a silencing finger to his lips.

Maria held Louise tight to her chest. The receptionist looked frozen, almost doped. Einar was aware that they could still hear the man out there, limbs thumping the carpet, throat wheezing. Maria stared at him, but there was no horror in her face, just that shock. He understood why: the last time she’d seen him, he was thanking her for tea and promising to get her family a new car. He noted a pair of mobile phones on the bedside table amid their packaging, plugged in and charging. New phones, which meant James Marsh didn’t have one, wherever he was. Bang went the idea of forcing Maria Marsh to call him and whisk him back with sweet miss-yous.

“Ronald?” she croaked.

He smiled at her. Then pulled his Bersa out of his inside jacket pocket. In a whisper, so the guy in the hall wouldn’t hear, he said, “Ronald’s dead as well, I’m afraid. I’ll explain while we wait for your husband to return.”

***

Jimmy followed the raised walkway to the back end of the building and hopped a small gate into the smoking area, which was like a small balcony extending over the wild field beyond. Two teenage girls stood at the rail, smoking and tossing peanuts into the grass. They didn’t give Jimmy a second glance, even though he was soaking wet and dishevelled. Cautious about where they put their eyes, maybe.

He went through a doorway. Ahead of him was the eating area. The toilets were now to his left. A quick assessment told Jimmy there were no more than twenty people in the Services, at least that he could see. All the shops bar two of the four eateries – a McDonald’s and a KFC, side by side – were closed and only one of those had a customer, some guy tucking into a boxed snack. Everyone else was transitional, moving this way and that around the corridor, either looking for an open shop or heading out because they’d already determined that looking was a waste of time.

Except for the guy outside the toilets, that was. He stood with his back to the door of the gents, staring outwards as he waited for a pal who wouldn’t ever return. So empty was the big cylindrical building that the guy spotted Jimmy immediately and jerked as if slapped. He had been waiting for the door behind him to open, his comrade to exit either dragging Jimmy by the scruff of the neck or with news of his death. So when he saw Jimmy, he immediately whirled and booted open the door to the toilets and stuck his head in and shouted something Jimmy didn’t catch. A quick look back at Jimmy. Then he pulled his radio and spoke into it. No response, of course, because dead men didn’t talk. The guy then rushed inside the toilet, and Jimmy rushed across into the KFC eating area, stopping for half a second at a wheeled cutlery trolley before moving onwards.

When the guy barged out of the toilet a few seconds later, he saw Jimmy sitting at one of the tables, mere metres away. Jimmy waved a napkin like a flag of surrender. The guy marched into the eating area, past the guy munching on a boxed snack, and stopped just feet from Jimmy’s table. He was tall, about forty-five, with hair that fell to his shoulders and over his forehead, and wore denim jeans and a black motorbike jacket, reminding Jimmy of the coffee bar cowboys of the 60s. The look didn’t fit with middle-age. He looked tough yet harmless at the same time.

“Where’s the other guy?” Cowboy said. He had a hand stuffed inside his denim jacket, as if employing that old trick of pretending you were clutching a gun. Unless he actually had a gun. But there were so few people around, he could have shown the weapon to Jimmy without fear of it being spotted. So Jimmy didn’t believe it existed. The aluminium table he sat at had a perforated top. He twisted his surrender napkin into a spike and jammed it into one of the holes, then pointed at another napkin laid flat.

“You let me go,” he said, “and that’s yours.”

The man took a step closer. He looked around, seemed satisfied that no one was watching, and took another step. “Think you can pay me off, James?”

“I won’t stop you cashing that cheque if you just let me and my family go.”

The guy’s eyes flicked to the napkin again. Now the guy was curious.

Cowboy turned to the guy sat at the table a few metres away and told him to piss off. The guy froze with salad and chicken dangling from his mouth as his brain assessed this setup. Seconds later he was shuffling out of there with his meal. That just left Jimmy, this guy and two young workers in the serving booth, and they had their backs turned as they cleaned up.

“Maybe I’ll just take this as a promise not to break your knees. Now let’s go. Outside.”

“Okay,” Jimmy said, starting to rise. The man’s hand reached for the napkin. Jimmy continued his upwards rise, but now his arm came up faster, curving like a punch, then drove downwards and onto the back of Cowboy’s hand, crushing it hard into the napkin. Cowboy grunted in shock and pain, but before he could drag his arm back, Jimmy’s free hand slipped under the table and grasped the handle of the dessert spoon that he had rammed right through Cowboy’s hand and through a perforation in the table top. He yanked, bending the handle, curling it upwards. Cowboy jerked backwards, but his hand didn’t rise from the table. Instead, the table shifted with him, squealing across the tiled floor. He let out a grunt of pain. He reached for his injured hand, but Jimmy was quicker. He slapped that hand down next to the first and drove a second spoon downwards. Same routine. Two seconds and it was all over. Cowboy was moaning, leaning over the table, both his hands flat against the table top, spoon heads sticking out of them, spoon handles caught like fish hooks in the perforated metal on the underside. The man tried struggling once more, but soon gave it up as he realised that he was caught like a link in a chain, and movement gained him only pain as gored flesh was irritated by piercing metal. He looked shocked. Maybe that was pain. Or maybe he couldn’t believe this guy had caught him with a move that belonged in a cheap action film.

Jimmy got up, moved around the table and slid a chair so Cowboy could slump his ass in it before his legs turned to jelly. Jimmy sat again. He glanced at the two fast food employees, but they were intent on making chrome gleam.

Cowboy’s eyes were bloodshot, his lower lip bleeding as his teeth ground into it. Jimmy had to give the man credit. The pain must be bad, but he was refusing to scream out, call for help. Maybe because the guy wanted to make sure the cops didn’t come. Probably knew they would arrive to help him but eventually discover his prints or DNA matched some unsolved naughtiness on their books. His reticence was good: they could talk right here, alone. Jimmy threw a napkin over each impaled hand to hide the spoons sticking up. Cowboy looked funny with little paper pyramids over his hands, but at least he didn’t look injured, apart from his pained face. Jimmy just had to hope nobody noticed the blood dripping onto the floor. He tossed another few napkins down there to soak up the fluid.

“How many of you are here for me?” he said.

Cowboy’s first attempt to speak was a splutter. Spit dribbled down his chin. Jimmy snatched another napkin from the pile on the table and quickly wiped it off.

“That’s disgusting. So, how many?”

“Just here to talk to you,” Cowboy managed to say.

“Good. Now quite what I asked, though..” The man’s head dropped to the table. Jimmy lifted it by his straggly hair. “Concentrate on how silly you feel getting caught by some Hollywood silliness with a pair of spoons and it’ll take your mind off the pain. How many?”

“Not here to hurt you.”

Jimmy slapped one of the spoons, knocking aside the napkin covering it. The jolt caused a moan. Jimmy replaced the napkin. He picked up a butter knife he had also collected. Showed it to the guy. “How many?”

“Three,” the guy said, eyeing the knife.

Good. Same answer the guy in the pond had given. “Who sent you?”

“Don’t know who. Honest.” Jimmy waved the knife. “Honest! Don’t know who he is. I got a text off some guy I know. Sent a photo of you, said we had to grab you.”

“And my name and where I was. And that I was with my wife and child.” Not questions. Statements. The guy nodded. “You better start talking.”

It came out in stutters and pauses. In sixty seconds Jimmy knew that this guy, who he now figured was Colin, the leader, was supposed to capture and kill Jimmy and bury the body. The wife and kid, he promised, were not to be harmed, but let go after assurances that they would be punished if they went to the cops. Cowboy and his cronies had been told Jimmy was at the service station, but had no idea how the man hunting Jimmy had traced him here. Jimmy figured it must have been his wife. She must have used her debit card. His own fault – he hadn’t warned her not to. The guy who wanted him had power and connections if he could trace debit card usage. Cowboy insisted he didn’t know who the man was, because he had gotten the job through a middleman, and old friend. Jimmy believed him.

He moved around the table and took Cowboy’s radio from a pocket in the jacket, but there was no mobile phone. That, the guy said, was in the car. Didn’t want to risk having it go off while he was busy.

Jimmy put the radio to the guy’s ear. “You’ve got a guy with my family right now. Tell him you got me and we’re outside. Tell him I blubbered for my life like a little girl, if you want. Laugh and joke about it. Then tell him to come down and bring the wife and child. He’s to let them run out the building first, then follow shortly afterwards. Understand?”

Cowboy nodded.

Jimmy pressed the transmit button. Cowboy spoke.

“Pan-pan, it’s Carl. I got the guy. He’s crying like a girl. Come on down. We got him. Let the wife and kid go and wait in the foyer for thirty seconds, then come out.”

He did a good job of trying to sound like a man having a good time, no pain in his world, no one threatening him. But there was no response from the radio. He tried again and got the same result.

“What’s that mean?” Jimmy said, his fear rising.

“Maybe can’t hear it,” Cowboy said, his voice breaking again.

Jimmy didn’t like this. He got up. Looked around. Figured he would have a few minutes’ head start. Cowboy was going nowhere without help, and help wasn’t about to come running the moment Jimmy left. That would involve Cowboy calling for assistance, and Jimmy didn’t think that was going to happen. One look at the spoons, and helpful people were probably going to call the cops, and cops were something Cowboy didn’t want around. So Cowboy would probably try to free himself. Jimmy figured it might take Cowboy ten minutes. And ten minutes was easily long enough for Jimmy get his family and get out, if he rushed to the hotel. Right now.

“If I see you again, you’re dead,” he said to Cowboy, then got up and ran.

***

Einar sat on the floor with his back to the door and faced the three females. He didn’t speak at first, just stared at them as if they were characters performing on a movie screen. Neither of the adult women looked at him or spoke, but the little girl, Louise, stared right at him and fired questions. About what he was wearing, what he had in his hands, where her dad was, a dozen more, none of them tinged with concern. Einar found her innocence amusing and answered every question with a smile. Maria kept a firm grip on Louise’s elbow throughout, as if she feared her daughter might suddenly jump off the bed and into the man’s lap.

Then they heard a crackly voice from the other side of the door.

“Pete? Pete, where the fuck are you?”

Einar rose and yanked the door. The guy beyond was on his side, not moving. Einar ruffled his clothing and came back, shut the door and sat. As well as the gun he now held a small radio.

Louise asked for the radio. Einar laughed. Maria pulled the girl closer to her. Beside Maria, the receptionist had her head bowed, as if asleep.

“What are-” Maria began, but stopped when Einar held up a hand. He was concentrating on the radio. Which spoke again after a few moments.

“Pan-pan, it’s Carl. I got the guy. He’s crying like a girl. Come on down. We got him. Let the wife and kid go and wait in the foyer for thirty seconds, then come out.”

Einar grinned at Maria, who looked shocked, ready to cry herself. “Your husband is a fine warrior, Maria. Stop worrying.”

The radio went again. The guy virtually repeated his earlier sentences word for word. Einar turned the radio off and tossed it aside.

“Your husband is not captured at all. He’s in control. Pan-pan, that’s no man’s name. It’s a mayday call. Something these bozos must have pre-arranged. So your husband just took out two men sent after him, and now he’s trying to rescue you two. Doesn’t that just fill you with pride? Don’t you just burst with love?”

“Why do you want to kill my husband?”

Einar stood. “It’s a long and complicated story. Probably. Someone wants him to leave this world, and I don’t know why. Ours is not to reason why. Anyway, clearly there’s a trap waiting downstairs for me. I don’t fancy it. So we’ll just wait here until he realises we’re not answering and not coming. Then he’ll come up. And I’ll kill him.”

“You’re a monster,” she snapped.

“Now, now. If I was a monster, I’d have my way with you and the receptionist there and I’d make you watch me cut your husband’s throat. But I’m considerate. I won’t make you watch that. Unless you try something, understand? So I’m going to close this door behind me, and you do not make a move, okay? You might hear some noises, but just ignore them. Might be a scream or thud or two, but you just sit there and comfort your daughter and wait for morning. Understand?”

He waved the gun when she didn’t respond. All he got was a nod. Einar then left the room and shut the bedroom door behind him. He went down the short hall, past the dead guy, and opened the front door, and rushed across to the room opposite. Before heading up here, he had checked the register to determine which room the Marsh family was in. Only two rooms were occupied. The computer listed a cash payment for a family called Carslake, who checked in earlier that evening. The other listing was for a couple called Silverback, but they had rented their room that morning. So Einar had snatched the card key for the empty room opposite the one the “Carslake” family occupied. He now swiped the card and let himself into the empty room. He shut the door and put his eye against the peephole. It gave him a clear view of the target door. He clutched his Bersa and waited, ready to yank the door when Marsh appeared. This time there would be no fancy performance when he took out his nemesis, and whoever he dragged upstairs with him. This time he would just start blasting.

***

Jimmy entered the hotel and immediately noticed the empty receptionist’s chair, which made him think of the cigarettes in his pocket. Crushed and wet. He plucked them out and tossed them as he rushed behind the desk. His plan had originally been to hide here until the man apparently called Pan Pan exited the lift or the stairs and moved past the desk with Jimmy’s family, then launch himself at the man. But as he waited, he noticed the receptionist’s mobile phone on the desk, so snatched it up and hit the Internet to allay a growing fear. Sure enough, a few seconds later his mild, itching fear was turned into full-blown acknowledgement. Pan Pan. Something in the back of his mind had suspected a trick, and he had been right. Pan Pan was some term derived from the French word for “broken.” It usually meant mechanical failure, but Carl had used it to inform his comrade that he was under duress. It made him think that the man upstairs was going nowhere.

So Billy’s next plan was to hide in the room opposite his, but he found that key missing from the rack and grew a new fear. Someone had taken that key, and not a paying guest. The other hitman. He was here. He must have tracked them here in the same way that the Three Stooges had. Carl had tried to inform his man upstairs that he was compromised, little knowing that “Pan Pan” was also mired in shit.

Billy ran from the hotel. He stood outside and looked up at the windows on the first floor, saw his own lit room and a small chink in the curtains. Each room had French doors giving onto a tiny balcony. There was a gap of just a few feet between each balcony.

He rushed back into the hotel, grabbed a keycard from behind the desk, and hit the stairs. He cautiously opened the door into the corridor containing all the rooms, peeking down its length. Nobody around. The door to room 1 was just feet away. He darted there, swiped the card, and was inside with the door closed a second later.

He moved through the dark room, to the full-length curtains over the balcony doors. They slid open silently and he stepped out into the cold air. He climbed onto the balcony and jumped, neatly landing on the balcony of the next room. The next balcony belonged to the only other occupied room and Jimmy had to traverse past cautiously. As he slipped by, a chink in the curtains displayed an old couple laying sitting up in bed, wearing matching blue pyjamas and each holding an electronic tablet. He could hear some film or TV blaring from each, creating a messy noise. Then he was past, on his way to room 10, right at the end of the building.

***

Einar had patience, but also paranoia. To while away the time, he recited his times tables, like some kid practicing. He took the numbers from 2 to 17 up past three hundred, then gave it up and slowly opened the door, peeking to his right, making sure the corridor was empty. Then he opened the door to the Marsh room and strode down the corridor. His plan: retrieve the radio and call back with a new idea. Just tell them to come up because he, under the guise of the dead guy, was in the shower with the receptionist. They’d believe that and stroll up.

He opened the bedroom door and felt wind resistance on it. His gun was out and aimed ahead a second later, even before he’s opened the door wide enough to see that his captives had gone. Well, two out of three.

The French doors were wide open, the curtains billowing in the wind. Einar rushed over and peered out, instantly noticing against the black night the stark white of a bedsheet tied around the railing. The ground was only twenty feet below, but the bedsheet had been for the kid, maybe the girly mother.

Einar scanned the cark park off to his left and saw nothing. But a moment later he heard the faint screech of tyres on concrete and knew exactly what had happened. He turned away from the window, stared down. The new pay-as-you-go phones had escaped, too, but the chargers remained, curled there like headless snakes. Einar looked up at the receptionist.

“Why didn’t you escape as well?”

She looked at him with blotchy eyes and tear-wet cheeks, and he sensed her lack of resolve. Worn out, defeated. Fearful, maybe, that being caught escaping would have meant a worse punishment. Or hoping that nobody would return to the room.

He sighed. Outpointed again. He needed a serious knockout in the next round. He closed the doors against the cold wind and pulled his mobile phone.

The men Einar called arrived ninety minutes later. Until then, he sat on the bed, reading on his phone about movements and rumours in the world of boxing, the only sport he liked to follow. The receptionist sat next to him, not by her own choice, of course. She didn’t speak except to ask him once, early, if he was going to kill her – “Only if you try to run” – and again later when she requested the toilet. In response to the latter, he accompanied her to the bathroom and sat outside the door. Then they went back to the bed.

As well as checking out boxing news, he hit the Internet to research a few things for when his guys arrived. They phoned ahead when five minutes out, so he could expect their knock. When he let them in, he immediately said,

“I need men to watch these addresses.” He showed the addresses on his phone and the lead guy of the two, both of whom were dressed in suits, wrote them down. Then he showed a photo he had taken on his phone of the photo of James Marsh he’d gotten in the file. “Homes of the mother of this guy, his grandfather, and his wife’s mum and dad.” He showed another photo. “Workplace. You never know, he might just be that stupid.”

He didn’t have to explain further. These guys knew their job. He had used them before to stake out multiple addresses. And to get rid of bodies.

“One dead bad man,” Einar said next, moving swiftly on. “Might be two more dead men somewhere around here. Nobody’s screamed for the police yet, so I doubt they were dumped in the middle of the car park. Some kind of damage control if you can’t find them. That the term you like? Damage control?” He led them into the bedroom and they saw the receptionist. She broke down at the sight of them, obviously fearing bad things. He stared at her and thought.

Then said to her, “Your life countdown…continues.” He had never planned to kill her, but it felt good to say his catchphrase and then give the impression of offering a reprieve right at the last second. Even if she had no idea what he was talking about. He turned to his man. “I’ll need a few days.”

The lead guy nodded and went to grab her arm. She scuttled away from him.

“Don’t fight it,” Einar told her. “You won’t be hurt. But you’re going with them, so make it easier for all involved, eh? A nice little holiday until it’s time for me to leave the country. Don’t worry about your job. Surely you can’t be given a disciplinary for missing work through kidnapping?”

The lead man led her out, crying.

“I might have dropped a pubic hair somewhere. Room needs cleaning,” Einar said to the remaining bloke.

“We don’t clean,” this guy said.

Einar patted the guy’s cheek. “Conglomerate diversification,” he said, and walked out the door.

***

The M25 Motorway passes through six counties, and Jimmy was sure he saw them all three times each during the useless drive through the night. Maria, still pissed at him despite the fact that he’d saved her life twice, sat in the back with Louise and slept most of the journey away. Jimmy emptied his mind of everything except the drive. He forgot about time. On his third trip across the Dartford Crossing, which passed over the River Thames, he realised that the toll for the bridge would be in effect by the time he circled around again, and he had no coins, so he left at Junction 1B and found a place to park. When he turned off the engine, Maria woke.

“Where are we?” she groaned.

“Middle of nowhere,” Jimmy replied. Now that he wasn’t concentrating on driving, he was starting to feel tired. Very tired. But the sky was beginning to get light, announcing the start of another day. A day in which there would be no time for sleep.

“Where are we, though?” She glanced at the dashboard clock. When he told her he’d spent the last few hours circling the M25 Orbital at speed, she pulled a horrified face.

“You’re joking. We could have been in Newcastle ages ago. Instead we’re still in London?”

“Newcastle? I hope you don’t mean your mother’s house. I told you, we can’t risk going to see people connected to us.”

“This is a joke. So you just drove around uselessly, wasting time? And petrol.”

He wanted to snap at her. Hey, we kept moving, which meant we stayed alive. Instead, he said, “I didn’t know where to go. We’re short of cash and we can’t use the cards. I used the last of my cash to fill the tank in this thing.”

She snorted. “They didn’t trace my card. That’s just silly.”

Now he snorted. “Yeah, science-fiction, that. Much easier to believe they used remote viewing or something. Took a wild guess. Sent ten thousand people out to search every building.”

“Maybe they knew which car you stole, Jimmy. Traced that.”

“And knew where it was parked? In that short time?”

“So where are we going to go? Or do you want to buy a fridge and some blankets and we’ll live in this car?”

He stayed silent. Good question.

“We need to call the police,” Maria said with finality.

His mind raced. He thought about some extravagant lie, like claiming the police were in on it. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was the hitman. Jimmy had seen the police murder a group of foreign exchange students and now they wanted him silenced. In truth he was worried about what the police would discover if they delved into his life, which they certainly would if they wanted to learn why he was targeted for death. And then they’d discover that he was a part-time contract killer, and then he’d a one of Her Majesty’s guests for a long, long time. He couldn’t risk that. So he simply said that they couldn’t enlist the police’s help, trust me, or we would. Maria didn’t buy it, but didn’t push it.

“So what the hell do we do? We can’t just drive around the rest of our lives. Where do we go?”

Their raised voices woke Louise, who struggled awake and said, “Are we at the cottage yet?”

And Maria and Jimmy just looked at each other.

Jimmy started the engine. Maria ruffled Louise’s hair, said, “We’ll be there soon, baby.”

***

Einar had driven back to London and booked into a hotel for the remainder of the night. But he had found sleep hard. James Marsh had outwitted him twice now. He might have once been a Marine Commando, but he was now just a supermarket assistant manager. Besides, there were many, many Marine Commandos in the Royal Navy, and if Einar allowed one to get the better of him, he would have to admit that others could. Many others. And that just would not do for a man usually confident that no matter where he strode on the planet, how rich or intelligent or advanced the nation, regardless of how vast a crowd surrounded him, he was the greatest among them. In certain areas he fell short beside certain experts, but overall as a human he stood ahead. In a game of Top Trumps, for instance, his combined scores would be higher than those of any other single person on the planet.

Marsh, though, might be only a few rungs below him. Einar had searched the Nissan Qashqai belonging to the employer’s dead men and found their phones in the glove box. Each man had received two picture messages just a couple of hours ago, probably when they were given the mission to terminate James Marsh. The first, just a photo of the face of James Marsh, with some text giving the postcode of the service station. The second picture was a photo of a sheet of paper laid on some black wooden table. Using the zoom function, Einar had scrolled over the entire picture in close-up, reading what was printed on the sheet.

It seemed to be an official document of the British Army and it was all about James Marsh. A CV detailing his history before joining the Marines, and a breakdown of his life within the service. He had won something called the Parker Trophy, an award given to a soldier showing outstanding skill on the All Arms Commando Course, which tested amphibious drills, helicopter drills, and small unit tactics, amongst other things. Soldiers did not earn their Green berets until completion of this course, and James Marsh, in winning the trophy, had apparently performed better than everyone else. So he was a top-class Green Beret, even though he had left the Army within six months of reaching the pinnacle. The document had listed an injury obtained in Norway during something called the Cold Weather Winter Warfare Course. He was out for three months and chose never to go back.

So Marsh had proved himself capable, even though he had never faced real action. A long time ago, but Marsh’s escape from the swimming pool and subsequently foiling of Einar’s plan had proved that the man was still skilled. And that was why Einar needed to test himself against James Marsh. But until the moment Einar had the man in his scope, or had the man’s neck in his hands, he needed something else to use to allay his concerns. Some way of proving that he could beat Marsh. And he thought he knew what might work.

So he had left his hotel not long after dawn and driven to a place he had visited already on this mission, after a detour to make a purchase. The sky was grim by the time he reached his destination close to nine a.m., with rain a real promise.

He parked right where he had parked before and got out. The Golf was gone. Good, his men had gotten rid of the body. He walked into the weedy car park round the front and found the bodies of Chopper and his henchman missing, too. Inside the swimming pool, the final guy, also gone, his blood washed away. The bodies would have gone to a farm in Wales, where they would be diced and scattered. By now his men would have packaged up the molester from the hotel room for his trip to the farm, too.

Einar searched the rooms under the balcony and found what he needed. He took it to the edge of the pool and stripped off his suit jacket. He was unbuttoning his short when he realised something. This test would only work if all circumstances were the same. A shirt offered resistance in water, and Marsh had been wearing a shirt. Einar would have an advantage if he went topless. Same for the trousers.

He cursed. A nice outfit was about to be ruined. But if he died, was he really going to care?

Einar buttoned his shirt again, then sat to tie the rope around his ankle. Next he tied the free end of the rope to the gym weight. He wondered how much more a chain weighed than a rope. Would it play on his mind that Marsh had carried a little more weight? He hoped not.

Einar stood and lifted the gym weight. Right then the rain started. The dusty off-white concrete slabs were pattered with dark starbursts than quickly spread and grew and each block was soon dark grey. The still water pattered under the droplets. No need to worry about a wet shirt and trousers now. He stepped to the edge of the pool. And jumped in.

Later he went for lunch at a flash restaurant. His car radio blared some news about a building collapse in Sri Lanka, and that put Einar in mind of Sri Lankan food, which his SatNav claimed could be found at a restaurant in Crouch End. He parked near Hornsey Town Hall in the centre and walked to the restaurant. The short journey helped his clothing finally reach a comfortable level of dryness. Even so, he passed a charity shop that helped old people and ventured in to find something new. There was a tacky three-piece corduroy suit in green that he paid eight pounds for and put on in the changing room, which was just a recess in the wall with a beaded fly curtain for a door. The suit made him feel a tad conspicuous, but he wore it because he felt like being casual. He ate a cashew curry with mixed vegetables at the restaurant and left just bas the lunchtime crowd entered. His suit got too many stares for his liking and he dumped it in a bin at a nearby Top Man, emerging in a slim-fit navy suit that cost him £150. Felt much better.

Muswell Hill was only a couple of miles away. Good old London. He drove past the Marsh house, noting that nothing seemed untoward. The street was inert, nothing happening. Einar stared at the house and wished he’d left that hob burning yesterday. That would have given him points in the test against James Marsh. So what if he had become trapped in the shaft in the pool, unable to drag the gym weight through the opening before his air ran out? So what if he had had to suck on his mini rebreather while he cut the rope so he could escape? So what if James Marsh could swim like a fish? Where did that help him here on dry land, which was where this performance would eventually end? Would that have helped him save his house, had Einar chosen to burn it down? Would it have saved his wife and child, had Einar decided to cut their throats back in that hotel room, instead of waiting for Marsh to arrive?

But Einar was not convinced. He had failed to achieve something Marsh had done. Einar had tossed the man in the pool and he had survived. Einar knew that with their roles reversed, he would still be trapped in that watery hell of a coffin, very dead.

He moved on. He wasted petrol and time roaming London in his car, looking for something to do. But there was nothing that took his fancy. Every few minutes he checked his phone and was disappointed to find nothing. By now his men, or their associates, would be camped outside the houses he had dispatched them to. They would have called him if Marsh had been spotted. So Marsh had not been in contact with his or his wife’s family, at least not physically. He could get the men to burst into those houses and interrogate the owners, see if any of them had been called by Marsh, been given a location for him. But that was risky. And unlikely. If Marsh had not sought sanctuary there, no way he would call to say where he was. No reason to. Let the family continue to assume nothing was wrong with the kin living down in London.

So Marsh was hiding elsewhere. Gone. Einar realised he was going to have to assume he had lost this one. Should he wait for the man to make a mistake, like returning home because he assumed the threat was over, or should he cut his losses and leave?

Einar parked and thought for a long time about this. He listed all the negatives in his head, noting that every single one had to do with his tarnished image. And did he really care about his image in the eyes of others, especially when he was thinking about calling it a day on his career as a contract killer?

No, he didn’t. Einar realised he didn’t care. He could take the hit on this one. Happier now, he programmed his SatNav for London City Airport and drove there, his thoughts on his home in Paris and how he would spend his retirement there.

***

The Riverbed area of Lamberhurst was determined by the area within three roads that formed a shield-shape, with curving sides and a flat top. The “top” was the main road running through Lamberhurst, while both its side roads curved down to meet a bridge over a river that cut the shield in half from top to bottom. Both side roads led nowhere but the bridge, or back around to the north road, unless you chose to turn north just short of the bridge. Here were two dirt tracks, one leading into each of the shield halves. The eastern side of the shield was a large area with cut grass and a lake and a spot loaded with wooden picnic tables. Across the river, the western half contained five cottages, either backs to the flowing water, fronts facing across a grassy area with benches and a small gravel area for parking. A wall bordered the entire shield and along it trees grew high and overpowering except for where the dirt tracks entered and the old stone bridge sat. There wasn’t much of a view from the cottages, except through this gap.

When they had viewed the cottage a few weeks ago, it had been a fine, sunny day and the neighbours had been out. Of the five cottages, two were empty and for sale, the ones at each end, two were empty because their owners holidayed here only in the hot months of July and August, and the other, the one next to their, was owned by two a large family called the carters, who were a middle-aged wife and husband, one grandmother and grandfather, one twenty five year-old daughter of their, two teenage boys, and three children around Louise’s age. So said the estate agent. Of an evening, the whole family liked to sit outdoors and have a barbeque. The kids played with toys, the teenagers drove sport buggies around the roads and the picnic area, but, according to the estate agent, they were a lovely family and they kept the noise down when others were in residence. However, she said, you’ll probably be invited to join the fun, so the noise won’t bother you. Round here, there’s nothing nicer than sitting out in the evening.

When the Range Rover pulled into the lot, Jimmy noticed that all was quiet. He could see kids toys scattered all over all five plots. Two sport buggies in bright colours, with big wheels and covered in dried mud, were parked right outside the Carter cottage. There were two cars. Nobody was in sight. A big people carrier had been in residence when they visited last time, but that was absent. Good. The family was probably out.

He drove right through the lots and parked alongside their cottage. Louise hopped out with an air of glee and rushed from toy to toy while Jimmy and Maria slowly approached the front door. It was locked.

“Do we kick it in?” Maria asked. “Is this risky? The owner could come. The estate agent lady could bring someone else to view.”

“Wait here,” was all Jimmy said. He slipped round the back, climbed a fence, and dropped into the back yard. It was plain, with a lawn and shrubbery near the back, where the fence was small so you got a view of the river, albeit obscured slightly by a tree with a sturdy-looking treehouse in it, wedged in the branches some five feet off the ground. He went across the back lawn to the door. It was locked, but there was a small open window giving into the kitchen. Same size as the window he got stuck in the night before, but he got through this one with ease. He moved through the cottage. The spare key for the front door was hanging on a hook on the back of the door, just like before. He unlocked it. Maria called for Louise, who came grudgingly, and mother and daughter slipped inside. Jimmy shut the door. Only then did he relax, realising just how tense his muscles had been for what seemed like hours.

Louise went for a tour of the house, her footsteps thudding. Maria went to put on the kettle. Thankfully the electricity was still on. And the water. As she made hot drinks for them, Jimmy loaded the cottage’s working landline number into his new mobile phone – in case he was out and needed to call Maria here – and then hunted down the card with the Wi-Fi code. He sat in a soft armchair in front of the dead log fire and called up the Internet.

Maria returned with two mugs of tea. The mugs had I LOVE CORNWALL printed on them. Maria stood by the window, watching the world outside as she sipped her drink. She seemed more relaxed, but not fully. Jimmy totally understood. The danger was still out there, hunting them. The greenery was just scenery.

“How long do you think we can hide here?”

He didn’t like that word. Hide. But hiding they were. “Just a couple of days. At least we’ve been here before, so we can claim we came back for another viewing. Not the same as breaking in. It’s not like we’re squatters.”

She spoke some more, venting her feelings, eyes still out the window. But Jimmy barely heard what she said. He was looking on the Internet for news of the bodies found the previous night. None had been. Nor had the police been given a tale of kidnapping by the receptionist, the one who had stayed sat numbly on the bed when he opened the balcony doors and helped his wife and daughter to escape. He had tried to get her to follow his wife and Lisa down a bedsheet he tied around the balcony railing, but she had refused, numb with shock. So she hadn’t told her tale. He didn’t like what that meant. Had the bodies all been removed, and the receptionist killed and disposed of, too?

"Jimmy!" Maria snapped at him. He looked at her and she said, "I said you need to tell me everything you know. You know more than you're saying. You must have a clue as to why this guy is after you. He knows what he's doing. Christ, he wormed his way into our house. He sat three feet from me. He -"

“What?”

Maria blanched. She seemed to realise that she hadn’t mentioned this before. So she told him what had happened, how the guy calling himself Roland had lied his way into their home, drank their tea, and asked questions about the family. Jimmy grew angry and more scared all at the same time.

Just then they heard a vehicle on the gravel outside. A large people carrier pulled up next door and disgorged people. The carters, all of them. They heard their own front door open. Jimmy rushed to the window and saw Louise run outside. The three kids her own age crowded her, then all four rushed off to play with something. The teenaged kids went for their buggies, the grandparents shuffled towards their house, but the middle-aged couple, who Jimmy thought looked like barristers or doctors, given their poise that reeked of wealth, stood staring at this cottage, pointing.

Maria seemed meek, perhaps embarrassed that she had kept from her husband the news of her cosy chat with the contract killer. She said, “We should go say hello. Meet the new neighbours, even if we end up running away in a day or two.”

***

As dark fell outside the vast airport windows, Einar was in a seat at a departure lounge, waiting for his plane. Around him were other people, looking just as bored. His phone rang and he checked the screen, recognising the number of the man who wanted James Marsh dead. A man he had come to refer to as The Paymaster.

“I’m never leaving this country, am I?” he said to himself, which made the woman sitting nearby look over at him and say, “Excuse me?”

He ignored her and answered the phone. Didn’t speak.

“Einar?” said a familiar voice after a few seconds.

“Hope you found your man,” Einar said, adopting a light-hearted tone.

“Where are you?”

Ever cautious, Einar gave the man the name of another airport and a destination in Germany. Then asked why.

“I have reconsidered, given your expertise. It was rash of me to cancel your services based on one-slip up. I would still like you to find the two items for me.”

“And what about your team? I thought you were sending a team after them?”

A pause. “I chose not to.”

Right. You mean you did, and they haven’t checked in, because I killed one and James Marsh probably killed the other two. Or the other two came back with a sorry story of failure.

But he said, “You should. So easy. Trace the debits cards, like you said.”

The voice replied with, “If you wish to reconsider, I will increase your fee to one hundred thousand pounds. You dispatched Chopper, so it would be foolish of me to not give you the opportunity to finish this.”

So the debit card thing is a flunk. Marsh must be wise to it after the hotel thing. And don’t pretend you’re doing this for my ego.

“I have no plans, so why not? I will accept. But I have another job on, so I will be juggling both. Yours may take some time. No fancy deadlines this time.”

“Of course not.”

The man didn’t sound desperate, but sounded like a man trying to be calm. Einar know he must be fearful. He needed Marsh dead because Marsh could hurt him in some way. And the longer Marsh was loose out there, the greater the chance of causing that hurt.

“Then I will get back to you tomorrow. I need to go cancel a flight and find a hotel.”

A pause. The man didn’t like what he’d been told. He wanted immediate action, like a statement from Einar that he already had a lead on Marsh’s location. He eventually said, “Call me first thing.”

Einar hung up. “You and me for another day, London,” he said to himself.

The woman sitting two seats to his left, a chubby sort with an IPad and blotchy legs, said, “Excuse me?”

Einar ignored her again. He rose to leave and froze as he spotted something intriguing. The man sitting across from him was reading a folded-over paper, and Einar found himself staring at the upside-down top half of the front page and the face of a man under a headline: LOCAL DRUGLORD FOUND STABBED. His eyes caught another word: BIKER.

Einar snatched the paper from the man and thrust a £10 note into his hand before he could complain. He sat to read the story, which was continued on page 4.

Yesterday morning a body had been found. Alfo Pitchford, local bad boy, cut down in an alleyway in London, victim of a gangland war, apparently, although papers always claimed that when some ne’er-do-well got murdered. No leads except for one: CCTV from a shop across the road from the alleyway showed a man in black biker gear riding past the alleyway just minutes before the estimated time of death.

Einar called The Paymaster and immediately said, “Did you hire Chopper for any other jobs recently?”

The man denied this until Einar told him it was important. Then he relented and admitted he had hired Chopper to kill a man called Alfo Pitchford. Nickname: The Destroyer. Nice. But he refused to say why. Einar cared not about the why.

“I believe Chopper, as a local man, had access to information, maybe contacts, that allowed him to find James Marsh quickly. Marsh wasn’t snatched from home or work, so Chopper knew something about Marsh and his habits that we don’t yet. He obviously found this Devil fellow quickly, too. So I need to find out what Chopper knew. I need to find his hideout or lair. Where he rested his helmet. All I need from you is this: who put you onto Chopper? How did you find him? Maybe this man knew something about Marsh and helped Chopper find him.”

This time the voice was even more hesitant, and Einar suspected it was because he would be giving up the name of someone who might have information on the Paymaster, too. Again he needed a prod, a reminder of the importance of the mission, before he said,

“There is a man I heard about. I heard he knew of a man who removed problems. This man is called Davey.”

Removed problems! Einar understood the importance of not condemning oneself with wild chat over the mobile airwaves, but he found the Paymaster’s caution funny in its uselessness. No cop worth his salt would overhear such a term as “man who removed problems” and scratch his head in bewilderment. Not to mention that Einar was not mincing his words during the same conversation.

Einar said, “I imagine a hunt of all the Daveys in London would consume many of my days. If that’s all you have.” He poured on the sarcasm, just to hit home his point, which was: you’re going to have to give me more than that.

This time there was no pause from The Paymaster. He reeled off Davey’s address. Einar hung up.

The hunt was back on. One hundred grand. He had effectively made an extra 25 thousand pounds by failing to kill James Marsh at the swimming pool. Now Marsh would still die and Einar would leave for home even richer than he expected.

“Now who’s the better man, Marsh?” he said aloud.

“Excuse me?” said the woman to his left.

***

Jimmy decided to tell her the truth.

The Carters were throwing yet another barbeque, and this time they invited their new neighbours. Earlier, they had introduced themselves and been invited inside the Carter cottage for a chat. The story they told was that they had time off work and wanted to spend a couple of days seeing the cottage they were thinking of buying. Elsa and David Carter were, indeed, barristers, just as Jimmy had thought. Elsa grew sick of London because she saw in it nothing but the bad people, who she spent her working days around. David was trying to write a novel and thought a remote home might serve him well in that respect. They had owned the place for five years, but lived here full-time only nine months. The kids loved it. Jon and Mark loved the open land because they got to ride their buggies instead of hanging around on street corners. And what toddlers wouldn’t prefer such open spaces over cramped streets?

Granddad Carter hauled out his portable barbeque and set it up in front of the cottage. Chairs were arranged and everyone sat to eat. The weather was mild, but the barbeque threw nice warmth upon them. The kids ran riot as the sun sank low, disappearing behind the trees, and the teenagers got themselves greasy on sausages and motor oil as they ate and fiddled with the engines of the sport buggies. Jimmy and Louise ate as much chicken and beef as they could, but Maria hardly touched any. She kept mostly to herself even while standing right next to people. They knew something was off, but Jimmy, overhearing snippets of other conversations, got the impression they were putting it down to marital problems. He was fine with this, because nobody really wants to get involved in someone’s relationship in case their advice makes things worse. He was asked about it by David, but shrugged it off, and David didn’t push it.

Maria went into the cottage to use the toilet after her fourth glass of wine and Jimmy followed her. Louise was having fun with the other kids as the teenagers pushed them around in one of the Baja sport buggies. Once the bossier kids had commandeered the two seats, the others clung onto the frame, sat on the bonnet, and draped over the back. Round the lot they went, push-power, screaming as if they were racing around at top speed. He decided she’d be fine for a few minutes and caught Maria as she was exiting the bathroom.

“It’s about time you knew,” he said, putting an arm against the wall to block her path. She veered into the main bedroom and sat at the old vanity table. She stared at him in the mirror as she fiddled with a bowl of cheap jewellery, trying pieces against her ears and throat.

“Today, then,” she said sternly. Jimmy leaned against the wall. Somehow facing her reflection seemed easier, as if the glass could filter some of the anger in her gaze.

Ten different start points popped into his mind. But he knew there were only two different ways he could do this. Slow build up, like a runaway train beginning to roll downhill. Or immediate punch and subsequently slowing of pace, like a bullet fired from a gun. He chose the latter, because the build-up would involve steadily admitting more and more, watching her reaction become more and more shocked. Better, he figured, to get the worst of it right out the way, so that nothing he said afterwards could have quite the same impact.

“Today,” she said again.

“I’ve killed people for money,” he blurted. Then added, “I’m a contract killer,” as if applying a title somehow made it more acceptable.

He expected her to laugh, but she didn’t. She slapped her glass onto the table hard enough to splash red wine like blood up the mirror. But it wasn’t anger at his revelation, more that she thought he was playing around.

“It’s true, Maria. I’m a killer for hire and so is the man after us, the one you thought was called Ronald. And his name won’t be Ronald. He came to our house with a false name. He’s after me, he wants to kill me, and I don’t know why, but it might have something to do with my being a killer. Although as far as I know, no one knows what I do.”

She stared at him in the glass until he looked away. That looking away seemed to finally convince her. She turned to him on the swivelling chair. “I want to think you’ve just made that shit up, Jimmy. I want to think you have delusions of grandeur. But in my mind I can recall all the times you came home late, or went out late. I knew it wasn’t another woman, so I didn’t bother too much. Guys have their things, maybe that’s what I thought. Why don’t you tell me everything and we’ll see what happens at the end of it. At the minute I don’t know what to think. So sit on that bed and tell me everything. Right now. Sit.”

So Jimmy sat, and twenty minutes later she knew everything. For a couple more she didn’t speak. She just turned back to the mirror and started applying unnecessary foundation to her neck. Then:

“So the other night, then. A burglary at the supermarket, you said. Out all evening. Didn’t get back home until after three in the morning. No burglary at all. You were slaughtering some innocent man.”

Alfo wasn’t innocent, he wanted to tell her. The guy was a lowlife, a career criminal. A killer. But he didn’t. He just gave a slight nod and left it at that.

She took a deep breath and shuddered as if cold. “It’s late. Go get Louise and put her down for the night. Sleep downstairs, don’t come up. The wine is affecting rational thought. I’ll speak to you in the morning.”

He didn’t object. Her response wasn’t a dream come true, but it could have been a lot worse, and for that he knew he had to be thankful. So he went out and called in their daughter. She objected to being put to bed throughout the whole of the first story he made up for her, but fell asleep just a sentence into the second. When he turned to leave her room, Maria was standing in the doorway.

They moved into the hallway, he shut the door, and she said, “It does us no good for me to mope around all night. We need to sort this problem out. What do you think you need to do?”

I need to find out who this guy is, the one who wanted to pay me. The one who’s paying this other killer.”

“And you want to do what when you find him? Kill him as well?”

He didn’t answer that. She didn’t push it.

“So what’s your plan?”

Initially it had been to talk to the man whose number he had in his head, the employer. But he had tried that number earlier. What he would say to the man he didn’t know, but it hadn’t mattered because the number was disconnected. A one-time thing. A second idea had occurred even before he got the tone telling him that number was defunct.

“The guy who got me the first contract-”

“Stop saying contract,” she spat. “You commit crimes for money, just like someone who holds up a post office.”

“His name’s Davey. He’ll know something, maybe even who this guy is. I need to go back to London and talk to him.”

She nodded. “I’m going to sleep. You stay downstairs, like I said. Go off on your adventure tomorrow and don’t wake me. Louise and me will stay right here.”

Like a shot she went into the bedroom and shut the door. Jimmy had no choice but to hit the sofa and try for some sleep. He tried to think about how he would approach Davey. But his mind wouldn’t shift from what Maria had said about committing crimes for money. Some people might look upon the contract killer as something ethereal, majestic, but the reality was no different from what she had said. He committed crimes for money, and not a lot of money. Was he any different from some thug who battered to death an old man in his house for a wallet of notes? That was the question that kept him awake all night, staring at the moonlight slicing a gap between the living room curtains.

***

Sweet as his luck was going, when Einar parked outside Inkwell Court and got out, the first thing he heard was chatter between two guys leaning against a battered Vauxhall Corsa with tinted windows. He heard the word DAVEY and dropped his keys so he could remain for a few seconds and listen. Bent down slowly, pretending he had a bad left leg. Stood up slowly, put his keys in his pocket, and went for the entrance, where he was to meet Farquhar, a man with a posh-sounding name and a body that belied this. Farquhar was by the entrance, where he had said he would be. Farquhar was a Scottish former police officer who had been kicked out of the service because he enjoyed beating suspects. Now jobless, he had a lot more time on his hands for dishing out pain. The Paymaster had offered Einar Farquhar’s talents and Einar had agreed, because he knew this man Davey might not be willing to give up what he knew. Einar had killed many people in many ways, but he had never tortured someone for information. Truth be told, he didn’t think he had it in him to inflict pain and suffering upon a person who was incapacitated. Men like Farquhar were animals in his view. But necessary sometimes.

“This Davey chap, I just learned, just got home this morning after a stint in a police cell. He’s up there right now, hiding out from his neighbours because he was caught with a prostitute and some dope. He’s waiting for his solicitor to come.”

Farquhar grunted something that sounded like “Okay.”

“So hopefully that’s what I look like. His solicitor. And maybe you look like my assistant.”

A grunt and a nod this time.

“What do you think of the idea to make marriage more equal by adding mothers’ names to the registers?”

Farquhar just looked at him. “Let’s go,” Einar said.

They took the stairs to the floor they needed and walked to the flat. There was a kid on a pushbike riding slowly towards them, centre of the deck, unwilling to move. Some kind of power game, even at that age? Einar was appalled. This kid would end up in prison if he wasn’t shown that he had betters in the world. So Einar kept to the centre and made the kid swerve. He got called a “Nigger” and laughed as Farquhar chased the kid, shouting his own insults. Then he got back on track and they approached the address given him by the Paymaster.

He knocked. Used a hand to slowly push Farquhar aside. The blinds over the window shifted and a face peeked out then vanished. Einar waited, but nobody came to the door.

He had tuned out the noises earlier, but now he concentrated on them. From all around him, the sounds of life. Car engines revving, kids shouting, adults shouting. Some TV, some radio, some clanging as someone…did whatever. A cacophony that would drive a man like Einar crazy in a day, but which was probably just a natural soundtrack to a run-down estate like this. He knew a door crashing open would not perk anyone’s interest. So he told Farquhar to smash it open.

“Hey, no, I’m coming,” came a shout from within. From right behind the window, Einar thought. Davey must have remained close, hoping to hear what his two strange visitors said. A few seconds later the door opened. And a straggly little man stood there in bare legs, in a football shirt that made him look like a kid wearing his dad’s clothing.

"Mr. Allerby, I'm -"

Einar had created a fiction to use today in order to get access to the flat. It was something he liked to do, maybe just to test his ability to trick people, prove his brain was better than theirs. Sometimes he used fiction to achieve something that a physical act would accomplish quicker, easier. He didn’t know for sure. He had been perfectly willing to stand outside this door for five minutes in order to persuade Davey to invite him in. But Farquhar stepped up and head butted the man right in the chest, knocking him back and following him inside the hallway. For a moment Einar was annoyed that his plan had been cut short, then he cast away his annoyance. At least this had saved time. So he stepped inside the flat and shut the door.

***

At first Maria didn’t want to talk, so Jimmy showered and dressed in the same clothing he’d been wearing yesterday. He grabbed the keys to the Range Rover and was halfway to the car when Maria appeared at the door, calling him back. Maybe she feared she’d never see him again. Maybe she feared that his mind wouldn’t be alert if he went with a feeling of bad blood between them. He didn’t know. He just accepted the hug and kiss, and returned the claim of “I love you, take care” that she spoke. Then he got in the car and drove.

Maria had told him that the killer drove a white Audi. He was glad of the heads-up at first, but not once he got to London. White Audis seemed to be the fad of the day. He knew it was his brain registering only that type of car, but he could swear every third driver owned one.

He drove the city that he knew he might never again call home, going nowhere in particular, delaying the trip to Davey’s. He stopped to use a cash machine in an area of London that meant nothing to him and which he quickly left, so didn’t worry about the card being traced. He bought a cheap new pay-as-you go mobile to replace the one discarded in the hotel room, then drove aimlessly some more. It was almost a shock to find himself on his own estate. Habit, maybe, because so often he drove home. He drew up on his own street and was surprised to find everything inert, normal. Had he expected miles of crime scene tape around him home? No home at all but a pile of burned rubble?

He didn’t want to enter, yet had to. Didn’t know why. To make sure it was empty? He got out and approached, tense the whole way in case a bullet rang out. But the killer would have to be pretty dumb to expect him to go home after all that had happened. Or smart – Jimmy was right here, wasn’t he?

He decided to do this quickly. As well as the killer, there was a neighbour to worry about. He was driving a car he stole just one street over and it had surely been reported by now.

That gave him an idea. His wife’s Mondeo was here. He would get the keys and take that one. The killer would never expect it.

Inside, he found everything normal. Nothing trashed, nothing stolen. Just like home, although it didn’t feel like home. Home was a place of safety. There was no sense of safety here. Quickly Jimmy grabbed his holdall from the floor of a cupboard and filled it with a few tins of food and clothing for Maria and Louise. He got changed into plain black tracksuit bottoms and a bland purple pullover. Training shoes completed the transformation. Clothing he could wear comfortably for days if necessary. He slipped on a padded bomber jacket and stuffed a beanie hat in the pocket. A baseball cap went onto his head.

The living room phone was flashing a light at him. Messages. Probably work, wondering where the hell he was. He ignored the phone and stood in the living room, trying to think of what else he could take. There was no money in the house, but there was jewellery upstairs. He went and grabbed a pocketful. Thought some more. But time was wasting. Jimmy left, started his wife’s Mondeo and drove away. He had left the keys to the Range Rover in the ignition. Maybe someone else would steal it and get the blame.

He drove into the Chapel View area and onto the road that sliced through the twin rows of housing blocks that contained Inkwell Court. There was a Co Op store here and he slotted the Ford into one of the parking spaces. Sat staring down the road. Inkwell Court was eighty metres away. There was an old Corsa at the kerb with two youths leaned against it, wasting their lives. And in front, a flash white Audi. Probably the twentieth white Audi he had seen since returning to London, and there weren’t twenty killers after him. So at least nineteen times he had feared the worst erroneously. And this was doubtless one of them.

Jimmy exited and went into the Co Op. He bought and ate an energy bar and gave the checkout girl the empty wrapper to scan. Then he walked slowly outside, jacket zipped, cap’s peak pulled low. No activity from Inkwell Court. He scanned the floors and saw nothing that concerned him. Thought he could see the top of Davey’s blue door over the concrete wall. Nothing untoward there, either.

Jimmy already felt exposed, even though the street was thriving with people going this way and that and minding their own business. He decided to get this done and dusted. In and out, quick as possible.

*****

Einar sat on the old sofa and watched. Davey was in a plastic chair taken from the kitchen. His ankles were tied to the legs, while his arms were behind his back, also tied. Farquhar had used lengths of a washing line found wrapped in a ball in a kitchen drawer. While Farquhar was tying him down, neither he nor Einar had even spoken. Einar supposed that might make the event more scary in ways. Maybe it was harder on the mind when you didn’t know why bad men were doing things to you. He didn’t know, he’d never been in Davey’s situation.

Davey had fallen silent, too. He had screamed a hundred times, asking what they wanted, why they were doing this. But the lack of answers had convinced him his questions were a waste of time. So he took the vicious beating Farquhar doled out while Einar made a cup of tea. Took most of it in silence, apart from grunts of pain. And now he waited, his expression slack, his body limp, which had made it easier for Farquhar to tie him up. Now done, Farquhar stepped back. Davey’s head was hung. His face was a battered mess, ribs, too.

“Davey,” Einar said. The man looked up. Einar crossed his legs, placed one arm across the back of the sofa. He thought it looked like the pose of an important businessman. “Davey, here’s how it’s going to happen. I have a number of questions. Farquhar here has, besides an incongruous name for that Rottweiler face of his, a number of torture items. Do you understand?”

Davey nodded.

“Good. That’s all you need to know. Now, you might be wondering, as I am, what Farquhar has upon him. Because he hasn’t brought a bag.”

Farquhar looked at Einar with a grin. Einar raised his eyebrows. The part about the bag had been an afterthought, because Einar had just realised that the man seemed to have shown up without bringing anything. It was his way of getting Farquhar to speak. He didn’t.

“Show him,” Einar pressed. And me.

Farquhar made a great show of producing two items, like a magician displaying the tools with which to wow and confuse. A clamshell mobile phone and a simple potato peeler. Einar tried to hide his disappointment. But the Paymaster had said Farquhar knew his stuff.

Farquhar got into his phone. Einar heard something from it, but the sound was too quiet to make the soundtrack sound like anything other than white noise. Farquhar knelt before Davey and showed him the phone. Davey watched for a few seconds and turned his head away.

“Come on, man, just ask what you want,” Davey said, his voice dripping with terror. “I ain’t gonna lie. I ain’t gonna hold back.”

Farquhar twisted Davey’s head, making him watch more of whatever was on the phone. Davey closed his eyes. Farquhar stepped away.

Einar was dying to see what was on the phone so held out his hand. Farquhar was happy to oblige. Einar watched with disgust. A hand obviously belonging to Farquhar was using the potato peeler – the very same one – to work on the head of a man who was tied to a chair. Other hands held the man’s head steady as, in glorious close-up, Farquhar’s tool peeled away the skin from the face, just like with a giant potato. The man was screaming – that had been the noise. Blood ran. Now and then portions of thick skin and flesh caught in the blade and Farquhar’s other hand moved into the shot to pick them out. Einar wondered who was holding the phone to film this torture. It was all very gruesome and he wasn’t surprised that Farquhar got results by showing what he could do without having to do it.

He handed the phone back. Farquhar had a good look, a grin of reminiscence on his face like some guy watching his old wedding video.

“Don’t annoy me by making me have to watch that hell in real life, Davey,” Einar said. “Don’t give Farquhar the satisfaction, either. He really wants to do that to you. He came all this way to do it. He’s been lusting over it all morning with a spring in his step, like some guy on a promise. The best thing you can do to get one up on him is make sure he’s brought that potato peeler for nothing. Understand?”

Davey nodded again. “Just ask, man. I’ll talk.”

“Then my first question is this: how do you know Chopper? Talk at length, impress me, prevent my needing to clarify things. Like it’s a job interview.”

Davey started immediately. “I don’t know his name, just so you know. Guy always wears a helmet and biker gear. Never seen him out of it. Wearing it when I met him. I was getting harassed by some thug called Bullet and he stepped in, just came up to me on the street, man. Said he’d sort him out for three hundred quid. That was what I owed the thug. So I said yes. So one night he goes into a pub where this thug played for a pool team and did it. Wearing his fucking biker gear. It was Bullet’s local, full of hard cases, but the sort of place where people don’t like the cops. That’s how he got away with it. I only wanted the guy beaten up, legs broken so he couldn’t come after me, but Chopper laid into him with a bar stool and killed the fucker. Room full of gangster wannabes and psychos, and no one did a thing. Pretended to be part of the fucking wallpaper and stayed well back. Bullet died next day in hospital. But no one talked, man. Wall of fucking silence in that area, like with the Kray Twins or something. So he got away with it. Rumour went round that I knew who did it, some saying I even set it up. Rumour was I knew a hitman. Some thought I was all pally with him cos I got no money, see. People think hitmen cost like fifty grand or something, so no way I could have paid someone. After that, the cops wanted a word, but I just said I knew nothing about it. No proof other, though, so the cops just dried up on me. He got away with it and I got left alone by everyone. Thought Bullet’s pals might want a go at me, but I never got nothing.”

Einar nodded. “But that wasn’t the one and only time?”

“No. I got people coming up to me all the time. It’s a thing of the past now, like, but back then, them early days, it was a fucking bonanza. Kids and fucking meth-heads and women wanting their husbands killed for cheating. Like they thought I had my own personal hitman. I just said no all the time, but I couldn’t have said yes anyway. I didn’t know this guy on the bike. But he knew me. Reckon he’d heard about all this interest and thought he could make some more money. But hey, man, if this guy offed someone you know, it ain’t nothing to do with me. I only set up that first one and one other, man. He came to see me and he gave me this, like, drop point, a place to put a message if I wanted him, if I had a job for him. But I didn’t bother with that shit and we didn’t meet again for years. I reckon he got some coverage and word got around and he got other jobs that way. I heard a whiff about some jobs, dead people, biker involved. Suspected it was him. But I tell you, I never bothered with it until just a few days ago. Some important guy in a flash car pulls up and he sends a couple of heavies over with a file for Chopper. If this one is why you’re here, I can’t help you on that. Don’t know what the job was other than it was some criminal called Alfo The Destroyer. I’d heard of him, knew nothing else. So I just went and left a note at that drop point place. Said I had a job for him and it was five grand. He collected it the next day. Some guy came round in a suit just before and dropped off the money and some other file on another guy. Said Chopper would get twenty grand for it. But I didn’t look at that one, honest. So if this is to do with that, can’t help you, man. Don’t know. That’s the fucking truth.”

Einar took a breath. “I didn’t mean talk for England, Davey. But you covered all the point. Thanks you. I have just one more question. Remember the potato peeler. Because if you lie, we’ll be back. Understand?

Another nod. “Ain’t gonna lie to you.”

“Where’s this drop point? Where’s Chopper’s house, or hideout, warren, lair, nest, whatever?”

Two minutes later Einar rose to leave. Davey asked what was going to happen to him. Einar had told Farquhar to scrub anything they had touched before he left. When he left was up to Farquhar. Einar said, “I’m going now. I apologise for misleading you, but Farquhar here would be quite upset with me if I brought him all this way for nothing. I’ve seen his disappointed face and it’s like a child denied ice cream. Not pretty to see. And I believe he needs a more recent video with which to scare future victims. Goodbye and thank you.”

Davey screamed for him to come back. Screamed for help when he didn’t. Einar left the flat and closed the door. He heard all the sounds of before: yells, bangs, music, engines. And he relaxed.

Davey’s screams of pain, if heard at all, would simply join the mix.

***

Jimmy exited the lift and again nearly walked into a man in a suit. This time he wore a baseball cap and a thick bomber jacket. He had the peak of the cap tilted low and his head bowed, but he saw the man’s feet walk past and towards the stairs.

Surprisingly, the deck was empty of other people, except for one woman who was at her open door, trying to cram more rubbish into a bag that had a split and was vomiting trash onto the floor each time she forced something else inside. He passed her, head still low, and quickly made his way to Davey’s flat. This time he didn’t knock. Davey, he knew, didn’t answer his door to people he didn’t know. So he turned the handle and stepped inside, slow, quiet. He could hear the TV on loud. His TV, he remembered, although he had no plans to take it back.

When Jimmy pushed open the door to the living room, he found himself staring at Davey, bound in a chair, bleeding badly from numerous places on his face, especially a massive laceration on the top of his head. His normally blue Chelsea shirt was almost completely red.

Even as he rushed over, he knew he was making a mistake. He knew he should have checked the rooms for the assailant. Too late he stopped by Davey, who looked up at him in horror. Jimmy realised that Davey had never seen his face, and must be expecting him to be here to cause further damage.

“Skinning’s always easier when the skin’s boiled,” said a man as he stepped view just beyond the half-open kitchen doorway. A big guy with a beer gut, carrying a saucepan with steam rising off it. Some of the boiling water splashed over the edge as the man caught sight of Jimmy and jerked.

“Who the fuck are you?” he said.

“You’ve got five minutes, then we need to go,” Jimmy said, stepping forward, then to the side, and grabbed the edge of the door, as if to make room for the big guy to enter. A good impression of a guy who was meant to be here.

“My man didn’t say anyone else was coming-” the big guy said, and that was when Jimmy slammed the door right into him. The pan splashed water across the floor, wall, and the arm that held the utensil. He yelled in pain, staggered back under the shock and the force of the door hitting him, hit the frame and dropped the pan. Panic caused him to watch the pan fall and lift a leg to avoid getting burned when it hit the floor. Jimmy used the moment to slam the door again, this time into the man’s big, bowed head. He slumped to his ass on the carpet and Jimmy stepped forward and drove a knee into the man’s face, busting his nose wide open, slamming his head back against the doorframe.

The guy grunted in shock, shook his head, which sprayed blood from his nose, and started to rise. Jimmy grabbed the pan from the floor. It rose and fell twice. Two solid clangs of metal against skull. The big guy slipped over onto his side and lay still. There was a potato peeler in his fist. Jimmy grabbed it, then untied Davey’s arms and legs and lifted him out of the chair, carried him like a groom with a bride and laid him on the sofa. Davey opened his eyes, and in them was horror.

“What happened here?” Jimmy asked.

Davey’s eyes moved slowly, as if the effort was hard. They settled on the man laying slumped on the carpet. The fear swirled out of them and clarity returned, as if his brain had been dulled by the knowledge that he was going to die and now knew better.

“Who are you?” he croaked.

“Someone on your side. Who was that guy?”

Davey pulled an angry face. “Some sick cunt,” he spat. “Him and some Asian cunt in a suit.”

The contract killer, Jimmy realised. The man wasn’t Asian, but Davey was probably dazed, or thought everyone with darker skin who wasn’t black was an Asian. But for sure he meant the contract killer. Again Jimmy thought of a guy in a suit that he had just missed while stepping out of the lift. So what had happened here today involved Jimmy, for sure. The hunt was still on. But why had the killer come here? Davey knew nothing about Jimmy.

“I’ll send an ambulance, Davey, but first I need you to help me. I need to know about the guy who asked you to get Chopper for him. And what did these men want?”

“How do you know about that?”

“Don’t ask, Davey, there’s no time. Who is he?”

“Some businessman. I know a guy, Al. Al said he’d heard I knew of a hitman, could I get this guy for a job.” Here Davey started coughing. Jimmy clenched his fists, angry and impatient. But he had to let Davey tell it at his own pace. So he waited, used gentle prodding if Davey seemed to be getting off-track, and soon had what he needed. He thanked Davey and promised to get him help. Davey stuck out a weak arm and grabbed his hand.

“How do you know Chopper?”

Jimmy smiled at him. “It’s me, Davey. That guy’s me.”

Davey’s eyes said he didn’t believe it.

“I’m going to let you keep my TV,” Jimmy said, nodding at the TV in question.

The memory of that conversation from days ago hit home. Davey grinned back at him. “Christ, I expected you to be Mexican or something. Some bad ass. Look just like some guy.”

“That’s me. Just some guy. Davey, what did these men want?”

“Asian cunt wanted to know about you, man. Chopper. Don’t know how he knew about me.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I need an ambulance.”

“I’ll call one. Davey, please, what did you tell this man?”

Davey looked pained. "He was torturing me, man. I couldn't -"

“It’s fine,” Jimmy told him. Stroked his bloody hair just to emphasis the point. “Just tell me.”

Davey coughed. It made his body shake. Blood dribbled from his mouth. Lots of it. “I told him how we met. Sorry, man, he was torturing me.”

“It’s okay.”

“I think I told him how I contact you.”

Jimmy froze. The lock-up. His computer. If the killer found that…

***

Einar parked in a car park belonging to a children’s day-care centre called Nursery Times. It was busy with vehicles coming and going as mothers and sometimes fathers dropped off their screaming/giggling brats. Einar was given foul looks for taking up a space when he clearly didn’t have a child. He crossed the road, shouting the name of a child, moving quickly towards the bridge. If nobody fell for his lost-my-child trick, so what? It was more joke than genuine subterfuge anyway.

Here the bridge’s arches were bricked up and had doorways. Some were plain doors like you might find on a garden shed, the brickwork containing no signs. Others had bigger doors, like the sort found on residential garages, and signs above like QUIK PRINT and THE COMPUTER SHOP. There were cars parked outside some, on the wide pavement. Nothing was parked outside an arch that had a steel door painted green and no sign above. But on the pavement in front was an old lamp letter box daubed in graffiti and rusted. The door was hanging off the box. It was empty. But the hollow post was bust near the bottom and Einar could see trash inside.

Just because the post box was here and the hole in the post was right there, it didn’t mean Davey had been telling the truth about stashing notes in there for Chopper. Maybe he’d lied. Maybe Einar should call Farquhar, because right about now Davey would be screaming through his skinless face, and be less likely to holler lies.

Instead, Einar approached the green door. It was wider than a normal door, certainly wide enough to permit a motorbike. He looked around at the grimy ground and could see the odd faint oil stain, but again, that meant nothing. Here on the door was a padlock, just like Davey said. Einar pulled out a crowbar he’d picked up and slotted it behind the old hasp, jamming the end deep between the metal and the wooden frame. One jerk downwards and it was free. The door pushed inwards easily on oiled hinges.

Here he paused. It was broad daylight and people were everywhere, but still he stood at the door and waited, knowing even as he did so that it was yet another risk to stay exposed like this. Chopper could have had associates who worked nearby and watched his lair for him – after all, he might need a way to know that a letter had been left at the dead drop for him. Chopper could turn out to be an upstanding member of the community, well-known and much liked, his dark alter-ego a safe secret even after his death. The discovery of his body might spark a giant police manhunt, and someone even now watching from across the road might step forward with information about the guy in the suit who stood right here at this doorway, his car parked over the road.

But still Einar paused. He wanted time to savour this moment. In the early days, after moving to Australia, Einar had been just like Chopper. He had started small. His first kill for pay had been an off-the-cuff performance, just like Chopper’s. Twenty years old, eight months into his new country, Einar had been working as a Global Sales Executive, a job he loved. He didn’t like having a boss, and he didn’t like having to be nice to people he didn’t know just to get them to buy a commercial coffee machine, and he didn’t like the clunky van he was forced to drive, but he loved the travelling. He drove around Australia, selling the machines and installing them in offices and shops, and as he saw more of the world, the more he hated the fact that there were other parts he hadn’t seen. So he saved and planned holidays.

His boss had been a man called Peterson, and Peterson had given him his first kill assignment, although it hadn’t started as a kill. It had been planned as a beating, just like the job Chopper had been given. Some young punk Einar’s age had been dating Peterson’s daughter and beating her, although she always claimed she got mugged walking her neighbourhood. She was a mugger magnet if true. Peterson commanded a team of fit, young men, but it was Einar he chose. Einar was supposed to follow the guy home when he dropped off the daughter and accost him. Einar had done exactly that, but the guy had pulled a knife when his car was forced off the road on a deserted stretch of highway. His own knife had been used to cut his throat. Einar had received a slash on the inner elbow, and this injury had forced him to begin taking martial arts lessons. The body had gone back in the driver’s seat and the car had been rolled down a steep embankment, toppling, rending, smashing. Einar had heard nothing about a murder or even a body found. Peterson had paid him well and Einar had taken a holiday until the heat that never came died down.

It had started there. Peterson had used Einar three times for a kill over the two years they worked together. Three kills, but numerous beatings and intimidations. Because Peterson had a secret life. He was a drug dealer on the side. Einar accompanied him on collections and deliveries, posing as a bodyguard. He hit whoever Peterson asked him to, broke into any house or stole any car Peterson pointed at. Soon Einar started to hear rumours about himself floating around, tales about a vicious enforcer of one of the city’s biggest drugs runners. Then one day one of his work colleagues made a threat that they were sending the enforcer after Einar, and that got him thinking. Thinking he could go this on his own.

Sometimes Einar had to remind himself that he had left that life only a decade ago, because so much in his life had changed since then, so much had happened. He had left the job and Peterson soon after the ironic threat incident, deciding to set up on his own. Einar hated drugs – how could people want to consume something that dulled the senses, made their skills falter? But then he had decided he wanted new surroundings. He had used contacts formed through Peterson to buy a fake passport and had done so, after taking out Peterson, his fourth kill, to ensure his silence. Peterson had enjoyed intimidating his enemies with a vile catchphrase, so Einar had invented one and his former boss had been the first recipient. Peterson had also been the first man Einar killed from a distance, having found it too risky up close, where your enemy could strike back, and where you could leave clues for the police.

Here lay the difference between Einar and Chopper, though. Einar had continued to kill for money, but he had spread his realm to the whole planet. He had spread the word and he had found himself a series of contacts around the world in the major cities. Chopper had remained local.

He shook off his reverie, getting back to the job.

Einar used the flashlight on his phone to illuminate the walls beside the door and found a switch. He lit the place up by a single naked bulb dangling from the centre of the ceiling.

The floor was pitted concrete, dirty, oily, littered with small car and bike parts. The side and back walls were lined with industrial shelving units, mostly empty. Just a scattering of junk. Tools hung on the walls behind the units, reachable through the gaps. It was pretty lame for a garage. Certainly one man’s place for tinkering with his bike – and it had to be a bike, because that door would permit no car.

At the back, though, was a simple wooden desk. A stack of papers. A pot of pens. He crossed to it. There was a router on the desk also, but it was turned off. Internet capability for the closed laptop that sat centre stage on the desk. The lid was covered with black fingerprints. Here then was not just a garage, but a den. No bed of any sort or fridge, which meant Chopper wasn’t homeless and living here like some lunatic. The man had a house somewhere.

He moved around the desk and sat in the office chair. It was a swivel chair but it didn’t turn and he had to adjust the position by shifting the wheels. But the hinge to allow the chair to recline worked a treat. Einar leaned back and stared up at the wooden ceiling, where he saw a calendar stuck above his head. Some cheesy thing with a woman draped over a fast car. It was dated last month, suggesting Chopper either couldn’t bothered to change it or liked that picture. Certainly the bikini-clad woman was attractive, although Einar like his girls a little plumper – some remnant of his heritage, he guessed.

He climbed onto the desk and reached up. He yanked down the calendar, planning to change the month. It annoyed him, for some reason. And when he plucked it free, he exposed a trapdoor.

No, not a trapdoor at all, because there was no handle and it was too small. A square no bigger than a CD case had been cut free and reinserted. Einar plucked his knife and jabbed the end into one side and prised the portion free. He tried to catch it but it slipped through his fingers and a corner broke off as it bounced off the desk. Oh well, didn’t matter. The busted hasp on the door was proof enough that someone had been here unauthorised.

The hole was black. Einar shone his phone’s flashlight inside and saw the brick curve of the bridge’s archway high above. Nothing else. He fed his hand in, but could only just get his palm inside. The edge of the hole scraped his wrist as he felt about.

His fingers touched something. Something touch but flexible and tubular. He grasped it and pulled it free.

A folder of some kind, wrapped into a cylinder and secured with elastic bands. He slipped them off and skimmed through it. What he saw made him shiver and smile. He sat in the chair before he fell down.

It was a blank scrapbook into which Chopper had glued pictures and text, all of it either from newspapers or printed off the Internet. A kill book. Einar couldn’t believe what he’d found.

He flipped to the front and turned the first page. There was a cropped photo of the interior of a pub lounge, empty of people. An inset photo showed the place from outside, a squat building on a corner. Print along the bottom of the pixelated main photo said: THE THREE DUCKS IN EARL’S COURT ROAD, SCENE OF THE MURDER OF ALAN BULLING. A piece of text below told the story that Davey had related. Local bruiser beaten to death in the Three Ducks by a guy dressed as a biker, although nobody could remember at what time it happened, or describe the biker’s gear, or recall anything that was said. A corner of the photo was loose and Einar folded it, glanced at the other side and saw a portion of some offer and a voucher for money off some bullshit item. And a valid until date that was almost eight years old.

He was thrilled. People’s lives were a source of wonder to him, but this was pure gold. Einar had never thought to keep trinkets or newspaper snipping of his crimes, usually because he was out of the country by the time the media got hold of the story. But he knew some people did, and he had never expected Chopper to be such a man. Then he remembered the fact that Chopper had been planning to kill Marsh by dumping him in a swimming pool with a weight on his leg. Chopper was a sadist. Chopper was a serial killer more than he was a contract killer. He murdered for kicks more than money. And Einar had read lots about serial killers. Sometimes they relived their crimes by flipping through scrap books like this one. Sometimes they took a lock of hair or a shoe from the victim and masturbated over it. Einar climbed onto the desk and put his hand in the hole again, praying he’d find a bag of mementoes, but there was nothing. He climbed back down.

The next kill seemed to be considered an accident. Some kid in his late teens who had been accused of molesting a girl had only gone and slipped off his own high balcony. There was a wide shot of the tower block and a red arrow showing the path he plummeted, as if the readers needed such education in the laws of gravity. A police mug shot of the victim. A quote from his mother saying how sweet a boy he was, how he wouldn’t ever hurt anyone. Just as mothers did the world over.

Einar flipped to the next, then the next. In total, he found ten. The last was some drunk driver who’d been so riddled with guilt over the death of the kid he’d killed, he’d slit his own throat in his car while it was parked outside his girlfriend’s house in some run-down street in Hackney. But another snippet pasted next to it screamed MURDER. A pathologist had performed an autopsy and determined that the dead man couldn’t have slit his own throat so wide and deep. Eight months ago.

Alongside a number of the entries, there was another that mentioned a biker the police wished to eliminate from their enquiries. Four of the ten. In four cases, a man in black on a black bike had been seen in the immediate vicinity. There was an article in which one journalist tied together three of the cases, but Einar found nothing of the police agreeing. But that proved nothing: maybe Chopper hadn’t collected such articles. And he knew from Davey that Chopper was a known entity. But he had done a good job of not getting captured, and not leaving enough clues for the authorities to conclusively state that there was a serial killer out there. That was worth some praise, because it mirrored Einar’s world to a degree. Nobody had ever connected two or more of his kills together, yet Einar’s name was out there, known by people, albeit as little more than a rumour. Like Bigfoot.

Einar replaced the folder in the ceiling and slotted the piece home. He sat the in the chair afterwards and wondered why he had done this. He could have outed Chopper. Professional courtesy? He truly didn’t know.

He forgot about the scrapbook and turned his attention to the laptop. The scrapbook had been the most intriguing thing he’d seen in a long time, but it moved him no closer to his foe. Maybe he had left digital clues instead.

No password, which was a relief. The desktop had just a few icons against the background of a sunny beach. Four icons. Internet Explorer, Recycle Bin, The Attic, and some kind of music file. Einar clicked on The Attic. It contained only six word documents whose titles were all dates. He clicked on the latest, dated eleven days ago.

It was a letter. Some address at the top, and the name Dale Somersby. He read the letter. It was all about this guy called Dale and yet another late arrival for work. Some disciplinary letter. A verbal warning. So Chopper had a job, might be some kind of manager.

Einar paused. Something stirred in his gut. He hit CTRL and END on the keyboard and the curser jumped to the end of the document. It was only two pages, and only four words, over two lines, dribbled over onto that final page.

JAMES MARSH

ASSISTANT MANAGER

***

Jimmy drove over the bridge and stopped. He knew he was wasting time, but he had to know as early as possible. He ran to the parapet and peered over and down at the arches. He could see the doors, and the one to his lock-up was closed. But the hasp was hanging loose. He cursed, hopped back in his car, and raced off.

Four minutes later he pulled up again. Ran to his door and kicked it open. No caution, because he believed the killer had been and gone. And he had: the lock-up was empty, the light off. But his laptop was open, its screen spraying white light against the brick wall beyond the desk..

He didn’t care what else the killer might have found, and that included the scrapbook where he kept newspaper cuttings of his previous kills. He remembered the last thing he had used that laptop for. He ran around the desk, and there was his worst fear, displayed on the screen.

He never turned off the laptop, and so all his open Internet pages were arranged along the taskbar. One had been clicked on, which now filled the window. The website of the estate agency where he’d found the cottage. Almost two weeks ago he had been taking a break from working on his bike and had been idly surfing the net, seeking a new house, when he found the place in Lamberhurst. He had sent Maria the link via email. Then he had closed the laptop and hadn’t used it since.

And there it still was. A photo, the description, the price, and a map of the village of Lamberhurst. And worse: a postcode for someone wishing to visit.

Someone like the killer.

Jimmy pulled his mobile and phoned the cottage. But it rang and rang. No answer. He slotted the mobile away and ran for his car. Only one thing to do now, if the killer was currently en route to the cottage.

Get there first.

***

The question that kept repeating in his mind was, Who the hell did I kill at the swimming pool?

Not Chopper, for sure. James Marsh was Chopper. Explained his skills. The guy got immensely lucky, getting the contract on himself. If the Paymaster hadn’t been so tight with his money and had hired Einar outright, James Marsh would never have known and would be dead already. But instead he had had the ultimate kind of warning.

The Paymaster. Einar really wanted to tell him, just to see his reaction. But he couldn’t. the Paymaster already thought Einar had killed Chopper. He would wonder who Einar had killed instead. He would wonder how Einar had made such a mistake. It wouldn’t look good for Einar. So he wouldn’t mention a thing.

He left the M25 and merged onto the A21, which would take him most of the way south to Lamberhurst in Tunbridge wells. The Internet had told him Lamberhurst was an ancient village, which he liked the idea of. Less than fifteen hundred occupants. Quiet, peaceful, at least until he started shooting.

He drove at fifty miles an hour, at which the engine made a purring noise he liked. Checked the SatNav: just seventeen miles to go. Einar blanked his mind. Sometimes he liked to do that because it was usually on the go, go, go, never taking a rest. Sometimes after a long day in which his brain and mind had been powering along like race cars, he almost expected something to blow – again, just like in an overworked race car. At the end of such a day, every twinge in his head was something about to fail. He worried that some mental chip would burn out and suddenly his combat muscle memory would vanish, or he wouldn’t remember how to drive a car or clean a gun. Then he would blank his mind. And he tried that now. Resting the mental engine.

A few times he found himself forced to slow down because the two lanes became one and the traffic got thick. During these moments of crawling, being trapped by cars and trucks, hearing engines, smelling exhaust fumes, Einar’s mind woke again. He tried to avoid thinking about the job ahead, thinking instead about calmer things: portions of his life he enjoyed, others he wished he could have done differently. Then the absent second carriageway would reappear and the traffic would flow again and Einar let his mind go blank. It stayed that way until a roundabout after which the road was again a single lane and full of bends. Einar got slowly annoyed.

Soon he hit something called Forstal Farm Roundabout and was told by the SatNav to take the third exit. Another road with fields and trees on both sides. He couldn’t help but get the feeling he was headed into the middle of nowhere, even though he knew England was small. You couldn’t get lost for long in this country if you had a car.

Suddenly the SatNav said he had arrived at his destination.

He pulled over, forcing his wheels onto the grass verge because, although the road was two lanes, it was very thin. Arrived? There was nothing here. He checked the SatNav again and this time opted for the satellite photo version. He scrolled out, and there it was. Ahead, slightly, and beyond the trees on this side of the road. A shield-shaped pair of roads with buildings contained within. Printed across the image was the word RIVERBED. The entrance was just ahead, concealed by trees at this angle.

Einar smiled. He drove on. The turning was indeed on the left, and on the left, directly across from it, was a lay-by. He parked there and got his gig bag from the boot. Slung it over his shoulder and crossed the road. He didn’t take the new road, though: instead he slipped into the trees to the left of it.

Once he’d pushed through, he thanked God. He was not a religious man, but how could he not believe that this location had been a gift to him from the Heavens.

Riverbed was slightly below him. He could see the road curving right around it. The land sloped sharply downwards seven or eight metres, giving him an elevated view. He could see it all. From this eastern corner of the shield, he was overlooking a flat area with a lake and rows of benches. Some kind of picnic area. Beyond a river that sliced the shield in half were the homes, five cottages. Einar moved through the trees. A few minutes later he came to a bridge crossing the river. A minute after that he stopped and sat in the undergrowth. He was overlooking the five cottages now. The nearest one, just fifty metres away, was ELM, the cottage from the website. The one he wanted. He was as high as its roof, a perfect elevation. There was nothing in the way. The only negative was that he was facing the building’s side, and here there was only one window. Upper floor, probably at the top of the stairs. If he waited here, then he would need his targets to climb the stairs, or exit into the back garden or out the front.

So he moved on. Stopped close to the western corner, now viewing the house at an angle. Not perfect, but better. Einar extracted his rifle from the bag and put it to his shoulder. He had brought his pistol, so if he got no joy within a few minutes, he would climb down the slope and enter the house. Way out here, nobody would hear the shots, except whatever neighbours were at home. And, if need be, Einar would kill them, too.

Things were changing in Einar. He had noticed them. And one was his patience. Normally he could have sat here in the trees for hours, not moving an inch, holding his piss, ignoring hunger and insects and the pain in his ass. He could have waited for night and beyond, seeking that one moment when a target shows enough flesh to blast a fatal wound into. But today Einar was a different animal. He got agitated very quickly. The barrel of the Steyr started to waver, then literally shake. Einar tossed it down, stood, yanked out his pistol, and started down the slope.

***

The police stopped Jimmy not far south of the A26 junction. Here the road narrowed to one lane, but he didn’t cut his speed and chose instead to cut around an Asda van. The guy honked his horn and flashed his lights as Jimmy swerved in front of him. Checking the rear-view mirror, he didn’t see the vehicle in front until he felt a flash in his eyes. They darted forward, and there was a police car right in front of him. The siren whined, just once, and the police car indicated that it was pulling to the side of the road. And wanted Jimmy to follow.

He cursed. His mind cycled through options. He could race away, force the police to follow him, lead them right to the cottage. No way the killer would try to kill the family with cops around – or would he kill the officers, too? He tossed that option anyway, because even if the killer ran away, Jimmy would be left in the hands of the authorities, and he just couldn’t risk that. If he was arrested, he might be safe, but his family wouldn’t.

He could ride this out, take whatever warning or fine the police would give him. But that would waste time. Maybe just enough time that he’d arrive at the cottage to find bodies broken like his world.

Jimmy didn’t realise what he was planning until he stepped out of the car and tossed the ignition keys over his head, into the grass. The driver of the police car exited the vehicle. Jimmy saw he was alone.

“Back in the car, please. Sit in your seat.”

"My wife's hurt, she's -" His words cut off as he tripped, stumbling forward. The policeman moved forward, mouth opening to speak again. Jimmy rose quickly in front of him, hand coming up. The potato peeler he'd stolen jabbed into the cop's throat, right under the chin, making him freeze.

A car blew past with a honk of its horn. Jimmy had to move quickly, well-aware that it was brought daylight on a busy road and he was threatening a police officer. He dropped the hand holding the weapon, brought up his elbow, rammed it right into the cop’s forehead. The cop grunted and staggered back. Jimmy bent low and rushed him, driving forward, past the open door, almost into the traffic surging by. He felt blows rain on his back but powered on, turning around the front of the car, then pushed and sent the cop sprawling into the wild grass alongside the road. By the time the cop had gotten to his feet and started running back, Jimmy was in the police car. He tore out of there, hearing a thud against the vehicle as the cop lashed out. More painful than the bang on the head was the notion of the trouble he’d get into for letting some guy steal his vehicle.

Jimmy hit the accelerator. He found the button for the siren and hit it. After that, it was as if he drove a snowplough, as vehicles parted ahead of him.

***

Only when Louise took the kettle did Maria finally notice. For the last half an hour her daughter had been rushing in and out of the house from the back yard, then scuttling off. Maria had twice shouted from the living room and asked what was going on, but the reply had been “Nothing” both times. She was in the living room with a book, trying to relax, trying to erode time. Trying to take her mind off Jimmy. Trying to ignore the fact that he was out there doing God knew what.

She went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and saw the kettle gone. The toaster was gone, too. Freshly washed cutlery and plates were missing from the draining board. She looked out of the window and saw Louise, running back towards the house. She knocked on the window and Louise froze, that guilty look on her face.

But when Maria got to the door, Louise was gone.

“Louise?”

No answer. Maria felt panic rising. The fence at the back was low, and she realised Louise could have used the tree with its low branches to scale that fence. The river! She ran to the end of the garden, up to the fence, peered over. Wild grass sloped down to the calm water, but Louise wasn’t there.

“Nothing,” said a voice right by her.

The treehouse was five feet in the air, a corner right by Maria’s head. A ladder led inside through a hole in the floor. Made of planks of wood, it was shaped like a house, complete with a small door and windows of clear plastic. Louise’s head was at the hole, peering down.

“You just gave yourself away, little miss,” Maria said. She started to climb the ladder. Louise tried to stop her with a palm pressed on the head, claiming there was nothing inside, she hadn’t taken anything. Maria loved how children could sometimes admit a wrongdoing in the way they admitted it.

“I never accused you of taking anything,” Maria said. “But now I know you have.”

She climbed inside the treehouse. It was dim and cramped, but she could see how a child would love it. There was a carpet and someone had hung tiny framed pictures. The windows even had sills. The door, probably something taken from a Wendy house, had a handle and a letterbox that was jammed open. Maria sat down, her head touching the roof. The stuff missing from the kitchen was here. She kissed her daughter’s head, thinking how cute this was.

“Good job I came now, before you started trying to get the washing machine in here.”

“Don’t take the stuff back.”

“I won’t. I won’t. Can Daddy make me an upstairs?”

“He could try. There’s not much room, little miss.” Maria bent forward and opened the plastic front door. She peered out. “And you’re not taking the upstairs in that house one board at a time.”

“Lou wants a bed inside.”

“I’m sure we…” She stopped, eyes wide, as she watched a man in a suit scale the fence and drop into the back yard. Fear sent goose bumps up her spine. It was him! The killer. He was here.

Maria leaned back and grabbed Louise, throwing a hand over her mouth. The girl started to struggle, but Maria held on and whispered into her ear, telling her to be quiet, stop moving. She closed the door with her foot, hoping he wouldn’t see the movement.

His form was warped as she watched through one of the upper plastic windows. Like something in a hall of mirrors, or a bad dream. He moved to the back door quickly. And she could see a gun in his hand.

He slipped inside.

***

The kitchen was large but cramped by a large table with a gingham cloth, the staple of any country cottage. The cabinets arranged on the walls were pale yellow, the hardwood floor blue and the ceiling white, reminding Einar of the outdoors: a bright sky with a sun warming the sea. Maybe that was the design, or something Einar alone felt. A fine, quaint, retro feel, marred only by a laminated sign on the wall ordering the occupants to not smoke.

There were two interior doors but he ignored the one that stood four feet high, figuring that was a pantry. The other, open, led into a small hallway. Directly ahead were the stairs, flanked by a rail with twisted metal balusters. Left, just past the bottom of the stairs, was the front door, with another door adjacent to it that he figured led to the living room. To the right the hallway ended at another door. He pushed that open first and found a downstairs toilet, then headed back. Once past the stairs, he saw that the hallway opened into a dining room with a bookcase and a large wooden table. The book case contained just a few actual books, and a great stack of leaflets and pamphlets, all probably promoting things to do around here. And an old rotary dial telephone.

The living room was empty. It had two big sofas you could get lost in and a vast fireplace.

He took the stairs. Halfway up was a landing where the stairs turned left. At the very top was the window he’d seen from across the way. He was in a corridor that four doors led off. One was open, displaying a modern bathroom in silvers and whites.

His hand was on the handle of one of the other doors when he heard the bang. Loud, and far away. A faint rending of metal and a crash of glass. Einar threw open the door, moving quickly because he thought he knew exactly what that noise was. A car crash. Not two moving cars colliding, though. Marsh was here.

***

Jimmy fought past his airbag and kicked open the door, which squealed against bent metal. He rushed over to the white Audi. The police car’s front end was a mess and he knew it wouldn’t drive. The Audi had suffered less, although the impact had forced its mangled boot to flip open. He looked inside and didn’t see what he was looking for. A quick glance inside the rest of the car showed the item wasn’t there, either. He cursed and rushed across the road, into the trees, keeping low, being quiet even though the horrendous screech of the crash would have alerted anyone within half a mile.

He had seen the Audi and not been surprised, already figuring the killer would have beaten him here. He just hoped it hadn’t been by long. As he rushed through the trees, scanning left and right, he beat back the fear that he wasn’t too late. The killer might already have killed Maria and Louise.

He looked across the lot, at the house. No shot at this angle, except through one little window, the one at the top of the stairs. He scanned the line of trees and saw nothing. That made him think the killer must have already gone down into the house, unless he was positioned deeper into the line of trees. Jimmy rushed along the edge of the embankment, knowing he was exposed but forced into such an action because his speed would be diminished if he ran through the trees. He soon reached the end, where lay the road that led down and around and into the lot. Nobody here, even though this was the spot where the killer should have been, if he was planning to use the sniper rifle. Only from here was there any sort of angle for firing into the house.

Jimmy checked the curving road, fearing the man might be somewhere along its length, which would put him facing the front of the house for an even better shot. But the road was empty.

Then he saw it. Discarded right there near the foot of a tree, no attempt to hide it in the undergrowth. The rifle lay obviously dropped, not hidden. That suggested a mind that was impatient. That said the killer had realised he had no shot from here and had rushed to the house with no firm plan. He had driven here expecting to have the element of surprise, not knowing that Jimmy was right behind him. But now Jimmy had the element of surprise. And a plan.

He knelt in the undergrowth and picked up the sniper rifle.

***

Einar quickly made sure the upper rooms were empty and then rushed to the bathroom and smashed the butt of his gun into the cabinet on the wall. It tore off its screws and dropped, spraying little complimentary soaps and scented items all over the floor. He snatched up a mirrored door that had broken loose.

Out in the hallway, he stood beside the window and raised the mirror, using it to peer out of the window. He turned it slowly, scanning the trees up on the embankment, until he found the corner of the plot, and then he focussed his sight, trying to see the man he assumed would be there, if he really was as good as he was seeming to be.

Einar knew he was when the window blew in and the mirror shattered in his hand. He leaned back against the wall. So Marsh had found his rifle, probably because he’d worked out the best place for a shooter to stand. This could be a problem.

He was working on that problem when the phone rang downstairs.

He bent low and rushed down the stairs, turning right, ducking under the dining table. He lay on his back on the cold stone floor and reached up for the phone. The digital display showed a number that he instantly committed to memory. He was grinning.

***

When the phone was picked up, Jimmy, like the other guy, stayed silent. One-handed, he slipped the reticule over the house, into the back yard, towards the river. When they moved over the treehouse, he froze. Through a window in the side, right where the cottage had one at the top of the stairs as if it were a copy of that building, he saw movement through the plastic. Maria and Louise for sure, hiding. Somehow they had gotten wind of the killer’s approach and fled. He wished they had hopped the back fence, because now they were trapped.

You win, I’ll speak first,” said a voice he remembered from the swimming pool. It had lost some of the confidence with which it had told him his life countdown had reached zero. “You’re good at this game, James Marsh. Call me Einar, by the way.”

Jimmy held the mobile jammed between shoulder and ear as he moved the reticule back to the cottage. “Why are you after me?”

“[_ Of course, we're in this game for different reasons. I like the money and the prestige that comes with it. I like knowing I'm a shadowy contract killer. They make films and books about us. We strike fear into the hearts of people -" _]

“Why are you after me?” Jimmy cut in.

“-But you, Marsh, you’re the other kind that people fear. The serial killer, who preys on people because he likes it. You can’t help yourself, and nobody is safe. You might hide behind a facade, dressed in your biker gear, but at the end of the day you’re just a man who enjoys killing. Do you get off on knowing that books and films are made about you, too? I bet you think about the fame that’ll come when you’re finally caught. A sensational trial, world headlines, and to be talked about in crime shows for years to come.”

Jimmy laughed. “I don’t like killing people, but I think you do. Yours is the sham, not mine. You kill anyone. The only ones who should fear me are your sort, the nasty fuckers on the planet who don’t deserve life. The world’s a better place because of what I’ve done. And in a few minutes, it’s going to get a little better.”

Now Einar laughed, tit-for-tat. “Don’t damage that weapon of mine, Marsh. The warranty ran out last month. You know I’ve got your wife and kid right in front of me, right?”

A moment of fright. Jimmy put the reticule at the edge of the house, in the corner where the fence met the brickwork. Right where he thought a person would appear if they stepped out the back door. In that moment of fright, he thought Einar was at that door, aiming a handgun across the yard and into the treehouse. Then he realised his error. The man was on the phone, and the phone was at the other side of the building. Lying. Some kind of test.

He faked a laugh. “You’re not very smart, are you? I figured you’d find this place. I watched you arrive. I was sitting in a branch above you when you dropped your weapon. And my wife and child are about fifty miles away from here, waiting for me. I’ll get back to them soon.” Another forced giggle. “Now why don’t you come on out? Saves me waiting all day.”

Jimmy rose to his feet, slowly, careful not to make a noise in the undergrowth. He took a step, then another, raising his feet high so they didn’t snag on grass. If the killer was in the dining room, he had no view of Jimmy, which gave him a chance to get close to the cottage. He had the more lethal weapon, but he wasn’t sure that he could take out a running man, even at only a hundred and fifty metres with a sniper rifle, if the killer suddenly realised where Maria and Louise were. So he needed to get down there.

I’ll be out soon,” the killer said. “Soon as I finish snooping through your wife’s underwear.”

“Don’t forget my daughter’s, you sick piece of shit. I’ll be waiting. Soon you’ll be nothing but a corpse out here, food for the foxes, minus a head. And a tiny remark in my black book of kills.”

He hated conversing with the man, but needed to keep him talking. Needed to keep him in that dining room, away from the kitchen, as far from the back garden as possible.

***

Einar clenched his fist hard around the receiver. Tricked? Played like a fool? Didn’t matter, so long as he was the one standing at the end of this. He listened hard to the sounds coming down the line, trying to force the voice into the background so the background came forward. He could hear the wind, but the rustle of the tree branches in that wind was lower now. He heard a car go past, but it was faint. But it wasn’t enough. He needed definitive proof.

“You’re no killer, Marsh,” he said. “Not the real sort. You take out idiots who never suspected it coming, then ride away on your little bike. Even those guys at the service station two days ago were amateurs. You have never gone up a man who’s even a fraction as skilled as me. This is what I do, have done for years. You’re in a world of trouble, Marsh, and you don’t even know why. Any idea why I’m after you? Have a little think?”

It worked. Marsh fell silent, and Einar concentrated hard on the sounds he could hear. Then he heard it. A car, louder and closer than the others. At first it wasn’t, and then it was, and then it wasn’t again, which told him that car was not on the main road. It was on the road leading off that came here. It had been behind Marsh, then alongside, and then past, which would not have happened if Marsh had been still in the trees. A car coming here could be a problem, but Einar wasn’t worried about that right now. Marsh was moving, sneaking closer. He would know Einar was in the dining room and might be moving around to put the dining room window in his sights.

Einar put the receiver on the floor carefully, no sound. He put his lips close.

“Think about what you did at your supermarket sixteen days ago.”

If something happened at the supermarket sixteen days ago, it had nothing to do with this, probably. Einar didn’t know, or care. What mattered was that he had sent Marsh’s memory back to search for a reason why he was being hunted, and that would give him time. Not much, maybe, but some. A little. And Einar was good enough to need only a little.

Quickly and quietly he crawled away from the phone. It was time to end this, finally.

***

Jimmy scoured his memory, but drew a blank. Sixteen days ago, he remembered, he had had an uneventful day at work. Office-based. Nothing that he could think would make someone want him dead. So he put his head back on the moment.

He moved left quickly as he saw the big people carrier belonging to the Carters whiz down the road. In a minute they’d be here, and that was either going to be good or bad. Either the killer would try to flee and try again another time, or he would try to harm the family so he could continue to hunt Jimmy right here, right now.

Jimmy stuck his phone in his pocket and rushed now. He kept the gun aimed at the side window in case the man calling himself Einar appeared there, but the barrel was wobbling as he ran and he knew he’d never get a good shot off. He didn’t need to. He reached the wall of the house without incident and slipped along it, then along the fence, which was high enough that he didn’t need to do more than slightly stoop to keep his head below the top. He reached the end, stepped into the scrubland, and moved along the back fence. It was lower and he had to duck right down. He stopped where the big tree in the garden bent its branches over the fence, then peered over.

No movement from the house. The treehouse was just two metres in front of him, and he could see through the plastic back windows. There they were, his wife and daughter, so close yet out of reach. He moved left another two feet so that he could see the back door. Open, but nobody there.

“Maria,” he called out in a loud whisper. He saw her stiffen, then turn. Saw her face, bent and lengthened by the warped plastic sheet over the window. The warping effect gave her a wild grin that he knew would not be real. She saw him and her face turned to shock. Not relief, which he might have expected, or wanted. Shock. The gun in his hands.

He took one hand away to waved, beckoning her to him.

Quickly they came. Maria slipped fast out of the treehouse, landed on her feet neatly, and reached up for Louise. Jimmy heard his daughter moan, saying she wanted to climb down herself. He saw Maria grab her impatiently by the legs and pull, dragging the girl out with a yelp. She kicked, bucked in her mother’s hands.

“Pass her to me,” Jimmy said. He let one hand release the gun, so he could reach for his daughter. That was when he saw a flash of movement at one of the upper windows in the cottage. The hand slapped back onto the stock, the rifle moved, the barrel raising.

And there he was, at the window, throwing it open, his own gun already aimed, just waiting for the glass to clear his shot. Jimmy fired. He heard both bangs and both men fired at the same time.

He felt wood splinter right by his ear as the killer’s bullet blew apart part of the fence. But he also watched as the glass in the upper window exploded, and the man behind it fell back.

And he saw blood splatter through the air.

***

Einar had rushed upstairs to try to find a spot in the front bedroom. He had stared out the window and watched the car he’d heard, a big people carrier, drive into the plot and park right outside the cottage next door. The doors opened and a million people spilled out. Then Einar was running again, knowing that Marsh would be headed round the back, away from these people. Of course, he could have run to them, seeking their help. But the man was a former Commando, and Einar didn’t think he’d endanger their lives. So through the house he ran, front to back, taking a bedroom door that delivered him into a bare room with a travel cot and pale wallpaper and nothing else. A hastily set-up baby’s room, probably courtesy of the landlord, knowing that holidaymakers or buyers might have kids.

He rushed to the window, his eyes already looking down and left, over the fence and into the grass beside the house. That was where he expected Marsh to appear. And that was when he caught the glint of light off something. His eyes went forward, towards the back of the garden, and his hand reached for the handle. He was opening the window even before he’d seen the wife and kid, climbing out of a goddamned treehouse. So that was where they’d hidden. It made him smile.

He raised his gun, aimed into the gap. He was staring through the window at an angle when he fired.

Then his gun exploded. The glass shattered and powered all over him, knocking his back hard, flat on his back. Pain went nuclear in his face.

Einar rolled and got to his knees, slapped a hand to his face and felt the valley in there. There was a deep furrow in his cheek almost from mouth to edge of jawbone. He was debating whether a piece of glass could have created so thick and deep a wound when his eyes laid on the back wall, at the centre of a Jackson Pollock of his own blood. His gun hadn’t exploded at all! He had been fucking shot! There was the hole in the wall created by the bullet.

He knew he’d been lucky. The open window had saved him. The angled glass must have deflected the bullet slightly, drawing it fractionally off a path that would have put his skull in sticky pieces all over the flowery yellow wallpaper.

Einar crawled out of the room. The blood was dripping onto his hands, onto the floor. He got to his feet once in the hallway and rushed into the neighbouring bedroom. This one was fully furnished. Laying a red trail across the pink carpet, he rushed low to the window and peeked out, just a forehead and eyes, and then he saw them.

Jimmy led the way, carrying his daughter, and carrying Einar’s weapon, and paced by his trim wife. They rushed through the scrubland beyond the fence, down the embankment, towards the river. So Marsh had rushed round the back, knowing his family hid in that treehouse. He had seen Einar at the window, and Einar had been too busy concentrating on the wife and kid to have noticed Marsh lurking right there at the back fence.

Einar threw the window wide, just like before, and raised his gun. His hand and the weapon were slick with his blood. But he had no shot. The sloping land sucked them slowly away below the fence like quicksand. By the time he had aimed his shot, they were just three bobbing heads, too far away to burst with a handgun.

He looked up and beyond. Across the river was the picnic area. He couldn’t hope to apprehend them on foot by following them across the river, but a vehicle could get him around and into that area quickly.

And Marsh’s helpful neighbours had just arrived home in a vehicle.

***

The river was slow and shallow and they got across easily. But it was cold, too. Maria was shivering when they got out. Jimmy hardly felt it. Louise, carried aloft, had wet shoes and socks and that was it. The rest of her dress was bone dry. She had giggled during the journey, telling her dad not to slip and wet them.

On the other side, they climbed out onto cut grass, which made the going quick. Jimmy hoisted Louise into his other arm and gave the weapon to his aching left. He turned and looked across the river, at the cottage. Only the busted top window belied its quaint and homely appearance.

“Now what?” Maria gasped, her face a mask of fear. She used a hand to turn Louise’s head away, telling her not to look at mummy just yet. Didn’t want her daughter to see mummy’s fear.

Jimmy looked at the trees that hid the main road. If they could get to the Audi, they could escape. The police car was out of action. He pointed at the trees, the effort of raising his arm and the gun monumental after carrying his daughter across the river.

They heard engines, coming closer. All three looked over at the entrance and watched as the two Baja buggies zipped in like houseflies. Mud sprayed up from under their wheels. Jimmy recognised the two teenage Carter boys by their thin arms and rock t-shirts, despite the fact that they wore helmets. He put Louise down and ran towards them, gun discarded, both arms waving.

The lead Baja skidded to a stop in front of him. The one behind slewed past, cut a sideways skid, and straightened up to fire into the picnic tables, zipping neatly between two rows. The driver then increased speed and took the Baja alongside the river. That would be Jon, then, the unsociable one.

Mark slipped off his visor and stared at the family. “What’s happening, yo?” he called out.

Jimmy heard another engine now, lower, not as much anger. A typical engine, in a typical vehicle. Too close to be from the main road. And there was only one vehicle here inside the Shield. He felt panic and horror rise within him. And dismay at what he was about to do.

He moved to the gun and picked it up. Mark’s face fell as Jimmy stepped forward and aimed it right at his face.

“Sorry, mate, but I need that buggy,” he said.

*

Einar quickly soaked a towel in the sink and rushed downstairs with the dripping item pressed against his face. He threw open the front door and darted out. A middle-aged couple was at the sliding side door of the people carrier, helping out an older pair. There was a younger man stood closer to him, staring at the Marsh cottage with a puzzled face, as if he’d heard the gunshots and knew exactly what they were. Einar strode out, aware now that the water dripping from the towel was stained pink.

“Did I hear a gun?” said the younger man as Einar approached him. He grew a more concerned look as Einar tossed aside the reddened towel to reveal his gashed face. And more so again when Einar raised his pistol.

“I’m taking that piece of shit car, so hurry on up and get away from it.”

Everybody froze.

“That’s the opposite of hurrying up,” Einar shouted. He was concentrating on not swearing, even though he was angry. Swearing diluted professionalism, he felt, even though the odd screamed obscenity could promote seriousness. “Today, today,” he yelled, waving the gun, watching as the fivesome now hurried. The younger man was firing questions while the others moved without a word. The silent four scuttled away towards their house. The other guy stood his ground.

“Just tell us what you need. We don’t want trouble.” He stepped forward, closing the gap between him and Einar to five feet.

“Maybe trouble would let me vent,” Einar said, and stepped forward with a head-butt that smashed the wannabe hero’s nose and dropped him like a man crushed from above. He rolled and moaned as Einar jumped into the driver’s seat, thinking that he’d been right: he did feel a lot better now he’d put that guy down. He had to wipe his bloody hand on his bloody suit in order to grip and turn the key. The engine fired up and he spun the vehicle. Tried a turning skid, but the engine didn’t allow it. God, he missed the Audi. Einar got the vehicle aimed back towards and exit and stomped the accelerator, and without a wheelspin the people carrier urged forward with impatience far short of his own.

***

Holding the gun on Mark, Jimmy helped Maria into the seat. She clearly didn’t want to do this, but he urged her, telling her they could not escape on foot. Louise was deposited in her lap, then Jimmy climbed behind her, his ass on top of the backrest, legs jammed between the doors and Maria’s sides.

“Man, that’s just dangerous,” Mark said. He didn’t seem that bothered by the fact that his new neighbours, people they’d laughed and joked with at a barbeque the night before, were stealing his prized buggy. Beyond him, the other Baja was coming in, the driver now having realised something was amiss.

“I’ll be careful with your baby,” Jimmy said.

“Watch the brakes, they’re mean. So what the hell’s going on?”

“You two get the hell out of here. There’s a bad man coming. Run, now.”

During this conversation, Maria was talking, telling him she didn’t know how to drive such a vehicle. Now, Jimmy told her she’d be fine, it was an automatic, don’t worry.

The other Baja churned mud and stopped. Jon jumped out and removed his helmet. “What the fuck, Mark?”

Maria stomped the accelerator and the buggy leaped like a bullet. She yelped. Jimmy was almost thrown off the back and lost the gun. The Baja built speed quickly, which made Maria moan and Louise laugh.

Ahead of them, the people carrier turned into the field. The headlights came on, full-beam. The vehicle aimed right for them.

Jimmy leaned forward and took the wheel. He kept it straight when Maria tried to turn, then at the last moment flicked it left, then right. Sensing the left, the people carrier veered to its right, Einar obviously planning a collision that would fare better for the bigger, heavier vehicle. It could not turn left quickly enough once the driver had realised Jimmy’s tactic, and the Baja blew alongside, three feet between them. He saw Einar’s angry face and then they were past and racing towards the exit.

***

Einar didn’t stop. He drove on, towards the two lanky boys who’d been piloting the buggies. One was stood next to his own buggy, but the other, the one who’d presumably given his up to the fleeing family, rushed forward and picked up the rifle Marsh had dropped. He turned and showed it to his pal, then spun to face the oncoming vehicle again. He started waving.

Einar pretended to drive alongside, slowing down, then with just feet to go spun the wheel left, turning into the kid. The kid dropped the gun and put up both hands, as if believing he could stop the vehicle like Superman. He didn’t. The people carrier struck him and he went sailing, tumbling past the other buggy. After that he lay still, bleeding from his face. The guy next to the buggy screamed and ran to him.

Einar got out and rushed to the buggy, noting that the engine was running. The other kid threw his helmet at Einar but missed. Then he was running at him, screaming about his brother, about his mum and dad. Einar raised his gun, but knew a simple threat would not suffice here. The kid was far too angry for that.

So Einar said, “Your sleeping with hot young blondes countdown has reached zero,” and fired a bullet right into the kid’s groin. Down he went, bloody and screaming. Smiling at his own piece of improvisation, Einar grabbed his gun from the ground and hopped into the buggy.

He was still smiling as he tore out of there. Here was some much-needed excitement. Who would have thought such fun could be had on a job, and way out in the middle of nowhere?

***

Maria drove out of the shield and wanted to turn left, to head at least in the direction of London, but Jimmy grabbed the wheel and yanked it to the right.

“We have to lose ourselves,” he shouted over the roaring engine.

They drove down the main road until the first turn, a left that took them along a single lane with frequent passing places. High hedges hemmed them in. Jimmy told Maria to turn one of the wing mirrors so he could see the road behind. They were travelling at almost fifty miles an hour, but were forced to slow down when the lane rounded a bend and they came upon a tractor hogging the entire width of the tarmac.

“Get off if you can,” he called out.

As if by magic, a gate appeared in the right-hand hedge. It was wide open and the tractor turned in. The Baja followed, then cut alongside and overtook. Jimmy heard the tractor’s driver shout something at them, but the drone of the two engines smothered his words.

They were in a field of vegetables. Long rows of green were separated by paths of dirt. The Baja rode with its wheels on the dirt, long green stalks whipping by beneath the chassis, the bumper slicing them, sending juice and shredded leaves up and into their faces. The dirt was hard, and even the Baja’s flexible suspension couldn’t stop the ride from becoming a jarring experience.

“We can’t just drive forever,” Maria moaned. Her foot slipped from the accelerator and the buggy started to slow.

“Not here,” Jimmy called out. He pointed. “Behind that.” She looked. There was a backhoe over to the left, next to a big, square hole that looked like the beginnings of someone’s plan to build a small farmhouse or other building. Maria turned the wheel and the Baja approached the backhoe. The square hole, some ten metres across, had smooth sides lined with wooden planks and various hand tools scattered within. There was even a small foldaway table with a newspaper held in place by tea mugs. But nobody was around. Maria drove the buggy into the small space between the backhoe and the hole and stopped.

“Turn the engine off,” Jimmy said as he climbed off. He approached the backhoe and stared under the curled boom, watching the gateway.

“He could come from the other side and see us sitting here,” Maria said.

Jimmy ignored the remark. He watched the gate, aware that he could hear the other Baja some way off. He was regretting having taken the first exit. He would expect such a tactic from someone he was pursuing. To take immediate turns in the hope of getting out of sight and getting lost.

The tractor had stopped just inside the field and the driver was walking towards the gate. He was shutting it when Jimmy saw something red flash by the gap in the hedge. He saw the farmer raise a hand, as if waving.

Einar.

But then the buggy was past. And gone. Jimmy knelt in the dirt and continued to watch, but now he relaxed. There was nothing out here, but in a sense, with all the minor roads and fields, a person could lose themselves from a pursuer just as easily as in a bustling city like London.

“He’s gone,” Jimmy called out.

***

Einar loved the feel of the wind in his hair, but not on his face. At first the wind stole the terrible heat away, Then the air rushing over his skin turned colder, and finally started to burn. It chilled the blood soaking his jacket and shirt, and he started to shiver. Periodically he put a hand to his wound and wiped away the blood, but he had to then wipe his hand on his trouser leg so the blood wouldn’t cause the steering wheel to slip in his grasp. In all, not a very pleasant drive out in the country.

He found the main road and turned right, figuring Marsh wouldn’t head back towards London. Then a left came up and he took that, because the main road stretched ahead and made disappearing harder. Fleeing someone, you wanted corners and turns in order to stay out of sight, maximise the chances of losing them.

The single lane curved left, and up ahead curved right. But he couldn’t hear another engine and started to worry that they’d taken the left turn on the main road after all, or had gone straight on past this lane. Then he blew past a gate that some rugged farmer was closing. The guy gave him the middle finger and shouted something. Despite the man’s beard, Einar was able to read his lips:

YOU IDIOTS BETTER PISS OFF

Then he was past, and slamming on the brakes, turning, coming back. Idiots, as in plural. Clearly someone else in a buggy had pissed this guy off.

Einar turned off the lane and rammed the gate hard enough to knock it back into the farmer, who staggered away. He pushed against the gate again and watched it swing open. Once there was enough space to power the buggy through, Einar leapt into the field and left the farmer behind, yelling insults again.

***

Yellow Baja emerged from behind the backhoe with a whine and a spin of all four wheels. Veering left and right until it found traction, it zipped towards a dirt path separating the vegetable field from an expanse of bright yellow rapeseed. It hit the edge of the path and sailed over, submerging itself in the rapeseed and cutting a swath like clippers through blonde hair.

Red Baja followed the same path but cut the swath wider. When Yellow Baja turned sharply, Red Baja powered on a few metres before turning also.

The rapeseed continued on the other side of a river breached by a beam bridge barely wider than the buggies. Yellow Baja rattled across and onto the other side. Red Baja kept pace. Then they were into the rapeseed again.

Ahead was a dry stone wall the colour of diarrhoea. Portions had slipped and cascaded, but not enough to create any sort of ramp. Yellow Baja turned alongside, keeping parallel and hotly followed by Red Baja. Loose rocks that slipped under Yellow Baja’s wheels flipped up and struck the chassis of Red Baja, forcing the driver to veer outwards and take a more distant path from the wall. The rapeseed ended when the land rose in a steep, scrubby hill terminating at a wooden post and rail fence. Yellow Baja cut through easily, sending broken planks flying into the two-lane road beyond.

The driver spun the wheel, finding the lane right in front of a coach with ANDERS TRAVEL on the side and a host of gawping faces at the windows. The driver of the coach blared his horn as his vehicle almost hit the rear of the buggy, before the smaller vehicle started to pull away.

Red Baja emerged onto the road directly behind the coach, brakes screaming. A car behind the coach hit its own brakes, but too late. The Volvo struck the buggy hard enough to slap it sideways, tearing one of the back types right off the rim as the buggy scraped along the tarmac. Red Baja darted forward and tried a sharp turn to continue the pursuit, but the tyreless wheel threw up sparks and the buggy slewed a semi-circle and stalled with its nose pointing back the way it had come. The driver slapped the wheel and cursed.

***

They made another series of turns and were zipping along a single lane road flanked by high hedges when Louise started complained about the noise of the engine. Maria stopped the buggy and mother and daughter climbed out.

“We’ll walk,” Maria said. She was still shaken up. So was Jimmy. Only Louise, who didn’t understand the danger, seemed okay. To her it was a day out and she was enjoying it.

The road they were on had no turns, no junctions, no forks. If the killer came at them in a vehicle, they were going to be trapped. He didn’t want to abandon the buggy and said so.

Maria just shook her head.

Jimmy peeled away, yanked the wheel left and drove hard into a the hedge, forcing the buggy right through and into a ploughed field. He got out, ready to head back through and onto the road, when he spotted something across the field. Beyond the tall hedge at the other end were the tops of a number of small buildings. A village. Villages were scattered around here.

“This way,” he shouted. Maria looked through the gap in the hedge, saw what he was pointing at. “And we need to stay off the road.”

They trudged over the turned soil. Louise kept herself entertained by trying to stay within her father’s footsteps, and he made the game exciting by taking big strides and veering left and right. Maria walked alongside, arms folded. She was suffering, he knew. He would make it up to her somehow.

They found a gate in the hedge and passed through, onto a main road that ran away to the left and right, fields both sides of them. But dead ahead a street leading off the main road led to the village. There was a small wooden church, a long, low building containing four shops, and a community centre, and further down a cluster of small houses made to look quainter by thatched roofs. Quickly they went down this side street, past the shops and church, towards the houses.

One of the houses had a sign above the door that said RED LION INN. A guy in a shirt and trousers sat on the front step, smoking. He stood as they approached, and his face lit up. Finally, people who might actually want to hire a room.

Jimmy spun him a story. They needed a room for one night because they had gotten off the train at the wrong stop and a car was being delivered in the morning. The landlord started to enquire about which station they’d gotten off at, but Jimmy thrust fifty pounds into his hands and said they needed a sit down and a meal. The guy stuffed the money in his pocket and half an hour later placed plates of pie and chips in front of them. They sat in a living room that the landlord had shoehorned a long dining table into. When the landlord left them alone to eat, Jimmy and Maria leaned close to whisper. Louise was busy racing condiment containers around the table, perhaps reliving the buggy chase.

“I can’t take much more of this, Jimmy. We need to tell the police.”

He shook his head. He had already told her the truth about himself. There was no need to pretend any more.

“The police will find out about me, Maria. Louise will be visiting me in prison. I’ll still be there when she’s driving down in her own car.”

“It might not be like that. They might not know. They would know already, if they were going to. We can’t go on like this. I can’t go on like this, Jimmy. And what kind of life is it for Louise, on the run from someone all the time.”

He understood. Maria’s home life had been ripped apart. He was used to deadly situations, fearing for his life, worrying about imprisonment. She was not. This kind of tense atmosphere was something his mind took to easily. Hers, not.

“I promise we’ll sort this out soon. Well stay here tonight and go back to London tomorrow. And I’ll go to the police and they’ll protect us.”

She thought about this then nodded. But he had no intention of going to the police. He was going to finish this himself. He just needed a plan, an idea.

Satisfied, at least partially, Maria started to eat. Jimmy ate, too. Louise tried to splash ketchup onto her chips and got it all over her hand. She faked a noise of pain, saying she’d been cut. Maria managed a laugh, not completely forced, and helped her clean it off.

Jimmy stared at the ketchup, at her hand, and the first sparks of an idea came to him. They ate, and he thought. When the landlord came in a few moments later, something in Jimmy’s mind almost clicked as the final slice of a plan slotted into place.

“Gotta pop to Filmwell to stock up for you guys. Got nothing in. Me and Albert, shop over road, had a fall out, so I don’t shop with him. Guys need anything?”

Maria shook her head. Louise asked for chocolate. Jimmy said, “A Polaroid camera. Think you can get one?”

The landlord said, “Instant ones? I got me one of those. In the attic, I think. The ex-wife, she bought it, didn’t trust shop people, saying they laugh at people’s photos, and keep copies. I’ll get that for you. Hunt it out if it’s there. Anything else.”

Jimmy shook his head. He was aware of Maria staring at him, but he didn’t look back at her. He was still staring at the outfit now worn by the landlord.

Biker leathers.

***

Einar bought yet another goddamned ticket for a flight out of the same goddamned airport. This time he chose a flight that gave him six hours to wait, so he could take care of a final piece of business. He drove fast through the crowded London traffic, garnering a number of honks and rude gestures. It was a wise choice of God’s, he thought, to not give humans the power to kill by thought alone. In his current mood, he’d be the last man left on earth before long. His face hurt like hell, and so did his pride. Outwitted again. It was turning into a joke, the way Marsh kept appearing at the last minute to foil his plans. But the anger towards the man, while bloated, didn’t match his desire to get out of this country. He was leaving this evening and nothing was going to stop that. If he was at the departure lounge and he saw the entire Marsh family walk by him, he wasn’t going to do a thing. He was going to write this job off and stay in that bloody queue and get on that bloody plane and land in bloody Nice three hours later and find someone to fuck and then grab a beer and settle down to enjoy the view of the Colline du Chateau from his balcony. And be content knowing that Marsh was living here in this polluted hell called London and stuck in traffic like this!

Despite his ruined suit and gored face, Einar had managed to thumb a lift way out there in the middle of nowhere. That got him all the way to Sevenoaks, where the driver worked in a cafe at Knole House, some fifteen century country manor she rambled on about constantly. Oh well, she liked her job. In Sevenoaks Einar stole a plumber’s Ford Connect van and abandoned it at Knightsbridge, where he knew of a doctor who didn’t mind treating the sort of people his kind were under obligation to report to the police. The NHS wouldn’t pay for the twenty-eight stitches he needed to fix his face, so Einar tossed the guy a thousand pounds. Literally tossed: across the room the moment he stepped into the surgery. Two hours later he was out, his face purple and swelled like a blowfish’s, his pocket full of Ibuprofen, his mind full of hate and wrath. He looked like a monster and he knew it. He also knew that he was a tinderbox waiting to explode, and traffic like this wasn’t helping.

His next task was another car. A second-hand place wrapped in rusty chain-link fencing had a fifteen year-old BMW Five-Series sitting in the lot at £1999, but the guy in the office was a stickler for paperwork. Einar showed him £2500 in hard cash, and suddenly the guy wasn’t such a stickler any more. Einar slammed the wad of money onto the guy’s desk and caught a key in return. The car had tax and petrol and Einar was insured to drive any vehicle under his Peter Ackers persona, so he was good to go.

Next he had rented a cheap Bed and Breakfast room and settled down, without settling. He cleaned his pistol, he watched the B&W TV, and he paced up and down. He was tempted to go and burn Marsh’s house and workplace to the ground, but knew that would achieve nothing. So he rode out the night, tried to get his mind off James Marsh and where he might be hiding with his family, and finally slept. Friday morning he woke to find he had tossed and turned in the night and loosened the bandage and a few stitches, and blood had stuck his face to the pillow. That should have set the tinderbox alight, but he saw the funny side of it and calmed down. Peeled away the pillow, which felt strangely nice as it sucked at his face, then showered, dressed in a pale suit he had bought en route to the B&B, replaced the bandage and applied concealer to the parts of his face that looked like a tomato. He stayed calm until the painkillers started to wear off. There were periods of calm after that – as he went for breakfast and thought about what to do today – but mostly there was simmering rage, and again, this bloody traffic wasn’t helping.

He rammed his horn. A guy in the car in front, who’d stopped to pick up someone he recognised at a bus stop, got out and stood by his door and threw his arms wide as if to say, What?

Einar wound down his window and stuck his arm out. He showed the guy his butterfly knife. Flicked it open right in front of him with a magician’s flair. He might as well have cocked a gun. The guy sharply got back in his car.

Once traffic was moving at a decent speed again, Einar yanked his mobile and dialled a recent number. The call went to voicemail and a mechanical lady asked him to leave a message.

“Something has come up and I must leave the country. The job is, unfortunately, unfulfilled. But you owe me for Chopper and my time. I’ll let you decide on a fair amount. And no lockers this time. I want a face-to face. Call me back the moment you get this.”

Einar hung up and drove in search of a cafe. He sat outside, close to a wall, keeping the injured side of his face facing the brickwork so as few people as possible could see the thick bandage. Goddamned James Marsh. Einar knew he’d have a lifelong scar, but that wasn’t what bothered him right now. The bandage was. It drew attention. He’d probably already showed his face to a million CCTV cameras in this heavily watched city, and now he was wearing something that made him stand out to everyone else. It was making him paranoid. He couldn’t shake the feeling that things were going to go bad for him, soon. The police were out there, tying things together, closing in on him. He’d done a million things wrong today, taken a billion risks. Showing his face at Marsh’s workplace, letting the receptionist at the service station hotel live, abandoning the Audi on a main road with his gear in the back – these and a host of others, any single one of which might end this for him. His face and DNA were not in any databanks anywhere in the world, and he was in this country under one of many aliases, but if he got arrested, the evidence would be there. Because of those risks and mistakes. He had been in this game for over a decade and never before put a foot wrong. Nobody who mattered had seen his face, he’d left no prints, and he was never in a place for more than a day or two. Sixteen professional kills and he was still a ghost. Until now. Was he losing his skills? Was his target so good that he was forcing Einar to make mistakes? Did Einar just not care anymore? Was Fate deciding that it was time for him to pay for his crimes with a long prison sentence?

If the police swooped right now, he could probably handle that. But arrest would sting more the closer he got to getting out of here. If they descended on him while he was boarding his plane, or when he got off at the other end, well, that would just about finish him off. Instant insanity. They’d cart away a blubbering wreck.

He smiled and sipped his latte. That wasn’t going to happen. Despite the risks he was taking, despite playing out-of-character, he was still good at being invisible. The police knew nothing. They might get hold of a decent description from one of the many people he’d showed his face to, but hey -

His phone rang.

“Why would you want to meet me, Einar?” the Paymaster said. There was a hint of concern in his voice, as if he feared Einar were plotting against him.

“I just want to meet the man paying me. I always meet the people I work for. I might need to remember your face in future, if things go wrong for me. And I want to meet at a place you work at or own.”

Employers were people who knew things about Einar. Never much, probably not enough to cause any damage, but you never knew. So it helped to know about them, too. A face and a place to commit to memory.

A pause. “Of course, Einar. But you can trust me, I promise you.” He gave a location and Einar picked a time. Four p.m., so he could get to the airport for his five o’clock flight.

He ordered another drink and a meal and tried to calm down. But his sliced face wouldn’t stop stinging.

***

Jimmy parked the van in the building’s underground car park. He went into the back and knelt next to the guy tied up and gagged and laying amongst his own parcels.

“I’m leaving now and I won’t be back. You’re safe. You’re still in London. I’ll phone the police and tell them where you are. You’ll be free in an hour and then you’ll get a couple of weeks off on full pay for emotional distress.”

The guy nodded, his eyes full of fear.

Jimmy exited the DHL van. He was wearing the delivery driver’s brown outfit and cap. He locked the van and tossed the keys on the roof. He scanned the area. Nobody seemed to be around. It was half-past four.

Seventy minutes earlier he had been on an industrial estate three miles away, having spotted and followed the van. The driver got out and took a parcel to into a building. He came back two minutes later and got in the van, only to have Jimmy rise up from the back and press the potato peeler he’d stolen into his neck.

“Drive to the end and stop.”

At the end of the road was a turnaround. Jimmy made the driver strip, then tied him with masking tape ripped off some of the parcels on the shelves. He put the driver’s outfit on and drove away.

Now, he exited the underground car park, carrying a small package, went across the road and turned to face the tall building.

The Chalet Tower, in the business district of Canary Wharf, was modern looking in glass and steel but bland and forgettable amongst the edifices surrounding it, especially the 42-floor HSBC tower that cast an early evening shadow across it, as if to tell workers it was almost clocking out time. Jimmy had already checked the building out online while researching the name that Davey had given him. The ground floor was a restaurant with a high roof that occupied three storeys, so the building proper started at floor four. The next thirteen floors were occupied by businesses. Jimmy wanted floor nine: Dalisay Foodstuff Co.

DFC, he’d read, was a Philippine supplier of tinned fruits with a London office. He vaguely recognised the name. Davey had told Jimmy that the man who approached him worked for DFC as some sort of clerk. Some guy Davey knew through a five-a-side football team that played every few Sundays. So here he was.

Jimmy didn’t know what connected him to some international food company, but whatever it was, it was enough for someone, maybe someone up there right now, to want him dead. He didn’t know who – the clerk was just a go-between lackey, according to Davey – but figured the guy had to sit high up the ladder to have the sort of clout and money needed to find and secure the services of a hitman like Einar. According to a companies index he’d scoured on the Internet, DFC’s London Office’s Export Manager was one Victor Hartbauer. In an import/export business, Export Manager had to be a pretty high rung. So Victor would do.

Jimmy approached the entrance, a pair of glass doors with the companies’ names printed on them. The foot traffic was heavy and that was good. Jimmy joined the throng entering the building. Most went ahead and through another set of doors into the restaurant, while Jimmy cut left and made for the lifts. There was a camera above each, but he kept his head low. In his cap and brown outfit, and carrying a parcel, he knew he would not look out of place. Just some delivery guy delivering. Happened a thousand times a day in a thousand other businesses that also recorded it on camera. So long as he didn’t go in there and slit ten throats, no one would review the camera footage and no one would remember him.

As he waited for the lift to descend, he clutched the package in his hand. Passers-by might think he was delivering a wrapped CD, but it wasn’t a CD. It was a Polaroid photograph with a phone number written on it.

The landlord of the Red Lion Inn had found his old camera in the attic and gotten it working. Jimmy had thanked him, then asked for one more favour. Could he borrow the man’s biker jacket and helmet for five minutes? While the landlord had suspiciously gone off to fetch both, Jimmy had nipped into the dining room and slipped the jar of tomato ketchup into his pocket. Two minutes later he was upstairs, and outlining his plan to Maria, whose face was one of shock. But she accepted that his plan might work, and took the helmet and jacket from him and put them on. Then Jimmy sent Louise into the bathroom to use the toilet, even though she protested that she didn’t need to go. He closed the bedroom door and extracted the ketchup from his pocket. Six minutes later he exited and used the shower. When he returned to the bedroom, Maria was still sitting on the bed where he had left her. Still staring at the product of his plan.

A single photograph. Now, he clutched that photograph hard in his hands, as if fearful that a sharp breeze might snatch it away. It was just paper and ink, but it held – he hoped – the end of his problems.

The lift arrived and Jimmy stepped on, squeezing between two women in suits who got off chattering. He leaned against the mirrored back wall after pressing the button for floor nine. The doors started to close, and then opened again as a caramel-coloured hand at the end of a pale suit darted in and activated the proximity sensor.

Jimmy stiffened as the doors slid apart to reveal Einar.

***

Jimmy put his head low as Einar entered the tiny confines of the lift. Einar also turned his head, and raised a hand to cover the bandage on his face where Jimmy had slashed him. Both men faced away from each other, didn’t speak as the lift rode upwards.

Jimmy thought about taking him out. Einar was slightly ahead, to his right. Jimmy could pull out a pen and drive it hard into Einar’s neck. But he didn’t fancy his chances of escaping the building afterwards. And such an action wouldn’t exactly convince Victor Hartbauer, if he was the paymaster, to give up his hunt for Jimmy.

The lift stopped on floor nine and Einar stepped out. Jimmy fell into step behind him as they walked down an ornate corridor with a blue carpet and framed canvases on the walls. If not for the marring effect of fire extinguishers placed at intervals, you could almost believe you’d been whisked back in time a hundred years.

Einar stopped at the double doors at the end. A plaque held the name of the company, and the Export Manager’s name below. He turned slightly, noting that the guy in the DHL uniform had also stopped. Jimmy kept his head at such an angle that he could see Einar’s chin from under his cap’s peak but nothing above. Enough to let him know what the man was doing, without exposing his own face.

“You want this room?” Einar said.

“Uh-hu,” Jimmy grunted. Einar held out a hand. “I’ll take it in.”

Jimmy paused. Perfect, because he didn’t really want to go in there, in case someone saw his face and realised the truth. So he slapped the little package into the other man’s hand, grumbled a “Cheers,” and turned to leave. At the lift, he turned back. Einar had his back to him. Hadn’t suspected a thing. The double doors opened and Einar went in. And Jimmy rode the lift down, hoping that he had set rolling the wheel that would bring all this to an end.

***

Einar left the timely decor of the corridor and stepped into a clinical waiting room. There was a steel desk with a computer and a fax machine and a plump woman behind, typing away. She had her coat on, her bag slung over a shoulder, as if about to leave for the day. The floor was fake wood, the walls shiny blue. There was another door, framed by tall plastic plants in pots like sentries. And a black leather sofa with some woman’s magazine on each arm. Very business-like. Very uncomfortable. He wouldn’t want to be a job applicant waiting out here for his moment in that next room with the boss.

The woman looked up as Einar approached. She kept her face neutral, but he saw the shock in her eyes at the sight of his bandage and puffed cheek. She didn’t stop typing as she said, “Our office is closing soon. Can I help?”

“I would imagine so, being the receptionist and all,” Einar said. “Mr. Hartbauer’s expecting me.”

“Well, he’s going home soon, too. What time was your appointment?”

“Soon as I got here. Tell him Einar is here.” He tossed the package on the desk. “That’s his.”

His tone made her move quickly. He sat on the sofa and waited. He had patience at the moment, but only because his flight wasn’t for another hour or so. He looked at a calendar on the wall and noted that some of the dates in later months were circled. How he would hate to have a normal job, knowing you were going to be in the same place day after day, using the same toilet, doing the same routines. He felt sorry for the receptionist.

He opened a magazine and tried to find a story of interest, but page after page seemed to be full adverts for hair products and other women’s things. He tossed the magazine down and sat back. Tried to empty his mind, but all that did was focus his brain on the throb from his ruined face.

***

Victor Hartbauer was vastly overweight and part of the reason was a chocolate bar vending machine right there in his office. There was that, his big wooden desk with a phone and computer, a file cabinet, and a large whiteboard filled with scrawls, and that was it. When his secretary entered, he was behind the desk with his coat on, facing a young man in a suit on the other side. This guy was a personal assistant named Jeremy, who would have worked part time for any typical boss. But Victor was a lazy man and the extra hours Jeremy put in were mostly spent running around like a dogsbody. He was also a bodyguard who had once been a firearms officer with S019 and knew how to use the gun in a holster at his chest.

The secretary handed over the package and told him Einar was here. Both men perked up, even though they were expecting him. Victor hit keys on his computer. Jeremy came around and both men stared at the feed from a security camera in reception, which showed Einar on the sofa. Victor usually used it simply to spy on his receptionist because he was a people watcher. Finally it had been put to a real use.

Both men stared at Einar. Victor had heard a description of the contract killer but never seen him before, and he was surprised. He’d expected a mountain of a man with cold eyes and the demeanour of a robot. But this guy was just lounging back, looking around the room. Like a regular guy. And he could be hurt like a regular guy, as the thick bandage on his face proved. In that moment, Victor no longer feared him.

Victor ushered the secretary away with an order to send Einar in. He told Jeremy to stand behind him, like a die-hard bodyguard, just to show Einar that Victor was a serious man. Then he ripped open the package and pulled out the photo.

“Stop,” he called out. His secretary turned to him, her hand already reaching for the door handle.

“Tell him to wait. Five minutes. Then send him in.”

She left. Victor showed Jeremy the photo. Jeremy smiled.

Victor got up and went to another door, through and into a small bathroom. He closed the door and pulled his mobile and dialled the number on the photo. As it rang, he stared at the photo, grinning.

The call was answered by a man who said, “Hello?”

“Are you Chopper?”

“I am.”

“Then congratulations.”

The photo was of James Marsh, the man he had ordered killed a few days ago. He lay on a carpet, on his back. There was blood all over his neck and his shirt. His eyes were closed as if asleep, but the man’s face was a mask of pain and terror.

And beside him, just jacketed shoulders and half a helmet in the shot, was Chopper, arm extended to hold the camera.

***

Jimmy was in the recessed doorway of a solicitors’ practice near the Chalet Tower, phone to his ear, peeking out at the tall building in case anyone was sent in pursuit of the man who delivered the package. He saw no one.

“The job is done. So you owe me money,” he said into the phone.

The man on the other end said, “Yes, I do. And it shall happily be yours. I can have it in place tonight for you. But you threatened me for fifty thousand, and the agreement was for twenty. That is still the amount I will pay.”

“I did not threaten you. It was someone else. Someone who can’t threaten anyone again, let’s put it that way.”

“And leave it. Certainly. So twenty thousand is the fee. I can have it in place tonight.” He gave Jimmy a postcode. “Do I need to remind you about keeping your silence?”

Jimmy ignored the question. “Why did you want Marsh dead? If you don’t mind my asking?”

The man laughed. “That would be telling. Let’s just say he was in the way. And now they’re both out of the way and I have what I want, you get what you want.”

Jimmy heard his phone beep. The battery, about to die. “Then our business is done. Just so you know, I am now out of the game. Do not contact me again.”

“Nor you me. Forget me, I forget you. A pleasure, Mr. Chopper.”

Jimmy hung up. A moment later, his phone beeped again and died. Battery gone. Maria had showed great forethought in pausing to rescue their new phones while escaping from the hotel room back at the service station, but now he cursed her for neglecting the chargers. He slotted the device away, thinking.

Could that be it? All over? Einar would surely be off the job now, and the man who wanted Jimmy dead thought he was. It seemed too good to be true. Of course, things weren’t back to normal. He couldn’t go back to work, couldn’t regain his old life. They would have to move somewhere far away and start over, just in case Hartbauer discovered the truth. He might have to fake his own death for the authorities. Maria and Louise would have to go along with that. There might be all sorts of problems ahead. But for now, he seemed to be in the clear.

And there would soon be a twenty grand payoff as the icing on the cake.

***

Einar never got to see Victor Hartbauer. A young man exited the office about ten minutes later and told him the boss would see him on the thirteenth floor. Einar stood and left the room. At this point he was already suspicious. When he exited the lift and stepped out into an empty office space under construction with half-finished dry walls and plastic all over the floor and tools everywhere, he knew there was a problem. There were a pair of plastic garden chairs in an empty space right before him, a foldaway table between them.

To his left was a dry wall with a doorless doorway. He rushed through. To the right a corridor ran away, but to the left the space was turned into a sort of wide alcove created by the wall and a row of pallets containing big bags of builders’ material of some sort. The there was a door in the back wall. He used the barrel of his Bersa to punch a small hole in the dry wall, which he put his eye to.

Eleven minutes elapsed before he heard the ping of the lift. From this angle he couldn’t see the lift doors, so when two men stepped out, it was as if they emerged from a blank wall. They wore jeans and black bomber jackets, and both had shaved heads. They looked like nightclub doormen, but each man carried a pistol. They emerged slowly, guns aimed ahead, eyes scanning the room. Instantly he could see the concern on their faces. The table and chairs. They had been placed so that Einar would assume his chat with Hartbauer would take place there. He would sit and relax, and be unprepared when the lift doors opened to emit, not the businessman but men with guns.

Change of plan.

The men split up to go around it the half-finished office. One went to the right, away from Einar, while the other came his way. Einar pulled his eye from the hole in the wall as the man moved out of range. Einar felt the dry wall move slightly and knew the guy was leaning up against it. So he could stare through the doorway at an angle to see if there was a threat down the corridor. Too dangerous to just step through, because then he would be open to his left and right.

Einar moved away, towards the back wall. He knelt, then lay on his front. And aimed his gun.

The man slipped quickly around the edge of the dry wall, turning towards Einar to aim his gun into the single blind spot he hadn’t yet covered.

The guy knew someone could be in that blind spot, but he hadn’t fully expected it, so Einar’s presence there threw his brain off a jot. Maybe only enough to delay his reactions a fragment of a second. But enough to put him second in this game.

He was good, though, because he managed to fire a nanosecond after Einar let off a shot. But Einar was already aiming right at the man’s torso, while the other guy had his gun aimed too high to hit a guy laying on the floor. Einar heard the thud of a bullet hitting the wall behind him even as he heard the wet slap of his own round taking the guy in the chest.

The impact took away his legs, dropping him onto his ass. The gun arm was still out straight, so now he was aiming right at Einar’s head. Einar lowered his gun and fired, and closed his eyes against a return shot he knew the guy might get off even if Einar landed first. But no shot came. When he opened his eyes, he saw the guy laying on his back, blood sprayed across the floor behind his head, which was half gone. Einar bit his tongue in anger. He had basically had the drop on this guy and shouldn’t have been anywhere near danger, yet he’d needed some luck here.

No time to dwell, though. Three shots fired, all heard by the other guy. No shout, which proved the remaining gunman was also professional. Einar heard footsteps running. Two seconds, then nothing. The guy had found somewhere to hole up and wait, because he knew his pal was dead. Knew it, if he knew anything about the guy he’d been sent to kill.

Einar would have enjoyed a long game. The stalk then the kill. But he was on a clock here, because he knew there was no way Victor Hartbauer would hang around in his office, waiting for news of Einar’s death. He would be waiting to die himself, if something went wrong. So Einar turned towards the door and pushed through, into a stairwell. He knew he had to catch Hartbauer before the guy left the building. It was a shame to leave an enemy alive, but he took some consolation that the other gunman would be hiding and waiting a long time, fearful to move in case he stepped into the path of a bullet. Einar could always come back in a couple of years, see if he found a skeleton curled in a corner that the builders had missed.

Einar took the stairs to the floor below then rode the lift to the car park and rushed out quick and low. There were only a few cars present, most of the office workers having left for home. A white Mercedes turned towards the exit and stopped at the barrier. Einar rushed over and yanked the passenger door. It was locked. Through the window he saw a fat man in his fifties, staring with shock that dripped with recognition, too. Victor Hartbauer for sure.

Einar smashed the window with his gun and stuck it through the hole. He didn’t say a word. Hartbauer held up his hands, one of them holding the ticket that would release the barrier.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Hartbauer moaned. “You lied and you tricked me. You would have done the same.” He blabbered that final sentence again, and a third time, and seemed ready for a chorus when Einar told him to shut up.

“What trickery?”

Hartbauer reached for something on the passenger seat, covered in broken glass. Einar snatched it off him. He saw the photograph displaying Chopper next to James Marsh’s corpse. And understood. He ordered Hartbauer to unlock the doors, then got in and instructed him to reverse and find a dark spot.

Once the car was hidden, Einar said, “So you ordered me killed because you thought I lied about killing Chopper?”

Hartbauer nodded quickly.

“I don’t suppose I can blame you for that. Call him.”

“Who?”

Einar tapped the man’s head twice with his pistol. “Don’t let terror make you docile, Mr. Hartbauer. Who have we just been talking about?”

“Chopper.”

“There we go. You’re going to call him and cancel whatever payment I assume you made when you called the number he wrote on this photograph. You’re going to tell him that the payment must be in person. Tomorrow morning. I’m too tired for this tonight. I was supposed to catch another plane, you know. You people keep making me pay the airlines for nothing. Or rather, you keep paying the airlines for nothing.”

Hartbauer was staring at him. Einar realised he must sound strange. “Anyway, call Chopper and arrange a meet tomorrow. There’s a nice spot I know, should be empty on a Saturday. Arrange to meet him there with his money. Pull out your phone and do it now, please. Here’s the postcode.” He reeled it off.

Hartbauer was getting more puzzled. He didn’t even look scared any longer, just bewildered. “You want me to call Chopper? Why?”

“Because you like to kill people who try to trick you.” He waited, watching the man’s face crease in puzzlement some more. Then added: “Let me tell you a little secret about James Marsh and Chopper.”

***

Jimmy had made a promise to himself that he would never commit another crime from now on. He would live a free and law-abiding life. Starting when he got back to the Red Lion Inn, because he wasn’t about to walk back there from London.

He dumped the stolen car in a field a mile away and strolled the rest of the way. It was past six, starting to get dark, but he found the wind cool and the open land calming. Some calming was what he needed. He was eager to tell Maria all about the new development, but he hadn’t yet committed her new mobile number to memory.

At the inn, he rushed to his room but found it empty. A glance out the bedroom window showed a small green area with a child’s playpark. He plugged in his phone using a charger he had bought on the way back and went out and found Maria on a swing, while Louise pushed herself on the roundabout. Maria watched him come with obvious relief, and expectation.

“What happened?” she said. He sat on the swing next to her.

“I think it worked. I think we’re free.”

She made a point of looking around, as if to emphasise that they were miles from home, living in a Bed & Breakfast.

“Okay, things aren’t exactly back to normal. But I think nobody is going to be after us now.”

She nodded, but her body language said she was worn out and not about to jump for joy.

“So what now?”

“We should stay here a few more days. I drove past home on the way back. Nothing’s happening. Maybe the neighbours thought nothing of what happened when we ran. Maybe they think nothing of the fact that we just ran away. Probably just assume we went on holiday.”

She just stared ahead. Behind them, the roundabout creaked and Louise whooped. He reached over and squeezed Maria’s shoulder.

“Are you okay?”

Just then Louise screamed “Daaaaddy,” and ran over. He hugged her. She wanted a push on the roundabout, and a drink. He said he would fetch her a drink first, because he needed a cup of tea.

“Get me one, too, and I might forgive you,” Maria said, attempting a smile. Jimmy kissed her forehead and went inside.

The landlord was searching his freezer, said he was planning a nice evening meal for them. Jimmy said thanks and put the kettle on. Then he went to turn on his phone. He was halfway back down the stairs when he heard the twin-beep that signified a text message. Without rush, he ambled back upstairs to check it. He had been thinking about work. He was missing, and his boss would want to contact him.

But the message wasn’t from the supermarket. It was from the number that had called him outside the tower block.

The employer, Victor Hartbauer.

CHANGE OF MEET. TOMORROW AT 10.AM, EASTWOOD BUSINESS PARK.

His heart lurched. Things had gone sour. They knew the truth. And now he knew how. Einar. Einar had been to the lock-up. Clues there had led to Jimmy, but Davey had sent Einar in search of Chopper, not Jimmy. So Einar knew Jimmy was Chopper, then. And Einar had been at the Chalet Tower to meet Hartbauer.

They all knew now. And now they were changing the plan, and it could only be for one reason. To kill him.

He sat on the bed, empty but filling with dread. This would never end. It had been too much to hope for.

Something else came to him now. Something Hartbauer had said: “…and now they’re both out of the way…”

Alfo Pitchford and James Marsh. Two deaths ordered by the same man. Connected somehow. But how? The supermarket? Einar had said something about an occurrence sixteen days ago at the shop – but nothing had happened then. So Einar had been throwing him a line. But what if it all did concern the supermarket? How, though? Had he changed something Hartbauer needed in place? Cancelled an order? Changed a supplier? Put the price of eggs up?

He stood up as he thought of something else. That was it. Had to be. He dialled a number and put the phone to his ear. A woman answered.

“Athena Supermarket, Lara speaking, how can I help?”

Lara, the girl who worked customer services on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday and Tuesday afternoons.

In a Scottish accent that was probably a great insult to Scots, he said, “Can I speak to Dale, please? Is he working?”

“He is, but he’s in the warehouse and I’m not allowed to bring him out. Can I pass a message on?”

“I’ll phone him tomorrow,” Jimmy said, and hung up.

Dale, that brash idiot. He had suspended him the other day, yet the fool was right there, working still. Why? Because Jimmy hadn’t been around to tell anyone, so nobody else knew Dale was under suspension. With Jimmy gone, Dale had attended work as usual. And he would only do so if he knew Jimmy wouldn’t be a problem any longer. So was Dale’s suspension the reason for the hit? Was he Hartbauer’s son or something? Was this all about revenge because Dale was going to lose his job?

No. Nobody ordered an expensive hit on someone because they cost another someone a job that paid a fraction of that cost. They ordered the hit…if they needed a suspended employee to keep the job for a certain reason. But what reason could a businessman like Victor Hartbauer have for needing a twerp like Dale to keep a supermarket job?

Only one way to find out.

When he went outside again, it was without drinks and with a long face. Maria seemed to know something bad was coming and hung her head.

“I have to go back to London. One more night.”

She didn’t speak for a while. He waited. Finally she looked up at him.

“So something went bad again. I don’t know what’s going on in your mind, Jimmy. I don’t want to know. We have a big, dark problem and it’s because of the big, dark spot in your soul. I don’t want to know any more. Go do your thing. Go be the part of you that you hid from me for so long. When you get back, Louise and me will be either be here, or we won’t. I don’t know. But go and do what you do so well and sort this problem.”

It sounded like acceptance of a sort. Barely. It was a sort of blessing. Barely. But it was enough. Barely.

There truly was a dark spot in Jimmy. He needed to utilise it now like never before. He needed to end this finally. He could deal with the aftermath later.

He took the landlord’s bike and gear without telling him and sneaked out. He rolled the bike out of the village before starting the engine. When he sat astride it and set off, the fear sluiced off him. He was back in the gear he belonged in when that dark spot grabbed the controls of his body.

Chopper aimed for London and gunned it.

*

Not far south of the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park, the walled business park was in the centre of a massive roundabout but strangely had no entrance via that route. He had to take an exit off the roundabout, heading away, then another left that went up and around in a half-spiral and over a bridge spanning the roundabout.

The place looked like some kind of gated community. He passed through an open gateway and onto a wide road that was shaped like a lollipop, the circular head at the far end. The businesses were arranged along either side, behind lawns and pavements, as if they were not commercial buildings but strange homes. Every car parked on the road was flash and expensive, giving him the impression that workaholic fat cats were here on their day off. The spaces between the buildings was vast, so that by the time he’d reached the head of the lollipop, he’d passed only four on each side. Each had a sign out front with some scientific name. Drugs companies, or drug testing companies.

Here in the lollipop’s head, two roads branched off like bug antenna, one to the left, one right, curving away behind the end buildings, probably feeding to the car parks at the rear of the buildings. He had not been given the name of a business or any instructions whatsoever. So he stopped his car against the kerb. He could hear the roundabout traffic just beyond a high wall of bright orange brick.

He exited the car, aware that anyone who could see him would instantly become suspicious because he was dressed as a biker. But he left his helmet on, although he raised the visor. He leaned against the car and stared down the road, towards the gate, thinking.

He got so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t hear the cars that slipped into sight either side of him along the bug antennae. By the time he was aware, each had stopped at the edge of the lollipop, as if fearful of entering. Blue Volkswagen Passats a year off the production line.

That was when he saw another car cross the bridge and come towards him along the main road. It was big, some kind of Toyota pickup truck. The road was wide enough for two cars, but the vehicle rode down the middle, over the white lines, veering only when it needed to pass some sleek Mercedes or Porsche. No room for another car to pass by it.

Three cars, each one blocking one of three exits off the lollipop.

Trapped. He was just metres from civilisation, but they could kill him right here and he might not be found until Monday morning.

The Toyota stopped at an angle at the end of the road, blocking it. There was space to mount the kerb either side and race past, if he chose to do so. But the position of the truck was a sign, a signal. It said, we’re in charge and you’ll leave when we say.

Men exited the Passats. There was nobody in the back of the vehicles, just a driver and a passenger. Four men in suits, all big, all with shaved heads. Their suits looked awkward, as if they’d pulled them off a shelf and weren’t really sure how a suit should hang off a body. They didn’t look like men who were used to wearing suits. Jimmy recalled that Victor Hartbauer owned a nightclub as well as Dalisay Foods, so maybe these guys were doormen from that place. Here for back-up. Here to present an image. Cash in hand for a spot of overtime.

The guy driving the Toyota was smaller, slimmer, and his suit was tailored. He didn’t look tough in any way, so this guy concerned Jimmy the most. He struck as someone who didn’t need to project an image.

The men pulled guns and held them low, mid-way between a direct threat and a message to Jimmy that he shouldn’t try anything. Then the Toyota’s passenger emerged.

Jimmy had seen a photo of this guy taken at some charity fundraising event held at Hartbauer’s nightclub. He recognised the Export Manager immediately.

Hartbauer emerged but stayed by the car, behind the open door, arms folded on the open window’s frame, a casual look. Casual by appearance, but Jimmy knew this guy was just being careful. Thirty feet away was a killer called Chopper, so he wasn’t taking chances.

The five others moved closer, into the lollipop, creating a semi-circle in front of Jimmy, like a football wall with Victor Hartbauer as the goal.

In Jimmy’s hands were a spoon and an opened tin can. Slowly, Jimmy dipped the spoon in and extracted something and put it into his mouth, chewing slowly. Everybody watched that spoon rise and fall. Their eyes were cautious, their posture prepared for quick, decisive movement. They had been briefed about Chopper, surely, and they would have heard some of the rumours. He had heard them himself. He had killed a man with a chainsaw, he had strung people up on meat hooks by their eyes. He could kill in moments with any implement you put in his hand, maybe including spoons.

“So you got my money, Mr. Hartbauer?” he said. He tried to sound casual, as if he hadn’t noticed the help the man had brought.

Hartbauer didn’t look bothered by the fact that the man he knew as Chopper he knew his name.

“Why don’t you take off that helmet, let us see the man behind the mask?”

“I have crossed eyes. It’s embarrassing.”

“But we’re so curious.”

Casual. He didn’t like it. The men around him, casual also. Too casual. Maybe they had guns, but those guns were hidden away, a good one or two seconds from being out and aimed and able to do damage. And two seconds was a long time, or it should be for a guy like Hartbauer, who knew he stood before a seasoned killer.

Jimmy turned around, a full 360, staring over the walls surrounding the business park. He saw a number of trees poking high here and there, and tower blocks. And a couple of hundred metres away, just its top two floors visible off to his right, not blocked by the semi-circle of guys in front of him, a dark coloured drill tower. It would be in a fire station. Empty because there were no fire training exercises at the moment.

Jimmy faced forward again. He spooned more of the tinned substance through the gap in his helmet and chewed.

“So how about that helmet?” Hartbauer pressed.

“How about my money?”

“Tell me how you killed James Marsh.”

“You saw the photo. I slit his throat.”

“I would have preferred his head.”

“I didn’t have a bag.”

Jimmy watched him. He seemed to be enjoying this game. There was a slight pause before each utterance, as if he was cycling through smart things to say. But suddenly he tired of the game. Now he barked an order to remove the helmet.

Jimmy didn’t move.

“Stand back,” Hartbauer ordered his men. They all stepped back a yard, uniformly, as if expecting this order.

“Last chance.” Now Hartbauer had a phone in his hand, and Jimmy knew it for certain: the guy knew the truth. He tossed the tin over the heads of the men, and they turned to watch it clatter on the concrete a few feet from the Toyota. Then he reached up and removed his helmet. Hartbauer laughed.

“James Marsh. Without a slit throat, would you believe?”

“We just look alike.”

“Don’t make a move, Marsh,” Hartbauer said. He nodded in the direction of the drill tower. “There’s better men than you out there.”

He turned to his right and put his hands up and stared at the drill tower, where he knew there was a man with a high-powered rifle and a scope all full of Jimmy. The men backed away again, this time without being told to do so, but again as if they knew the script.

“This could have been a big headache for me,” Hartbauer said. “But in the end, I got the result I wanted, and the rest just makes for a funny story. The guy I pay to have killed turns out to be the hitman I paid to do it. Don’t you want to know why, before our friend in the sky way off puts a bullet through your head?” Hartbauer came out from behind the door now and strode closer. He looked down, saw the discarded tin, and nudged it out of his way with a foot.

“I’m sure you have your reasons,” Jimmy said. “Same as you have reasons for putting too much sugar in your coconut meat syrup.” He spat a wad of whatever he’d been chewing onto the ground.”

“Give him the phone,” Hartbauer said. One of the guys stepped quickly forward and tossed a mobile to Jimmy, who caught it. He looked at the screen and saw that a call was connected. He knew what to expect when he put the phone to his ear.

“I wanted to take out your knees first,” said a voice he recognised, high and shrill on speakerphone. “But the paymaster wants a clean kill, heart shot, less blood. They need to clean up afterwards.”

“Sorry to disappoint, Einar. And sorry to disappoint twice, but Mr. Hartbauer’s about to order you to stand down. You’re not shooting anyone.”

“Maybe I’ll pretend I missed and get you in the throat, so you die slowly. So you’ll have time to think about how you got that one wrong.”

Jimmy glimpsed over at Hartbauer, who was staring down at the ground. Jimmy threw his arms wide, presenting a target. Even with the phone held two feet away, he heard Einar laughing.

“Goodbye, Marsh. I’ll send you your wife and kid in a day or two.”

And then the shout came: “STOP!” It made the goons jump. It made Jimmy smile at the tower, knowing Einar’s scope would allow him to see it clear and obvious. The emotion behind the smile was false, though. Jimmy was nervous, scared, and aware that he was cutting this whole thing too close.

The next second, everyone was staring at Hartbauer. He had retrieved the discarded tin from the ground and was staring at it. He strode forward and pushed through his men, no fear now, and held out the can, just inches from Jimmy’s face.

“You think you’re fucking smart, do you?” he shouted.

“I do, yes,” Jimmy said. He folded his arms and faced the fat man. “And now we do this on my terms.”

***

THE NIGHT BEFORE

Dale lived above a pizza shop. Jimmy parked outside, across the road, and watched the crowd. The place was busy because there were three pubs on the street. The clientele was mostly young and dressed to the nines. There was a lot of flesh on show. He was reminded of his own clubbing days, but the nostalgia only served to hit home that he was getting old.

Dale’s window was open and music thumped out. Jimmy watched but didn’t see Dale at the window, except for when a hand reached out to close it. Seconds later the light went off. A minute after that, Dale came out of a small alleyway beside the shop and crossed the road towards Jimmy.

He thought he’d been spotted and was working on a lie when Dale veered away at the last moment and got into the old Nissan Almera parked in front. The silver car pulled away and Jimmy followed. He didn’t think Dale would expect a tail, so he threw away caution and followed as closely as possible. Sometimes he fell when he got caught at red lights that Dale avoided, but mostly he stayed right behind the Nissan.

A mile out from where Dale eventually parked, Jimmy was already suspicious. But only when Dale parked in Athena Supermarket’s car park, in a corner near the gated rear, where they took in deliveries, did he understand the truth. Dale got out and threw his jacket inside the car, and there he stood in his work uniform.

Jimmy had never gotten chance to officially boot him. With Jimmy’s disappearance, nobody knew that Dale had been suspended. So here he was turning up for his night shift as if nothing had changed. How would Dale know his problem was erased unless he was part of this whole thing?

Jimmy knew for sure right then that he had been targeted for death because he was planning to have this fool fired.

The supermarket’s rear was lit by spotlights, the loading bay door open, awaiting the Friday delivery. Fresh produce was delivered daily, frozen items periodically, but every Friday night came the ambient items, and Dale was part of the warehouse team that took the Friday delivery.

He slipped across to the building and along the side. There was a fire exit with a keypad and he typed in his code. This was the entrance the duty manager used to open the shop, since the shutter over the front door was powered by an internal switch. Jimmy moved inside and past a freestanding cardboard washing powder advert used to hide the ugly fire exit.

The supermarket was empty and dark, the only illumination coming from a scattering of emergency lights and the swing doors at the back that led to the warehouse. He moved down that way.

The warehouse was filled with industrial shelving created a maze he used to move unseen. He knew six people worked the warehouse shift. The delivery came at eleven, an hour after closing time. The six would unload from the truck, sort and stack the stock, and wheel it out in roll cages to fill the shelves. The shift was five hours, from half ten until half three in the morning. Jimmy hid and thought. His employees would not know what was going on in his life, so he could step out and demand to speak with Dale. He did not want to wait hours until the man left for home before confronting him.

But instead he hid and listened. Until the delivery came, the guys sat on plastic chairs and chatted. He saw some smoking near the open bay door, which angered him. He had warned them about that plenty of times. But he couldn’t worry about that now, of course.

The truck came at eleven. He watched it back up to the dock. The driver shared a smoke with one of the guys before starting to unload the goods. He even helped himself to a can of lager from a long shelf of goods labelled WASTAGE.

The guys got to work. Dale was stacking tinned fruit and vegetables. He filled his rollcage and wheeled it away. Jimmy slipped ahead of him, out of the warehouse and into the supermarket aisles, where he planned to confront him.

His curiosity was tweaked when Dale dragged the rollcage away from the tinned aisle and towards the freezers. Strange, because there was no frozen food amongst the delivery. But he didn’t reach them. Instead he stopped at the fire exit, opened it. From a corner where noodles were on display in a stand, he watched Dale lift a crate and leave the building with it.

Stealing? Jimmy watched out of the window as Dale crossed to his car and deposited the crate in the boot. He came back, grabbed another, and repeated the process. In all he made the journey nine times, on each occasion lifting the same kind of crate, the same product. By this time the other employees had dragged their cages into the shop and the lights had flickered on, but because none of the goods were frozen, nobody was nearby to see what Dale was doing. But he got more cautious and moved more quickly once the place was lit up.

Dale closed the door, replaced the cardboard stand, and lifted another crate. Same as the others. He carried it away to the tinned section and there cut it open and stacked the tins. Whatever that product was, Dale had just stolen a lot of it. When Dale went back to his rollcage, Jimmy rushed over to see what the product was. He knew he was in view of the other employees at this time, but their eyes were on the shelves they would stack or the rollcages they would stack from and no heads turned his way.

Coconut meat in syrup from the Philippines for the International Range. Each crate held twenty-four tins at 400 grams. Twenty four might sell in a week, but not two hundred and forty. Why had so many been ordered? And why was Dale trying to steal such a product?

Dale was returning, this time with his cage, so Jimmy slipped away, taking one of the tins with him. He rushed towards Customer Services and into the manager’s office, just avoiding being spotted by a guy called Donaldson, an ex-con who was stacking cereal boxes just metres away.

The moment he was inside, he saw the window. It was small, square, and barred on the outside, the glass frosted and wired. If you didn’t know better, you might look at that window from outside and think it led to a toilet – a secure one, of course. But someone had torn those bars right off and smashed that window since Jimmy had last been here, because this window was different.

Someone had broken in in Jimmy’s absence. He looked to the desk, seeking an item that wasn’t there.

Footsteps were coming closer. He moved behind a file cabinet near a corner and watched as Dale entered, carrying two sheets of coloured paper, one blue and one pink. Jimmy recognised them as delivery notes. Dale had his eyes on the computer the moment he strolled in and didn’t see anything else in the room. Tunnel vision. He sat and wiggled the mouse, which woke the computer.

Jimmy leaned out and watched over Dale’s shoulder as he accessed the Back Office System. He was inputting the delivery. Nothing unusual about that, except Jimmy hadn’t been aware that a simple team member like Dale knew how to do it. Normally the notes got left on the desk for the manager to file the next morning.

It took just ninety seconds. Then Dale rose and left. He left the blue sheet but crumpled up the pink one and took it with him. Jimmy slipped over to the computer and opened the program again. He clicked on the latest delivery, tonight’s.

The list of delivered goods was right there. No problem with that. And there near the bottom was:

DALISAY COCONUT MEAT (24×400G) X 10 one.

Dalisay. Victor Hartbauer’s company. The man who had paid for Jimmy’s death.

Apart from that part – and that was worrying – there seemed to be nothing untoward about the delivery. The driver had brought ten crates of coconut meat, and that was too many so Dale had rightly chosen to keep just one. There was a notation at the bottom about the return of nine crates, reason: erroneous order. One they could sell. But Jimmy remembered the pink sheet that Dale had carried. You filled one of those in when a purchase was made right off the truck. It happened sometimes if the driver had some unwanted returns and there was an item you hadn’t ordered but fancied. But Dale had made no entry in the BUYS section, and he had gotten rid of the pink sheet. So Dale had unofficially purchased the other nine crates of coconut meat for some reason.

Jimmy rose and left the office. He went in search of a tin opener at the kitchen utensils shelf and quickly found one. Two guys saw him, pulled surprised faces, but said nothing. They got right back to work, because the boss had secretly showed up. Jimmy knelt on the floor and opened the tin, tipping the contents right onto the floor. Coconut meat slices and syrup spilled around his feet.

He stood and reached onto the shelf for a short knife. He tore it from its wrapping as he went in search of another aisle.

Dale was hoisting a crate of pineapple slices onto a shelf when Jimmy appeared beside him and put the knife to his neck. The crate fell and burst, spilling tins everywhere. He heard clapping and a face poked around the corner of the next aisle.

“Nice one, Dale,” this guy said, then froze as he saw the scene.

“I don’t pay you to laugh and joke, Billy,” Jimmy said to this guy, and he disappeared. Jimmy grabbed Dale’s shirt, kept the knife to his throat, told him to shut up when he started asking what was going on, and dragged him away.

They went through the fire exit and across the car park. They stopped at Dale’s car.

“Open the boot,” Jimmy ordered him, aware that faces had appeared at the windows, watching.

Dale, shaking with fear, pulled out his keys and stuck one in the boot. It took him time because he kept missing the lock due to shaking fingers. His fear was understandable. The last time he’d seen Jimmy, his boss had been wearing a shirt, sitting behind a desk, acting all hard because he wielded power with a pen. Now he had a knife and a badder attitude. Dale finally got the boot open. Jimmy forced him onto his front on the cold concrete and put a foot on his back.

“Stay or I’ll cut you. What do you know about the break-in?” He stabbed his knife into one of the coconut meat tins in the boot, started cutting. He noticed that each of the tins had a small sticker on the lid, just a little yellow dot. He hadn’t seen such a sticker on the tin he’d opened earlier.

“Nothing. Nothing to do with me,” Dale moaned.

“The diary was taken, Dale. Where me and Mr. Cook writes notes for each other. Like the note I wrote saying you should have your ass kicked out. With that diary gone, he had no idea. No one did.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“How about these tins?” he snapped, sawing away.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know how they got in your boot? You don’t know why you stole them? Only they’re not really stolen, are they? Because you made some kind of cash buy from the driver, but not for us. Not for the supermarket. Got your own market stall somewhere, Dale?”

Dale said nothing.

Jimmy had sliced off the lid and now he upended the tin, spraying syrup and coconut meat all over the other crates stacked in the boot.

Only it wasn’t coconut meat. Two clear bags of white powder, fist sized, lay on a crate in a pool of sugary gel. He was no expert, but TV cop thrillers had educated the masses over the years, and he knew he was looking at either heroin or cocaine. A lot of it in just those two bags, crammed into a tin. And there were a lot of tins.

***

“So you were very smart,” Victor said. “I say were, because the moment you took my cocaine, that made you very stupid. Where is it?”

Jimmy ignored the question. “It’s a great set-up. You run a foods company, so the tins will not be suspect. You have the infrastructure in place to get them around the world, maybe with just a few guys in place along the path to make sure the right tins go to the right places. Then you buy off some guys in the shops to take the deliveries and remove the tins containing drugs. Nice.”

Victor seemed happy to have his skills acknowledged. “Exactly. We make the tins, so they’re not doctored. And we have real coconut meat tins, too, so if any are searched for whatever reason, it all stands up. Glad you approve. The guys in the shops, though, aren’t bought off. They’re low level gang members who get the jobs specifically. Sometimes the original employees are a bit clumsy, if you get my point. A broken leg here, a snapped arm there, and suddenly there’s a vacancy.”

Jimmy thought. He remembered that Dale had been hired because the guy who had his job before had suffered a spine injury in some car crash. Engineered, then. Dale had been one of only three applicants, so maybe others with interest in the position had been scared off. Maybe the three had all been Hartbauer’s men, making it unimportant who actually got the job. That was months ago. Had Dale been doctoring the deliveries and unloading cocaine for all that time? Certainly he had had the Friday night warehouse shift for that long.

“So that was why I was targeted. Not because I stumbled upon your operation, but simply because I was going to recommend that the guy you put in place got fired. Just that. No real big deal, and not really a spanner in your works, because you could have arranged for another guy to get the job. A slight hiccough, but enough in your brain to warrant murder. Nice.”

“And if I was planning to put you in the ground because of something so simple, imagine what lengths I’ll go to against a guy who steals all my cocaine. Maybe you should imagine that and then tell me, right now, what you did with my property.”

“And Alfo the Destroyer? He got in the way somehow, too. That was why you hired Chopper.”

Victor laughed. “Hired you, you mean. That was some kind of fluke bad luck. I tried to imagine your face when you opened that file and saw yourself. Good luck for you, though. Any other way, you wouldn’t have had the first clue, and you’d be as dead as you’re going to be if you don’t give me my cocaine right now.”

“Alfo. What did he do?”

Victor ignored the question. He gave a nod, and the guys who had hold of Jimmy forced him to his knees. He arms went behind his back, pulled and held tight.

“I’m not about to explain everything to you, Marsh. Alfo got greedy, let’s leave it at that. He supplied the lowlifes this end, but he had a small territory and I cover a lot of big ones. Yours isn’t the only place in London that takes my deliveries, and Alfo isn’t – wasn’t – the only gang leader I work with. The others are happy with the deal I have in place with them, and today they’re still walking and breathing. And if they decide to take the piss with me, then I’ll hire another of your ilk to erase the problem. And next time I won’t try to skimp and save by hiring some local hitman. Look at the problem that caused me.” He gave another nod and a third guy moved into position. Some pre-arranged routine. The man held a gun, which he pressed against Jimmy’s forehead.

“Three seconds,” Victor said. “Then you won’t know what tomorrow brings.”

“I’ll know part of it. I see it already. You and your henchmen searching bins and gutters, trying to find the cocaine.”

“One.”

“We can do a deal.”

“Two.”

“I just want to be left alone.”

“Three,” Victor said, and the gun jerked in the goon’s hand. Jimmy flinched. Others made shocked sounds. But no bullet had been fired, at least from that weapon. The gunman was staggering around, clutching his hand, moaning. Everyone else froze. Nobody had heard a gunshot, but all knew that the bullet that ripped the gun from their colleague’s hand had been fired from a tower far away, by the hand of a man proficient at long-range murder.

Jimmy had dropped the phone when he flinched. It lay on the ground before everyone as a centrepiece. And it was still on speakerphone.

“The deal was I end him,” said Einar’s voice. “The next guy to try something want to step up?”

Nobody stepped up. In fact, they backed off some more. Victor, unfazed, moved close enough to reach down and snatch up the phone. He too then backed away.

“You’ll get your chance, Einar.” He said into the phone. Then to Jimmy: “Now, where were we? Oh yes. A deal. You think I’ll let you go and trust you to stay silent?” He laughed.

“I don’t care about drugs,” Jimmy said. “You can even carry on bringing them to my place. I don’t care about that. I just want to go home with my wife and kid and not worry about being shot in the head.”

“But you’d be silly to believe that. With what you know. I wouldn’t trust a guy in my position. I’d worry that he was going to agree to the deal and then have me shot once he had his cocaine back.”

“I don’t care about the drugs. Seriously. I trust you will hold to your word. I’ll hold to mine. Let me go, promise my family will be left alone, and I’ll tell you where the drugs are kept.”

“No. We’ll take a drive. You included. Once I have the cocaine in my hands and no police are running at me, I’ll cut you free. My word on that. Any tricks, you lose your head.”

***

Jimmy’s hands were bound behind his back with cable ties and he was hustled into one of the other cars, back seat, a guy either side of him. He saw someone drive his car away, then the Toyota left. His car went third, followed by the last one. They took the curving bridge, went right, hit the roundabout. He watched his car take the first exit, obviously going off somewhere to be crushed, or just dumped. The other cars took the second exit. The lead car contained the guy he’d given the postcode to.

It was a fifteen minute journey that missed the centre of London. They drove south along the east side of Hyde Park and took a left, and then a right. More turns, more straight roads, and then they were on a road lined with terraced houses, some of which had been converted into shops that would sell you a second hand pair of trousers and shops that would dry clean those trousers and others that would give you a loan against them. Other side of the road was a large patch of land barred by a temporary melded metal mesh fence set in big black support feet.

The land belonged to an old building, squat, square, dark brick, lots of windows, most smashed, some boarded over. In a space between the top two rows of windows there had once been a sign, ten big letters now gone but their ghostly residue visible: FFW VENEERS.

The cars stopped. Three cars in a line. Jimmy watched as Hartbauer exited his Toyota and stood at the fence. The slim guy who’d driven him got out also and lifted an edge of a fence panel from its support foot, pushing it open like a giant door. Then he stood back.

Jimmy was hauled out the car and taken towards the gap. Men crowded him, maybe just so nobody could see that he was tied. But there weren’t many people around, and nobody seemed to care anyway. Just a bunch of guys, all but one in suits, looking at some derelict building, maybe just thinking about renovating it.

“Check it out,” Hartbauer told two of his guys. In they went, squeezing through the gap. They rushed towards the ruined building, splitting up. Each man ran down a side and then round the back.

Hartbauer got on his phone. Jimmy could hear it ringing, but nobody answered. Hartbauer looked at the screen, perhaps to make sure he had dialled the right number. It went to voicemail. “Einar, where are you? Did you get the postcode? We’re here. Call me.”

Jimmy smiled.

Two minutes, and both men were back to report that they had seen no life inside. There was a big shutter round the back, cracked open four feet. They peeked in, but saw nothing untoward.

Hartbauer stepped in front of Jimmy. He looked like he wanted to say something, some final threat, maybe. Instead, he just stared at Jimmy, then moved away. Jimmy heard him speak to the slim man.

“I’ll wait here. You lot go in. Watch him.”

Jimmy made his move. He twisted, leaned forward, barged the nearest guy out of the way, and started running. Right towards Hartbauer. The big man jumped aside. Jimmy tried to weave between the Toyota and the car that had brought him here, but he was tackled to the ground. As he fell, he twisted again, landing hard on the bonnet of the pick-up truck with a clang. Two seconds later he was gripped by many hands and held upright. Hartbauer moved in front of him.

“You’re going to trick me,” Jimmy said. “Once you get the drugs, you’ll’ kill me and leave me in that building.”

Hartbauer stepped away, saying, “Go get my property.”

Jimmy was hustled through the gap and across the wasteland. Marched alongside the building and to the shutter round back. It was tall, thin, rusted, covered in graffiti. The gap was a black letterbox between the bottom and the ground, like a mouth waiting to swallow them. He was pushed ahead, a hand on his neck, bending him, feeding him into that mouth.

***

The place was gutted. It had pillars of stone peeling paint, portions missing from the walls, graffiti and dust everywhere. There were holes in the floor where machinery had been bolted and then ripped up. Jimmy had checked out his place online. Built in the 1930s, it had been used during the second world war to produce veneers for Spitfire cockpits. Various other enterprises had taken residence since the war, but the place had stood empty for the last eight years. And it looked untouched for all that time, apart from the graffiti and signs of foot traffic in the dust. Trash was everywhere, but lines like rivers of concrete had been cleared to allow the passage of people valleys. In the corners, the trash was in bags and heaped high, as if some kind of attempt had been made to clean up, although most likely it was just the stuff removed to create the pathways. But there were too many bags, so maybe people knew about this place and used it as a tip. But all that was quickly shifted from Jimmy’s mind as he was dragged and nudged and pushed towards a wall where there was a set of stone steps leading up. They moved under a big, square aperture in the ceiling. If a hoist had resided there, all the mechanisms and components had long gone. Below, there was a table set upright and neat amongst the trash, and on it were rubber ducks with metal loops on their backs.

The slim guy, who someone had called Jeremy, sent two of the bruisers up the stairs first. They came back seconds later, gave a nod, and then everyone else went up.

On this floor the windows had drapes, big black sheets of some material like weed control fabric. It was much darker up here because of it. All black except for a dim square of light from the aperture and tall portions of thicker black that Jimmy knew were the pillars. Another set of stairs began close to where the first set ended, leading up to the third and final floor. But Jimmy said,

“Here, this floor, near the back.”

“He says we’re close,” Jeremy said into his mobile phone. “Place is empty, pitch black, though.”

He had been keeping Hartbauer abreast of their every movement. Before now, just updates for a curious man. Now, though, Jeremy sounded concerned.

“Okay,” he said, slightly dejected. Just then a light came on as one of the bruisers fired up the flashlight on his phone. Jeremy stomped across to him and snatched it away, killed the light.

“We move unseen,” he said.

They moved slowly. As they closed on the centre of the room, chairs exposed themselves, knitting out of the dark. Five or six arranged around the aperture. And on the floor by them, fishing rods.

“Hook a duck,” one of the bruisers said, giggling. “Kids.”

“Keeps them from stabbing each other in parks,” another said. Jeremy whispered for them both to shut up. He moved close to Jimmy, behind, and snaked an arm around his neck, holding him like a human shield. “What’s back there,” he said into Jimmy’s ear. He clearly didn’t trust this whole thing.

“There’s a bag in the corner,” Jimmy said. “Will I definitely be let go after this?”

“Go yank those window covers,” Jeremy barked in a whisper at one of the bruisers.

The bruiser rushed away. No trash up here, so he made quick time. Vanished right into the dark. A few moments later light pushed through a window as the bruiser yanked the blind. He was a silhouette against the big, broken window.

Another silhouette moved into the frame. They merged like living shadows, and a scream rang out, girly for such a big man.

“Fucking trap!” another bruiser yelled.

Then there was a gunshot.

***

THE NIGHT BEFORE

Jimmy parked in the spot where he’d exit from a vehicle some ten hours later. The night was empty, although he could hear rough male voices a house across the road. He threw a bag over the fence and climbed after it. He walked upright and confident towards the old warehouse, certain he was unobserved but taking no chances. If anyone was watching, he didn’t want to seem suspicious. He walked just like what he was: a man with a purpose here.

He slipped alongside the building, looking at all the windows. If he didn’t find a door to enter through, he would crack some boards from a window and slip in that way. But a door would be better.

Around back, he found the open shutter was open four feet. He wasted no time and ducked under.

The warehouse was almost pitch black, but he could see flickering light from the ceiling, where there seemed to be a big square hole. He moved slowly towards it, careful not to make a sound by crushing a discarded drinks can or empty crisps packet. When he got within just a few metres, he was aware of thin lines in the dark, dangling down from the hole. From this angle he could see a small portion of the upper floor. Two black men illuminated by firelight were sitting in chairs with fishing rods. Below the hole, their lines dangled, hooks trying to snare one of a number of rubber ducks on a table.

He knelt, silent, still, watching. Now and then one of the guys he saw leaned forward to peer down to adjust his aim. But mostly they sat back, just chilling like fishermen, no serious intent on the game. Maybe if a duck was hooked by a swinging line and dragged, the tension would alert the man holding the rod and he’d yank up his catch and whoop with glee. But that didn’t happen, and the guys just sat there, eroding time.

Someone said something funny and Jimmy heard at least six voices bellow with laughter that echoed around the upper floor. Nobody was looking down right then, he figured. He stepped forward and grabbed a dangling line and pulled.

“What the fuck?” he heard someone shout. The fishing rod clattered through the hole and clumped to the ground. He heard a chair scrape against concrete. Laughter broke again, until the same shocked voice said, “There’s some fucker down there.”

Jimmy dropped his bag and raised his hands, staring up at a bunch of heads poking down through the aperture. On the far side he saw two guys kneeling, but closest to him the heads were upside down.

Then all hell broke loose. Someone cocked a gun and aimed it at him. Another told him not to move, while another voice screamed that he was a dead man. Footsteps, at least three sets, thundered across the roof, away from him. Moments later, he saw human-shaped clumps of dark piling down the stairs against the far wall.

He swept the table free of ducks and lay bent over it, hands behind his head.

“I’m here to help, here to help, here to help,” he yelled over the shouting. He repeated it as the men closed on him, as hands grabbed him, as he was carried away. He was roughly handled up the stairs, arms and legs held, carried bodily. “I came alone, I came to help you,” he bellowed.

The upper floor was bare apart from the chairs around the hole and an inflatable child’s paddling pool full of cans of, presumably, alcohol. Jimmy could see quite well because the windows here, while mostly broken, were not boarded over, although there were rolls of black cloth nailed above like drapes. Moonlight turned squares of the dusty floor white, while light from a brazier with high flames tossed the shadows of the men shadows across the walls. Seemed like a nice place to chill at night, and that was what one man was doing. He hadn’t erupted from his chair like the others, which put him down as some kind of leader. The men carrying him wore bright colours in plastic, like kaleidoscopic tracksuits, but the guy lounging in the only padded chair wore jeans and a pullover. He was black like the others and had cornrows and a trimmed full beard. He stood as the group carrying Jimmy got close and dumped him on his back. Someone slid his neck and shoulders over the aperture. Two men put a heavy foot on a thigh each. Jimmy was balanced there over the hole, forced to use his abdominal muscles to stay supine. He looked up as the leader stood over him.

“So who the fuck are you, bleach one?” he said. He had a thick Cockney accent. London all his life.

“Check the bag first,” Jimmy said. “You’ll like what you see.”

The guy didn’t bat an eyelid, but Jimmy heard someone rummaging in the bag. He heard tins clattering together.

“Idiot wants to buy us off with tinned fruit, Leo,” said one. Jimmy relaxed slightly at hearing the man’s name. Leo. The guy he needed.

“Open one,” Jimmy said. “Tin opener’s in there. Check it out.”

He didn’t take his eyes off Leo, who stared right back. But he heard one of the tins being opened, then a whoop, and laughter, and someone else said, “No fucking way.” Leo put out a hand, not even looking, like some surgeon for a scalpel. A slimy bag of white powder was slapped into his hand and he took his eyes away from Jimmy for a second. He jabbed a finger into the bag, right through, and extracted the white digit and sniffed it. His eyes turned surprised after that. His men were now going giddy, fighting over who got the tin opener next. Jimmy and Leo continued to stare at each other against a background soundtrack of whooping men and clattering tins. One tin even bounced off Jimmy’s chest and fell through the hole.

“Jesus, look at all this,” someone said when it was all over. Jimmy flicked his eyes and saw the men kneeling around a big pile of bags of white power. “Hey, white boy, this cocaine or heroin? This fake, I’ll cut you.”

“I don’t know which one it is,” Jimmy said, which got him a laugh and an insult.

“It’s coke,” Leo said. “Where did you get forty-eight bags of coke and why have you brought it here. Bo, check outside, make sure this guy isn’t up to some entrapment lark.”

A guy ran off for the stairs to do his leader’s bidding. Two others rushed to windows to peer out. That left one other with the bags, the two pressing on Jimmy’s legs, and Leo standing over him.

“It isn’t forty-eight,” Jimmy said. “It’s more like four hundred and fifty six. The rest is in the boot of a car outside.”

Leo put aside the bag and knelt. He grabbed Jimmy’s shoulder and yanked him into a sitting position. The two guys took their feet off his legs and he scuttled away from the edge. Leo pointed to a chair and he took one. Leo sat back in his padded seat, facing him across the hole.

“Can’t see any cops,” called one of the guys at the windows.

“No trick. I came here to help you, like I said,” Jimmy said. “You guys got guns?”

“Now why would we want guns? And what makes you think we need help?”

“You can have that coke. Send a guy to my car. You can have it all. I’m fine with my cup of caffeine in the morning. But some men are going to want that back, and they’re going to come here to get it tomorrow morning. They might bring guns. If you want to keep it, you’ll needs guns as well.”

“And how do these people know where to come? Seems they would have already if they knew. Are you going to tell them?” The last sentence was said with a smirk that Jimmy killed with his next utterance.

“Yes, tomorrow morning.”

Leo laughed now. “Can you do that from a hole in the ground? Tell me why I should let you go just so you can send guys with shooters here?”

“There’s a very good reason why you should want these men to come here.”

Leo digested this in silence. “Sounds like you might want these guys out the picture,” he said finally. “So it would be you who needs the help, not me. Why should I help you? For the coke? Maybe that coke’s mine now anyway. Maybe you gave up ownership the moment you stepped in my place. You know who I am, right?”

Jimmy did know. Davey had told him all about these people a few days ago. “I know you have some street rank. Triple O.G, double O.G, something like that. Not too clued up on gangs and things. Your people are the Midnight Corps. A big London gang. You run various parts. Drugs, women, hot cars, the usual portfolio of underworld bad boys. You’re known for coming to life at night, like bats. Hence the name. You spread yourselves over derelict London, turning places like this into your turf. You’re Leo, number four in the hierarchy, if I understand right. Although you recently got promoted to number two, because the two leaders just got killed. But you didn’t get a high position in the gang through exploits. Your brother-in-law was the kingpin. But now he’s dead.”

Leo nodded slowly, but Jimmy couldn’t tell if he angry or happy that someone knew so much.

“How do you know all this?”

“Those drugs were smuggled into a supermarket where I work. I was a threat to the operation, and so the guy who runs it tried to kill me. He sent a hitman called Chopper.”

Leo’s grin faltered. Jimmy saw his lips mouth the word CHOPPER.

“Chopper, so I heard, was the guy who killed you brother-in-law. The guy who ran things. Alfo The Destroyer. And his number two, a guy called Baz. Baz is missing, right?”

Leo gaze him a hard stare and Jimmy knew he was trying to decide whether or not this was a trick. If he decided it was, then Jimmy was going to be in a whole lot of trouble.

“Since you don’t know about the drugs, I’m guessing this was some side-line Alfo had. Something he might have kept from the rest of the gang. Maybe he got greedy, or maybe he wanted to pull out and told the smugglers he would no longer let their cocaine into his territory. Or no longer help them sell it. Or wanted to stop them. Whatever it was, the smugglers didn’t like it, so they hired Chopper to kill him, and then I found out and they sent the same guy after me.”

“And yet you still breathe,” Leo said, breathing deeply, visibly angry. At the smugglers Jimmy spoke of, or Jimmy himself, he did not know. One was good. The other was bad.

“Chopper tried to set me up. Made it look like I was helping him. He wanted your people to kill me.”

Realisation hit him then. “James Marsh. Now I remember. Yeah, we heard that. I heard you were involved. The men who were sent to get you never got back.”

“They were killed, but not by Chopper. The smugglers killed Chopper using another hitman. This man killed your people. This man is currently after me.”

Just then the guy who’d run downstairs came rushing back, out of breath. He reported that he could see nobody else around. This guy – a finger pointed at Jimmy – is alone.

Leo sent him to the car to fetch the rest of the drugs. Then Leo got up and paced. Jimmy knew his fate would be decided in the next few seconds.

“So you came here because you think I’ll want revenge for my brother-in-law. You want me to go up against some drugs kingpin, just for you?”

Jimmy shook his head. “He’s a powerful man because has money and contacts, but he’s not in your league and he doesn’t have the clout here. His drugs people are thousands of miles away, in the Philippines. Here, he’s nobody. I mean, he hired Chopper. Some two-bit hitman only good for killing local scumbags. The main threat is the other hitman, who is called Einar. But I know where he’s going to be tomorrow morning. He likes to kill from afar. I stole their drugs and they want to meet me to get it back. I’ve seen the location where they want to meet. There’s only one place where he’ll be. One place where he can watch from afar. You put a couple of guys there to take him out, and the rest of them will be easy. Nightclub bouncers given overtime. No match for your guys.” Jimmy told him the time and location of the meet planned for tomorrow morning. He described the fire drill tower.

Leo thought about this. “You think I’ll set my men on the men who killed my brother-in-law and that will put you free and clear? Take all the problems from your life and make everything rosy, so you can just walk away with a smile and a skip? But you know about the drugs. You know where I hide out. You know enough to make the cops pull in SOCO and the SAS and every other shadowy team of ass-kickers in this country. And you think I’ll just let you walk?”

Jimmy stood up. Someone grabbed his arm, but he left it there and stared at Leo, two feet apart. “What I could tell the cops is just one of two problems you have. The second is there other people, and that’s the bigger problem. They’re selling drugs on your turf. They killed your brother-in-law to get him out of the way, and maybe they want all of you out of the way now. You could kill me right now, but problem number two will still exist, whatever happens to me. These men are out there, and they might be planning to hit your gang. And the only way you’ll stop them getting you all when you least expect it is to get them when they least expect it. I just want to go home and life my life with my family. You give me that, I’ll give you these guys. Delivered right here, onto your turf. I’ll say nothing to the cops and you’ll never hear from me again. You get the drugs, and you get to stay alive.”

Leo just stared at him.

Jimmy said, “I’m going to walk out of here right now. If I get through the door, I’ll be back tomorrow morning, and that’ll give you time to prepare. If you don’t like that idea, or you don’t trust me, then opt to take your chances against these guys on your own and don’t let me get anywhere near that door.”

Jimmy turned and walked. He was tense, expecting a gunshot in the back, or a cry of STOP. The footsoldiers piped up, clearly not liking what they were seeing. But nobody moved after him. He went down the stairs, under the aperture – where he tensed even more so as the men leered down at him.

He got out of the door and all the way to his car, and only when the door was shut did he finally relax. Slightly. He started the engine and was just about to drive away when one of the Midnight Corps boys appeared at the window, driving a fist towards it. He saw four of them, three more behind the man about to bust the window. He tensed, waiting for the glass to smash, a knife to pierce his neck.

But the man only rapped the window and said, “You forgetting something, white boy?”

They moved away. In the door mirror, he watched them congregate at the rear. Someone popped the boot and they started start unloading the cases of tins. Twenty seconds later, they were gone.

Jimmy drove away.

***

All the blinds came down at once, flooding the room with light. The men in suits yelled and flew apart as if an explosive device had detonated in the middle of their cluster. Another gunshot noise bounced around the room and another man screamed.

Jimmy rushed after one of the suits, who darted behind a pillar and froze. Jimmy thundered right into him, and like a cue ball given a touch of backspin stopped dead behind the pillar as the guy went sailing out into the open. The guy scrambled to his feet and stumbled towards another pillar.

It seemed like everyone was firing now. Jimmy heard bullets ping off the floor, off pillars, off the walls, and others that made no connection sounds, as if they had exited through the smashed windows. The noise was deafening.

He looked around. The room had eight pillars in two rows of four. All of Hartbauer’s men were behind the row nearest the stairs, while twenty metres away the other row hid Leo’s men. Like pawns in a line, facing each other across the emptiness of a chessboard. Leo’s men had no stairs to run to, but the Hartbauer’s guys did. He could see two guys pressed up behind one pillar like lovers in the spoons position. The guy at the back had his head turned and Jimmy knew he was contemplating the run to the stairs. If they made the run together, they’d probably make it.

He couldn’t see the slim guy he had heard referred to as Jeremy. The guy who, of all of them, might just know what he was doing in a firefight.

He peeked out from the pillar, glancing at the other row. He saw the odd shoulder and foot peeking out from some other pillar. Men lurking. He saw the downed man under the window, laying still, blood pooling around him.

It went deathly quiet then.

Then there was a shout: “Cutter’s dead. Dead over at the window. You fucking cunts.”

“You’ll all join him,” called back a voice that Jimmy recognised as Leo’s.

“Who the fuck are you guys?” one of Hartbauer’s men yelled.

“You fucked on right up coming here, white boys!” came the yelled return.

As he watched, one of the Midnight guys stuck out an arm and fired blindly. One of Hartbauer’s men returned a shot, and there was a scream of pain. The man in the suit stayed hugged to the pillar, but he yelled, “I got one of the bastards.”

Then there was laughter. “No you didn’t, bleach-face. But I’m gonna get your mother later.”

The insulted man in the suit fired again, twice this time. Shots were returned, there was more shouting, and once more the room throbbed with noise. Jimmy turned his back on the pillar and started sawing his binds along the rough edge. He was free eight seconds later, and that was when the noise died down again. He turned to hug the pillar again. There was a pillar to his right, two to his left. Four other men, all looking scared, all trying to communicate with each other by hand signals and lip movements. He saw one pointing at him. The guy to his right then pointed his gun and jerked it as if to say, Go. Jimmy knew they wanted him to break cover. He shook his head. The guy aimed the gun right at him. Just five metres between them. If he fired, he might miss, but he might not. He was holding the gun up close to his chest, like a man with a microphone, so he didn’t stick out an arm someone could blast a hole in.

He peeked out. Leo’s men were shouting more insults, but nobody was firing, and nobody was looking.

Jimmy ran.

He rushed forward, into the centre of the room. His plan had been to scream who he was and hope Leo’s men let him get to their side, where he could join their fight. But the moment he started running, one of Hartbauer’s men, some guy who’d probably recently watched a war film, fired a cover shot. It didn’t work. It propelled Leo’s men into returning fire. Jimmy veered slightly as bullets flew all around him. He saw a number of gun barrels aimed in his direction as he dove, and slid, knocking aside chairs a moment before he slipped over the aperture and fell.

He scrambled in the air as he fell and managed a good impression of a cat trying to get its feet under it. He landed on the table below on his hands and knees and felt the legs snap. That lessened some of the impact, as did the trash he felt the wood under him crash into. He rolled and got to his feet quickly, unhurt except for pain in his wrists.

The shooting had stopped. All went silent again for a few seconds. Jimmy moved through the trash and got to the path cleared through it.

That was when he heard more shots, and screaming, and yells of pain. Footsteps as men ran, breaking cover. He looked at the aperture, sure the noise was coming through there, but peripheral hearing picked up a series of bangs from the raised shutter. From outside. He ran that way.

He reached the shutter and ducked to go under. He saw a ladder just two feet in front of his face, a ladder that hadn’t been there before, and his brain filled in the missing pieces of the jigsaw. He sat on his ass, threaded out a leg, and kicked the ladder. It slid away from him and clattered to the ground, followed a fraction of a second later by the thin man in the suit as he landed hard. He had tried to land on his feet, and he did, but he was angled and one leg took the brunt of his weight and snapped right under him. He screamed. Jimmy scrambled out and grabbed the arm holding the gun. He wrested it from the man’s hand and stood over him.

Jeremy soon forgot his pain. His leg was bent as no leg should be, but he just looked embarrassed as he stared up at Jimmy.

“Maybe I shouldn’t be too upset, you’re Chopper after all,” he said.

“That’s right. Hitman and murderer,” Jimmy said, aiming the gun right at his face. “So forget being upset and just think how lucky you were that you got to live.” He lifted a foot and drove it into the man’s head, cracking bone hard against concrete. It took a second stamp to put the guy unconscious.

Jimmy rushed back through the warehouse and up the stairs. He ran hard, no care for the noise he made. He stopped three quarters of the way up, just his arms and head visible to anyone watching from the upper floor. But nobody was watching. The four men in suits, their backs to him, were in the open, aiming their guns at Leo’s men, all four of whom were laid out, two badly injured and bleeding, one moaning but not moving, and another on his knees, head bowed.

The story was obvious. Jeremy had escaped the room, gotten outside, climbed a ladder, fired through the first floor windows, right behind Leo’s men, forcing them out into the open, where they were sitting ducks.

Someone booted the kneeling man in the shoulder, knocking him onto his side. The kneeling man was Leo.

“Freeze,” Jimmy yelled. The suited men turned, scanned the room, not seeing him at first. He was just a head and a gun. Then they did. Someone stepped towards him, and he fired into the pillar just behind the guy. After that they froze as ordered. Leo, seemingly uninjured, leaped up and grabbed a gun from the floor. He quickly disarmed Hartbauer’s men. Jimmy moved forward. By the time he reached the gathering, Hartbauer’s men were on their faces in a line. Leo gave one of his men, a guy with a thigh wound, a gun to hold on them. Two of the others started searching them and tossing wallets, keys and other items across the floor.

“What happens now?” Jimmy asked.

Leo grabbed a toppled seat, righted it and sat. Now Jimmy saw that the man’s right hand was busted, bleeding badly. Leo pulled the sleeve of his jacket over it with a wince.

“I’ll think about that after you’re gone. Which one’s the boss, then? Whose teeth to I have to pull out?”

Jimmy lowered his gun but didn’t release his finger from the trigger. He wasn’t sure he was done using it yet. Leo might still be a problem.

“None. He didn’t come in. He probably drove off when the shooting started. But he’s an old man and he won’t be a worry for you. I’m about to go and turn his day bad, as long as you don’t mean to turn your gun on me now.”

Leo laughed. “Go get your bad guy.”

Jimmy searched the floor for a set of keys to one of the Volkswagens. Found one. “These men are just hired help. Maybe they don’t deserve to be shot.”

“We’re not in the killing business. But these guys might soon wish we were. By the way, I sent two guys to wait for the man you said would be in the tower. Heard nothing from them. Is your guy good enough that I should assume they won’t be back?”

Einar. So he was probably still out there. He might have suspected a trap here after he realised two guys had been sent to finish him. He might even have watched from afar, and would have seen Hartbauer clear out in a hurry. If so, he would be thinking what Jimmy was thinking about Hartbauer’s next course of action.

“Probably not. But don’t worry about him anymore, either. He’s about to have a bad day, too.”

***

Einar sat in the dark, blinds closed, relaxing in a comfortable leather chair, feet up on the table. He closed his eyes and his mind went back to the events of earlier.

High atop the drill tower, he had watched Marsh being loaded into a car, and then Hartbauer had sent him a text consisting of just a postcode. Marsh was being taken somewhere and Hartbauer wanted Einar to join them. Curiosity prevented Einar from being angry that the plan was changed. That and the fact that the new plan might allow Einar to kill Marsh up close and personal.

After watching the cars leave the business park, Einar had rushed down the stairs of the drill tower, but stopped at the door. He listened, but heard nothing and pulled it open. He had his new sniper rifle in a bag over his shoulder, and his hand in that bag, clutching his Bersa.

The courtyard ahead of him was empty all the way to the fence. But behind the tower he could hear voices. He slipped away, a fast stroll. A quick glance back showed a number of firemen near the main gate, which was opening. Some truck came in, carrying a busted old car on its back, which they’d use to put dummies inside and bash up so they could practice some daring rescue. Good. It kept them busy while he slipped away.

Same way he’d entered, Einar scaled the fence and dropped onto the street. Nobody about. He moved down the street, past a row of lock-up garages. He had parked a few feet down a side street between the last garage and a shop.

As he closed on his BMW, he noticed the demeanour of two guys leaning against the shop window. They were facing each other, but the guy facing towards Einar glanced over his mate’s shoulder. Right at Einar. He said something to his pal and that guy straightened up, took his shoulder off the window. Just like a man getting ready for action.

Einar kept his eyes on the ground and his mouth grim, killing the smile he wanted to make. Marsh, the little bastard, had tricked everyone. These two guys were the proof. Marsh had had a lot of time to set something up here. If he suspected that Einar would be present, then he very well could have researched places where a sniper might hide. Einar had been to the business park last year to collect a fee and his brain, ever working, had noted the drill tower. The only viable place, apart from hiding in a tree, where a long-range gunman could set up. These two goons by the shop were proof that Marsh knew it, too. He didn’t know if they had watched him park, or had found his car afterwards, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were here, waiting for him.

His BMW was parked on the shop-side of the side street, rear-facing outwards. He skipped around to the driver’s side, out of sight of the two guys. He opened the driver’s door and slammed it again, then moved up against the side wall of the shop. He was at the corner three seconds after vanishing out of sight. It took four seconds for the guys to get there, probably because they were giving him time to get inside the car.

The first guy rushed around the corner quickly, no care for what might be waiting for him. Right into his enemy. Einar grabbed his hair and at the same time thrust the Bersa into his mouth, cracking teeth. And like that the guy froze, just for a second, eyes wide with shock.

The second guy stepped around and bumped right into his pal. For a fraction of a second both men’s heads were just inches apart, and that was when Einar fired. The bullet tore through the back of the first guy’s neck with ease, no resistance there beyond a couple of cervical vertebra named Atlas and Axis. The bullet went straight through the guy and said hi to his pal. Guy one dropped straight down. Guy two fell back, blood and flesh erupting from his pulverised face.

The shot had been quite loud, despite the first guy’s mouth acting like a weak silencer. Einar knew he had to get away, quick. But he took a second to stare down at the two dead men, noting their bright clothing and remembering his time at the abandoned swimming pool. These guys were dressed like those guys. Part of the same gang. Back then, that gang had wanted to harm Marsh. Now the gang was helping him. Something was going on and it wasn’t good.

Einar kicked a loose arm aside to clear a path for his car and reversed the vehicle out of the side road.

He set his SatNav, but not with the postcode Hartbauer had sent him. If Marsh had laid a trap for Einar with the two dead goons back by the shops, then for sure he had one planned for Hartbauer and his men, too. And Hartbauer would be driving straight into it right about now. Einar wanted no part of it. It was only a semi-final. The endgame would take place elsewhere. And he had decided to allocate himself a bye right to the final.

Now, his eyes flicked open as he heard a noise. Einar rose from the chair and moved to the window. As he walked, he watched his feet step on the reflection of his feet on the mirrored floor. He opened down through the blinds. The house was at the end of a gravel driveway that weaved like a snake, flowery lawns either side. The gate at the end was open and Hartbauer’s Toyota truck was racing along the drive, the driver going too fast to keep on the winding track. The vehicle’s big wheels cut into the grass, throwing up mud. They threw up gravel as the vehicle skidded to a stop before the house. Einar heard the small stones strike the front door, below him.

Hartbauer’s ample frame blundered out of the car and vanished out of sight under the sill. Einar opened the blinds, allowing bright light to wash over the room, and then moved away and sat back in the chair. As he reversed his journey, he watched his reflection again, but this time had to squint against the bright light bouncing off the floor. The mirrored floor seemed to make the whole room glow. He put his feet up again, next to the laptop computer. In front of both was his new rifle, a Falcon, handed over by a guy he knew in Peckham. Good old London, every part of it just minutes away from the next.

He heard the man rushing up the stairs with heavy thuds, fast at first and then slowing as his stamina left him.

Hartbauer stumbled in the door and froze with his hand on the handle. His face was soaked in sweat and patches had darkened his suit under the arms. His eye were wild, fear all over his face. And those eyes went from Einar to the gun, gun to Einar.

“At first I thought I was losing my touch,” Einar said, moving his feet apart so he could see the other man properly. “Then I thought I was just careless. Didn’t care. Now I know different.”

“What are you doing here? Your car’s not outside. How did you get in? There was a trap at the warehouse. Did you know about it? I managed to escape.” Hartbauer puffed.

“To see you. Parked a street over. Back door. I figured. No. And I bet escape isn’t the right word. I bet you sent your men inside while you watched from a nice, safe distance. You tore out of there the moment you heard trouble. Right back here, no doubt planning to flee. You came here to grab a few things and get out of Dodge. Maybe a long break in the Philippines, where you might have some respect, where people fear you maybe. Some jungle village where you can buy rather than earn fear.”

Hartbauer just stared at him.

“I realised it wasn’t carelessness or eroded skill,” Einar said as he got up from the chair. He moved around the big table and took Hartbauer’s arm, softly, without threat. “It was a kind of self-destruct in me. I’m bored of all this now. There’s nothing new. Nothing to intrigue me. I don’t need the money, and I don’t need the respect.” He led the bigger man around the table and sat him down in the chair. Pushed the chair as close to the desk as Hartbauer’s big belly would allow. Slid the laptop closer, and lifted the man’s arms, placed his fingers on the keyboard. He laid a piece of paper with some numbers on it next to the laptop.

“I’m done, just like you,” Einar said as he walked to the window, giving Hartbauer his back as he stared out. “I was burning bridges, I think. That’s what some psychiatrist would say. My face is on cameras, prints left everywhere, bodies lying in the street, weapons discarded for anyone to find. Self-destruct. Only way to avoid going down is to get out. Go home and live a quiet life in the sun. Same plan as yours. Only you got fucked over by a better man, while there’s none better than me so I had to engineer my own fall from the top.”

“What do you want, Einar?”

“Something that will take away the irritating itch. My time here has been a pain in the neck. I don’t need the money, but I need something to show for my time. I want the money to pay for sweet things, just so I’ll know it was worth all the headaches. You’re going to transfer money to me, into that account number I gave you. Ten million pounds. That might just be enough to work as an analgesic.”

“Ten Million?” Hartbauer spat. “For what? For lying to me, for failing to do your job? For running out when I needed you this morning?”

“James Marsh, serial killer, hit man, supermarket manager, is coming here to kill you, Hartbauer. And I’m going to kill him. The only question is, how much do I allow him to achieve before I end his life? But that choice is yours, not mine. And I think you understand what I mean. So you pay ten million, or I go into standby for twenty minutes. Survive that long, you just saved ten million English pounds. Fastest money you ever made. Otherwise, I guess you lose all forty-six million that I know you’re worth. Think you can survive twenty minutes without me?”

Both men perked up as they heard a car’s engine rising in volume. Einar turned from the window and stared at Hartbauer. Both men locked eyes, listening as the whine grew louder. Then there was a skidding noise, wheels burning rubber. Einar smiled at the other man.

“Your life countdown is ticking,” he said.

Hartbauer looked down at his laptop and started hitting the keys frantically.

***

Hartbauer’s street was wide, the houses all set high on sloping lawns hidden behind knee-high walls with ornate fencing on top. The fencing was all uniform, but the owners had personalised their property with different kinds of gates. Most were wrought iron and basic, while some had gone for elaborate ornate ones, but for each one of those, there was another that was wooden or metal panels. Hartbauer’s was the latter.

Jimmy checked the Google map and saw the pointer was close, right upon him on the left side. The icon denoting his car moved off the road as he turned into a driveway and was swallowed up by the destination marker. Not needed now, he swept the electronic tablet off his lap and into the passenger footwell. It had done its job, the software inside having tracked the Sim card he had affixed to Hartbauer’s front bumper when he pretended to fall against the vehicle earlier.

The driveway wound left and right, as if it had been shipped here whole but was too long to fit between the gates and the house. He drove a straight line, cutting the corners, taking the line of a newel post through a spiral staircase.

There was only one car out front: Hartbauer’s pickup truck.

The house was Neo-colonial, rectangular, pale faux brick siding. It had a portico with a pediment above, Palladian windows with cream shutters, and an extension on each side that made it look like some giant winners’ podium. There was an outbuilding of brick to the right, probably for gardening gear since there was a lawn tractor parked alongside. To the right, a paved path led past the house. Not wide enough for a vehicle, but Jimmy drove along it anyway. There was a wooden fence than ran from the house and into the trees that blocked the view of the neighbour’s house, but a wide sliding gate was open. Jimmy drove through, planning to hit the property’s rear and infiltrate the house that way.

***

Einar rushed from the office, into a long hallway lined with doors. The floor here was mirrored, too, which made the number of doors seem double, even though half were upside down. There was too much visual input. He would get a headache living here for more than a day or two.

The doors were white wood, all the same, and the walls were bland. The house had no character. But he knew where he was going. The rectangular shape of Hartbauer’s home made the layout easy to figure: all the rooms behind him, including the office, looked out over the front of the property, and therefore those across from him would give a view of the rear garden. So he chose the door right in front of him.

He found himself in a bedroom with en-suite bathroom. Brilliant white walls, and that same mirrored floor. The en-suite door was open and he could see a bath made of clear plastic.

He threw the window wide and stuck the barrel of the Falcon out. The garden was long. There was an archery range down the centre, and a long bed of vegetables against each side fence side, with just enough room to pass a car down each corridor. And right there was one of Hartbauer’s blue Volkswagens tearing up the grass on the left side of the archery range. Einar aimed. Forty metres, then fifty, then eighty. Einar got his reticule on the back window, but the angle was wrong. Top of the back window, he might get his shot through the seat in the back and the driver’s seat, but he’d probably only catch Marsh in the ass. So he waited. Beyond the vegetables and the mown grass of the archery range there was nothing but bare lawn with a shed at the bottom and a low rockery with a pond and a water feature – nowhere to hide.

The car started to turn right, slowly. The driver’s window came into view, but still the angle was wrong, the upright metal section between that window and the one behind blocking where the driver’s head would be. He waited.

The vehicle veered onto the far corner of the archery range, narrowly missing a free-standing target of black circles with a big yellow bullseye. It slowed. It hit a wheelbarrow some fool had left out in the open. Einar took his eye off the scope and watched from afar as the car trundled – speed now down to twenty – into the shed. When it hit the structure with a thud, he cursed. In anger, he put a lump of metal through a yellow bullseye and rushed from the bathroom.

Oldest trick in the book. A rolling car, no one inside. Marsh had tricked him – again. Einar had watched the car for valuable seconds while Marsh, having no doubt leaped out after throwing the gearstick into neutral, entered the house.

***

Jimmy waited ten seconds after the car stopped, then rose up from the passenger’s footwell, threw open the door and climbed out. He slammed the door and peeked through two sets of windows. He saw no movement at the house, but he noted a window wide open. Too wide for ventilation. Einar. But he was gone now, assuming – Jimmy hoped – that Jimmy had leaped out of the car earlier and would be trying to gain entry into the house.

He ran past the car and back the way the vehicle had come. He ran upright and fast, no weaving. Bending over, covering his head, darting side to side – none of that would save him if his ploy hadn’t worked and Einar was somewhere pointing that rifle at him. But he reached the patio out back of the house without losing his brains amongst the worms and ants.

There was a conservatory, all glass and glass-coloured framework, like a big silver box. Even the door handle was some kind of transparent plastic. He tried it and it opened. The French doors at the other side were locked, though. Beyond was a dining room. A set of batwing doors in the left wall led to the kitchen. There was a shut door, but an open serving hatch almost as wide as the room itself displayed a portion of a living room. Nobody there.

Then he saw the kitchen window. It was a sliding window but it was closed. The handle was vertical, which meant unlocked. Was this how Einar had gotten in?

Jimmy wasted no time. He took a brief look to make sure the kitchen was empty, then slid the window and fed himself through. He knew he was a dead man if Einar entered the kitchen while he was halfway through, but nobody did. Once he was on his feet on the linoleum, he went through a door that delivered him into the living room. Neat, more like a den than a living room. Two sofas facing a giant flat screen TV affixed to a wall. One side of it, a bookcase filled with DVDs. Nothing much else, as if Hartbauer were the sort of man who didn’t spend much time at home, or at least much time in one room.

The ceilings were low, which puzzled him. The house was taller than a typical two-storey, yet he could have reached the ceiling with his fingertips by standing on his toes.

A door in the right wall was open and he could see part of a staircase. He went through, pistol in hand. There was another one in his jacket pocket, both found back at the warehouse.

***

Einar ran back into the office to find Hartbauer behind the door with a letter opener. As he shut the door, he jerked at seeing the big man standing there. Had a moment of anger as he realised that he’d left himself unguarded for a time. Hartbauer could have rammed that knife into his gut, or retrieved a hidden gun. Killed by an overweight, aging businessman. The shame. He slapped the knife away.

“He’s here. God, he’s inside, isn’t he?” Hartbauer croaked.

“Good. I shouldn’t be here long. Did you transfer my money?”

Hartbauer moved to the table and Einar followed. But the old man didn’t bother with the laptop. He leaned into the desk and pushed it. It scraped along the floor, exposing a small rug beneath. Einar just stared as the old man kicked the rug aside to display a trapdoor made of some reflective material also, but with a recessed hand of metal that stuck out like a sore thumb.

“Use that,” he said. “Kill that man and you’re rich.”

“I’m rich anyway,” Einar said, waving Hartbauer away with his pistol. He waited until the old man had his back against the wall before kneeling and opening the trapdoor. He saw a portion of a plain carpet about three feet below. “What is this?”

He didn’t wait for an answer. He stuck his head inside and looked around. When he looked up again, he grinned at the old man, who managed a half-smile back.

“You perverted old fuck,” Einar said with a laugh. Then he climbed into the hole.

***

The foyer was small. There was the front door, the door he had entered through, and a door in the opposite wall, which would lead into one of the extensions. That door had glass panels. Some kind of hobby room beyond, full of full-sized video games and a pool table, with a thick carpet. There were pictures on the walls that looked like framed diplomas. No one in there, and no place to hide, and that now meant he’d searched all ground-floor rooms except those in the other extension, and he didn’t think they’d be lurking in such a tiny space. So Jimmy turned to the staircase. Einar and Hartbauer had to be upstairs.

The staircase was more like two conjoined sets, because it had a balustrade running down the centre. It was steep and had a turn to the right after a half-landing. The final section was just three steps, so Jimmy reached the landing and knelt, aiming his gun low along a corridor. Plain white doors ran along both sides, and the floor was mirrored. None of the doors was open, and none showed any indication of what might lay beyond.

He noted that the half-landing lay level with the lower floor ceilings, and that the final flight of three steps covered the thickness of the gap between each storey. He was puzzled as to why the upper storey’s floor was three feet thick.

He climbed the steps. And ran. He didn’t know why, but he wanted the door at the end. Eight doors along the sides, and one at the end. He ran, knowing it was a bad idea. His feet thudded on the mirrored floor hard enough that he knew he wouldn’t hear a door open behind him, might not even hear the shot that killed him. He reached the end door and threw it wide, stepped inside with his gun aimed ahead, and stuck his back to the wall. Threw a glance back, but nobody was in the corridor.

He was in the other extension. He was on a metal landing atop a spiral staircase. He looked down into a workroom. Bench, tools, metal cupboards on the walls. Detritus everywhere. And as with the other extension, the games room, there was nowhere to hide.

So that left the eight rooms along the corridor. Somewhere in one of those were Einar and Hartbauer. Time to do this.

The doors all opened inwards and to the left, so Jimmy chose the first one on his right, so he could enter the room without having to move past the door. He noted a thin spattering of dust on the handle and threw the door open a foot and slipped in, sure that this room hadn’t been used in a while.

It was a bedroom with en-suite shower and bathroom. The floor was mirrored again. Plain, functional. There was a vanity desk with a chair made of clear plastic. Against one wall was a small treadmill. A walk-in closet with accordion doors wide open and empty coat hangers, nowhere to hide. Nobody under the bed. Jimmy checked out the window, just to make sure Einar hadn’t gone into the garden. Then he left the room, first making sure the corridor was empty. He crossed to the room opposite. He was getting concerned. It didn’t seem like Einar to sit and wait for an enemy to come to him. Something else was going on.

***

Einar lay on his back, like a man submerged in a shallow swimming pool, except for the lack of water. The effect seemed similar, though. He stared through the “surface” and up into the office. He was grinning. Hartbauer had struck him as a people watcher, but this was going to the extreme. One-way mirrors on the floor, the ultimate voyeur’s tool. Some kind of film used in the glass to filter the light from above, leaving Einar shrouded in darkness and able to view anyone above without been visible himself. Hartbauer must have spent a fortune on this prop.

The carpet beneath his back was thick but worn by passage. Hartbauer must have been down here many times when he had female guests. Probably told them not to disturb him in the office for a while and left them to do their thing, while he crawled around like a snake just below them, staring up skirts.

The crawlspace was like a squat version of the house, because it followed the same plan. Walls continued through it from the ground to the roof, so there were oblong doorways, albeit without doors. Einar turned onto his front and crawled to the doorway beneath Hartbauer’s office door. He went under the door, which was another strange sensation. To his left a short way was a blank wall where the upper floor ended at the staircase, but to his right the corridor ran away. The ceiling lights made the whole place bright and he had to remind himself more than once that he could not be seen down here, despite the fact that he could see everything above in high definition. The walls here were plain brick, but they had been clumsily painted green, perhaps so Hartbauer could forget he was in a crawlspace. Ahead he could see all the doors, and the little oblong doorways below them. The submerged notion hit him again. It was almost as if the upper floor began where he lay, and there was three feet of water flooding it. With a frozen surface, ha ha.

Einar almost let out a gasp as the light above him shifted and he turned his head and a foot drove towards his face from above. Then Jimmy passed overhead, running. Einar aimed his Bersa and almost fired. He stopped himself in time and watched Marsh sprinting down the corridor away from him. He couldn’t fire at such a sharp angle, because the bullet would never go through the floor. It would just ricochet off. He would have to get right below Marsh, fire directly upwards. Einar imagined Marsh dropping dead right above him, face pressed against the floor, dead eyes just inches from Einar’s.

Marsh made the end of the corridor and burst through a door there. Einar crawled towards him. Marsh then re-emerged and went through the furthest door on Einar’s left. Einar crawled onwards. He was halfway along the corridor when Marsh appeared and crossed to the opposite door. Einar stopped and turned around and rolled onto his back. He lay in the centre of the corridor, gun on his chest, aimed upwards, feet facing towards Marsh’s position.

No need to stalk the man. Marsh was checking all the rooms one-by-one, moving down the corridor. Einar adjusted his position so he was at the centre of a box created by four doors. If Marsh was checking each room, soon he would pass right over the spot where Einar lay. And when he did…

***

The next bedroom was the same, including the treadmill. Same clear plastic bath, same reflective floor, same strange transparent chair before the vanity table. A carbon copy of the previous room, except for one detail: there was a door in the wall that he figured led into the next bedroom door. It did. This bedroom, same as the last. Bizarre textures aside, this place was beginning to look more like a country house hotel than some rich businessman’s house.

Jimmy moved across this room and into the next. Exactly the same. Last room of the row, so no door in the far wall this time. He opened the single door and peeked left and right into the corridor. Next, the four rooms on the other side.

***

Einar threw his head back as he heard the muffled sound of a door opening. Behind him! He rolled onto his front and watched as Marsh, only a few metres ahead, poked his head out of the room Einar had fired into the garden from.

Then Marsh vanished back inside the room and shut the door.

Einar realised there must be doors between some of the rooms, because Marsh had gotten past him. He calmed his growing impatience. He would get the man soon.

Thirty seconds later, he heard another door. Back at the other end. Marsh exited from the first room he’d entered, rushed across the corridor, and into the room opposite.

So, Marsh was going to check the rooms on the right, but starting at that end. That put Hartbauer’s office last. And it gave Einar a plan.

There was no door between the office and the room next to it. So once there, Marsh would have to exit into the corridor before obtaining the office. Einar was right by that room. He shifted his position so his feet were under the door, aimed up at where he thought Marsh’s chest would be when that door opened in about a minute’s time, and waited. When he blasted through the floor, hopefully Marsh would topple forwards like a felled tree, towards Einar. Their faces would be inches apart, and both men would see in close-up the final, horrified look in Marsh’s eyes.

***

Two more rooms like the others, and then a surprise. In the third room he found a spiral staircase descending through a hole in the thick floor. The walls were lined with shelves containing books and ornaments, a mediocre attempt and installing some character to the upper floor. Jimmy peered down the staircase and saw that it led to a thin, bare room. He fed his gun arm down first, swinging the weapon this way and that, seeking an enemy who wasn’t there.

He moved down the stairs quickly, not caring about the clang his feet made on the steps. That was when he realised where he was. The inner wall did not reach the end walls. There was a thirty inch gap each end. He slipped through one and found himself in the living room. The wall was no such thing, but was a long bookcase that reached the ceiling. He had been in this room already, but had not looked at the bookcase long enough to realise that there was a thirty inch gap each side. He had assumed it was a wall. This house was getting stranger.

He needed to reassess his plan. Einar wasn’t moving, which meant he was waiting. That meant an ambush. Jimmy had to come up with something else. He couldn’t just keep opening doors, because he was apt to walk right into whatever trap the contract killer had set for him.

He moved towards the kitchen door, planning to head back outside and rethink. And that was when his mobile phone, on silent, vibrated in his pocket. He didn’t recognise the number, but a gut feeling told him he should answer it.

“You’re not very good at hide-and-seek, are you?” said Einar.

***

Einar laid the phone on his neck so he could talk into it hands-free. He had his head raised, and could see the gun against his chest illuminated in the light from the phone’s screen. He had manoeuvred again so his feet were facing the stairs at the end of the corridor, while by his feet was the door to the room with the spiral stairs, in case Marsh came back up that way. He heard had Marsh clump down the stairs. Puzzled, he had looked into the room through the opening under the door and had seen a tubular section here in the crawlspace, which he’d realised must allow a set of spiral stairs to bore downwards. The man had gotten lucky again. But he wouldn’t again.

“You love games a little too much, Einar,” said Marsh’s voice, low. Einar had turned down the sound. “But I’m not here to play.”

“Are you here to kill me, Marsh? Chopper. And Victor Hartbauer? You can have him. Come get him. We’re both upstairs, while you’re wasting your time downstairs. You were so close a minute ago, until you went down that spiral staircase.”

He let that sink in. What would Marsh think of the fact that Einar knew his movements? There were no cameras in the house – with a viewing room under the entire upper floor, they weren’t needed – so this would spin Marsh’s mind.

“This ends today, Einar.”

“Then come end it, Marsh. Foreplay over. I’m upstairs, in the one room didn’t check. One to go. Here I am. Come on back up the spiral staircase and carry on your search.”

“Maybe I’ll just get on out of here and phone the police, Einar. And watch them arrest you.”

“Good plan. But I’ll be alive, Marsh. And even if you watch me carted away in a prison van, you’ll never know, will you? Where I am, what I’m planning. You’ll go grey with worry in a month. Maybe I’ll send people after you. Maybe you’ll read about my escape one day, and then you’ll be on the run again. So why don’t you come on up and finish this? Make it so I’m never a problem again.”

There was no reply. And a few moments later Einar saw why. Marsh was trying not to give himself away with his voice, because he was coming back up the stairs. The main flight, this time. Of course he wasn’t going to climb back up the spiral stairs. A few metres away, Einar watched as first a gun, then arms, then a head and body rose up seemingly out of the floor from the end of the corridor. Marsh held the gun one-handed, phone to his ear. So the man was planning to search the rooms after all, but from the other end this time.

Einar decided not to move. He would wait where he was, and Marsh would come to him, and there would be no chance of Marsh slipping past him this time. He would approach the office cautiously, because all other hiding places had been checked and discarded. He would make that final approach slowly, eyes searching all around, left and right and forwards and backwards, and maybe even upwards – but not down. Not where the threat was. Einar had already given Marsh the line, his catchphrase, but it counted for nothing given all the failures he had had since. He needed that line to be given again, his final line, the last thing Marsh heard on this planet. And he was fated to do so, because Marsh had his phone to his ear in the hope Einar would say something that would betray his position and offer Marsh a sliver of help in a battle he must know he couldn’t possibly win.

“Getting closer,” Einar whispered into the phone. He watched Marsh freeze at the top of the stairs, swinging his gun all around him. Then he moved on towards the door to Hartbauer’s office. Einar smiled. Just feet away. He could take the shot now. But he decided to let Marsh enter the office and take out Hartbauer and save Einar a job. And when Marsh exited again, Einar would kill him.

He saw Marsh’s hand hit the handle, and said, “Careful, I might be right behind that door.”

Marsh froze, the handle-half turned. That was when the door flew open, making Marsh jerk back. And out flew Hartbauer like a man possessed. He was screaming that he was sorry. He ran towards Einar, lumbering, head low, hands in the air, fearing a shot in the back.

Marsh stuck out a foot. Hartbauer tripped and landed hard just a yard away from Einar’s feet. He lay on his back, hands over his face as Marsh moved towards him, gun aimed right at him, head moving about, checking left and right and behind, ever cautious of a surprise attack. He stopped before the big man, and Einar aimed right at him. Six feet, but he needed the man closer. The angle through the glass could still throw the bullet off, and Einar was still breathing because of just such an occurrence.

“Where’s Einar?” he heard the man say.

“So close you won’t believe it,” Einar said quietly into his phone. He saw Marsh’s fist tighten hard around the phone by his ear. Hartbauer turned onto his hands and knees, still moaning, and started to crawl. He went right over Einar, then stopped. Marsh took a step towards him.

“Where are you, you bastard?” Hartbauer screamed, slapping his meaty palm into the floor. “Kill him, kill him.”

Marsh took another step, and Einar’s gun tracked him, moving towards the vertical, creating the angle he needed through the glass. One more step, and it would be all over.

But Marsh stopped, and Einar felt a chill as he saw the realisation wash over his enemy’s face. But it was too late for him. They were mere inches apart, yet Marsh was blind and Einar could see everything. He touched the barrel of the gun to the glass.

“Your life countdown just reached zero,” he whispered into the phone on his neck.

***

Jimmy pictured the transparent chairs. That was what did it. Not the reflective floor, or Hartbauer slamming his hand onto it, screaming into it. They paved the path, set the foundations, pushed the rolling stone over the precipice. But it was the chairs that provided the momentum, the gravity that hauled him towards realisation. Transparent chairs.

His hand flicked out, towards the wall. His finger hit the light switch and plunged the corridor into blackness.

And there, there on the floor, or in the floor: a little pale light, just a dot, blurry like something illuminated under water. That light bloomed into a starburst as he was yanking his gun down, forcing it down, like a man chopping with an axe. He felt glass erupt over him, and heard one of the lights in the ceiling burst. But by then he was already falling back, and firing his own gun at where that little light had been a star before it went nova. One, two, three shots, and then he was on his ass on the floor, seeing starbursts in his vision now. All faded to black again, and silence.

Then he heard Hartbauer laughing.

***

Hartbauer didn’t laugh for long. Jimmy found the switch and lit up the corridor again. Hartbauer saw him and all the mirth in his life was gone, maybe forever. Jimmy was staring at him, aiming the gun. But Hartbauer was staring at the floor, fingers tracing four small holes surrounded by spiderweb cracks in the glass.

“All the money you could want,” Hartbauer said. The other man said nothing, just stepped forward and yanked Hartbauer to his feet.

He forced the man down the corridor, and down the stairs. In the big living room, Hartbauer looked at the ceiling, where there were three bullet holes, two of them leaking blood in a steady drip onto a coffee table. Hartbauer saw the blood and knew for sure he had lost. He had held on to a sliver of hope that Einar would still end this the right way. That sliver was gone.

“I can make you and your family rich,” he said. The other man cracked him in the head with the gun and forced him towards the door.

Hartbauer was forced outside, into the back garden. His mind was racing. He saw a car, one of the ones he’d bought for his bodyguards, kissing his garden shed, but his mind was in too much turmoil to even wonder what had happened here. They trekked towards it, Marsh following behind with the gun.

“Millions, Marsh. Don’t be an idiot.”

At the car, Marsh opened the boot, told him to get in.

Hartbauer lay in the dark for what seemed like hours, but the glow on his watch face told him it was just over seventy minutes. So he had given up shouting for help sixty-five minutes ago. The car hadn’t moved, and Marsh had gone. Someone would find him soon, and then he would be free. And if Marsh thought this was all over, he was going to be -

Noises. Voices. He banged on the boot lid, shouting for help. More than one voice, which meant it wasn’t Marsh returning to finish him off. He heard a door open and then the engine start up. He rapped on the lid again, fearing that they hadn’t heard him.

“Jesus, thank God,” Hartbauer moaned when the boot flipped open and light flooded in, glorious daylight. He saw two faces above him, grinning down. Both black, both young. He didn’t know these men, but he was going to reward them. He tried to sit up, but one of the men pushed him back down, hard. The fear returned.

“Alfo Pitchford’s brother-in-law would like to meet you,” said the other man, and slammed the lid again.

***

Maria was on a swing in the park behind the inn, watching Louise on the roundabout again, when she felt something behind her. Just some sense that someone was there. She turned, and there was Jimmy, striding towards her. She didn’t move, because she couldn’t read the story on his face. But then she got up and ran to him, because he was breathing and walking, and that had to be good, right?

They hugged, and he said nothing, and she said nothing. For a time there was silence, apart from the creaking of the roundabout. Then that stopped. Maria and Jimmy didn’t hear Louise’s approach, knew nothing of it until she forced them apart, shouting, “Daaaaaady’s back, daaady’s back.”

He hauled her into the air and hugged her. Stared right over her at Maria, who mouthed a question: is it over?

He didn’t answer her, just lavished kisses on his daughter.

“Daddy, bored here. Wanna play rounbot?”

Now Jimmy looked at Maria, but spoke to his daughter. “Roundabout? Well, how about we go home instead?”

THE END


Cat & Mouse

The cat in this story is Einar, known as a Master in the world of the contract killer. The mouse is James Marsh, a businessman with a wife and a child and, you'd expect, no skills to outwit a professional killer. But James Marsh isn't quite what you expect. In his spare time he does a spot of the old hitman stuff himself - as you do. So maybe the mouse can outwit the cat in this story. And, if he can stay alive, he might just find out who put a killer on his tail. (previously published as THE EXECUTION GAME)

  • ISBN: 9781311437020
  • Author: Peter Ackers
  • Published: 2016-01-12 11:20:11
  • Words: 85124
Cat & Mouse Cat & Mouse