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The Assassin Who Loved Me
Love too is a crime. Especially if you are DI Cathy Collins investigating the murder of two junior doctors and your lover is ex-SAS Captain Mick O’Neal, now a chauffeur, an occasional gigolo and an assassin for hire.
1. Eight years ago
The sun warmed his face and chest as he lay stretched out on the deck, rocking gently, the boat drifting on the open sea. Mick smiled, tried to open his eyes to the blue above.
The boat shuddered, lurched violently, dipped deep to each side, turned turtle and plunged him into cold reality.
Glued shut. Mick tried again to lift eyelids far too heavy for his levator muscles. His eyeballs scurried around in their sockets, seeking freedom, seeking light. He licked cracked lips with a dry tongue. Thirsty, so very thirsty.
Where was he? He could not recall, but every bone in his body knew that wherever here was, it was not a good place to be.
It took an effort to remember he needed a hand to scrub at his eyelids, to prise them open, to look, see where here was.
But where were his hands?
Disjointed, every part in a different room. He had to find each bit and reattach them. Rebuild himself.
Start with hands. Where…? They were behind him.
Now, attach them to wrists, join wrists to forearms, stick forearms to elbows, elbows to upper arms and then screw them on to shoulders.
His brain clamoured for attention, reminded him he was in pain, but he ignored it – after all, what did it know? It had got him into trouble in the first place. He told it to shut up, work out how to get home instead.
Home… home was a place… No, it was a time before this… Stop! Now was not the place to think about it.
Sensations trickled through and suddenly, every single part, every single cell screamed, the pain threatening to overwhelm him.
Told you so, said his brain.
Shut up, shut up, shut up!
In this battle of wills, SAS Captain Michael O’Neal needed to win, if only to survive.
Oh, alright then. His brain slunk off to sulk in a corner, taking with it most but not all the pain. After all, it wouldn’t do to give the man a total victory.
Mick tried to ignore the stench of sweat, urine, faeces and stale food in the room. No one else in here, so it must be his own excretions. That had to be better than sitting in someone else’s defecations, right?
His brain smirked; it was not done with him yet. First, it booted forward a memory, the image of one of his captors laughing as he unzipped his trousers. Next it pushed into the forefront, the sensations, the warmth of urine flooding his face even as he jerked his head while holding his breath, eyes and mouth squeezed shut. Then the pressure and pain as his captors held his head still as they prised his mouth open…
His head tilted back and mouth opened wide as a scream of fury arose from the pit of his stomach. But his brain was quicker. It leaped forward, clamped his jaws shut, locking the bellow behind sealed lips. It had figured out that it needed to keep the man alive if it wanted to continue occupying its free lodgings in his skull. With a sigh, it got to work.
Eyes shut, Mick drew in several deep breaths, took stock. Wrists cuffed together behind the back of the metal chair. He stretch-tested them. Bound tight, the plastic zip ties pinching the skin. He tried lifting his hands and gasped in surprise to find that he could. They had not cuffed him to the chair.
Memory crash-landed, ejecting its passengers all at once.
He remembered the bang, the explosion that rocked the jeep as the bazooka hit. The flash, bodies somersaulting, spraying red rain. Then voices, the sharp stab of a boot in the ribs, being lifted and thrown roughly into a vehicle, passing out.
Remembered waking up cold many, many times, the slaps to his face, punches to his chest and stomach. Three, or was it four, men shouting. He fought back, and he hurt them. That was when they used the needle and syringe. He would not let them use the needle again.
How long had he been here? Days? Weeks? The door to the storeroom of recollections of what had happened during that time, what his captors did to him, tried to swing open, but he thumped it shut.
Feet, legs – again cuffed together but not to the chair. He wondered why. Realised it was so they could move him quickly if they needed to.
Mick pushed himself up off the chair, linked his fingers, leaned forwards then sideways and twisted his arms over his head to bring his wrists to the front. He had not tried this trick in a long while and it hurt, but no more than the rest of him.
He rubbed his scabbed eyelids, picked at them with his fingernails and prised them open. Everything remained black; he saw no more with his eyes open than shut.
Panic banged at his chest until reason whispered that he was in the dark. He blinked, squinted, made out the squarish shape of the small windowless room, his chair the only furniture.
Voices outside, approaching the door. He sat, hunched over, let his head droop, pulled his shoulders back so that his arms still appeared to be cuffed behind the chair, planted bare feet firmly on the earthen floor.
Now they were inside. He watched them through slitted eyes. Three of them, chatting in Dari. No sign of rush or alarm in their tones. Mick listened hard. He knew enough of both Dari and Pashto, learnt during the months in this posting to Afghanistan to understand. They were going to move him, to hand him over to another group – to another command? Early tomorrow morning.
They came closer. One set a kerosene lamp on the floor, one carried what looked like a bucket, and all three had rifles slung over their shoulders. They fanned out, stood shoulder to shoulder, one on each side, the third with the bucket positioned directly in front of him.
“Shame, we have to give him up. I was enjoying him,” said the one with the bucket.
Mick knew who he would kill first.
As the two on either side leaned forward, reached out to grasp his shoulders to straighten him up, Mick exploded.
Caught their necks within the confines of his cuffed arms, crashing their heads into each other, unbalancing them. He volleyed the metal bucket upwards with his cupped hands, heard the crunch when it hit the third man full in the face, breaking his nose and several front teeth as he toppled backwards under the weight of water and metal.
Mick grabbed the rifle from the man nearest to him and smashed the butt hard against the side of his head. The one on the left lifted his rifle to his shoulder, but Mick brought his weapon around in a full swing, felt the vibration up to his shoulder when it connected with his captor’s jaw. He closed his eyes to avoid the blood spray and bone splinters. The man collapsed in a heap, cradling his skewed chin which now hung beneath his ear.
The bucket man tried to sit up, to align his rifle. There were others in the camp outside –Mick could not risk alerting them to the sound of a shot. Using the rifle like a baseball bat once more, he targeted the head and watched the bucket man’s neck snap as he hit a home run.
Now he had time – the bucket man was not going anywhere, ever, and the other two were busy trying to hold their faces together.
Mick dropped the rifle, shuffled up behind each man and with an efficient twist, broke their necks. Found a sheathed combat knife in one man’s pocket and cut himself free.
He needed clothes and assessed their sizes. Recognised the boots and socks on the man on the right. A simple choice, then. Mick stripped the man, donned his clothes, dragged the bodies out of sight and dumped them in the shitting corner of the room.
He checked the rifles - all fully loaded. Slung two across his back, stripped off their ammunition belts, searched them, chuckled at the two hand grenades in the bucket man’s pockets.
His brain too had been busy. It had cobbled together the tiny pieces of the jigsaw - the images, conversations, impressions and concluded that this camp was almost certainly a small command.
Probably not more than a dozen men at the most. Should be easy peasy, it assured him.
Mick picked up the third rifle and slipped outside.
2 – Four months ago.
Stanley did not know it yet, but tonight, he would meet the ghost again.
Drawing his long coat tighter about him, Stanley huddled into the corner of the alcove, his special hiding place in the rubbish bin store of the apartment block – The Naylands and waited for his alcohol addled consciousness to catch up.
It’s dark, so it must still be night. He wanted to lie down, go back to sleep, but his full bladder persuaded him otherwise.
He rose, steadying himself against the wall, and peeked out. Except for the odd traffic noises, the whine and rustle of wind through the hedges, all was quiet. He edged forward, searching the night for any sign of Grozdan Horvat or one of his friends. Stanley suspected they would look for him especially hard today, knowing he had collected his weekly army pension. But they had not yet to discover this hiding place in the bin store where the fetid, ripe smell was no worse than his body odour. He was safe here, at least until they found it.
Keeping in the shadows to avoid any security cameras and out of sight of anyone looking out of their window, he limped his way to the tall hedge to relieve himself.
What was that? A shadow by the building?
He squinted. It would not be a resident or a visitor – they would simply walk up the path, use their key to unlock the door or buzz one of the shiny buttons on the wall by the entrance.
Has Grozdan found my hiding place? Is he out there, stalking me?
Stanley stood still, not daring to breathe, afraid the hunter would hear the frantic thumping of his heartbeats. He waited until the cold leeched into his bones and set him shivering. There was nothing, but more importantly, no one out there; neither a whisper nor an unnatural shadow disturbed the hazy March night.
It certainly was not Grozdan; that evil bully did not have the patience or stealth to stalk him. Big and loud, he would barge in, pushing, shoving. Grozdan was all about instant gratification.
I must have imagined it.
Stanley crept back to his hiding place, but sleep eluded him. Something was not right. A tiny flicker of instinct, a vestige of the rigorous training of his former career had somehow still survived despite a decade and more of his determined efforts to drown them in alcohol and drugs. He stayed awake, vigilant for a long time. If he had a watch, he would know it was 02:20 am and that he had been awake for almost an hour.
Eventually, Stanley relaxed, knelt down to straighten the pieces of cardboard that served as his bed and backpack that was his pillow.
His head snapped around. This time, he was sure. He had not imagined the faint rustle in the bushes or the scrape of grit on the tarmacked drive leading to his alcove. One of the security light flashed on – something had crossed the range of its motion sensor. Heart thumping, Stanley cowered in the corner, shrinking himself into the smallest potential target.
Meow… Soft fur and a warm body brushed against his hands.
“You silly bugger! You scared the shit out of me.”
With a whoosh of breath, Stanley laughed, leaned back, picked up the big ginger stray and nuzzled him.
Purring like a motorbike revving up, the cat dropped something into his lap.
“What the…?” A dead mouse. The cat had brought him a present. Despite his repugnance, Stanley’s heart swelled, a lump caught in his throat. He could not remember the last time anyone had given him a gift. He stroked the matted fur and kissed the top of the tomcat’s head.
“Thank you, Tommy. That’s very kind. But I’m not hungry right now. I’ll save it for later.”
With the cat watching his every move, he picked up the tiny rodent by its tail and set it carefully to one side. He would pop it into the bin after Tommy left in the morning. But for now, he could go back to sleep holding the warm furry body close, its soothing purrs lulling his tormented mind and keeping his nightmares at bay.
With a sigh, he lay down on the cardboard with the cat tucked into the crook of his shoulder.
Suddenly, with a growl, the cat leaped away, arched his back, hissed at the shadow looming outside the alcove, then crouching low, it fled past the intruder’s legs. Stanley sprang to his feet, shielding his eyes from the blinding torchlight shining straight into his face.
With a sharp hiss of indrawn breath, the light moved away, swept down his body and around his hiding place. The silhouette came closer. A glint of light hit the edge of steel in its hand and Stanley knew this was the end.
The shadow stood immobile, undecided, the knife and torch at chest height. Dressed in dark camouflage, Stanley made out a lithe shape. He gasped in recognition at the flash of grey from the eye slits in the balaclava.
The ghost had returned. The person he thought this was - had once been - was dead. Long dead.
The point of the knife pressed into the grey stubble under Stanley’s chin.
He smiled and relaxed. He did not mind dying; waited for the pain, knowing it would be a quick release.
The ghost stared into Stanley’s eyes, put his index gloved finger to his lips.
“I promise,” Stanley whispered. No, he wouldn’t scream or cry out. His head tilted back further as the pressure of the knife increased. Eyes shut, he waited.
The knife withdrew, the ghost backed away.
“No!” whispered Stanley, “come back! Do it! Finish it, please…”
But the ghost had already disappeared.
3 – Today
I knew it was coming, was expecting it, yet my heart thumped in my ribcage at the loud clang of the steel cage door slamming shut. The shivers wracking my frame continued long after the metallic reverberating echo died away. I crouched on the narrow bed in the far corner of the cell, hugging my knees.
There is a special hell reserved for police officers and I was in it. The slick over-painted walls oozed with hate, dark floor hissed accusations while the ceiling began its imperceptible descent to smother me.
Even though I knew the drill, had cautioned more suspects than I could remember, I had never felt like this. Bewildered, ashamed, guilty.
Detective Inspector Catherine Collins, you are under arrest on suspicion of…
They say hindsight is a wonderful thing. I am sure it is. But cringing in the Met’s cell, knowing what I now know, could I - would I - have done anything different on that Friday evening in March?
Hindsight had not yet been conceived that evening, just four months ago, when I asked my friend Professor Andrea Brown, expert podiatrist with a footwear fetish to meet me for drinks…
4 – Four months ago
With the police station only a nine-minute drive away, I arrived early and sat in my Peugeot estate in the Red Lion pub car park, reading my emails. I even answered a few before my friend Andrea’s red BMW parallel parked beside me.
I took my time getting out. From experience, I knew it would take Andrea five minutes to collect her scattered belongings, fluff up her hair, freshen her lipstick, add another layer of mascara and undo the top button of her blouse just in case we met someone interesting.
Like her car, there was nothing subtle about Andrea, but she had the biggest heart in the universe and although we have known each other for only five years, she was beyond doubt my best friend.
Despite the well-lit grounds and paths, Andrea tottered in her knee high, 4-inch stiletto heeled designer boots.
“You are going to break your ankle in those ridiculous things one of these days,” I told her.
“You say that every time we meet.”
“You’d think an expert Podiatrist and a Professor at that would know better.”
“And you say that every time, too,” she laughed.
“Oh, look,” Andrea squealed a moment later, grabbing my arm and pointing towards a small grassy area of the pub’s car park, with its lone oak tree cordoned off by a low fence.
The man beneath the bright pole mounted light appeared to be in his mid to late forties – I would later learn that ex-Major Tom Cassidy was fifty-six. Crew cut light brown hair liberally peppered with grey, medium height, broad shouldered, squarely built, heavyset, but even from here, I could see that little of it was flab. He stared into the distance, as though he had nothing to do with the thing at the end of the lead in his hand. A scrap on four little legs rolling at his feet.
Andrea dragged me towards the unlikely pair. The man turned bright blue eyes on us – I wasn’t sure if there was a flash of recognition when he looked at me, and then his gaze landed on my friend and stayed there as a wide smile lit his craggy face.
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