With few parts of the world that I have not seen first-hand, I try to use personal knowledge, connections and a professional interest in technology to craft fast-paced thrillers that are very much set in the real world. Locations that I know personally. Present-day plotlines that try to be as credible and true to life as possible. Fictional backstories to events currently in the public eye.
My wife and I live close to the city of Cambridge, England. Together we support several local charities, including the world-renowned Cambridge Union debating society where I am a trustee.
Passengers arriving from Paris began emerging from the secure area at St. Pancras station. The automatic doors swung open as people came through in waves. Calum Ross, watching and waiting, spotted a young man in a mustard-yellow sweatshirt casting occasional glances in his direction. He hadn’t noticed him before. Another, a beefcake chauffeur-type with a thick neck, his bulging muscles constrained by a tight-fitting suit, was close by. He kept refusing to look in Ross’s direction. There was no sign of the bomber-jacketed woman he’d spotted earlier. The one with dark, curly hair and sporting a cavernous black bag. Ross stepped to one side as a cleaner came by, sweeping odds and ends of rubbish with a dustpan and brush as she went.
Suddenly, there she was, dragging a small, roll-on bag in her wake. Handbag tucked under an arm and wearing sunglasses. Ross would have recognised her flowing brown hair anywhere. She glanced around at the bank of faces in front of her, appearing not to notice Ross at first. Instead, she turned to the right in the direction of the taxi rank. Which was when he saw the small, black rucksack on her back – the same light, waterproof variety that was instantly familiar. Ross raised an arm and called out her name.
‘Calum!’ she exclaimed and offered her hand. Which, in a very British way, he took in his, pumping furiously, their agreed meet-and-greet protocol in full flow. ‘Nice cardigan,’ she whispered, his hand still in hers, her brown eyes wide and full of anticipation.
‘I wondered if you’d notice. Sorry about the nerdy anorak as well, but it’s been raining. Let me take something,’ he said, offloading the rucksack onto his shoulder. ‘This way.’ He pointed ahead of him. ‘This is new,’ he said, raising the rucksack a little. ‘Where did you get this?’
Natalia turned her head towards him, her face showing surprise.
‘Why, from you! It arrived with your note, in my hotel room in Paris yesterday.’
‘Really?’ Ross said, his voice incredulous. ‘We can discuss that later. Right this moment, we need to get a move on. Otherwise, we’ll have to queue for a taxi.’ They set off together, Ross aware once again of the woman in the leather bomber jacket. She was suddenly in their wake. He saw her reflection in a shop window as they began walking through the concourse.
‘I was going to order an Uber, but the bank blocked my card,’ he continued, lengthening his stride.
‘Do we have to walk so fast?’ Natalia was struggling to keep up.
‘Unfortunately, we’ve got company,’ he replied quietly, not letting up the pace. ‘Don’t look around but there are at least two following us.’
‘You have the chess set?’
‘Of course,’ he said, feeling the lump in his anorak pocket as he walked.
‘Guard it with your life.’
Up ahead, a lone man in a cloth cap and quilted jacket was standing outside a sandwich shop. He was pretending to stare at his phone. Ross caught him sneaking an occasional glance in their direction. Bomber Jacket was still behind them. Yellow Sweatshirt had also magically appeared from nowhere, a few steps ahead of Bomber Jacket but on the other side. Probably others were lurking in the wings, most likely the beefcake chauffeur one of them. It dawned on Ross that what the man had said all those months ago had been right. It hadn’t been necessary to go to spy school after all. He knew instinctively when he was in danger. He also knew what he was going to do about it.
‘Pull over there to the left. Wait by the wall.’ He nodded towards an exit that led to a side street running parallel with the station. Ross came to a sudden halt, Natalia passing in front of him as he sidestepped to the left. He let the rucksack slide to the floor. The youth in the mustard-yellow sweatshirt never saw that move coming. He was past Ross before he realised what had happened, his startled reaction giving away any semblance of cover. The woman in the bomber jacket was different. She was more skilled, almost managing to conceal the four-inch steel blade in her hand. Almost, but not quite. As she drew parallel with Ross, he grabbed her wrist, twisting her arm rapidly into an armlock, the knife flying and falling to the floor. Ross kicked it to one side and pinned the woman down, twisting hard. The man in the yellow shirt shouted ‘Police!’ but Ross ignored him, instead applying further pressure to the woman’s shoulder and elbow.
Which was when Beefcake made his appearance. A silenced 9mm handgun was in his right hand. The man in the cloth cap and padded jacket was simultaneously calling for reinforcements. Ross waited his moment as Beefcake got closer, the distance less than five metres and closing.
The man made two mistakes. The first was to use a single-handed pistol grip. The second was to aim his gun, not at Ross but at Natalia. The first mistake presented Ross with an opportunity to deflect the handgun, the second a small window to do something about it. He let go of Bomber Jacket’s arm. With his hands raised in a mock ‘hands-up’ gesture, he advanced swiftly and lunged, grabbing the gun hand and whipping it across Beefcake’s body, twisting his opponent’s wrist hard. Simultaneously, he head-butted the man in the nose, using forward momentum from the attack to aim a right knee hard into Beefcake’s testicles. Ross tried to wrestle the gun free, but his opponent was strong. The two men fell to the floor, the gun sandwiched between their bodies. Ross tugged hard, but the weapon refused to move. Suddenly, there was a muffled explosion. Heat seared Ross’s thigh before Beefcake’s body went limp, the gun now free in Ross’s hand.
‘He’s got a gun!’ came a cry from a distressed passer-by as Ross stood up. Pandemonium was starting to spread like wildfire throughout the station. Yellow Sweatshirt and Cloth Cap turned towards Ross. Both recoiled when they saw the gun. Which was how the woman in the bomber jacket managed to get away with it. With Ross’s back momentarily turned, she got to her feet. Scooping the knife off the floor, she ran out the door to the left, past a frightened Natalia who had retreated into a corner to keep out of trouble. Not far enough, as it happened. The stabbing blade still penetrated her abdomen almost to the hilt before her attacker fled the station. Natalia let out a bloodcurdling scream.
‘I’ve been stabbed, help! Do something, please! God, Calum, I’m bleeding,’ she said, her hands covered in blood.
‘Somebody call an ambulance!’ Ross yelled to anyone who was listening. The young policeman placed a finger in one ear, shouting loudly into a concealed microphone. The man in the cloth cap and quilted jacket, now less than thirty metres away, gave no reaction. Instead, he kept advancing slowly.
‘Put the gun down, sir.’ Ross looked to the side and saw another man from earlier. A chauffeur type who’d been holding a piece of card with a random name written on it. Not Beefcake, but someone else. The card abandoned, he was now holding a gun, pointing directly at Ross. This time, the man was using a double-handed grip.
‘Call an ambulance. Help save this woman.’
‘One should be here any minute. Now, put the gun down.’ There was a steely determination in the voice.
‘Calum, are you . . . can you hear me?’
‘I’m here,’ he said, turning his attention back to Natalia, squatting down beside her. ‘An ambulance is on its way. Hang in there, you’ll be fine, I promise.’ He squeezed her hand, hearing the loud, alternating pitch of a fast-approaching siren. The stroboscopic blue light was already bouncing off the concourse walls as it pulled up outside.
‘Don’t let Oleg’s people . . . get you . . . run . . . get away . . . find the . . .’ Her voice was faint as two paramedics ran to her side, both kneeling to check vital signs and to inspect the knife wound. There was little that Ross could do for the moment.
‘I repeat: Put. The. Gun. Down!’ The man with the gun was inching nearer, his weapon hovering in Ross’s direction.
Ross stood and looked at the surrounding scene. One man with a gun pointing directly at him. Plus at least one undercover police officer next to him. A third, a rough type in a cloth cap, also closing in on his position. Fast-approaching footsteps of yet another could be heard pounding through the concourse. Coming to assist. Multiple sirens too, some increasingly close.
Time to decide.
Given the last twenty-four hours, life was becoming complicated. Very, very complicated. There was now a dead body with Ross’s fingerprints on the weapon that killed him. Hanging around in police custody, answering endless questions wasn’t attractive. His chances of being allowed bail this time looked slim. Even Natalia had told him to run.
The man with the handgun would have been on a risk assessment course. He was unlikely to shoot in the still-crowded, but rapidly thinning concourse: the chances of a ricochet were too high.
The open doorway, however, was behind him. A few feet away. It was tempting.
Without losing eye contact with the man with the gun, he carefully lowered his weapon to the floor. Inch by inch, until it was finally resting on the ground. He glanced briefly at Natalia. The paramedics were busy getting lines up and doing what they could to stem the blood flow.
Which was the moment Ross shouted, ‘Look out!’, pointing to something behind the gunman’s back.
The precise moment he bolted for the open door.