Chapter 1

Pete lay on a firm double bed, staring fixedly at the off-white ceiling with arms folded behind his head. There was a dent in the duvet beside him; it was warm but unoccupied.

The trip from his flat, so insignificant in the daytime when it was light and someone wasn’t trying to murder them, had been an eventful one. Pete, chronically paranoid, especially after Tina had knocked him out on the banister rail in her hurry for them to make their departure, had contracted some strange obsession with black saloon cars and ‘The Feds’, despite living in Inner London, some ten thousand miles from FBI headquarters.

They had given Tina’s BMW a wide berth as obviously it would be rigged with some kind of elaborate contraption. Exactly what was unclear, but he’d bet several hundred Euros that it had a little green light that eventually went red, converting the vehicle into a selection of blackened, twisted pieces that could feasibly be recycled as post-modern mantelpiece ornaments. The car was therefore left where she had parked it, safe in its shell of security but nonetheless looking distinctly vulnerable, in an automotive sort of way.

“Surely the alarm would’ve gone if anyone had come within thirty feet?” Tina had pleaded, very proud of her indisputably gorgeous and refreshingly expensive car and understandably reluctant to abandon it to whatever the World felt like chucking at it. With her knowledge of the World, that would either be shit, bricks or partially dismantled bus shelters, complete with teeth-marks.

“They would’ve thought of that,” Pete automatically countered, without contemplating for a moment exactly who ‘they’ could possibly be – it just seemed the sort of universally practical thing to say in this sort of situation. Raised on spy movies that invariably taught that ‘it pays to stay ahead of the game’, in conspiracy theory type situations he would instinctively assume that anything worth thinking would already have been considered, planned and double checked by ‘them’. That even included overriding the security system of a BMW 850 in a matter of half an hour, without making any noise.

After running – bent double as that always seems to make one less visible and entirely inconspicuous, especially bathed in the ample glow from the streetlights – to the other side of the road, Pete flattened himself, spread-eagle, against the damp and slightly green wall. The moisture soaked eagerly through his Hawaiian shirt and began to prickle at his back. If flab wasn’t blessed with such ability for retaining heat, he might even have been cold.

It began to drizzle infuriatingly – the sort of precipitation that is barely palpable, especially at night, but nonetheless manages to drench one unexpectedly when one looks the other way – one of the many instances in which Life revels in taking the piss.

He flicked his gaze to the left and right, and beckoned to Tina, who was crouched, shivering, behind the metallic painted flank of her convertible.

She threw a glance up to the neighbouring roof, which showed her nothing – either the elusive gunman had melted away, as these people do, or had been there in the shadows, loading a long rifle with a telescopic sight and smiling without amusement.

There was another character that probably tortured children and small, fluffy forest creatures, Pete reflected as he watched his girlfriend look forlornly at her car and then jog briskly across to him. I bet he has pretty damn thin lips, he added to himself. Like an iguana. Absurd visions of a sadistic lizard with a mini gun decimating his home began to materialise.

Tina could find no justification for bending double as she crossed the road. If there were a bloke in a high vantage point with a rifle, adjusting a powerful telescopic sight, with what sounded like a mini gun beside him, surely it would only make her a more inviting target?

No shot rang out into the chilly morning air as she reached him, and they slunk into the temporary sanctuary of the murky blackness of an alleyway.

Pete took her hand and kissed her briefly.

“See anything?” he whispered, while indicating the roof of the building against which they now found themselves leaning. His eyes were tired but a definite spark of excitement mixed with Fear gave them an almost luminous feel in the gloomy darkness.

Tina shook her head. “You’re a crazy, stupid bastard,” she felt the need to say, after having kept silent for over half an hour. “I mean… shit! Why did you have to start wading in all this espionage crap?”
Not really expecting an answer, she took the CD-R from her pocket and held it in her spread palm, tilting it so that it glinted in the limited light from the street behind.

“You just got your flat shot up, and for what? For this?” She slipped it back into its temporary safety.

Pete slid down the wall, taking most of its surface coating with him, and landed with a puff of dust on the cold, hard pavement, a few inches from a used hypodermic. He paid it no attention; he probably wouldn’t have cared if he sat on it at this stage, unless it still contain some of the drug, in which case he’d probably cheer up after a while. He sighed.

“I never liked that flat much anyway; been looking for an excuse to move for months anyway.”

Tina glared at him. “For fuck’s sake, this is reality, Pete – you nearly got your head blown off, and we’re stuck in an alleyway at three in the morning with a disc that someone’s willing to kill for. Come on, what are we gonna do?”

Pete had yet to absorb the reality; the situation seemed pretty cool so far, and planning was completely out of his league. He considered whether to tell her that he’d been in crises considerably more terrifying than this from choice after waking up on Saturday morning after ‘the night before’, but he doubted that she’d appreciate the irony.

He glanced at her eyes, which were glaring with such intensity that her irises were like chestnut islands, surrounded by penetrating, almost florescent white, which confirmed that feeling. Action, not irony, Pete decided, was the way to go. He pulled himself together, and took a deep intake of breath in through his nose in an attempt to bring himself fully to his senses. Promptly regretting this as the pungent aroma of decaying street refuse invaded his nostrils, he decided instead to work on saying something useful and intelligent.

“Pass your mobile, I’m going to phone your sister.”

There was a pause, and Pete could dimly make out from the silhouette of her face that she was thinking hard.

“Which one?”

Tina was the middle sister in a bumper pack of three; her younger sister Chloe was undoubtedly the ‘black sheep’ of the family. Chronically stupid and not as attractive as her elder siblings, she opted to wear much more makeup in a repulsively thick paste that probably dropped off in the bath, turning the water a mushy orange and making it solidify after a few minutes. The bathroom tended to resemble the aftermath of Chernobyl once she’d finished, with lipstick adorning the basin, concealer smeared impressionistically on the mirror, Tampax wrappers and scrunched tissues heaped scruffily next to the already over-stuffed bin. The rest of the council flat couldn’t take the piss though; where it lacked toiletry stains it compensated with a range of culinary delights, ranging from the baked bean to the half-digested chip.

She had left school at fourteen and lived in her ‘cosy pad’ with her Neanderthal boyfriend Alex; to the casual onlooker just another of those amiable members of modern society who enjoy ransacking bus stops and chewing on things made of raw materials, usually metal.
His forehead had the appearance of something roughly chiselled from granite, which complemented a dented head that had probably deflected a decent number of baseball bats and half bricks in its time while the owner remained oblivious. The single earring in his right ear completed the false stereotype – Alex was in fact comparatively amiable; the fact that he was also irretrievably stupid was no real fault of his own.
The guy had to be given some credit – whenever he had the honour of being asked by smugly condescending businessmen what line of work he was in he’d reply without hesitation, “Department Of Legal Effairs”. This tended to raise a few eyebrows, especially in light of the expected answer – bricklayer, yob, layabout etc., and when further probing as to the D.O.L.A. organisation ensued, he added that the D.O.L.E. was fairly exclusive. The truth is that most bricklayer/yob/layabouts aren’t actually aware of their clearly-defined social status, and are shockingly and mistakenly led to believe that the stuck up wankers are just taking the piss.

The second sister was Dinah.  Two years Tina’s elder, she had an MA in Marketing and was successful in her choice of career, with her eye on the position of Managing Director in her close knit firm. This entirely comprised women who had shared her course at Uni, forming on the surface a sharp, professionally-run firm that could almost stand as firm evidence in the case of ‘women being better in the workplace’. In reality, everyone had an eye on another position and behind the immaculately tailored executive clothing and shoes that forced them to trot like demented penguins in suspenders, each was willing to scratch and bitch her way into it at any cost.

She looked similar to Tina but with lighter brown hair and extremely white teeth, frequently opting to flash a killer smile at a client to bring them down without too much of a fight. The final touch was a metallic silver S-type Jag that even with the fairly tidy income from her firm she couldn’t really afford. Unmarried, she relished in ‘playing the field’ and often prided herself by the slogan ‘seven men in seven days’, though most of them probably couldn’t count to seven – insignificant to Dinah so long as they were stunning enough to complement the car.

The car which, despite the enormity of their situation, Pete now pictured in his mind, revolving sexily on some kind of platform with silver bunting and some scantily clad babes draped suggestively at various strategic points, caressing the shiny bodywork and pouting at him.

For a brief, fleeting second Alex’s ’89 Escort snapped into his head, parked forlornly in a cul-de-sac somewhere under an overcast sky with drizzle. There would have been some babes reclining uncomfortably on its rusted flanks, except it would probably have disintegrated under the unexpected weight, plus they would have needed immediate tetanus boosters, and even his imagination didn’t stretch that far.

“Dinah,” he answered with just a twinge of inevitability.

Tina flicked open her mobile with a touch of annoyance and punched in one of its memorised numbers before tossing it down to Pete, who was still slumped redundantly against the wall. He caught it awkwardly, and held it up to his face. Suddenly he realised that it was nearly half past three in the morning, and he didn’t have a damned clue what to say.

In a matter of seconds he underwent one of those strange moments of ambivalence that so commonly occur when holding a phone. If she’s there, we’re fucking saved and I get to ride in the sexiest car this side of Italy… if she’s not, I won’t have to wake her and whichever medium-rare beefcake she’s shagging tonight and risk the possibility of death by feminism. The rings on the other end sounded bloody annoying from this end, what would they be like over there…?

“Yeah?” inquired a sleep-encrusted, unmistakably male voice that sounded like it felt that it should be annoyed, but couldn’t work out how to spell the word, least of all convey it down the phone.

Worst-case scenario, thought Pete.

“Uh, hi. Is Dinah there? It’s an emergency – it’s important,” he corrected himself, in case his use of a nine-letter word necessitated the use of a dictionary at the other end. The fact that ‘important’ also has nine letters temporarily slipped his mind.

“Who?” The bloke seemed to have discovered how to convey annoyance, at last. Pete almost congratulated him.

“About twenty-eight, light brown hair, has a silver Jag…”

“Oh.”  The man seemed surprised that anyone knew he was with a woman at all, let alone her credentials. As the fact that he was in her flat slowly penetrated the almost impervious regions of his skull, he passed the phone over to Dinah, who had to vacate one of her hands.

“Yes?” came the prim English accent he’d learnt to fear like the plague. While sounding perfectly natural and almost pleased to be woken up, or at least disturbed, at such a time, Pete knew that this was only due to the fact that it could be a client on the line – what happened next could be unpredictable.

“Dinah? It’s Pete – we have a serious fucking problem here, babe – you’ve got to help us.”

Pete gave himself a metaphorical pat on the back – he couldn’t have phrased it better. Not apologetic: suggested urgency. Swearing: ditto. Use of the word ‘us’ – showed that her sister was involved, which was bound to get her interested, or at least wake her up a bit. He sensed a smile from Tina above him, and she scrunched down on her haunches beside him, determined not to touch anything that wasn’t first primed with disinfectant.

“Pete? It’s half three in the morning – what is it?” The accent didn’t falter, the pitch didn’t rise, and the mention of the time was only a passing conversational reference. He’d done well, by Dinah’s standards – she was taking him seriously for the first time since they were introduced.

“Not a good idea to say too much over the phone,” he added, mostly for effect. “Can you come and meet us?”

“I’ll be there in ten.” The line went dead.

The next nine minutes were spent shivering to themselves in the darkness; they’d reached an unspoken mutual conclusion that it was pointless to discuss anything before Dinah arrived, as they’d only have to say it twice.

Eventually the low rumble that only a Jag can make punctuated the silence, and Pete caught a glimpse of silver as the sportster slid alongside her German counterpart. He touched Tina’s shoulder and she started, then glanced round and nodded.

As the pair rose, a deep voice from the other end of the alleyway yelled something sinister, and on reflex the owner of the voice snapped his firearm up and fired half its clip at the recently acquired threat. A bullet ricocheted off the wall by Tina’s head.

Whipping her gaze round in controlled panic, she saw a pair of men who had obviously been searching the opposite end of the alleyway, working their way down to ensure that they couldn’t miss anything. Lucky they’d stayed slumped silently against a wall for ten minutes, she mused hastily, before the adrenaline prised her stiff joints into action.

“Move, you bastard!”

Dinah was about to climb out of the Jag when the resonating boom of small arms fire reached her ears. She turned in time to see Tina sprint out of the alleyway to her left in a hail of bullets, followed as closely as he could manage by her horizontally challenged boyfriend. She had a brief moment to note the state in which Pete not found himself – faded Hawaiian shirt torn slightly, green sludge clinging affectionately to the rest of his person and hair in incredible disarray, while Tina, despite looking considerably pissed off, could have just left the house.

A hasty dive into the glove compartment provided her with a sheet of polythene, which she smoothed carefully onto the seat beside her in case Pete decided to drip anything foul-smelling on her newly fitted leather seat covers. From this point it took her a fraction of a second to restart the already hot engine, another to swing open the passenger door and a third to flick down the driver’s sunshade to consult her lipstick. Everything was in order, as usual.

Tina reached the Jag and dived in; Pete somehow followed her and the door incredibly managed to close, as the two men exited the alley at a trained sprint, still firing. The wing mirror caught a bullet and smashed; Pete was half surprised that it didn’t bounce off.

With only a glance at her sister by means of greeting, Dinah floored the accelerator and with a hearty roar the silver S-type sped from 0-60 in a matter of seconds. Reaching the end of the road, Dinah executed a hand-brake turn that was considerably impressive for her first, although Pete found himself pressed firmly against the passenger window to the point where he could hardly breathe.
Dinah made time to check the rear view mirror, which only confirmed her fears. With commendable rapidity three black Mercs had got their arses in gear and had already begun to give chase. Only a matter of seconds after the Jag had made the corner, they had followed suit with considerably more professional skill and a lot more noise. A single gunshot rang out in the night air, and she swore for the first of what were to be many instances that night, as she lost the other wing mirror in a spectacular shower of glass.

“Bugger,” Pete added helpfully.

© Nick Carson 2001

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