The phone slipped from Ian’s fingers and clattered loudly on the tiled floor before springing back up on its cord, oscillating gently against the wall, a woman’s voice still sounding, tinny and distant, from the speaker. His whole face was frozen, numb. Dolly reached for him, torn with concern, sharing his pain before she could even know what it was. But his hand went back to the phone, moving slowly, like a man on strings.

“Mam? Mam? I’ll be there soon. Which hospital?”

Even with the phone at Ian’s ear, Dolly could hear his mother’s shriek of protest. “No! You mustn’t! That’s exactly what he wants! Oh god, Ian, you have to get out of there, you have to stay away from here!”

He reached out with his free hand and lightly caressed Maria, the N-TEC assault rifle lying on the kitchen counter before him, feeling the wear from his hands under the barrel, the smoothness of the butt where it had lain so often against his shoulder. “It’ll be okay, Mam. I can look after myself and you need me there. With Jacob and Dad both…”

No, Ian!” Her voice had a core of steel in it and brought a score of childhood memories bubbling to mind – the dressing-down she’d given him and his brother after catching them fighting over the top bunk, or listening at the door at midnight as she tore strips off their father for coming home drunk. Those moments had been all the more surprising for her normally sweet¬†demeanor. Her tone softened. “We will all be fine if he has to keep moving to look for you. The police are on the lookout here now – he won’t stick around if he doesn’t have to. But you two… you have to get out of there. Go somewhere he can’t find you. Leave the country if you have to. But if you come here… He’ll kill us all, I’m sure of it.”

He hesitated and his mother sank the final nail into the gap. “You might be able to look after yourself, but your father and Jacob can’t now. You can’t protect all of us, son.”

Numb. He tried to say something, to argue with her, but the shock robbed him of his voice and a red blur fogged his vision. His fingers convulsed, clenching into fists and spreading again. He barely felt the cream plastic of the telephone handset fracture in his grip nor Dolly’s gentle hands as she took it from him, didn’t hear her voice through the static in his ears as she spoke some final words to his mother before hanging up. She led him through a world of roiling, spitting rage and deep veins of betrayal ¬†to a chair, then knelt in front of him, hands on his knees, looking up at him with eyes luminous with concern.

“What do we do?”

That reached him. He ran his fingers through the soft gold of her hair, then cupped her chin, lifting it to look down into the trust in her eyes. She had only ever doubted him once, and never again. She, at least, trusted him to know what to do, to be able to do it.

But just this once, he didn’t know what to do. That feeling of helplessness – the chilly fear that his mother might be right, that there was nothing he could do – it paralyzed him.

“Ian?” His eyes focused again on her face. She’d been so happy at the thought of having a proper home, a “nest” where could they could live together and raise their family, of never having to run again… But these pricks just wouldn’t leave them alone.

“It’ll be okay, love. I have to…”

She cut him off. “Ian, there’s someone outside!”

He jumped to his feet, making her rock swiftly backwards to get out of his way. “Walsaw! Shit, I forgot he was coming.”

“He’s here? At our home? He’s real?”

He’d not had the chance to tell her about the deal with Walsaw before the phone call had come. He’d been a fool to trust him, to think he could be working solo. Walsaw and Fitzpatrick were fucking partners! A deep, hidden corner of his mind flushed with relief and the adrenaline started to flow. Here, at least, was a situation he could handle, something he could do, and he had one good card still in his hand. “Take this, love.” He pulled the Beretta from his belt and handed it to her. “Keep it behind you and go answer the door. If it’s the ginger prick, let him in, but only him. Make sure he knows it.”

She didn’t ask questions. Just swallowed hard, took the gun and walked out into the hall. Picking up Maria, he shot a quick glance at his wife’s ass as she swished from the room.

Yeah. Maybe everything wasn’t ruined quite yet.

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