A full moon and long, shallow puddles across the road and pavements painted the night outside in chiaroscuro, silver and black. Ian and Dolly staggered hand-in-hand over an arched bridge in front of the palatial Innocenti town house, occasionally losing their grasp on each other and weaving apart with loud exclamations and much laughter, then veering in again to be reunited through a random process of misplaced hugs, hand clasps, ass-grabbing and yet more laughter. At last, reaching the street and the pillared balustrade looking over the wide, flat vacancy of the river, Ian lifted his girl up to the top of the wall and gave her a long, breathless kiss while she wrapped her legs around him.

Resting her chin on his shoulder, Dolly watched the house out of the corner of one eye, nuzzling gently at his neck and ear while she murmured “I thought we were supposed to pretend to be drunk and horny?”

The two broad-shouldered men at the townhouse’s front door gave them only cursory glances. Once they had left the front gate, they’d ceased to be of any concern, despite the enthusiasm with which they’d expelled the couple mere moments before.

“I’m doing really well,” Ian mumbled into her neck, pausing to puff out the few strands of her hair that clung to his lips, “…at about half of that. Any sign of Mike yet?”

She shook her head, snapping a play-bite at his shoulder. “Nuh-uh. Everything seems calm, though.” Her fingers squeezed at the top of his right arm. “Wait a minute… There he is.” Nothing more than a flicker of movement at a top floor window, a shadow blending into first, a trellis, then up to the black shingle of the roof. “He’s going over the bicep.”

Ian pulled back to look at her face, a huge, mischievous grin claiming the lower half of his face. “Did you just say ‘bicep’ for no reason?”

She flushed, lower her eyes, but there was an answering sparkle in her eyes as she squeezed her legs to pull him back against her. “No.” She shook her head, lips pressed solemnly together, but her body shook with suppressed mirth.

“No, you didn’t just say ‘bicep’?” He was laughing too, cupping her head between his hands as he rested his brow on the crown of her head, smelling the soft, subtle scent that always clung in her hair.

She squeezed his arm again. “No, I said ‘bicep.’ I just had a really good reason for it.”

“Well now, if there are any other muscles you’d like to inspect…”

A quiet splash came from the water behind them and Ian looked down to see Mike’s head and shoulders breaking the surface of the water. He was still wearing his tuxedo; it clung heavily to his limbs as he grabbed the bottom of the balustrade and pulled himself up.

“I thought you two were supposed to be waiting at Meier’s Yard?” Mike kept his voice to a harsh whisper, his wet clothes and hair making their own rain as they dripped into the black glass water around him.

Ian tucked his chin into his wife’s shoulder and hissed at his friend. “Something came up. Can’t you wait for ten frigging minutes?”

“No I bloody can’t! It’s freezing in here and this tux is a rental!”

“Fine! Five minutes, then!” He gave his wife an apologetic kiss on the forehead. “Sorry, love, no foreplay.”

She gave him a wide-eyed, vapid look. “What’s foreplay?”

“Behave!” Ian’s jaw set. “Right! Mike, give me the ring!”

A dripping arm stretched up from the shadow of the wall, meeting Ian’s down-stretched hand and slapping something small and gleaming into the palm. “Rendezvous in the bar for a couple of drinks after I’ve changed?” Mike whispered.

Ian shook his head sternly and lifted Dolly down from the balustrade, giving her a solid slap on the rump that sent a seismic wave running from back to front and quite wiped out his ability to think of work along with any wish to look at a skinny, wet, rat-faced thief instead of his girl.

“No way, mate. Tomorrow’s soon enough for celebrating. I’ve got one more job to do before tonight’s over.”

“Oh?”

Ian straightened his tie and gave a purposeful thrust of his chin. “Got me some educating to do!” He aimed a kick at Mike’s fingers, sending the other man dropping back into the water with a splash and a drowned expletive, then jogged after the mesmeric swish of his wife’s hips. As they faded into the night together, there was a squeal, then more giggling and finally there was nothing save the rhythmic wash of the tidal river.

Advertisements

They moved together with the grace of long intimacy; hip to hip, toe to toe, swirling lightly across the dance floor like leaves caught in an autumn breeze. Dolly’s hand rested on Ian’s shoulder as they danced, fingertips that could count the threads in his vest by touch alone squeezing tighter now and again, drawing his attention to this person or that as latecomers joined the party.  The waiter with the build of a bouncer; the tall, emaciated man with the tinted spectacles and eerily smooth gait; the rotund gentleman in the expensive suit who made the speakers whistle as he walked past.

It didn’t take words, not after everything they’d been through together. A flick of the eyes, the gentle incline of a hip, an urgent indrawn breath, the warm spreading of his fingers as he drew her protectively in against him, as if with hands alone he could cover her, hide her from the spies and rivals circling the outer edges of the party like sharks around a drunken frat boy’s father’s yacht. She never lost her smile, though; an impish twinkle still reigned in her eyes no matter whom she spotted and periodically, she would press close to her husband with a twist and a bump of her hips designed to do anything but make dancing easier.

Fighting a losing battle against the urge to smile, Ian swirled her around a corner and swiftly took the chance to give her a sharp slap on the backside.  A man with short brown hair in an unremarkable style, who’d had his eyes widened by some of Dolly’s earlier antics on the dance floor and at the buffet table – Oh Jesus, that celery stick  – gave Ian a look of mock-compassion, shoulders shaking with laughter as he twirled his far more staid date past them.

They quickened their pace slightly as the song came to an end. As he bowed to his wife, flashing the smug smile he reserved for any public outing with her, Carlyle kept his eyes on a bystander reflected in the heavy, gold-framed mirror on the wall – a young man barely into his twenties, judging from the lines on his hands, but with the arrogance of a much older man in his eyes. Born rich. The only child, only son of a dynasty that cared about such things.

Fernando Innocenti. Brat. Coke-head. Thug. Terrible disappointment to his father.

And staring at Ian’s bird as the flourish of her curtsey dropped her cleavage right into his eye line.

OK, so it meant the plan was working, but he was still going to enjoy the later bits more because of it.

Dolly let him raise her out of her dip with a chivalrous hand, then turned and sashayed off in the direction of a punch bowl. He watched her walk away with a far-away look in his eye, while the laughing dancer from earlier came to stand at his side.

“If it really was two piglets under a tarp, do you think it would be so much fun to watch?”

Ian glanced away from his wife long enough to scowl at the other man. “Shut the hell up, Mike.”

He glanced back just in time to see his inattentive wife collide softly with Innocenti as he prowled to intercept her at the drinks table. She exhaled sharply and fell back, landing on her ass with a startled shriek and a bounce he thought was gratuitous even while he enjoyed the artistry. Ian started striding forward, fists clenched, a certain inexorable menace in the set of his jaw. Mike took in the scene, swinging around it like a man who does not like to put his face in the path of airborne punches, then sidling up the side of the room to lean against the drinks table and watch, dipping himself a fresh ladle of punch without long taking his eyes off the incoming fracas.

Which Ian was looking forward to immensely. His hand snapped out, tapping on Innocenti’s shoulder with just a little too much force, that edge of rage just leaking through.

Ian’s glasses reflected the brat’s face back at him as he turned from offering his hand to Dolly and looked up into the older man’s face. Something primal, male and territorial was singing fiercely in his soul as he faced the kid down.

“Oi, mate. That’s my wife you’re drooling on.”

Then his fist flew through the air like a bolt of pure joy.

The Score

June 1, 2011


The Zippo hissed like a blowtorch as Ian inhaled slowly and deeply from the cigarette. The sound tripped other senses, bringing back the smell of seared meat, the bright and shocking swirl of red as it slipped down the shower drain, the feeling of sea spray on his face as he watched the seeping canvas sack sink without a ripple into the steel-grey sea.

His face stayed impassive, blank as the dark lenses that covered his eyes as he stared down at the city. It had been necessary.

He glanced across the little stretch of waste ground to where his wife bared her teeth and playfully fought with their Husky, Gerrard, over an old, dirty, scuffed football. The puppy let go of the ball to loll his tongue in the heat and Dolly, caught off-guard, tumbled backwards to land with a yelp on her plushly upholstered backside.

Ian’s face started to crack with a grin. “Oi!” Gerrard leapt up and ran to meet Ian as he jogged over. “Don’t damage that! It’s one of my favourite bits!” He bent down, holding out both arms to help her up.

“Oh, is it now?” Her hands grasped his forearms as if she was going to let him guide her back upright, but then her legs shot up, locking either side of his waist and shoving sideways while she hauled on his arms, trying to topple him down into the dust with her while the puppy bounced and barked excitedly. Laughing, Ian refused to budge. He scooped her out of the dust instead, her laughter fading and the impish gleam in her eyes becoming something molten as she wrapped herself around him. It was the kind of look that put a catch in his voice.

“One of them.” He tried to sound casual, hefting her up a little and taking a more secure grasp of the anatomy in question in the process. “Do you not remember me toasting it last Christmas?”

“I remember your Mum’s reaction!” She put a hand to her brow in theatrical dismay. “Oh Ian!”

“There was a lot of sherry in that trifle. But wasn’t there some kind of football game going on here?”

“Yeah.” The tip of her nose hovered just alongside his, her breath tickling his face. “You just scored.”


Sirens screamed and the air was thick with the crackle of radio traffic as one emergency service after another rushed to the scene. Towers of orange flame shot sparks into the sky; metal moaned and tore and the muffled sound of explosions was followed by belches of black smoke and clouds of ash and debris expelled from the shattered remains of the apartment building’s windows.

For Dolly and Ian, it might as well have been silent. She sat in his lap, wrapped up in his arms, her own folded across her chest, pinning his hands to her with a desperate need for him not to let go. It was all she’d said since they’d been united again. “Don’t let go. Don’t let me fall.”

They watched the blaze from the roof of an old, 6-story brick-built office building, long out-of-use and boarded up, where they sat on the edge of a creaking air conditioner cabinet. But those whispered pleas – “Don’t let me fall” – had nothing to do with the height; they came from somewhere deep inside her soul, somewhere raw and bloody and dreadfully afraid.

And they didn’t matter at all. Because he wasn’t going to let her go. Not now, not ever. He simply squeezed her tighter and buried his face against her neck as she watched the flames, rocking gently back and forth with a look of vacant wonder and innocence shining from her features and the reflected light turning her blue eyes a hungry orange, glowing back from the black wells of her pupils.

Somewhere inside the inferno of Chris Walsaw’s former home, a boiler exploded, sending streaks of molten copper pipe splashing down on the fire crews below. Ian felt his lover shiver, heard her give a broken little gasp, then finally the tears came. With every sob that shook her, Ian could feel the tension, the misery, the horror slowly draining out of her. Soon, it would be as if she didn’t remember, the only signs of the experience emerging as whimpers in her sleep and tears on her lashes in the morning.

He thought about the bag of medication Walsaw had given him. It might take away the terrors born inside her head, but what could tablets do to change reality? Could sanity give her innocence back the way madness did? Did it matter who she could be if he loved her as she was?

Masonry screamed. A large chunk of the building’s outer wall started to bulge over the street, then fragmented, dropping chunks of concrete down amidst the fire crews. Men ran back and forth, pulling the fallen back from the scene of the collapse or rushing in with new equipment. But from the roof of the empty offices, those men were tiny, ant-like, and the roar of the flames was as silent as the rush of starfire from overhead, Vishnu’s sword clearing out the old, destroying the past.

It was time to start again. And this time, Ian thought, as he rocked his wife lovingly in his lap, it was going to be different.

This time, he was going to do everything right.


It was a bright, fresh morning at the San Paro Marina – the only truce ground between gang runners and enforcement – with the night’s chill still on the air to make every breath feel like drinking cold water on a hot day. His muscles were still warm from his morning run and the taste of the strong, black coffee he’d drunk was still clinging on his tongue when Ian felt someone move up behind him.

Before he could react, a soft body was pressed tightly against his spine and arms wrapped around his chest. A slightly chilly nose nuzzled at his neck, then lips grazed their way up to his earlobe in a stream of delicate kisses.

He was already smiling when he turned around to find her blushing scarlet and shuffling awkwardly in place.

“Uh… I’m sorry. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to do that.”

Her confusion was adorable. He reached out and chucked her chin gently. “Of course you are! Why wouldn’t you be?”

“Well, I… Um. Well, we’ve only… uh… been together the once and… Well, I don’t really know how it all works out here and the stuff on TV is confusing and… well, I don’t really know if that’s it and I’m just supposed to be a friend now or if we’re a…. thing.”

He’d laughed, pulling her into his arms and resting his chin on top of her head while he held her. “Yeah. You can do that any time you want. Any time.” 

So she kissed him, stretched up on her tiptoes to reach, lips tentative at first, tongue a mere flicker against the corners of his mouth. She closed her eyes when she kissed and the innocence of it made her face into something rapt, something angelic, contradicted so hard by the quickening rush of her breathing, the way she dug her toes into the ground and pushed her body into him, kissed more hungrily, sucking his breath away.

Painfully hard.

When he got a chance to breathe, he’d scooped her off her feet to carry her to the car. A car. The closest car. Along the way, he smiled down at her over his sunglasses.

“You’re the first girl I’ve wanted to spend more than the night with, you know?” He paused, hearing his own words. “Does that make me sound like a douche?”

She reached up to wrap her arms around his neck. “I don’t know if it should or not, but it makes me feel special.”

They’d laughed together and when they finally got to the car, it was hard for him to put her down. He liked the feeling of having all of her in his arms, of being able to look down and see that slightly baffled look of happiness on her face, as if she’d discovered something quite wonderful and new that no-one had ever experienced before. 

Then again, his trousers were getting pretty uncomfortable.

“Yeah.” He set her down on her feet and brushed her hair gently back from her neck. “I guess we’re a thing.”

“Don’t let me go.” She’d whispered it, clinging to him like a drowning woman to a raft.

“I promise.”

They didn’t manage to actually get in the car for some time.

Carlyle screwed his eyes shut and groaned, forcing his mind out of memories, into the present, then checked the clip on his N-TEC assault rifle one more time. In the past week, he’d picked off four of the crew the enforcers had hunting for him and spent the rest of the time watching Walsaw’s grubby little apartment building, willing Dolly to give him some sign, a signal that Walsaw was off his guard and unprotected by others.

At least his contact in the CSA had said that enforcers were getting reluctant to sign up with Walsaw. Many considered it a death warrant and demanded more money for the risk. And he’d caused the ginger cunt more than enough expense to make sure he couldn’t afford it.

He smirked as he looked at the burned out husk of a Han Cellante still sitting in the parking bays outside the building, waiting to be towed away.

Dolly had been busy on her end, as well. He’d watched her carefully spitting pills into her palm, tucking them away in a corner of a pillowcase, or quietly digging and scraping at the mortar at the base of the middle bar on her window. The rest of the time, she sat, face turned into the sunlight, looking towards his hiding place with a secret little smile on her face.

She knew he was coming for her. She knew. Not hoped, not believed, but knew. And he wouldn’t let her down.

“I promise.”

His patience had run out. Running in shooting might not be the smartest thing, but plans came with no guarantees either and he thought best on his feet.

And he needed his girl back, dammit.

Getting into the apartment building was easy, even with Maria – his second love, his rifle – slung indolently across his shoulders. He just hit all the intercom buttons until someone buzzed him in.

He was through the door in a flash, running up the stairs before his unwitting accomplice could pop into the hall and discover that their pizza, dealer or whore hadn’t arrived yet. The steps blurred under his feet but he kept his head up, eyes forward, looking where his gun was pointing. The second he saw ginger, there would be death.

It was only four floors. Never unfit to begin with, thanks to his life on the streets, Ian was prime from his months of training for the football team that had signed him back in Blighty.

Another dead dream, killed by Walsaw and Fitzpatrick as surely as his child.

That threw him, the memory of his bound and bloody wife lying limply in the car boot. He crashed sideways into the wall and leaned there, consumed by rage and regret.

Walsaw was going to pay, just as Fitzpatrick had.

No more mercy, no more trust, no more second chances. He’d left too many loose ends, allowed this to happen. Stupid mistakes that had come back to bite him in the ass. Too damn cocky by half.

And he hadn’t known she was pregnant. If he’d known… If only he’d known, he’d never have left her alone. Never have taken his eyes off her, even for the few minutes it had taken Derek to snatch her away.

“Don’t let me go.”

“I won’t. Not ever.”

He didn’t realize he was moving until his foot hit the door, the impact jarring up through the old injury in his knee. The door was solid and didn’t budge; he backed up and hit it again. And again. The element of surprise was lost but Walsaw was a nancy. He just had to get in and that would scare Walsaw enough to throw him off his game.

The lock ripped clear of the doorframe. He kicked the splintered entry wide open and hurled a grenade in to clear the way. The concussive blast made his ears ring and brought a shower of plaster down from the ceiling. He lunged through the indoor rain, a flicked glance confirming the shitty little galley kitchen was unoccupied. There was a noise from beyond and to his right, something more metallic than the thud of falling ceiling. He stepped out into a largish living room, a second grenade cooking in his hand and mapped the available cover with his peripheral vision while his focus homed in on two closed doors on the far side.

The one looking out to the street would be Dolly’s. The grenade tumbled through the air in a serene arc, landing at the foot of the innermost door and Carlyle skidded to his knees behind a couch in the heartbeat before it went up.

He heard screaming in the wake of the blast and sprang to his feet, firing. Just a blur, Ian registered the old cop diving for cover, swinging the rifle fast to follow him.

There was blood in the air, but not enough. He emptied the full clip into the chair Walsaw took cover behind, a blizzard of fragmented foam joining the showering plaster dust, then dived back into cover, slamming another magazine into place. The sofa bucked twice with heavy impacts; something long range and high caliber, powerful but too slow for this kind of fight. Ian waited for the third shot, then popped up, firing where he expected his enemy to be.

The first bullet caught the enforcer’s hand, sending his gun skittering across the laminated floor. Then Walsaw’s body exploded out from behind the chair, slammed out directly into his sights.

He didn’t question it, just followed the grey suit with the rifle as it flew into view, hosing it away with a stream of lead.

When the clip emptied, everything was silent. In a few moments, there would be screams and sirens and it would be time to move, but for one frozen instant, everything flowed together, streaming into Ian’s eyes.

There was blood all over the wall, soaking into the floor. Blood and meat and other matter, ripped out of the body with careless ease by Maria’s deadly spray. The red, chunky mass on the floor showed no sign of life. No blood bubbled in the gaping cavity in the chest, no muscle twitched.

Dolly’s door was open, the lock splintered. She stood in front of it, holding the heavy iron bar she’d pried from her window with her long, slow, secret labor. There was blood on it, and strands of Titian hair. That was why the ginger fuck had flown.

Then the iron bar was falling from Dolly’s fingers and she was running towards him. He hurled the rifle away to let her take its place in his arms, clutching her against his chest.

“Never again, love. I promise.” He buried his face in her hair, aware that she was crying and fighting with tears of his own.

“They will never touch us again.”


[ This story draws in part on Carlyle’s story, “Circles” which can be found at http://roamingpariahs.com/circles/ ]


Life has a way of moving in circles, always coming back to the beginning before ever reaching an end.

Carlyle held the cigarette between his lips and lifted the blue flame of the oxyacetylene torch to light it. This place – a warehouse, long unused, with soaked and broken furniture in the corners, stacks of shattered crates, mouldering coils of colored ropes that had once fenced out a boxing ring – had been his second home, a place the little gang he’d run with had claimed as their own. It was where he’d smoked his first cigarette as a defiant teenager, coughing fiercely on the hot smoke when he inhaled. This time – his first cigarette in six years – it came so naturally it was if he’d never stopped, the tanins rolling over his tongue, the smoke pluming slow and easy from his nostrils.

The stately strains of opera wafted over from the Bishada parked in the doorway.

Just like back then, he was here. Just like back then, he was alone. But when he reached for the old sassy attitude, it kept sinking away as if weighted down with heavy stones.

He looked at Derek, bloody, half-conscious, bound to the metal folding chair in front of him. The broken nose and the huge black bruise swelling over half his face, pocked with buckshot, took away any lingering likeness to him, but Carlyle had ceased to recognize it anyway.

She’d never whispered those light, dainty kisses along the line of Derek’s stolen jaw, up to his ear.

She’d never lifted her eyes to that other face with that look of wonder, disbelief, timorous hope, outright fucking adoration and need, the look that made him feel like a god in a tiny world made just for two and yet, at the same time, bound him to her as tightly as a junkie to a fix.

Fuck Derek. Fuck him and everything he’d tried to do.

“You’ve ruined things here, Derek. You’ve caused me quite a bit of stress. That’s why we’re here! I think I’ll find this whole experience…” He adjusted a slider on the torch, watching the flame elongate, turning white at its center.

“…Therapeutic.”

***

Life has a way of moving in circles, always coming back to the beginning before ever reaching an end.

For Derek, drifting in and out of lucidity, one moment it was as if he was a child again, sitting paralyzed on his little chair in front of the TV while his father stepped over his sobbing mother’s body and slowly ground the embers of his cigar into the boy’s neck.

The next, he could see clearly, hear Carlyle’s voice, feel that strange, distorted absence of pain as his mind screamed that something was wrong, something was missing, something was dead and unable to hurt.

Hate gave him clarity. Pulled everything into a single, focused, narrow beam and blocked out the alarm bells ringing in his skull. Unable to speak through the tape across his mouth, he put it all in his eyes, willing that hate to pour over Carlyle and simply rip him out of existence, eradicate him so utterly that he would never have been able to touch Derek’s life and the bullets, and the surgery, and the pain and the absence of it, the humiliation and the loss and the nightmares would all simply unhappen.

Then that clarity would slide away from him, lost in a haze of smoke and the smell of burning flesh. The world would turn inside out, become somewhere else.

Was he back in London, torturing Jacob Carlyle again in that burned-out house? Wiping a thin layer of blood and hair from a fine hacksaw blade with a song in his heart, a sense of freedom and approaching heaven drowning him from within. The world had moved in the patterns he set for it. Nothing unexpected, nothing wrong. Just things becoming as they should be, as they always had before.

Walking back through his unit after receiving some honor or other, hands reaching out to clap him on the shoulder or the back, his name on every lip and he, just moving through, a smile on his face and his ears drinking it all in, but no need to look, no need to acknowledge it. It was simply as it should be.

Or was he rolling on the tarmac of the school playground, battered and hurting, eyes squinted tight as he fought the urge to cry, trying to get up before Bobby Stevenson could take another kick at him – the short kid, the skinny kid – unaware that when he lashed out in terror a few seconds before, he’d broken Bobby’s knee.

Was he torturer, or victim?

He looked up into Carlyle’s face, his own face, his father’s face and watched his circle close.

***

Life has a way of moving in circles, always coming back to the beginning before ever reaching an end.

Back in San Paro, Chris had never gotten around to moving out of the small apartment he’d rented during the divorce, even when his wife’s remarriage gave him freedom from alimony and the means to move to a slightly better part of town. He’d never had a woman there before – the whole divorce had soured him on the dating scene and his few liaisons with hookers had always been in the safe anonymity of motels.

Now, though, he found it uncomfortably like being married again. He now shared his home with a woman who steadfastly refused to talk to him, turning a silent, condemnatory back and voicing her judgement in the sound of her breathing. Just like back then, he slept in the spare room, giving her the run of the master bedroom, waiting on her hand and foot and constantly apologizing, begging for her forgiveness in a voice she never even seemed to hear.

And just like his wife, she’d given him scars, though these were on the outside. He stared into the mirror, grimacing as he pulled the thread from his torn lip.

He’d untied her hands and neck, taken off the gag, then knelt at her feet like a supplicant as his fingers worked awkwardly on the knot between her ankles. He’d felt a breath on his neck and looked up, finding her face far closer than he’d expected, the soft scent of vanilla still hanging about her despite all the blood and damp, a sweetness it seemed nothing would ever touch.

Her nose almost touching his, eyes slowly closing, her face had tipped sideways like someone falling asleep. Plum-colored lips had parted, soft and inviting; he’d closed his eyes, leaning in, feeling the tickle of her breath against his face.

Her canines had sunk through his bottom lip and locked. She’d pulled back, tearing his lip back into a bloody flap and taking a good chunk of his chin with it. One of her nails had ripped off her fingertip, sunk into his eyebrow. Then she’d kicked him in the chest with both tied feet, sending him flying.

He’d had to stun her and carry her out, kept her drugged on the flight back, passing her off as his wife, who was scared of flying. She had been, too, back in the day.

Of course, when he was married, he hadn’t kept his wife locked in her room. It wasn’t all exactly the same.

He yanked the last of his stitches out and stared at his face in the mirror. It was time to close the endless circles of his life and move out of the past. At long last.

***

Dolly sat on bed with her back turned to the door, staring out of the barred windows of the flat. The sunlight felt like liquid on her face, warm and cool all at once. She drank it in, a soft smile hovering on her lips.

She knew where she was, even though Walsaw hadn’t told her. She could tell San Paro by the heat, by the quality of the light, the smell of the wind and the sea, the distant sounds of screaming tyres and gunfire coming from the streets below. She breathed it all in and smiled. Home again.

They’d first met outside a warehouse not far from here. She’d clambered down a ladder and looked up at the billboard riveted over the doors, the sleek lines of black and orange flames now overlaying the dry tatter of some ancient advertisement, long since bleached into obscurity by sun, rain and wind.

She’d been walking back to her stolen car when she heard the sirens and froze. Panic had turned her muscles to water, her voice to mist, her mind to a sparkling cascade of too many options, not knowing where to run, where to hide. The sirens came closer and closer.

And a van had pulled up. The side door had slid open and a muscular arm reached out to her. She took the hand and let herself be pulled into the van, drawn by the soft hazel of the eyes that had sparkled at her over a pair of aviators.

“What’s a beautiful girl like you doing in a place like this?”

The memory made the smile stretch wider on her face as she looked out at the city with closed eyes. Because life has a way of moving in circles, always coming back to the beginning before ever reaching an end.

Soon, she would see Ian again.


She thought it had been some hours since the video and the vehement tirade that followed, when Fitzpatrick came to sit with her. She was lying just as he’d left her, on her side with her hands and feet tied behind her and tethered to her neck, forcing her to keep her body arched painfully backwards, gagged and mute with nothing to do but stare into the dark and silently weep.

He was different; neither his cool and flippant earlier self nor the raging demon of the morning… She thought it had been morning when he had her make his message for Ian, when she’d tried to escape. He sat down on the edge of the little camp bed and stroked her hair, touching her bruised cheek and tracing the trails of her tears with his fingers.

He didn’t wear his mask this time. She could see his face; the precisely sculpted mimicry of Ian she’d so obediently followed down from her window, but it looked nothing like him now. The muscles twisted differently under the skin. His scent was wrong and one eye far too deep and dark a brown. Still, she tried her hardest to pretend, telling herself that Ian was here now, that it was his touch she felt on her face, that everything would be better now. And cried a little more that it wasn’t true.

Derek’s voice was so soft she barely heard it. She tried to move her head to listen but the rope immediately began to haul at her neck; all she could do was whimper and arch back, rolling her eyes sideways to try to see her captor speak.

“I’m so very, very sorry.”

Then he got up and walked away, the stairs creaking beneath his steps, but the light from the door at the top didn’t go out.

Not immediately. Instead, it slowly narrowed and rose, climbing up the far wall of the room while heavy rhythmic clicks and scrapes drifted down the stairs, blending with the static and the ringing in her ears until she lost the sound and could only follow the light. It grew shorter and shorter as it rose higher and higher and then, almost placidly, it narrowed in from the sides and finally vanished, leaving her all alone in the dark.

Time lost all meaning. She slipped in and out of dreams, sleep several times almost causing her to strangle as her aching body tried to relax or stretch, snapping the rope taut. While awake, she simply cried; not the labored breathing and wracking sobs of a temperamental child, but the silent, free-flowing tears that come with a growing sense of despair.

If she’d lost hope entirely, she could easily have rolled onto her stomach. The throbbing muscles in her back and neck would have eventually given out and, survival reflex or not, she’d have strangled herself with her own weight. But one silent mantra kept her waiting, one heartbeat after another.

Ian will come.

She was just frightened she wouldn’t be able to hold on until he did.

It could have been minutes or hours later when she heard sounds coming again from upstairs. At first, she thought the pounding that resonated through the room was her own heartbeat, echoing inside her skull, or the footsteps of a giant, another hallucination come to join the miasma of voices, static and music that drowned her ears.

Then she thought she saw light. Just the faintest, swiftest glimmer, there then gone. Another thump shook the walls. The light was there again. Larger, stronger, infinitely more real and there was the cool touch of fresh air on her face.

Another blow and a slew of shattered bricks came tumbling down the stairs, flooding the room with dim light from the hallway above. She fixed her eyes on the light and her exhausted body shook with anticipation.

***

The red Audi was in the driveway. Carlyle ran his hand over the rear bumper as he strode past it, dry blood powdering his fingers.

The front door. His foot met the lock full force, not kicking the door open as he’d expected but tearing the whole thing off its hinges and sending it falling back into the hallway. It was too slow for him – he stamped it down with a foot and fired a shotgun blast into the hallway behind it.

Nothing. He pumped the gun with a swift flick of his arm and walked on, swiftly turning to the left to check what was once a living room, then right to scrutinize the stairs.

The shot echoed like thunder in the narrow space, followed by a low groan. He pumped a second shot into the darkness at the top of the stairs, then felt around on the wall for a light switch.

In the dim, yellowish light, he moved towards the crumpled, black-clad mass on the landing. Derek groaned and rolled over as he approached. Buckshot had torn his clothes and pounded his chest to so much red meat; his left knee seeped purplish blood into flattened pile of the carpet. Ian stared for a long moment into his own face – the solid line of the jaw bore no trace of the stubble his own chin sported, but the plane of the cheekbones, the arch of the brow, were his own. His nose crinkled and he swung the shotgun muzzle down over his foe when pain suddenly exploded in his hip, throwing him back down the stairs. He landed breathless, on his back, firing wildly once, back up the stairs, before grabbing for the wall to pull himself upright. Derek was doing likewise, clinging to the wooden balustrade with one arm, leaning against it to keep the weight off his leg, the pistol wavering as he tried to aim through shock and blood loss.

Cursing under his breath, Ian abandoned standing and simply rolled, back into the hall and dived for cover in the living room. Rapid stumbling steps came down the stairs after him. With no time to think of his wounds, Ian spun the shotgun to the thin, plasterboard wall and fired blindly through it, then reached out, snatching the edge of the open door and slammed it hard, a brief, satisfied smirk crossing his lips as he heard Derek smack face-first into it. He stepped out from beside the wall and fired right into the door, ripping the cheap wood paneling apart. Something gleamed in the new opening and Ian threw himself down, bullets ripping over his head, smashing the screen of the 1970’s television set in a spray of thin glass shards and stitching a pattern of holes into the far wall. He went to pump another shot into the wall and something jammed, the trigger stiff and rigid under his finger.

Silence fell, then he gradually picked out the sound of hard, fast breathing from the hallway, the metallic sounds of reloading.

“I didn’t think you’d be this pissed off, Ian!” Derek’s voice was clear enough through the shredded door, the American drawl sounding alien and theatrical after Carlyle’s months back in England. “I mean, come on! I’ve done you a favor! You’re young, career’s just starting and let’s face it…” He broke off to cough and the sound was wet and laden. As quietly as he could, Ian set down the shotgun and reached back, pulling the snub-nosed Stabba PIG from the back of his trousers as Derek went on. “… we’re a good-looking guy!” The laughter that followed broke occasionally to suck in air and Ian picked out the snap of a magazine clicking home. “Who needs to be tied down with a wife and a baby, eh?”

Ian ground his teeth in suppressed fury. “You’ve already signed your own death warrant, Fitzpatrick. Don’t make me want to take my time about it!”

The door flew open; he rolled and fired the PIG while bullets spat into the floor where he’d lain. He saw the sparks as the twin darts hit even as he registered a sudden, searing heat across his bicep. The swinging door hit an armchair and slammed closed before he could fire the second shot that would bring the man down. He heard Derek move back into cover, cursing as he yanked the darts from his body.

“Aw, that’s sweet! Tell me the truth though, man to man… That question that’s whirling in your head, the one that’s been keeping you awake at night… Are you scared I fucked her for her sake, or because you’re afraid she might have liked it?”

Ian grabbed the coal-scuttle and threw it at the door as it opened, the metal bucket knocking Derek’s aim wide, giving him time to take cover behind a couch that smelled of piss and mildew and start loading a set of darts into the PIG.

“Anything you touched her with, you sad little rapist fuck, anything, I will show you the insides of.”

“Aw, hey!” Another stream of bullets kicked flocking out of the sofa cushions. He heard the thud of one lodging in the thick wood of the padded armrest near his head. “It ain’t rape if she begs, is it?”

Ian gritted his teeth and popped up from behind the sofa, but rage shook his aim and only one of the two darts hit, the other harmlessly tagging the door. The charge fizzled, nowhere to go. He ducked again, avoiding the bullets that followed.

“What did you think, Ian? That you were going to get her back in pristine condition and everything would be just like it was before? Even if you kill me, think she’s gonna be so keen to suck you off now?”

Holding his breath, Ian flattened himself to the floor and crept slowly along the back of the couch, listening to Derek’s shots as they picked away at the arm covering his last hiding place. The enforcer was still talking, trying to push him over the edge, to make him lose the last of his control and become easy prey.

He worried that it was working.

“Seriously man, what did you think I’d do? Keep a hottie like that locked in the cellar and go buy porn? Learn to share your fucking toys!” He barked laughter, but Ian could see his narrowed, calculating eyes now, scanning the room.

The darts hit them. Derek screamed like a tantruming child. The second pair flew wild as Ian stood.

Then he hit the blind man in the face with all his fury. The snap as his jaw broke was audible. Breathless and soaked in his own blood, Ian fell to his knees beside him. Felt for a pulse in his throat and, finding it, poked at the wound in his chest for a response.

Nothing. He was out cold.

Ian tried to stand up again but his head was spinning, the room swooping in and out of focus, canting at precarious angles. Instead, he clutched at the floor and slowly dragged himself along the hallway, calling for his wife.

Cellar. The enforcer had mentioned the cellar.

He found it, the door open, a metal-headed sledge-hammer lying beside it. He used it as a crutch, levering himself to his feet and tottering onto the landing of the wooden stairs inside.

The room was empty.

A burst of renewed strength sent him tearing through the house, ripping the kitchen apart, overturning beds and tearing open closets.

When his strength finally failed him, he knew for sure the house was empty. He fell to his knees on the pavement outside, fists clenched, and railed up at the sky.

“Walsaw!”


He hit play again.

“You’re supposed to be protecting her.”

The red bruise on her cheek tinged with purple. The diamond-shaped insignia of some class ring embossed on her face. The livid finger-marks on her throat. The blood running from her nose and swollen lip. Her pallor and the way her cheekbones stood out more starkly from the soft oval of her face. The blood in her hair, the eyes red from weeping.

His mind itemized them all, noting them down like items for a shopping list.

Buy milk, tomatoes, get car serviced, mutilate Derek Fitzpatrick.

He hit play again.

“You’re supposed to be protecting her. Get your arse over here and kill this fuck, already.”

The fist tangled in her hair, pale gold strands wrapped around and over the knuckles, holding it like a leash. The man’s body, clad in black, pressed tight against her back.

The white clothes, pristine in places, torn and grubby in others.

New clothes.

Different clothes.

With no sign of the clothes she had been wearing.

And Fitzpatrick… touching her like that.

He hit play again, listening to her voice speaking words that weren’t hers. Peony. The sister in her head. Long-dead but still alive in poor Dolly’s fractured, swirling mind.

Until he’d come along. Ian had thought he’d silenced Peony for good, that with him to love and support her, Dolly had been whole. And she had been.

And now something had happened. Something had made his wife’s mind go away, hide somewhere deep in the complexities of her subconscious and now Peony was back. Her sister-protector.

But she was still alive. Only hours ago, she had still been alive.

There was no rage. Only a cold, sick place in the pit of his stomach that it all went to, leaving his mind free to work, to plan, to prepare. His hands clicked the spring of his N-TEC back into place, then hit play again. Walsaw would come through soon. He had to. And then, the only thing standing between Fitzpatrick and death was the space of minutes and the traffic in Anfield.

And Ian knew how to deal with traffic.

The video scrolled to its black end and he hit play again.

The beeping was incongrous; it hadn’t been on the clip before. He’d wound back and replayed twice before he realized it was his phone.

A text from Walsaw. An address.

He didn’t run. He just strode out to the garage and got in the Bishada.

Calm.

Patient.

Implacable.

And inevitable as death.


The search hadn’t gone quickly, not as quickly as Chris would have liked. He’d spent the best part of the day on the phone to San Paro, and he’d quickly discovered that among Derek’s friends, the truth wasn’t going to get him anywhere.

“So? Who the fuck cares about some crim girl?”

“Are you asking me to sell out a bro, dude?”

“Look Walsaw, even if he’s gone off the rails, Fitzpatrick’s still your partner.”

“Way to go, Derek!”

“Better dead than on the streets.”

“Sorry mate, I’m not selling out another ‘forcer.”

“Fuck off, Walsaw, you ginger cunt.”

So he’d changed his tactics. Anton had been in Derek’s old unit, but he’d been in hospital for the last two months recovering from a spinal injury he’d incurred in the line of duty. He felt like a shit for lying to the guy, but he was least likely to have been tipped off by the men he’d already spoken to. Anton and Derek had been close and Chris could have bet money that he’d know how to reach Derek.

“Walsaw! Didn’t expect to hear from you! No, I’m doing a lot better, can walk a little now. Few more weeks of physio and I’ll be back on the streets.”

Chris took a deep breath. “Look, Anton, I need a favour. I’m looking for Derek… I think he’s in trouble and I can’t reach him.”

“No shit? Well, I told him that English guy was trouble. We lost Alex and Fredrickson chasing him, remember?”

“Yeah… Do you know anyone he might have been in contact with, here? Derek, I mean… I really need to find him before Carlyle does.”

“Yeah, I can give you a couple of numbers. Some guy in the Met he knows, used to work over here.”

That was the start of the trail. Derek’s friends in London had put him onto a real estate agent in Liverpool: one Mr Eltham, who, they had told Derek, could help him out with short-notice, short-term lettings, no questions asked.

The emphasis on “short-term” chilled Chris’ spine.

Eltham wasn’t answering his mobile. He left him a message, then forced himself to eat, choking down a slightly sweaty cheese sandwich from a nearby supermarket with the mug of coffee that had gone cold in the hours that he was on the phone. Earlier, Carlyle had sent him a copy of the video Derek had left when he took Phorbes. Watching it, seeing Derek cool as a cucumber with his face spattered in blood and fine flecks of bone, a dripping power-drill in his hand… It didn’t leave him with much of an appetite, but Chris had learned over the years to take food when there an opportunity, whether he wanted it or not. Low blood sugar slowed your wits, slowed your reflexes, made it easy to lose control.

And he was going to need every edge he could find.

Waiting for the agent to call hadn’t been easy. He phoned twice more, got no reply, left no message. He paced, forced himself to stop and sit down, got up and started pacing again. He did push ups, took a second shower, paced some more. Checked his kit bag through four times, unloaded and loaded his guns, checked the charge on his taser, paced again. Phoned the agent again, left another message asking him to call urgently.

Finally, cursing Derek, Carlyle, England and God under his breath, he’d slung his bag over his shoulder, torn a page out of the phone book with the agent’s office address on it and driven down there.

Eltham was out. The building’s security guard told Chris he had a secretary, however, and let him go into the office to look for her. A lot of small business shared the building; he found the sign for Atlantis lettings on the third floor and followed the wall round to a reception desk and a tired-faced red-head who, at first glance, he’d have guessed to be in her mid-to-late-40s, though he had a sneaking suspicion she might be younger, with hardship and frustration lining her face instead of time. The sign on her desk identified her as Pam White. He rested one hand on the desk and gave her a warm smile.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but would you happen to be Mr Eltham’s PA?”

She straightened in her seat, flashing him a smile that was wooden at first, then gradually warmed as the eye contact and his American accent worked their charm.

“That’s me! Welcome to Atlantis Lettings. I’m afraid Mr Eltham’s out at the moment, but if I could take your details I could get him to call you later?”

He leaned in a little further, lowering his voice conspiratorially even though there was no-one else in the room. “Actually, Ms. White, perhaps you might be able to help me?” He slipped a hand inside his coat and pulled out his badge and ID, placing it into her startled hands. “Now, you’re not in any trouble and neither is he. I’m an officer with the CSA in the US of A and I’m not here officially, but please…” He reached out to grip her shoulders. “I need to find a property your boss rented in the last 36 hours, probably by phone, to an American man with an accent like mine. I’m sorry to pressure you like this, but…” He swallowed hard, Adam’s apple bobbing. “…it’s a life or death matter.”

“Oh god!” Fuchsia-tipped fingers flew to her lips. “Well, um, I handle most of the admin for the business, I’m sure I can…” She started flipping through a notepad next to the telephone. “Oh! I know which call it was! It’s not been a busy week and I remember his voice!” She spun her chair around and rolled it to the right, dragging open a steel drawer on one of the filing cabinets behind her. “He was trying to be flirty and stuff, like I don’t get enough of that all day… Here, here it is.”

She rolled back to the desk and plopped the file on it in front of Chris. “19 Beech Street in Kensington. Rented for 1 week, paid with a banker’s draft sent by bike courier.”

Chris stared at her for a long moment, shock turning his face as white as bone. She cringed down in her seat under his furious gaze. “Someone you never even saw paid this much…” He stabbed the relevant digit in the file with a stiff finger. “…For a piece-of-shit-hovel like this…” He flicked the picture at her. “…For just. One. Week… And you didn’t tell the police? What, aside from murder, did you think he could possibly want to do there?” The little vein on his temple was throbbing and the cords in his neck stood out as he glared down at Pam while she whimpered and babbled apologies and excuses.

His hand was inside his jacket, curled around the butt of his pistol. He forced himself to let it go, one finger at a time, then stalked towards the exit, pausing just long enough to turn and shoot her an icy glare. “If I don’t get there in time, be proud of yourself. You’ll have killed a helpless little girl.”


“I… need your help.”

Carlyle’s voice sounded different. Cracked. Broken somehow. As the story unfolded, Chris understood why. Here he was, with all his money, his rep, his guns and all the muscle and reflexes in the world couldn’t help him find the one thing he needed.

The blow to his ego must have been staggering.

He was helpless, a child pulled out of his safe little playground and dumped into the adult world, where every action had consequences.

Except he wasn’t the one paying the price. Chris stared into empty space for a long moment, then nodded to himself. “You’ll have to get me out of here, then.” He glanced round at the plain, slightly dingy office of the police station. Someone had tried to brighten it up with posters and pictures of cats around their little cubicle; he stared for a long moment into the pleading eyes of a black-and-white moggy that plaintively requested a “cheezburger.”

Lady officer, he’d bet. Overweight. Didn’t quite fit in, with her homely sense of humor, her yearning for fluff and cuddles. Within a year, he’d bet, she’d be off the streets, vanishing into Human Resources to become the woman who brought the morning doughnuts and the retirement cakes, begging for acceptance with a tray full of food and the power to fire you with one bad psych report.

“I’ll be there as soon as they open,” Carlyle rasped. Chris nodded again, hanging up the phone, then turned to the waiting officer with his best smile and signaled that he was ready to return to his cell.

The waiting was nearly over. Time for the grown-ups to take charge.

***

The two men were sitting in a corner table in a nearby pub. The light slanted fustily in through warped, nicotine-stained windows, highlighting the slow swirls of dust circling above a group of breakfasters clustered at a table at the other end of the room. They were more or less alone, barring the occasional delivery of a free pint for Carlyle and an early-drunken demand for a handshake, a photo or an autograph.

Local celebrity. On top of everything else, the tool was a fucking hero to these people, all because he could kick a ball.

Briefly, Chris thought of San Paro. All the cops hurt, crippled or killed in the line of duty. He’d known a few of them; good men. Honest men like him. Then the CSA had come with its concept of “enforcement.” Hundreds of cops had been laid off, with more facing redundancy every day. Yet enforcement had turned San Paro from a quiet, middle-class burg into a war zone, and the people charged with its protection were, to a large extent, exactly the same as the people they were protecting it from. People who got innocent bystanders killed.

People like Ian Carlyle.

Chris set his glass of whiskey back on the table with a snap that made the ice cubes chink against the sides of the glass, and threw a challenging glare at the man facing him. The sunglasses turned Carlyle’s eyes into blank mirrors; he stared into them for a long moment, then dropped his eyes back to his whiskey. Iridescent ripples formed in the liquor as the ice melted, slowly lightening its amber hue. “Alright, so… Whatever game Derek is playing, he’s still an enforcer. All of this…” He swallowed, remembering what he’d been told of the events in London, the attacks on Carlyle’s family. His own imagination provided the rest in gory technicolor. “It’s all aimed at punishing you. For hurting him, maybe, but most of all, for defying him.”

He lifted his head to look back into the twin mirrors. “You’re supposed to be afraid, you know? You’re supposed to beg, to bribe, to plead… to give him that little power buzz of acknowledging that he can take you. But you didn’t. You walked into Detention Center 14 like you owned the place. You put him down, took what you came for and left, and you did it all like he didn’t matter at all.”

“So what?” Carlyle’s face didn’t change, his voice didn’t waver. Just a low, calm, even tone. “I pricked this cunt’s ego, so I should fucking let him…” His jaw snapped firmly shut on the end of the sentence but Chris heard it anyway.

…kill my wife?

“Don’t be stupid.” Carlyle’s hand curled into a fist and Chris was surprised to find himself smiling inwardly and continuing regardless. “I’m not saying anything of the sort. What I’m telling you is that he wants that power back, so he’s not going to hurt Peo…”

“Dolly.” Carlyle cut over him.

Chris sighed and pushed on. “He’s not going to kill her if he can use her to control and intimidate you.”

Probably. He probably won’t kill her. But the girl, as far as Derek was concerned, was just a crim. She couldn’t claim the innocence Jacob Carlyle had. Chris kept his mouth shut about that and stuck to his point. “But he’s clever – he’s got to know that you’ll count on that and that’ll be part of his plan. He wants you to find him, that’s for sure.”

The Liverpudlian’s fingers clenched again, the knuckles flushing white. “Well, we have something in common then. But there’s nothing to follow, no trail. Tracing her phone went nowhere and he’s got it switched off now. ”

“No.” Chris thought about it for a moment. “He won’t lead you to him, not yet. He wants you to sweat, to suffer… While you don’t know what’s happening to her, your own imagination is probably seeing worse than he could even think of doing.”

Chris pictured Jacob Carlyle again, held and tortured with drills, screwdrivers, saws. Thought of their father, Robert Carlyle, still in intensive care in London, and wondered if he was lying.

Ian just thought of that photograph, his wife lying bound, limp and bloody, tangled in plastic sheeting, dumped in a car boot like so much refuse.

Congratulations on the birth of your baby boy.

Consciously, he steadied his breathing, ignoring the sudden tightness in his chest. Forced each muscle to relax. Kept his face still. “I’m not prepared to wait for his schedule. I need you to find her and then you need to get the hell out of my way.”

“The man should be in prison, Carlyle. Or in a secure hospital. That doesn’t mean you can just walk in there shooting…”

Carlyle lifted a hand, palm towards Chris, the quiet gesture stopping him in his tracks.

“Just find her.”

Chris swallowed hard, then nodded. “I need to contact some people. He had help in London… someone back in San Paro has to know who they were, how he found them.”

Carlyle nodded curtly. Chris carried on. “And… uh… I need your… uh… debit card. I can’t… I’ve run out of money and I might need to…”

The footballer snorted, pulling out his wallet and flipping a card onto the table. “Bunch of corrupt fuckers. By all means, pay them as much as you need to stop one of their mates mutilating a 19 year-old girl.”

The old cop couldn’t bring himself to meet his eyes, even through the sunglasses. He just stared down at the card, then took it, nodding as he swallowed again.

“I’ll… I’ll be in touch.”

“Be in touch soon.”

The two men left the pub by separate doors and walked in different directions, heads down and hands in their pockets. And the specter of Derek Fitzpatrick walked with them both.

%d bloggers like this: