Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty – Extract

Big Little Lies

chapter one

‘That doesn’t sound like a school trivia night,’ said Mrs Patty Ponder to Marie Antoinette. ‘That sounds like a riot.’

The cat didn’t respond. She was dozing on the couch, and found school trivia nights to be trivial.

‘Not interested, eh? Let them eat cake! Is that what you’re thinking? They do eat a lot of cake, don’t they? All those cake stalls. Goodness me. Although I don’t think any of the mothers ever actually eat them. They’re all so sleek and skinny, aren’t they? Like you.’

Marie Antoinette sneered at the compliment. The ‘let them eat cake’ thing had grown old a long time ago, and she’d recently heard one of Mrs Ponder’s grandchildren say it was meant to be ‘let them eat brioche’ and also that Marie Antoinette never said it in the first place.

Mrs Ponder picked up her television remote and turned down the volume on Dancing with the Stars. She’d turned it up loud earlier because of the sound of the heavy rain but the downpour had eased now.

She could hear people shouting. Angry hollers crashed through the quiet, cold night air. It was somehow hurtful for Mrs Ponder to hear, as if all that rage was directed at her. (Mrs Ponder had grown up with an angry mother.)

‘Goodness me. Do you think they’re arguing over the capital of Guatemala? Do you know the capital of Guatemala? No? I don’t either. We should google it. Don’t sneer at me.’

Marie Antoinette sniffed.

‘Let’s go see what’s going on,’ said Mrs Ponder briskly. She was feeling nervous and therefore behaving briskly in front of the cat, the same way she’d once done with her children when her husband was away and there were strange noises in the night.

Mrs Ponder heaved herself up with the help of her walker. Marie Antoinette slid her slippery body comfortingly in between Mrs Ponder’s legs (she wasn’t falling for the brisk act) as her owner pushed the walker down the hallway to the back of the house.

Her sewing room looked straight out on to the schoolyard of Pirriwee Public.

‘Mum, are you mad? You can’t live this close to a primary school,’ her daughter had said, when Mrs Ponder was first looking at buying the house.

But she loved to hear the crazy babble of children’s voices at intervals throughout the day, and she no longer drove, so she couldn’t care less that the street was jammed with those giant, truck-like cars they all drove these days, with women in big sunglasses leaning across their steering wheels to call out terribly urgent information about Harriette’s ballet and Charlie’s speech therapy.

Mothers took their mothering so seriously now. Their frantic little faces. Their busy little bottoms strutting into the school in their tight gym gear. Ponytails swinging. Eyes fixed on the mobile phones held in the palms of their hands like compasses. It made Mrs Ponder laugh. Fondly, though.

Her three daughters, although older, were exactly the same. And they were all so pretty.

‘How are you this morning?’ she always called out, if she was on the front porch with a cup of tea, or watering the front garden as the mothers went by.

‘Busy, Mrs Ponder! Frantic!’ they always called back, trotting along, yanking their children’s arms. They were pleasant and friendly and just a touch condescending because they couldn’t help it. She was so old! They were so busy!

The fathers, and there were more and more of them doing the school run these days, were different. They rarely hurried, strolling past with a measured casualness. No big deal. All under control. That was the message. Mrs Ponder chuckled fondly at them too.

But now it seemed the Pirriwee Public parents were misbehaving. She got to the window and pushed aside the lace curtain. The school had recently paid for a window guard after a cricket ball had smashed the glass and nearly knocked out Marie Antoinette. (A group of Year 3 boys had given her a hand-painted apology card which she kept on her fridge.)

There was a two-storey sandstone building on the other side of the playground with an event room on the second level, and a big balcony with ocean views. Mrs Ponder had been there for a few functions: a talk by a local historian, a lunch hosted by the Friends of the Library. It was quite a beautiful room. Sometimes ex-students had their wedding receptions there. That’s where they’d be having the school trivia night. They were raising funds for smart boards, whatever they were. Mrs Ponder had been invited as a matter of course. Her proximity to the school gave her a funny sort of honorary status, even though she’d never had a child or grandchild attend. She’d said no thank you to the invitation. She thought school events without the children in attendance were pointless.

The children had their weekly school assembly in the same room. Each Friday morning Mrs Ponder set herself up in the sewing room with a cup of English Breakfast and a ginger-nut biscuit. The sound of the children singing floating down from the second floor of the building always made her weep. She didn’t believe in God except when she heard children singing.

There was no singing now.

Mrs Ponder could hear a lot of bad language. She wasn’t a prude about bad language, her eldest daughter swore like a trooper, but it was upsetting and disconcerting to hear someone maniacally screaming that particular four letter word in a place that was normally filled with childish laughter and shouts.

‘Are you all drunk?’ she said.

Her rain-splattered window was at eye-level with the entrance doors to the building and suddenly people began to spill out. Security lights illuminated the paved area around the school’s entrance like a stage set for a play. Clouds of mist added to the effect.

It was a strange sight.

The parents at Pirriwee Public had a baffling fondness for fancy-dress parties. It wasn’t enough that they should have an ordinary trivia night. She knew from the invitation that some bright spark had decided to make it an ‘Audrey and Elvis’ Trivia Night, which meant that the women all had to dress up as Audrey Hepburn and the men had to dress up as Elvis Presley. (That was another reason why Mrs Ponder had turned down the invitation. She’d always abhorred fancy dress.) It seemed that the most popular rendition of Audrey Hepburn was the Breakfast at Tiffany’s look. All the women were wearing long black dresses, white gloves and pearl chokers. Meanwhile, the men had mostly chosen to pay tribute to the Elvis of the latter years. They were all wearing shiny white jumpsuits, glittery gemstones and plunging necklines. The women looked lovely. The poor men looked perfectly ridiculous.

As Mrs Ponder watched, one Elvis punched another across the jaw. He staggered back, into an Audrey. Two Elvises grabbed him from behind and pulled him away. An Audrey buried her face in her hands and turned aside, as though she couldn’t bear to watch. Someone shouted, ‘Stop this!’

Indeed. What would your beautiful children think?

‘Should I call the police?’ wondered Mrs Ponder out loud, but then she heard the wail of a siren in the distance, at the same time as a woman on the balcony began to scream and scream.

***

Gabrielle: It wasn’t like it was just the mothers, you know. It wouldn’t have happened without the dads. I guess it started with the mothers. We were the main players, so to speak. The mums. I can’t stand the word mum. It’s a frumpy word. Mom is better. With an ‘o’. It sounds skinnier. We should change to the American spelling. I have body image issues, by the way. Who doesn’t, right?

Bonnie: It was all just a terrible misunderstanding. People’s feelings got hurt and then everything just spiralled out of control. The way it does. All conflict can be traced back to someone’s feelings getting hurt, don’t you think? Divorce. World wars. Legal action. Well, maybe not every legal action. Can I offer you a herbal tea?

Stu: I’ll tell you exactly why it happened. Women dont let things go. Not saying the blokes don’t share part of the blame. But if the girls hadn’t got their knickers in a knot, and that might sound sexist but it’s not, it’s just a fact of life, ask any man, not some new age, artsy-fartsy, I-wear-moisturiser type, I mean a real man, ask a real man, then he’ll tell you that women are like the Olympic athletes of grudges. You should see my wife in action. And she’s not even the worst of them.

Miss Barnes: Helicopter parents. Before I started at Pirriwee Public, I thought it was an exaggeration, this thing about parents being overly involved with their kids. I mean, my mum and dad loved me, they were like interested in me, when I was growing up in the nineties, but they weren’t like obsessed with me.

Mrs Lipmann: It’s a tragedy, and deeply regrettable, and we’re all trying to move forward. I have no further comment.

Carol: I blame the Erotic Book Club. But that’s just me.

Jonathan: There was nothing erotic about the Erotic Book Club, I’ll tell you that for free.

Jackie: You know what? I see this as a feminist issue.

Harper: Who said it was a feminist issue? What the heck? I’ll tell you what started it. The incident at the kindergarten orientation day.

Graeme: My understanding was that it all comes back to the stay-at-home mums battling it out with the career mums. What do they call it? The Mummy Wars. My wife wasn’t involved. She doesn’t have time for that sort of thing.

Thea: You journalists are just loving the French nanny angle. I heard someone on the radio today talking about the ‘French maid’, which Juliette was certainly not. Renata had a housekeeper as well. Lucky for some. I have four children, and no ‘staff’ to help out! Of course, I don’t have a problem per se with working mothers, I just wonder why they bothered having children in the first place.

Melissa: You know what I think got everyone all hot and bothered? The head lice. Oh my gosh, don’t let me get started on the head lice.

Samantha: The head lice? What did that have to do with anything? Who told you that? I bet it was Melissa, right? That poor girl suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome after her kids kept getting re-infected. Sorry. It’s not funny. It’s not funny at all.

Detective Sergeant Adrian Quinlan: Let me be clear. This is not a circus. This is a murder investigation.


Excerpted from Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. Copyright © 2014 by Liane Moriarty.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Rain by Virginia Bergin – Extract

The Rain

If this was a proper story, like the kind you’d read for fun, it would have such a great beginning. Probably they’d want to make it into a film, it’d be that good. It would start in Mission Control – or maybe deep in space, where a massive hunk of rock, an asteroid, is whizzing through the stars on a collision course with planet Earth.

We cut to Earth: all over the world, everyone is terrified; they crowd around their TVs, weeping and praying. Probably there’s also a lot of hugging and kissing and hand-holding, that kind of thing. Lots of deep and meaningful conversations – but not too many; we don’t want to spoil the action.

The final countdown starts and back in Mission Control some old duffer in a uniform stands aside to let some hot young dude – a misunderstood rebel genius who’s masterminded the operation – press the button. His girlfriend is there – or maybe she’s at home, watching on TV, whispering, ‘I love you, Brad,’ as he launches the super-rocket that’s the Earth’s only hope.

Now all everyone can do is wait and hope and pray.

You’d have to speed up the next bit. Apparently in real life it took hours and hours, days, for the missile to reach the asteroid; in the film of the book it’d take just enough time to let the buff dude and his girl find each other, so they can be kissing when:

KA-BOOM!!!!

The asteroid is blown to smithereens. (It looks really pretty, too: a shimmering starburst in the sky. Everyone on Earth goes ooh and ahh and does some more hugging and kissing.)

The buff dude has saved the planet! The hot guy triumphed! Hurrah!

See?! What a great story!

Except, as I said, this is just the beginning . . . and in any case I was too young to remember the asteroid and all that. Me and my friends, we’d seen the stuff about it on the internet and, honestly, it was boring.

Simon, my stepdad, heard me say that once, and he went mental.

‘Are you telling me,’ he said. ‘Are you telling me –’

Here we go. You knew, you just knew, when he repeated stuff like that he was going to repeat a whole load of other stuff. On and on and on and –

‘– that you find the near-destruction of the planet Earth, on which you live, boring?’

I’ve got to say that when he got on his high horse like that, I couldn’t help it: I saddled up my own. Yee-haa!

‘Well, yeah,’ I said.

I was telling the truth. I hate it when you get into trouble for stuff like that, for just saying what’s true. It’s like THEY – the parental types and about 99.999 per cent of all known teachers – want you to lie about what you think. You get into trouble for lying about everything else – who you were with, what you were doing, whether you’ve done your homework or not – but they don’t care when you lie about what you think. They actually want you to do it. It’s called agreeing with them, and that’s what they want, all the time, even if they’re totally wrong. ‘Unbelievable. Did you hear that, Becky? Are you listening to this?’

That was another thing he did; he tried to drag my mum into everything.

‘Simon,’ she said. ‘Let it go. She’s just trying to wind you up.’

The truth about that was I didn’t know myself half the time whether I was trying to wind him up. I couldn’t help myself. He annoyed me. My mum said we were two peas in a pod, which made me really angry because he wasn’t even my dad. Like I would ever share a pod with Simon; being forced to share a house was bad enough.

‘I’m not,’ I said. ‘It is boring. Something really bad nearly happened. It’s, like, so what? There’s a lot of really bad things that are actually really happening.’

‘Ruby,’ said Simon, borderline total rage-out, ‘what you are failing to understand is that –’

I forget what else he said, what it was I was failing to understand. Same old, I expect – with same old results. He’d get madder and madder, I’d get madder and madder, and my mum would get drowned out. Or else we’d both end up having a go at her. It probably ended up with me getting grounded – that happened a lot – or made to go and tidy my room, or do the dishes even though we had a dishwasher, or clean out the stupid guinea pigs.

The thing is, I would give anything to be back there, in the kitchen, having that row. I would just agree with him, or say sorry or something . . . but there will never be another row in the kitchen. There will never be another row anywhere in this house. Pretty much everyone is dead – except, perhaps, the stupid guinea pigs.

My name is Ruby Morris, and this is my story. If you are reading it, you are very, very lucky to be alive . . . but you already know that, right?

CHAPTER ONE

There’s really no point going on about how things used to be. For one, I can’t bear to think about it – even though I do, a lot, and it makes me want to throw up with sadness. For two, it kind of doesn’t matter, does it? It’s over. And, for three, I’m not writing this because of how things used to be – I’m writing this because of what happened . . . so I’ll start right there. This is what happened:

I was sitting in a hot tub in my underwear snogging Caspar McCloud.

Ha! That also sounds like a great beginning, perhaps from some kind of kiss-fest romance, or maybe Caspar turns out to be a sexy vampire . . . but the truth is – and this is the one thing I will do, for sure: I will try to tell the truth, even if it hurts me to say it, even if it shocks you to hear it (and I doubt it will, because if you’re reading this you’ve probably had about a gazillion shocks already) – it wouldn’t be right to make out that snogging in a hot tub was the kind of thing I usually did on a Saturday night, because it wasn’t.

It soooooooooooooooooooooo wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong: I’d kissed boys before (two); I’d been to parties before (like, since I was five years old or something); I’d even sat in that hot tub in my underwear before (with Lee; that’s Lee as in Leonie, my best friend) . . . but that night, that party . . . it was the best, the most brilliant – scarily brilliant – time I had ever had in my life up until that point. (Not difficult.)

That night, that one, glorious, hot Saturday night, I was becoming a new me, one that was going to have a boyfriend called Caspar and do stuff like snog in hot tubs at wild parties all the time. Yes, from the nagging jaws of the THEY I was about to snatch complete amazing greatness and total brilliance. And a boyfriend.

What can I say? It happened. It really happened! Zak, who lived in this massively cool rambling old farmhouse, and whose parents were so laid back you could basically do whatever you liked, pulled the speakers outside the barn where we – that’s me and all my lovely friends (exception to be named shortly) – had been hanging out necking LETHAL cider punch, and a bunch of us stripped off – to our underwear – and climbed into their hot tub.

We sort of danced where we sat, doing so-slick-yeah- check-it mini arm moves. It was a total giggle but it was also totally cramped . . . until people started getting out again, moaning that the hot tub was too hot.

It was like some dreadful slow-motion countdown to LURVE; with every person that got out, the water in that tub got stiller and stiller. I kept wishing it was one of those jacuzzi tubs, with bubbles, but it wasn’t; unless you kept trailing your hands about on the surface you could see everything. So I sat there, casually fanning my hands around . . . because across that pool of steaming water sat Caspar-Swoon-McCloud.

And in between us sat Saskia, who wasn’t fanning her hands about at all.

I do just want to say that, even before that night, I wasn’t really sure how much I actually liked Saskia. Not that I really knew her; she’d just started hanging out with us lately – even more lately than Caspar, who’d been transferred to our school from the arty hippy school, and was cool and wild – and was in a band, and I’d told Simon and my mum I was babysitting with Lee so’s I could go see Caspar’s band play at The George. And it was there, while Caspar was onstage doing his guitar thing, that he’d looked up and looked at me and I’d looked at him and –

KA-CASPAR- BOOM! (PART ONE)

I realised I was in love with Caspar McCloud.

And this is too much information, isn’t it? This is exactly what I said I wouldn’t do, which is go on about how things were. I can’t stand it. I’ll shut up.

Back in the hot tub, Lee came to my rescue – or tried to. She came up and asked Saskia where the gin had gone (I told you that punch was lethal) and Saskia said she didn’t know and Lee said she thought she’d seen her with it and Saskia said she hadn’t had it and Lee said maybe she could just come and help her look for it and Saskia, who SO knew all along what Lee was trying to do, sighed this enormous bored sigh and stood up and climbed out of the tub with her chest practically in Caspar’s face and then turned to me and said –

‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.’

Then there really was nothing but a steaming hot tub of water between me and Caspar McCloud.

I was so shy. I nearly died of shyness. Also I was slightly worried that I was going to cook to death or perish from an exploding bladder because I really, really needed to pee. I tried not to think about that and it wasn’t difficult not to think about that because I was in a state of pre-kiss terror. For sure, any second now, there was going to be a kiss. There HAD to be a kiss.

‘Hey, Rubybaby,’ said Caspar.

That’s what he called me: ‘Rubybaby’. From the lips of anyone other than a divine being, it would have sounded cringe-making and vomit-worthy. From the lips of Caspar McCloud it was utterly thrilling, as if an electric-lipped angel was kissing your soul. You know: hot and crackly.

‘Hey, Caspar,’ I said, crackling.

‘Why don’t you swim on around here and keep me company?’ he said.

I fixed him with this sultry model’s stare (deadpan, but pouty) that I’d been practising at home. ‘Well, why don’t you swim on around here?’ I said.

It was the pre-kiss terror that made me say that. Basically I would have swum the Atlantic to get to him. Genius, Ruby; all I’d done was prolong the agony.

Slowly and sexily, we both scooted towards each other. Actually, I’m not sure if you can scoot slowly and sexily, but that’s what it felt like. Also it felt like it took an eternity, when really it was probably about ten seconds or something.

I looked into his eyes. Then I had to look away because it was just too, too intense. I could see all my friends, dancing and messing around like loonies; behind them, this gorgeous red sunset blazing in the sky.

If I’d looked the other way, I would have seen something else. I would have seen clouds gobbling up the sky. Maybe I would even have seen that reflected in Caspar’s eyes, but when I got a grip enough to stare into them again I wasn’t there to admire the view.

BOMF! I practically head-butted him as my lips mashed into his. His lips sort of opened a bit and I kind of pushed my tongue into his mouth. I thought that was what you were supposed to do, to show how passionate you felt or something. Like I said, I’d kissed boys before, and that’s what we had done. It had been fairly disgusting. Kissing Caspar like that wasn’t disgusting; it was scary, and it felt all wrong. Until . . . I dunno: it just changed. One minute it was tongue-on-tongue combat, the next minute . . .

If this was my blockbuster movie, we would pause here. It would be worth a whole scene all by itself, that kiss. We would linger on it for as long as possible. That kiss. Those kisses. Where does one kiss end and another begin? We just kind of melted into one another. I do know that’s the kind of stupid thing they say in cheesy romances, but we did. That’s what happened! One minute I was my own clumsy me being, freaking out, and I could feel this divine Caspar being (was he freaking out too?), this Caspar being’s tongue, and the next minute . . . I dunno . . . it was total –

KA-CASPAR-BOOM! (PART TWO)

We didn’t hear the yelling.

Fingers dug into my arm. My lips disconnected from Caspar’s. I turned and –

‘GET OUT!’ Zak’s dad shouted into my face, hauling me from the tub.

And that is when it all began.

CHAPTER TWO

Like most people in the country, Zak’s parents had gone to a barbecue that night. That’s the thing about Britain, isn’t it? First glimmer of sunshine, first lick of heat and everyone goes nuts, strips off and has a barbecue. Doesn’t matter if it looks like rain; we go out and we stay out until the first drop falls. No – it’s worse than that: it actually has to start chucking it down before people give up and go inside. You add to that a bank-holiday weekend – a whole extra day for sunburnt people to lie around wishing they hadn’t drunk 10 zillion cans of lager and/or that they had cooked the sausages properly, in an oven – and you get . . . well, you get what happened, don’t you?

Zak’s parents weren’t supposed to be coming home, so it was obvious right away that something was wrong because they were back, but it was even more obvious that something was wrong because they were freaking out. Normally, they wouldn’t have been even slightly bothered about whatever it was we were doing. That was what was so cool about Zak’s; OK, he had the hot tub and the barn and woods and fields and everything to mess about in, but the really cool thing was that his parents were completely chilled. They smoked joints in front of us – hey, they even gave Zak weed! – that’s how chilled they were.

Tonight, they were not chilled. They basically went all Simon on us. They herded us all into the kitchen. The only thing that was most un-Simon was that Zak’s dad, Barnaby, kept swearing.

OK, so this is going to be the only other rule about this story: I will try to be honest; I will try to tell everything as it was, but I will not swear. My mum hated me swearing – the word ‘God’ included, despite the fact that 1) she said it herself all the time (but denied it) and 2) as far as I can tell everyone else on the planet says it all the time too. There’s no need for swearing, she’d tell me. Even with the whole world in the grip of a death-fest mega-crisis, she’d say, Ruby, there is absolutely no need to swear.

Actually, there is quite a lot of need for it in this story, and a lot of swearing did happen, but out of respect for my mum I will not write those words. If, like me, you curse all the time anyway, you can go ahead and add your own swear words, but I hope you’ll understand why I can’t.

I’ll write something beautiful instead. I’ll write ‘f’.

For my mum.

‘Oh f! Oh f! Oh f!’ Barnaby kept going.

(The thing is, Zak’s parents were always into some pagan-y religious thing or another, so it’s possible that Barnaby really was calling on some specific god and wasn’t just generally ranting.)

He locked the kitchen door.

‘You’re frightening them,’ said Zak’s mum, Sarah, but Barnaby wasn’t listening; he closed every window in the kitchen – and when he’d finished doing that he started closing all the other windows.

You could hear him, banging about all over the house. We weren’t frightened at all. It was a little weird, but the hardest thing was not to get the giggles – although in my case I had nothing to laugh about, now there wasn’t even any water to cover me. I did my best with tea towels.

All our stuff, everyone’s stuff, was in the barn. ‘Mum, what’s going on?’ said Zak.

‘We’re not really sure,’ said Sarah. ‘Someone Barnaby knows called him and –’

Thump, thump, thump – bang! – thump, thump, thump, went Barnaby upstairs.

‘Mum?’ said Zak.

Bang! Thump, thump, thump; Barnaby came back down the stairs.

‘You’d better ask your dad,’ said Sarah.

See now, that was kind of weird, wasn’t it? Zak didn’t normally call his mum ‘Mum’; Sarah didn’t normally call Barnaby ‘your dad’. If I didn’t know Zak was practically immune to a whole lot of stuff that really bothered other people – like being embarrassed by your parents – I would have thought he was freaking out too . . . but his parents did nutty stuff all the time, and everyone knew they did and usually no one laughed about it much because everyone understood what Zak had to deal with . . . and also because Sarah and Barnaby were so kind to us.

This latest nutty thing, whatever it was, it was just bad timing, party-wise.

‘Turn the radio on,’ Barnaby told Zak.

Dad?’ said Zak, but he turned it on anyway.

They didn’t have a TV. Zak’s parents didn’t even have a digital radio; they had the old-fashioned crackly kind. Guess what was on?

Gardeners’ Question Time.

They were discussing the best methods of tackling blight on roses.

Someone lost it, and giggled. The giggling, it spread. ‘This isn’t right,’ said Barnaby quietly. ‘It should be the news.’

I laughed too; it was impossible not to crack up with Mrs Fotheringay-Flytrap describing the spotty bits on her Rambling Rector . . . but you want to know something weird? While I certainly wouldn’t in a million years have thought, Oh no! This must mean the world as we know it is about to end, I kind of knew it wasn’t right too. I didn’t know what was supposed to be on, but I knew Gardeners’ Question Time shouldn’t have been. My mum LOVED that programme and listened to it every Sunday. Every Sunday; not on a Saturday night. Never on a Saturday night. Not exactly scary, though, was it?

‘Go and put your clothes on!’ Sarah snapped at us. She never snapped at us.

I shivered; Caspar hugged me close. Leonie grabbed my hand.

‘They’re in the barn,’ said Saskia – in a really horrible way, like Sarah was stupid.

‘Take ours, then,’ said Sarah. ‘Take whatever you want. Just get dressed.’

Someone muttered something and headed for the kitchen door.

‘Don’t go outside,’ said Barnaby. Loudly, angrily. ‘You do NOT go outside.’

We shuffled out of the room, the whole herd of us . . . On the stairs, someone cracked up and we all had to make a mad dash for Zak’s parents’ bedroom so’s we could laugh our heads off in private, without hurting their feelings.

‘What the f is up with your parents, man?’ said Caspar.

‘Search me, dude,’ said Zak . . . but he didn’t sound OK; he still didn’t sound OK. ‘C’mon,’ he said to Ronnie – my techie-est friend – and they dived off to Zak’s room.

The rest of us, we played fancy dress with Zak’s parents’ clothes. It was so funny you forgot all the weirdness. Caspar pulled on a kaftan.

‘Ohhm!’ he said, doing this prayer thing with his hands.

I laughed so hard I almost –

‘I need to pee,’ I remembered.

Lee followed me to the bathroom. I went first; I had to – I was bursting. Then Lee went while I surveyed myself in the mirror: f. So much for the model look. The big,

baggy hippy dress was the least of it. My lips, which felt puffy-bruised and tingling from the kissing, looked kind of normal, but I had mascara zombie eyes and where I’d had bright red lipstick on earlier it looked like it had sort of smeared itself all over my chin; even my nose had gone Rudolf. No hope Sarah would have make-up remover, so I wet a bit of toilet paper, dabbed it in the soap and wiped at my chin.

It wasn’t really lipstick at all; it was my first ever full- blown snogging rash and it stung. It really stung.

Nothing I could do about it, so I had a quick scrub at the mascara disaster. Their soap, which wasn’t like the soap we had at home but some organic, lentil-based, grey-green thing, was useless. It didn’t even foam up . . . so that was it, then: I was half black-eyed zombie, half human cherry. Mortifying. Seriously mortifying.

‘C’mon, get out!’ shouted Caspar through the bathroom door. ‘Molly wants to puke!’

Great. I had to face him knowing what the face I was facing him with looked like. We opened the door and Molly burst in, chundering. Under normal friendship circumstances, it would have been our duty to stay with her – but, honestly, just listening to her made my own stomach start to heave. It was bad enough looking like a mutant in front of Caspar – I definitely did not want him to witness me spewing my guts up, so I grabbed Lee’s hand and we went back downstairs.

We passed Zak’s room on the way; him and Ronnie bickering for control of the computer. (‘Why’s it so slow?! Just click there,’ Zak was saying, trying to grab hold of the mouse. ‘Just click on it!’)

In the kitchen, the radio people had moved on to discussing plants for dry shady borders – which is a serious problem, apparently, and was not nearly as funny. Barnaby looked as if he was in a trance, staring out of the kitchen window at . . . OK, so now the party had been well and truly spoilt; it was raining. None of us had noticed; why would we? We’d been too busy laughing our heads off.

‘I think you all need to sober up,’ said Sarah, handing out glass after glass of water. ‘Leonie, can you please put the kettle on?’

‘YesSarahYes,’ Lee slurred, glugging her water.

Barnaby grabbed his mobile phone and started jabbing at it, trying different numbers.

‘f. f. f,’ he said, having trouble getting through.

Then Gardeners’ Question Time stopped. It just stopped.

Then it started.

‘This is an emergency public service broadcast . . . ’

‘The rain’ – that’s all I remember hearing to begin with. ‘It’s in the rain’, and everyone staring at the radio as if it was a TV. That’s how hard we all stared at it . . . everyone except Barnaby, who dumped his mobile and went out to try the phone in the hall.

Lee shoved the kettle on the stove and came and held my hand, the one that wasn’t gripping Caspar’s.

‘Ru,’ whispered Lee. ‘Do you think we’re gonna die or something?’

‘No!’ I said.

Of course no one was gonna die!

My mum was out at the neighbours’ barbecue.

It’s in the rain.

I felt as if I was the last person to get it, what was going on. I stood in that kitchen, shivering – I leaned into Caspar’s body, but even that felt cold – and finally I sort of started to get it. See, for days there’d been stuff on the news about some new kind of epidemic. Outbreaks in Africa, in South America. Then reports from Russia. Some new kind of disease thing, deadly . . . but – well, it wasn’t here, was it? Not like the bird-flu thing when Simon (who was probably more worried about the birds) had got into a right sweat. So had a lot of people. (OK, so had I; it gave me nightmares.) But this? It was so . . . remote, that’s the word . . . we never paid it any attention. Ronnie had tried to go on about it, I remember that, and we had all rolled our eyes and told him to shut up, because it just seemed like another thing for Ronnie to go on about.

‘The rain,’ they kept saying on the radio. ‘It’s in the rain.’

‘I told you so,’ said Ronnie, stomping down the stairs into the kitchen.

He had. He had said: ‘There’s something wrong with the rain.’

And we’d all gone, ‘Yeah right! Shut up, Ronnie!’ because we knew just what kind of website he’d have read that on – probably the same one that claimed the Pope had been replaced by an alien (that’s why you never see his legs; they’re green and spindly) – and Ronnie had gone, ‘No! There is! There’s something in the rain. Look!’ and tried to show us this eye-witness video thing on the internet but it had been taken down, which Ronnie said proved it was true.

‘Shut up, Ronnie,’ someone said.

Lee stared at me. ‘Ru,’ she said. ‘I really am scared.’

She started crying. Other girls were too. I hugged her. I hugged my lovely best friend.

It’s in the rain.

Saskia swept downstairs wearing one of Barnaby’s shirts like a mini-dress. For a moment, she stared at the radio like we’d done; Sarah tried to hand her a glass of water, but Saskia shook her head.

‘I wanna go home,’ she announced.

She’s such a . . . not a drama queen, but a . . . she’s not even a spoilt brat . . . I suppose the best way to describe it is Saskia always finds a way to get what she wants. It’s not even because half the boys in school drool over her . . . OK: ALL the boys in school (because they fancy her or want to be like her), pretty much all the teachers (because she’s cunningly polite to them and makes a showy effort to understand whatever it is they’re going on about) and a seriously shocking number of the girls (because they also fancy her or want to be like her) drool over Saskia, and that should be enough to explain it, why Saskia always gets her way, but it’s not. It’s something weirder and darker. Seriously; she’s like a hypnotist or something, sending out invisible mind rays that zap her victims into doing whatever she wants. But not tonight, Sask! Seemed like no one else but me was even listening to her anyway because everyone was staring out of the windows at the rain.

It just looked like rain normally looks. You know, drippy.

You could hear Barnaby on the phone in the hall: dialling, slamming the handset down and redialling. He wasn’t calling on a god any more, he was just plain swearing his head off.

‘I said I wanna go home,’ Saskia re-announced.

‘Whatever,’ someone said.

She stormed into the hall to try to get the phone off Barnaby; Zak bounded down the stairs … Molly drifting down after him, looking sick as a dog.

‘The internet’s down!’ Zak said. ‘Like the WHOLE of the web just crashed.’

‘Told you so,’ murmured Ronnie.

‘It’s probably just a local thing,’ said Sarah.

Ronnie shook his head in that way that he had of implying he understood stuff no-one else did. Molly heaved again; Sarah looked at her in panic.

‘It’s the punch, Mum. She’s just had too much punch,’ said Zak.

People kind of nodded sheepishly, same way you would if someone else’s parents had caught us out.

‘Barnaby,’ Sarah called, rummaging in a cupboard, ‘have we got any coffee?’

Even then, even at that moment, I thought that was kind of random. Like that would solve everything. Barnaby wandered in from the hall. He looked . . . grim. That’d be the word. Grim.

‘I can’t get through,’ he said. ‘To anyone,’ he added, looking straight at Sarah like she’d know who that anyone was.

You could hear Saskia back out in the hall; she had the phone to herself then, was dialling and redialling and swearing her head off too.

‘HAVE. WE. GOT. ANY. COFFEE?’ Sarah asked Barnaby. That seemed to sort of snap him out of it – and a lot of other people too. Girls who’d been crying (because girls are allowed to under extreme circumstances) stopped; boys who’d looked like they were going to cry got a grip. For a moment, it was just all so normal. A bunch of late-night people getting late-night snacks and drinks. Barnaby found some ancient coffee beans in the freezer and was pulverising them in an electric grinder thing. Zak sawed into a loaf of their heavy-duty homemade bread. He handed the slices to Sarah, who put them into the wire thing, to toast them on the top of the stove. I got mugs out; Leonie got teaspoons; other people got other stuff . . . all the stuff you need: teapot, sugar, knives, jams, plates, butter, milk.

I saw Caspar . . . edging away from us all. I saw Caspar looking, forlornly, out of the kitchen window.

I went to him.

‘It’s OK, I whispered, hoping the darkness by the kitchen door would hide the hideous mess my face was in so we could share a romantic moment.

‘No it’s not,’ he said. ‘That’s my MP3 out there.’

He pointed at his jeans; out on the grass, getting rained on.

‘f this,’ he whispered.

‘Caspar!’

I was so stupid; I whispered it, so’s no one noticed.

‘Chill, Rubybaby,’ he whispered back, and kissed me.

I don’t know whether that kiss was meant to shut me up, but it did. Even with all the freaky horribleness of it all, I still had the hots for him and I still couldn’t believe that we’d actually snogged – and in front of everyone, which basically meant that as far as the glass mountain of being cool was concerned, I had now developed spider- sucker climbing powers and had effortlessly scaled to the top. Best not to blow it now by blurting, ‘Ooo! Caspar! No! Zak’s dad said we really shouldn’t!’ at the top of my voice.

He slipped the lock on the door. He grabbed a towel. He held it over his head. He dashed out. I saw him do that. I saw him go out, barefoot in the rain in Barnaby’s kaftan. He dashed back in again. Slipped the lock back shut. Dumped the towel.

No one else had noticed. And me? I dunno what I thought was going to happen, like he’d just go up in a puff of green smoke or something. He didn’t. He rummaged in his jeans, pulled out his phone and his MP3, wiped them on his kaftan and waved them at me, grinning.

I felt like an idiot.

‘Cool!’ I whispered. I didn’t know what else to say or do so I gave him this quick, casual peck on the lips and went back to the snack-making . . . so’s I’d look like I was cool (and hadn’t even thought about angsting about anything). Tea! I had to make tea! I had to make a whole lot of tea right now! But the tea was made! OK! I had to casually butter toast . . . that was good, that was better . . . casually buttering toast.

Barnaby switched the coffee grinder off. It made a racket, that thing. That was fine, because it meant you couldn’t hear the radio. It was also why no one had heard Caspar.

He was sort of groaning, but not like a Molly puky groan. It was some other kind of groan. He stepped out of the darkness by the kitchen door.

‘f,’ he said, scratching at his head . . . at his face.

He looked at his fingertips, at the blood and bits of torn-up skin that coated them. There was blood running down; not tons of it, but trickles and smears . . . from his scalp, from his face . . . where there were sores, red marks, like burns, but bleeding . . . He looked like one of those gory Jesus pictures, minus the crown of thorns. Wherever the rain had touched him, wherever it had seeped through the towel, there was blood . . . even his shoulders, even his chest. Soaking through the kaftan. His naked feet looked like he’d walked a mile on broken glass.

Saskia flounced back into the room and screamed.

Sarah rushed over to Caspar – ‘Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him!’ said Barnaby – and she hesitated.

It’s the first thing you do when someone is hurt, isn’t it? You go to help them. Even if they’re in a really disgusting mess and the sight of all that blood makes you feel like you’re going to throw up or pass out, you go to help them.

‘It might be contagious,’ said Barnaby.

So here’s the thing; I could say this later, or not say it at all. That’s how much difference it made. As I said, Barnaby and Sarah were very, very good to us: dream parents, totally chilled. (And nightmare parents, because of the being off the scale in terms of embarrassment.) Thing was, as Simon pointed out to me when I was going on about how brilliant they were one day, they could afford to be. I huffed on about it, but I knew – annoyingly – he was right. Zak’s parents never seemed to work; they never seemed to have to do anything but fiddle about in the garden or rock up to naked yoga classes (oh yes!) . . . and the reason Zak’s parents could spend all day growing weirdly-shaped organic cauliflowers and doing dog pose naked (DO NOT imagine this!) was because they were minted. They were Old Skool minted; probably they’d started stashing cash the day coins were invented. Zak’s godfather was some kind of Lord. His uncle was another kind of Lord and sat in the House of Lords. His grandma had been a Lady with a capital L, not a small one like everyone else’s grandma.

Barnaby and Sarah ‘knew people’. That’s what the other parents said, and like the whole grandma deal it didn’t mean they ‘knew people’ the same way everyone else did. It meant the kind of people they knew owned the country or ran it, or both. Someone Barnaby ‘knew’ had called him and warned him. How many other people got a warning?

But this is not a Hollywood film. The warning counted for zip.

‘Dad, they’re not saying that,’ said Zak. ‘They’re not saying it’s contagious.’

They weren’t. That word never got used.

But you know what? No one did go to help Caspar.

It’s the rain. It’s in the rain.

I’d kissed him. My lips, my chin . . . they tingled. They stung. They’d been stinging anyway. They were just stinging, normal stinging. It had to be normal stinging.

The smell of burning filled the room.

‘Oww!’ said Molly as she grabbed the wire thing to rescue the toast, dumping it onto the table. ‘Ow!’

Caspar groaned – louder and harder. It was horrible to hear.

‘I’m sorry,’ he moaned, one hand clawing the other raw; us all thinking, Don’t do that! Stop doing that! Please, stop doing that! ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said . . . and he sort of sank down, crouching against the door.

‘Right,’ said Sarah. She went into the hall to get her coat.

Sarah,’ Barnaby called after her – but wearily, almost, like they were having some regular kind of a row.

The effect on all of us, despite the circumstances – and apart from Caspar, who was groaning in agony – was we all sort of looked at the floor a bit, like you do when someone’s parents are having a bit of a tiff in front of you. ‘I’m taking him to the hospital,’ Sarah said, pulling on her raincoat, patting pockets for her keys; scanning the kitchen for them.

‘They say not to,’ said Barnaby.

They hadn’t said that either, actually. All they’d said was that victims should be given paracetamol. Ha.

‘I’m going,’ she said, reaching into Barnaby’s pocket for his keys.

He grabbed her wrist – and held it. ‘Sarah,’ said Barnaby. ‘There is no point.’

If he’d been Simon, the next thing he’d have said would have been, ‘Be reasonable’. But Barnaby didn’t say that; Barnaby didn’t say anything like that. Sarah extracted her hand and the keys -

‘It’s fatal,’ said Barnaby.

Whoa! There’s harsh and there’s . . . at that moment, everyone in that room hated Barnaby. You could feel it. They hadn’t said THAT on the radio. They DEFINITELY HADN’T said THAT.

Caspar groaned again. He was shaking quite a lot. I didn’t know what that was. Pain? Shock? Fear? I touched my lips; my chin . . . stinging, sore – but normal, right? Just normal. I didn’t – I couldn’t – have that thing.

For a moment, Sarah stared at Barnaby in a most un-kaftan-Mum-like way.

‘Get up!’ she said to Caspar.

Somehow Caspar stood. Everyone kind of pulled back a little.

‘Sarah!’ shouted Barnaby, sounding most un-kaftan- dad-like. ‘I am begging you!’ –but his voice had gone all wobbly, like he couldn’t choose between raging or pleading.

Or something else – that’s what I think now. Fear, probably. Maybe despair.

‘Come on,’ Sarah told Caspar, handing him the towel. They went out the back door; Sarah in front, Caspar shambling after her.

I let go of Leonie’s hand. ‘Wait,’ I said.

I ran out into the hall; I shoved my feet into any old wellies. I looked back at everyone in the kitchen. For a second, if you ignored the looks on everyone’s faces, it looked so cosy. Big pot of tea, mugs waiting. Even the burnt toast smelt good.

‘Ru! Don’t!’ sobbed Leonie.

(And I swear; if someone else had said a single other thing, I would have caved.)

‘See you later, hon,’ said Ronnie. ‘See you later, babes,’ I said.

Just like we always did.


Excerpted from The Rain by Virginia Bergin. Copyright © 2014 by Virginia Bergin.
First published 2014 by Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Taking Hollywood by Shari King – Extract

Taking Hollywood

Prologue

The 65th Academy Awards, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles

29 March 1993

Lights.

The heat of the lights is as oppressive as the thick cloak of insecurity and desperation that shrouds the audience.

Billy Crystal steps to the podium, his laconic grin a teasing, gentle rebuke to a collection of egos teetering on the edge of explosion.

His fourth time in the role, Crystal introduces the presenter of the next category with an ease born of confidence and familiarity. Romcom queen Lana Delasso glides onto the stage, blonde hair an homage to her namesake and idol, Lana Turner. Her nomination in the category of Best Supporting Actress will be decided later and shes done everything possible to win. Everything. In her forties now, she doesn’t look a day over thirty in her white, cobweb Versace gown, defying the rule that you should never show tits and ass at the same time. The physical reactions in the audience are instant and visceral: tight smiles of envy on bejewelled women coincide with ferocious hard-ons under the $1,000 tuxedos sitting next to them.

Her words are white noise until they reach the point: ‘. . . Best Original Screenplay.’

Behind her, on a thirty-foot screen, the nominations roll.

Husbands and Wives by Woody Allen. A smattering of applause, hesitations fuelled by the desire to come down on the right side of the moral judgement on Allen’s affair with Mia Farrow’s daughter. In Hollywood, picking sides has little to do with principles and everything to do with career enhancement.

Lorenzo’s Oil by George Miller and Nick Enright. More applause. Camera zooms to a row in which the suits are overshadowed by Susan Sarandon’s uncommon beauty.

Passion Fish by John Sayles. A movie that was released in only two theatres, grossing only a few tickets over $36,000 before its nomination.

Unforgiven by David Peoples. A crowd-pleaser. Directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, the audience of stars greets it with a show of worship reserved for work that has been touched by a deity.

The Brutal Circle by Davie Johnston, Zander Leith and Mirren McLean. An outsider. A harrowing story of a life born in violence, lived in violence, cut short by violence. The big screen spans several seats, but all eyes are on the ebullient form of the producer Wes Lomax, legendary head of Lomax Films, the studio responsible for more million-dollar-grossing movies in the last decade than any other.

The image returns to Lana Delasso, revelling in her moment. The same fingers that held the cock of a studio mogul only an hour before now slide delicately along the folds of the gold envelope.

And the winner is . . .’

The band kick into action with a cacophonous drum roll.

The Brutal Circle by . . .’

Sycophantic cheers drown out the names; stars rise to their feet, determined to ensure that when Wes Lomax watches the playback, he will see them heralding his triumph.

In the chaos, the producer in the gallery is a fraction late in switching to the three bodies that move towards the stage, all of them almost as unrecognizable as the extras hired to fill the seats vacated by stars drawn to the restrooms by the call of nature or the need for a line snorted off the top of a toilet. When the zoom lens on Camera 5 finally catches up with the winners, they are ascending the stairs to the stage. Davie Johnston, at twenty-two the youngest winner of an award in that category in Academy history, strides forward with the surety of a man with an unblinking eye on his destination.

Behind him, Mirren McLean, in the only haute-couture dress she has ever touched, her wild mane of Titian curls tamed to match the elegance of the midnight-blue Dior. Unaccustomed to heels, she steps with care, her expression a mix of concentration and disbelief.

Finally, with a demeanour that suggests reluctance, Zander Leith. For every woman who tried to ignore her partner’s sexual interest in Lana Delasso, here is six feet two inches of payback. Wide shoulders, his square jaw set in a brooding grimace, he could be heading to a wake, not the spotlight of a winner.

When only a few feet separate them, Lana’s eyes meet his and she instinctively flinches as she recognizes the scorn that is only partially masked by his thick, black lashes. Rebuffed.

While the outside remains a movie goddess, on the inside she is twelve again: the odd kid at school that even the trailer-park waifs avoid. The one that turned into the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, but still felt she had to respond to the summons to Wes Lomax’s yacht and blow him to get her own nomination.

Davie Johnston takes the Oscar and moves forward to the microphone.

I just want to say thank you . . .’

More applause. Most of the audience know of this trio, despite the fact that they are barely out of their teens. Wes Lomax has ensured that their story has saturated the Hollywood press in recent months. All three are credited as writers on the script, the two men playing leading parts in a movie that had killed at the box office. The success was due in part to a publicity and distribution campaign usually reserved for A-list releases, and in part to the fact that it was a damn fine piece of cinema. More than that. It was a raw, hardcore two hours of urban menace that had a generation of American teens queuing for their Saturday-night thriller kicks. It hit $15 million on the balance sheets after the first month, and was now close to double that.

This is the kind of American dream, the triumph of the underdog, the discovery of wonder that this city loves. Three friends from Scotland, the creative talents behind an outstanding script, discovered by Wes Lomax when he took his annual golfing trip to the UK. It was beyond surprising that these kids had managed to get their work in front of Lomax. Even more so that he’d taken enough time off from fucking high-class hookers in the presidential suites of the best hotels in the UK to read it.

Now the audience in the red velvet chairs furrow their brows as they try to decipher Davie Johnston’s accent. This isn’t the Scottish burr of Sean Connery. Nor does it come close to the accents they heard from Davie and Zander in the movie. It is harder. More guttural. Like bullets being sprayed from a gun in a scene from Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s big hit of the previous year.

Thank you to the Academy. Thank you to all of you for letting us be part of this incredible world. And most of all, thank you to the brilliant Wes Lomax. We owe him everything.’

Camera 3 zooms in on Lomax and millions of people watch him nod, eyes glistening, a godfather acknowledging gratitude from his chosen family.

Davie bows to signal the end of his speech, then punches the Oscar into the air. Neither Mirren nor Zander step forward. Recovered from the sting of Zanders rejection, Lana sweeps them off stage right, into the unbridled chaos of runners, technicians, gophers and make-up artists brandishing thick brushes at agitated stars.

They are propelled into a press room, cameras flashing, journos screeching questions, all of which they answer with naive honesty.

How are they enjoying Hollywood? Fine. Great. Aye, its, erm, amazing.

Are they here to stay? Dunno yet. It depends. Nothing decided.

Is their next project already underway? No plans yet.

Nothing concrete. Just ideas.

Davie answers most of the questions, with an occasional contribution from Mirren.

Lou Cole, a young, sparky journalist on the LA Times, changes the pattern.

So, Zander, how does it feel to be called the new Hollywood heart-throb?

His bashful grin is automatic, and conceals the fact that for the second time that night his eyes flicker with pure contempt.

I don’t think Tom Cruise has anything to worry about.’ Oblivious to the underlying sentiment, the press pack laugh, as Paula Leno, Lomax Films’ hard-ass head of publicity, sweetly but firmly calls an end to the photocall, determined to minimize the risk of a fuck-up and all too aware that the next winners will soon be arriving on the conveyor belt of achievement.

Finally alone, there is a pause as each of them absorbs the last ten incredible minutes of their lives. Davie is the first to react, throwing his arms around Mirren and squeezing her.

‘We did it. Shit, I don’t believe it.’

She doesn’t reply, because over his shoulder her gaze has locked with Zander’s, dispelling all notion of celebration. Davie doesn’t get the memo. His first burst of excitement over, he turns to the new Hollywood heart-throb. His lifelong friend. Two kids from the same street, bonded as youngsters by a shared recognition that no one really gave a fuck, their symbiotic pairing paying no heed to the reality that in the gene pool of life, Zander got height and physical perfection, while Davie got the kind of non-threatening appeal that made women want to ruffle his hair and tell him about their last broken heart.

‘C’mon, man, that was incredible! Did you hear them? That was for us. That has to make everything worth it. C’mon, man . . .’ The desperate repetition isn’t lost on either of them. Mirren’s teeth clench together as she raises her chin in defiance. She knows there is no point looking for resolution and rapprochement there, and she refuses to show weakness by trying.

Her instincts are right.

For the last photograph, Zander was asked to hold the Oscar to give the picture editors a range of different images to choose from. Now he tosses it to Davie like it is a can of Bud taken from the fridge to wash down a burger.

Take it.’

Davies reflexes are just quick enough to save it from the floor.

‘You got what you wanted.’ Zander’s words are barely louder than a whisper, yet drown out all other sounds. ‘Now both of you can fuck off, and if I ever see you again, walk the other way.’

1.

‘Young Americans’ – David Bowie

Beverly Wilshire Hotel, 2013

By the pool, Davie Johnston has taken three cabanas – one for him, one on either side so he doesn’t get overheard or interrupted. He’s wearing linen trousers and shirt, open just low enough to reveal every perfect contour of his lasered torso. Clothes pale blue. Every time he wears blue, someone mentions that it brings out the colour in his eyes. Every time he replies, ‘Oh really? I didn’t realize.’ Then he goes home and orders ten more shirts, same shade.

As always, he’s combining business and pleasure, taking pitch meetings for the next big reality show. He already produces three of the top five in the ratings. He chose the Beverly Wilshire because it kills two birds with one stone. If a meeting goes exceptionally well, he’s only an elevator away from a California-king-size bed.

A couple sit down for the three-o’ clock slot. It’s the first interview after lunch and he’s had two glasses of Pinot Noir. In this postcode that qualifies him for AA.

She’s a supermodel; he’s an ageing rock god, best hits behind him. They pitch the show. Fly on the wall. Beauty and the Beats. Great premise, shit title. They tell Davie every network has expressed interest in this show, but they want him to produce because he’s ‘the Man’. They’re not lying about the second part.

The meeting goes well, like every other meeting in the industry. Both sides flatter the other. Both sides claim interest. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, one side refuses to take the next call.

Davie listens. Definitely has potential. They shake hands; he tells them he’ll be in touch. He will. His secretary will call on Monday and arrange a follow-up meeting. Only the supermodel. Room 567. With the California-king-size bed. On the ground floor, at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant Cut, Mirren McLean is at her usual table, with her husband, producer-director Jack Gore, and their children, Chloe and Logan.

If anyone added up the value of the diners in the room, it would hit the billions. People have no problem paying

$150 for a Japanese 100% Wagyu steak because this place is regarded as the best. And in Beverly Hills, it’s only the best that matters.

Jack has been on location for a few weeks, so Mirren is thrilled he’s back. Even happier because both her children are there. This is what life is about – family. Right now, she’s a mum and a wife, and that’s all she wants to be. Just a mum and a wife.

Paul Bonetti, the legendary producer, approaches her table. Shakes hands. She’s polite because she has manners, but she wants him gone so she can get back to her family. She likes to keep the two separate. But hey, let’s get real. In this town, there’s no forgetting about business.

Bonetti smiles, like he’s her best friend. ‘I couldn’t be more pleased for you – still number one at the box office after three weeks,’ he says, attempting jovial and sincere, achieving latent fury and crippling envy. His leading men could act; he couldn’t. ‘Just hope I’m up against you next time around – make it a fair fight.’

‘Oh, I’m sure you’ll take that one. It must be your turn,’ she says, wide grin, while the words ‘over my dead body’ explode in her head. She makes a mental note to bring forward the release date for the next Clansman movie to ensure it clashes with whatever action killfest he has coming out. Time to put him back in his place. If he wants to play that game, she’ll take the challenge.

She’ll win. Because she’s the biggest and ballsiest player in Hollywood.

And everyone in the room knows it.

On the seventh floor, room 731, Zander Leith is sitting in a solid-mahogany high-back seat. He’s already refused the director-style chair left by the company who organized the press junket, as this one forces him to sit up straight. It’s all about the angles.

His new movie, the sixth in the Dunhill franchise, hits the cinemas in three weeks’ time. He’s now been in this airless room for seven hours, answering the same questions from TV and print journalists who all look different but act equally inane. Cute young girls asking flirtatious questions. The enthusiastic newbies who want to be your best mate. The older, jaded ones who try to catch you out and twist your words.

Very occasionally, there’s someone who has well-researched questions that actually make you think – they’re the only ones that hit the pause button on the eradication of your will to live.

Next door, his hair and make-up team, publicist and manager sit ready to pounce when they are required.

One of them is required now. The journo in front of him, wearing the shortest of skirts, is giving him a glimpse of her Victoria’s Secret panties. He knows the brand because he shagged the model who was wearing them on the catwalk only a month before.

The interview is coming to a close. Once upon a time, he would get someone else to do his bidding. Now, he just cuts to the quick. It’s speed-dating, movie-star 101.

He leans towards her. ‘Warren Beatty Suite. Seven p.m.?’ It’s a question to which they both know the answer.

She leaves satisfied. He will be later. His publicist enters the room, turns to the sound guy.

‘Make sure that last exchange is deleted?’ He nods.

Of course he does.

Because no one ever says no in Hollywood.

2.

‘Got to Give It Up’ – Marvin Gaye

Bel Air, Los Angeles, 2013 A few months later . . .

Davie Johnston

It never crossed Davie Johnston’s mind to wonder when he’d stopped feeling lucky.

This life he’d created had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with smarts. Skill. Talent. It wasn’t a perfect existence, but as he drove his Bugatti Veyron through the landscaped gardens to the door of his $40-million baroque mansion in the exclusive enclave of Bel Air, he knew it was pretty damn close.

Drego, the Ukrainian gardener, was hosing down the play equipment custom-built for the seven-year-old Johnston twins, Bella and Bray. In this town, his red-haired, fair-skinned twins were a rarity, and it had served them well. Since they were three years old, they’d been in the cast of the hit sitcom Family Three. A week didn’t pass without a request for a family photo shoot from the celebrity mags, and every now and then he indulged them.

Not that he needed the publicity. He got enough of that presenting American Stars. It was still number one in the ratings, knocking Americas Got Talent and American Idol back to the also-ran positions they deserved.

He’d be signing this season’s contract any day now, and that would, once again, put Seacrest in his place too. The last decade had been a tussle for supremacy between them, a battle Davie was winning. Thirty million dollars for his last American Stars contract had made sure of that, not to mention the success of the reality shows he produced. Global profit on those had put him in the financial ‘fuck off ’ stratosphere. He never had to ask the price of anything. But he did. Not because he perpetuated the ridiculous myth that Scots were tight with cash – in his experience, generosity was in their cultural DNA. He asked the price because he was smart. Scots invented the telephone, television and the steam engine. Davie invented the most watched shows on the planet.

He had American Stars. He had The Dream Machine, a sentimental slushfest that made dreams come true and left no heartstring untugged. And his other baby, Liking Lana – a car-crash docu-soap featuring the fucked-up life and family of tarnished has-been Lana Delasso – had finally topped Seacrest’s baby, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, last season.

He checked his limited-edition gold Panerai Kampfschwimmer watch – the case designed and made by Panerai, the movement by Rolex. It didn’t get any better, but it did cost $1 million. Two o’ clock. The kids wouldn’t be back from the set for another hour. Time for a shower and to put a couple of calls in to the East Coast. The second-season premiere of New York Nixons, his latest scripted reality hit, starring the extended family of rock legend Jax Nixon, was due to air next week and Sky, the wayward daughter of Jax’s first wife, Rainbow, was due to stage an overdose in the next couple of days. Cue shock, outrage, sympathy and more free headlines than even the best publicist could drum up in a week. That was Davie’s talent. He was adaptable. Saw opportunities. Ran with them. Strategized for success. When the acting jobs dried up a few years after the Oscar, he morphed, schmoozed, spotted the potential in TV. There was a whole new dawn of talent shows just waiting to happen. They’d already stormed the UK market. Davie sought out Simon Cowell, the man behind them, asked questions, listened, learned. Then he developed his own concept, a variation on the UK theme, and took it to the American networks. They commissioned it as a summer filler. To their surprise, it rocked the country. Massive ratings. Massive buzz.

Davie hitched a ride on that bus of wannabes and it had brought him as much fame, glory and cash as any A-list actor. And when the era of the reality shows dawned, he was in pole position again, using his own cash to bankroll pilots that became syndicated shows that added more zeros to his bank account.

As he opened the front door, he could hear Drego’s wife, Ivanka, singing some unintelligible song in the kitchen. A Russian chick who dressed like a whore and loved country music. Thankfully, she cooked like a dream, and her OCD meant every corner of the house glistened.

Ignoring the temptation of the aromas emanating from the kitchen, he headed up the left-hand side of the sweeping double marble and glass staircase. No point eating now, especially when he’d skipped a gym session and headed home early. He’d pay for it tomorrow. Clay, his trainer, was an ex-middleweight champion on the US Olympic team who abided by the only two rules Davie had set at the outset of their partnership: don’t hit the face and don’t kill me.

Crossing the upper hallway of his palatial home, he lifted his Prada T-shirt – blue, of course – over his head in readiness for the shower. Still moving, he opened the top button of his jeans with one hand, turned the doorknob of his bedroom with the other.

The brush of the white shagpile carpet muffled the sound of the door opening, giving him a couple of seconds to take in the scene in front of him before the occupants of the room registered his presence.

The curve of her back caught his eye first. How many times had he seen his wife’s silhouette on billboards and in magazines, and how many other men had jerked off over the perfection of her breasts or the exquisite beauty of her ass?

Or the deep raven hair, long and thick, that flowed down past her breasts, natural, high, the perfect size for her slender frame. Or the hazel eyes, with flecks of gold that changed colour in the light.

When he married Jenny Rico nearly ten years ago, he’d sometimes find himself lying awake at night just staring, almost unable to believe that he could touch that body whenever he wanted to.

Now, from his side view, he could see every contour of her shape as she knelt on the bed, legs open, eyes closed, her head thrown back as her hands caressed her breasts.

Lying beneath her, another shape, one that would confuse the TV addicts of the nation. On the screen, in the hugely popular cable cop show Streets of Power, these two people were partners, their relationship purely platonic.

At no point in the show was his wife’s clit being licked to orgasm by her slightly older, more experienced sidekick. Mixed race, her skin a luscious caramel, her hair a waist-length curtain of ebony gloss, Darcy Jay was second only to Jenny in her physical perfection.

A sound, once familiar, escaped from his wife’s throat and he paused out of courtesy and curiosity, realizing that she was just seconds from coming.

When her gasps stopped, she fell to the side, reaching over to cradle the face that had been checking out her Brazilian grooming schedule only seconds before.

‘I love you,’ she whispered tenderly, and despite himself, Davie winced aloud.

The two heads on the bed snapped round, his wife’s face creasing into something between quiet amusement and exasperation. Her companion preferred a more vocal demonstration of feeling.

‘Jesus, Davie, have you never heard of knocking? Or were you so busy getting your rocks off you forgot your manners? I’ve told you, you’re welcome to join in anytime.’

All three smiled, acknowledging the exaggeration in the statement. Davie threw his T-shirt in the direction of the bed as he crossed to his en suite, aware that there weren’t many men on earth who wouldn’t have accepted the offer.

A hot threesome with Jenny Rico and her co-star Darcy Jay. Numbers one and two, respectively, on People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Women list for the last three years in succession. In public, both straight, both gorgeous, both sexy as hell.

The irony was that this arrangement had been his idea. On the opening night of Streets of Power six years earlier, the three of them had ended up drinking late into the night in a bungalow at Chateau Marmont. Too many bottles of Dom Pérignon had led to clothes on the floor and a sexual experience that came pretty close to heaven. It wasn’t the first time he and Jenny had played around with a new friend, but as the weeks passed, the two women developed a relationship that went far beyond getting fucked up and indulging in some girl-on-girl for fun. And he was no longer invited to the party.

The transition had been tough, but when it came down to a choice between accepting their relationship or divorce, he’d chosen to go with the flow. Adapt. Hustle. Just like always. To the outside world, he lived a charmed existence with a stunning wife, regularly socializing with her best friend and TV partner, the stellar Darcy Jay.

The world would say that a guy didn’t get much luckier than that. It was all about perceptions. Illusions. Making the view look very different for those on the outside, looking in. So, no, as the jerk-off wet dream taking place on his bed proved, life wasn’t perfect. But as he told himself every day, it was pretty damn close.

All he had to do was keep it that way.


Excerpted from Taking Hollywood by Shari King. Copyright © 2014 by Shari King.
First published 2014 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Night the Rich Men Burned by Malcolm Mackay – Extract

The Night the Rich Men Burned

PROLOGUE

He ended up unconscious and broken on the floor of a warehouse, penniless and alone. He was two weeks in hospital, unemployable thereafter, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that, for a few weeks beforehand, he had money. Not just a little money, but enough to show off with, and that was the impression that stuck.

It had been a while since they’d seen him. Months, probably. They were heading back from the job centre having made a typically fruitless effort at sniffing out employment. They went in, they searched the touchscreen computer near the door, and they left. Two friends, officially unemployed since the day they left school together a year before, both willing to do unofficial work if that was available. They bumped into Ewan Drummond as they walked back up towards Peterkinney’s grandfather’s flat.

‘All right lads,’ Drummond said, grinning at them, ‘need a lift anywhere?’ He was as big and gormless as ever, but the suggestion of transport was new.

‘Lift? From you?’ Glass asked.

‘Yeah, me. Got myself a motor these days. Got to have one in my line of work, you know.’ He said it to provoke questions that would allow him to trot out boastful answers. Glass and Peterkinney looked at each other before they looked at Drummond. There wasn’t a lot of work among their circle of friends. The kind of work that let a man like Drummond make enough money to buy a car was unheard of. They could guess what was involved in the work, but they wanted to hear it.

‘Yeah, we’ll take a lift,’ Peterkinney nodded.

They followed Drummond back down to where his car was parked. Turned out to be a very respectable-looking saloon, not some old banger or boy racer’s toy.

‘Well, yeah, got to keep up appearances you see.’

Glass dropped into the passenger seat, Peterkinney the back. They were in no hurry to get anywhere, but this was too intriguing to pass on.

‘Come on then big man,’ Glass said with a mischievous smile, ‘what’s this big job you got?’

‘Well, uh, I can’t really tell you much. Shouldn’t tell you much, I mean. Hush-hush, you know.’

By this point Peterkinney was leaning over from the back seat, crowding Drummond, knowing he couldn’t keep quiet for long. Drummond’s mouth and brain had always been loosely acquainted, so things he shouldn’t say frequently slipped out.

‘I mean, I suppose I can tell you a bit, but you got to keep it quiet, right.’

‘Sure,’ they answered together.

‘I’m working for Potty Cruickshank. I’m one of his boys.’ He said it with such pride, such force, that they both assumed it meant something. Then they thought about it.

‘Who?’ Glass asked.

‘One of his boys? The hell does that mean?’ Peterkinney asked warily.

‘Nah, nothing like that. He’s, like, a debt collector. I go round and pick up money that people owe him. It’s all legit. Well, sort of, financial services, that sort of thing. Good money, real good money. You know how much I made last week alone?’

‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ Peterkinney asked.

‘Not really, no. Well, now and again, but you got to be tough to make a living these days, guys, that’s how it is. How else you going to make good money?’ Said with wisdom he presumed but didn’t possess. ‘So come on, guess what I made last week.’ He was desperate to tell them by this point and unwilling to wait for a guess that might be accurate enough to take the wind out of his sails. ‘Six-fifty I made last week. Worked four days, couple of hours a day. Six-fifty. I’m telling you, it’s the life.’

They didn’t say much more to Drummond; just let him rumble on about how much money he was making until he dropped them off. They walked up to the flat Peterkinney shared with his grandfather, a poky little place you would only invite a real friend back to. They went silently into Peterkinney’s small bedroom, a cramped room with nothing in the way of luxuries. There was only one subject of conversation.

‘Six-fifty a week he’s making. Him,’ Glass said. ‘He’s making ten times what we make on Job Seekers’.’

‘Come on, it ain’t six-fifty a week. It was six-fifty in one week, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get it every week. And look what he has to do for it. How long you think it’s going to be before someone kicks the living shit out of him? His teeth will be down his throat and his money will be up the wall.’

Glass sighed. ‘All right, yeah, fine, but look at the money. He’s making good money. Even if it’s short-term, right, it’s still money. And he’s got to do some shitty stuff for it, but come on, you think we’re going to get a job that pays us that for non-shitty work?’

‘I don’t think we’re going to get a job at all,’ Peterkinney sighed, and slumped back on his bed.

A sentence he was tired of uttering. Glass sat on the chair in the room and tilted his head back, thinking about Ewan Drummond. No smarter than either him or Peterkinney, probably less so. No tougher when push came to shove, although he was bigger than them, which helped. He was no better connected than they were, which was to say that he hadn’t been connected to the criminal industry at all as far as Glass knew. Must have gotten his foot in the door without realizing where he was stepping. All of which suggested that employment in the business, and six hundred and fifty quid a week, was within their grasp.

Glass didn’t say any of this to Peterkinney because he knew what the reaction would be. Peterkinney would pour scorn on it; tell him he needed to get real. Peterkinney was all about getting whatever job he could, no daydreaming attached. That was fine by Glass; how his best friend had always been. A realist. They left school underqualified and stumbled together into a job market that had no room for them or interest in them. So they struggled along together, and were still struggling.

Glass couldn’t stop thinking about it, and that was really the point. People like Ewan Drummond were useful both in the work they did and the people they encouraged. None too bright and loaded with cash. He was a walking billboard for employers like Potty Cruickshank. A debt collector like Potty had a high turnover of staff, so that positive PR was worth its weight. Glass saw Drummond and knew he was at least as capable. Six-fifty a week, four days a week, a couple of hours a day. Think about it. The money, the cars, the women, the parties. Him and Peterkinney, lounging around doing fuck all, waiting for some godawful nine-to-five that would pay them buttons and last six months if they were lucky. No, what Drummond was doing, that was real work.

It wouldn’t have mattered if Glass had known. Even if he’d seen Drummond lying on that warehouse floor two weeks later, it would have made no impact. He would have spent the previous two weeks thinking of nothing but the money Drummond was making, and working out how he and Peterkinney could do the same. Nothing, no matter how grim, was going to change his mind. That was the way to make good money. That was the best option.

‘I’ll ask the old man if he’s heard of anything going,’ Peterkinney said quietly. ‘We can go back down the job centre again in a couple of days.’ His grandfather was going to have a word with a friend at a packaging factory on their behalf sometime today, although that would lead nowhere as usual. Their names on a list for future reference.

‘Yeah,’ Glass said. But he wasn’t thinking about the job centre. Wasn’t thinking about any sort of work that was going to be advertised. He was thinking of the world Drummond now inhabited. He was thinking of the money. He was thinking of the life.

PART ONE

1

Start with a kick to the door. He got a crack out of it, and the plain door shuddered in the frame. Didn’t open though. Still staring back at them. Try again. Not a boot this time. Give it a shoulder. A short run-up and a collision with the door. A bigger crack and the door caves in, buckled on the hinges and smashed around the lock. Alex Glass stumbles in with it. ‘Shit.’ A mutter under his breath. Embarrassed by his ungainly entrance. Embarrassment pushed aside by an attempt at professionalism. He’s taking the lead here. Older by six months. His accomplice, Oliver Peterkinney, is still only nineteen. Anyway, this is Glass’s job. He set it up. He found the target.

They’re searching downstairs, through the kitchen, through the living room. It’s a small house, which helps. Tidy as well, everything where it should be. No rubbish for someone to leap out from behind. Flicking lights on and off as they check each room. No attempt at subtlety, not after that entrance. To the bottom of the stairs. If he’s here, he’s heard them by now. He’s had time enough to get a weapon. They didn’t plan for that. What if he keeps a weapon by his bed?

Something else to put on the long list of things they didn’t plan for.

A light comes on at the top of the stairs. Glass and Peterkinney look at each other. Never been here before. Never been in this situation. If they had to make a splitsecond decision, they would be too late. A man has emerged at the top of the stairs. Older than these two by ten years. Fatter by three stone. Wearing nothing but his boxer shorts. That makes up their minds for them.

They’re looking up the stairs, necks craned. Suddenly feeling confident. The amateurs just got lucky, as all amateurs need to in this business. Peterkinney moves up one step.

‘All right, Holmes,’ he’s saying. Because it is Jim Holmes, the target. He doesn’t need clothes to look like his picture. Big and broad, with a thick head of dark hair and a dimpled chin. ‘We can sort this out nice and quiet. No need for trouble.’ Peterkinney’s smart enough to know how dumb that sounds. You smash your way into a guy’s house and tell him there’s no need for trouble. This isn’t how Peterkinney would have played it.

Holmes had his hands in the air, but they’re falling now. Who did he think he was going to find at the bottom of the stairs? Maybe the police. Probably the police. Would be about fucking time. He’d raise his hands to them; try to make a good impression. Could have been worse than the police. Could have been a real tough guy. He knows Marty Jones is looking

for him. Wants to send a strong message. Marty’s big on sending messages. Marty is under the protection of Peter Jamieson. That could get him the use of a man like Nate Colgan. Now there’s a man you raise your hands to, no matter how tough you are. But these two? These are just kids. The one coming up the stairs doesn’t even look like he’s started shaving.

‘The fuck are you pair?’ Holmes is growling. Going for his best tough-guy voice, which is pretty good by general standards. He’s had plenty of practice. Being a tough guy is his job. It’s how he makes his living. Marty lends money to people. That money gathers interest at a mathematically improbable rate. Men like Holmes collect the debt. But Holmes got a little tired of handing all that nice money over to a smarmy prick like Marty. Holmes did the hard work, deserved more of the reward. So he started keeping a bigger share for himself. Took Marty an awful long time to work that out, for a guy who figures himself as sharp as a razor. But he was always going to work it out eventually. Marty’s no mug.

‘We’re here for Marty,’ Glass is saying. Saying it like it means something.

Peterkinney, three steps up, is looking back at him. Scowling. Shouldn’t have said Marty. Should have said Jamieson. That would have carried more weight. Common sense says you exaggerate the power you have behind you.

Pft.’ A snort of derision. Not aimed at Marty. Holmes isn’t stupid either; he knows how dangerous Marty can be. A well-connected guy with a big ego and a short temper? Those are always dangerous. ‘He sending kids to do his fighting for him now?’ There’s a smile in his eyes. Marty actually has sent kids. There are other debt collectors he could have sent. Tough guys. They’d have done it too, for the right price, even though they know Holmes. Plenty of general muscle he could have hired for the job. But Marty sent the cheap option. A couple of kids looking to make a good first impression.

‘Look, we can sort this out,’ Glass is saying from the bottom of the stairs. Still trying to lure him down. Trying to fool a man who does this for a living. Still hoping this can be easy. It was never going to be that easy.

Peterkinney isn’t waiting. Holmes won’t be won round. Once he has it in his head that they’re kids, he’s going to treat them that way until they change his mind. Only way to change his mind is to do what they came here to do. And the clock is ticking. You don’t think the neighbours heard them smash the door in? You don’t think they’ll be calling the police right now?

Glass is about to open his mouth to say something else when Peterkinney moves. Jumping two steps at a time, getting to Holmes and making a grab for him. So what if he’s older? So what if he’s tougher, has a reputation for bad things? He’s nearly naked. There are two of them. They came here to send a message for Marty. They can’t leave until they’ve tried and they need to leave soon. So you do something, don’t you?

Holmes has seen him coming. Leaning his weight forwards on the balls of his feet. Shoulders down, ready. Peterkinney is two steps from the top and reaching out for a grab. It looks like a wild attempt. A throw of the arms in the general direction of the target. An amateur lunging at a pro. That’s what Holmes thinks. It’s what he thinks when he throws his weight directly at Peterkinney. He thinks he’s going to knock the kid back down the way he came.

That’s not what Peterkinney’s thinking. He’s thrown his arms out there, but he’s not watching where he’s throwing. He’s watching Holmes’s feet. Waiting for that reactive lurch forwards. And now it’s coming, and Peterkinney’s moving his feet, pushing himself backwards against the stair wall with a thud. Watching as Holmes goes sailing past. Holmes’s shoulder catches him, but it’s glancing, no impact. Holmes is falling onto the stairs, shouting something loud that doesn’t involve words. But Holmes has experience of falling over at other people’s insistence. This is standard for him. He’s managed to push out and wedge himself in the stairs, three steps down from the top.

But that isn’t enough to make him safe. Not nearly enough, and Holmes knows it. You can’t be on your back in this situation. You’re either on your feet or you’re out of the fight. You can rely on them being kids, but you can’t rely on them being stupid. Before Holmes can struggle to his feet, Peterkinney’s got his first kick in.

Knocking Holmes down a couple of steps with the first kick. Holmes shouting, but this fight is over. All Holmes has left is noise. Peterkinney jumping downward, kicking into Holmes with both feet. Peterkinney’s landing on his arse, it’s jarring but worth it. Holmes is bouncing down the stairs now. Glass had been moving up the stairs to help, now jumping down the last three to get out of the way. A grunting ball of flesh crashing down after him. Holmes has rolled to the bottom. Lying there. Not moving. Groaning, but not moving. Glass is watching, doing nothing. Standing beside Holmes, looking up at Peterkinney. As far as Glass is concerned, this is over. Peterkinney’s quickly down the stairs, standing beside Glass now. Looking down at Holmes. Taking a step back and kicking him hard in his ample guts.

‘Try and knock me down the fucking stairs,’ Peterkinney’s saying. Speaking low, a little spit on his lips. ‘That’s for Marty. You remember that. That’s what happens.’ An intensity conjured from a place Glass didn’t know his friend possessed.

Glass is pulling at Peterkinney’s arm. The job is more than done, time to go. A second person has emerged at the top of the stairs. A thickset woman, glaring down at them. The woman who keeps this house organized and tidy.

‘Get out,’ she’s shouting at them. ‘Go on, get out.’ She’s starting to march down the stairs towards them. Wrapped up in a thick dressing gown, hair tied back, slippers too big for her making an unsettling slapping noise as she walks. Scowling like she was born that way. Moving towards her partner at the bottom of the stairs. He’s groaning on the floor, rolling slightly. Trying to twist into a position that relieves the pain. Trying to turn his back on them, so they can’t kick him in the stomach again. Facing the striped wallpaper, hoping this is over. Peterkinney’s given him one last kick in the small of the back, he and Glass turning for the door.

The woman’s still shouting something, but it’s unintelligible and entirely her own business. They’re out into the night, across the small front garden with no fence and moving down the street. Trying not to run, but walking fast enough to draw attention. The neighbours will have heard the door being broken. They’ll hear the shouting. People will be looking out of windows.

‘We should have brought balaclavas,’ Glass is saying. ‘We should have brought a lot of things.’ Peterkinney’s thinking of all the things they did wrong in this job. More than he realizes. Their first job. Thrown into it by Marty Jones. Someone with experience, a professional, would have done it differently. They did the best that amateurs could.

‘First thing I’m spending money on is a car,’ Glass is saying. They’re still walking too fast, but they’re putting distance between themselves and the house. Looking backwards half the time. Nobody following. But then, nobody would need to. You can see their guilt from a distance.

Peterkinney isn’t saying anything. Glass wanted this. He’s in charge, so let him do the talking. He’s his best mate, and you don’t puncture your best mate’s balloon. But this has been a shambles. They didn’t think about it beforehand. Marty gave Glass the job. Their first chance to make a good impression. They rushed out to do it, knowing the prize that will be waiting for them. Next time will be different. Next time they’ll make an effort to plan it. Having a vehicle to get away in will be a good start. Neither of them owns a car. Peterkinney doesn’t even have a licence.

They’ve reached the bottom of the street, round the corner. A little relief. They’re out of view of the scene of the crime. Walking faster, almost jogging. Anyone looks out a window and they see two guilty-looking young men running past. The kind of guilty young men you remember. Maybe mention to the police if they knock on your door looking for information.

‘We did it though,’ Glass is saying. ‘We fucking did it.’

‘Yeah,’ Peterkinney’s nodding, and he’s smiling despite himself. ‘We fucking did.’

2

He’s tired. They say you shouldn’t drive when you’re tired. He’s driving, and driving carefully. Got the call twenty minutes ago. Doesn’t know why the hell he’s bothering. Petty games, and they’ve lost this round. So what, just win the next one and move on. But Patterson insisted. Get round there, talk to the man. Try to keep him onside. So Alan Bavidge is nearly there. Nearly ready for his conversation with Jim Holmes. Nearly caring about it. But not quite.

He’s pulling into the street and already there’s a problem. There are people around Holmes’s front door. Must be four or five of them, standing on the patch of grass that serves as a front garden. Neighbours, probably. Some of them are still in pyjamas. Nosey bastards. Get a little dignity, for God’s sake. Semi-detached houses in batches of two, tightly packed along either side of the street. A mix of former and current council housing, he’s guessing. Bavidge is stopping the car at the side of the road. Switching the lights off. None of the neighbours have clocked him yet. He’s waiting. Hoping they’ll bugger off back home before he goes in. An unknown guy in his late twenties at the scene of the crime will instantly become a suspect.

One of the neighbours has turned round and is staring at the car. A middle-aged man, glaring right at him. Turning and saying something to the group, proud to be breaking news. Now they’re all looking at him and murmuring. A broad woman in her mid-thirties pushing her way past them. Norah Faulkner. Holmes’s girlfriend. Not the sort of woman you marry. Not if you can help it. A tough one, her. At least as tough as her man. Kind of woman you might have thought would do a better job keeping Holmes out of trouble. Bavidge knows who she is; she doesn’t know who he is. With another sigh, he’s getting out of the car.

Across the patch of grass and walking towards her. Making a noticeable effort at ignoring the gawkers. Nodding, and hoping she’s bright enough to let him speak before she gets abusive.

‘Norah? I’m Alan, you were told to expect me.’ Speaking as quietly as possible. Trying to keep this between the two of them.

She’s nodding now. Still scowling, but nodding. ‘Come in.’

She’s turning and walking back to the door. Stopping suddenly enough that Bavidge almost crashes into the back of her. Turning to her neighbours. ‘All right, you had your wee nose about, now piss off.’ Some of them are shaking their heads, giving her looks, but not one of them will disobey. She’s coarse, and they’re all just a little bit scared of her. Sure, they all want her arguing their case when the housing association routinely lets them down on repairs. But even when she’s on your side, you’re scared of her. They’re all turning and walking back to their houses.

Norah’s inside, holding the door for Bavidge. Once he’s inside, she’s trying to push it shut. Isn’t working. Won’t hold shut, just leans open of its own accord. The top hinge is damaged, Bavidge can see.

‘Buggers managed to smash this in the process,’ she’s saying redundantly.

Bavidge doesn’t care about the door. If his boss is serious about Holmes, then Bavidge will send someone round in the morning to put a new door in. He’s concerned about what he’s not seeing. He’s not seeing Holmes. She told his boss, Billy Patterson, that Holmes was unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. There’s nothing at the bottom of the stairs. Just a wet patch where Norah’s been trying to wipe blood off her plain fitted carpet.

‘Through here,’ she’s saying. She has a more feminine voice than he expected. Especially now that she’s calmed down. A broad face on broad shoulders, a hard look about her. No soft edges that Bavidge will ever see. But they’re there. She cares about Holmes, and she looks after him. This is a better life than most people in Holmes’s profession get to live. She’s leading Bavidge into the living room.

Holmes is sitting on the floor, back against the black leather couch. He’s tilting his head back, holding somethingto his nose that used to be white and is now red. He’s still in his boxer shorts. He’s looking at Bavidge. A glare. They’ve never met. Bavidge can only hope his reputation goes before him. When it does, it buys him all the respect he needs.

‘I’m Alan Bavidge,’ he’s saying. ‘Billy sent me round.’

‘Uh-huh,’ Holmes is saying. Turning and staring back up at the ceiling, more interested in what’s pouring from his nose.

‘Who was it?’ Bavidge is asking. Not here for polite conversation. Not here to make a new chum. Get this over and get out.

Holmes went to Patterson. Ran to him when Marty Jones found out he was skimming money off his collections. Wanted protection from Billy. Offered himself as an employee in exchange. It was a hell of a job application. I want to work for you because you can protect me from my old boss. By the way, my old boss hates me because I ripped him off. Yeah, that’ll get you through the door. But Holmes did get through the door. Not because he offered to work for Patterson. He got through because everyone knows he worked for Marty. He was one of Marty’s boys for a few years. Throwing his weight around, trying to make a name for himself. Suddenly he starts working for Patterson, and people think Patterson is taking employees away from Marty. A cheap way of making a rival look vulnerable. So Patterson took him on. Just wasn’t able to offer him protection in time.

‘Them,’ Holmes is mumbling. ‘There was two of them.’

‘Who?’ There’s impatience in Bavidge’s voice now.

Doesn’t care if Holmes hears it. Holmes is a thug. The sort of guy who goes round picking fights with drug addicts and hopeless cases. That’s the difference between a tough guy like Holmes and a tough guy like Bavidge. The reason Bavidge has a reputation and Holmes doesn’t. The standard of person they have to intimidate.

‘Kids. I don’t know who they were. Kids, working for Marty. Some shitty little bastards he picked up from somewhere. I can handle them.’

‘Uh-huh,’ Bavidge is saying now.

Holmes doesn’t want to talk about it. Probably wouldn’t have told Patterson at all if it wasn’t for Norah. Doesn’t want to admit that he got battered by a couple of kids. The big bad bastard, bloodied and beaten. It wounds his pride. A lot of thugs live off their pride because they have nothing else. Proud and stupid. He’s a hell of a new employee to have on board. There’s a few seconds of silence, before Norah decides to stamp on it.

‘Smashed their way in through the front door. The front door. Jim challenged them. One of them came up the stairs, got into a fight with him. Threw Jim down the stairs. Top to bottom. Then they started laying into him. Vicious, like animals.’

Holmes is glaring across at her, saying nothing. He doesn’t want her causing trouble. He knows the position he’s in. Screwed over one boss, already bothering another. Patterson doesn’t need to stand by Holmes. Could just as easy leave him out in the rain. Holmes needs to be useful, and this isn’t a good start.

Bavidge is looking round at Norah. Surprised by her disgust at the violence of the kids. She knows what her man does for a living. She’s not daft. She must know that Holmes behaves like those very same animals on a near daily basis. The only talent he’s known to have. Yet she seems repulsed by them.

‘Billy Patterson said he would protect us,’ Norah is saying. ‘Said we’d be looked after. Well, a fine fucking job he did of that, uh? Where were you?’

‘Norah,’ Holmes is saying loudly, then groaning and tipping his head back again.

‘Well, where were you? Where were you when Jim was bouncing down the stairs? When I was confronted by those kids in my dressing gown? They could have killed us. We could be dead now. What sort of protection is that?’

Bavidge is waiting a second. Let her vent. Let her have her moment, she’s not at fault here. Then tell her the truth. ‘You will get protection. What you won’t get is a fucking babysitter. You’re not important enough. You’re not in enough danger. You got to earn that sort of protection. All your man has done for us so far is wake me up. When he’s done something more useful, you’ll get more in return from us. Until then, the best we can do is make sure there’s punishment. Did either of you see them?’

Holmes knows enough about the business to know that Bavidge is close to Patterson. Not just some muscle, but a senior man. Right-hand man, maybe. You piss off Bavidge and you piss off Patterson. That’s the way it works. Tell him what he wants to know.

‘I saw them. Couple of kids,’ Holmes is saying quietly. ‘They didn’t even cover their faces. No weapon. Didn’t even have a car, Norah reckons.’

Norah’s nodding. ‘They walked to the bottom of the street. If they had a car, it was round the corner.’ She’s talking quietly now too. Catching Holmes’s mood. Bavidge’s authority has subdued them both.

‘Couple of first-timers, I reckon,’ Holmes is saying. ‘One of them was tall, over six feet. Skinny-looking, sort of light-brown, blond hair. Looked about twelve in the face, but he’d be a teenager, early twenties. That’s the one that threw me down the stairs. Other one was shorter, darker hair. Never seen either of them before. They weren’t working for Marty a week ago, I know that. Probably not in the business. New blood.’

Bavidge is nodding. It’s as much of a description as Holmes can give. Seems like he spent most of their visit rolling down the stairs. Should be grateful he can manage this much. Just need to find a couple of kids that have recently started working for Marty. Not impossible, but he does hire and fire a lot. All the kids go to him first. He has the recruitment tool of throwing parties with whores and drugs. It works.

‘You going to be okay?’ he’s asking Holmes.

Holmes is nodding very slowly. ‘Don’t think anything’s broken. Nose is burst. Sore guts. That’s where they kicked me. I’ll live.’

Bavidge is nodding. He hates these situations. People looking to him for leadership, just because he’s close to the boss. He’s not a leader. Doesn’t want to be, anyway. ‘We’ll find out who it was. We’ll do something about it. Billy will be in touch soon about work. We’ll try and sort this out so that Marty isn’t a problem any more.’

A grunt from Holmes, nothing from his woman. Bavidge is leaving the house, happy to get out. One of those disgruntled neighbours might have phoned the police the minute they got back in the house. Doubtful. Wouldn’t risk the wrath of Norah Faulkner. Just glad to be out of that atmosphere of stupidity and entitlement. Back into the car and driving away. There’s a feeling he gets. Like a weight, pushing him down. Like it’s all basically pointless, and it’s all going to end badly anyway.


Excerpted from The Night the Rich Men Burned by Malcolm Mackay. Copyright © 2014 by Malcolm Mackay.
First published 2014 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Privateer: Pirate 4 by Tim Severin – Extract

Privateer: Pirate 4

ONE

They began fishing the wreck as soon as the sun’s rays penetrated to the sea floor. The weather was perfect for diving: a cloudless sky and no hint of breeze to disturb the flat calm. The water was so clear that Hector Lynch, leaning out over the pinnace’s rail, could make out the shape of his comrade and close friend Dan as a flickering shadow against the seabed five fathoms below. He was exploring the broken timbers of the sunken galleon. A slack tide meant there was almost no current and Dan was hauling himself from handhold to handhold, poking and prying in crevices. In another minute he would have to come back to the surface to fill his lungs with air.

Hector straightened up and took a quick glance around the horizon. The cargo of a lost galleon was still the property of the Spanish crown, and they were trespassing in an area the Spanish considered off-limits to foreign vessels. If the Spaniards got their hands on them, they would be treated as thieves and the penalty was a long prison sentence at hard labour. But there was nothing to be seen in any direction except for two insignificant islets half a mile to the east. He had already marked them on the chart he was compiling. It had taken many days to find the wreck, cautiously probing the vast underwater maze of coral, sand and rock. Now his notes on the distance and bearing to the two islets would help him return to the wreck if the pinnace was driven off her station by bad weather or the unwelcome appearance of a Spanish patrol ship. The islets themselves were unremarkable. Low humps of sand and rock, they were bald except for a few stunted bushes bleached whitish grey by the salt spray. They were all that could be seen of the dangerous zone of reefs that the Spaniards had nicknamed ‘the Vipers’ because their sharp fangs had ripped the bottoms out of dozens of ships. Most victims had been humble merchantmen. But a few, like the shattered galleon Dan was now searching, were the carcasses of rich vessels that had come to grief as they made their way to the annual rendezvous of the Spanish treasure fleet in Havana. In their strongrooms they had carried bags of silver coin from the mints in Peru, crates tightly packed with silver and gold ingots, sealed chests containing uncut gemstones, religious icons studded with brilliants, church plate and personal jewellery of every description. This was the glittering bait that had drawn him and his companions to take their chance in such dangerous waters.

Hector took another slow look right round the horizon. Still nothing. They were doubly lucky with the quiet weather. This was the tail end of the hurricane season. Few ships would normally dare venture out from port for another couple of weeks. That was the reason why he and Dan and the others aboard the Morvaut were fishing the wreck in early October. The field was clear for those willing to take the risk of a late tempest while they tried their luck, picking over what other salvors may have left behind.

There was a sudden stir in the water below him and a gasping intake of breath as Dan’s head broke the surface. He was stark naked except for a net hanging around his neck into which he stuffed any small objects he found. His long, straight, jet-black hair lay plastered down to his shoulders, and the water running off his face made his dark skin glisten like oiled mahogany. A Miskito Indian from the coast, Dan was an accomplished diver and could stay down for three minutes at a time. Hector wondered if there was truth in the widespread belief that the native Americans were gifted with unnaturally large lungs. The men from the island of Margarita successfully worked pearl beds at depths no one else could attain. They were particularly in demand when it came to going underwater to patch the hulls of ships or – as now – conduct salvage operations. Thinking about them Hector briefly pictured Dan coming to the surface holding up a string of Margarita pearls originally destined to grace the neck of some beauty in Havana or Madrid. It was a wild daydream, but that would solve all his money problems.

‘How does it look?’ he called down to Dan.

‘The Spaniards have used explosives. The deck of the galleon is blown apart. All the big cannon have been taken up.’

That was no surprise. The Spaniards kept professional salvage teams on standby at ports all around the Caribbean. Most wrecks occurred in shallow water, and whenever a valuable cargo was lost the salvage crews quickly arrived to recover what they could before the currents smothered the wrecks with sand and gravel. They concentrated on the heavier items. Cannon were valuable and accessible. The gold or silver shipments were more difficult to get at. They were stowed low down, usually beneath the commander’s quarters towards the stern in a galleon. To reach them, it was necessary to blow the ship apart. The explosions often scattered smaller items that then became half buried in silt or disguised by a coating of the pale green grassy weed that grew rapidly in these warm waters.

‘Any sign of the strongroom?’ Hector asked.

Dan shook his head. ‘They’ve left an anchor and chain in position so they’ll be coming back.’

‘Which means there’s still something left worth salvaging,’ interrupted a sour voice.

Hector swung round to confront a stocky, stubble-haired man who had walked up silently on bare feet. Yannick Kergonan stood with the easy balance of a man accustomed to small boats. As his name indicated, he was a Breton, and a surly expression on his weather-beaten face reinforced the suspicious look in his deep-set eyes. Hector neither liked nor trusted Yannick, and would never have sailed with him except that he was part-owner of the Morvaut, together with his brothers Roparzh and Yacut and their sister Anne-Marie.

‘Your man needs to get a move on. There’s less than an hour of slack water left,’ Yannick observed. His English was heavily accented but fluent.

‘Dan is not “my man”,’ Hector snapped. ‘He’ll go down again just as soon as he’s ready.’

Yannick smirked. ‘I thought he was your matelot. Isn’t that what you buccaneers prefer?’

Hector knew the Breton was taunting him. It was true that he and Dan had buccaneered together. Twice they had gone on raids into the Pacific with bands of pirates who had looted the Spanish coastal towns. Theirs was a powerful friendship based on mutual trust and respect that dated back to the days when they had met as prisoners of the Barbary corsairs and later found themselves chained side by side on the oar bench of a French war galley. But they were not the bosom companions that Yannick was implying. Among many buccaneers it was a custom for a man to pick a companion – their matelot – with whom they shared everything, almost like a marriage.

‘Dan’s already been down to the wreck a dozen times today. Perhaps you should take a turn yourself,’ Hector countered sharply. He knew that Yannick, like most sailors, could only flounder clumsily in the water.

The Breton sneered at him, then turned on his heel and stalked off.

‘I’m surprised no one’s stuck a knife into that crab,’ observed Jacques Bourdon, who had sauntered up in time to overhear the exchange. A convicted Paris pickpocket and petty thief, the letters GAL branded on his cheek and still faintly visible were a legacy of the days Jacques had sat beside Hector on the galley benches. He had shared many of Hector’s adventures and his skills as a cook made him welcome aboard any ship. Also he had a Parisian’s disdain for provincials.

‘Typical Breton numbskull. All that salt cod and cider addles their brains. You’d have thought he and his brothers would know something about provisioning an expedition. We ’re already running low on fresh water.’

It was true, thought Hector. He could not help wondering if Yannick and his brothers had deliberately set out to sabotage the expedition. They were only taking part in the venture because their sister had insisted they do so. Hector was increasingly aware that Anne-Marie Kergonan was a very forceful character and few people were able to stand up to her.

He shied away from that thought. Anne-Marie was another of his problems.

Something landed on the deck with a soggy clunk, spraying a few droplets of water across his bare feet. While he had been talking to Jacques, Dan had tossed an object up on to the pinnace’s deck. Jacques reached down and picked up what looked like a queerly shaped, greyish green lump of coral. At first sight Hector thought it was a fragment broken from a reef where the coral sprouted prongs like stags’ horns. Then, as the Frenchman turned it over in his hand, Hector recognized a three-branch candelabrum. It was discoloured with exposure to the salt water and covered with a light coating of weed. Jacques reached for the knife in his belt and scraped at the coating of the base. Underneath was the dull glint of silver.

‘At last!’ he exclaimed and stepped across to the edge of the ship and looked down at Dan, who was treading water. ‘Where did you find it?’ he called excitedly.

‘Over there, about thirty yards away,’ said Dan pointing to one side. ‘The gunpowder explosion split open the aft section of the galleon. The current has been scouring out the contents.’

‘Should we shift the pinnace over there?’ asked Hector.

Dan nodded. ‘Pass me a line and a piece of wood as a float. I’ll mark the spot.’

Jacques disappeared to find the materials for a makeshift buoy just as Hector became aware of a figure emerging from the tiny cabin in the stern of the Morvaut.

Anne-Marie Kergonan made a striking impression. In her late twenties, she had the same sturdy build as her three brothers. But what made them burly gave Anne-Marie an air of luscious sensuality. She was dressed in men’s seagoing clothes – a loose linen shirt, sash and wide canvas breeches that reached just below her knees. But there was no doubting that she was very much a woman. A few unruly curls of rich dark brown hair escaped from the bright red bandana tied around her head, and her full breasts pushed generously against the shirt where it was held in by the sash that accentuated the curve of her hips. Her broad face, with its soft contours and wide-set hazel eyes, was pretty rather than beautiful and as deeply tanned as her bare arms and feet. She looked earthy, confident and luscious, and since the start of the expedition Hector had become uncomfortably aware that he and his friends had only been able to charter the Morvaut against the wishes of her three brothers because Anne-Marie Kergonan had taken a fancy to him.

Now she advanced across the deck towards Hector with the same easy-going barefoot tread of her sailor brothers.

‘What’s all the excitement about?’she asked. Her English was spoken with a husky, attractive accent. Jacques held up the candelabrum, and she took one glance at it before taking her place beside Hector at the rail, leaning forward and looking down at Dan in the water.

Hector was conscious that Anne-Marie had allowed the front of her shirt to fall open enough for him to appreciate the view.

‘Dan thinks there should be more salvage in that direction,’ he said.

‘Then we should lose no more time. We’ve waited long enough for something to happen,’ said Anne-Marie. She turned towards Hector and treated him to a lingering glance that left little doubt of its message.

‘Give a hand here, Lynch!’ her brother Yannick interrupted sharply. He would have to be blind not to notice his sister’s behaviour, and clearly he did not approve. ‘And get that big lubber on his feet! We’ll have to put out the kedge anchor and haul across.’

The Breton was already heaving in on the painter attached to the bow of the Morvaut’s tender at the stern of the pinnace.

‘Jezreel!’ called Hector. ‘We ’re moving. Time to get up.’ What looked like a heap of old sails on the foredeck stirred.

A large hand emerged and threw aside the makeshift bedding, and a man sat up and scratched his head. The span of arms as he stretched and yawned gave an idea of what a goliath he was. Jezreel was huge. A nose broken several times and patterns of scars on his scalp were clues to his former occupation as a prizefighter using his fists or a backsword. Years ago he had accidentally killed a man in the ring and been forced to flee, taking his chances as a logwood cutter on the Campeche coast where Hector had first met him.

‘What needs doing?’ he mumbled. He had been on anchor watch the previous night and, to catch up on his sleep, had been napping on the open deck on one of the few places where there was enough space for him to lie down.

‘We have to move the Morvaut. Dan’s found some salvage,’ Hector explained. ‘There’s not enough wind to put up sail, so we’ll kedge across on the anchor.’

Jezreel got slowly to his feet and went to join the second of Anne-Marie’s brothers, Roparzh. He was struggling to hoist the pinnace’s spare anchor from its stowage in the shallow hold.

‘Here, let me take that,’ rumbled Jezreel. He took the anchor with one hand and carried it effortlessly to where Yannick had brought the tender alongside.

‘Watch what you’re doing!’ snapped the Breton. ‘If you drop that, it’ll smash straight through the bottom.’

Jezreel treated him to a scornful glance. He leaned out over the rail and laid the anchor gently in the bow of the tender. ‘Get me a pair of oars,’ he said, ‘Hector and I can do the rest.’

Grateful to escape from Anne-Marie, Hector made his way aft. Morvaut’s tender was unusually large for her mother ship. Too big to be carried on deck, the skiff was always towed astern on a harness. Hector suspected that the Kergonans normally used the skiff to ferry goods ashore on smuggling trips.

He stepped down into the tender, and Yannick passed him a coil of anchor line. Away to his left, Dan had already set the float that marked the spot where he had found the silver candelabrum. Jezreel settled himself on the central thwart, gave a couple of powerful strokes with the oars, and the tender began to move. From the stern Hector paid out the anchor line while, on the pinnace, Yannick secured the loose end of the heavy rope.

‘The Tigress, that’s what they call her,’ commented Jezreel cryptically as soon as they were out of earshot of Yannick and his brother. ‘She’s said to be a man-eater.’ Hector made no comment. ‘Takes after her mother, if the tales are true,’ Jezreel continued.

Hector was aware of the Kergonan family’s notorious history. Their mother was among the group of fifty harlots the French government had shipped out to Tortuga a generation ago. The theory was that their offspring would establish a more permanent population in the fledgling French colony. Naturally the arrival of a shipload of loose women had caused a sensation. They had been dumped on the beach, and the settlers – a lawless gang of half-wild hunters and part-time pirates – had been encouraged to take their pick.

‘I can take care of myself,’ said Hector.

Jezreel gave another grunt as he tugged again on the oars and sent the tender surging.

Hector knew what his friend was implying. ‘I talked it over with Maria. There was no other choice,’ he said and tried to keep himself from sounding apologetic. ‘You saw for yourself. It takes money, lots of money to survive in Tortuga. They grow nothing there. Everything must be imported.’

‘No place to leave a woman,’ muttered Jezreel darkly.

‘I promised Maria that I would never return to piracy. Fishing wrecks was the only alternative.’

‘Much the same result if you are caught at it,’ commented Jezreel pointedly.

Hector’s thoughts went back to happier times when he and his friends had sailed the Pacific so that he could reach Maria, the woman he loved, and ask her to share his life. To his delight she had agreed, even though he was at risk of being taken up for piracy. For Maria, who was Spanish-born, it had meant deserting her employer, an important colonial official who was likely to be vindictive. Together they had chosen to come to remote Tortuga, hoping to find a safe haven beyond the reach of normal laws, a place where they could live together quietly. But Tortuga had been a cruel disappointment. The fort which had once defied foreign navies and given the place its semi-independence was in ruins. Most of the population had moved away, preferring the French colonies at Petit Goâve and Saint-Domingue. Those who stayed were the dregs. They passed their time in sordid drinking dens, spending the last of their booty. The settlement was reduced to little more than a cluster of squalid huts and muddy lanes where wild forest pigs roamed freely.

Hector turned in his seat and looked back at the Morvaut. Little about the vessel gave him confidence. She was a small boat of thirty tons with a single mast, shabby, and with only one tiny cannon. That meant she was virtually unarmed. A hostile ship of force would overwhelm her in minutes.

Yet Maria had insisted that he use the last of the money they had brought back from the Pacific to charter the Morvaut to go fishing the wreck of a Spanish galleon that was rumoured to be lying on the Vipers.

‘We must try something,’she had said. They had been standing at the door of the two-room shack that was all they had been able to afford to rent. ‘Otherwise we’ll be trapped in this wretched place, living miserably. Dan and the others will agree to go fishing the Vipers. They are getting bored.’

‘But you and I will be apart, maybe for months.’

‘I waited three years for you to come and find me. I can endure a few more weeks’ absence.’

‘What if we can’t find the wreck, or a gale catches us on the reef while we are searching? We ourselves could be cast away.’

She had laid a hand on his arm, looked into his eyes and said firmly, ‘Hector, I’ve seen your skill with charts. You can bring a vessel safely through those reefs. That’s what you excel at, just as Dan can dive, or Jacques can cook, and Jezreel can wield a backsword.’

He had still been doubtful. ‘The Kergonans own the only vessel available. And they are demanding advance payment of the charter, plus a half share in anything we recover. They’re a bunch of grasping crooks.’

She had leaned up and kissed him. ‘Yesterday I happened to meet Anne-Marie Kergonan on the foreshore. She told me that you had been discussing the charter with her. She was very friendly. She told me that morvaut is the Breton word for a cormorant. Hector, take it as an omen – it’s a greedy bird but one that gorges on its catch.’

Hector was wakened from his reverie by a slight lurch. The skiff had reached Dan’s marker buoy and Jezreel was unshipping his oars. The big man picked up the kedge anchor lying on the bottom boards. ‘Ready?’ he asked. Hector checked that the coil of anchor line was free and nodded.

Jezreel dropped the anchor overboard, and the last few fathoms of cable ran out with a thrumming sound. As soon as the anchor had settled on the seabed, the big man waved to the pinnace. The Kergonan brothers, helped by Jacques, began taking in the slack. The Morvaut was too small to carry a windlass so they were hauling by hand. The pinnace slowly began to take up position over the spoil ground.

Within an hour they knew they had struck lucky. Dan came across a pile of more than a hundred pieces of eight on the sea floor where a canvas bag had rotted and burst. In the next three dives he brought up a rich haul of tableware – jugs, spoons, bowls, forks and goblets, all in massive silver.

‘I wonder if any of the galleon’s crew survived the wreck?’ Hector asked Roparzh Kergonan. He was on the pinnace’s deck, trying to divide the spoil into two equal piles, one for the Bretons, and one for himself and his friends. Roparzh was hovering over him, making sure that Hector was not cheating. Hector could smell the rum on the man’s breath.

‘Someone usually lives,’ grunted Roparzh. ‘Clings to flotsam and is washed ashore or gets clear in a ship’s boat.’

Hector turned his attention to a large silver dish. Dan had found it wedged in a crevice in the coral. The dish was engraved with an ornate coat of arms, and Hector guessed that it had been the property of an officer on the galleon, someone from a noble family.

‘How do we divide this item fairly?’ he asked the Breton. ‘Hack it up with an axe and weigh out the scraps,’ came the blunt reply.

Hector winced inwardly at the thought. ‘It is a match with the other pieces. They’ll be worth more as a set.’

‘And the first person we try to fence it to will recognize the mark and guess how we got our hands on it. Might even know the family.’

‘Only if that person is familiar with the crests and emblems of Spanish families.’

Roparzh was looking at him as if he was simple-minded. ‘You mean the Spaniards buy goods stolen out of their own wrecks?’ Hector said.

‘There’s more goes on than either Madrid or London knows about.’

The Breton decided that he had said enough. He shovelled up his share of the coins and put them in a pouch. Without asking, he took the silver dish out of Hector’s hand and slouched away with it. Hector decided that it was not worth making an issue of the matter and went to help Dan as he climbed out of the water.

The Miskito was exhausted. He flopped down on the deck and leaned back against the bulwarks to rest. His eyes were closed, and the water ran off his body, making dark patterns across the deck. He looked utterly spent. After a minute or two, he opened his eyes. They were red-rimmed from the time spent underwater.

‘We have to watch our backs now,’ he said.

‘What do you mean?’ Hector asked.

Dan’s eyes flicked to the stern where the Kergonan brothers were huddled together. They were double-checking their haul of coins and silverware. ‘One dark night when we are asleep, they may take the chance to be rid of us.’

He lifted one hand and made a cutting motion across his throat.

TWO

The discovery of the silver candelabrum was the start of their reward. In the next five days of diving on the wreck Dan brought up nearly two hundred more coins. They were mostly cobs, misshaped slugs of metal that scarcely looked like money. Yet each one bore an assayer’s monogram that proved it was genuine silver. He also retrieved twenty-three gold doubloons and an assortment of tableware and jewellery – pendants, bracelets and necklaces. Under the mistrustful gaze of the Kergonans everything was sorted and divided. As the value of the haul increased, so too did the tension on board. It boiled over on the afternoon Dan brought up a leather purse from the sea floor. Jacques slit open the soggy purse and tipped a dozen emeralds out on to the deck. A drunken Roparzh Kergonan gave a great whoop of triumph and reached forward to grab the spoil. But Jacques beat him to it. The Frenchman quietly picked up one of the jewels and held it up to the sunlight. He had worked with a Paris fence and knew how to spot a fake. Without hesitation he declared that the ‘emeralds’ were nothing more than chunks of coloured glass. It was as if he had blatantly swindled the Breton. Roparzh leaped on him and seized him by the throat and would have strangled him if Jezreel had not intervened.

That night was Hector’s turn to be on anchor watch. Seated on the foredeck in the pre-dawn darkness, he knew that the salvage operation had to end very soon. Even if the Kergonans could be kept under control, less than half a barrel of drinking water remained. With no fresh water on the two nearby islands, they would soon be forced to leave the wreck site and head for home. As he was idly speculating how much his share of the salvage would be worth, he became aware of someone creeping stealthily towards him. He was about to call out a challenge when a low voice said, ‘I thought I’d join you.’ A moment later Anne-Marie Kergonan sat down beside him. ‘It’s too hot to sleep,’she said, looking along the length of the silent ship.

In the faint starlight Hector could make out that she was wearing a loose nightgown of some pale material and that it had slipped to one side, so the shoulder nearest to him was bare. There was a waft of some sort of musky scent from the perfume she was wearing.

‘What are you going to do with your share of the findings?’ she asked after a long pause.

Hector kept his voice as neutral as possible. ‘I’ve no idea. Depends on how much there is.’

She turned her face towards him, and he was conscious of the shape of the soft mouth, the lips parted. Her hand reached up and caught back a strand of hair that hung loose. The movement was smooth, seductive. ‘No idea at all?’

He didn’t know how to answer, and she went on. ‘I met that new wife of yours in Tortuga. She’s very attractive. I’m sure you miss her.’

‘Maria is a remarkable woman.’ His reply was cautious.

Anne-Marie gave a throaty chuckle. ‘And an understanding one, I would guess. Most women are when they want to keep their man.’

She shifted position, a slight movement that brought her thigh a fraction closer to him. Perhaps it was his imagination but he felt soft warmth radiating from her. ‘How old are you, Hector?’she asked.

‘Twenty-eight.’

‘And how many women have you known?’

He was flustered, stumbling in his reply. ‘A few.’

‘Well before I was your age,’she said, ‘I had learned to seize the opportunities that came my way. It had become clear to me that life passes by those who hesitate, and I resolved to conduct my life as I wanted, follow my instincts, and not behave as others would tell me or expect of me.’

‘Is that why on Tortuga they call you “the Tigress”?’ he said boldly.

A soft laugh. ‘Some people find me to be fierce. Others say that I am wilful. I see it as pride in what I am and what I can do.’ The light was strengthening. The sea around them was changing from inky black to a very faint sheen of dark blue. He noticed that she was watching him closely, her eyes in shadow.

She gave a slow, deliberate smile. He read both triumph and invitation. ‘Unless you take the chances that life offers, you do not taste what it is to live fully.’

She leaned towards him and stroked him gently on the bare forearm. He gave an involuntary shiver.

‘Not now, and not here,’she said, glancing meaningfully towards the stern. Hector could make out the shape of her oldest brother, asleep on deck beside the binnacle.

She stood up, smoothing down the loose gown and hitching it up over the naked shoulder. Despite himself, he felt a surge of desire. He wanted to rise to his feet and put his arms around her, and press her ripe body close to him. But she bent down and laid a finger on his lips. ‘Perhaps when it is more convenient,’she said quietly. A moment later she was gone, gliding along the deck in her bare feet, and ducking in through the low door of the aft cabin.

Hector sat very still. He was uncomfortably aware that from now on he would find it difficult to expunge Anne-Marie Kergonan from his mind.

It was at that moment, with his mind in confusion, that he looked up and saw, very faintly, a tiny speck of white on the distant horizon.

Juan Garcia Fonseca moved about the deck of his urca, San Gil, with a dragging limp. Each time he stepped out with his right foot, he had then to swivel his lower body, heave, and lift his left foot forward. He had been sailing the triangle between Cartagena, Porto Bello and Havana nearly all his life, and in that time he had been shipwrecked four times and fought off countless attacks from English and Dutch pirates. Once he had nearly lost his ship to a gang of African slaves who had got free of their chains below deck. Firing a swivel gun down the hatchway had restored order, at the cost of one member of his own crew whom they had taken hostage. With such an eventful career behind him, it was natural that most observers imagined his pronounced limp was the result of an injury during one of his many near-escapes from disaster. Only those who had known Juan Garcia since his early childhood in Cartagena knew that his infirmity was in fact an accident of birth. He had been born with a twisted hip. When he reached his teens, he had come to the conclusion that strong arms and a good grip aboard ship would make up for awkward legs on land, and had persuaded his father, a bookish civil servant, to let him go to sea. He had prospered, saved up enough money to buy his own vessel, and shown the shipwrights where to fit plenty of handholds within his easy reach. Now, forty years later, he accepted that his urca was outdated in design, notoriously slow through the water and handled like a pig against the wind. But her broad, oldfashioned hull still provided plenty of cargo space and made her very stable. He had named her after the patron saint of cripples, and he had no intention of replacing the San Gil.

Juan Garcia was standing with his son Felipe, watching the swells heap up on the edge of the reef as the urca skirted southward along the Vipers. ‘If you read the signs, you have plenty of warning,’ Juan Garcia was saying. He never lost a chance to pass on his knowledge. One day, perhaps in a couple of years, Felipe would be taking over as captain.

‘There.’ Juan Garcia pointed to where a sudden smear of white foam showed the presence of a coral head. ‘If the swell comes from a direction different from the wind and is much bigger than usual, that tells you a hurricane is lurking out to the east.’

He paused and watched the humped back of a swimming turtle appear briefly above the waves. The creature raised its head and gazed briefly at the ship, the bright eyes and hooked beak like a predatory bird. Then its flippers moved gently and it sank from view.

‘And if the air becomes hot and heavy and the shirt sticks to your back even though the weather is fine and clear, be on your guard.’

Felipe Fonseca had heard his father’s hurricane lecture many times. To provoke him he murmured, ‘Are you not worried that the stars were twinkling so brightly last night?’

‘What’s that got to do with it?’ his father demanded, falling into the trap.

‘A sailor in Havana told me that the Philippines people believe that when the stars twinkle very brightly, it means a storm is coming.’

‘Why should they think that?’

‘They claim that there’s a great wind far, far up in the sky. When it blows really strongly, it makes the stars flicker. Then, because it can’t extinguish the stars, the wind loses its temper. It swoops down on the earth as a gale.’

‘Pure superstition,’ grunted his father. He was feeling guilty that he had lied to his son. He had told him that he would risk the Vipers so early in the season because it was Felipe’s duty to be back in Cartagena when his son’s young wife gave birth. But the true reason for haste was that Juan Garcia himself was anxious. A clumsy midwife had caused his own affliction, and he dreaded that his first grandchild would suffer the same mishap. He wanted to be at home to make sure that the midwife was the best that he could hire.

Putting the thought out of his mind, he returned to Felipe’s seafaring education. ‘If you are caught in a hurricane, never run directly before the wind. If you do, you’ll be swamped or capsize. Instead, watch the way the wind shifts. If it backs, make sail on the starboard tack and run on a broad reach until the wind heads you. Then heave to.’

He was about to go on to say that if the wind veered, the mariner should sail as fast as possible on the same starboard tack but close-hauled. This would offer the best chance of avoiding the eye of the approaching storm. But he was interrupted.

‘Father, there’s a small boat on the Vipers, fine on the starboard bow.’

Juan Garcia stared where his son pointed. His eyes were not as sharp as they used to be. It was a sign of advancing age. Perhaps he should think about turning the San Gil over to Felipe sooner.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Looks like a small pinnace. Right on the reef.’

Juan Garcia shrugged. ‘Could be anyone. We’ll pass on by.’

Twenty minutes later they heard very faintly the sound of a cannon shot.

‘They’ve fired a windward gun,’ said Felipe.

‘Bring her up two points, no more!’ his father told the helmsman, who was looking at him enquiringly. A windward gun was the recognized signal that a boat wished to communicate. The unknown pinnace was too small to be a threat, but experience told him to be very wary.

‘I can’t see any sort of flag,’ Felipe said after a while. The pinnace was close enough to make out some figures on deck. There was something untidy about her rig, the mast slightly at a slant, as if she had run aground on the coral.

More time passed, and then Felipe announced, ‘There’s a boat putting off. They’re rowing out to try to intercept us.’

‘We maintain course,’ his father growled.

Felipe let out a low whistle of surprise. ‘There’s a woman in the skiff. She’s standing in the bows and waving.’

Juan Garcia caught the look of astonishment on the face of his helmsman. The man was bending his knees as he tried to peep under the mainsail and get a good look forward at the approaching boat.

‘All right then, bring her up to wind,’ he ordered reluctantly. He had a crew of six, without counting himself and Felipe. They were more than enough to beat off any attack from a skiff. ‘Bring a couple of blunderbusses up from my cabin and make sure the primings are dry.’

Aboard the Morvaut there had been angry words. Scarcely had Hector warned there was a ship on the horizon than the Kergovan brothers were on their feet. Roparzh and Yacut ran to the anchor cable and began to haul in the slack. Yannick hastily cleared the halyards, ready to hoist sail and flee. But a few minutes later their sister emerged from the cabin, took one look at the distant sail and yelled angrily at them. She was shouting in Breton so Hector could only guess that she was cursing them. She looked formidable. Her skin was flushed with anger, and for a moment Hector thought she was about to walk over to Yannick and slap him across the face.

Jacques and Jezreel were also poised, ready to help retrieve the anchor. She switched to English, ordering them to stop. ‘We wait until we know who they are. They could be French or English.’

‘They’re Spanish, that’s for sure. No one else in these waters,’ retorted Jacques.

Anne-Marie rounded on him. ‘Use your head. If that boat is indeed a Spanish cruiser, I doubt we can outrun her.’ She turned to face Hector.

‘Hector,’she snapped. ‘You’ve been exploring the reef. Can you find a channel and pilot Morvaut through the Vipers?’

‘I suppose so,’ said Hector dubiously. He was astonished to see the change from the flirtatious woman who had sat beside him less than two hours earlier.

‘Good. But that’s only if things go wrong.’ she rounded on her brothers and reverted to Breton, loosing a stream of orders.

Roparzh and Yacut stopped hauling on the anchor line. Yannick, looking surly, went to slack off the shrouds so that the mast leaned out badly off true.

‘What’s all that about?’ asked Jacques, cocking an eye at the drunken angle of the spar.

‘To make it look as though the Morvaut has run aground,’ Hector suggested.

‘That won’t deceive anyone,’ Jacques muttered under his breath.

Hector could see that Anne-Marie was trying to draw the foreign ship closer, but he did not understand why.

‘Wouldn’t it be better to let them sail on past?’ he asked her. ‘And miss the chance to continue fishing the wreck!’she replied sharply. Eyes narrowed, she was watching the urca. ‘She’s altering course to come a little more towards us. Definitely a Spaniard, a merchantman. Roparzh, get the skiff ready. You and Yannick come with me. I’m going to talk with that vessel.’

She turned to Hector. ‘How good’s your Spanish?’

‘My mother came from Galicia.’

‘I want you to interpret. We ’re going to get ourselves some water and food.’

Hector hesitated. There was something about Anne-Marie’s belligerent confidence that made him uneasy.

‘The Morvaut is chartered to fish for wrecks, not for piracy,’ he warned.

She tossed her head dismissively. ‘We’ll pay the Spaniards for what we need. But they’ll only deal with us if they think we have permission from their authorities to be here.’

She snapped an order at Roparzh, who shambled off and returned with a handful of silver coins that she tucked into a pocket of her loose breeches.

‘Hector, I want you to tell the captain of that boat that we have been sent here from Porto Bello to make a proper chart of the Vipers.’

Hector looked at her in surprise. ‘Why would he believe such a tale?’

‘Show him those sketches of the reef you’ve been making. Flatter him. Ask him if he can add to our information. I speak reasonable Spanish, but not enough to be convincing.’

Hector glanced across at Jacques, who shrugged. ‘Go ahead, Hector. If it works, we can stay here for a few more days of fishing.’ Roparzh and Yannick had already brought the skiff alongside and were seated at the oars. Satchel in hand, Hector swung over the rail and joined them. Anne-Marie Kergonan stepped into her cabin and reappeared wearing a broad sash of red silk. Then she jumped into the bows of the tender and the skiff pushed off.

As they approached the urca, they could see her crew lining the rail. All of them, including the two men who were pointing blunderbusses in their direction, were staring in fascination at Anne-Marie. She turned and waved, taking care to reveal her generous figure. ‘Necesitamos el agua!’she called. To Hector she hissed, ‘Tell them that we are surveying the reefs and are willing to pay for food and water.’

Hector translated, and a stocky figure with a thick greying beard called out that the skiff could come alongside but only one person at a time was to climb aboard.

In response, it was Anne-Marie who promptly clambered on to the urca. Clearly this surprised the bearded man, whom Hector took to be the captain. ‘You’d better come up as well,’ he called down to Hector. ‘But the others stay where they are.’

Hector hoisted himself up on to the urca, his satchel of maps slung across his shoulder. The bearded man looked his two visitors up and down with suspicion. ‘You want water?’

‘Yes, and some stores if you can spare them,’ Hector answered. A young man stood next to the captain. Judging by their resemblance, they were father and son. The rest of the crew– several older mariners and a cabin boy – were unremarkable.

‘It’s too hot to stand here in the sun,’said the captain. He turned and limped heavily towards a door at the break of the aft deck. He stood aside to let Anne-Marie precede him, and Hector had to duck to follow them into the captain’s accommodation. A curtained bunk was built into one bulkhead. There was a small table, a couple of chairs, and a cushioned bench running the width of the little cabin. ‘Please be seated,’ said the captain. He lowered himself on to one of the chairs and used both hands to move his useless leg into a more comfortable position. Anne-Marie took her place on the bench, and Hector, preferring to keep his distance, sat on one of the chairs.

‘Felipe!’ called the captain through the open door. ‘Come in and join us and bring some wine.’ A few moments later the young man appeared holding an onion-shaped flask of wine and four small leather tankards that he placed on the table before his father. Anne-Marie moved farther along the bench so the captain’s son could sit beside her.

‘Welcome aboard the San Gil,’said the captain. He leaned forward and splashed a generous portion of red wine into each tankard. ‘I am Juan Garcia Fonseca, and my ship is bound for our home port, Cartagena.’

He looked enquiringly at Hector.

‘Enrique Benavides of His Majesty’s Corps of Engineers, at your service,’ Hector said, ‘and this is Anne-Marie Bretana, owner of the pinnace Morvaut.’

Fonseca gave a small bow towards Anne-Marie before addressing his next question to Hector. ‘May I ask what you are doing in these waters?’

Hector hesitated. He had been given little time to practise his deception. ‘I am on my way back to Madrid after a posting to Valdivia as Deputy Inspector of Fortifications.’ Valdivia was three thousand miles away at the far end of Peru. It was a reasonable guess that Captain Juan Fonseca had never been there or knew any of the citizens. ‘In Panama I received instructions to interrupt my journey and make more accurate charts of reefs in this region.’

‘Not the best time of year to do so,’ commented the Spaniard drily.

‘Due to the recent heavy loss of shipping on this route, the matter was considered to be of the utmost importance.’ Hector opened his satchel and began to set out his sketch maps. ‘I’m hoping that you might be able to add some extra details, from your own experience of these waters.’

Juan Fonseca leafed through one sheet after another, and nodded approvingly. ‘It will be a real service to mariners if we can get decent charts of this region. I am able to add some information about the currents.’

Hector heard a voice calling outside. He guessed it was a Spanish crew member trying to start a conversation with the two Kergonan brothers waiting in the skiff.

The captain picked up his tankard and raised it as a toast.

‘I think it appropriate to raise a glass to the memory of Carlos Serrano,’ he said.

‘To Carlos Serrano,’ echoed Hector cautiously. He had not the least idea who Carlos Serrano was. But Captain Fonseca obviously thought he was someone whose memory was worthy of respect.

The captain took a sip of wine and put down his tankard. ‘Now,’ he said casually, ‘tell me the truth. Tell me who you really are and what you are doing here.’

Hector blustered. ‘As I said, I am surveying the Vipers—’

Fonseca cut him short. ‘. . . The Vipers are marked on official maps as the Serrano Bank. They are named after the castaway Pedro Serrano who was shipwrecked there. He survived on his own for eight years, eating turtles and catching rainwater in their upturned shells. He was covered in a thick pelt of hair like a beast when they found him, so it is said. There’s not a sailor in Panama who would not have told you the tale, and you would have known his name was Pedro, not Carlos.’

The captain smiled grimly. ‘Señor Benavides, if that is your real name, which I doubt, I suggest that you tell me the truth about yourself and this charming lady here.’

‘Here is the truth,’ interrupted Anne-Marie. She reached inside her scarlet sash and produced a short-barrelled pistol. There was a click as she cocked the weapon and placed it against the head of Felipe Fonseca. ‘We only want some fresh water and a little food. Nothing that you can’t spare. Then you can proceed on your way.’

Captain Fonseca sat very still. Then he spoke slowly and carefully. ‘It is a novelty to be waylaid aboard my own ship by a woman.’ He looked completely unperturbed. ‘Felipe,’ he said to his son, ‘do exactly as you are told. I suspect the lady means what she says.’

He levered himself to his feet and limped out of the cabin, followed by Felipe with Anne-Marie still holding the gun to his head.

The moment Anne-Marie emerged on deck, she let out a piercing whistle. In response her two brothers in the skiff rowed across and clambered aboard. It was all done with so little fuss that Hector had the feeling that this routine was something the Bretons had done before. Wordlessly Yannick and Roparzh removed the two blunderbusses from the crew of the urca and herded the sailors into a group.

As they shuffled meekly together, the Spanish cabin boy took it into his head to make a dash at Anne-Marie, trying to seize her pistol. Hector was so surprised that, without a second thought, he reached out and grabbed the lad by the collar. The boy swung round, flailing in the air with his fists, until a sharp command from Captain Fonseca made him stop.

Felipe had gone pale, but Anne-Marie’s hand was as steady as her voice. ‘Hector, select two men from the crew and supervise them while they fetch water jars and place them in our boat. Roparzh, see what sails there are.’

‘At least leave me a jib,’said the Spanish captain calmly. He seemed to know exactly what the Bretons were doing.

Her brother prodded one of the Spanish sailors with the muzzle of his blunderbuss. ‘Gouel!’ he ordered in Breton, and when the man looked blank, pointed up at the San Gil’s mainsail. ‘Voiles! Vela!’ and followed the sailor below.

Hector picked out two of the older Spaniards, and they began to lug the heavy water jars from their stowage by the galley. As they lowered the jars into the Morvaut’s tender, Roparzh reappeared with the Spanish sailor. Between them they were dragging a length of canvas which they dumped near the mast. Next Yannick eased off the main halyard until the mainsail lay in an untidy heap on deck.

With her free hand Anne-Marie beckoned to the cabin boy, who stood glowering at her. ‘You help the cook, don’t you?’ she said in slow, careful Spanish.

The lad nodded.

‘Fetch me his oil,’ she said.

‘Do as she says,’ ordered Fonseca quietly. He appeared to accept whatever was to happen next. The boy meekly went off on his errand. More sails were heaped on deck. The cabin boy came back with a greasy pan of cooking oil and was told to dump it on the cloth. As Hector brought the last water jar from the galley, he met Roparzh with a rum bottle in his hand. The Breton took a swig. ‘Pity about the waste. But I’ve found a small keg which I’ll put in the skiff,’ he said. He sprinkled the remaining contents of the bottle on the heap of canvas. Hector saw growing distress on the faces of the crew.

Finally Roparzh fetched a lump of glowing charcoal from the galley and tossed it on the sails.

In the hot sunshine everyone stood and watched in silence as the fire gradually took hold. A tendril of grey smoke oozed upwards. There was a slight explosive puff as a puddle of rum caught alight. A line of flame ran up a fold of dry canvas, and suddenly all of San Gil’s sails were ablaze except for a single headsail which had been left hanging from its stay.

Anne-Marie pressed the pistol more firmly to Felipe’s head. ‘Can you swim?’she asked. The young man nodded cautiously.

She addressed his father. ‘Captain Fonseca, if anyone shoots at us, you will be pulling your son’s corpse from the sea.’

‘I understand,’ said Juan Garcia wearily.

Anne-Marie began to hustle Felipe into the skiff. ‘Come on, Hector,’ she said. ‘It’s time to go.’ Hector climbed down into the boat. Roparzh handed down a small keg of rum to his brother, and the two Breton men took their places and began to row. As the gap widened between the skiff and the urca, Anne-Marie reached into a pocket, withdrew a handful of silver cobs, and flung them. The scatter of money arced through the air and clattered on to the deck of the urca. The crew paid no attention. They were busy with buckets, dipping up seawater to douse the fire.

Anne-Marie tapped her prisoner on the shoulder. ‘Over you go,’ she said cheerfully. Felipe, white-faced, slid over the side and began to swim back to the urca.

Hector glared at her. ‘We agreed no piracy,’ he said accusingly. She showed white teeth in a mischievous smile. ‘I only said that I would pay for what we needed. How long do you think it would be before they sent the guarda costa after us? With only a single foresail it’ll take Captain Fonseca at least a week to get to Cartagena, enough time for us to finish exploring the wreck. Then we head for Tortuga.’

She glanced back at the urca. The plume of smoke was gone.

The fire must have been under control.

‘Captain Fonseca has suffered only a scorched deck, and perhaps an injury to his pride,’ she said.

When they reached the Morvaut Anne-Marie climbed aboard first and, turning, held out her hand for Hector to pass up his satchel of maps. He stood up and held out the satchel at arm’s length. At that moment Yannick deliberately caused the tender to tip. It was a sudden, violent lurch, intended to throw Hector into the water. Caught off-guard, Hector lost his balance and seized the proffered hand. With one smooth movement Anne-Marie hoisted him safely up to the deck. For a long moment she stood, holding his hand in hers. Then she gave a brief and unmistakable squeeze of invitation.


Excerpted from Privateer: Pirate 4 by Tim Severin. Copyright © 2014 by Tim Severin.
First published 2014 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Gentle Assassin by Ryan David Jahn – Extract

The Gentle Assassin

Excerpt from ‘A Study of Assassination’, a CIA pamphlet distributed to agents

Assassination is a term thought to be derived from ‘hashish’, a drug similar to marijuana, said to have been used by Hasan-ibn-Sabah to induce motivation in his followers, who were assigned to carry out political and other murders, usually at the cost of their lives.

It is here used to describe the planned killing of a person who is not under the legal jurisdiction of the killer, who is not physically in the hands of the killer, who has been selected by a resistance organization or person for death, and whose death provides positive advantages to that organization or person.

Assassination is an extreme measure not normally used in clandestine operations. It should be assumed that it will never be ordered or authorized by any U.S. Headquarters, though the latter may in rare instances agree to its execution by members of an associated foreign service. This reticence is partly due to the necessity for committing communications to paper. No assassination instructions should ever be written or recorded. Consequently, the decision to employ this technique must nearly always be reached in the field, at the area where the act will take place. Decision and instructions should be confined to an absolute minimum of persons. Ideally, only one person will be involved. No report may be made, but usually the act will be properly covered by normal news services, whose output is available to all concerned.

Murder is not morally justifiable. Self-defense may be argued if the victim has knowledge which may destroy the resistance organization or person if divulged. Assassination of persons responsible for atrocities or reprisals may be regarded as just punishment. Killing a political leader whose burgeoning career is a clear and present danger to the cause of freedom may be held necessary.

But assassination can seldom be employed with a clear conscience. Persons who are morally squeamish should not attempt it.

PART ONE

SHED

To most men the death of his father is a new lease of life.
Samuel Butler

THEN:

He pulls the 1963 Chevy Impala to the curb and kills the engine before looking toward the rearview mirror. A police car grows larger there, filling the reflective glass, then spreading beyond its borders. He noticed it almost a mile back when there were three other vehicles between it and him but still isn’t sure he’s being tailed. There’s no reason he should be. The previous owner of the car he’s driving wouldn’t have called the police.

He’s a dead man.

Then again, he doesn’t yet know he’s dead. His death is only now about to catch up with him, as it catches up with everyone eventually.

Not that the man would call the police in any case; for some folks police are the enemy, the mere presence of a blue uniform makes them twitchy, and this car’s previous owner has been on the wrong side of the law for years.

So he and the police are hardly on friendly terms.

And anyway, can you really steal from a corpse? So this one is a walking corpse. He’ll be stilled soon enough, silenced soon enough. And wherever it is the dead go, they go naked, taking nothing with them. Even love they leave behind. And maybe that’s wise. Possessions – and relationships – can be a burden. They bring responsibility with them, and responsibility is always heavy, even when accepted with grace. You feel it pressing down on you even when you don’t realize it, like the weight of the atmosphere.

He’s about to do this man a favor. He’s about to lighten his load.

He sets fire to a cigarette and blows a stream of smoke out his open window.

The police car rolls by. The uniformed cop behind the wheel glances toward him, nods.

He touches the edge of his fedora with a leather-gloved hand, realizing too late that the cop might think it strange that his hands are covered in late May. But there’s no double-take – the cop doesn’t seem to register the glove at all, nor the recently broken nose, bent and swollen and pink with wiped-away blood, nor the gashed side of his head matted with the same – there’s no reaction at all, the vehicle simply rolls by, so he steps into the bright suburban morning, sweating beneath his brown suit, the cotton fabric of his underclothes sticking to his skin.

A chain of nearly identical houses stretches along the street beneath a white Dallas sun like a hole punched in the blue to let the light in. Lawns that look as if the green’s been applied with a brush. Porch swings creaking in the breeze. Fading hopscotch squares chalked across the sidewalk. Welcome mats that mean it.

The perfect hiding place for a career criminal. No one would ever suspect.

He glances right, watches the police car disappear around a corner, goodbye trouble, then walks to the trunk and keys it open. He flicks his cigarette to the street. Inside the trunk, a two-gallon gas can. He picks it up.

Gasoline sloshes within the can, which is about half full.

He crosses the now-empty street, walking toward one of the houses. Then up three concrete steps. He stops before a blue-painted front door. He grabs the doorknob and turns it. It unlatches. But it wouldn’t have mattered if it hadn’t; he has a set of keys – though he did leave them in the car. He pulls a large revolver from his waistband and steps lightly into the tiled foyer, looking around, cautious, gun at the ready. But it’s quiet inside, peaceful. He closes his eyes and absorbs the quiet, lets it fill him. He projects a word in large white letters onto the interior wall of his otherwise dark skull: SILENCE.

Then to his left, at the other end of a long hallway, a sound.

He rubs his gloved thumb back and forth across the revolver’s hammer spur, then heads in the direction from which the noise came.

The carpeted floor is nearly silent beneath his feet, merely whispering softly as the heels of his alligator-skin boots drag across the nap.

A closed door to his left. He pushes it open. Empty but for furniture: two wing-back chairs and a coffee table in the middle of a book-lined room, a finger-printed scotch glass resting empty on the table beside a bottle of Glenfiddich.

An open door to his right revealing a bathroom, the corners dark with shadows.

His own reflection in the mirror above the sink startles him for a moment, but he recognizes himself almost instantly, so his gun hand barely twitches.

He continues to the end of the hallway, where a third door stands open.

I choose door number three. Okay, sir, let’s see what you win!

More noise issues from the room on the other side – drawers opening and closing, a baby crying, frantic conversation about hurry it up, we don’t have much time.

A true fact: they have no time at all. He steps into the doorway.

A man and woman hurriedly pack a suitcase which is laid out across a large unmade bed. Beside the suitcase lies a black briefcase. In a crib in the corner a baby sits red-eyed, snot running from its nose, its little fists clenched tight in fury.

He simply stands there, waiting to be noticed.

Soon enough he is. The man looks up, sees him, moves for a gun on a night table to his right – an automatic pistol – but the man’s hand doesn’t come within a foot of it.

Because he quickly raises his own gun, his revolver, thumbs back the hammer, and squeezes the trigger.

The man’s head kicks hard to the right, like he was whacked with an invisible baseball bat – home run, motherfucker – and blood trickles down from within the hairline behind the temple, along his cheek at the front of his sideburn, and drips onto the left shoulder of a white shirt.

The man collapses.

The woman begins to scream.

He shoots her next, sending a piece of lead through her forehead at about a thousand feet per second. Her head kicks back hard, as if she were a PEZ dispenser – have some candy, kid – and the screaming stops.

He tosses the revolver to the floor, its purpose served, and walks to the bed. He opens the briefcase and looks inside, smiling at what he finds there. He latches the briefcase once more and lifts it, then begins dousing the place with gasoline, the fumes from the liquid making his eyes water. The smell is strong and hot in his nostrils.

The baby continues to wail as he pours gasoline onto the carpet.

He ignores it, tries to ignore it, and backs his way toward the front door, emptying the can – the last of the liquid swimming with flakes of rust – and after he’s done he tosses it aside. It hits the floor and rings out hollow, like a cracked bell. He lights a match and watches it burn. The flame turns the blond wood black. He drops it to the floor before the flame reaches his nicotine-stained fingertips. The gasoline ignites with a whoosh, lighting up the place.

He steps back out into the sun with the briefcase in hand, the sound of the baby’s cries echoing in his skull, and makes his way across the street to the Chevy Impala.

Behind him, the house continues to burn.

He tries to shove aside thoughts of the screaming baby within, an innocent too young to be a problem, but he can hear its cries even now echoing within his skull.

He tries not to look over his shoulder. But of course he does look.

For a moment he watches orange flames flicker behind the glass of the bedroom window, as if it were a giant jack-olantern, then he once more walks toward the house. He feels very strongly that he will regret this decision, but he can’t stop himself. Despite what he is there’s something soft inside him, something that cannot tolerate the innocent wails of a child too young to speak.

Especially since he believes the child is his own.

NOW:

1

Andrew stepped into the warm air of the fading day and pulled the front door closed behind him. He could still hear the muffled sound of Melissa’s angry voice coming from inside, but he ignored her curses and walked down the concrete steps to the parking lot which sat behind their apartment building. By the time he reached his car, a twenty-two-year-old MGB GT which had rolled off the lot the same year Nixon was elected to his first term, she’d been silenced by the distance between them. He fell in behind the steering wheel, turned the key in the ignition, pumped the gas pedal. The engine roared to life.

He sat motionless, both hands gripping the steering wheel. He stared through the windshield at nothing in particular. He exhaled.

A mere two weeks ago he’d have thought this impossible. Now it was happening, it was reality, and all because of an old man’s heart attack and a stack of envelopes left in a dresser drawer. He almost wished he hadn’t found it – his life and his emotional state had been in turmoil since he innocently picked up that rubber-banded bundle – but he had, and the envelopes’ contents could not be ignored. Not by him. There were too many questions that he needed answered. Questions he’d been asking for years.

He backed his car out of the parking spot and pulled out into the street. He listened to the radio while he drove and thought about nothing at all, and when he got where he was going fifteen minutes later he remembered not even so much as a single moment from the drive over. Had he stopped at red lights? He didn’t know. Had he liked the songs that played on the radio? He couldn’t even remember what they had been. Where the drive should have been in his memory was emptiness, a dark gap.

But this was nothing new: his entire history was a shelf of empty books. Take one out and flip through it, you’d only find blank pages one after the other forward to the end.

He pulled to the curb and killed the engine. He looked through the passenger window to the dilapidated facade of the Thirsty Fish. Someone who didn’t know better might assume the place had gone bust several years ago – the windows painted black, the door closed, the neon sign unlighted – but he did know better, so he stepped with dirty Converse into the street, hopped up onto the gum-dotted sidewalk, made his way inside.

Any other bar he’d have been carded as soon as he pushed through the door – if you passed him on the street you’d see a skinny kid of maybe sixteen or seventeen in tattered Levi’s and a T-shirt, with a bird’s nest of choppy Supercuts-trimmed blond hair, sharp blue eyes, and acne scars still pink on his cheeks – but they knew him here, which meant they knew he wasn’t exactly what he appeared to be. Skinny he was, five seven and a hundred and twenty pounds, but also a full decade older than he looked.

He stood in the doorway squinting at the other patrons as his eyes adjusted to the light in the room, or the lack thereof, darker by far than the early evening sidewalk out front, and the faces came into focus, rose out of the darkness like surfacing sea creatures pale and round, but not one of them the face he wanted to see.

He glanced at his calculator watch and saw he was about ten minutes early. He ordered a beer and walked to an empty table in the corner. The table’s surface was streaked and damp and had the musty stink of a days-in-use bar towel. He took a sip of his beer and set it down, wiped the moisture off his lip with the palm of his hand, then wiped the palm of his hand on his Levi’s. He watched the door and felt sick to his stomach.

It wasn’t every day you had the chance to track down the man who’d killed your mother.

And in his case that man was also his father.

He’d been in the room when it happened, but had also been a mere eighteen months old, far too young for memories to form – except he thought he could remember it. But maybe he was fooling himself. He knew he had at least one false memory, and it was as clear in his mind as the room which now surrounded him. Time had neither decayed nor rusted it.

A seven-year-old boy opens his eyes to find himself floating several feet above his bed, sheets and blankets hanging off him, as if off a high tree branch. He pushes them from his body and lets gravity take them. They fall in a pile to the mattress below. The ceiling is very close, only a foot or so from his face. He can see the texture so clearly, the fine cracks in the plaster. He pushes off the surface and swims through the air, pushes his way out of his bedroom, floats down the hallway. The air is cool and crisp and dark, but not so dark that he can’t see. He can see everything as he floats into the dining room, over the dining table and the bowl of fruit which rests there. Everything is sharp with color, vibrant. If he wanted to, he could reach down and pluck an apple from the bowl, but he doesn’t want to. Instead, he pushes himself off the walls in the room, and laughs as he bounces from one to another, moving effortlessly and with grace. He feels wonderful and free and full of joy.

It was, in fact, the only time he could remember feeling that way – absolutely without burden – but the memory wasn’t real and couldn’t be, for it was filled with impossibilities. He knew it wasn’t real despite the persistent feeling that it absolutely had to be. It had to be because it felt like a memory – not a dream, not a fantasy, but a memory – and people did not remember things that hadn’t happened.

Except apparently they did.

So maybe what he remembered of his mother’s murder was false as well. Maybe his memory was only of his visualization of descriptions in newspaper articles he’d read years later while huddled before a microfilm reader in the public library.

Even if the event had been so traumatic as to burn itself into his brain, as to brand itself upon his brain, there was no reason to believe his recollection was accurate. He’d heard once while listening to public radio that every time you remembered an event you were only recalling your last recollection, not the memory itself. The person who’d explained this, a scientist discussing his research, had compared the mind to an old VHS tape. Each time you remembered something, he’d said, you were in effect making a new recording of the event, taping over your last memory even as you recalled it, and with each new recording the quality was poorer. New errors entered the memory, false information. Your current state of mind affected how you perceived it and could even change events. Blue cars became green cars. Grass became asphalt. Good weather became poor.

So it was possible that his recollection of his mother’s murder was false, but he didn’t think so. He knew his memory of flying was not genuine because it was filled with impossible things – and because it was so clear. None of his actual memories from his childhood were nearly so vivid. They were each nothing but a length of grainy footage full of scratches and unlighted corners. His memory of his mother’s murder was the same.

Which made him believe it was real.

He took another swallow of his beer and stared at the wall, onto which he saw projected his own past, his first and oldest memory.

He sits in a wooden crib wearing nothing but a cloth diaper. One of the safety pins has come unsnapped and is digging into his leg. He cries for his mother, wants her to make it feel better, wants her to pick him up and hold him. But she does none of those things. Instead, she hurriedly packs a suitcase. A man who isn’t Daddy helps her. He says something to her, but Andrew doesn’t understand most of his words. All he understands is that something is wrong. This man feels panicked and his mother feels panicked as well. He can sense that much even without understanding what they’re saying. Then Daddy steps into the doorway. He stands there for a long time – and why won’t Mommy pick him up? He cries and cries, but she won’t pick him up. Then Daddy raises his arm and in his hand is a strange metal thing, large and black. There’s a loud bang. The thing in Daddy’s hand makes the sound, and Daddy’s hand kicks back. The man who isn’t Daddy falls to the ground. Mommy screams. She screams loudly. Maybe the bang scared her, he doesn’t know, but it scared him, and her screaming scares him too, crazy and out of control, and it makes him cry even louder. Then there’s another bang and Mommy stops screaming. She falls to the ground. Daddy pours something onto the carpet. It smells bad and it makes it hard to breathe. He can feel the fumes from it in the back of his nose. His eyes water. Daddy backs out of the room. Several moments later the flames come. They come rushing in on the carpet. They come rushing in through the door. They burn hot and terrible all around him. He’s never felt such heat, never been so scared. Why doesn’t Mommy get up? Why doesn’t she get up and come to him? Why doesn’t she pick him up and take him away from here? She shouldn’t be sleeping now. He cries for her, cries loudly, shaking his tiny fists, but she doesn’t move. Then Daddy returns. He walks through the flames and the smoke and picks him up. He carries him through the flames, through black smoke and the stink of things burning that were never meant to burn. He carries him through the front door and into daylight bright and hot and clean. The sky is very blue. A summer breeze blows warm against his skin.

That was where the memory ended – the one memory his father had left him with – with the bright sun shining down on him. Then the screen of his mind went black and did not light up again until he was three, maybe four, and living with his grandparents, his mother dead, his father missing and probably dead as well.

He was glad the man had come back for him, it meant he’d not been completely heartless despite what he’d done, but he couldn’t forgive him. Neither for that nor for what he’d left behind: a son who made people think of a cold-blooded killer. It was in the way he walked, his love of history, the way he closed his eyes when angry; it was even in the rhythm and tone of his speech: people who’d known the man – Andrew’s grandparents, his uncle Burt – said he was very much his father’s son. It made him feel responsible for a murder he’d had no part in, and it made him hate himself a little bit. For wasn’t he a replica of this man he despised?

He wanted to find his father, to face him. He didn’t know why, didn’t know what he might get out of it, didn’t know what he would do once he was face-to-face with the man, but he knew it was something he needed to do. Yet for years it seemed impossible. The man had vanished. There was a public record – in 1955 his father had been charged with and found not guilty of conspiracy to commit murder; in 1957 he’d gone to prison for assaulting a police officer; between 1960 and 1963 there were several newspaper articles mentioning that he had ties to organized crime in the southwest and was suspected of being involved in various homicides – but after the day his mother was killed, twenty-six years ago now, Harry Combs had ceased to exist, had simply vanished off the face of the earth, air filling in the space he’d once displaced.

Maybe he was rotting in an unmarked grave somewhere. He’d certainly lived that kind of life. But Andrew wanted to know with certainty, and that didn’t seem possible.

But as he made a life for himself he thought of his father less. He spent three years majoring in American History at California State University, Long Beach, then dropped out and got work in construction, which he liked far more than he’d expected he would. There was a sense of pride he got from it that he didn’t get from intellectual pursuits. He felt like he’d actually done something when he drove by a house he’d helped to build: there was the proof, taking up space in the world. He met a girl named Melissa and they moved in together. He bought a fifty-dollar ring from K-Mart and proposed. She said yes and despite their use of birth control almost immediately got pregnant. But they weren’t ready for that – together they barely made enough money to cover the bills; if she had to quit her job to take care of a child they’d go under – so after hours of late-night discussions she’d had an abortion. It was difficult, and she’d cried about it afterwards (she wanted a child yet knew better than to have one now), but it hadn’t hurt their relationship. They continued to live together and love each other, and they continued their engagement without worrying about when they might actually get married.

His life wasn’t the one he’d imagined as a child, it was none of the lives he’d imagined as a child, but it was a good life nonetheless, a life he felt comfortable in.

Then last week his grandfather had a heart attack and everything changed.

He’d grown up in Buena Park, California, with his paternal grandparents looking after him. He didn’t know the story of how he ended up there – neither of them talked much, particularly when it came to painful matters (when he was ten, rather than tell him a cousin had died in a car accident, they told him to put on his church suit and simply drove him to the funeral) – but they were the only close family he had, his mother’s parents being dead, so when his grandmother called him from the hospital and told him what had happened and asked him to go to their house and pack some clothes and other items into a duffel bag, he’d said of course, grandma, and headed out the door immediately.

His grandfather died while he was packing the duffel bag, but he didn’t find that out until his arrival at the hospital later, at which point he went into the nearest bathroom, punched the walls, tore the paper towel dispenser down, stared at himself in the mirror and cried. He thought about the only man in his life being dead, thought about the man who had raised him being dead, and he thought about what he had found in the man’s dresser which proved, finally, that his father, whom he’d suspected dead for years, was in fact alive.

For it was while he was loading up that duffel bag that he found the bundle of envelopes. It was tucked into one of the dresser drawers, hidden behind several pairs of rolled socks.

Without thinking about what he was doing he pulled the rubber band away and examined the envelopes. None of them bore a return address but each was postmarked either Clarksville or New Albany, Indiana. There were twenty-five in all. The earliest was from 1964, the most recent from last year. He opened the earliest and pulled from within a time-yellowed typewritten letter.

Dear Mom and Dad,

I hope you’re both well. Andy’s second birthday is right around the corner.

Thinking about it makes me miss him. I wish I could see his face, but we all know that isn’t possible. I’m sending some money for you to buy him a birthday present, and to buy baby food and other necessities as well. Whatever you need. I hope it’s enough. I know expenses add up.

H

He rubbed his thumb across the handwritten ‘H’ at the bottom of the letter, feeling the grooves in the paper left by his father’s pen, for it was his father who had sent this letter and all the others, and as he did he wondered what the man was doing in that same moment. Was he sitting on a couch somewhere watching television? Was he grocery shopping? Was he pressing the barrel of a gun against the back of someone’s head?

This was the closest he’d ever gotten to him, the only indication he’d ever had that the man was still alive, but if his grandfather had not died on the same day he found the letters he might have been able to leave it alone. Probably not – but maybe.

Either way, it was only later, in the hospital bathroom, while thinking of his dead grandfather, his knuckles bloody and bruised, that he knew he was going to track his father down. Something within him demanded they meet.

He wanted to look this man in the eyes and – and what? He didn’t know. He simply felt it would offer some kind of understanding.

For his grandfather was dead and could offer none himself. Not that he would have had he been alive. Everything the man had said to him in the twenty-six years Andrew had known him could easily fit on one side of a Post-it note.

What he knew from his grandfather was what he could learn from the man’s behavior, and what he learned was that while the man might love him there was hatred there as well. His quiet grandfather hated him for walking like Harry Combs, for talking like him, for having a temper like him and a capacity for violence.

Andrew’s grandfather hated him for the same reasons Andrew hated himself.

Andrew had to confront his father. He had to.

It was something he needed to do in order that he might shed his father’s skin and become himself.

And wasn’t that what it meant to be a man?

He hired a private detective to help find him – he didn’t know where to begin himself but knew a man could not spend a quarter century anywhere without leaving evidence of himself behind – and earlier today that detective had phoned him saying they should meet.

That could mean only one thing.

He told Melissa what he was doing as he was getting ready to leave, and she told him he was an idiot, told him that stirring up the mud of his past could never offer clarity, told him she loved him and didn’t want to see him get hurt, told him he should stop this before it went any further. He told her mind your own fucking business and it became a fight. They were a couple and had been for some time, which meant his business was her business. If he didn’t understand that, maybe they should call off the whole thing. He said maybe we should, you meddlesome cunt, though he didn’t mean it, and after watching her wither and feeling a coldness wash over him stepped out into the fading daylight, pulling the front door closed behind him. He walked down the concrete steps that led to the parking lot and got into his car. He drove to a dive bar about fifteen minutes from his Long Beach apartment, and he now sat at a table there, drinking a beer and watching the door.

She didn’t understand. She came from a family which was whole. She had a mother and a father and two older brothers. They ate together during the holidays and laughed. They talked on the phone. There was no absence in her life like a missing tooth the tongue kept going to. That wasn’t her fault, of course, but the fact remained: she didn’t understand emptiness; she didn’t understand the aching hollow of absence.

The door swung open and a heavy-set man in a white linen suit squeezed his way into the bar, pulling off a straw fedora and fanning his sweating red face with it. In his other hand he held a manila envelope and a purple folder. There was no mistaking him. It was Francis Martin, the private detective Andrew had hired.

Andrew raised a hand and after a moment Martin spotted him, nodded, and shuffled over, breathing heavily from the twenty steps it took to get from the door to the table. Andrew noticed for the first time that despite the suit the man was wearing sneakers, and slits had been cut into them to give his feet room. The socked flesh squeezed through the slits like bread dough.

‘Mr Combs,’ he said, settling into one of the wooden chairs, its legs creaking under his weight. He started to put his hat onto the table, but hesitated, seeming not to like the look of the dirty surface, and after a moment decided simply to set it back on his head.

‘Did you want something to drink?’

‘No, thank you. Gluttony is my vice.’

Andrew nodded. ‘Did you find him?’

‘First, the matter of money.’

Andrew stiffened. ‘I paid you.’

‘You paid something, yes, but it didn’t quite cover my expenses despite my working very hard to do the job within those financial confines. There were long-distance telephone calls, fuel charges, and I had to coordinate with a southern private detective who cost a hundred and fifty dollars a day for his two days of work. It adds up, you see, and in the end that other fellow is still making more money than I am, though you employed me to handle this affair.’

‘What do you claim I owe you?’ ‘It isn’t much.’

He opened the purple folder, removed a sheet of paper, and attempted to slide it across the table. But the moisture on the table’s surface put a stop to any movement.

Andrew reached out and picked it up, glanced down at it, read the itemized expenses less the five hundred dollars he’d already paid the man, and saw that, according to the invoice, he owed another forty-three.

He relaxed some. ‘I have forty on me.’

Martin nodded. ‘That will suffice.’

Andrew leaned left, pulled his canvas wallet from his right hip pocket, peeled back the Velcro, slid out two twenties, set them on the table.

Martin plucked them up gingerly, folded them in half, slid them into his pocket.

‘Very well.’

He handed Andrew the manila envelope.

Andrew straightened the bent metal clasp and unfolded the top. He pulled out two photographs and a short typewritten report. His father looked old and tired in the pictures, which surprised him. His hair was brittle and gray, his face lined with wrinkles. He had spent so many hours looking at a single photograph from 1962 – a photograph in which his father stood grinning with his arm wrapped around Andrew’s very pregnant mother – that he’d expected to see the young man his father had been rather than the old one he’d become. For some reason it hadn’t occurred to him that though he’d vanished his father had continued to live and breathe and age in the real world. It didn’t seem right somehow.

This was somebody he barely recognized.

He set the pictures down and looked over the report. His father, who had changed his last name to White, lived not in Clarksville or New Albany, Indiana, but in Louisville, Kentucky. He’d married a local woman in 1968 and the marriage continued. He ran a new-and-used bookshop on Bardstown Road and lived in a brick Cape Cod in the Highlands. He was a respectable and respected middle-class gentleman whom everyone knew and liked.

Andrew stared down at the report silently for some time before looking up.

‘I guess we’re done here,’ he said.

He put the photographs and the report back into the manila envelope in which they’d been delivered, fastened the clasp, got to his feet. He walked to the door and through it. If asked he wouldn’t have been able to describe his emotional state; it was simply a strange, slightly confused numbness. But despite this he knew what he was next going to do. He supposed it had never been in question.

He unlocked his car and slipped in behind the wheel.

***

The morning light splashed in through the window bright and hot. Normally he didn’t like that the bedroom window caught the sunrise, it made sleeping in impossible, and when he had a day off he didn’t like to be up before noon, but, despite it being Sunday, he was up and showered by six o’clock this morning, and had waited that long only because he wanted to put off his inevitable fight with Melissa for as long as possible. Most of the night he’d lain awake, staring at the ceiling, waiting for sunlight to hit his window shade.

His turning mind would not allow sleep. He wanted to get on the road.

He leaned down and pulled his suitcase out from under the bed. He’d bought it for a trip to San Francisco four years ago and hadn’t used it since. He set it on the mattress and opened it, discovering a pair of underwear he’d long thought lost and a tube of toothpaste. He wondered if toothpaste went bad, but didn’t think so, and when he searched for an expiration date failed to find one, though he didn’t look hard and could have missed it. It didn’t matter. He tucked it into one of the inside pockets, and went about packing, aware of but trying to ignore Melissa as she stood in the doorway with her arms crossed, glaring at him with both tight-lipped fury and something like fear.

‘I can’t believe you’re doing this.’

‘I don’t think I’ll be gone long. I just have to see him.’

‘Why?’

He looked up at her, opened his mouth to speak, but had nothing to say. The why was a feeling in the pit of his stomach, something like dread but not dread, and he couldn’t tell her that. It wouldn’t mean anything. He knew she deserved an answer – he owed her an answer – but he had no answer to give her. So he merely stood silent and looked across the room at her. She was beautiful. Even angry she was beautiful. Maybe more beautiful for her anger. It put a fire into her eyes. He thought briefly of asking her to come with him but knew that could never work. What he had to do he had to do alone.

This was his thing, whatever it was, and she’d only get in the way. She’d only spend their time together trying to talk him into turning his car around.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

She shook her head. ‘I don’t care about that. I care about you. Can’t you see you’re making a mistake? This can’t end well. Just – just leave it alone, Andy.’

She didn’t understand emptiness like a missing tooth the tongue could not leave be.

‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘If I could I would, but I can’t.’

He finished packing. When he was done he closed the suitcase and latched it. He hefted it off the mattress and carried it toward the bedroom door. He stopped and looked at Melissa. She looked back.

‘I’m leaving,’ he said.

She nodded, but said nothing.

He kissed the corner of her mouth – she did not kiss him back – and then walked past her to the front door, once more feeling a coldness wash over him. She could burst into flames in this moment and he would feel nothing.

He pulled it open and stepped into the cool morning sunlight.

He had a long drive ahead of him.


Excerpted from The Gentle Assassin by Ryan David Jahn. Copyright © 2014 by Ryan David Jahn.
First published 2014 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Want You Dead by Peter James – Extract

Want You Dead

 1

Wednesday, 23 October

Karl Murphy was a decent and kind man, a family doctor with two small children whom he was bringing up on his own. He worked long hours, and did his very best for his growing list of patients. The last two years had been tough since his beloved wife, Ingrid, had died, and there were some aspects of his work he found really hard, particularly having to break news to patients who were terminally ill. But it never occurred to him that he might have made enemies – and certainly not that there might be someone who hated him so much he wanted him dead.

And was planning to kill him tonight.

Sure, okay, however hard you tried, you couldn’t please everyone, and boy, did he see that at work some days. Most of his patients were pleasant, but a few of them tested him and the staff in his medical practice to the limit. But he still tried to treat them all equally.

As he stood at the clubhouse bar on this late October evening, showered and changed out of his golfing clothes, politely drinking his second pint of lime and lemonade with his partners in the tournament and glancing discreetly at his watch, anxious to make his escape, he realized for the first time in a long, long while he was feeling happy – and excited. There was a new lady in his life. They hadn’t been dating for long, but already he had grown extremely fond of her. To the point that he had thought today, out on the golf course, that he was falling in love with her. But being a very private man, he said nothing of this to his companions.

Shortly after 6 p.m. he downed the remains of his drink, anxious about the time, quite unaware that there was a man waiting outside in the blustery darkness.

His sister, Stefanie, had picked the kids up from school today and would be staying with them at his home until he arrived with the babysitter. But she had to leave by 6.45 p.m. latest, to go to a business dinner with her husband, and Karl could not make her late for that. He thanked his host for the charity golf day, and his fellow teammates in turn congratulated him for playing so well, then he slipped eagerly away from the nineteenth-hole drinking session that looked set to go on late into the night. He had something that he wanted to do very much more than get smashed with a bunch of fellow golfers, however pleasant they were. He had a date. A very hot date, and the prospect of seeing her, after three days apart, was giving him the kind of butterflies he’d not had since his teens.

He hurried across the car park, through the wind and rain, to the far end where he had parked his car, popped open the boot, and slung his golf bag inside it. Then he zipped the small silver trophy he had won into a side pocket of the bag, totally preoccupied with thoughts of the evening ahead. God, what a ray of sunshine she had brought into his life! These past two years since Ingrid had died had been hell and now, finally, he was coming through it. In the long, bleak period since her death, he had not thought that would ever be possible.

He didn’t notice the motionless figure, all in black, who lay beneath the tartan dog rug on the rear seat, nor did he think it odd that the interior lights failed to come on when he opened the driver’s door. It seemed that almost every day another bit of the ageing Audi ceased working, or, like the fuel gauge, only functioned intermittently. He had a new A6 on order, and would be taking delivery in a few weeks’ time. He settled behind the wheel, pulled on his seat belt, started the engine and switched on the headlights. Then he switched the radio from Classic FM to Radio 4, to catch the second half of the news, drove out of the car park, and along the narrow road beside the eighteenth fairway of Haywards Heath Golf Club. Headlights were coming the other way, and he pulled over to the side to let the car pass. As he was about to accelerate forward he heard a sudden movement behind him, then something damp and acrid was clamped over his mouth and nose.

Chloroform, he recognized from his medical training, in the fleeting instant that he tried to resist, before his brain went muzzy and his feet came off the pedals, and his hands lost their grip on the wheel.

2

Wednesday night, 23 October

He held his binoculars to his eyes, in the darkness, focused tight on the woman he loved so much. The night-sight for his crossbow, which he used to keep watch on her when she turned out the lights, lay on the table beside him.

She was drinking a glass of white wine – her fourth tonight – and dialling a number on her phone, again, looking anxious and edgy. With a brief toss of her head, she flicked her red hair away from her pretty face. It was something she always did when she was uptight or nervous about something.

He wont answer, my love, my sweet, really he wont.

3

Wednesday night, 23 October

God, men! What was wrong? Was it her? Them?

There are some things you do in life, Red thought, that are really, really dumb. They don’t seem that way at the time; it is only when they go wrong, you realize. It had taken her two years – two years of ignoring the advice of her family, her friends, and ultimately the police. Two years before she had realized just how dangerous Bryce Laurent, the man she had met and fallen in love with from her lonely hearts advert, was.

If she could only wind the clock back two years, with the knowledge she now had.

Please, God.

She would never have joined that online dating agency, and certainly would not have placed that stupid message on it.

Single girl, 29, redhead and smouldering, love life thats crashed and burned. Seeks new flame to rekindle her fire. Fun, friendship and who knows – maybe more?

Most of the replies had been complete dross. But then she had been warned by her girlfriends that a lot of the men who replied to these things were liars – married guys after a quick shag and not much else.

Well, she had replied to those friends, she wasn’t interested in a quick shag but she could do with a long shag! That wasn’t something she’d had for most of the years she had wasted on that introspective dickhead Dominic, who was normally back to checking his emails thirty seconds after a thirty-second bonk.

Besides, Red had reckoned she was smart enough to tell the difference between the shysters and someone decent.

Wrong.

Very badly wrong.

Even more wrong, at this moment, than she knew.

She was unaware that she was being watched, as she took another sip of Sauvignon Blanc and listened to the phone, counting each ring. Three. Four. Five. Six. Then voicemail. It was 8.30 p.m. He was an hour and a half late for their date. Where the hell was he?

She hung up without leaving a message this time, feeling angry and hurt.

4

Wednesday night, 23 October

Van was the man! Oh yes. Oh yes, indeed! Van Morrison’s ‘Queen of the Slipstream’ was blasting from his big black Jawbone speaker, flooding his tiny apartment with all those beautiful words he had once felt about Red.

The grumpy old shithead above him banged on the ceiling with his walking stick, as usual when he played his music late at night. But he didn’t care.

She had been the Queen of the Slipstream. His queen. Queen of Hearts.

Red.

The colour of the Queen of Hearts. And she had rejected him.

And humiliated him.

Did it hurt? Oh yes, it hurt. Every minute of every day and night.

Every second.

He had been lucky to get this apartment, with the view it had. Some things were meant to be. Like he and Red had been meant to be. Taking the binoculars from his eyes, he rocked his head from side to side, fury twisting inside him. Okay, so some bad stuff had got in the way of their relationship, but that was all history now – it was too far gone.

He watched her cute lips as she took another sip of her wine. Lips he had kissed so tenderly, so passionately. Lips he had drawn in the cartoon sketches he had made of her, one of which – of her lips pouted in a provocative smile – was framed on the wall. It was captioned, I’m a five-a-day gal!

Lips that had kissed every part of his body. The thought of these lips kissing another man was too much to bear. They were his lips.

He possessed them. The thought of another man touching the soft skin of her body, holding her naked, entering her, was like an endless bolus of cold water surging through him. The thought of her eyes meeting another man’s just as she climaxed made him shake with helpless rage.

But not so helpless any more. Now he had a plan.

If I can’t have you, no one will.

He closed the curtains and turned the lights back on. Then he continued to watch her for some moments on one of the screens on the bank of monitors on the wall. She was redialling. Bugging her phone had been simple, with a piece of software, SpyBubble, that he had bought over the internet and secretly installed on her mobile phone. It enabled him to listen to all her conversations, wherever she might be, and whether she was using the phone or not, as well as receive automatically all texts to and from her, the numbers of every call she made or received, all the websites she looked at, all her photographs, and, very importantly, through GPS, know her exact location all the time.

He stared around at the framed photographs of himself covering the walls. There he was in a pink Leander jacket wearing a straw boater at the Henley Regatta, looking pretty much like a young George Clooney, with Red on his arm in a floaty dress and a huge hat. There was another of him in a leather flying helmet in the cockpit of a Tiger Moth. A studious one of him in the Air Traffic Control Centre at Gatwick Airport. Another of him looking rather fetching in a mortar board and gown at his graduation from the Sorbonne in Paris. Another, also in a mortar board and gown, of him being awarded his doctorate from the School of Aviation in Sydney. There was one he particularly liked of himself in his firefighter uniform. Next to it was one of him shaking hands with Prince Charles. Another shaking hands with Sir Paul McCartney. Impressive? Impressive enough for a queen?

And she had rejected him.

Poisoned against him by the lies of her family. Poisoned by her friends. How could she have listened to them and believed them? She had destroyed everything through her own stupidity.

He turned the music up, drowning out the thoughts raging in his head, and ignored another blam, blam, blam on the ceiling from Mr Grumpy.

Then he picked up his binoculars again, switched off the lights, made his way over to the window, and opened the curtains a fraction. It was much nicer to watch her in the flesh, rather than on the screens showing images with sound from every room in her place. He could feel her pain better that way. He looked out and down towards the second-floor window across the alley. Her living-room light was on and he could see her clearly. She was holding her phone to her ear and looking very worried.

So you should be.

5

Wednesday night, 23 October

‘Don’t do this to me, please,’ Red said, as the mobile phone again went to voicemail after six rings.

‘Hi, this is Karl. I can’t answer just now, so leave a message and I’ll call you right back.’

She’d left three messages, and still he had not called right back. The first one had been at 7.30 p.m. – half an hour after the time he’d said he would pick her up. They’d planned to have dinner at the China Garden. She’d left a second message at 8 p.m., and a third, trying not to sound angry – which had been hard – shortly before 9 p.m. It was now 10.30 p.m. She’d even checked her Twitter messages and Facebook page, although Karl had never before used them to communicate with her.

Terrific, she thought. Stood up. How great is that?

Splitting up with Bryce had been a nightmare that still stayed with her. In those first few weeks after she had thrown him out, with the help of the police, she would often come home to find his Aston Martin parked right outside her old flat. He would be nowhere around, but the sight of the car was enough to give her the creeps. He’d stopped doing it after the time she had got really pissed off at him and let all four of the tyres down. But even after that, sometimes during her solitary training runs for the Brighton Marathon, in aid of the Samaritans, she would spot him watching her, always from a distance, either on foot or in a moving car. For a while it had put her off, particularly the evening runs she used to love across the Downs in the falling darkness.

On the advice of the people she had talked to at the Sanctuary Scheme, she had moved out of her flat into this temporary accommodation, rented under an assumed name they had given to her.

The second-floor flat, chosen for its position, had no windows that were visible from the main road, and a reinforced front door. It was in a gloomy, tired converted Victorian mansion block that had once been a grand private residence, close to Hove seafront. Her view from all the main windows was out onto the fire escape of an ugly 1950s apartment block, across a courtyard and an alleyway that led to the car park and lock-up garages behind her building.

Although she was meant to feel safe here, the place depressed her. It had a narrow hallway, dingily lit, that led through into a small open-plan living/dining area, with an old-fashioned kitchen that was little more than a galley separated by a breakfast bar. There was a small bedroom off the hallway that she had made into her den, and a larger bedroom, with a window that looked down onto the lock-up garages and wheelie-bin store at the rear.

She’d given the whole place a lick of white paint which had brightened it a little, and hung some pictures and family photographs, but it did not feel like home – and never would. Hopefully, she would be out of here soon and moving into her dream flat, thanks to the sale of her old place going through, and some financial help from her parents with the deposit. It was airy and spacious, on the top floor of the Royal Regent, a Regency house conversion on Marine Parade in Kemp Town, with a huge suntrap of a balcony facing the English Channel, and fabulous views of the marina to the east and Brighton Pier to the west.

She had been advised by the police not to drive her beloved 1973 convertible Volkswagen Beetle, as it was too conspicuous. So it now sat, forlornly, in a lock-up garage she had rented nearby, and she took it out only very occasionally to keep the battery charged and everything turning over.

She poured the last of the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc she had opened earlier, when it was obvious she wasn’t going anywhere tonight with Karl. Men, she thought angrily. Sodding, bloody men.

But this was so out of character.

After the nightmare of these past years that she had been through, Karl Murphy had seemed a total breath of fresh air. She’d been introduced to him by her best friend, Raquel Evans, a dentist. He was a doctor in the same medical centre as Raquel, and a recent widower.

His wife had died from cancer two years back, leaving him with two small boys. According to Raquel, he was now ready to move on and start a new relationship. Raquel had had a feeling the two of them might hit it off, and she’d been right.

Early days, but they’d had dinner a few times, and then last Saturday, with his sons staying overnight with his late wife’s parents, they’d slept together for the first time, and spent much of Sunday together. Karl had told her, with a big grin, that he must be quite sweet on her to have sacrificed his regular Sunday-morning golf game. It was a little bit early in their relationship to be a golf widow, Red had replied, with an equally big – but pointed – grin. They’d spent Sunday morning in bed, then they’d gone to the Brighton Shellfish & Oyster Bar, under the Kings Road Arches, for a seafood brunch of oysters and smoked salmon, followed by a blissful long walk along the esplanade. In the late afternoon, Karl had left to go and collect his boys, and they’d arranged their next date for tonight, Wednesday. He had planned to take the day off to play in a golf tournament and would be over straight after, he had said, to pick her up at 7 p.m.

So where was he? Had he had an accident? Was he in hospital? He hadn’t told her which golf course he was playing at, so she had no idea where to begin phoning. She suddenly realized how little she actually knew about him, despite having checked him out. And probably how little about her he had told anyone.

She toyed with phoning the police, asking if there had been any accidents, but dismissed that. They’d heard enough from her over the past few years, with her frequent 999 calls after yet another of Bryce’s violent attacks. The hospitals? Excuse me, I’m calling to see if by chance Dr Karl Murphy has been admitted.

She realized, though, from her past experience with men, that she was probably being too charitable. He was more than likely pissed, propping up the bar at the nineteenth hole of some clubhouse, and had forgotten all about her.

Sodding men.

She drained her glass.

Her fifth, counted the man watching her.

6

Wednesday night, 23 October

He continued to sit in the darkness, his binoculars to his eyes; she was still wearing a wristwatch that looked like it had come out of a Christmas cracker. What kind of a cheapskate was Karl, her wonderful new lover, not to have bought her a more expensive one? She’d returned the Cartier Tank watch he’d given her, along with all the other jewellery, when she’d dumped his bags out on the street and changed the locks on him.

Everything except the thin silver band on her right wrist.

He drew the curtains shut and switched the lights on again, then sat at the small round table and picked up a deck of cards. He fanned them out with just one hand, snapped them shut, then fanned them out once more. Practise. He needed to practise for several hours a day, every day, on his existing repertoire of tricks. Tomorrow he had an important gig, performing his close magic, table to table, at the Brighton estate agents’ dinner.

Maybe Red would be there. He could give her a nice surprise.

Now you see the queen, now you dont! Once my queen.

Still wearing the bracelet I gave you!

He knew what that meant. It was very Freudian. She needed to hang on to something he had given her. Because, even though she might refuse to admit it, she still loved him.

I bet you’re going to want me back, aren’t you? Won’t be long until you come begging, will it? You really do find me irresistible, but you just dont realize it. All women find me totally irresistible! Just dont leave it too long, because I won’t wait for you for ever.

Just kidding!

I wouldn’t take you back if you came crawling and begging. You and your hideous family and your ghastly friends. I hate the whole shitty little world you inhabit. I could have freed you from all that.

Thats your big mistake, not to recognize that.

He looked at his watch. 11.10 p.m. Time to rock ’n’ roll. He placed his mobile phone on the sitting-room table and picked up the keys of the rented Vauxhall Astra. He had parked it in his lock-up garage two streets away, and fitted it earlier with the false number plates copied from an identical car he had found in the long-stay car park of Gatwick Airport. Then he donned his black anorak, checking the pockets to ensure he had everything he needed, pulled on his black leather gloves, tugged a black baseball cap low over his face, and slipped out into the night.

7

Wednesday night, 23 October

Karl rolled around inside the pitch-dark carpeted boot of his car. He had a blinding headache, and he was shaking with fear, and with anger. He was determined not to panic, breathing steady calming breaths through his nostrils, doing his best to think clearly, to work his way out of the situation.

He was trying to figure out where he was and how long he had been here – and why the hell this had happened to him. Mistaken identity? Or had his assailant taken his keys and was now robbing his house? Or worse, going after his beloved children, Dane and Ben?

Jesus, what the hell must Red be thinking? She was at home waiting for him to pick her up. If he could only phone her . . . But his phone was in his trouser pocket and he was unable to move his hands to get to it.

He occasionally heard a vehicle passing, and guessed he had to be somewhere near a country road. They were becoming less and less frequent, which indicated it was getting later. Whoever had done this to him knew about bindings; he was unable to move his legs or his arms, nor spit the gag out of his mouth, and he was suffering painful cramps. Nor did he know – and this frightened him a lot – how airtight the boot was. He was just aware that the faster he breathed, the more oxygen he would use up. He had to stay calm. Sooner or later someone would rescue him. He had to make sure his air lasted.

His mouth was parched and he had long since given up trying to cry for help, which made him choke on the gag, held tightly in place by some kind of tape which felt as if it was wound all the way around his head.

For Chrissake, there had to be a sharp object in here somewhere, surely? Something he could rub against and use to saw through his bindings? He nudged closer to his golf bag, heard the clubs rattle, and slid his arm bindings up against the edge of one of the irons. But each time he tried, the club just spun around without traction.

Help me, please, someone.

He heard the roar of a car, and the swish of tyres on the wet road.

Hope rose in him. Then the sound receding into the distance.

Someone stop, please!

He heard the roar of another engine. The swish of passing tyres, then the squeal of brakes. Yes! Oh God, yes, thank you!

Moments later he felt a blast of cold air as the boot lid raised. A blinding light in his eyes. And his joy was short-lived.

‘Nice to see you again, my friend,’ said a suave male voice from behind the light. ‘Sorry to have kept you, I’ve been a bit tied up. But not as much as you, eh?’

Karl heard the sound of something metal striking the ground, then a liquid sloshing around. He could suddenly smell petrol.

Terror swirled through him.

‘You’re a doctor, aren’t you?’ the suave voice asked.

Karl grunted.

‘Do you have any painkillers on you?’

Karl shook his head.

‘Are you sure? None anywhere in your car? You’re a doctor, surely you must have some?’

Karl was silent, trembling. Trying to figure out what the hell this was all about.

‘You see, doctor, they’re for you, not for me. You’d be better off taking some. With what’s about to happen to you. Please understand this is not your fault, and I’m not a sadist – I don’t want to see you in agony, that’s why the painkillers.’

Karl felt himself being lifted, clumsily, out of the boot, carried a short distance, then dumped down on wet grass. Then he heard the slam of his boot lid closing. ‘I’m going to need you to write a note, Karl, if that’s okay with you?’

He said nothing, squinting against the bright light of the torch.

‘It’s a goodbye note. I’ll free your right arm so you can write it – are you right-handed?’

The doctor continued to stare, blinking, into the beam. He was close to throwing up. The next moment, there was a searing pain on his face as the tape was ripped away. Then the gag was tugged out of his mouth.

‘That better?’ his captor asked.

‘Who the hell are you? I think you’ve got the wrong person. I’m Dr Karl Murphy,’ he pleaded.

‘I know who you are. If you promise not to do anything silly, I’ll free your writing arm. Left or right?’

‘Right.’

‘Now we’re making progress!’

Karl Murphy saw the glint of a knife blade, and moments later his right arm came free. A pen was thrust into his hand, then a sheet of lined notepaper was held in front of him. It was from a pad he recognized, that he kept in his medical bag in the car, clamped to a clipboard. He caught a glimpse of his captor, all dressed in black, with a baseball cap pulled low over his face.

The next moment he felt himself being dragged across the grass and propped up against something hard and unyielding. A tree trunk. The clipboard, with the torch shining on it, was placed in front of him.

‘Write a goodbye note, Karl.’

‘A goodbye note? To who?’

‘To who? Tut tut, Dr Murphy. Didn’t they teach you grammar at school? To whom!’

‘I’m not writing any damned note to anyone,’ he said defiantly.

His captor walked away. Karl struggled, tugging desperately at his bindings with his free hand. Moments later his captor returned, holding a large, dark object. He heard the sloshing of liquid. The next instant he felt liquid being poured all over his body, and smelled the unmistakable reek of petrol again. He squirmed, trying to roll away. More petrol was tipped over his head and face, stinging his eyes. Then he saw, in the beam of the torch, a small plastic cigarette lighter, held in a gloved hand.

‘Are you going to be a good boy, or do you want me to use this?’

A tidal wave of terror surged through him. ‘Look, please, I don’t know who you are or what you want. Surely we can discuss this? Just tell me what you want!’

‘I want you to write a goodbye note. Do that and I’ll go away. If you don’t, I’m going to flick this and see what happens.’

‘Please! Please don’t! Listen – this is a terrible mistake. I’m not who you think I am. My name’s Karl Murphy, I’m a GP in Brighton. I lost my wife to cancer; I have two small children who depend on me. Please don’t do this.’

‘I know exactly who you are. I won’t do anything if you write the note. I’m going to give you exactly ten seconds. Write the note and that will be the end of it, you’ll never see me again. Okay, the countdown starts. Ten . . . nine . . . eight . . . seven . . .’

‘Okay!’ Karl Murphy screamed. ‘I’ll do it!’

His captor smiled. ‘I knew you would. You’re not a fool.’

He straightened the clipboard and stood over him. A car was approaching. Karl stared, desperately hoping it might stop. A thicket of trees and shrubs and the man’s handsome face were fleetingly illuminated. Then he could hear the sound receding into the distance. Thinking hard, Karl began to write.

When he had finished, the clipboard was snatched away. He saw the torch beam jigging through the trees, and again, alone in the darkness, tried desperately to free himself. He felt a twinge of hope as he picked at the plastic tape and a small amount came free, then tore away. He dug with his fingernails, frantically trying to find the join again. Then the torch beam reappeared through the trees.

Moments later, he found himself being hoisted into the air, slung over his captor’s shoulder in a fireman’s lift, and carried away, unsteadily, into increasing darkness.

‘Put me down!’ he said. ‘I did what you asked.’

His captor said nothing.

‘Look, please, I need to phone someone, she’s going to be worried about me.’

Silence.

The journey seemed like an eternity, occasionally lit up by stabs of the torch beam into the wooded undergrowth ahead.

‘Please, whoever you are, I wrote the note. I did what you asked.’

Silence.

Then his captor said, ‘Shit, you’re a heavy bastard.’

‘Please put me down.’

‘All in good time.’

A short while later Karl suddenly felt himself being dumped into long, wet, prickly undergrowth.

‘Arrivé!’

Hope rose in him as he felt his captor begin to loosen and remove his remaining bindings.

‘Thank you,’ he gasped.

‘You’re very welcome.’

As his legs finally became free, although numb, he gave a sigh of relief. But it was short-lived. He saw his captor step out of his overalls and discard them on the floor. An instant later he felt himself being shoved hard over onto his side, then shoved again, and he was rolling, over and over, down a steep slope, for just a few moments, before he felt himself squelch on his back into mud.

Then a waterfall of liquid was tumbling onto his face and all over his body. Petrol again, he realized, in almost paralysing terror. He tried to sit up, to haul himself to his feet, but the petrol continued to pour down. Then in the darkness above him he saw the tiny flame of a cigarette lighter.

‘Please!’ Karl screamed, his voice yammering in fear. ‘Please no! You promised if I wrote the note, you promised! Please no, please no! You promised!’

‘I lied.’

Suddenly, Karl saw a sheet of burning paper. For an instant it floated like a Chinese lantern high above him, then sank, fluttering from side to side, the flame increasing as it fell.

Bryce Laurent stood well back. An instant later, a ball of flame erupted, rising above him into the darkness. It was accompanied by a dreadful howl of agony from the doctor. Followed by screams for help that faded within seconds into choking gasps.

Then silence.

It was all over so fast.

Bryce felt a tad disappointed. Cheated, almost. He would have liked Karl Murphy to have suffered much more.

But hey, shit happened.

He bent down and picked up his overalls, which reeked of petrol, and walked back to his car.


Excerpted from Want You Dead by Peter James. Copyright © 2014 by Really Scary Books/Peter James.
First published 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
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