About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
HE’D GOT IN THE WAY of returning home at different times and by different routes. The first thing he did when he moved to a new town was rehearse the alternatives, driving and on foot, and make a note of where it was normal to see parked cars and men standing on street corners and where it wasn’t. After four years it was second nature to him.
After four years the whole business had become second nature. Finding work where he could get cash in hand and no one would want his National Insurance number. Finding somewhere to live where paying the rent in advance would save him having to prove who he was. His name was Nicky Horn. But that wasn’t the name the world knew him by. It wasn’t even one of them.
All the lies he told—the mislaid driver’s license, the stolen passport, the pink slip that got lost in the post—would never have stood up to serious scrutiny. But they never had to. Before anyone got sufficiently interested to start checking him out he’d packed his bag, thrown his tools in the back of the car and moved on. He’d been doing it for nearly as long as he’d been back in England. It worked pretty well on the whole. It was months since he’d felt death breathing on the back of his neck.
And that was a problem too. The better he got at this, the more distance he put between himself and pursuit, the greater the risk of complacency. Complacency can be the biggest killer of all. Bigger than hatred, bigger than love. As perilous as sunshine on snow. He was stronger, fitter and faster than his pursuers, and he wanted to live even more than they wanted him dead. The biggest danger was not that they’d wear him down, although one day they might; or that they might get lucky, though that too was always a possibility. The biggest danger was that one day he might dare to think he was safe. To relax and let down his guard. He’d never be safe. He knew that now. If he ever allowed himself to entertain the idea, even for a moment, even as a daydream, he might as well cut his own throat. Cut his own rope. It would be a cleaner end, and no more certain.
The other thing was, he was getting tired. Physically tired—the constant moving, the broken nights, the fact that even when he slept he did so with one ear cocked, might be considered a natural part of a young man’s life, but they took their toll when extended over four years—but also mentally and emotionally. The things he’d done, the lies he’d told. He was sick and tired of the whole sorry business. Sometimes in the long hard watches of the night he thought it might be better to stop running, to let events take their course. He wasn’t afraid of dying. He’d never been afraid of dying. But he used to have more to live for.
He gave himself a shake. He couldn’t afford to think like that. You don’t give up; you never give up. There’s always a way down the mountain—you just have to find it. Tommy Hanratty wasn’t a young man. He could die. And he wasn’t a good man—someone could kill him. Horn knew it was a long shot. But when it’s the only kind you’re likely to get, you take the long shot and hope for the best.
Sometimes that was the hardest part of all. Keeping hope alive.
Despite the spring rain he left his car a street away and walked the last hundred yards. He wasn’t sure but he thought it was a good idea. If he found himself cornered one day, Hanratty’s hirelings would find it harder to predict his actions if they weren’t sure where his car was. He could sneak out the back way and circle round with some confidence that they’d be watching the house where he was lodging, not the next street. The people where he lived didn’t even know he had a car. Sometimes he made sure they saw him using the bus. Psychologists call it compartmentalization. You build barriers between the different parts of your life, in the hope that when the shit hits the fan there’ll always be somewhere clean where you can hide.
Nicky Horn believed he’d become an expert in compartmentalization. In fact he was wrong about that. The shit had hit the fan before he knew he needed barriers, and the smell tainted every aspect of his life. He’d just got used to it.
A couple of cars he didn’t recognize were parked on the corner. Probably it meant nothing. Since he got here two months ago someone had opened a sandwich bar. Which was handy for a man whose idea of cooking was to reheat a pot of coffee, but it made it harder to spot the faces that didn’t fit, the strangers with no obvious business in the area. He’d learned it was safer not to take a room opposite a factory or a pub, but things change. Someone opened a sandwich bar the week before last, and it was time he moved on.
There was a man in one of the cars. The light from the streetlamps bouncing off the wet road was enough to show a face that would have been unreadable on a better night. Still mostly from habit Horn gave him a glance as he walked past—casual enough not to arouse curiosity, long enough to remember what he saw. A middle-aged man in a dark coat. Narrow, longish face, no glasses or mustache, short graying hair. Hard to say how tall when he was sitting down. He looked up as Horn looked down and their eyes met for a second, then the man looked away—unhurriedly, checking the mirror. Waiting for someone in the café, probably. Horn walked on, his toolbag slung over his shoulder, crossed the road and went home.
It was gone ten o’clock. He took overtime when he could get it, to make up for the times when he’d had to leave a good job without collecting his pay because the look on a stranger’s face said he’d been recognized. More than once, he was sure, he’d read too much into an everyday exchange of glances and fled his latest job and his latest bed because someone had nothing better to do than idly watch the passersby. It couldn’t be helped. He had to act on instinct. If he waited for proof it would be too late.
And then, he thought his face was more famous than it was. Because he remembered what happened as if it were yesterday, he thought everyone else did too.
There was a grainy television in his room but he didn’t turn it on. He watched when there was something to watch, but background noise was never a good idea. He needed to hear the unexpected footstep, the soft hand trying the door. He dropped his tools in a corner, hung his jacket on the nail, eased his feet out of his boots and lay down on top of the bed with his eyes closed. It was a comfortable bed, the best he’d had for more than a year. He’d miss it when he left.
The sharp silhouettes of mountains appeared on the inside of his eyelids. But he couldn’t afford the distraction of a flashback. He sat up abruptly, reached out and turned on the TV. There was nothing worth watching, but anything was better than the memories. Tonight he’d take the risk of numbing his senses.
Talking heads came on the screen. Horn tried to concentrate, but it was politics or economics or international trade, one of those subjects that he knew affected him but failed to engage his interest. Slumped on his comfortable bed, bone tired, lulled by knowledgeable voices using words he didn’t understand when he was awake, still fully dressed he slid sideways into sleep.
Sometime later—he couldn’t judge how long: the economists on the TV had given way to a cartoon dog with subtitles but nothing else appeared to have changed—something woke him. He sat up with a guilty start, as if he were being paid to stay awake. While his senses were still working out where in his brain they belonged, his well-trained body had already moved into self-preservation mode, rolling silently off the bed, padding sock-footed into the corner beside the door and away from the window.
He wished he’d turned the TV off earlier. He couldn’t do it now without advertising the fact that he was awake. He sipped shallow breaths and listened with all his being.
He heard nothing. With his ear against the door he still heard nothing. He reached down carefully and slipped the special hammer out of its pocket in his bag. Successive colleagues laughed when he said it was a present from a girlfriend and he wanted to keep it nice, and anyway it was a lie. The point of the thick sock he kept wrapped around its head was that he didn’t want to be responsible for another death.
The fingers of his left hand rested butterfly-light on the door handle. Half a second before it turned he’d feel if someone grasped the other side. He felt nothing. He went on waiting, and still nothing happened, nothing changed. Which left him with a choice: to open the door and look, to go back to bed, or to sit up all night in the fireside chair with his hammer on his lap, waiting for someone to storm in here. Aware that what disturbed him just might have been the old lady from downstairs looking for her cat, he held the hammer behind him and opened the door with his left hand.
A weak yellow light burned on the landing all night. There was no furniture to cast shadows or conceal an intruder, just the stairs that went up and the stairs that went down. No one was there. A couple of swift steps took him to the stairwell and he looked up and down, and still he saw no one.
He emptied his lungs in a soft, ragged sigh and drew a proper breath for the first time in five minutes. A false alarm. Another one.
He didn’t have a clock. He put the hammer down on the bed, parted the curtains and angled his watch to the streetlamp outside. A little before three o’clock. The sandwich bar had closed and no one was on the street. Finally he turned off the TV.
But he’d forgotten something. Something so basic it took him a moment to remember what it was. He’d listened at the door, he’d checked the landing, up the stairs and down, come back inside, checked the time …
He hadn’t locked the door behind him.
Even as he reached for it, it opened and there was a man in the room with him. As quickly as that. He must have taken at least a couple of steps but Horn didn’t see them. Lacking only the puff of smoke, he arrived like the evil magician on a pantomime stage—not there one second, there the next. The room was still dark—darker, now, without the television—so Horn couldn’t see the face, only the silhouette against the weak light from the landing. Even so, he knew two things about him. This wasn’t one of Hanratty’s in-house heavies, he was too good. And although Horn couldn’t see it, he had a gun in his hand. Not in a pocket, not under his arm—in his hand, ready for immediate use. Eighteen months ago the old thug had grown tired of failure, put the contract out to tender and started employing professionals.
Horn had run out of luck at last. Being strong, fit and fast isn’t enough against a professional killer. A bullet traveling at twice the speed of sound is always going to be faster.
“Nicholas Horn?” The voice told him nothing. No regional accent, no indication of age, no patois of class—all the tags that might help identify him had been rigorously schooled out of it. Early in his career this man had spent hours talking to a tape recorder and playing it back, listening acutely and analyzing what he heard; and he hadn’t felt even slightly foolish doing it. A pro. A genuine, twenty-four-karat, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him hit man.
Horn had got a bit of a shock the first time he realized the all-purpose muscle Hanratty used to police his narcotics empire and operate his protection rackets had been superseded by someone with real skill and finesse. Someone expert, and expensive. Hanratty had decided that nothing mattered to him—not the Bentley, not the yacht, not the family acres in Ireland or the house in Bloomsbury or the contents of all those numbered bank accounts, nothing—so much as repaying the man who killed his son. Though a combination of good luck and good reactions allowed him to escape even as the net closed, Horn knew he’d never be as lucky again. That now he had a pro on his case, he was as good as dead. That this moment would come, when he was face-to-face with the man who’d taken Hanratty’s contract, and this time running would not be an option.
Only basic survival instinct, the absolute determination of living things to keep living as long as possible, kept him from making a bad mistake. He was not entirely unarmed. His penknife was where it always was, in the back pocket of the jeans he hadn’t got round to climbing out of. It wasn’t designed as a weapon, mostly he used it for marking cuts in timber, but it was strong and it was sharp, and producing it would have made a casual mugger pause for thought. This man was not a casual mugger. If Horn dived for his back pocket, he’d kill him. Even if he managed to get it out, he’d have to open it before it would be any use; and when he did, it was still only a penknife. If he somehow managed to get it out and open and offer to fight with it, this man—this professional assassin—would laugh at him and then kill him.
He left the knife where it was. It couldn’t help him. Probably nothing would help him, but it was worth trying a lie. He’d got good at lying these last four years. “No,” he said, trying for the urgent cooperation of someone with nothing to hide. “He did a runner last night. I’m just minding—”
He never got the sentence finished. He’d been right about the gun. The outline of the man against the landing light, which had barely moved in the long seconds since it appeared in the doorway, moved now: not extravagantly, not flashily, but with an incisive speed that was awe-inspiring. Horn gasped and recoiled.
There wasn’t much he was too slow for, but he was too slow now. The intruder had chosen to use his weapon in a manner for which it had not been designed but was nonetheless highly effective—cripplingly effective, and all but silent. He palmed the ugly weapon and slapped Horn across the jaw with it.
Pain exploded through his face and ran like molten steel down his spine. His strong limbs went to string and his fit young body spun half a turn before crashing to the floor. The light had gone out before he hit the carpet.
Copyright © 2011 by Jo Bannister