Authors: Alexander McNabb
Tags: #psychological thriller, #Espionage Thriller, #thriller, #Middle East
Copyright © Alexander McNabb 2016
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the author, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent publisher.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Set in Linotype Palatino and Gill Perpetua
For The Bears: Richie, Geraldine, Aoife and Sean Murray with my affection and love.
Aoife is, as Twitter well knows,
The Niece From Hell
Sister Mary craned forward to pinpoint the whump of rotors. The helicopter dropped from the mountains to skim the city rooftops like a fat, mottled fly. It rocked to a landing on the roof of the far wing of the hospital. Men ran doubled up under the still-whirring blades to wrench open doors.
She spied on them from her secret fire escape. The chipped black paint reflected the spring sunlight and warmed her. She leaned on the railing and puffed on her illicit cigarette. A stretcher slid out of the big machine, hoisted by figures in camouflage fatigues and helmets. She flicked the butt away down to the littered darkness of the alleyway below. The men on the roof were waving at each other. Someone had a plasma bag held high above the figure in the stretcher. She couldn’t see whether the patient was male or female. Intrigued, she lit a second cigarette and settled to watch the fuss taking place high above the honking traffic down on the city streets.
It was the talk of the hospital all that afternoon. Intensive care was cleared, patients transferred to the St George in Ashrafieh. The dead-eyed and unresponsive American soldiers on guard outside the ICU added to the sense of mystery.
Mary was chatting with Félicie at reception when the Englishman stalked in, an overgrown beanpole of a man, grey-haired with an aristocratic English nose and points of piercing blue under bushy brows. He looked dry and papery, but powerful. The Lebanese have a nose for power, she surmised. Some are attracted to it, seek it; moths to a candle. Others flee it, fearing the trouble and disruption it brings to our precarious lives. She sighed.
‘I would like to speak with Monsieur Delormes as a matter of urgency, please.’ He announced to Félicie who was, and this was her way if you but knew her, unimpressed. She flicked her hair back and glanced over at Mary with a hint of a roll to her eyes.
‘Would you? Who will I say is calling?’
‘Lawrence Hamilton. It is in regard to his new patient.’
Mary tried not to betray her interest. ‘I can take him there.’ She tried to mask her quickening with a shrug. ‘If you like.’
Félicie glared at the Englishman. ‘Thank you, Sister. But I will see if he is free.’ She plucked the handset from its cradle and weighed it in her hand. ‘Monsieur.’
He was indeed free and then some. Félicie took to her feet as the handset barked at her. She waved at Mary to take him, take him and get out of here. They walked together, Mary and her aristocrat, up the shiny-floored corridor. The Englishman’s shoes squeaked.
She ushered her guest into Delormes’ study. The hospital’s director had been in a fury since the helicopter on their roof and the attendant disruption; an unacceptable intrusion on their scheduled commitments, he had called it. Yet now he was wreathed in smiles. ‘Dr Hamilton. We are honoured. Please, come in, please.’ He turned to her. ‘Thank you, Sister Mary.’
Dismissed, she waited outside in the corridor and tried not to press her ear against the thin plasterboard wall to try and resolve the murmur of their voices. The snatch of conversation was lost in the echoing footsteps of a man with new shoes shuffling and squeaking infuriatingly down the corridor.
That was the last she saw of the Englishman. The nursing staff told stories of the mystery patient who had landed on their roof. A girl, horribly wounded and barely alive when they had brought her. Stable now, but injuries they had never seen the like of before.
The next day, at lunch, one of the nurses came into the staff café crying and started to tell them about the young woman in ICU. A furious sister shushed her. A Filipina girl, she was never seen again in the hospital. The woman in ICU had no past, Félicie said. She didn’t know her name, even.
Two weeks later, Sister Mary bumped her way into Delormes’ office as he was finishing a call. She waited for him, listened to him tell the handset ‘—recovered much of her memory, but of her time here in Lebanon she has total amnesia, absolutely no recall whatsoever of the entire incident.’ Delormes glared at her. ‘Yes, I am quite, quite sure. I have to go, Lawrence, please forgive me.’
The morning after, wandering past ICU, she noticed the Americans had gone. Poking her head around the door, she took in the pale faced woman in the bed, the nurse at her side glancing up in alarm, relaxing when she recognised Mary. The mystery woman’s face was contused, a patchwork of fading, yellowed bruises. Her eyes were closed.
The next day the British Ambassador came and spirited her away.
The Audi TT held tight to the tarmac and Robyn revelled in the car’s electric surge around the corner as she pressed it. The road was wet, russet clouds of leaves thrown up by her passing. She flew to her new beginning, her mind having shut out much of her recent past.
The headlights picked out ghostly moss-greened pillars of trees and pillared gates to her right. The TT’s beams picked out the sign as she swung off the main road: ‘Hamilton Institute’.
Robyn pulled up into one of the car parking spaces marked ‘Visitors’. The Georgian mansion’s moss-speckled walls blazed in floodlight from the garden. The room behind the door labelled ‘Reception’ was lit, despite the late hour. A trim lady in her fifties bustled around the desk to meet her.
‘Good evening! You must be Robyn. So nice to meet you, I’m Heather.’
Robyn smiled and took the proffered hand. ‘I’m sorry it’s so late, it’s quite a drive from London.’
‘We do feel a little remote here at times. Shall I show you to your apartment? You probably just want to get your head down. We can sort out all the admin tomorrow.’
‘Yes, that’d be nice. Thank you.’
Heather led the way across the tarmac from the main reception to the teacher’s accommodation, proclaimed as such by the sign at calf-height. The cold air made Robyn’s t-shirt, dampened by her exertions driving, clammy against the small of her back. She pulled her bag out of the boot of the TT while Heather waited.
‘Is that all you have?’
Robyn smiled. ‘That’s the lot. I’m travelling light.’
They reached the accommodation block. Heather waved the ID card she wore around her neck at the pad by the door and it clicked open. ‘Your access card lets you into this block and the school buildings.’ She handed over a card in a plastic holder, the blue lanyard wrapped around it. ‘Here you go. Please try not to lose it.’
Heather held the door open for her. The welcome warmth of the building hit Robyn, a whiff of coffee and behind it perhaps a hint of new carpet or paint. The door swooshed shut behind them and Heather led the way up the open tread wooden stairs. A cluster of spotlights dropped down from the double story ceiling to light the small atrium, glass panels set in the white walls showed the woodland beyond. As they came up to the second floor, Robyn craned over the banister at the highest panel and glimpsed the downs beyond the woodland. ‘This is all very swish.’
Heather paused at the second door along the corridor. ‘You’ll have to open this, only your card will open your room.’
Robyn waved her card at the pad and the door clicked. She pushed in, Heather following. ‘If you lose an access card, report it to security as quickly as you can. If you can’t get hold of them, buzz me. Here, I’ll write down my mobile.’
‘That’s a lot of security.’
‘We like to run a tight ship, put it that way.’
Robyn wandered rapturously around the room, taking it all in. The duplex loft apartment had a sheer glass wall overlooking trees, the winding hedge-lined road beyond gave way to fields. There was an open fireplace, cushioned seating ranged around its brass flue and slate surrounds. There was a dining table under the mezzanine, a compact kitchen the other side of it separated by a high-stooled breakfast bar.
‘The window’s one-way glass, but there are blinds if you prefer. You use the remote.’
‘This is bloody gorgeous.’
Heather shrugged. ‘There’s a guest toilet under the stairs there, the left hand divan by the fireplace converts into a sofa bed if you have a visitor. A single. You’re supposed to report visitors to security.’
Robyn glanced around the neat, modern room and wanted to pinch herself. It seemed so utterly unreal.
‘Look, you’ll want to get settled.’ Heather smiled. ‘Give me a shout in the morning if there’s anything you need. Like I say, we can tidy up the admin stuff any time tomorrow, I’m around. Most of the staff are out for the weekend, so I’m afraid nothing much will happen until Monday.’
‘Thanks, I will.’ Robyn waved Heather off down the corridor and went back inside. Long after the door had clicked to, she stood still and just looked around like a bird on a perch, twisting her head to try different angles and views of the pristine apartment and wondering where the chopped firewood for that funky open fire would come from. She wandered over to sit on the cushions by the lifeless fireplace, trying to imagine the dance of flames in the Scandinavian bowl and the smoke gathered up into the brass flue.
She took her bag upstairs and prepared for bed, propping her wet bag up on the sink and deciding to leave unpacking until the morning. The duvet was cool and light and she wrapped herself up to try and trap her body warmth.
Sleep evaded her even as she felt the tiredness weigh down on her thumping chest. Finally, her eyes closed.
The little cuts in the delicate crystal glass glinted. Lawrence Hamilton sipped his whisky, setting it down on the coaster on his desk. The gilt-edged square framed a picture of a pheasant. The Institute was quiet, the hour late and his study dark, apart from the desktop illuminated by the brass Anglepoise lamp. He held the handset to his ear and listened to the ringtone. Finally, it answered.
‘It’s Lawrence.’ He fingered the edge of the glass, felt moisture on his thumb. ‘She’s arrived.’
‘Oh, yes, Hamilton. Right. Any issues?’
‘No, no. No problems. Leave it with me.’
‘I rather thought we had. Goodbye.’
Hamilton regarded the receiver nested in his hand, scraping his teeth over his lower lip before replacing it on its cradle.
He lifted the glass and sipped. Distracted, he misjudged the movement and a drop escaped to run down his chin. He wiped himself, irritated at his clumsiness. He sucked the liquid from his finger. The bottom of the glass on the coaster was wet, too, and he pulled a paper hanky from his trouser and dabbed at the pooled condensation. He folded the tissue around the damp portion and slid it back into his pocket.
The dream was still rotten in Robyn’s head when she surfaced to the wan light and the peeping of her cheap little Ikea alarm clock. She hadn’t pulled the curtain and was rewarded with a view of relentless cloud. She was warm, but her hand struck out from under the duvet and found cool air. She’d have to suss out how the heating worked. Her grasping fingers touched plastic and she batted at the thing. The clock skittered across the bedside table and crashed to the floor still chirping.
She felt bruised, unsettled. The ragged aftermath of the dream nagged at her. She tried to remember it, to recall why it left her feeling so drained and was rewarded with a return to the lacuna in her past. Dark things skittered into the shadows as she tried to force her rebellious mind to recall what lay behind the blackness of the Void.
Death. All around her, inside her. It
her. Desks, chalk. Pain. Flies.
Oh, Christ. The flies. Touching her. There.
Panicked, Robyn kicked at the duvet, thrashing against its dead weight clinging to her. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she was steeped in fatigue beyond endurance. The cold seemed to come from within. She let the clock’s high-pitched insistence wash over her, then scooped it up and set the little black switch to ‘off’. Her hands were shaking so much she almost dropped the stupid thing again.