Authors: Andy McNab
A wide glass and steel staircase ran up the centre of the building.
I climbed it soundlessly. The first floor was similarly sleek and minimalist. Immediately ahead there was a panoramic view of lush greenery and snow-capped mountains. A maroon Bentley Continental swept past the front driveway, heading for the centre of town. I kept well back from the window.
A set of huge double doors led right, into a high-ceilinged family room. A very tidy high-ceilinged family room. Tall panelled windows overlooked a lone dog-walker making her way up the path we’d taken through the trees. A corridor opposite led into yet more rooms with views of mountains or trees. One was a dining room, complete with dumb waiter.
The floor above had a couple of giant Velux skylights that opened on to the roof, and an attic filled with the kind of stuff everyone leaves in an attic. Frank probably didn’t even know it existed.
There was a glass and steel lift at the far end. It had been the highlight of the guided tour he’d given me when he’d bought the place. As I drew closer to it I heard his voice: ‘
Italian design, German hydraulics. Precision-built houses and Swiss watches – they are very nice things to have, Nick. But there is always someone in more control than you are
Keep talking, Frank. Don’t just go on about the fucking lift. Tell me what this shit is all about. Once I know that, I can work out what to do about it – and how to keep me and your boy safe …
As we’d moved smoothly downwards his jaw had tightened, and he’d given me a rare insight into his relationship with the big dog immediately above him in the food chain. ‘
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Prime minister of the Russian Federation, chairman of both United Russia and the Council of Ministers of the Union of Russia and Belarus. A truly powerful man
I’d asked him who Putin’s boss was.
People like me who buy chalets in this village
.’ He wasn’t smiling. ‘
If he wants to be elected president again
I hoped he was right about that.
I wasn’t going to take the lift this time. I preferred the stairs. They gave me the illusion of control.
There were two more storeys below ground. The bottom one contained a swimming-pool, which filled the entire footprint of the building. So I hadn’t been imagining it. Carved out of the mountainside, it looked like a South Pacific rock-pool. The water was crystal clear. I was glad something around here was.
Above it, a two-car garage housed another gleaming black Range Rover alongside a workbench complete with vices and all the tools you could need to keep the motor running and your skis edged and waxed. At one end, there was a neat little Dremel rotary tool and a set of silicone carbide grinders. Alongside them was an empty Marlboro packet. Cyrillic script. Bad-news photograph. I fished around in my pocket and brought out its identical twin. I wondered who was in charge of the DIY around here. I had the feeling it had been some time since Frank had got his hands dirty.
Next came a gym, a sauna and a massage room. Then a state-of-the-art kitchen, whose centrepiece was a coffee machine the size of a nuclear reactor. Frank did love a brew. The fridge was like a stainless-steel shipping container. An empty stainless-steel shipping container. And the matching pedal bin was empty too. So no clues there either.
I had more luck with the dishwasher. It had reached the end of its cycle and been switched off, but no one had bothered to empty it. There was dinner and breakfast stuff in there. Four of everything. I reckoned that meant Frank, Stefan, me and a BG.
Close by were four box rooms, each with a single bed, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers, and an en-suite shower and toilet. This was where the hired help hung out. I’d give them a closer look later.
At the far end of the corridor, next to his precious lift, was the place I really wanted to explore: Frank’s hideaway. I went and fetched Stefan from his room. Trauma or not, it was time for him to make himself useful.
Mr T’s enthusiasm for metal, suede and gleaming coffee machines was as obvious here as it had been everywhere else, but three walls were painted the green of an English gentlemen’s club. The fourth was bare granite, coated with some kind of sealant. The only thing missing was a pool full of piranhas.
A pool full of piranhas …?
’ Frank had frowned when I’d cracked that funny.
I could see his expression now. Eyes narrowed as he sat down behind a desk the size of a championship snooker table. This desk. In this room.
He hadn’t understood the Blofeld joke. But he’d gone on to make a bad one of his own. ‘
There are enough piranhas out there in the world, Nick. I don’t need them in here as well
Frank never had been much of a stand-up.
The wall to the left of it was lined with shelves, mostly displaying portraits and photos of the dead man and his family. I pointed to one. ‘Your dad …’
‘My friend Frank …’
He nodded again.
I’d had a blow to the head, but I hadn’t completely lost it. I’d been Frank’s gun for hire. He’d sorted some finances for me. But he and I had never been friends. The boy seemed to like the idea, though, so I was happy to stick with it.
I stopped in front of an informal snapshot of father and son. A couple of heavies were standing on either side of them. On the left, a chunky Asiatic, who looked like Genghis Khan. Hesco? I didn’t think so. On the right, with a cigarette in his left hand and his right protectively on the boy’s shoulder, a huge Nigerian with dreads brushing his shoulders.
I leant in closer. I couldn’t see what brand of smoke he liked, but the chunky gold bracelet around his wrist was impossible to miss. He was wearing blindingly white trainers with a red flash. And his dreads seemed to have a life of their own.
I’d seen this lad before. He was one of Frank’s most trusted BGs. I’d spent time with him and Genghis in Somalia. And, a handful of hours ago, I’d watched his back as he and Hesco admired the wreckage of my wagon on the mountain.
I’d never known his name. I’d always called him Mr Lover Man. I hadn’t a clue why. I knew he would have sacrificed himself to save Stefan. He’d once warned me that he’d kill me if I harmed one hair on the boy’s head.
Stefan reached up and placed the tips of his fingers against the glass, almost as if he was trying to touch his BG. For the first time since I’d dragged him out of the Evoque, he started to cry.
I left him to it. Getting emotional was not on my agenda. It got in the way. I didn’t need that right now. I needed answers.
I knelt down beside him. ‘I’ve been here before, haven’t I? Last night?’
‘And this morning?’
I suddenly didn’t need his confirmation. I remembered Frank bringing me here. Telling me he needed my help. Telling me his and his son’s life were under threat.
I’d immediately thought of the fuckers who’d kidnapped Stefan in Somalia. ‘
Who from? Those fucking Georgians?
Frank had had no idea. Insiders, maybe. A takeover bid. Some shit was happening in a couple of his companies that was causing him dramas. The four of us had to go on a journey. Because he no longer knew who else to trust.
My eyes moved back to the picture of Mr Lover Man and the boy. Who to trust? I knew that was where I came in. And I knew his briefing hadn’t stopped there. But the deeper I tried to dig in my memory, the less I could recall.
I pointed at the beautiful dark-haired woman in the pictures. ‘Where’s your mum?’
The boy’s face clouded again. Wrong question. The light went out of his eyes. He retreated further into himself. What was that about?
I put both my hands on his arms and gripped him. Fuck it, I didn’t have time to piss around. And he was his father’s son. ‘Stefan, I need you to help me. I need to know who killed your dad …’
Now he was in real pain. His face went rigid, then looked like it was starting to melt. He opened and closed his mouth, but still no sound came out.
He pointed at the photo again.
Pointed straight at Mr Lover Man.
‘The black guy? Are you sure?’
Another stupid question, but it had to be asked. Maybe his memory had been fucked, a bit like mine. Maybe it was playing tricks. The more I looked at that big protective clasp on Stefan’s shoulder, the more clearly I could picture the Nigerian constantly putting himself in harm’s way to save Frank’s son.
But the shots that had killed Frank had come from inside the wagon.
By a body in the driving seat.
Mr Lover Man wasn’t right-handed. He held his cigarette in his left. Which meant he would have been able to just turn and fire.
Stefan’s mouth opened again. This time a word spilt out. ‘Yes.’
I picked him up and put him on a designer wing chair with a foot rest that sprang up when you tilted it back. I found another chocolate bar in the top drawer of Frank’s desk and lobbed it at him. It was the closest thing to a happy pill that I could come up with. ‘Chew on that, yeah? I need to have another look around.’
There were two remotes on the desk top. They controlled the screens on the opposite wall – a huge flat-screen TV and a security monitor. I fired up both. The monitor split into a dozen constantly shifting images, covering every approach to the chalet and every room inside. I fucked around with the remote for a bit. It was a great bit of kit. At the press of a button I could choose which camera to focus on; I could zoom in and out. I could wind the thing backwards and then forwards again at 2x, 6x, 12x and 30x speed.
I wished I could do the same thing with the screen inside my head. The distant past seemed to be less of a jigsaw, but I was still finding it almost impossible to pin down the events of the last forty-eight hours.
My journey here last night was a blur.
So was most of this morning.
How did the flatbed know we were on our way? The driver – or whoever launched the stripy pole at me – must have been told our route in advance, and had comms with an insider. And if Stefan hadn’t lost it, I now knew who that was.
I pictured Mr Lover Man looking over the edge of the precipice after my wagon had taken its nosedive.
Him and Hesco giving it a huge high-five.
The bubble of blood at the corner of Stefan’s mouth.
Legging it downhill.
The fight in the barn.
Carrot-cruncher number two raising the muzzle of my weapon.
The dead man’s click …
When you’ve got your pistol raised and a big fucker coming down an alley towards you with an AK-47, it’s the worst sound in the world. But when a big and very angry Frenchman fails to blow your brains out with your own weapon, it was the best. I had no idea whether he’d pulled the trigger on purpose or by accident. I just knew it hadn’t fired.
I took the Sphinx out of my waistband, put it on Frank’s old-school blotter and gave my temples a rub.
The gunmetal glinted dully in the flickering light from the monitors. It had done that when Mr Lover Man had handed it to me that morning. Mr Lover Man, not his boss. He’d smiled as he did so.
I picked up the weapon and unclipped the mag. Then I ejected the round from the chamber and held its base up to the light. It didn’t matter what angle I held it at: the copper percussion cap was totally unmarked. The ammunition wasn’t defective. Something else was.
I removed the top slide, turned it upside down and took out the spring and the barrel. With a little help from one of Frank’s platinum-sheathed Mont Blanc ballpoints I pushed out the stub that anchored the firing pin and popped it out of its housing.
It didn’t matter how many times I ran through my NSPs (normal safety precautions), I’d just see the base of the firing pin, where it came into contact with the hammer. And the big lad with the dreads would have known that. Only by dismantling the working parts could I tell that it was five millimetres too short to strike the round. These things are made of turned steel. Their tips don’t just fall off, and this one hadn’t. A grinder had taken it down. I’d have bet a fistful of Frank’s euros on where that grinder was kept.
I thought about what might have happened if they’d been waiting for me on the hill. Mr Lover Man had probably saved my life when everything had gone to rat-shit in the barn. But he hadn’t meant to. He had meant
to be the one squeezing the trigger and not hearing it go bang. And by then I’d have been terminally fucked.
Mr Lover Man.
His dad’s most trusted sidekick.
Someone must have found a way of getting to him. Someone higher up the food chain than Frank Timis. And there weren’t many of
I reassembled the Sphinx, then bounced the TV from channel to channel until I found twenty-four-hour news. Every bulletin was about bad things happening in Syria, Iraq or the Crimea. Putin was bent on clawing back as much of the old empire as possible, and he wouldn’t stop at Ukraine. He also seemed to be picking off his least favourite oligarchs and rivals, one by one.
The Crimea report was interrupted by a breaking story. Frank’s Range Rover filled the frame, surrounded by stripy incident tape and blue and red flashing lights. I probably should have saved Stefan from having to watch this bit, but it was already too late. He stopped in mid-bite as a body bag was lifted off a gurney and slid into the back of an ambulance.
It was too early for the dead man to have been formally identified, but that didn’t stop the newshounds from speculating wildly about a connection with the still unsolved murder of Saad al-Hilli, his wife and mother-in-law in a layby near Lake Annecy in 2012. Lake Annecy was spitting distance from there.
There didn’t seem to be a mystery biker this time around; the prime suspect, as far as they were concerned, was a man in a Nissan X-Trail, who appeared to have suffered a fatal accident further down the mountain. Cue footage of more flashing lights and charred, mangled wreckage being hoisted on to a low-loader.