Authors: Matt Hilton
NO SAFE PLACE
A Joe Hunter Thriller
Sempre Vigile Press
NO SAFE PLACE
Published In Great Britain by Sempre Vigile Press 2016
Copyright © Matt Hilton 2015
Cover design Copyright © 2016 Matt Hilton and The Cover Collection
The right of Matt Hilton to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and
Patents Act 1988.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
NO SAFE PLACE
Praise for the Joe Hunter thriller series:
“Matt Hilton delivers a thrill a minute. Awesome!” (Chris Ryan)
“Hard-hitting and fast-paced, I was hooked from start to finish.”
“Roars along at a ferocious pace...” (Observer)
“Electrifying.” (Daily Mail)
“Vicious, witty and noir. Hilton is a sparkling new talent.” (Peter James)
“Another brutally fast and brutally addictive novel from Matt Hilton. Ne'er-do-wells beware, Joe Hunter is coming for you!” (crimeandpublishing.com)
“Explosive and deadly . . . the prolific penman strikes gold again.” (crimesquad.com)
Table of Contents
The splintering of a door jolted Ella Clayton from her thoughts.
She jumped up, pushing back her chair in her haste and the legs squealed across the tiled kitchen floor. The glass of wine she’d been nursing at the breakfast counter fell from her fingers and shattered in a welter of red gobbets that stained her shoes and jeans. The two startling crashes happened almost simultaneously, both snapping Ella’s attention one direction and then instantly the other. The broken wine glass was unimportant; the smashed door something else entirely. Her first instinct was to call out for help, but her voice was pinched in her throat.
Who could she shout for anyway?
Her husband had left an hour earlier, taking their son, Cole, up to his dad’s fishing lodge on Lake Tarpon on the hunt for largemouth bass. She’d watched Andrew load their nine-year-old in his SUV, handing the boy a bottle of juice to keep him hydrated on the short trip. Ella had waved Cole off, and he’d waved back, but it was while barely shutting up as he fired instructions at his dad to get going. Cole had been eagerly looking forward to the trip, keen to catch his first freshwater fish, be that bass, tilapia, bluegill or sunfish. Andrew had already said his goodbyes, out of Cole’s earshot, and he’d only hung a hand out of the window, flicking his fingers in farewell as he’d driven away. If their fishing expedition had been aborted for unforeseen reasons, and her husband and son had returned early, then Andrew would have used his key, come in by the front door, not made this noisy entrance through the utility room door via the garage.
Ella stood rooted to the spot. She was as confused as she was frightened, and indecision held her rigid: should she investigate or run? Only when the door into the kitchen was kicked open, slamming the wall with a sound as violent as gunshot did she lurch away. Shrieking, she reached for the phone on the wall, got her fingers on it, but in her urgency knocked the receiver out of its holder. The phone clattered across the floor, and she chased it, aware of how close the invader was on her heels. She gave up on the phone, running instead for the vestibule. If she could get to the front door she could scream for help. But again, who would hear? Their house was on a private lot, a good four hundred yards from the nearest house, and even then it belonged to an old couple, both so deaf neither would hear a grenade detonate in their own living room. But she had to try.
She could barely breathe. Her legs were rubbery beneath her. It was as if she was running through a quagmire.
Her pursuer wasn’t as hindered. He came after her, striding purposefully. She could sense him reaching for her, to snag her hair in a gloved hand and she twisted away, fleeing instead for the family room. A boot kicked at her ankle. It was enough to trip her and she fell against the open door, and then to the floor. She scrambled on all fours, seeking to place the settee between them.
There was a sharp crack.
She recognised it as gunfire. Waited for the shocking impact of a bullet through her flesh. But it didn’t come. The bullet had drilled a hole in the settee. Ella swerved on hands and knees to one side, croaking in terror. The shot into her settee was a warning, but the next might be placed more accurately. She collapsed to one side, rolling onto an elbow, shuffling away sideways as she placed her feet ineffectually between her and the man looming over her. He was dressed in a nylon coverall, the cuffs taped to his boots and gloves with duct tape. He wore a ski mask and goggles, and had a rucksack on his back. Disguised from head to foot she couldn’t be certain: did she know her attacker though? His shape said yes, she knew him, but she couldn’t believe
would do this?
She stared at him, from his huge boots up to the soulless goggles, and the gun he held in each gloved hand.
Absurdly the wine stains on her jeans drew her gaze, and it was as if her blood had already been spilled. She knew the image was a portent, and screamed in defiance at the inevitable. The man fired again. This time it was at a wall, and it punched a small hole through the drywall and into the kitchen beyond. He’d fired only one of the two guns he held, the other was aimed at her gut.
‘Please!’ Ella cried. ‘Why are you doing this?’
The man didn’t speak. He didn’t have to, not when her plea fell on deaf ears. He only shrugged, then took another pot shot at the same wall, this time lower than where the first bullet hit. The other gun didn’t waver off target. Ella lifted her left hand, as if intending to swat aside the promised bullet like an annoying bug, and the gold of her wedding ring twinkled dully. The man grunted at her, amused, and he pulled the trigger. This gun wasn’t as loud as the first, but the sound was cataclysmic to Ella: it was the sound of her doom. The bullet cut through the palm of her outstretched hand, didn’t slow and punched her gut harder than any fist in creation could. The impact folded Ella around the bullet as it drilled into her. She unfurled in the next instant, her legs spasming, her hands flung over her head behind her. Her damaged hand fluttered against the plush leather of her settee.
‘Does it hurt?’ pondered her attacker as he bent over her. He snorted in pleasure. ‘I just bet it does.’
His voice was muffled by the ski mask. But Ella recognised it. She was right: she did know this man. And suddenly she understood what this was all about.
‘Why?’ she croaked. ‘I…thought you…loved me.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself, bitch.’
‘You won’t…get away…with this…’
The man crouched alongside her, moving his second gun closer.
‘Oh, I think I will,’ he crowed. ‘All my bases are covered.’
Ella could see her shocked expression reflected in his goggles. Her face was so pale it was limpid, her mouth a stark wet oval beneath equally wet eye sockets. She watched as the reflection of the gun probed the space beneath her chin. Could feel the subtle tremor of his finger on the trigger passing through the hot metal and into her flesh.
There was a scarlet explosion.
It was the last thing she ever experienced.
The sand gave beneath every footstep, making jogging difficult
. If I’d followed the strip of asphalt separating the beach from the road it would’ve been easier. But I didn’t mind the extra effort. I welcomed it. Going the easy route was never my intention, and I’d made things harder again by loading building bricks wrapped in newspaper in my rucksack. I needed the work out, and was determined to get back to full health. Over the past month I’d set similar challenges so I could evaluate my progress. I wasn’t back to full fitness yet, but I was getting there.
Not long ago I’d been shot in the chest. As luck would have it, I’d been wearing a bulletproof vest. Unluckily, the vest wasn’t impervious at close range and a bullet had found its way through and buried its tip in my left pectoral muscle. I’d survived, but the wound had proved a bitch to heal. Perhaps it hadn’t helped that my recovery was hampered by having to rescue an abducted woman from a compound full of armed mercenaries, but there you go. I was forced to take things easy while I recuperated, and was better for it, but the time I’d taken to heal had played havoc on my cardio and strength. I don’t recall taking as long to regain my fitness when I was a young soldier, but had to face the truth. Now in my early forties, I wasn’t exactly a young soldier any more. In fact, I wasn’t even a soldier.
It’s over three hundred and seventy miles from my house on Mexico Beach to the office of Rington Investigations in Tampa, Florida, where I work. Meaning I’ve a five and a half hour commute if I obey the posted speed limits. On bad days the journey can take longer. My friend, and business partner, Rink, has often encouraged me to move closer to the office. I’ve considered doing so, and checked out a house between Clearwater and Palm Harbor a few months ago, but didn’t go through with the move, thinking at that time I’d miss my home from home.
Mexico Beach was about as far removed from my old house in Manchester in the north of England that I could imagine, without stepping off the fine white sand into the turquoise water of Saint Joseph Bay. I enjoyed eating at Toucan’s or taking a cold Corona at any of the beachside bars, or sitting on the pier, watching the boats and the frolicking holidaymakers. As I was doing now, I regularly ran the beach from Port St Joe, through Mexico Beach, or up towards Tyndall AFB following the contours of Saint Andrew Sound. My beach house was just far enough away to feel removed from my day-job, allowing some peace of mind during downtime, but I could get back to Tampa if necessary.
But I couldn’t call it a safe retreat anymore: trouble had come to my door, most recently in the shape of one of those mercenaries seeking to avenge a brother whose death he blamed on me. I hadn’t killed his brother, the situation had been more complicated than that, but it didn’t matter to him, and things had grown violent before we were finished. Allowing that the home invasion had been a trap I’d helped set up, it shouldn’t bother me now. But the violence had left an indelible stain in the house that I couldn’t ignore, or maybe the stain was on my psyche. More often than not I stayed away, sleeping over at Rink’s place at Temple Terrace, or bedding down in the back room at the office, rather than return home. It wasn’t fear that made me avoid my own home, more a feeling of unease that my private sanctum had been violated. I couldn’t find peace there now and a move was looking more attractive. But I’d promised that when I did move, it’d be a new start, and I wanted to be back on form before then.
So I ran. Feeling the sand give beneath my boots, and the loaded rucksack bounce against my back with each step. Sweat lashed off me, my T-shirt was sodden, and my shorts adhered to my thighs. I looked directly ahead, my sights set on the hazy distance. I might have run all the way past the air force base and on to Panama City, except I heard my cell ringing. I wanted to ignore its summons, but I slowed, moved down by the surf and unhooked my rucksack. Breathing heavily I delved in the pocket on the rucksack’s flap and pulled out the phone. It had stopped ringing, but I could see whose call I’d missed. I hit buttons.
‘Rink,’ I said, by way of greeting.
‘Where are you, Hunter?’ he asked.
I looked out to sea, watched a pelican flap lazily above the turquoise surface. There were some kayakers out, and I could faintly hear them talking. The sun boiled off the sweat from my forehead.
‘I’m running,’ I said. ‘Or I was til you stopped me.’
‘It sounds like you needed to stop; catch your breath, brother.’
‘I’m fine,’ I said.
‘Sounds like it,’ he replied, meaning the exact opposite. ‘Seriously, though, are you good to go?’
‘Depends what you’ve got in mind.’
‘If it were that easy you wouldn’t be calling me, Rink. You’d put Velasquez or McTeer on it.’
‘Val isn’t ready yet,’ he said, ‘and McTeer is on that close protection gig down in Miami.’ He snorted out a laugh. ‘You’re it, brother, whether you like it or not. Besides, the client asked for you in person.’
I thought about what he said. Since taking a severe beating during a job down Mexico, Raul Velasquez had been pulled off the front line. Like me, he was eager to show he was fit for service again, but Rink was uncertain and had put him to work on office duties. Jim McTeer was another of Rink’s employees, an ex-cop. He was currently working private security for some visiting soccer player down in Miami. McTeer had hinted it was David Beckham, but I didn’t believe him.
‘So what’s the job?’
‘Like I said, it’s an easy one.’
‘”Easy” isn’t in my vocabulary,’ I reminded him.
‘So what they say is true. You do learn something new every day. “Easy” should suit you just fine, Hunter, until you’re back to full strength.’ Rink must have put a hand over his phone, because his next words were muffled. Didn’t matter, I heard an equally muffled response but didn’t recognise the voice. It was probably Velasquez, I decided. When he came back on Rink’s voice was much clearer. ‘How soon can you get here?’
I looked at the sun. It was dipping towards the horizon. ‘I’ll have to get back home, shower, throw a few things in a bag, but I can be there this evening.’
‘Soon as, brother,’ Rink said. ‘The job’s an easy one, meaning not too strenuous, but I didn’t say it wasn’t urgent.’
‘A clue what to look forward to wouldn’t go amiss.’
‘That’d spoil the surprise.’
I wondered what was going on. Mentally I checked the calendar, but there were no significant dates I could think of. Apart from one, but that couldn’t be it. ‘If this is a ploy to spring a surprise birthday party on me, I’ll kick your arse,’ I warned him in good humour.
‘Hunter, I’m with you on that one. Once I hit the big four-oh I stopped counting. Look, sooner I get off, sooner you can get your sweaty butt home and shower. I’ll be done here when you arrive, so just come to my place, OK?’
‘Will do.’ We hung up. I again searched the horizon to the north. I wasn’t done running. Still, I’d to run back the way I’d already come. I hefted the rucksack onto my shoulders, cinched the straps so the weight of the bricks was equally balanced, and set off. This time I did use the asphalt path, and made better speed. Rink had been purposefully guarded about what he had in store for me, and it made me think. I felt a buzz of nervous anticipation as I pounded the path home. There’d been something in Rink’s tone he’d tried to veil. But it weren’t a bad thing. He’d been pleased to summon me, and he was never one to get excited about a big payday. There was something else. Something I’d actually be happy about; I just had no idea what. Suddenly I wanted to dump the bricks and sprint all the way back.