Authors: Scott Mariani
Tags: #Adventure, #Mystery, #Crime, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Contemporary
Approaching Cherbourg, he pulled up in the airport car park and left Storm sitting inside as he walked across the tarmac towards the arrivals building.
The woman he was coming to collect was Dr Brooke Marcel, a clinical psychologist and expert in hostage psychology who had been attached to police Special Operations in London for nine years. Ben had first met her back in his
days, when he’d attended one of her lectures and been impressed with her sharp mind and depth of insight. She’d been one of the first people he contacted when he was starting up his centre. Every few weeks, he flew her out to France to lecture the trainees-which, being half French on her father’s side, suited her perfectly. He enjoyed her company and always looked forward to her visits.
He pushed through the glass doors into the arrival lounge. The London flight had just come in, and a small crowd was trickling through towards the car park and taxi ranks.
Brooke waved as she caught sight of him. She was wearing tight black jeans and a green combat jacket, and carrying a sports holdall. Her wavy auburn hair bounced as she walked. Ben noticed a couple of guys throwing appreciative glances at her. As he approached, she smiled and kissed his cheek. ‘What a surprise,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t expecting you. Normally Jeff comes to fetch me.’
‘Jeff likes you too much. I don’t want him getting too distracted.’
She chuckled. ‘Don’t worry. Jeff’s a nice guy, but he’s not my type.’
‘So you’re not into tall, dark and handsome.’
Brooke shot him a mischievous smirk. ‘I prefer tall, blond and handsome.’
He ignored that. ‘Let me take your bag.’ He took her holdall and they walked out to the car park.
‘So how’s business?’ she asked as they drove.
‘Business is good. How’s London?’
‘As ever,’ she said, rolling her eyes. ‘I’m getting tired of it. Been there too long. Need a change.’
‘I know the feeling.’
‘Speaking of which, I’ve taken a few days off. I needed the break. OK with you if I hang around here a few extra days?’
‘No problem,’ he said. ‘Stay as long as you want.’
On the way back Ben made a brief detour to the local vineyard to pick up some cases of wine. With the Land Rover loaded up, they headed back to Le Val.
‘My God,’ Brooke exclaimed as they drove through the gates and up towards the house. ‘You finished it.’
Ben glanced at where she was pointing. ‘The new gym? The roof went on two days ago.’
‘Every time I come here, some new building has sprung up. Don’t tell me-you did it yourself
‘Not all of it. Just the walls and the flooring. I couldn’t lift the roof beams on my own.’
‘You’re crazy. Remember, all work and no play…’
‘Makes Ben a dull boy?’
‘Or breaks his back. You don’t need to do it all, Ben. Let your hair down a bit. Enjoy yourself a little. You’re not forty yet.’
He laughed as he pulled up in front of the farmhouse and killed the Land Rover’s engine. ‘Maybe you’re right.’
‘I have an idea. Didn’t you tell me you had an apartment in Paris?’
The small, spartan flat had been a gift from a client years ago, after Ben had rescued his child from kidnappers. ‘It’s hardly an apartment, Brooke. And I’ve been thinking of selling it anyway. What did you have in mind?’
‘Well, since tomorrow’s the last day of the course, maybe when I’m done lecturing we could jump in that shiny new Mini Cooper you never seem to use and head over there. It’s just a hop and a skip up the road. A couple of days in Paris will be good for you.’
He hesitated. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Come on. Jeff
manage without you here, you know. It’ll be fun.’
He stared at her. ‘You and me together in Paris?’
A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. ‘Why not?’
‘My place only has one bedroom.’
She didn’t reply as Ben stepped down from the Land Rover, threw open the back door and grabbed her bag. Storm jumped out, tail wagging, and headed for the barns.
After Ben had carried her bag inside and Brooke had gone to freshen up, he went over to the office to attend to some paperwork and check with Jeff that the trainees were happy and feeling looked after.
Jeff told him that he was taking the guys out in the van that evening, for a
and a few beers at the village brasserie. ‘You fancy coming along too?’ As he said it, he was opening drawers and sifting through papers.
Ben shook his head. ‘Another time. What are you looking for?’
‘The bloody number for those security-fence guys.’
‘4642891,’ Ben said instantly.
‘How do you do that?’
‘Remember numbers like that.’
Ben shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I just can. Always could.’
‘Beats me,’ Jeff said, picking up the phone.
Dark was falling by the time Ben and Brooke sat down to eat in the farmhouse kitchen. Dinner was a rustic beef and olive stew with rice, and a bottle of the red wine they’d picked up earlier.
‘I still can’t believe how quickly you’ve got this place up and running,’ she said. ‘You’ve done an amazing amount in such a short time.’
‘I might need you to come over more often, if things keep moving at this rate. Can you make it back here again in two weeks’ time?’
‘Love to. I like it here. I feel at home.’
She cocked her head, resting her chin on her hand, watching him. ‘You know what, Hope? In all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you like this. You actually look happy.’
He smiled. ‘You know what? I actually think I am.’
Brooke was about to answer when the phone rang from the kitchen sideboard. Ben tutted.
‘Why don’t you leave it? If it’s important, they’ll call back.’
‘Better answer it.’ He stood up and went to grab the phone. ‘Hello?’ He glanced at Brooke, as if to say,
this wont take a minute.
But then he heard the voice on the other end of the line. It shook him to the core, instantly transported him back.
It was a voice he hadn’t heard for a long time, and hadn’t expected to hear again. He took the phone into the adjoining study and shut the door behind him.
When he came out five minutes later, Brooke saw the frown on his face. ‘Is everything all right, Ben?’
He made no reply, and instead went back over to the sideboard, took out a bottle and a glass, cracked the seal and poured out a large measure. He suddenly remembered Brooke and grabbed a second glass. ‘Sorry,’ he muttered distractedly. ‘Want some?’
‘Sure. Something wrong?’
For an instant it was on the tip of his tongue to tell her, but he decided against it and shook his head. ‘It’s fine. Nothing.’
‘I can see it’s not nothing,’ Brooke said. ‘Bad news?’
‘I told you. It’s not important.’ He handed her the Scotch. Drained his own glass in a gulp and slumped in his chair at the table. There was silence between them. He refilled his glass. She’d barely started her first.
‘Hey, where did the conversation go?’ she said with a laugh.
‘I’m sorry,’ he muttered. He looked at his watch. ‘Listen, it’s getting late. I’m a little tired. Maybe I’ll turn in.’
‘I’ll take care of the dishes.’
‘Leave them. I’ll deal with it in the morning.’ He stood up, scraping his chair over the flagstones.
‘See you tomorrow, then,’ she said. ‘Sweet dreams.’
But he barely registered it as he walked slowly out of the kitchen and headed for the stairs to his apartment.
His heart was pounding and his stomach clenched.
A swirling confusion of blurs and echoes. Sounds of chaos and pain, screams and gunfire intermingled. Everything slow motion. The strobe of muzzle flashes illuminating the jungle; shapes flitting through the trees. The heat and the blood and the pumping terror. More of them coming. Always more of them.
Then the man walking towards him out of the killing frenzy, his body silhouetted black against the roaring flames. The eyes, wild and livid with hate. The fist clenching the gun. The big wide black ‘O’ of the muzzle, like the mouth of a tunnel leading to oblivion.
Then the searing, reverberating blast of the gunshot that filled his head, and the world exploding into white light.
Ben sat bolt upright in the darkness, the sweat cooling on his face. For a moment he was disorientated, and his pulse raced as he struggled to understand where he was. Then he remembered he was here. Home. Safe. Far away, where the horror could never touch him.
It’s nothing. Just a dream. The same dream from long ago.
He reached out for the bedside light, but in his daze he felt his arm knock the lamp off the table. It fell to the floorboards with a crash.
Brooke was leaning back in bed in the next room, going over her lecture notes for the next day, listening to the wind in the trees through her open window and enjoying the lazy tranquillity of the place after the hubbub of London.
The sudden noise next door startled her. She jumped up, scattering papers, pulled on her dressing gown and went out into the dark hallway. She could hear Ben muttering and cursing through the door. She knocked, paused and went into his room.
He was sitting up in bed, naked down to the waist, setting a fallen reading lamp back upright on his bedside table. He looked up as she walked into the room. ‘Sorry if I woke you,’ he said. ‘I knocked the lamp over.’
‘I wasn’t asleep. All right if I come in?’ She moved over to the bed and sat down on the edge. ‘You OK? You look a little pale. What happened?’
He rubbed his face. ‘Bad dream.’
‘Want to talk about it?’
‘You sound like a psychologist.’
a psychologist, remember?’ She laid a hand on his. ‘So tell me. What were you dreaming about?’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Are you sure?’ she asked gently.
‘I’m sure. It was just a stupid nightmare from years ago. I get it sometimes.’
‘You should listen to your dreams.’ She paused. ‘I bet it had something to do with the phone call. Am I right?’
He didn’t reply.
She smiled. ‘Thought so. The way you changed. Like a switch. You seemed so happy before, then the minute you got that call you started acting troubled, not saying much, drinking.’
‘Sounds like a good idea. Want a drink?’
‘Sure, I’ll go down and fetch the bottle.’
‘No need.’ He kicked his legs off the bed, stood up, and went over to the wardrobe dressed only in a pair of black boxer shorts. She watched him cross the room. He opened the wardrobe door, reached up to the top shelf and brought down a bottle of whisky and a glass. ‘Only one glass,’ he said, carrying them back to the bed.
‘I don’t mind sharing. You go first. You look like you need it more than I do.’
He didn’t argue with her. Sitting back down on the bed, he filled the glass halfway and took a long gulp before handing it across to her.
‘Cheers.’ She drank and passed it back to him. ‘Nice. I like a man who keeps a bottle of good malt in his wardrobe.’
He knocked back more whisky.
‘You going to be OK now?’ she asked him.
He chuckled. ‘I’m not a kid, you know.’
She touched his arm lightly. ‘I can see something’s wrong.’
‘I’ll be OK.’
She nodded, stood up hesitantly, stepped towards the door and paused with her hand on the handle. ‘Sure?’
‘Sure. Thanks, Brooke.’
‘See you in the morning, then.’
Ben shook his head. ‘I’ll be gone before you wake up. I have to be somewhere.’
She frowned. ‘I thought you were going to be here tomorrow.’
‘Not any more. Jeff will look after you.’
‘It’s the phone call, isn’t it? Something’s up.’
He nodded, but didn’t elaborate.
‘So where on earth are you disappearing off to all of a sudden?’
She looked surprised. ‘What’s in Italy?’
‘Colonel Harry Paxton.’
‘Colonel Harry Paxton,’ she echoed. ‘I’m guessing that’s the person who called earlier?’
‘And? What am I supposed to do, guess the rest?’
‘And he’s got a problem. He needs me to go to him, and that’s what I’m going to do.’
‘What kind of problem?’
‘He didn’t say.’
And he expects you to drop everything and go all the way to Italy? He couldn’t just have told you on the phone? Just who
Ben finished the whisky and was quiet for a moment.
Then he said, ‘He’s the man who saved my life.’
San Remo, Italian Riviera
By 9 a.m. Ben’s plane had touched down at the Côte d’Azur International Airport outside Nice. He threw his worn old green military canvas bag into the back of the first taxi he saw, and less than an hour later the driver was dropping him off in the middle of the coastal town of San Remo, just across the Italian border.
He quickly found a hotel off a bustling square in La Pigna, the old part of the town, and booked a room for a single night. He guessed that would be long enough.
The hotel was pleasantly cool inside, with marble floors that echoed every footstep. Any other day, he might have stopped to appreciate the simple beauty of the old building, or taken in the spectacular view across the rooftops of the rambling city, the clusters of church spires, the hazy Alpine skyline on one horizon and the glittering blue Mediterranean seascape on the other.
But today his mind was elsewhere. He dumped his bag on the bed and headed downstairs, back through the lobby and out into the busy piazza. The sun was warm in the clear blue sky, and even the lightweight cotton jacket he was wearing was too heavy. He took it off and carried it over his arm.
The rendezvous point Paxton had given him was Porto Vecchio, one of San Remo’s two ports. The colonel had been precise. A motor launch was to pick Ben up at the westernmost jetty at 12 p.m., and would take him out to sea for the meeting on board Paxton’s yacht.
That part hadn’t come as a great surprise to Ben. He could remember how his old colonel had always talked a lot about sailing. In his downtime he would invariably be heading for some sunny port. Had he owned a yacht back then? Ben didn’t recall, and it suddenly struck him that he’d no idea what Paxton had been doing in the ten years since quitting the army.