Authors: Scott Mariani
Tags: #Adventure, #Mystery, #Crime, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Contemporary
It had been soon after his bravery award, when an already glittering military career had reached its highest peak of glory, that he’d suddenly and unexpectedly announced he was retiring. Ben had missed him, and had regretted that he hadn’t kept in touch.
He’d regretted it even more when he’d heard that Helen Paxton, Harry’s wife of many years, had died suddenly of a heart attack. He’d met her only briefly, years ago at some regimental function, but he could see how happy she and Paxton were together. Ben had been in the middle of a difficult assignment in South America when she’d passed away, and by the time he’d heard the news several months had gone by and it had seemed inappropriate to call Paxton out of the blue with commiserations. He’d let it go. That had upset him.
He might have lost touch with Harry Paxton, but he’d never forgotten-could never forget until his dying day-what the man had done for him. Ben had seen a lot in his life, and he generally had few illusions about human behaviour. He didn’t use the term ‘hero’ easily. But Harry Paxton was one man who deserved it. About that, there was no doubt in Ben’s mind.
And now he was going to meet him again, just like that. He wondered whether Harry would have changed much, and what he’d been doing all this time. But, more than anything else, he was wondering what this was all about.
His watch read just after eleven. He used the map he’d bought at the airport to orientate himself, and started walking west, towards the sea.
Beyond the crumbling stone archways and huddled buildings of the old part of town, San Remo had the buzz of any Italian tourist resort beginning to wake up at the start of another hot, crazy, hectic season. Ben made his way through the maze of streets, pausing here and there to check the street signs. He was deep in thought as he walked, feeling impatient and frustrated and wishing Paxton had told him more on the phone. Brooke had been right-it was strange that he’d been so evasive. Strange and worrying. He’d sounded downcast, nervous, distressed. Unless the years had done something dramatic to the man, Harry Paxton wasn’t someone too easily fazed.
Which meant that, whatever this meeting was about, it was something very serious.
Ben could tell from the tang of salt in the air that he was nearing the sea. Then, emerging from a winding little street, he found himself looking out across the harbour, the long curve of beach and the calm, glassy blue of the Mediterranean.
Waves lapped at the shoreline. Within the walls of the port, the glittering white hulls of countless moored boats and small yachts bobbed gently on the water, hundreds of swaying masts pointing skywards. Ben counted ten or more long white jetties stretching out towards the sea. His eye picked out a path that would take him across the shingle beach to the westernmost jetty where Paxton’s motor launch was due to collect him.
Some pitted stone steps led him down from the street. His shoes crunched on the pebbles as he made his way across the beach. The place was deserted, though he knew that would change pretty soon when the tourist season began in earnest. He could feel the warmth of the late morning sun on his face, the whispering sea breeze ruffling his hair. It was a world away from the bleaker Normandy climate.
He checked his watch again and glanced back at the harbour. He could see one or two people around, but the western jetty, his RV point, was empty. No sign of Paxton’s launch. He walked a little further, to where the shingle butted up against the nearside edge of the harbour wall and another flight of stone steps led up to a walkway that connected to the dock.
Lingering a moment on the beach, he gazed out to sea and thought sadly about what he’d left behind in Ireland. The house had been right on the Atlantic Ocean, and he’d loved to spend time alone on the rocky shore, just thinking and watching the waves and the gulls. He missed it. Knew he always would.
Just like he missed a lot of things.
He walked down towards the whispering surf, dropped down into a crouch and picked up a small, flat stone. He whipped his arm back and skimmed the stone at the water; watched it hit with a white puff of spray and bounce, splash, bounce and then disappear.
What did Paxton want? What was wrong?
As he bent down for another stone, something caught his eye, a distant sparkle of reflected sunlight out at sea. A small motor launch was tracking in across the water towards the harbour mouth. It looked as though he was about to find out the answers to his questions.
He dropped the stone, trotted up the steps to the walkway and started making his way towards the jetty.
That was when he heard the scream.
It was the sound of a woman in trouble, her voice shrill and frightened. He froze, snapping his head around to look.
Fifty yards away, a woman in Bermuda shorts and a light denim shirt was running across the beach, clutching a bag on a strap around her shoulder, her long dark hair streaming out in the wind.
Close behind her were two guys. One was big and heavily built, the other slight and wiry, both wearing T-shirts and jeans. They looked serious. And they were faster than her, and gaining. Even at this distance, the look of terror on her face was enough to tell Ben that these weren’t friends messing about.
As he watched, the men caught up with her. The slightly-built guy was two strides ahead of the other. He lashed out with his arm and his fist closed around the strap of her bag, yanking it towards him. She stumbled, kicking up a shower of pebbles. Screamed again. The guy yanked harder on the strap, and she went down. Then the bigger guy was on her, using his weight to crush her. A knee pressed into her stomach, a hand to her throat. She kicked out wildly, struggling like an animal. The smaller one tore the bag away, snapping the strap, and started rifling through it.
There was nobody about. Nobody was going to do anything, or raise the alarm. A woman was being robbed, or worse, right here in broad daylight.
Ben was already running. He dropped his jacket. Sprinted back along the walkway and bounded down the stone steps to the beach.
The smaller guy was tearing through the woman’s bag while his burly friend held her to the ground. He had both her arms pinned down in one big fist and was slapping her around and tearing at the neck of her denim shirt with the other. Her hair was plastered over her face, head shaking violently from side to side as she screamed and thrashed. He was snarling and spitting in her face. Then the free hand went to his belt and out came the knife.
Neither of the men saw Ben coming until he was nearly upon them. The first to freeze and stare was the one with the bag in his hands, but Ben went straight for the other before his friend could let out a yell. The big guy was too busy to notice anything.
It would have been easy for Ben to kill him. Too easy. In the fraction of a second before he hit him, Ben’s mind was racing through all the ways he knew of taking him down without inflicting fatal damage. Harder to do, but a lot less complicated after the fact.
So when the flying kick caught the attacker in the side of the neck, there was only enough force behind it to stun him and send him sprawling off the woman in a tangle of arms and legs.
The guy wouldn’t be able to move his head for a month. But he’d live. He tumbled over, the big arms flailing, eyes and mouth wide with pain and surprise. The knife went clattering across the shingle. Ben doubled him up with a kick to the belly that was hard enough to wind him without rupturing stomach or spleen.
The other guy had already dropped the bag and was running away across the beach, heading for the steps that led back to the street. Ben thought about going after him, but a groan from the woman made him turn around. She tried to struggle up to her feet, but fell back, hair strewn over the ground. Her throat was mottled red, with angry fingermarks where the big guy had been strangling her.
Ben ran over to her and kneeled down beside her. ‘Are you all right?’ he asked urgently.
Five yards away, the big guy was staggering shakily to his feet, clutching his neck and stomach. He threw one look at Ben and made off, hobbling away after his friend.
Ben let them go. They weren’t worth it. He turned back to the woman, gently took her hand and helped her sit up as she went into a fit of coughing. Her eyes were streaming, her breath coming in quick constricted gasps. She reached out with a trembling hand. ‘My bag,’ she wheezed in English.
Ben understood. The bag was lying three yards away, its contents spilled out over the pebbles. Makeup, purse, hairbrush, phone.
He snatched up the little blue spray. ‘Is this what you need?’
She nodded urgently, grabbed it from him in a panicky movement. She jammed the spout into her mouth, pressed the plunger twice, shut her eyes for a second, then let out a long breath. Her shoulders drooped with relief. ‘That’s better.’ She looked up. The look of alarm was draining quickly from her face, but her voice was shaking. ‘You saved me.’
The accent was English. Home Counties, he guessed. He watched her for a moment. She was maybe in her early thirties. Her dark hair was loose about her face. She looked feminine, soft and vulnerable.
Ben glanced up the deserted beach. The two attackers had disappeared. ‘You were lucky,’ he said. ‘Can you get up?’
‘I think so,’ she replied, sounding dazed.
He helped her to her feet. She was a little unsteady, her body leaning against his. The neck of her shirt was hanging open where the attacker had torn the buttons away. She noticed it, blushed and covered herself up. Ben glanced away and started gathering up her scattered possessions. He put them back in her shoulder bag and zipped it up. ‘You should be able to find a cobbler in the town who can fix the strap for you.’
‘Thanks,’ she murmured.
‘Are you with someone? Husband, friend?’
She shook her head. ‘Travelling alone. Just passing through.’
‘Do you have a place to stay?’
‘I’m in a hotel across town.’
On the other side of the low harbour wall, the motor launch was pulling up at the westernmost jetty. It was exactly twelve noon. Ben didn’t want to miss his ride, but he didn’t feel right about leaving the woman on her own. For a second he regretted not having laid into the attackers harder. Should have damaged more than their pride. They might have wandered off in search of another victim. Or they might just as easily be watching from a hidden vantage point and waiting for another chance to get her. From the way she was glancing nervously up the beach, he knew she was thinking the same thing.
He didn’t have time to deal with this. If he took her back into town and they reported the incident, there would be questions to answer to the local police, statements to take, hours of messing around-none of which would be any help to her.
There was only one thing he could do.
As he looked, a stocky guy in a baseball cap, white slacks and a polo shirt stepped from the motor launch. He tied it off and started walking down the jetty towards the dock, glancing up and down the quayside as if looking for someone.
Ben pointed at the launch. ‘I have to get on that boat,’ he said to the woman. ‘I can take you somewhere safe, where you can get cleaned up and get some rest and a drink. Are you happy with that idea?’
She shot him a nervous glance. Doubt in her eyes.
‘You can trust me.’ He took out his passport and showed it to her. ‘My name’s Ben. Ben Hope. And I don’t want to leave you here on your own. There’s someone I have to meet. Come with me. It won’t take long, and then we’ll come back to San Remo together and I’ll see you safely to your hotel. I promise.’
She hesitated, glanced again at Ben and across at the launch. She bit her lip in indecision. Then she looked back at the fallen knife, and shuddered visibly. That seemed to make up her mind. ‘I’m Kerry,’ she said. ‘Kerry Wallace. And if you’re sure it’s all right, I’ll come with you.’
‘You’re doing the right thing, Kerry,’ Ben said. ‘You’ll be OK.’
The launch pilot was heading towards the walkway, glancing down in their direction. The guy returned Ben’s wave.
Kerry was still a little unsteady on her feet. She brushed her hair back nervously, and Ben saw how pale her face was. Carrying her bag, he guided her gently across the beach and up the steps to the walkway. His jacket was lying crumpled on the hot concrete. He picked it up and handed it to her. ‘You should cover up. You’ve had a shock.’
She accepted the jacket gratefully and pulled it around her shoulders. ‘You’re kind. Thank you so much.’
‘It’s nothing,’ he replied. ‘I’m sorry it had to happen to you.’
They met the launch pilot on the walkway. He smiled broadly. ‘Mr Hope?’
Ben replied that he was.
‘I am Thierry,’ the man said breezily. His accent was unplaceable, somewhere between French and Scandinavian. ‘I am to pick you up and bring you to the
.’ He glanced at Kerry. ‘I was told you would be alone.’
Ben shook his head. ‘This is Kerry Wallace. She’s with me.’
Thierry shrugged. ‘No problem. This way, please.’
They followed him up the jetty towards the bobbing launch. ‘Are you sure this is all right?’ Kerry whispered to Ben.
‘As long as you’re happy with it.’
‘I don’t have to be anywhere. I was just out walking, enjoying the sunshine.’ She grimaced. ‘I don’t know what I’d have done without your help.’
‘Don’t think about it,’ he told her. ‘You’ll feel shaky for a while, but it’ll pass.’
Thierry fired up the boat engines as they climbed aboard. Kerry settled herself gingerly into a bench at the stern while Ben sat up front. The twin propellers churned up the water, and the launch powered away from the jetty and back out across the harbour.
After a couple of minutes Ben was watching the San Remo coastline shrink away and sink out of sight below the flat blue horizon. Thierry was taciturn, so he didn’t bother trying to engage him in talk. Kerry sat quietly, still a little pale, holding his jacket tight around her shoulders as she gazed out to sea. Ben kept a watchful eye on her, looking out for signs of shock.