Authors: Scott Mariani
Tags: #Adventure, #Mystery, #Crime, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Contemporary
He remembered rolling over onto his back. Through the haze of his fading senses, hearing another shot and seeing Smith crumple into the dirt nearby.
Out of the shadows stepped a man, silhouetted against the flames. He was holding a gun. Ben watched, dazed, as the man came closer and pointed the gun right at his head.
He remembered seeing the man come closer, step into the flickering firelight. The gun steady in his fist, ready for the killing shot. Behind the gun, the eyes in the black face wide and staring at him through the sights. Ben would never forget those eyes, bloodshot and wild, full of hate. They were burned into his brain forever.
After that, there had been a flurry of shots.
Then nothing. Just darkness and empty silence.
He was dead.
But suddenly, amazingly, he wasn’t.
His next memory was of waking up in a soft bed in a military hospital. The first thing he’d seen when he opened his eyes was Harry Paxton sitting by his bedside, anxiously watching over him like a father with a sick child.
Eight men had gone in that day; only two had come out.
And if it hadn’t been for Paxton, it would have been Ben inside one of the bodybags that had been choppered away from the smoking ruin in the aftermath of the firefight.
Harry Paxton, last man standing. It was one of those tales of heroism that was destined to become enshrined in regimental legend. For a long time afterwards, men had retold the tale-maybe they were still telling it now, years later. How Kananga, the Cross Bones militia captain, his forces scattering under air attack, had murdered Sergeant Smith and been just about to execute the injured Major Hope with a bullet to the head when Paxton had stepped in to save him. How the Lieutenant Colonel had selflessly got in the way of the bullet meant for the Major, before shooting Kananga with the last round from his pistol.
The rest of the story had come together gradually as Ben recuperated in the hospital over the next couple of weeks.
By the time the reinforcement squad of paratroopers from 1 Para had arrived, it had all been over. Paxton’s unit had accomplished its objective. The Cross Bones Boys were largely wiped out. Nobody ever knew what happened to The Baron. He’d either managed to escape, or never been there in the first place-but that didn’t detract from the victory, and in any case he was never heard of again.
It had been one of the gravest losses of life in the regiment’s history. Back in Hereford, the fallen had been laid to rest with full military honours. Amid the grief, Harry Paxton, arm in a sling from his bullet wound, was the hero of the hour. Plaudits and decorations had been heaped upon him, and soon afterwards he’d been given the promotion to full colonel.
As for Ben, nothing in his military experience had ever quite moved him the way Paxton’s actions had done. He’d sworn he would do anything to return the favour to the man who’d saved him. Nothing-
was ever going to stand in the way of that.
Ben snapped back to the here and now, and glanced at his watch. Time was passing quickly, and Paxton was waiting for his decision.
But he already knew what he had to do.
There was no way he could refuse the colonel’s request. He had too big a debt to repay the man. He couldn’t just walk away.
One last time. Then the slate would be clean and it would be over. It was the least he could do for the hero who had saved his life.
And yet…the prospect of carrying out this task filled him with revulsion.
Unable to bear it any more, he jumped up and headed out of the hotel. The street outside was bustling with the first of the season’s tourists. He filtered through the crowds and just followed his nose, trying to keep himself occupied with the ambience of the town, the architecture, the winding backstreets filled with interesting little shops, the colourful sprawl of spring flower displays that San Remo was famous for.
After a while he suddenly realised he’d wandered near to the hotel where Kerry was staying. He checked his watch. A couple of hours had gone by since he’d left her there. He thought about going in to check on her, make sure she was OK. Maybe she’d have time for a coffee or something. The distraction would be good for him, to help get his head straight and calm his thoughts a little.
The hotel wasn’t the finest establishment he’d ever seen, with a smell of damp in the air and a frayed path across the entrance to the reception desk. He guessed Kerry was a traveller on a budget, just passing through. It struck him how little he knew about her.
He walked up to the desk. Behind it was a bleary-eyed man reading a newspaper through a pair of dirty half-moon glasses. He peered over the top of them as Ben approached. ‘Can I help you?’ he asked in Italian.
‘I’m a friend of one of your guests,’ Ben replied. ‘Her name’s Kerry Wallace. I don’t have a room number. Could you call her for me, please?’
The receptionist grunted, chucked down his paper and started leafing through the old-fashioned register on the desk in front of him. He flipped a few pages back and forth, peering through the dusty glasses at the columns of names.
He looked up. ‘There is no Kerry Wallace here.’
‘She’s checked out?’
there is no Kerry Wallace on the register. We have had no guest of that name.’
‘She was here two hours ago. I saw her come in. Were you on duty then?’
The man’s brow wrinkled with annoyance. He glared heavily at Ben. ‘I think perhaps you have the wrong hotel,
Ben glared back at him. ‘No, this is the right place. You’re making a mistake.’
The receptionist let out an exasperated huff. He spun the register around on the counter. ‘See for yourself.’
Ben ran his eye down the open pages. Frowned. Flipped a page. Scanned down the names. Flipped another page. Checked the dates going back a month. The guy was right. Nobody called Kerry Wallace, or Miss K. Wallace, or anything remotely resembling her name, had checked into the hotel.
‘I’m sorry to have troubled you,’ he said to the receptionist. ‘My mistake.’
The man grunted again and flapped his newspaper back up in front of his face.
Ben left the hotel, puzzled. Had he got it wrong? He’d seen her walk in there. It was perplexing. He thought about it for a moment, and shrugged. A woman on her own, getting into trouble with men chasing her: maybe she’d wanted to be cautious and had given him a false name. But then again, she’d trusted him enough to go off to a strange yacht with him.
What the hell.
It didn’t matter that much. As long as she was safe. He had enough on his mind without worrying about Kerry Wallace.
He looked at his watch. He still had quite a while before he had to head back to the harbour for his dinner rendezvous on board the
He walked on. It was warm and close, and dark clouds were beginning to gather overhead. The burning electric smell of a coming thunderstorm hung in the air.
He turned into the street where his hotel was, and the tall white building came into view a hundred yards further on. As he walked, he threw a casual glance to his right at a second-hand bookshop. It had a striped awning and stands of old hardbacks sitting out on the pavement. He’d always been drawn to those kinds of places, and sometimes when he was in Paris he’d spend a whole afternoon browsing around the bookshops by the Seine. It took him into a different world, helped him to forget the real one.
He glanced inside the shop. It was shady and inviting, and for a moment he was tempted to go inside, but decided against it. This wasn’t the time.
Just as he was about to walk on, he noticed something inside the shop.
inside the shop, browsing the shelves of dusty hardbacks.
She was wearing cream cotton trousers and a light blue silk blouse that accentuated the colour of her eyes and the gold of her hair. She turned to face him.
It was Zara Paxton.
Ben felt a surge of anger at the way his heart jumped when he saw her. He did his best to cover it up, and walked towards her with a smile. ‘I didn’t expect to see you here,’ he said.
‘Yes, what a surprise,’ she laughed. ‘I was shopping in the town, and I remembered this little bookshop. It’s got a good poetry section.’ She waved the book she was holding. ‘I found this. Samuel Taylor Coleridge.’
‘It’s good to see you,’ he replied uncertainly.
‘Good to see you too.’
He stood there for a second, feeling awkward. ‘I’ve decided what I’m going to do,’ he said. ‘I’m taking the job. Going to Cairo.’
‘Harry will be so pleased. It’s kind of you to help him.’
Another silence. ‘Well, see you this evening, then,’ he said. ‘I’ll be staying overnight on board, and I guess I’m leaving in the morning.’
‘Ben, do you fancy going for a drive? I could show you the town,’ Zara said suddenly as he was about to turn away. She looked down at her feet, tugged at a lock of her hair. ‘If you feel like it, that is, and you’ve got some time. My car’s just around the corner.’
He hesitated, nodded. ‘Why not?’
She talked animatedly as they walked-a little too animatedly, he thought. Like she was nervous. So was he, and he didn’t like the feeling. He worried that his answers to what she was saying were monosyllabic and trite. But the harder he tried to relax around her, the more he felt choked, and hated himself for it.
I shouldn’t have agreed to this,
he thought desperately.
‘This is it,’ she said, pointing at a sleek black
Z4 Roadster convertible at the side of the street. She tossed her handbag in the back of the open-top car, bleeped the locks and they settled into the cream leather seats. She twisted the ignition and the engine rasped into life. As she put the lever in first gear, her hand brushed his. It was only the slightest contact, but she drew her hand away as though she’d touched a hotplate. She blushed. ‘Sorry.’
‘My fault,’ he said, and cringed at his reply.
They drove for a while, and she pointed out various architectural features of San Remo town. He listened, nodded, feigned interest. But he was more interested in her, and he felt bad about it. He shouldn’t be here. This was all wrong.
But after a few miles around San Remo and its outskirts, something else was beginning to crowd his thoughts. Most normal civilians would have no way of telling when a professional surveillance team was following them. But Ben Hope was no normal civilian. He’d spent almost half his life watching his back, and a well-developed knowledge of surveillance techniques, coupled with a sixth sense for when he was being watched, was a combination he knew he could pretty much rely on.
Back in the streets after Kerry’s hotel, he hadn’t been so sure of it. Just a feeling. Then, when the big Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle had passed three times as he walked, he’d started taking more notice. The rider was wearing a black leather jacket and full-face helmet with a tinted black visor, and he couldn’t be sure-but it looked like a woman riding the bike.
When the dark blue Fiat slipped into the traffic behind Zara’s Roadster and sat on their tail for three full kilometres, staying back in the traffic, trying too hard to make it look casual, he knew what was happening. The bright sunlight playing on the windscreen blotted out the faces inside. Two men, he thought. Who were they, and what did they want?
She noticed him looking in the driver’s mirror. ‘Something wrong?’
‘Not exactly wrong,’ he said. ‘But not exactly right. Someone’s following us.’
She looked at him in surprise, then peered in the mirror, frowning with concern. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I was wondering that myself.’
‘What should we do?’
‘We could stop the car, get out, walk back to that coffee bar we just passed, sit tight and see what happens. Or we could act stupid and try to lose them, in which case they’ll know we know.’
‘Who cares what they know?’ she said. ‘I’ll lose them.’
‘Hold tight.’ She dropped down two gears and the engine note soared as she pressed hard on the gas. Ben felt himself pressed back into his seat. A gap opened up in the traffic ahead and Zara darted the sports car through just before it closed again. She laughed as she swerved across the road to avoid an oncoming van while a chorus of horns sounded angrily. She ignored them and stamped harder on the pedal. The
surged powerfully forward. Zara flashed through a red light, skilfully weaving in and out of more honking traffic.
Ben glanced back in the mirror. The dark blue Fiat was gone, left behind somewhere in the mayhem she’d created.
‘How long did you say you’ve been living in Italy?’ he asked over the noise of the engine.
‘We’re never in one spot for long. Harry takes the
all over the place. Why do you ask?’
‘Just that you drive like an Italian.’
She smiled with pleasure. ‘I’ll take that as a compliment. Did I scare you?’
‘I want to show you something,’ she said. They were heading away from the town now, and out onto a winding coastal road with the sea on one side and sloping forests on the other. She took the bends fast and confidently, braked hard and took a turn to the left, accelerating smartly up a dusty single-track lane.
‘Where are we going?’
The lane led steeply upwards, trees flashing by on each side. The air was heavy with the scent of flowers and vegetation. The storm was still gathering overhead.
Another couple of turns, and Ben was sure that whoever had been following them was truly left behind. But that didn’t make him feel any happier about it.
Zara bumped the car down a rough track and pulled over onto a grassy verge. ‘We’re here?’ he asked.
She smiled. ‘This is it. We can walk the rest of the way.’
He followed her up the winding track through the trees. As they walked, her smile faded. ‘Who would be following us, Ben?’
‘I don’t know.’ Not
he thought. Whoever it was, it was him they wanted. Which meant it was his concern, and he didn’t want to burden her with it. He put his hand out to reassure her, touched her arm. ‘It was probably nothing,’ he said. ‘I’m just paranoid. Wanted man in several countries. Too many unpaid parking fines.’