“Nick?” Maxi’s voice came through, an edge of concern to it.
“When did JB get there?”
“About twenty minutes ago. He said he was passing and thought he’d say ‘hi’. Oh, and he says ‘hi’ from someone called Dollar, too.”
Maxi mumbled something close to the phone, to JB, Nick guessed. It sounded like light-hearted banter. Not holding a gun to her head, then. Yet.
Ugh! Nick’s lips pressed together in frustration. He should have been there, by her side. He should have listened to his instincts. He should have turned around and gone home as soon as the idea first popped into his head.
“Um…” Nick spoke softly, trying to sound calm so he wouldn’t worry Maxi unnecessarily; maybe all JB wanted was a chat. “Is Jesse alone?”
To have JB prowl around his home was bad enough. But the mention of Dollar’s name sent shivers down his spine. Nick didn’t want him anywhere near his family. Dollar De la Rue was not just bad news, mention of his name had most people who knew him hide somewhere deep and dark and hard to find. The man was hand in hand with the devil, as long as the devil was loaded. Hence the nickname.
“Yes, he’s alone,” Maxi’s voice came clear and untroubled. “He’s been telling me about the time you two were in the army together. He’s shown me a picture of the two of you in combats in front of a derelict tower. I still think you’re the better-looking one, by the way. But you never said you had such interesting friends – JB’s a real charmer.” She giggled. “Good job we are happily married.”
The picture in front of the tower? Nick remembered it well. It had been taken two days before Corporal Rodgers died supervising a bomb disposal, together with two of the best experts. The following day Nick became acting Corporal. Battlefield promotion. Promotion that he didn’t deserve. Promotion that led to the death of six incredibly capable men. Nick closed his eyes against the old nightmare that threatened to engulf him. He was already feeling the weight of his brothers’ bodies, the ripple of bullets through their motionless forms as they protected him even in death, shielding him.
Nick struggled to pull his mind out of the haunting horror of so many years ago and come back to the present once more; he needed to focus solely on the crisis unfolding in the here and now.
He felt trapped. What should he do? Tell Maxi to get out and run? Run where? To the neighbours? Down the road? JB would probably shoot her dead if he did. The neighbours, too. Ignorance was certain to be Maxi’s best chance of survival.
Nick was quiet for a second, tactical manoeuvres, evasion strategies and diversionary scenarios chasing through his head like a hundred miles an hour slide show. Then a spike of adrenaline shot through his frozen limbs, nudging him into action.
They needed to get away. Neither Maxi nor Cameron were safe. Neither was he, but that wasn’t the most important consideration right now. He could look after himself.
Where to go first? Home? Or the Andersons?
Nick shoved the gas pedal down and screeched out into the road again. If he ignored the speed restrictions, he could be home in five minutes flat. And if JB was alone, he would not pose much of a threat. He hadn’t hurt Maxi; she would have said something, or the tone of her voice would have given it away. But she sounded totally relaxed, like nothing more had happened than an old friend called in and proceeded to regale his wife with real-life wartime stories.
He would drive home then. Take care of JB, talk to him, do whatever had to be done to discourage him from ‘dropping by’ again. Then he would tell Maxi to start packing. They could fling the essentials into the van in ten minutes, and still have time to collect Cameron from the party by five. No need to frighten him; he would have more than enough to cope with when they wrenched him out of the community he knew and loved and moved him someplace new and unfamiliar. May even need to spend some time on the run.
Nick quickly mentally catalogued their assets, refining his plans in the process. The Andersons lived just the other side of the main street from home. The shortest route would take them through the middle of town, right past the Spar. They could pick up a bag of provisions on the way. Cameron should be fine at the Andersons’; they were sensible people. They would not let a stranger come anywhere near the kids.
The challenge was only to get Cam and Maxi safely out of town. Once on a train or plane or boat to somewhere very far away, he knew he could make his little family safe all over again. Only this time they would go the whole hog and change their names, too; he wasn’t taking any chances anymore. How stupid of him to think they would be safe here, in a civilized country like England. He’d been so certain the nightmarish, vile felons from his past life wouldn’t dare come after him here. He’d thought that chapter closed, sealed hermetically shut, unquestionably beyond any chance of revival.
Maxi heard the change in his breathing, or maybe the noise of the abused engine alerted her.
“Nick? Nick, are you all right, sweetheart?” But she didn’t wait for an answer. “Oh, JB says his son is at Samuel’s party, too. Can you believe it? What a small world! You could give him a lift there later, maybe. You probably have so much to talk about, old times to remember... Oh, JB says that, apparently, the entertainer was sick, so he rang up an old acquaintance of his who is good with party tricks. Axel. He says Axel wanted to be a magician when he was a kid, he knows a lot of tricks. Isn’t that marvellous? JB literally saved the day.” Maxi’s voice was thick with gratitude.
The ice shards returned and started shooting up and down Nick’s body, draining him of all feeling. His breath came out in a loud whoosh, leaving his lungs empty and aching. His thoughts congealed as the complete reality of this meticulously laid trap sank in. They were good and truly cornered; someone had thought through all the details very carefully indeed. Much too thoroughly to have been the work of a lowlife such as Axel, or even JB. That must be where Dollar De la Rue came in. Dollar was an architect, and if he designed this particular operation, then…
He needed to get home to Maxi as fast as possible; she was in grave danger. Cameron, too. All the worries he thought he’d left behind five years ago, all the fears about endangering other people’s lives together with his own came crashing down on Nick now. The guilt and self-loathing were so strong for a moment, they were wringing the life out of him, stopping him breathing, choking him. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t speak. His hands alone kept moving, continuing to steer the car with robotic accuracy. His eyes were glazed, staring at the road and seeing nothing.
“Can I talk to him? To JB?” Nick said when he recovered. His throat felt tight and raw. He tried again to clear the obstruction in it, taking quick, shallow breaths, like a girl. It didn’t work.
Maxi mumbled away from the phone again. “JB says he’ll be outside waiting for you. That way he can have a smoke.”
JB was getting out of the house. Away from her. That was good.
Nick sucked in a deep breath, willing his tense voice to loosen a little. “I’ll be there in two minutes.”
“Ok. Love you.” She sounded calm, composed – had she picked up on his anxiety? If she had, she didn’t let on.
“Love you, too. See you in a bit.”
The line went dead.
Axel – entertainer at the party. No. That didn’t sound right. He couldn’t carry off a clown act; the mere sight of his little piggy eyes would make the kids run screaming for cover. Nick recognised this part of the story for what it was intended to be – a warning. They knew where his son was. Maybe they even had a man watching him play with the other kids right now.
Would they barge in and take Cam? No, they wouldn’t want to cause a scene; this was England, not the Caribbean. They would probably wait until it was time to go home and then try to slip into the house in the middle of all the end-of-party confusion, a parent looking for their son’s lost toy, or coat, or something.
Nick lurched the van around the corner on two wheels, then he could finally see the house in the crook of the cul-de-sac, with its squat laurel hedge and the neat front lawn bordered by forget-me-nots.
JB was ambling lazily towards the end of the road; he was only twenty or so yards away.
Nick stomped on the brakes, more at ease now that the threat was so much farther away from Maxi.
When he came level with JB, Nick wound down his window and rolled to a stop. This conversation was best kept private.
“Jesse,” Nick said by way of greeting.
“Keeping well, I see,” JB smirked towards him. “Nice house you have there. Pretty wife, too… Four-year old son… You’ve been busy.”
Nick counted to ten in his head. When he could unclench his jaw, he spoke through his teeth.
“What do you want, Jesse? Get to the point.”
JB smiled and pulled hard at his cigarette. “Always in a hurry, you are. Patience has never been your forte.” He smirked and took another long pull. “Ok. Dollar says your services are needed. I don’t see why it has to be you; I can think of a hell of a lot more deserving cases, better people… more focused, if you know what I mean… No... um... distractions in their lives…”
It was imperative to keep any emotion off his face until he found out exactly what JB’s instructions were, so Nick kept quiet and concentrated on breathing evenly in and out. There was a crushing weight on his chest that made pulling the air in almost impossible. He needed air to think, to keep one step ahead and find a way to get Maxi and Cameron out of this unscathed. They were all he had – his life, his entire world was built around them. The best, the only truly good part of his existence happened since he’d met Maxi. If they hurt her now… or Cam – so young and innocent, so adorable…
Nick could feel his control slipping with every thought and every image of Cameron and Maxi his mind brought up from the unfathomable depths of his memory.
JB scrutinised Nick’s expression and leered. He obviously found Nick’s discomfort enjoyable.
“Having a wife and a kid must make it so much harder to concentrate on the job in hand,” he observed.
“I’m an electrician now. I don’t have problems concentrating.”
“Hmm,” JB snorted. “You might have, if you’re not careful.” He tilted his head to the side, staring straight at Nick with cold eyes. His face betrayed no emotion. “Dollar says to be as convincing as I need to be.”
“If you hurt Cameron, I swear –”
“He wants you on board. Badly, I’d say.”
Nick swallowed against the lump in his throat, still feeling winded, and chose his next words with great care.
“I stopped doing that sort of work more than five years ago. I’m not sure how much good I would be now – to Dollar or anyone else. I’m out of practice.”
From the corner of his eye, Nick saw Maxi’s slight figure stop and peer out of the living room window. She’d grown her hair and the soft, shoulder-length silver-gold waves suited her much better than the pixie haircut of the day they’d met. She smiled and waved at them.
“I thought as much. You always used fancy words when you tried to wriggle out of doing your job,” JB spat the last few words out at Nick and then he flicked his cigarette butt high over the van’s roof.
Nick turned his head in a reflex motion, to see if the cigarette butt landed in the middle of the road, and as he did so, he caught sight of the gigantic ball of fire ripping through the house. He felt the shock wave of the explosion before he heard it, or maybe it was just that his brain had been stunned beyond normal function.
His eyes wide open, Nick watched, bewildered, as shards of shattered glass from the living room windows sliced through the air and impaled themselves, like daggers, into the soft ground. The raging inferno that had been his home shot debris high up into the air; some of the fragments smacked against the van’s windscreen, startling him.
No. No. No. How could it be? Max was in there. She’d smiled and waved only seconds ago.
He could see the fire, but his mind rejected it like some sick fantasy, refusing to allow it to become real.
Max was in there. There was nothing wrong with her – he’d seen her smile and wave just now.
She was alone. JB was here, by the van. He couldn’t have hurt her.
Nick turned his head to the patch of pavement where JB had been standing. There was no one there.
His pulse was suddenly so thunderous, so fierce, he felt like jets of blood might burst right through his temples.
“NO,” Nick shouted at the top of his lungs, a raw, rasping scream of agony. “Max!”
Why did it take so long to open the damned door? Why was he so maddeningly slow as he ran faster than he’d ever ran before towards the raging fire?
Max was in there. He’d just seen her – she’d smiled and waved at him.
Nick’s feet pounded the pavement with the wild tempo of an Olympic sprinter. Not fast enough. Why couldn’t he run faster? Why did his knees choose this vitally critical moment to turn to jelly? When did perfectly clear air turn to cloying treacle?
Max was in there, waiting for him, relying on him to come and save her from the heart of the inferno. How long could she survive it? She couldn’t be dead. She’d smiled and waved at him.
She’d only just smiled and waved at him.
The heat was lashing at his face now, scorching his skin. Maxi’s face swam in front of his blistered eyelids. She smiled and waved at him.
He was dimly aware of the shrill wail of sirens getting nearer. Who called the fire brigade? Max? She couldn’t have. She was in there. She’d smiled and waved at him.
She was all right. She must be. She couldn’t be hurt. She was smiling. She’d waved at him.
Nick vaulted over the laurel and ploughed through the rubble and fragments of wood and twisted pipes. The wall of flames snarled and bit at his exposed skin. He brought up an arm to cover up his face and pushed on, bent double.
Max was in there. She needed him. She’d smiled and waved…
He tripped, his trousers snagged on something. Furious, he shook his leg and the singed fabric gave way, ripping with the ease of cheesecloth all the way down to his ankle. It didn’t matter. He must get to her. Max. She was in there. She’d smiled and waved…
A pair of strong arms wrapped around his shoulders like steel cables and pulled him back. Nick resisted, but he was out of balance and he fell, twisting to his side.
Another – smaller – blast gouged scorching, clawing gashes into his flesh and he heard his singed hair crackle as it caught fire again.
He pushed himself to his knees. Max was in there. She’d smiled… She’d waved…
A fire blanket wrapped over him and he felt more than one pair of arms lift and half-carry, half-drag him away from the heat. He fought with the blanket. He fought with the arms. His eyes were shut. He couldn’t open them.
“Max!” Nick shouted, a trapped animal thrashing to get free. She was in there. She’d smiled at him… “Max! Maxi!” his throat was molten lava, his lungs felt drained of the last molecule of oxygen. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t speak.
“Max! Maxi!” he forced out a hoarse croak. “She’s in there! She waved at me! Max! Get off me! Let me go! Max!”
It was out, now, the blazing hellhole. Only cinders remained.
It had taken much less time than expected, putting out the fire, breaking up the thick wall of onlookers, sending away the ambulances.
The charred remains of his home were still smoking, taunting him, calling him in. He would have tried to get a little closer, if only he could bear it. He was too afraid to look, terrified of what he might see, horror-struck by the intensity of destruction, sickened by the notion that he was, once more, the cause of it all.
Nick dropped his head in his hands where he was, sat on the kerb, still wrapped in his blanket. His eyes were stinging. His lungs were raw. There was a crushing weight locked tight around his chest, pounding through his ribcage and snapping splinter after splinter out of the wreckage of his heart. A few more breaths and he imagined it would be all gone. Smashed, shattered, pulverised, as much a ruin as his home had become.
He’d refused to go to the hospital. All he allowed the paramedics to do was un-stick his lashes so he could open his eyes again. He drew a couple of lungfulls of oxygen out of the tank, as well, to make them happy and avoid being sedated and taken away against his will.
Hot tears trickled down his cheeks, etching grey streaks through the black smudges. He was all right. Again. And Maxi… Maxi… wasn’t. Nick shuddered, suppressing a groan.
History repeating itself.