The woman screamed. Muscle and sinew tensed and veins stood out in her neck. The sizzling died down as the smell of charred flesh overpowered the sweet scent of orchids.
The cameraman gagged, turned briskly and vomited into the bushes.
“Shit! Another lightweight.”
“I’ll start advertising for a new cameraman immediately, Sir.”
“You do that.”
In the background, the woman was slumped in her chains, though not much of her body had moved out of position; the ties held her fast. The man she’d been partnered with stepped with deliberate, graceful eroticism over to her back and pulled on her hair so that her head was angled to the skies and none of her tresses obscured the new symbol branded over her left breast. The bright red, oozing letters edged in black spelled AB MOR.
The man who’d complained about the cameraman shot out of his director’s chair and sauntered onto the set, leaving deep gouges into the perfectly-brushed white sand. His hand went straight to her jugular. Pulse. A smile stretched his lips and he bent over to lick a drop of blood off her nipple. His tongue snaked across her flesh and followed the blood trail to the edge of the burn. There, he stopped, straightened up and licked his lips.
“I’m ready for a snack now, Carina. Tell Mathi I expect something barbecued in half an hour. And clear the set. I’ve got something different in mind for the afternoon.”
A negative pall of dark magic and obscure mystery hung over Hyde Park, nicely complementing the moonless night to create a picture quite befitting for stalking an unknown number of – as yet – unidentified villains. Just by the Serpentine’s elbow, Nick reached a hand underneath one of the bins, then jerked the small package free of its bindings and slid it under his coat. Just like the old times, he mumbled to himself, satisfied. Zolla had come up with the goods, as expected. Who said you couldn’t trust an Italian?
Nick’s walk was brisk and efficient; he looked like a man with a purpose, and he felt it, too. His plan was simple. He was going to find Alastair Lloyd Campbell and he was going to get as much information out of him as possible. Then he was going to hunt down Dollar De la Rue, starting with the one bar owner who was bound to remember him; you don’t lose all the fingers on one of your hands, without anaesthetic, and forget it in a hurry. After he’d dealt with Dollar, he was going to track down Jesse Bent to whichever rock he’d hidden under, and then follow Newton’s lead to Cyprus. If any more links popped out of the woodwork in the meantime, he would follow them one by one, to the end of each trail.
There was no bitterness in him, no rage. Just sheer, stubborn calculation. Leaning against the railings in front of the modern-looking block of flats, he paused for a minute to consider the best route of approach.
The building was in darkness, looking pristine and unoccupied, and totally deserted. Perfectly round droplets of rain still hung onto every shiny surface, shivering slightly in the randomly gusty breeze. There was an entrance from the street level, just one car wide, dropping out of sight under the building. That would be the car park. He could try the door leading from the car park straight to the elevators or, his head snapped back to the front door, he could wait for an opportunity just as this. A young man in his early twenties, judging by the clothes, was reaching for the door handle. Nick sprung up and slipped in at the same time as the youngster walked out. The stranger didn’t raise his head, just as eager to remain anonymous as Nick was.
The door to Campbell’s place was ajar, the light sending a bright yellow shaft through the gap and onto the wall opposite. Expecting visitors? Nick eased carefully through the narrow opening, eyes everywhere, trying to blend in with his surroundings, but the light was unforgiving. After a quick inspection of the living room, Nick backed all the way to the front door and nudged it shut with his elbow. If anyone tried to come in, he would hear.
Retracing his steps, Nick moved methodically through every room. The place looked untidy, but not destroyed enough to suggest a struggle. It was skirting the fine line between a rebellious teenager’s digs and a burglary executed with care and respect for property.
By the time he’d reached the double bedroom, Nick stopped expecting any positive leads that might take him closer to his quarry. The bed was untidy, too, but someone had gone to the trouble of throwing the lavish cover over the bed sheets, before leaving the room. The same rules had not applied to the small desk by the window, however. Shuffled papers and the abandoned power cable to a laptop computer suggested someone had left the place in a hurry.
Somewhat more relaxed, Nick took a step towards the table, but then he reconsidered and went back to check the small en-suite first. Nothing of interest, no axe murderer hiding in the shower. Nick pulled the narrow door shut behind him and finally focused his full attention on the contents of the desk. They were mainly legal documents, clauses and appendices for property acquisition contracts. Frustrated, Nick pulled back the chair, so he could sit down and read in comfort.
As he made to sit down, and before he could touch the seat, Nick felt a strong arm wind tightly around his neck and another pulling his head back by his hair. He tried to stand up, but he was out of balance, so he twisted to the side and dropped to the floor in an effort to pull out of his attacker’s grasp, but instead of freeing himself, he felt a pair of legs coil around his middle, and then the weight of a person settled heavily on his back. This was a very unusual manoeuvre for a skilled hit man. Nick pushed hard off the floor and twisted sharply, so that now he was on top.
“Ow,” a woman’s voice protested. “Get off me.”
“I will as soon as you let go,” Nick promised, relieved. She was certainly not a threat.
The woman disentangled herself and drew back against the wall, looking belligerent and just a tad embarrassed. Was she Campbell’s floozy?
“What was that?” Nick asked her, taking a better look at her face. Her ginger hair had been recently coiffed in a half-hearted rendition of a beehive style, but a few strands had escaped the hairpin confinement and were dangling limply over her left cheek. She showed signs of crying; her cheeks were streaked with tears and mascara and her too-bright lipstick had smudged. She must have been still in her twenties or close to thirty at the most, yet her features looked lived-in, battered, the typical face of a woman who’d played too hard and seen too much. No. Not Campbell’s. This one swam in the mire right at the bottom of the pond.
“Who are you?” she asked, disorientated.
“Does it matter?”
“You don’t live here,” she accused, eyeing him suspiciously.
“Neither do you.”
“I came here to find out about my Nathan.” She looked annoyed when Nick didn’t show instant sympathy for her predicament. “Nathan Hicks. He may not be a saint, but he loves me. He’s never once stood me up.”
“I’m guessing he just did, right?” Nick asked warily. What if this cage fighter wannabe attacked him again? He didn’t want to have to hurt her. Obviously, she was not one of them, but he didn’t have a lot of time for meaningless chit-chat, either. Unless it led him to Alastair Campbell or Dollar De la Rue.
“Something’s happened to him,” she pointed her finger at him, as if he had committed some unknown crime. “Someone’s done something to Nathan and now they’re trying to hush it up. Well, I’m not going to be hushed up. I’m gonna find them, and I’m gonna find out what’s going on.”
“Nathan. And Dollar and that bloke he left with tonight.”
“Alastair?” Nick guessed on a whim.
“Yeah, I think that’s what Dollar called him. He’s the one who laughed at me and told me Nathan was busy getting a new batch of girls from Lithuania settled in, or something. But I know he’s lying. We’ve had a new batch in last week and another one’s due in on Monday. Me and Nathan, we were gonna spend a couple of nights together. He said so. He called me and told me to get all dolled-up, and get some stuff in, and wait for him. If he wasn’t gonna make it, he would have come up with some stupid excuse, or not called at all. I tell you, there’s something weird going on. And I’m gonna get to the bottom of this.” She nodded to emphasize her commitment.
The look of determination on her puffy face was fierce with equal measures of fear and anxiety. A headline flashed in Nick’s mind: ‘Prostitute found dead in notorious red-light district’, right above a picture of her mutilated body.
“Do me a favour,” Nick told her, voice full of apprehension. “What’s your name?”
“Lucy. Go to the police. Go and tell them everything you’ve told me. Everything you know. Don’t follow these two, don’t even look in their direction. You’ll be no help to Nathan, dead.” She stared at him with wide eyes, not wanting to comprehend. “You’re a clever girl. Think. Don’t push your luck. These people are not the kind that are inclined to have a friendly chat and share a harmless cup of tea with you, if they think you’re starting to pay them too much attention. I’m actually surprised they let you out of their sight.”
A half-worried, half-confused look creased her face.
“How did you get here?” Nick wondered.
“I followed them. When the tall one, Alastair, said Nathan was busy,” she spit the word out, “I hid and waited till they finished their drinks, and then I followed them here. I took my shoes off so they couldn’t hear me. It wasn’t that far. There’s a small bar, just a few blocks from here; that’s where they met. The barman’s only got fingers on one hand.”
“I know the place,” Nick nodded.
She looked at him suspiciously again. “Who did you say you were?”
“Why are you here?”
“I’m looking for Alastair, too. And Dollar. I need a word with them.”
The wild look that came into his eyes must have alerted her. “You don’t look very friendly, if you don’t mind me saying...”
“Don’t worry, Lucy, I won’t hurt you. I have no quarrel with you. Unless you’re planning to attack me again.” Beneath the smudged makeup, Lucy blushed. “But as far as those two are concerned, I’m sure they would be much, much happier if the police gets to them before I do.”
Lucy shuddered. Nick picked up a bunch of papers at random, scattering them all over the floor in exasperation. “I was hoping I might find something here that would help me track them down,” he growled at the nearly-empty table.
“Nice boat.” Lucy plucked the photo of a white yacht out of the pile of discarded paper. It was a close-up of two children, a boy and a girl, pretending to play tug-of-war with a length of thick rope aboard a lavishly-equipped boat that was large enough to house a small army. The angle was odd, but he could just about distinguish the incomplete shape of a woman on a sun lounger in the background. There were few other details to take in, aside from the delighted smiles of the two children. Only part of the boat’s name was visible; it seemed to say Blue Pe... in a modern, bright blue script. What do you know? Campbell had a boat. Or holidayed on one.
“Yeah. Not the sort of yacht either one of us could afford, my dear.” He flicked the photo back to the floor, as if it was an unimportant piece of scrap. “Come on, it’s time to go. They shouldn’t find you in here. Not good for your health.”
At the door, Nick turned to give Alastair’s pad one more look. The message light was flashing on a phone he hadn’t spotted earlier.
“Get the elevator,” he instructed Lucy. “I’ll do the lights.”
He crossed to the phone in a flash and pressed the button. The message had been left by a deep-voiced, formal-sounding man. “Mr. Campbell, just to confirm she’s ready to sail. Our usual slot, fourteen hundred hours. Perfect tides. Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow, Sir,” it said. “Oh, and our team won the East Cowes quiz again, Sir. I thought you might like to know that.”
Nick smiled happily to himself. It seemed he would get to indulge in his favourite activity sooner than he thought. Two birds with one stone.
“The tide is turning, guys,” he whispered to no one in particular. “Watch out, watch out, wherever you are...”