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Former SAS soldier David Shelley was part of the most covert operations team in the special forces. Now settling down to civilian life in London, he has plans for a safer and more stable existence. But the shocking death of a young woman Shelley once helped protect puts those plans on hold.
The police rule the death a suicide but the grieving parents can’t accept their beloved Emma would take her own life. They need to find out what really happened, and they turn to their former bodyguard, Shelley, for help.
When they discover that Emma had fallen into a dark and seedy world of drugs and online pornography, the father demands retribution. But his desire for revenge will make enemies of people that even Shelley may not be able to protect them from, and take them into a war from which there may be no escape.
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THE STREET IN Finsbury Park was much like any other residential London road: rows of terraced homes bunched up on either side, cars nudged into every available space, each house telling its own story. This one: home to a retired couple, well kept, tidy and house-proud, wheelie bins neatly arranged out front. This one: student digs, overgrown patch of yard out front, windows dirty, shabby curtains that never seemed to open. This one: stickers in the window, paper chains hanging off the frame, home to a noisy family of four.
There was one particular house, however, where things weren’t quite so easily delineated. Neighbors knew that a family of Eastern Europeans lived there—Bulgarians? Russians? Nobody was sure—and that they had a lot of visitors. The woman always had a smile, and the husband—if that’s what he was, no formal introductions had been made—was a big chap, no stranger to the tattooist, and maybe not the sort you’d want to meet in a dark alley on a foggy night. But always perfectly pleasant if you saw him in the street.
And that was it. If you passed and looked into the front room, often you’d see a much older man who whiled away the hours watching TV, and you’d probably think it was heart-warming that the older members of their family were being looked after in their dotage. Not like the British, who’re happy to let them rot in an old folks’ home.
One of the regular visitors to the house was Sergei Vinitsky, now walking along the pavement, hunched up against the chill of the pre-dawn, his hands thrust into the pockets of the hooded parka he wore, feeling dog-tired.
He opened the low gate and let himself into the yard. Raising his hand to knock, he noticed that he still had blood beneath his fingernails and he made a mental note to wash his hands thoroughly before he slept, which would, with any luck, be very soon indeed.
He knocked at the front door—one, two, pause, one, two, pause, one, two. As he was knocking, he glanced into the front window of the house. Sure enough, sitting in his favorite chair in the front room was the man they called Grandfather, glued to an episode of some TV program, cup of tea at hand. To look at him you’d never know that this particular old man had killed and killed again, and that his favored method of execution was to remove body parts one by one, literally to cut his victims to death.
The door was opened by Dmitry’s English wife, Karen. A welcoming smile dropped from her face like falling bricks as she closed the door behind Sergei and indicated for him to make his way along the hall.
He remembered himself, stopped and called to Grandfather in the front room, “Hello, Ded,” he said, Ded being the name reserved for those unrelated to Grandfather. Dmitry, his actual grandson, called him Dedushka. Karen too.
At the sound of the greeting the old man turned his head in Sergei’s direction and grinned toothlessly, his beady eyes gleaming. He inclined his head in reply, then switched his attention back to the TV.
“The Skinsman,” they called him. Just to say his name made men beg for mercy. But his ways were the old ways. Sergei and Dmitry were seeing to that.
Venturing into the bowels of the home, Sergei was struck afresh by the marked contrast between the front of the house and what lay further inside. Leading off the hall was an adequately furnished kitchen with the full complement of washing machine, dishwasher, fridge, and stove, but otherwise all semblance of domestic normality was absent, the pretense so carefully projected for the benefit of neighbors and passersby abandoned. There were no photographs on the wall, no lamps or light shades where a listening device might be concealed, ditto no carpet. Just a stretch of corridor—bare, as though awaiting refurbishment—which led to a door and the lair of the man who to the neighbors seemed a pleasant enough fellow.
This was Dmitry Kraviz, and he spent the bulk of his days peering through spectacles at a mosaic of computer screens arranged above his desk.
Sergei knocked, walked in, and stood close to the door, just as Dmitry preferred. He had called ahead to warn his boss that he had news of some importance, but of course the information itself had to be delivered in person.
“So, what do you have to tell me, Sergei?” asked Dmitry. He swiveled in his seat in order to give his second in command his full attention. A gold tooth gleamed, but there was no malice in his smile, not like his grandfather.
“There has been trouble, Dmitry, at one of our studios,” explained Sergei, and he told Dmitry about the girl.
When he had finished, Dmitry processed the news without comment or even apparent emotion, turning lazily in his chair, his eyes flicking over the screens. On one a young girl was removing her bra. Another showed men gambling in a dimly lit room. Another displayed a list of what Sergei took to be prices, but of what he couldn’t say, while yet another rested at a Google search screen. Who knew where Dmitry’s interests might take him? As head of the organization’s London operation, Dmitry had excelled in numerous areas of business: drugs, pornography, prostitution, gambling, protection, and trafficking among them. Having the family connection to the Skinsman had certainly done him no harm, but Dmitry had also earned a reputation as a thoughtful tactician in his own right. Ruthless, maybe, but never willfully cruel. Again, not like his grandfather.
“Is Karen aware?” he said.
“She didn’t mention it when I arrived.”
“Is that so? I thought it was her job to look after the girls.”
Sergei gave him a look that he hoped would convey at least two things. One, that Karen was not exactly conscientious when it came to those duties. Two, that Sergei did not consider it his place to say so.
Dmitry understood. “Stupid bitch,” he said. “But you, Sergei. You have done well.”
“Thank you, Dmitry,” said Sergei. He recalled the clean-up operation with a barely restrained shudder: calming down Jason, trying not to spook the other girls, keeping a lid on the whole thing during a process that had gone on into the early hours of the morning until, finally, they had deposited the body in a hostel in Clapham then left via the fire exit, stepping over an unconscious junkie on their way out.
Oh yes, it had been a very, very long night indeed.
“Which one was she, the girl?” asked Dmitry.
Sergei gave a small half-shrug. “Her name was Faye. She was only with us for a couple of weeks.”
“How did she come to us?”
“From our street people.”
Sergei kissed his fingers, Italian chef style.
“Such a shame. I’ll have to refresh my memory.” Dmitry indicated his screens. “But a junkie, though, yes?”
Sergei nodded. “She owed us money. Our boys referred her to me and I put her to work.”
“Will you tell Grozny, Dmitry?”
Dmitry thought a moment then asked, “It is all taken care of, yes? No comebacks?”
“I believe so.”
He considered. “Then there is no need to upset Alexander,” he said.
Moments later Sergei was excused, and on his way out he bid farewell to Karen and then to Grandfather, who returned his goodbye with a curt nod and a strange and malevolent smile.
Briefly, Sergei wondered if there was anything more to that smile than an old man losing what few marbles he still had left. But then he decided he was way too tired to care.
HE DIDN’T KNOW why, but that morning Shelley had been thinking about the guard in Iraq—specifically what Lucy had done to him.
This particular guard had been posted in what they called an “interrogation suite.” It wasn’t a particularly accurate name for it, not unless you substituted the word “chamber” for “suite,” and “torture” for “interrogation.” And from the intel they’d been given they had known he wasn’t just an ordinary screw doing his duty—he enjoyed the work.
Lucy had slit his throat. It was either that or let him raise the alarm.
It was the sound that Shelley remembered most—blood sheeting from the new mouth in the sentry’s neck as Shelley stepped from the shadows to help Lucy ease him to the flagstones, holding his mouth closed and his legs still until it was over.
It was nothing personal. An operational kill. Even so, nobody deserved it more than that guy. Never was there a bloke who had it coming more than him.
That was what had been rattling around Shelley’s brain that morning; one minute you’re thinking, We need a new light bulb for the kitchen, the next you’re remembering the sound that blood makes when it gushes from a slit throat.
Shelley and Lucy had left the military. He’d been forty-five, chucking-out time for 22 SAS. She’d been just forty. The idea was to apply what they’d learned in the field to the world of commercial security and make pots of cash.
But there was a wrinkle: they wanted a quieter life, which in turn meant avoiding “the Circuit,” the international commercial security pool where ex-soldiers like Shelley and Lucy usually wound up plying their trade. While the activities of any private security company—a PSC—on the Circuit could involve asset tracing, employee screening, security audits, and risk analysis, overwhelmingly the most common service was close protection in hostile environments, which Shelley had had more than enough of during his time in the military.
Shelley had given the SAS a quarter-century of service. But for the last twenty of those years, he’d been teamed with another SAS officer, Cookie, and Lucy—who was in the Special Reconnaissance Regiment—to form a three-blade Special Projects patrol. Operating under the banner of the 22 but otherwise unaffiliated, they were a patrol without portfolio, specialists in deep-cover, covert operations usually carried out under a cloak of plausible deniability: hostage rescue, target acquisition, disruptive incursion, assassination. They were so clandestine that even within the 22 and the SRR, two of the most secretive military organizations in the world, they were thought to be a myth.
The silver lining of all that secrecy? It had made keeping the secret of his relationship with Lucy and their subsequent marriage a lot less difficult.
The bad news? They’d spent twenty years in hostile environments. Two decades of eating ration packs and using baby wipes to wash; twenty years of considering a night in a military cot to be the height of luxury.
Yes, there was the buzz. They’d spent many hours talking about that elusive 5 percent of the time when they weren’t freezing cold, boiling hot, or bored out of their minds, when the adrenaline kicking in made the job worthwhile. But that was eventually outweighed by a desire not to get killed, not to see another kid with his foot blown off by an IED, another rape victim left for dead, her genitals deliberately mutilated.
Of the two, Shelley was keener to turn his back on that world. He never wanted to step in another Chinook as long as he lived. Lucy was ambivalent. “It’s what we do,” she was fond of saying. But Shelley had persuaded her to try it his way first. See if they could go it alone and set up a PSC with no Circuit connections. Maybe it could be the route to a quiet, comfortable life.
Sure enough, a quiet life was exactly what he had. On their books so far was precisely one job, which fell under the category of “information security.” Shelley had to ferry a TV script from a producer to an actor, wait while it was read, and then ferry it back. Literally, that’s all he had to do.
Otherwise? Nada. The problem he had was getting the word out. After all, you couldn’t exactly advertise yourself, not in the accepted sense, because the kind of clients you wanted to attract (i.e., the rich ones) required a discreet, anonymous service. They weren’t going to google “kickass bodyguard” and hope for the best.
Shelley tidied away the dishes from breakfast, lit a scented candle, and sat himself opposite his wife, who wanted to have what she called “a brainstorming session” in order to come up with ideas for generating work.
“A what?” he said.
“I heard what sounded like a load of trendy management-speak.”
She rolled her eyes. “‘Trendy management-speak’ twenty years ago, maybe. Nowadays, just a way of getting ideas out of our heads and into the fresh air, so that, oh, I don’t know, we can maybe get this PSC off the ground and start earning some actual money?”
He sighed but went along with it. However, their brains remained unstormed. After a while of getting nowhere, Lucy picked up her phone. She was a fan of the Mail Online website, a “guilty pleasure” that she part justified by claiming that if you dived past the trashy Kardashian-and-sensationalist-headlines stuff at the top, then there were some interesting tidbits in the uncharted depths beneath.
“Hey,” she said, “didn’t you once do some work for a bloke named Guy Drake?”
The name took Shelley by surprise. “Uh, yeah. Before we were married, well over ten years ago. More like fourteen. I had extended leave and . . .” He trailed off, feeling his cheeks warm.
“You were saving up for our secret wedding.” Her smile was fond but it was tinged with sadness and he could sense that whatever she’d seen on her phone wasn’t good news.
“What is it? He’s not dead, is he?”
“No,” said Lucy, “Guy’s not dead—”
That was when the phone rang.
On the other end of the line was a Scotland Yard copper, Detective Inspector Gary Phillips: “Who am I speaking to, please?”
“Why do you ask?” Shelley looked across at Lucy, who bit her lip and placed her phone carefully to one side.
“This number is registered to a Mr. David Shelley of Stepney Green, London. Would that be you, sir?” the detective pressed, doggedly, the way detectives are supposed to press.
“Yeah, that would be me. What can I do for you?”
“Do you know a woman named Emma Drake?”
For a moment Shelley struggled to match the word “woman” to the name Emma Drake, but then it came to him. “Yes, years ago,” he said.
“So you know her?”
“Well, yeah, I guess.”
“And in what sense do you know her?” the detective asked.
“In the sense that I was employed to provide close protection for her and her family. She was just a little girl then.”
“I see,” said Phillips. “Then I’m sorry to have to inform you that Emma Drake took her own life two nights ago.”
Sadness descended upon Shelley like a heavy blanket. “How?” he said. “How did she do it?”
“I’m not at liberty to say, Mr. Shelley. I must ask, though, when was the last time you saw Miss Drake?”
A wariness crept over him and he pushed his grief to one side for the moment, ready for inspection later. “Why do you ask?”
“Could you just answer the question, Mr. Shelley?”
“Or . . .?”
“Or maybe you’d prefer to come to the Yard, and we could talk about it there.”
“Okay, I last saw her fourteen years ago,” answered Shelley. “Like I say, when I was working for her family. I’ve had no contact with her since.”
“No contact of any kind?”
“Not that I know of.”
“You didn’t speak on the phone?” the detective persisted.
“I’d call speaking to her on the phone ‘contact,’ and I’ve just told you that to my knowledge I’ve had no contact with Emma for over fourteen years. I’ve had no need to.”
“I ask because she called you a couple of days ago, on the day of her death.”
That hit Shelley hard. “Uh . . .” he floundered. “Come again?”
“As I say, Mr. Shelley, Emma Drake called you shortly before she took her own life.”
“She called me?” repeated Shelley.
Shelley tried to think, then he remembered it was about two days ago when the phone had rung during Game of Thrones. He hadn’t recognized the number and because it was evening, and thinking it was probably a cold-caller trying to sell him a better phone package, or loft insulation, or something to do with PPI—whatever that was—he’d ignored it.
“If it’s important they’ll leave a message,” he’d told Lucy, which was his standard response whenever he didn’t feel like answering a call.
But whoever it was hadn’t left a message, and Shelley had felt vindicated, thinking, Yeah, dodged a bullet there, before returning his attention to Westeros.
He told the cop about it, listening out for a note of disbelief but not hearing one. He guessed the facts supported him.
“How did she get your number, Mr. Shelley, do you know?”
“It’s the same number. I’ve had it donkey’s years.”
“And she remembered it, all these years later? Sounds somewhat unlikely if you don’t mind me saying so, sir.”
“I was with the Drakes for close protection. I made her memorize my number. She was ten. You remember stuff like that.”
“Yup,” agreed Phillips. “I hear you. It’s the stuff you did yesterday that you forget. Lastly, then, have you got any idea why she’d call you, Mr. Shelley? Like you say, it had been a long time.”
“No,” Shelley replied. “I’ve got no idea.”
But more than anything, he wished that he’d paused Game of Thrones and taken the call.
SHELLEY USED THE Saab’s rearview mirror to check his short hair was army-neat and his black knitted tie straight. Lucy sat beside him in the passenger seat, gloved hands in her lap, gazing out across the near-empty car park.
She hated sitting still, doing nothing. Usually she’d have had her phone out, checking emails, puzzling over a never-ending game of Scrabble, or playing those brain-training games she loved so much. But not now.
The funeral cortège appeared from over their shoulders, winding its way along the approach road to the entrance of the crematorium. The Rolls-Royce hearse stopped. Two black Daimlers cruised past and stopped. Their doors opened, decanting black-clad figures.
“Looks like that’s our cue,” said Lucy, and they stepped from the Saab with the wind whipping their clothes. They linked arms and crossed the car park to watch the coffin unloaded and carried into the crematorium.
There were just a handful of other mourners present, all of whom looked somber and shivered with cold: aunts, uncles, and sundry scattered family, by the looks of it.
From what Shelley could recall, the Drakes weren’t an especially close or affectionate clan. Guy Drake considered Susie and Emma his true family and everyone else as just relations. Guy’s attitude to his “relations” had changed when huge wealth entered the equation. Always the way. With money comes resentment, distrust, and entitlement. A whole bunch of shit you never considered when you bought your lottery ticket.
Guy and Susie stood slightly apart from the other mourners, drawn pale features accentuated by their funeral attire. Susie, tall and slim, as swan-like as ever, caught sight of Shelley, took a moment to recognize him, and then offered a weak smile in thanks.
Guy had put on weight over the intervening years. His jaw clenched and Shelley saw that his habit of moving his mouth as though chewing seemed to have become more pronounced over time—or perhaps it was just the stress of grief. He gave Shelley a short nod of recognition and gratitude, but it was a formal gesture, and something about the way his eyes slid away struck Shelley as odd, given how friendly they’d once been.
Shelley became aware of two new arrivals, a pair of bodyguards who wore suits in keeping with the occasion. They stood erect with their hands clasped in front of them, jackets cut so as not to reveal whether or not they wore shoulder holsters, which Shelley had a feeling they would be.
What’s more, he knew one of them—the older of the two, who had graying hair and a short salt-and-pepper beard and wore large, studious-looking spectacles. His name was Lloyd Bennett and, like Shelley, he was ex–special forces—a Para, in Bennett’s case. Like Shelley he’d sought new opportunities in security after being put out to pasture. Unlike Shelley, he’d joined the Circuit.
The two men acknowledged one another with nods, and Shelley wondered why he felt uncomfortable. Was it something as simple as professional jealousy? After all, there was a time when he was the one the Drakes called upon for close protection.
Or was it something else? Like why, when your daughter has just taken her own life, do you feel the need to employ security? Ex–special forces security at that.
The man next to Bennett was taller and younger, with close-cropped hair. He gazed over at Shelley but made no attempt to greet him, just stared, and for a moment their eyes locked, the guy trying to stare him out. Have it your way, thought Shelley, breaking the stare. I’m not playing.
A short while later, attendees filed into the crematorium. On their seats was an order of service, “A celebration of the life of Emma Jane Drake,” bearing a recent photograph of her. The small news piece Lucy saw on Mail Online had been little more than a headline, “MILLIONAIRE’S DAUGHTER FOUND DEAD IN HOSTEL,” and a couple of paragraphs of text. This girl he had known as a child had grown up to be a beautiful young woman. She’d had her mother’s fine features, her father’s determined eyes, an innate intelligence that was all her own.
Neither Drake nor Susie was in any state to give a eulogy, so the service was conducted entirely by a celebrant. Mourners chuckled and nodded in recognition at her descriptions of Emma as a bright, curious little girl, in love with life, ponies, and Destiny’s Child, in that order, as besotted with Mommy and Daddy as they were with her. No doubt about it, she’d enjoyed her only-child status, but rarely letting it tip over into spoiled-child territory.
Shelley had been curious to hear what she’d done next, and by all accounts she’d continued to show promise at her all-girl public school. Head girl, no less, she’d discovered a passion for theater. So much so that when she’d moved on, it was to York University and a BA in Theater: Writing, Directing, and Performance.
She’d never completed the course. And here the mourners’ chuckles died in their throats and the fond reminiscences ceased as the celebrant tactfully skirted the details of her last years, saying only that, like many of us, Emma had her demons, and that despite the love and support of her parents, Guy and Susie, who had reached out to her many times over the years, those demons had eventually claimed her.
Drake and Susie sat ramrod straight in the front row, the backs of their heads betraying nothing of their grief—nothing until the coffin disappeared behind the curtain, when Susie’s shoulders dropped and Drake did something that was extraordinary and yet perfectly forgivable in the circumstances: he let out a long impassioned wail, a sound dredged from the very depths of his soul.
- On Sale
- Apr 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Grand Central Publishing