We Were Swans

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Devon

Sacha left Tom sleeping and went into the en suite. She thought about last night and the wisdom, or lack of it, that she’d shown. In the bright light of day though, she found a lightness in her mood. She’d known that the physical resurrection of their relationship had been inevitable. It had been within days of him turning up at the pub. Events since, shared experiences and the sense of togetherness that had developed folding back the intervening years. These past months with him had been cathartic and she could feel an end to the despair of the years since Ellen’s death and knew that whatever it was she was going to feel when this was over, it wouldn’t be the misery she’d lived with since that awful day. She’d deal with any new emotions as and when they surfaced, as she had last night. It was Tom she was more concerned about. She could sense a fragility in him, that he was more likely to break than bend. She hoped that last night had strengthened him, had allowed more of the man he used to be to come through. She decided then, that she needed to build on last night, to keep him close. She needed him to regain some balance, restore his core beliefs not only in himself, but in her. Standing, she flushed and opened the bathroom door. She found Tom there, in the act of reaching for the handle.

She blushed slightly, lowering her eyes. “I’d give it 5 minutes if I were you.”

He grinned. “I’ll use the downstairs loo.”

“Tom?”

He turned. “Yes?”

“You don’t need to use the spare room anymore, not if you don’t want to.”


October. The Twins birthday, came and went with no significant movement from the Prius. We wondered briefly if we’d tagged the right car but our choice was verified by James and Ollie. ‘We’ve checked.’

As we sat out the next 6 weeks, while everyone else was counting out shopping days til Christmas, we were on more of a countdown, hopeful that we’d get something more tangible from the festivities than a pair of socks or perfume. We carried on with our fitness programme and there were additional training sessions on such subjects as breaking and entering without actually doing any breaking, lock picking, overcoming security systems and on one occasion, travelled to a country estate owned and run by the Jedi. This particular estate had apparently been singled out as suitable as there was an old nuclear bunker on site. Going down into it revealed an extraordinarily large facility, stripped of its original fittings, it now contained a variety of scenarios. We were taken through a ‘house’, picking out targets and live firing with our pistols. ‘You’d be surprised just how loud one of these things is when fired indoors. Get used to the flash, noise and smell of it all.’ Above ground, life went on as normal, the bunker utterly shutting out the mayhem taking place beneath.

The day before Christmas Eve, seated at his laptop James announced, “The Prius is out of London headed south-west.” Christmas was temporarily forgotten as we watched its progress.

As it was the holiday season, and the weather not good, fog and rain, the traffic was horrendous. Stop, start, barely getting over 50mph. It was the best part of 6 hours later that he was satisfied the car had reached its destination.

“It’s Devon. The middle of nowhere and hasn’t moved for over an hour. Let’s link the GPS to Google Earth.”

We all hunched over the screen as he punched in co-ordinates, then zoomed in. We watched as Exeter appeared and then dropped south, the screen picking up more detail until the countryside became more lifelike. He settled at 1000ft above our target, studying the terrain.

“It’s pretty much perfect.” He moved back from the screen and pointed out the objects of his satisfaction with a finger.

“Can’t tell yet but it looks like a farmhouse. We’ll get closer in a minute. Firstly, it’s set in a triangle bounded by hedgerows on all three sides. The road is south of the property and if I’m any judge, a ‘B’ road. The house itself is approached from the road by little more than a track and is set in the northern apex with the frontage facing south west, down the hill if you like. Beyond that, to the north, more fields, more hedges. Nice and private. Nice and quiet.” He zoomed further in. “Two outbuildings and the main house. Looks like they’re traditional stone, perhaps been around for 200 years. Thatched roof.” He zoomed in further, as close as Google could get then switched to street view, angling for the approach from eye level. “Ok. You can see that from street view, the hedge bordering the road has a dry-stone wall in front of it which is about waist height.” He moved the mouse left and right. “There’s a steel farm gate set into the wall to allow vehicle access.” Unable to get an eye level view of the east and west hedgerows, he switched again to bird’s eye and followed the property boundary from the gate, traversing left. Up, down and right until he was back at the gate again. He sat back.

“Ok. That’s as much as we’re gonna get from that. To recap. It’s isolated, which is good. There are nothing but fields around it and as the main house is set in the top apex, you should be able to get close enough to scope it out without too much risk of being compromised. The next trick is to get you inserted.”

James stood so Sacha and I shuffled closer to the laptop. She took the mouse and repeated the aerial reconnaissance. We were 99% certain that this was where the twins were holed up. In any event, we’d have to go and confirm what we believed.

James let us study for a while, aware that we now had something tangible to show for the past month’s efforts and were savouring the moment. Then outlined what we’d be doing next.

“We need Mummy to leave before we do anything. The less footfall on site, the less chance of discovery. So, we’ll spend the next few days on the internet getting properly acquainted with the area and generally mooching. In the meanwhile, there is, of course, the small matter of Christmas to be celebrated. I need a volunteer to help me in the kitchen. Any takers?”

In the end, everyone mucked in. It was surreal. So much so, that I became introspective, wondering how life had changed. I didn’t really remember Christmas much before Ellen had arrived and for the three years that she had been with us, well, it was a special time in our lives. After her last Christmas, there hadn’t been much to celebrate. Sacha and I were living separate lives and the drink and self-pity were as much as I could recall and was trying hard to forget, until now. Whether it was or not, for the time being at least, this felt like a new beginning and I’d take it. We were still sharing Sacha’s room and the reconnection lent strength to my hopes for the future. The fact that we had a job to do gave us focus and I don’t believe either of us really considered what would happen once events had taken their course. But having hope was something. The Jedi were a tonic. They were constantly bouncing off each other and this spirit permeated throughout the house. Looking at them, listening to them, lifted us and lent an air of family to what was, by any standards, a strange scenario. It was hard to believe that sitting around the table that lunchtime were two trained killers and a pair of divorcees with murder in mind.

Christmas over, we were assembled in the kitchen. The Jedi had loaded a flip chart onto an easel and Sid was standing by a table loaded with kit; clothing, binoculars, NVG’s, sat phones, spare batteries, all stuff we were familiar with. Sacha and I were at the breakfast bar. Ollie spoke first.

“We’re going to insert you next week, so the usual drill, please. Stop washing now, everything that goes in with you comes out with you. Clear?” We nodded in assent. “It’s going to be cold, especially at night so thermals, gloves, balaclava’s. Sid’s got all you need on the table. Between now and then, all your gear is either on you, or in your backpacks.” He flipped the cover page of the chart to reveal an aerial map. One we were all familiar with.

“We’ve done some research and can tell you with some certainty that as we thought, this is where they are.”

He extended an old car aerial and began highlighting out salient points on the map.

“The approach road. Only just wide enough for two cars to pass carefully. We’ve identified a passing point where the road widens briefly about 100 metres east of the house. That’s where, in the early hours, we drop you. We’ll rehearse the drop until it can be done swiftly and silently. From there, you go straight through the hedge and into the field. It was ploughed at the end of the season. Avoid treading on the ridges, stay in the furrows as close to the hedge line as you can. Take your time.” He was indicating our route with the pointer. “Head west until you reach the corner of the property then north to the apex. From what we can see but without the benefit of a proper recce, you should be able to get within 20 metres of the main house without being skylined. From then on, get low and stay low. Be patient. When you’re happy you have an unobstructed view of the frontage, get into the hedge and settle in. You won’t know how good your vantage point is until daylight. If you’re exposed, try to eyeball a better position to move to but if at all possible, stay where you are until nightfall. Your best protection is to hunker down and keep still and quiet until you can move. They don’t have a dog nor as far as we can tell, any livestock so unless they fancy doing a bit of gardening, which, in January, is highly unlikely, you should be ok. This is about identifying security systems, scoping out methods of entry, establishing the routine of the house. Nothing more. We give it a few days until you have the info we need then we extract. Clear?”

It was. We were apprehensive, but ready for this. Time to put into practice everything we’d learned. Grabbing our gear from Sid, we went upstairs to change. Most of it was the same kit we’d had all along, some of it showing signs of wear but in good condition. As instructed, what we didn’t put on, we packed into our rucksacks, pretty soon, it would take on the patina we were seeking.

It was a tough week, a period of waiting, studying, going over our routes, establishing comms routines and codewords. Should the Prius look like making an unscheduled comeback, that was ‘The Broomstick’. The Twins were Bunny One and Bunny Two. We were Butch and Sundance. None of these should be needed. Our extraction time was set for 3am, what night that would be would just be stated as ‘tonight’ and the extraction point was of necessity, where we’d been inserted. The Jones Boys had a generic telecoms van. It was a ‘ringer’, in other words, there was an legitimate but identical van trundling somewhere around the system that they’d copied the number plates from. All the interior light bulbs had been removed and there was a flick switch in the front that would disable all exterior lights when we came to a stop. We were set.

They reckon practice makes perfect. Most of the route was motorway, only the last 45 minutes via minor routes. We’d left at 10pm and were approaching our drop off point in the dead of night, around 3am.

“2 minutes.” Came the word from the front of the van. We tugged our balaclava’s down and faced each other. We’d been ready for over an hour but double checked anyway. Status, gear, appearance. It had been drilled into us and we weren’t about to let ourselves or anyone else down by being dumb. I had my hand on the door latch and waited for the whispered word. We were so familiar with the lie of the road that we knew from its twists and turns where the drop off was. Feeling the van slow confirmed it.

“Go. Good Luck.”

The latch clicked quietly and oiled hinges swung open. We hopped down and crouching, made for the hedge. The van slipped away, tyre and engine noise fading, we adjusted ourselves to our surroundings. The inside of the van had been pitch black and it took a minute or two to steady our breathing and to allow our eyes to adjust to the ambient light. There wasn’t a lot of it but enough to make out edges and features. We needed to get to the other side of the hedge. It was strange but all our training made us feel more secure off the beaten track. We knew the hedge thinned a little just a few yards away. I reached for Sacha’s hand and drew her face to mine.

“Ready?” I whispered. She nodded. Taking the lead, carefully and quietly we edged the few yards needed and negotiating a minor drainage ditch, got on our bellies and shrugged our way into the field. Still tense but feeling easier out of sight of the road, we knew where we were heading and wordlessly followed the hedgeline first west, then, at the junction, north. It was only about 600 yards to where we hoped our lying up point would be. Getting closer to the apex of the field, we could see no lights from the house, its occupants either out or sleeping. We had no way of knowing which. We crept into the dense cover offered by the base of the hedge. With luck, come morning, this would be our home for the next couple of days and nights. No words were needed. Silently, sleeping bags were unrolled and crawled into, and essential kit put to hand. It was freezing, something I’d noticed but disregarded en route. Now we were still, it came to the fore. We’d take an hour to sort ourselves out, scrape away hip hollows in the dirt, trim any low hanging stems that might whip, generally secure ourselves. Then we’d set the watch, Sacha taking first stint.

I felt a gentle nudge and surfaced from within the sleeping bag, just my eyes at first, keeping the cloud from my breath inside the bag until I could cover my mouth with my scarf. It was hard to tell precisely what time it was, mist obscured the area and whatever daylight there was offered little by way of a clue. I checked my watch. 6am. Quietly, as per our training, we got our faces as close to each other as we could and in muffled voices considered our position. We were about 30 metres from the main house and while we could see it quite clearly, we were happy that unless someone walked right on top of us, we were secure. Tucked inside the cover of the hedge, there were no surprises on either side or behind us. All in all, we felt happy that there would be no need to move. In an ideal world, there would have been two teams, one covering the front, the other out back. But this wasn’t combat. We were here to observe and our enemy was unlikely to be battle aware. Their main concern was staying put and keeping a low profile. We figured their mindset wouldn’t include a rural observation post as a possibility, let alone a threat. As long as we kept still and quiet and didn’t do anything stupid that might expose us, with time, we would get the information we needed. 100% confirmation they were there, that they were alone and that there was a way to get to them. Sacha hunkered down in her sleeping bag as I took the next watch.

Early risers they weren’t. The mist had cleared hours ago and a low sun had risen behind us. I was wide awake and had let Sacha sleep on. Days and nights of doing this exact same thing in our own back yard had shown me my limitations and I knew that after a couple of hours shuteye, I’d be good for the first day before getting into the routine proper. We had prearranged signals with the Jedi that just needed a thumb to send. I picked up the sat phone, hit the preset, let it ring 3 times and switched it off. ’All ok fellas. No need to move.

Lights came on in the house. Reaching over, I guessed where Sacha’s shoulder was and squeezed once. It was second nature for us both. I felt her stir beneath my hand then released my grip. Slowly, she came up for air, eyes blinking, silently aware. I jerked my head towards the house, a movement consisting only of millimetres. It happened all of a sudden. One minute we hadn’t clapped eyes on these little shits for years, the next, there was one of them, in plain sight. Eddie, using a side door, putting out the trash, having a little yawn and a stretch, scratching his ass, taking his time, as normal as you like. I felt Sacha tense beside me and a rush of adrenalin of my own. I shoved it down and simultaneously became aware that Sacha had also relaxed. We’d been warned what to expect and how to react. There was no room for instinct here. Everything had to be clinical. They were just targets, nothing more. Remembering the end game and the fact that it was possible made it a simple thing not to rush out from our hiding place and club the little fucker. Let’s see what we’ve got. I reached for the bino’s. Saw what I needed to see then passed them to Sacha. Eddie ambled back inside. Sacha rested the bino’s and looked me straight in the eye. Her look was fearsome but controlled, then triumphant. Through gritted, tense teeth she whispered, “Got them.”

My eyes reflected back and my face said the same thing. ’Oh, yes. We’ve got them alright.’

They spent much of the time in the house. That worked for us on one level but not too well on others. We had a thirst to see more of them. Glimpses of Eddie and Verity in the great outdoors weren’t enough. We had to get closer. Sniff around their lives and root out how to get at them.We spent 3 days and nights there all told. Watching. Studying. We got used to their presence. It was a bit like having to pick up a scorpion. Fear and unfamiliarity giving way to the examination process. Adolescence had given way to adulthood and the years had been kind to them. They were, it had to be said, handsome specimens. Hair colour and style had been changed but that was to be expected and they had clearly had some plastic surgery. Subtle differences but sufficient so that they were no longer identical. I’m guessing that as minor as they were, it would have been something of a sacrifice to abandon their once unique appearance. Eddie appeared to be scraping around the 6ft mark and looked like he worked out. That meant he was likely to be a handful if it all got up close and personal. In her own way, I reckon Sacha had sized up Verity and measured her chances. If those two ended up fighting us for their lives, we had a problem. They never went out together, at least not while we were there. If errands had to be run, it was Verity that did the running, mostly though, stuff was delivered. Groceries left in a secure bin obviously set there for that purpose. The delivery guy had a key and would open the bin, drop the stuff in and lock it behind him. Only then would one of them shuffle out and repeat the process in reverse, always with an eye on the driveway. It was on the third night that we decided to risk approaching the house. Where we were was all well and good for scoping out security, access, the rhythm of the house, but told us nothing of what went on inside and it was that information that was needed. The decision made, we got our gear together, sent the Jedi a message that we’d be extracting that night and readied ourselves.

We knew their routine. During the day, not much clue as to what they were doing, their comings and goings only hinted at but becoming more evident at night. At dusk, lights would go on in what was apparently the living room, bedtime though, was erratic, indicated by stair lights going on and off and the illumination of one upstairs bedroom. Sacha and I eyeballed each other at that confirmation of our suspicions. They had to be fucking each other. We’d decided that 9pm would be the optimum time to leave our hide and get closer but it was a little earlier, around 8.45 that the lighting downstairs suddenly changed. The curtains obscured any detail, but leaking through them we got the impression that some kind of disco was taking place, flashing lights of varying hues, colour and intensity emanating from the living room. It made no difference, if anything, if there was a party, it’d mean less chance of discovery. We let things get into full swing and at 9, moved out, towards the house. The bulky gear we had no choice other than to leave behind in the hope that we’d be able to retrieve it. If we were cautious, it shouldn’t be a problem and we had every intention of being ultra-careful. We knew where the security lights were and that they were movement activated. We’d seen them set off by foxes trying to get at the trash. This was a regular occurrence and The Twins had grown complacent. Unless there was a sharp noise accompanying the light, they ignored it, just a twitching curtain any hint that they were concerned. If we had to, we’d set them off then get under them, below the living room window sill. Leave it a minute, then hope for a crack in the curtains, try to get a look inside. Everything the Jedi taught us came into play. If you needed to focus on an object in the dark, look off a degree or two and let it come into view, then zone in. If you needed to focus in on a noise, look in its direction with your mouth open, at night, in otherwise complete silence, it amplifies and can be sourced. We covered the 30 metres undetected, noiseless. The security light came on as expected and we rolled underneath it, up against the wall, waiting. No one took any notice. When we got our eyes level with the living room window, through a chink in the curtains, we could see why. There was a trapeze like set up, or at least in our initial surprise, that was our first thought. But it wasn’t. It was more, much more than that. There were two separate arrangements, one for each player, both having dozens of ropes of varying thickness and lengths, not all of which were in use. They were coiled around their bodies, some under tension, some not, suspending them some 3 feet from the floor. Aside from something strapped to an ankle, probably an electronic tag, they were both naked. Blindfolded, she was suspended in a cradle made entirely of rope, elements of which snaked out to create loops which bound her hands behind her. Belly down, back arched, she was incapable of independent movement, her brother lending her volition and direction as he passed by in his own elaborate setup, touching and stroking as he did so. If we hadn’t known they were brother and sister, it might not have been so weird. Strange for sure, but watching what they were doing to each other, how and where his fingers and mouth touched and lingered and her reaction to it, it was obscene. The ropes were pure white, suspended from a marionette like control fixed to solid ceiling beams. Choreographed, practised, they were rapt. It was all we needed to see. There was nothing to be gained from pure voyeurism but still, it was tough to tear your eyes away, so subdued and controlled was the lighting on what in other circumstances, would have been a bewitching aerial ballet. As I took a last look around, my gaze was drawn to the back of the room, to the hearth. Above it was a projected image. Through the haze and confusion of the lighting, I couldn’t quite focus on the image that was there, small beams of light flashing across it, sometimes whiting it out. I concentrated a little harder, trying to zone in. I wish I hadn’t. My subconscious tried to warn me, the hair on the back of my neck rising, my face flushing with a thousand red pinpricks but my eyes didn’t get the message in time and stayed riveted to the screen. It was Ellen. Our Ellen. Standing alone, one mitten missing and it was that detail that made me realise exactly what I was watching. She had a confused look about her, uncertain, a little afraid, then, Verity came into shot. She crouched behind Ellen, her hands on her shoulders, pointing towards the camera, smiling. Then, her expression changed, her eyes narrowing, her smile slowly receding until it became a gin trap full of malice. Pulling her arm back to its fullest extent, she clenched her right hand and let go with a fist that caught Ellen in the back of the head. The last image I had before my main fusebox tripped, was Ellen’s face as she went down hard, her mouth in a big, round, ‘O’ of surprise and pain. As I slumped, my back to the wall, I felt the touch of The Horseman, saw the gleam in his eye, his raised sword and began to disintegrate, to fail.

Beside her, Sacha had sensed a change in Tom, felt him stiffen. Following his wide-eyed gaze, she found the cause, recognising the images instantly. The back of her mind registered surprise and shock that somehow, they were still out there but she could handle them, years of practice and sleepless nights instantly shovelling them into a narrow, dark crevice in her head. She switched her attention to Tom. His eyes were blank, expressionless, his arms wrapped around his knees, almost in the foetal position. She had to get him back, but not yet. As long as he was quiet, motionless, she needed him to stay that way. She put a hand on his shoulder, there was no response so she let it stay there as a means of detecting change then, raised her head and looked back into the room. With an effort of will she ignored the screen and studied the tableau in front of her. Taking it in, committing it to memory, it was the work of only a minute or so. Time to go. Beneath her hand, Tom had remained motionless, she bent down and put her face close to his, her hand now gripping his jaw.

From somewhere way off in the distance, I felt hands on my face, lifting it, gripping me hard, demanding attention. The discomfort deflected me and somehow, I cracked open my mind and saw that Sacha was out there, was searching for me. This was unfamiliar territory, before, whenever The Horseman came, it was just me and him. No comfort, no friend other than the bottle and oblivion. Hope bubbled up so tentatively, fearful of what might lay in wait, I ventured out to join her. Every feature of her face, the set of her mouth, the fierce light in her eyes said, ‘Don’t you dare! Not now!’ I stopped falling as The Horseman retreated. The sparks fizzing my brain subsided and I nodded once, the movement dislodging tears. She’d seen the screen about the same time as I had but recognised the images instantly. Grabbing my hand, she tugged, jerking me away from the wall. Almost catatonic, I copied her every move and somehow that got me back to the hide.

Back in the hide, I could think of only one thing. “They still have her.” The words fell from me, choked, strangled. Sacha put a finger to her lips, quietening me and with kind, understanding eyes whispered, “Not now.” I spent the next 5 hours fighting back, Sacha the only thing standing between me and my nemesis.

Extraction was at 3am. During the wait, Sacha kept one hand on me. A hard one, flat on my chest, either holding me down or as reassurance, I couldn’t say. The rest of her attention stayed focussed on the house. The house where in my mind, Ellen’s murder was being replayed. 5 eons where an image I’d avoided all these years was now a detail engraved in my brain. There wasn’t a box on earth that would ever contain it but there was someone with me now. Someone to help me find a way through the maze and back out into daylight. It didn’t matter that the catalyst for this epiphany was our shared objective of the past few months nor did I care overmuch about the years of self-pity. They might not have been such a waste. After all, without them, how could I have known the difference between then and now. But the fall had been so gradual and so full of events, the trial, conviction, being part of all that had gone on but so desperate not to be that I hadn’t realised quickly enough that my counsellor had been there all the time. That if I’d simply asked, communicated, then a lot of needless suffering could and should have been avoided. I wondered at length about how much of a part I could have played in Sacha’s healing process and realised that there was more to loving someone than simply saying the words, believing them and having them believed. This and more went through my mind as the picture of Ellen going down played over and over again on a constant loop but slowly, ever so slowly, being with Sacha, having here there and knowing that she’d sat through the entire tape with a quiet courage made me feel something more than the deep melancholy that had suffused my life. I felt ashamed. No-one should have had to go through that alone and because of me, the one person I cared about more than myself had been forced to do just that.

The pickup was done wordlessly, as rehearsed, a simple thumbs up from Sacha as she bundled me and our gear into the van. The journey home was undertaken in silence. Sacha sat with her back to the bulkhead, me resting against her, her arms wrapped around me, holding me and helping me hold on as my head reset itself. Her words helped as she stroked my hair and whispered, ’I’ve got you, Tom. I’ve got you.’ Somehow, I slept. I was woken by the van doors opening. We hadn’t moved. Sacha still held me and I knew, I just knew she would have stayed there doing just that, for as long as it took. What I’d seen, what I’d tried desperately all these years to avoid, while temporarily unmanning me, were now nothing to fear. It had happened. She was dead. Let the why and how go. Remember her for what she was and the simple joy that came with her, honour her memory. I set my face straight and turned to face the mother of my child.

“I’m ok. Thank you.”

Sacha searched my expression, studied my tone. “Are you back?”

I took her by the shoulders and looked her straight in the eye. “I have a way now. I may still be haunted but the ghosts don’t frighten me anymore. Do you believe me?”

She looked at me again. I don’t know if the way I felt manifested itself as anything tangible, something detectable, but I did know it was there and hoped she might see it. Sacha relaxed visibly and her eyes softened. “I’m glad.”

“Good.” I said, grabbing our gear and making for the door. “Come on. We have things to do.” We clambered from the van and made our way into the house.

Sid had a hot meal and a brew on the go. Deep in thought, we ate and drank. Sacha seemed on edge, itching to get away from the table.

“Guys. I know we need to debrief but there’s something I’ve gotta do. It’s important. I need an hour.”

She looked around the room, as if asking permission to duck.

“Something to do with last night?” I asked.

She nodded. “Tell them what you saw.”

“Do you mind, fella’s?” I asked. “I can go through the house routine and security setup. And there’s been a development.” I was going to get through that in a business-like fashion. Anything else would be a backward step.

The Jedi nodded, their curiosity piqued. Sacha left quickly. In her absence, using the flip chart and diagrams we’d made during the op, I ran through any changes that had occurred and corrected the photos. Security issues dealt with, I dropped two bombshells.

“They still have the footage they shot of Ellen.”

“What foo…? Then Ollie got it. A moment’s silence then “How?”

I’d been thinking about this and there could really only be one explanation. “It was in evidence. Evidence that must, by law, be shared with the defence.”

“So you’re saying...?”

“Mummy. Fucking Mummy. It seems she doesn’t just defend them. She feeds their needs. She has to have made a copy.”

“Twisted cow.”

“Twisted, warped? Don’t know, don’t fucking care. We’ll deal with her later. There’s more” I told them about the tableau, the lights, ropes, music and the dance. I’d just finished raising their eyebrows when Sacha came back into the room.

“Ok. I’m guessing Tom has filled you in on their Indian Rope Trick?”

Sacha had a sheaf of printouts in one hand and a coffee in the other. Like Tom, she was still in her ops gear, going to Devon had answered some questions but more than that, had created new possibilities. Ideas she was keen to explore. She’d taken that extra minute, when Tom was catatonic, to look very hard at what was in front of her. Without waiting for any meaningful response, she continued. “Except it ’aint Indian. It’s Japanese.” Pausing to distribute printouts harvested from the internet, she moved over to the flip chart. She wasn’t intending to use it but as this was where briefings were delivered, it was the focal point of the room.

“Shibari. To be precise, or at least, some perversion of it. It’s literal meaning is, ‘to tie’, but over the years, it’s been experimented with as an erotic practice. These two appear to have based what they’re doing only on the elements of it that suit them. What you have there are pictures of the more traditional form, just to illustrate the basics. Ten minutes on the internet was all it took to find those but I’m guessing deeper research will give us a better idea of how best to use this.”

Tom stood and joined her, he’d clicked onto where she was going with this. “We’ve never been really comfortable with the idea of shooting anyone, not even them. You probably know that there was a time when being caught wasn’t an issue, at least in the beginning, when it was just me. That’s changed and gunshot wounds aren’t an option anymore. Aside from the fact that it’s an obvious murder and a high profile one at that, which will force an in-depth investigation, we just aren’t murderers and the idea of pulling a trigger except in self-defence didn’t sit well.”

Sacha took up the narrative. “Everything that they did to Ellen had just one aim. Pleasure. We all know about this weird bond, this weird communion they’re supposed to share, and we think it’s time they got the ultimate high.”

“This,” said Tom, “gives us an opening. If we can catch them at it, suspended, wrapped up, call it what you will, they’ll be vulnerable. All we’ll need the guns for is control, what we need to figure out is how to make this spooky shit work for us and against them, accidents can happen, we want to be there to see that one does.”

“A bit of history first.” Said Sacha. She fingered back a loose lock of hair and looked down at her notes. “It’s origins lie in martial arts, in this case, Hojo-jutsu, which was a means of restraining prisoners used in Japan for about 300 years from 1400 or so. Yeah, I know. I’d never heard of it either. Basically a Samurai thing. The more sophisticated the technique was, the more honour they were showing their prisoner, according to rank. A century or so later, it evolved into Kinbaku, erotic bondage. Nowadays though, it’s classed as a kind of erotic spirituality and as I said, generally referred to as Shibari, a country mile from the original martial art and is a game for two, a rigger and the model, but because of the way these two have messed with it the game has changed. This is where it gets complicated and I’ve only had a few minutes with this so bear with me.” She paused, thoughtful, concentrating. Tom took this as a cue to re-join the Jedi.

Sacha looked up from her printout. “Right. In its original form, the idea was to use the ropes to create patterns and shapes that either contrast with or complement the natural curves of the human body. Master riggers know where and how to position knots to stimulate pressure points to enhance the model’s experience but there’s something else that can be achieved and that’s where I figure these two are getting their buzz from.” Sacha paused, studying her notes to be sure she got it right.

“There’s a belief that Shibari can stimulate Ki energy flow and transfer, Ki being an unseen life force, a universal energy that penetrates everywhere. That it increases levels of endorphins and other hormones and creates a trance like experience for the model and an adrenaline rush for the rigger. It’s called, ‘Rope Drunk’. From what we witnessed, we know they also use sound and light to amplify the experience but here’s the thing, if their affinity really does stretch as far as bouncing physical highs off each other, imagine all those chemicals flowing back and forth, magnifying, there’s a power exchange going on and when it happens, my bet is that those two will be in another world.”

As that idea flowed around the room, James used the moment to ask, “But they both wear the ropes simultaneously, from what you saw, have you worked out how they got into position or more importantly, how it all ends and they disengage?”

“No. To be honest, we were knocked back by what they were doing and were too surprised, shocked, if you like, to take it all in.”

Tom stood. “We know the indicators. The Northern lights erupting in the living room means it’s playtime. We need to be see what goes on, from start to finish. That’s why we have to go back.”

There was a general agreement in the room that not going back wasn’t an option.

“Fair enough.” Said Ollie. “It’s been a long few days. Let’s take some time out and look at the weather for next week. In the meantime, we’ll have a few practice sessions at knot tying and generally getting you two used to rope handling. Those two weird fuckers aside, knots are an art form. For now, you two stink. Sort yourselves out and get some kip. There’s stuff me ’n Jimbob need to organise.”

“Before you do that, I have a question.”

Ollie and James looked at Tom.

“We noticed they were wearing what we reckon are electronic tags.”

“And?” Queried James.

“Did you know about that? If they’re tagged, I reckon you two could easily have hacked into the system and told us exactly where they were all the time. London and tagging Mummy wouldn’t have been necessary. Also, you’ve hinted all along that they were probably in a rural location. But you knew that, didn’t you?”

James sighed, looked at Ollie, who nodded, then answered slowly. “Whether we did or not, whether we could have or not, is academic.” James paused briefly, sensing that Tom and Sacha felt aggrieved, of having been left out of the loop, then continued in a placatory tone.

“Guys. This isn’t about what we can or can’t do, what we do or don’t know. It’s about you. How you need to learn and adapt your thinking if you really want to do this. Otherwise why not simply give us a million apiece and have us do it for you?”

Tom and Sacha looked at each other. They’d never wanted to think ill of the Jedi and there was an understanding now that some things they simply weren’t going to be told. Things they’d have to work out and do for themselves if they wanted the kind of closure that money couldn’t buy. The atmosphere in the room changed from resentment, to recognition and acceptance, the meeting breaking up with a return to business.

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