We Were Swans

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Changeling

Daylight streaming through the open curtains woke me. I made to get up but fell back, my head throbbing. My mouth tasted like a baby dragon had taken a shit in it and I struggled momentarily to remember where I was and how I’d got here. Given yesterday’s drama, my memory lapse didn’t last long. Christian. 7 million quid. I tried to snap awake but my hangover defeated me. Thick tongued, I ordered breakfast in my room and clambered gingerly off the bed. The erstwhile contents of the minibar were strewn around me and testament to the ache in my head that sharpened painfully with my every movement. I made it to the shower without puking and ten minutes later, felt and smelt a little more human. Breakfast arrived. I’d ambitiously requested a full English, all I managed was the tea and toast. I ordered a pot of coffee and thought hard about what to do next or more to the point, what to do now. What had Christian said? Give it to charity or piss it up the wall. I hoped I’d do neither. That had hurt, rankled. I felt judged. Christian’s third option, to make the best of it, appealed to me from somewhere back in time. I remembered back to the first few days after Ellen’s murder. If I’d seen them in the street, I have mowed them down by car without a second thought. Kidnap. Murder. Hot revenge. That rage was frustrated though. Once arrested, that was it. Until recently, to the best of my knowledge, they hadn’t been on any street anywhere. There had been no opportunity to act hastily. Thoughts of how to put the money to best use went through my mind. Most of them not pretty, some, impractical, fanciful. One stuck out like a sore thumb. That in this day and age, the first rule of law enforcement appears to be to follow the money. I’d have to be careful. Very, very careful. On the other hand, suicide was off the table.

There’s a sense of helplessness that goes with being part of a high-profile incident. Everything you say and do has a habit of finding its way onto someone’s desk. Reporter, Social Worker, Case Officer, Policeman. You are under a variety of microscopes, some of them official. Much of the time, they are way ahead of you, history has a habit of repeating itself and if you have any ideas based on retribution, and believe me there isn’t one of them that doesn’t go through your mind, they already know about it. Time is the only way to get distance from these people. You’re never really off the radar, but there’s always the next big thing that shuffles you further into the shadows. The trick is not to put yourself back into the light. Let events overtake you, let the next big news story shunt you out of the picture. Be grey. I’d fucked up a bit with the whole suicide thing. Every man and his dog wanted his piece of that but that was then, this, 6 months later, was now. I had purpose and a plan. The substance of which was to get to the Twins before they got to me, that was as far as it went. All I knew for certain was that I wasn’t prepared to assume they’d leave me alone, not when they had 7 million reasons not to. I’d have to let that evolve as a series of problems that needed to be solved. My first problem had been to sober up and start thinking straight again.

I’d kept quiet about the money. But keeping quiet about it didn’t mean that news of it wasn’t going to be out there. Once Christians divorce went through, interested parties trawling through the detail were certain to spot a partnership with my name attached to it. It crossed my mind they’d come looking for me but lying in wait and setting traps didn’t sit well. There was no control there and I didn’t like surprises. Giving some thought to what Christian had said, about a week after our meeting I fired up the spook phone. It was answered on the third ring.

“Yes, Mr. Hood?”

I wasn’t sure what I’d expected. Phone anyone these days and you have to run through the whole data protection rigmarole, your birthday, first line of your address, postcode and your mobile number which clearly, you’re calling them on. Maddening. But this was refreshing. Either they didn’t have many clients or the mobile had brought my name up on a computer screen somewhere. It was a woman’s voice, alert and on the ball.

My prepared speech crumbled in the face of such efficiency so I just went for it. “I’d like my ex-wife to be given full protection. Is that something you can help me with?”

“Of course, Mr. Hood. We have some understanding of your situation and the threat. We have her address. Leave it with us. We’ll contact you if there are any issues.”

I fumbled for a bit. I didn’t want them to think I needed a proxy stalker. Sacha had a life and I didn’t want to interfere with that. “You know why I’m requesting this?”

“We do. Your sponsor gave us a full briefing. You have a twin problem. As does he. Is Sacha aware or would you prefer covert cover?”

’Jesus, they were way ahead of me. Sacha’s name, her address, all at their fingertips. As for my sponsor, a ‘he’ with a twin problem, it could only have been Christian.’

“No, she doesn’t know anything and I’d like it to stay that way.”

I blabbed on a bit about it doesn’t matter what it costs and gave her an account number to draw on.

After that call, I’d kept myself to myself, stayed quiet, and dropped out of society. You can do that if you have the wherewithal. And I had plenty of that. Temporarily, I’d moved most of it to my personal account, if I’m honest, just to establish that it really existed and actually belonged to me. The bank had been much more helpful than when I had little or more often than I liked, nothing. With that in mind I told them that on this occasion, I was unable to help them with their application and instead, just spread it around where it could come to the least harm and was readily available. Useful stuff, money. Since Christian’s intervention I’d quietly gone about the business of staying off the drink and making some repairs to what had been Tom Hood. I did some stuff for Sacha too. I bought her a house and a funky little convertible. Her old Ford was shot and not knowing, I supposed she was renting somewhere after I’d left our home, too many memories to even think about staying there. The car was easy, she’d always had a thing about the Porsche Speedster, think James Dean and you can picture it. I knew she could handle it, this was a girl who understood a manual choke and double de-clutching but that would have led her to thoughts of me and I couldn’t have that. I got her a Boxster instead. I’d had quite a pleasant, out of body few weeks, car buying and house hunting. It was almost as if life were normal. I’d found the perfect place, one that had been our idea of where we’d like to live if only we could afford it. Not exactly your rose covered cottage but something quite like it. A lawyer I knew assured me he could find her, give her the keys and deeds without my name being mentioned, and mumble something about a philanthropic gesture from a sympathiser. ‘Don’t ask too many questions Dear. Just take them’. It was the least I could do. I called the spooks and gave them her new address. They already had it, these guys were The Jedi. I grew my hair, rarely shaved, changed my wardrobe and car and bought a nice, isolated, little place of my own close enough to my home town, ’you never know, she might call’, but far enough away to avoid old haunts, memories or being recognised. It had everything I needed right down to a cellar, small gym, a good-sized pool and privacy. It was where Tom Hood would register for the Doctor, the Dentist and where his mail would go. Years back, I’d picked up a dodgy hip and hadn’t been able to get it sorted as time off from work wasn’t an option. Now though, I’d gone private. Mid-forties, I was as good as I was going to get. The hip was fixed and the limp had gone. They were young and fit and were certain to be better movers than me. The Gym and the Surgeons had levelled the playing field a little. I’d packed in the fags. Aside from the obvious health benefits I wasn’t going to be making anybody a gift of my DNA via a carelessly discarded dog end. The gun was going to be more of a problem and I absolutely knew I needed one. It was time to find out how resourceful I’d become, or not. I’d been a Reservist for a while. 1995 saw me out in Bosnia. Mundane logistics stuff in Banja Luka but I did know which end of a gun was the dangerous one. I also knew what I wanted. I’d carried one and there was a comfort in having a Browning strapped to your hip. If you had to use it, and you hit what you were aiming at, whatever it was wasn’t going to get up again. But this was modern day Britain. Since Dunblane in 1996, pretty much anything that went bang was either completely banned or needed a licence. I wasn’t going to be able to stroll into a gun shop and pick up a 9mm. Nor did I have a Hollywood button in the bedroom which when pressed, would cause a wall to swish back revealing an arsenal kept for moments just like this, when my hidden but very special talents could be brought reluctantly back into play. No trapdoor, no puff of smoke, no sliding drawers, no hidden talents. I didn’t have any dodgy mates. That left just the one choice and to be truthful, it was one I fancied. I had to know how far I’d come, whether I could see this thing through. All my life suburbia had sheltered me from society’s underbelly but that didn’t mean I was unaware of its existence. Folks like me either ignored or kept away from feral Britain but it was out there and I had all the time it might take to burrow in. More to the point, I didn’t want a trail leading back to me. I was, it seemed about to go undercover. I wasn’t trained for this. I had huge doubts about my ability, or lack of it, to carry it off. On the plus side, I reckoned I had two assets. The money was the big thing. It gave me options, the best of which was that I didn’t need to work, that gave me the time to train my other asset. I had a brain, it was time to use it for something other than as an instrument of self-torture. I set up a box in there, one with a tight lid I could screw down, like a coffin. Years ago, when these things mattered, I’d rescued an old, Victorian blanket box from a bonfire, restored it, stencilling coloured balloons and the word ‘Toybox’ on it. It used to sit at the foot of Ellen’s bed. Now it existed only in my head and in it, I lodged the memories that had been crippling me these past years. From time to time, an image would escape but as the exercise grew in strength, so did my ability to keep the thoughts and pictures caged. As the months wore on, if one slipped through a crack, it became easier, not easy, but easier, to crack open the lid of the box and quickly shove them back in. This was self-help on a dramatic scale. I began to feel human again. I became more focussed, found it easier to absorb new ideas. I spent hours on the internet or immersed in books, mostly spy stuff, trying to build a new way of thinking. It wasn’t as if there was a course I could enrol in so research and learning was the best I could do. I hoped it was enough.

I took to studying demographics. A city was no good, the police would be far too organised and aware. Towns with suburbs were out as well. Outraged citizens have a habit of opposing licences for seedy bars. Nope, I needed something a little different and picked an urban overspill. Throughout the UK, huge developments begun in the 60’s and expanded through to the 90’s had seen some old market towns become less salubrious than their histories deserved as populations doubled. But such was progress and it was one of these that suited my purpose. Policing was overstretched and they kept their conviction rate up by nailing motorists and drunks. Sometimes simultaneously. You had to be really stupid to get caught with drugs or guns. The police knew they were there all right, but stings and convictions needed organisation, numbers, cost too much and took too long. So, they just waited and hoped until something criminally juicy fell into their lap. It had taken a few weeks of pub hopping, listening, sitting quietly with a pint and a crossword, in shirt and tie, a worker taking an hour out before going home at the end of the day, to uncover the less wholesome taprooms. It didn’t look like much from the outside, a three-storey frontage with blacked out windows and a double door for an entrance but The Hole in The Wall stood head and shoulders above anything else for the kind of reputation I was looking for. Smackheads and dopers in the week, a row of motorcycles at the weekend. If I was going to find cocaine anywhere, it was here. And where there’s cocaine, if the tabloids were anything to go by, there were guns. If it all went horribly wrong, if I slipped up through lack of experience or knowledge, I could always bug out, run away. There were lots of little towns out there, all of them just what I was looking for. I had patience, time was on my side and if I had to, I could start again. Time to ditch the shirt and tie.

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