We Were Swans

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The Jedi

I was woken by a stiff back and Pooh’s wet nose sniffing my hand. Abruptly, I was reminded where I was. I heard noises coming from the kitchen along with the aroma of fresh coffee. Sacha came through into the lounge, carrying two mugs of it. She was wrapped in my old bathrobe. A small detail but it was something we’d wrestled over in the past. I knew for a fact she had a number of fluffy, girly one’s but way back, it had always been a race between us to grab my ratty, old grey one. If I’d lost, early mornings had me looking and feeling faintly ridiculous in one of hers. She’d always said mine made her feel cosy. It was a poignant reminder.

“Morning.” It came out as more of a grunt, not what I’d intended. Yesterday had me hoping that there just might be enough embers to spark a reconciliation, something I hadn’t thought possible before. But Sacha’s reaction to me, to my story, had fired up a new hope. Twin hunting was no longer enough for me. When that was done, I wanted our life back. But for the time being at least, I thought it wise to leave those kinds of ideas on the back burner. Life was complicated enough without adding dreaming to the mix.

“Morning.” She responded brightly, handing me the coffee then taking a seat on the other sofa.

“What next?” She asked.

I wasn’t in my best thinking mode as I struggled to sit upright while juggling my coffee and keeping a hold on the quilt I’d slept under. The dog wasn’t helping, sitting right where I needed to plant my feet. Gaining the vertical at last, I ran my free hand through my hair, trying to establish some degree of a civilised appearance. The coffee tasted good and gave me a chance to think of a response. Sacha sat quite still, alert and waiting.

“I’m not sure you should get involved. It would complicate things.”

“Really?” I knew that tone. It said, ‘I don’t think so.’ She shuffled on the sofa, as if gaining purchase before going on the assault. I knew she wanted the same as me and from her reaction and attitude yesterday, perhaps wasn’t fussy about how it was done. But I treasured this girl, this woman. I always had. Placing her in harm’s way or risking her freedom had left me confused and unable to adapt my thinking. Until yesterday, I had clarity and a single-minded pursuit that hadn’t cared much about the consequences to me. Now I had someone else to consider.

“Think about it, Sacha. This isn’t the Wild West, the law of the gun with little chance of prosecution. We’re talking about murder here. This isn’t a decision about which curtains we should have or where to go on holiday. It’s going to change your life. Perhaps even put you in jail.”

“Change my life?” That tone again. “Change my life?” The repetition had gone up an octave and I could see and hear pain. Her voice trembled as she teetered on the edge of tears. “Please don’t think, not even for a minute, that you can’t involve me.” There was emphasis on the ‘can’t.’

She collected herself, quietly clenching her fists as she continued. “There was a time when my life was complete, Tom. I truly believed, right down to the depths of my soul, the core of me, that we were swans. You and me, together for life, elegantly cruising along, growing old side by side, never missing a beat. When Ellen arrived, well, there was a gloss to everything and so much to look forward to. Loving that child added a new dimension to me, an inexplicable other place that she created and I lived in alongside of her. There was more colour there, heightened senses, new horizons. I’m going to try to explain to you where that place came from and maybe then, you’ll understand the vacuum left behind now that place is empty. How colourless, barren and flat it is. How empty I am.” She paused, relaxed and remembered. “When I found out I was pregnant, well, you know how exciting and new that was but really, it was only the beginning. I started to read, wanted to know what was happening inside me. Then, as I felt it happening, felt myself swell, saw myself changing shape, I began to understand how real and unique it was. Reading about how she was developing was only a fraction of my understanding it. My blood was her blood, her fingernails were mine, I could look into her eyes and see the light in them, knew when her eyelashes began to grow, framing the china blue I knew they’d be. Then, when she began to move inside me, felt a rush. When she wriggled to get comfortable, I felt more than just happy, this little human had everything she needed and it was me that was giving it. I knew exactly how she would look long before she left my body and was placed in my arms. At that point, from that point, if I’d had to die for her, I’d have been sad at not seeing her through life but would gladly have done it while softly whispering ‘I love you’. Then, I watched as she was used, mutilated, tortured and then…… killed. All as part of some sick game. Til then, I guess I was feeling pretty much the way you did. Sad, desolated, lost. But watching that video…..cold fury, Tom. A deep, teeth grinding, bone crunching, blood chilling fury. No other way to describe it. Then, when that bitch and the law took away her identity, her soul and turned her into just the reason those two vile animals were stood in the dock. Knowing that, having her stripped from me and watching every punch, kick and burn it took to end her, enjoying themselves while they did it, do you honestly think I’ve had any kind of life? Any kind of purpose? That little girl, our little girl was bound to my soul, Tom and since she’s been gone…..it’s been limbo, Tom. Limbo. Just going through the motions, trying to forget because there was no other choice. No way to strike back. To have to just suck it up. What I have is no kind of life, simply breathing doesn’t count. You aren’t the only one who needs more than we’ve been palmed off with. I said it last night and I’ll say it again now, in the clear light of day without a drink inside me. I want them dead.”

There was malevolence in that last sentence, malevolence and determination. I understood that, it was in me. My emotional freefall and crash had been perhaps more spectacular and destructive than Sacha’s but sitting opposite her now, finally acknowledging what six years ago I’d been unable to see through my own veil of misery, it was clear she’d hit the deck just as hard as I had and remembering that she’d suffered through the video, something I simply couldn’t bring myself to do, I had to acknowledge that despite appearances, she was probably as damaged as I was, maybe even more so, she just hid it better. Christian had handed me a lifeline, giving me the means to at least believe in the possibility of payback had dragged me out of the gutter, patched me up and brought me this far. I couldn’t be certain of Sacha’s emotional state but then mine wasn’t exactly rock steady. Knowing how empowered I’d become since setting out, I knew I couldn’t deny that sense of worth to the one person left on this planet that I actually cared about. If she’d been a bloke as emotionally involved and motivated as me would I let her in?Yes.

“It’s no good asking you if you know what you’re getting into, even I don’t know what might need to be done.”

“I don’t care. I stopped caring after Ellen died. I stopped caring about you, me, us, everything that mattered to me. Don’t shut me out, Tom. Please. I need to be involved. I have to do something to drown those awful memories. That means they have to pay. Right or wrong, there’s a balance that needs resetting even if it’s only in my head. I need to look at them and see the same things I saw in Ellen’s eyes just before she died. Please, Tom. I can’t live knowing they’re taking the piss, enjoying what they did.”

That was the nub of it. In a few words, she had just expressed exactly what it was that motivated me. The fancy legal crap that had restored the Twins to society said nothing of the legacy of their deeds, gave nothing to the dead or those that loved them. A sense of violation, polluted lives and grief are the reality of those left behind. I would have been driven mad had I not been given the lifeline of revenge, of a good, old fashioned eye for an eye. I had to give her the same thing I needed. Something tangible that said ‘Fuck you’, to the system and paid back the vile little shits that had completely fucked up our lives and ended a precious one. But I was frightened by the idea. It would be us bucking convention with no knowing how it would end. I’d resigned myself to the idea that I might get caught but decided that it didn’t matter. But involving Sacha?

She was calm now, her business head back on. “I already have an idea. How to find them, something you might not have thought about.”

I couldn’t imagine what that might be. I’d covered all the bases and thought about little else for months. There was no way she had an idea I hadn’t already considered and discounted or tried so I sat, waiting, ready to give her the put down. “How so?”

“Are you going to let me get involved?”

I didn’t think I had a choice, Sacha knowing, but left out……there were any number of things that she might inadvertently do to jeopardise the end result. Also, I’d hit a wall, the Darkweb had given me insight and information, but nothing that got me where I needed to go. If she thought she had a way over that wall, I’d listen. The decision to let her in was relatively simple but I had to limit her involvement and therefore, culpability.

“Ideas only, research, no dirty work. Ok?”

“It’ll do for a start.” She paused, serving notice that my limits on her involvement were negotiable. “I’ve been thinking on part of what you said last night. How long have you been following stuff found on the Dark Web?”

“Something over 3 months.”

“Why?” She said. “When there is a far simpler solution, one that doesn’t involve loonies, sexy equipment or risk you being found out? You’ve over thought this, Tom.”

This would have to be good to get me to admit to a schoolboy error. I waited, sceptical and ready to reply with something cutting. I’d been at this for a while now and was a self-taught expert.

“Where,” she paused for effect, “is the one place… who is the one person that no matter what, at some point, most likely Christmas and Birthdays, they are sure to meet up with?”

I sat, confused. A state of mind that lasted only milliseconds, then it dawned on me. She saw the realisation on my face.

“For months, you’ve been tracking down sightings, most likely imagined by nutters, when all you had to do was keep an eye on Mum.”

Mrs. Christian. She was the key and Sacha had cleared away all the clutter and got to a realistic starting point straight off the bat. I could see a sense of triumph in her expression, that despite all my manoeuvrings and attention to detail, I’d been too focussed to see now that she’d said it, what should have been blindingly obvious from the beginning.

’Jesus.’ Clearly, two heads are better than one. Add to the mix the female psyche and a different thought process, then perhaps together, we could get this thing some momentum going.

“Teamwork.” I said, admitting defeat perhaps ungraciously. I felt disappointed in myself at not having even considered Mum to be the answer but that was set aside by the notion of having a sounding board, a confidante, an alternative viewpoint that might at last help me achieve what I’d set out to do. “Ok. Mum is high profile, busy and newsworthy. My guess is that it will be gaps in her diary, particularly, as you said, around Christmas and birthdays that we need to concentrate on. Our problem now, is accessing that diary.”

“No, it isn’t. But you’re halfway there. We don’t need her diary. We know the date of the twin’s birthday, October, we can find out hers and Christmas is fairly well set into the calendar. We focus on those three events. It doesn’t matter if one or two are no shows, we only need to find them once, then we’ve got them.”

Yet again, she was right. The twin’s birthday was due in 8 weeks, there might be time to get ourselves in place. If not, Christmas was four months away. If Mum’s birthday fell in between, good. Failing that, we’d have to be patient. It would also give us time to make some decisions.

“Let’s get dressed, pick up your car and go for breakfast. We have some domestic arrangements to sort out.”

“What do you mean?”

“Tom, we’re going to be seen together, people will talk, sooner or later we’re going to have to say something.”

“What do you propose?”

“I haven’t really thought it through. Things are happening quite quickly. Perhaps our stand ought to be that we’re attempting a reconciliation.”

“Are we?” It was a stupid but irresistible question.

She looked at me and while not exactly melting, she didn’t say no. She focussed instead on the mug in her hands. “Tom, we didn’t divorce because I stopped loving you. My head doesn’t work like that. We divorced because I couldn’t bear to look at what you’d become and I had to get out before I started despising you.” That hurt, just the word, despise, stung. She saw my bruised expression and offered me a balm. “I’m not saying I was brilliant to be around either, but something had to give.” She leaned forward. “Looking at you now, listening to you… I’ll not deny that I see something of the old you and that’s good, Tom, really good. But it’s too soon to say how much of me is left. So, I’ll say this, it’s not a closed door, Tom. What we were was so very important and I hope we find a way back. If settling this score does that, then I’ll be content and can rest and maybe remember what it was to be part of something that mattered. If we do this together, as unpleasant as it might get, it doesn’t have to be bleak or grim. Enjoying it would be wrong but doing it together, working together, might fix more than we imagine. Does that make sense?”

It did. It meant that this wasn’t about me or what I wanted any more. I won’t pretend to understand the kind of bond that grows between a Mother and Daughter but the realisation hit me that Sacha had been hurt much more than I had. Her child wrenched away and then her husband self-destructing, she, more than anyone… more than me, was entitled to her moment. If I could, I would see that she got it. That was now my function. To set things right. I mentally adjusted my priorities.

“Can I see your place?”

I’d gripped myself and with a new assurance, moved forward, comfortable in my role.

“Ready when you are.”

“Ok. Get dressed. Pick up car, house.” She stood and left the room and I heard her pottering around upstairs. As I dressed, my mind was in overdrive. As it whirred through the thoughts and emotions crowding it, the impression I was left with was that I had a job to do. I felt more human than I had in years.

I could see her in my rear-view mirror. Sacha was a faster driver than I was and clearly impatient to see the house, the Porsche large behind me. Through the gates and up the driveway she pulled in alongside me. We went in.

“Very nice, Tom Hood. You seem to be doing well for yourself.”

Sid wasn’t in evidence so I showed her around and then unearthed the war room. All my research. She wanted to see the gun. I opened the drawer but before I could retrieve it. Sacha reached in and took it in her hand.

“Careful,” I warned, reaching to retrieve it but she turned sideways, blocking me. “It’s loaded.”

She looked at me with good humoured disdain, slipped out the magazine, made the gun safe then deftly, with sure movements, stripped and reassembled it. I thought better of referring to my U Tube education even though mentally I had to acknowledge a degree of envy with how at ease she seemed with a gun in her hand.

“You never thought to mention this before?”

“Montana girl, honey.” It had been a while since I’d had that endearment aimed at me and my stomach did a little flip. “It ’aint the kind of topic that comes up in conversation over fondue. I’ve been handling guns since I was a kid. Daddy made sure I knew how to use one. First on a shooting range with these peashooters then hunting with rifles.”

“I suppose you can ride too?”

“With or without a saddle. I also know how to skin a couple of rats.” She said meaningfully, putting the Glock back in the drawer. It crossed my mind that the gun might be another bathrobe tussle. Sacha was edging her way into the meat of my scheme and having been solo for so long, it felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t used to sharing.

“You went to a lot of trouble for that, Tom. Are you sure you can use it?”

I was. But now there was uncertainty as to which of us was best qualified. Without waiting for a reply, she followed that question up with another.

“How was it, the whole experience?”

“You’re asking about The Hole?” She nodded. I paused briefly, trying to sum up all the thought processes, physical actions and downright criminal activities I’d put myself through. “Weird. Good though. I found out a whole lot of things about myself that I wasn’t aware I could do.”

“Cocaine?”

I detected a hint of disapproval.

“A means to an end. Nothing more. It’s done now.”

“Any girls?” She let the question hang briefly then continued. “I think we should base ourselves at my house. If we can, we need to keep this place secret. Being remote, as it is, it’s easy to spot a tail if we pick one up.”

It struck me as remarkable how easily Sacha had slipped in clandestine mode. Thinking ahead and avoiding detection being part of it. “My thoughts exactly.” I said, establishing that I did actually possess a brain. “It’s why I bought it.”

“On that subject, how much money do you have left?”

I thought briefly, the sums involved were huge and not dwelling on the future, I hadn’t really felt the need to keep track so I made a semi educated guess. “Probably about 6 million, give or take. You know interest rates are low but some of my spending has been replaced by interest on the capital. I reckon I’ve spent about 1 million so far. Does it matter?”

“It might.”

Her words and the way she said them appeared to express an expectation of assuming control. I’d expended a huge amount of time and effort and taken not a little risk in my pursuit. It seemed to me that in less than 24 hours, Sacha had somehow managed to gain some ascendancy, was assuming a role that I wasn’t yet prepared to relinquish. I’d either have to let it slide, avoid a confrontation I didn’t want, or stamp my foot. On the other hand, I liked having her near me and didn’t want to appear petulant. Conflicting emotions left me confused. I knew I needed to say something but wasn’t sure what it would be until it came out of my mouth. I desperately wanted it to make sense. Thinking on the hoof, I took her gently by the shoulders and eased her down into the chair. Slightly taken aback, she didn’t resist.

“Sacha, please. I know how much you want to be a part of this. I’m starting to realise that you have every reason to be more motivated than me and I’m ashamed of how selfish and introverted I was. But… this has been my life for more than a year. I’ve studied, researched, planned, taken myself to places I hadn’t thought existed and done things I wish I hadn’t had to do.” I paused, softened my tone which had developed an edge I didn’t like. “You must know how I feel about you and I’m guessing that you also know that if you had a mind to, you could twist me around your little finger and get exactly what you want, when you want it. But I’m asking you to take a step back. To stop thinking about what you want and think instead how best to achieve it. Be easy on me. Help me. Work with me. This is not a competition. We have to be clinical, not emotional, not think just of the end game, but of how to get in and out of it in one piece.” I knelt down beside her, our eyes at the same level. “You can help, you already have. But it frightens me to involve you. I don’t want anything happening to you. It would mean that instead of getting something back, I’d have lost everything that ever meant anything to me.”

Her eyes lost some of the huffiness I’d seen as I’d been speaking. On a roll, I continued.

“The situation as I see it is a simple one. Had the Twins not come into our lives, we would still have one. We would still have Ellen. But they did. To get back to living, whether together or apart, they have to be dealt with.” I didn’t like the words but said them anyway. “They have to die, but I will not lose you trying to do it.”

“Coffee?” She said, brightly. I didn’t know whether that meant she understood what I’d said or was simply trying to defuse what had at least for me, become a fraught situation. I nodded and we climbed back up into the kitchen. Knowing there’d be questions and some discussion, I took my file case up with me. I heard the kettle going on as I adjusted the flooring until I was content the war room access was invisible. We sat quietly over our coffee as Sacha thought and I let her do it. Presently, she looked up.

“I’m with you, Tom.” I figured she hadn’t finished and waited. “I’ll admit you have a point. Perhaps I was getting a bit ahead of myself. But, and I know this is the wrong word to use, I’m excited by this. Not just what you’re doing but the fact that you’re actually doing it.” She hesitated momentarily. “I did come to the hospital you know. I poked my head around the door, you were asleep so I left. If I’m honest, I didn’t really recognise the person in that bed and remembering him, I wasn’t sure who or what had turned up yesterday. But I see you now, Tom. I see you.”

The hospital visit was an eye opener but irrelevant now. We both knew where we stood and both wanted the same thing. I sensed that there would be no more jockeying or that it would at least be minimised.

Sacha stood and nursing her cup, walked to the kitchen window.

‘It’s beautiful here, Tom.’ I joined her and we stood side by side, not touching, looking out over the grounds. Having other priorities, I hadn’t really considered the aspect of the place when I’d bought it. But she was right. The back of the house had an uninterrupted view of lawns which lead to meadows with a thick bank of trees off into the distance. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but nature and all of it came with the house. Deer roamed occasionally, rabbits grazed frequently and I recalled that from time to time, buzzards cruised overhead. Way back, I’d have killed for a view like this. There was a certain irony to the fact that I only owned it now in order to do just that. Sacha broke the silence, gently touching my arm.

“You won’t have to worry about me, Tom. I know you will, but try not to let it affect what we do. I can take care of myself and as much as a girl appreciates a knight in shining armour, this girl has some sharp edges of her own.”

We regained the breakfast bar and got down to business.

“What do we know so far about the Twins?”

I didn’t have a fat lot to add but uncertain how much Sacha knew, I trotted out what I had.

“We know they got out last October. We know they have new identities. While they were inside, they got degrees. She in Psychology, him in I.T. I have no idea why they opted for those particular subjects but we have to assume it wasn’t to achieve world peace. We know what they’re capable of and there has to be a reason for it. Hell, if they’d opted for horticulture my bet is it would only be so they could learn how to dig a grave.”

Sacha chimed in. “We know they’re smart. They probably have money and as you said, we know what they’re capable of. You put those three things together and it can’t be good.”

I nodded, then carried on. “The Darkweb proved useful in a couple of instances, I found stuff on there that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else.” I picked up my file case and dug around in it. “For starters, I got their psyche evaluations and police interviews off it. Plus some bits and pieces about where they were held from arrest to secure units. Psyche stuff first.”

I handed over the report I’d unearthed.

There are a whole load of characteristics and social influences child killers share. They don’t feature in each and every instance but appear often enough to rate as noteworthy. They might come from an abusive home in impoverished communities suffering from a high crime rate, suffer from chronic family instability and/or from being bullied. They often have psychological disorders, for example explosive tempers. They tend to be loners prone to victimising younger, weaker kids. They might be influenced by graphic media. They can have sadistic personalities and actually get enjoyment from torturing and murder. This can be exhibited while still very young, usually featuring animals as victims. They might have an unusual physical appearance or psychopathic tendencies. This, and more, was in the preamble. But as far as these two were concerned, the report was guesswork and admitted as such. There had been half a dozen or so interviews and all went the same way. They were sorry. It was an accident. I/We didn’t mean for it to happen. I/We won’t do it again. Despite the examinations being held on an individual basis and that the twins hadn’t been able to speak to each other since being arrested, they both recited the same mantra, reminiscent of a prisoner of war giving only their name, rank and serial number. Slight animation had been exhibited by both only when their sibling came up in conversation. Those incidents aside, throughout the entire process of examination, their demeanour had remained calm, almost detached, according to the Psychologist. The official diagnosis was that they were Sociopaths. But there was a handwritten page appended to the report, a footnote addressed to Detective Inspector Ames.

‘Stuart. The diagnosis attached is what is required of me and based only on what I am permitted to say due to there being no medical evidence to the contrary. However, I was uncomfortable throughout. They are enigmatic and sinister. The expressions of regret were an automatic response rather than emotional, and were served up in an identical fashion, having clearly been rehearsed beforehand and then stuck to like glue. Not only that, I believe that the twins were aware that their identical responses would elicit suspicion but simply don’t care and state they are sorry only because for the time being, it suits their purpose, which would be to avoid being labelled as psychotic. Unofficially, I believe them to be high functioning, sexually sadistic psychopaths but that would be an opinion unsupported by the examination results. They have no remorse or understanding of how real people behave. I suspect, no, I know that their responses to me were their Plan B, that in the event of being caught this is what we must do etc. They are capable, indeed likely of repeat offending. Good luck.’

“That didn’t come out in court.”

“No.” I replied, “How could it? Imagine what Mummy would have done to the psychologist with her own, ever so different report and her two, well-scrubbed little angels shining in the dock. All anyone had to go on that was plain fact, was the video. In a sense, we should be grateful it existed.”

“How about the interviews?”

“They didn’t act like normal kids. As a rule, sooner or later, when two or more are involved, one of them cracks, starts blaming the other, it wasn’t me etc. Not these two. As the psychologist said, all they got was name, rank and serial number followed by, we’re sorry, it was an accident, we didn’t mean it. You get the impression from police notes that it didn’t matter which one was in front of you, the response was the same. They were detached, almost as if they were paying attention elsewhere.”

“Telepathy?”

“Nope. I looked into that, just in case. As fond as people are of attributing strange coincidences to twinship, it’s all anecdotal, not a jot of science involved. The twin thing is interesting though. For an altogether different reason.”

“How so?”

This was the tough part, the unacceptable face of The Twins.

“Well, it’s generally believed that twins, have a deep emotional connection. In this instance, given that we know they’re the high functioning, sexually sadistic psychopath’s of the report, and identical twins to boot, it’s highly likely that theirs is the only emotional connection they have and because of that they have an intense sense of empathy, so much so that it can generate physical sensations such as pain if the other one is hurting. But if that’s so, who’s to say it doesn’t work the other way? This isn’t pleasant to think about, but imagine when they’re doing something together, something that gives them intense pleasure as an individual, if we assume those physical sensations are then felt by the other, how that magnifies when it’s reflected back, and then back again, how it increases exponentially, bouncing between them like an echo. A perpetual, rolling orgasm.”

Sacha was sitting there silently, emotionless, so this was as good a time as any to give her everything.

“My guess is that they’re incestuous. I just can’t imagine how they could be anything else. If that started when they were young, and remember, they’ve always shared the same room, so probably the same bed, then they most likely don’t see anything as taboo. When fiddling with each other got a bit dull or wasn’t enough, they looked elsewhere for their kicks and as long as they had each other to fall back on, an utterly reliable collaborator, they couldn’t give a shit about anything or anyone else. It’s all about them and their thing. I’d bet good money that Mummy knows about the bedroom shenanigans and wouldn’t want it to become common knowledge around Chelsea. I have no idea what kind of weirdo she is but we have to assume that somehow, she’s involved, even if it’s only knowing what she does about them and still doing her damnedest to get them off the hook.”

“So now we know why.”

“Yep. Not only that, if they haven’t already, they’ll do it again. We’re doing the world a favour.”

Silence sat heavy between us for a while, clouds outside crossed the sun, darkening the kitchen as if to match the mood within.

“I want to go home.”

That was about as much as she could muster. I set her off ahead of me, secured the house, then followed.

Parking space had always been limited at the front of the house but there was a shared courtyard out back which gave her and her neighbours access to their garages. I’d driven through the archway and into the yard many times over the years and little had changed. I knew exactly where to go and slotted the Merc neatly in front of the garage shutter door. Once inside, there was a regular door at the other end which gave access to the garden, mostly given over to decking I’d installed years ago. I walked up to the glass patio doors and slid them open. Sasha seemed to have regained her composure.

“By the way, we have new neighbours.”

“Really?”

“We do.” Her voice hushed. “I think they’re gay.”

“Why are you whispering? It’s just us.”

“I didn’t want to be rude, you know, tittle tattle. It’s just an observation.”

“Have they been there long?” I was just fulfilling my obligations to the conversation.

“Oh. Not long, just a few months. James was here on his own for a while then another guy, Ollie, turned up. They’ve been together ever since.”

I looked out into the garden. It sloped down and as they were at the bottom end, I could see over the fence. Two guys, similar build, slim, average height, could have been brothers but one had darker hair than the other. The fair haired one turned, handing the other an empty plant pot.

“Jesus! That’s Pete! From the Hole!” I panicked and shot sideways away from the glass to put the living room wall between me and the view into the garden. I was trying to grab her arm to pull her away from the window. Sacha looked at me as if I was an idiot.

“You’re kidding, right? Which one?” She was peering through the window.

“The fair haired one. I’m certain of it. What’s he doing here?” This didn’t make sense. I’d only caught a glimpse of the guy but didn’t doubt for a minute that it was Pete.

“But that’s Oliver, or Ollie. The other guy is James.”

Crouched there, ridiculous but fearful, wondering if Benny had somehow linked me to Sacha, I had no idea what to do next. Sacha took the initiative. “I’ll pop out, say Hi.”

“No!’ I said urgently. That’s fucking Pete! One of Benny’s guys.”

“Well it’s no good hiding here. We have to do something. They’ve been here two months and I haven’t been murdered in my bed. I’m going out.”

I was hesitant but she was right. Pete hadn’t been a dyed in the wool Benny’s boy, more a guy caught up in events. And making out he was gay? That wasn’t the Pete I knew. My fear subsided somewhat as the logical part of my brain asserted itself. One way or another, this had to be faced up to and if necessary, we could always bolt for the country house. Having the run option and now that my initial fear and surprise were subsiding, I was also bloody curious. I straightened and nodded. “OK.”

At the sound of our French doors opening, Pete looked up from his digging. “Mornin’ Sacha. How’s it going?” The other one, James, raised a hand in acknowledgement.

“Oh, fine.” She said offhandedly. “We’re a bit confused though.”

“We?”

As casually as I could, and not feeling in the least bit confident, I walked out into the garden. Pete saw me and smiled.

“Mornin’ Tom.”

There didn’t seem much point in preamble. He knew me. I knew him.

“Morning Pete.”

“Ah.” He raised his arm, hand palm out, a gesture of peace. “It’s Ollie, Ollie Jones, at least for now.” He rested on the shovel. “This would probably be a good time for an explanation.”

He wasn’t in the least threatening. Quite the opposite, a wide grin on his face. “Wanna come round for coffee?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Relax, Tom. We’re on the same side.”

“Perhaps. But until I’m sure of that I’ll stay right here, thank you.”

“I can always hop the fence.”

I got the sense I was being teased, rather than toyed with. “Don’t do that. Who are you?”

“You remember engaging the services of a security company?”

“You’re Jedi?”

“What?”

“Jedi. It’s what I call the security people. I never had an introduction, just a phone number.”

“Ha! Jedi. I like it. Yeah, that’s us.”

I turned this over briefly while I sorted through my confusion. “So you work for me?”

“Sort of. There’s another party interested in your welfare. Between you, you split the tab.”

“Christian?”

“Can’t say. Goes against the creed. Anyway, we’ve been behind you most, if not all the way. How much have you told Sacha?”

“Everything.”

“Fair enough, that makes life a bit easier. When you were scoping out the hole and a few other joints, you were like a dog circling round on a blanket, trying to get comfy. ’Cos of that there were half a dozen of us tracking you, seeing where you’d settle, we kinda inserted ourselves all over town. I got the gig.”

“And what gig was that?”

“To watch your back. We didn’t have a clue what you were up to, weren’t even sure you hadn’t gone off the reservation, but I have to say it was the most fun I’ve had in I dunno when. You, Tom Hood, are one crazy motherfucker. Spending that 20 grand? Best job I ever had.” From the corner of my eye I noted Sacha’s expression change, perhaps at the suggestion that maybe I’d left something out and had more fun than I’d mentioned yesterday or was appropriate. “Mate, if all you needed was a gun, you only had to ask.”

“Ask who? Just who are you people?”

“We’re the good guys. The other bill payer just wanted to see what would happen, what you’d do. Keep drinking or get on mission. We were tasked to find out and if it was the latter, help you along.”

I was thinking on my feet now. The other bill payer had to be Christian. He used these guys and put me in touch with them, also, he hadn’t resisted my suggestion that I might go after The Twins. It seems now that the cash wasn’t completely philanthropic.

“He wants his own children dead?”

“Sneaky.” He wagged a finger. “Neat trap. You’re assuming the other bill payer is some guy called Christian. That ’aint something we can confirm.” He paused, then added, “I’ll tell you though that whoever you think this person is, their own security requirements are what we’d call excessive.”

I let the identity issue go, Pete/Ollie, wouldn’t confirm anything but on the other hand, hadn’t denied it and my curiosity aside, it was pretty much irrelevant. Interesting, but irrelevant. I changed tack.

“You know I’ve broken a few laws and may be about to break others.”

Ollie scoffed. “The law, what’s that when there’s no-one around?” He paused then answered his own question. “As someone once said, rules are is for the obeisance of fools and the guidance of wise men. Anyway, we never go in blind. At the initial briefing, when we were told it was you, we all knew something of your history. Any gaps that the newspapers had left out were filled in by our researchers. I don’t think there wasn’t one of us who didn’t get a little bit mad at the way things turned out for you and your family. As we see it, the law broke you and this is where you are, trying to deal with it. In this business, we tend to define the lines that others see as grey, clear away the crap… sometimes metaphorically speaking, sometimes with direct action. There was no shortage of volunteers for this one.”

“Which of those apply now?”

“Well, we’re just back up on this one. We can’t get directly involved, at least that’s what our brief is. Me, I’d be in there like a rat up a drainpipe. But that’s up to you and off the books.”

My curiosity got the better of me. “What happened after The Hole? That night?”

“Not a fuckin’ clue. I knew you were up to something so tailed you. Watched you get in your car and leave. After that, it was easy. We found your car ages ago and bugged it.”

I registered surprise, then annoyance. “Is the bug still there?”

“Course it is.”

“Take it off.”

“Can’t do that. Against the creed. Gotta know where you are.”

“I’ll buy another car.”

“And we’ll bug it. Like I said, there’s another interested party.”

I let that go. “Is the Porsche bugged?”

“Yep.”

“The house?”

“Both of ’em but only externally. Don’t wanna intrude you know.”

“ Really?” I scoffed. This place was getting crowded. My solo action had somehow been turned into a posse, a situation I was deeply unhappy with. I hadn’t been comfortable about involving Sasha but for the sake of healing her and perhaps rebuilding our relationship, I’d overridden my doubts and it had become our thing, our make or break thing and anything else would somehow feel as if we had been cheated. I conceded though, given their commitment, that James and Ollie might prove useful. So until I knew better, I put them in the credit column.

“What now?”

Ollie shrugged. “That’s up to you I guess, but like I said, we’re here to help.”

I gestured towards the other guy, James, who up ’til now had remained silent, observing the exchange.

“Doesn’t say much, does he?”

Ollie smiled. “Can’t stop him once he gets started, He’s the life and soul. Tom, meet James. Another Jones and a dab hand at housework, gardening and very useful in a tight spot.”

I nodded. “Jones. A bit unimaginative. Not your real name I suppose?”

James spoke for the first time, in a soft, accentless voice. “Does it matter?”

“I suppose not.” I shuffled on the spot, kicking a stray leaf off the decking. “Well this is awkward. What are we supposed to do now? Do we hand over an itinerary and agenda?”

James spoke. “Not necessary Mr. Hood. You just carry on doing what you’re doing and we’ll just get on with our job. We’re watching you back. That’s all.”

I couldn’t fathom if this were a blessing or a curse. Part of me was pissed off because I thought I handled The Hole solo. It turns out now that there might have been interference. That bases I’d thought I’d covered had perhaps been overlooked and taken care of by Ollie and his mates. I needed to know if I’d fucked up anywhere and had the mess tidied up behind me.

“Ollie,” I’d have to get used to that. “Tell me something. Those months in The Hole, is there anything I should know. I mean, did you actually have to do anything to clean up after me?”

Ollie’s ready grin resurfaced. “Tom, I have to tell you, no. You were what you appeared to be. No-one thought anything else. All that time, edging your way in. Patient, careful. Then when you got in, the drinking, the parties, the weed, the coke, you never let your face slip. You were who you were and nothing about you suggested otherwise. I’d have had to break cover and move in if you had and let’s face it, that didn’t happen. I was just Pete. Divorced and fancy free. Like I said, best gig I ever had. You’re a gifted amateur. You should see my report, not that it’ll ever see the light of day. Good job, man.”

I couldn’t help the sense of satisfaction I felt. There are times when things we do have to go unnoticed and can’t ever be spoken about, shared. But someone else was there. Had seen it. No matter how childish it might seem, the need for recognition had been met, I felt somehow validated. I glanced across at Sacha who, like James, had taken little part in the conversation so far. There was a look on her face that seemed out of place given the subject matter. It was satisfaction.

“You mentioned help.” I said, an idea forming.

Ollie and James exchanged a glance. “Up to a point.” James acknowledged. “What do you need?”

“How are the cars bugged?”

“It’d be easier to show you. You’d best come around.” James again.

I looked to Sacha, this was really the beginning of it and I wanted her to take the first step. “We’ll be there in five.” It was as simple as that and I hoped that things would remain this uncomplicated. We walked back into the house.

“A couple of things first before we go round.” I said. “Burn phones.” I explained their benefits then continued, “We’ll pick a couple up to use exclusively between us but remember, for normal stuff our regular phones have to be used. They’re the first things the Police will confiscate if this fucks up so ‘reconciliation’ texts and conversations take place on those. Keep it normal.” As an afterthought I added, “Unless they have a better idea, I’ll grab another to keep in touch with the neighbours. Ready?”

Sacha grabbed her coat and bag and headed for the door. “Come on, then.” I closed the door behind me and followed her out. Ollie let us in. Their place was a mirror image of Sacha’s but truth be told, tidier. Spartan but with clear evidence of being occupied there was a place for everything and everything in its place. I mumbled something complimentary.

“That’s James.” Said Ollie, smug.

James grumbled briefly about Ollie’s lack of discipline around the house. “His room’s a shithole, I can’t live like that.”

“Yeah, you’ll make somebody a great wife someday.” Ollie shot back.

“Get fucked.”

I interrupted this domestic idyll. “So, gay? What’s that all about?”

“Great cover.” Said Ollie. “Ideal for going quietly go about our business.”

James was at a small desk tucked away in a corner of the living room. “Over here.” He said, “This is more Ollie’s thing so I’ll let him brief you. Anyone need a drink?” We asked for coffee and James made for the kitchen.

The three of us hovered over a laptop. “Two ways of doing it depending on the age of the car. First, there’s the good old fashioned sticky bug planted on the car. But only old fashioned in how it’s deployed. After that, both methods work in much the same way, via satellite links. The Porsche has the bug, your Merc though, well, we use the cars own systems to follow it.”

My eyebrows furrowed, Ollie saw my puzzlement and continued. “You have a little red button in your car. In case of breakdown, you press it and good old Mercedes Benz know where you are and come out to fix you, right?”

I nodded.

“We just hack into that. It’s never dormant, there’s a constant feed of info about where you are and what the car’s doing. We’re only interested in where you are. This programme is the hack. There’s another programme on here that follows the Porsche. Why? Who or what do you want to keep tabs on?”

I wasn’t too concerned about letting that particular cat out of the bag. They were clearly breaking a few laws hacking systems and we had no nasty surprises planned for Mrs. Christian, we just wanted to follow her.

“We want to know where Mommy goes. See if that gets us to The Twins.”

“Solid idea.” James had come back with refreshments. There was a tray with biscuits and cups on saucers. Ollie’s observation about James’s eligibility was clearly spot on. Watching them interact while we drank our tea was an interesting exercise. Sacha and I occupied one sofa while they sat on another. They were going over the best way a couple of amateurs might successfully bug a target. James approached the subject seriously, thinking things through before coming up with a solution. Ollie was more reactionary, coming up with ideas then shooting them down himself when an obstacle presented itself. They worked together on the laptop, looking up CV’s, addresses and maps. You could see how they might work independently of each other but that working together was a combination of two minds at work from different angles until an idea became workable and more to the point, achievable.

“OK.” Said James. “You heard most of that but to clear the decks a little this is how you should play it.”

Sacha and I hadn’t moved from the sofa.

“As we know the target is London based. With that in mind there are two ways to approach this. The first is in plain sight. Regular people on a City break. But you can be tracked. If you go by car there are cameras and number plate recognition systems, mobile and static that will log you in a place and time. If you use credit cards, and you almost certainly have to, there will be a paper trail. But hey, if you’re innocent, why not? Then there’s the alternative. Covert, under the radar. Your choice.”

James waited while we made our decision. It was a short discussion. Between the two of us, we reckoned the covert option to be our best bet. The Hole had given me some experience but it would be new for Sacha and given that in the future, we might be forced to operate in that environment, it would be best to get used to the idea now, in a situation where no harm was intended.

“What does option 2 involve?” I asked.

“Good choice.” He said, before outlining it and prior to our even agreeing it. “You’re certain to have to adjust your behaviour at some point so now is as good a time as any to start getting in the groove. Ok. You leave your cars and credit cards here, take plenty of cash, if you’re asked for a credit card, which is only likely to be when booking into a place to stay, say you had your car stolen with everything in it. Travel light and buy everything new, as if that were the case. For that reason, you, Sacha, will not have a handbag and you, Tom, no wallet. Check the schedules then take a bus to a mainline train station, nothing small, pick a big one where you’re least likely to be remembered. When you get to London, use buses and tube only, see the sights. Take your time, a few days at least, to get acclimatised to the City, try to blend in. Be grey. If you get lost or confused, keep going, whether you feel it or not, maintain an air of familiarity in your surroundings until you can find a logical, quiet place to stop and reassess. Her office is near a landmark or two and there’s a coffee shop we reckon she has to pass to get to work, for all we know, she may even use it. Buy a newspaper or magazine and give it a couple of mornings around rush hour to see if you can spot her. You can’t make a habit of that though. Like I said, just a couple of mornings. When you’ve got her, you’ll need to track her back to where she lives. When you’ve got that far, it should be a snip to I.D. her car and if it’s an old model, bug it. If it’s new, we need the registration and if we’re lucky, we can use a similar system to what’s on your Merc. If not, well, like I said, you’ll have to plant one, which is where it might get sticky. Sacha, how is your English accent?”

“I’ve lived here long enough and played around with it. I guess I can manage something convincing.”

“Good,” said James. “Start living it. An American stands out.”

All this made perfect sense and would help us to avoid attention and as James had said, electronic tracking but it crossed my mind that these boys had access to all kinds of information which would make all of this unnecessary. “Don’t you already know her address or isn’t there a database that would have her registration? Wouldn’t that be less risky?”

“We do and there is.” James paused, thoughtful. “We’re happy to help, but we’re not going to do the job for you. To save time, but only for that reason, here are two clues to get you started. Her office address and she doesn’t drive to work. That’s all you’re getting. Work it out. This is about getting you into spy mode, making you think and if necessary, adjust on the hoof. You two need to start behaving as if you have something to lose. It might save your lives or worse, jail time. Call it tough love.”

Ollie shrugged as if to say, ‘If it were up to me?’ But James had a point and Ollie knew it so it looked like we’d have to go the long way around on this one.

Sacha chimed in. “OK. London it is.” They asked us about our phones and nodded approval when I explained our arrangements. Secure numbers were exchanged in case of emergency. Having agreed to look after Pooh, Ollie printed up maps and addresses and handing them over, waving us off with, “Have fun, kids. I’m picking up some kit while you’re away and when you get back, you’re going into Boot Camp.” Whatever that meant.

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