First Blood

Ronan Frost made the ride to Newcastle in a little over four hours, hitting the rush-hour traffic just as it was getting into full, air-polluting swing. The Ducati didn’t adhere to the same rules of motion that stifled the steady flow of people carriers and rusty, old cars. Ronan accelerated along the white line, weaving in between the bottlenecked Fords and Volvos. He skirted the edge of the city, coming in from Gateshead, over the Tyne Bridge and the redeveloped Quayside, swept around the Swallow House roundabout and leaned hard into the corner that took him beyond the university buildings toward the more affluent suburbs of Jesmond and Gosforth.

Lee had given him the names and addresses of the suicides. Three of them were in the Tyne Valley, making it the obvious place to start. Catherine Meadows, the Trafalgar Square suicide, had lived in Queens Road in West Jesmond; Sebastian Fisher, the Barcelona victim, around the corner on Acorn Road. He turned off the main drag and drove slowly passed Catherine’s apartment. It was a huge white building on the corner that had almost certainly been a nursing home or some such before being converted into luxury apartments.

Luxury didn’t extend to the fire escape, which looked like it was held together by rust and a prayer. The street outside was lined with parked cars, but there was a small private parking lot beside the building. Three identical black sedans were lined up side by side. They had government plates, not that Ronan needed to see them to know exactly what the three cars meant. MI5 were already here. Bureaucracy was the only thing in his favor right now.

Five and Six were curious beasts, different sides of the spooks coin, and if Ronan’s experiences with the left and right hands of the Secret Services were anything to go by, it would take a little while for the bureaucratic wheels to grind and their forced cooperation to come into effect. So, for the moment at least, they would be at crossed purposes. In an hour or two they would have joined the dots and would be singing from the same hymn sheet. That gave him an hour’s head start at best.

Ronan throttled the Monster, gunning the engine before giving the bike its head, and roared down the length of the one-way street. He wove between a series of concrete posts meant to stop cars from entering a quieter pedestrian street, took a left and a second left, doubling back on himself. Acorn Road was on the other side of the main road. It was an oddity of English living, cluttered with shops-everything from the usual slew of estate agents, off-licenses, two faux Italian restaurants and an Indian; the obligatory hairdressing salon and a grocery store side by side with the pretension of an art gallery; a high-cost antique shop with marble statuary in the tinted window; and half a dozen chic, high-fashion boutiques with lines imported from all over the world. There was a pub on the corner, The Three Turtles, and beyond the pub, the entrance to the local subway station.

Sebastian Fisher lived above one of the estate agents with a black horse passant on its racing-green billboard. The building was like the countless others the Irishman had driven past in the last hour. They called them Tyneside Flats, a 1920s blueprint for mass-housing projects, and like Ford’s Model T, where you could have any color you liked as long as it was black, with the Tyneside Flats you got a standardized design. That standardized design meant that without having to step through the front door, Ronan knew the precise layout of Fisher’s home.

Ronan pulled in beside the white door in the white facade of the maisonette and hung his helmet on the handlebars. He didn’t chain the Monster up.

He took a moment to reconnoiter the place. He still had an hour before the estate agents would be open for business, which meant probably thirty minutes before anyone was in the office to hear him walking about upstairs. The bakery across the street was open, the aroma of fresh pastries a tug on his hungry stomach. They were playing “Handbags and Gladrags” over the tinny speakers. Ronan bought himself a still-warm croissant slathered in melted butter, traded smiles with the young girl behind the counter and, eating as he walked, went around to the alley behind Fisher’s place.

A black Labrador pissed up against a green trash can. The dog was all slack skin and stark bones. It obviously hadn’t been fed for ages. Ronan tossed what was left of his croissant at it. The mongrel sniffed it suspiciously, then set about it with laving tongue and sharp teeth.

Ronan counted out the gates, stopping outside the ninth one down. It was painted the same bright green of the door on Acorn Road. He tried the latch. It was locked. The top of the gate was lined with four-inch-long metal spikes meant to stop the city’s starlings from nesting, but had the added bonus of perforating would-be burglars. The back patio was walled off, the top of the wall cemented with broken glass. Not that that was a problem. Ronan pulled off his leather jacket and laid it over the shards of glass before he boosted himself up over the wall. He came down on the other side lightly and reclaimed his jacket.

It was like he had climbed the wall back into his Derry childhood. The outdoor toilet was there, and beside it the coal shed, though in this case neither had been used for years. The toilet was filled with the odds and ends of abandoned DIY projects of several tenants. There were two doors, one facing him, that obviously led up a steep back staircase, and one set into the side, which opened into the estate agent’s office downstairs.

He tried Fisher’s backdoor, not expecting it to be unlocked.

It was.

That immediately set his heart to thumping. Even in the better neighborhoods of the city the door should have been bolted at the very least. He eased it open just wide enough for him to slip through, willing it not to groan as he did so. The place smelled musty, as though it had been a while since anyone had opened a window. That answered at least one question Ronan had been wondering about. He climbed the back stairs slowly, one step at a time, letting his weight settle before he moved up to the next, until he was in the small galley kitchen. The unwashed plates of Sebastian Fisher’s last meal were still stacked up on the draining board. There were four dinner plates and they had begun to mildew. How long would it take for mildew to claim the sauce on an unwashed plate? A week? No more than ten days, for sure. It gave him a timeframe at least. Fisher had been here a week ago, and he hadn’t been alon.

Ronan stood absolutely still, and listened to the sounds of the apartment.

For a moment there was nothing to hear, then the soft groan of a floorboard in one of the other rooms confirmed he wasn’t alone.

He had two choices: go back the way he had come, find somewhere to hide and wait for the burglar to make his getaway, then follow him; or try and sneak up behind the intruder, take him down and find out just what the hell was going on. It wasn’t much of a choice.

Ronan moved silently to the door and listened. He had the layout in his head. The galley kitchen opened into the living room. In the standard Tyneside layout the living room would have three doors: one to the second bedroom, one to the hall and the master bedroom, box room and bathroom, and the one he was coming in through.

He opened the door.

The room was spartanly furnished and looked like any of the many that cluttered up the daytime television rosters with their bland interior decorating tips. Sebastian Fisher hadn’t stamped his personality on the room-unless his personality was cookie-cutter design and IKEA furniture. The one concession to quality was the Onkyo receiver and Jammo speakers beside the tower of CDs. The sound system was probably worth the same as everything else in the room combined. Curiously, there was no television.

The four unwashed plates suggested Fisher didn’t live alone, so the second bedroom was probably just that. He moved cautiously toward the door and listened before easing it open. Bunk beds and cluttered toys explained two of the four plates. There were posters on the wall of soccer players Ronan didn’t recognize side by side with costumed superheroes and all of the other obsessions of young boys: dinosaurs, space ships and the death masks of Egyptian pharaohs. The beds were unmade, action figures scattered across the floor. The kids had left in a rush.

Ronan felt his skin prickle, a sixth sense flaring, and turned straight into a clubbing right fist. The hammer blow took him in the temple and shook the world around him. He staggered back a step and felt his legs go out from beneath him. Instinctively, he reached out, trying to catch himself before he fell. He caught at his attacker’s coat and earned himself a second straight-arm punch. This one hit low, slamming into the side of his neck and choking him. Frost fell to his knees even as his attacker drove a final merciless knee up into his face to batter the last shreds of fight out of him.

He was only down for a few seconds, but it was enough for the intruder to flee. Ronan heard the back door slam and tried to stand. He needed the doorframe to stay on his feet while the apartment swam around him. He felt the warm trickle of blood down the side of his face and saw where it stained the shoulder of his leathers. He shook his head, slapped his face to sting life back into his senses, and took off after the man who had cold-cocked him.

Ronan took the narrow stairs three at a time and threw the back door open in time to see the intruder going over the wall. He reasoned the next move out in the two seconds it took him to cover the distance from the door to the gate. There were two bolts-one top, one bottom-and a latch on the gate, which would take no more than ten seconds to slip. Going over the glass-topped wall would take no more than three seconds but would almost certainly tear his hands up. In those seven seconds the intruder would have to be an Olympic sprinter to hit the end of the alley and disappear out of sight before Ronan could see which way he had gone.

Ronan slammed back the bolts and threw the gate open.

The alley was empty.

“Bollocks,” he cursed, looking left and right frantically. He reached for his cell phone to call it in to Nonesuch, slipping the Bluetooth earpiece into his ear. Lethe could hit the Eye in the Sky and track the bastard over every inch of the city if he had to. That was the joy of technology. He hit the speed dial on the earpiece and slipped the phone itself back into his pocket.

“Go for Lethe,” the voice in his ear said. The kid liked to play at soldier.

“Jude, it’s Frost. There was someone inside Fisher’s place. I’m in pursuit on foot. I could really do with some eyes here, so do whatever it is you do.” “Understood, boss. I’ll have visuals in a few seconds.”

Ronan braced his hands on his knees, using those few seconds to catch his breath.

“Come on, come on,” Lethe muttered.

Ronan was breathing hard. He looked up at the sky, as though looking for the satellite looking for him.

“It’s like looking for a mouse in a bloody great maze. Maybe a bit of cheese would help. You couldn’t have picked a busier time could you?”

Ronan looked anxiously one way down the street, then the other.

Finally Lethe half-shouted, “Yes! I see you. Okay, so what am I looking for?”

There was no way the man could have made it to either end of the alley, which meant he had to have gone over another wall and was hiding in one of the many back enclosures.

“Anyone else out here?”

Before Lethe could answer Ronan heard the sound of breaking glass. The walls were too high for him to see which house it was, but they couldn’t hide him from Lethe’s godlike perspective. “Five doors down. Your side of the street. He’s going in through one of the downstairs windows.”

It made sense. It was exactly what Ronan would have done if the roles had been reversed. The shops were empty-less chance of coming head to head with an angry homeowner with a baseball bat-and there was a 50–50 chance the shop was on a silent alarm, meaning he could try and exit with the semblance of normality, making it look like there was nothing more natural than him coming out of the closed shop.

And if he couldn’t open the door on the other side, couldn’t do it the low-key way, a chair out through the window, onto the Monster and away before anyone could stop him.

A moment later the screech of a burglar alarm kicked in and he knew exactly which house the man was in. He ran toward the sound of the siren. There was blood on the glass where the man had gone over the wall. He didn’t have a lot of choice except to follow. He boosted himself up. The shards of glass shredded his hands as his weight came down on them. Ignoring the pain, Ronan Frost heaved himself over the wall and dropped down onto the other side. The place was cluttered with empty cartons stamped with names that meant nothing to him. He tried to visualize the business side of Acorn Road and realized it was the hairdressers sandwiched between the antique store and the last of the estate agents.

“Has he come out the other side?”

“Not yet,” Lethe told him. “So watch yourself.”

He didn’t need telling twice, not with the memory of the man’s fist still imprinted on his face. He clambered in through the broken window.

There were no lights on inside, giving the other man plenty of shadows to hide in. The silhouettes of selfd-fashioned hairdryers looked like something out of an alien movie as they loomed in the darkness, with their bulbous heads and spindly skeletons all lined up against the wall. He strained, peering left and right into the darkness. He couldn’t rely upon his eyes, not in the thick darkness of the salon, so he was forced to listen harder and trust his instincts. “I know you’re in here,” he called out, not expecting an answer.

“Well aren’t you the clever one,” a woman’s voice whispered, so close to his right ear he nearly jumped out of his skin. She had an accent. It wasn’t distinct. In fact it was as though she had deliberately tried to hide it, even in those few words. He turned, reaching up a fist as she drove another sucker punch at the side of his head. He caught her wrist and wrenched it savagely downwards. He felt the small bones snap. She didn’t scream as he had expected her to. That heartbeat of expectation cost him.

Instead, she drove the heel of her left hand over the top and slammed it into his mouth, snapping his head back. She wrenched her broken arm free as Ronan stumbled back an involuntary step. He released his hold, reaching around his back instinctively for his Browning Hi-Power 9mm. Even as his hand clasped around the Mil-Tac G10 laminate grip the woman double-fisted his face, screaming when the broken bones in her right wrist grated back across each other. The agony of the blow should have knocked her out by rights. It didn’t so much as slow her down. As he doubled up she drove her knee up between his legs. He went down hard.

The pistol spilled from his fingers and skidded across the floor.

She stood over him while he tried to reach it. It was more than two feet beyond his fingertips.

“Have you made your peace with God?” she asked, walking across to the Browning. She picked it up, turned it left and right in her hand, then leveled it, drawing a steady aim on Ronan’s face. She was wearing a black balaclava. Curls of black hair crept out from beneath the hood. Cradling her broken wrist, she walked toward him slowly, kneeling until the barrel nestled up against his forehead. All it would take was the slightest shift in pressure and she would open a soul-sucking hole in the middle of his skull. With only the black wool of the balaclava around them her eyes stood out, ice-cold cobalt blue.

He could feel her breath on his face. He could feel the slight tremor of the gun against his skin. She wasn’t as cool as she made out. She was going to kill him, no doubt about that, but she wasn’t a killer. Pulling the trigger wasn’t instinctive. She had to think about it. And thinking about it meant he had a chance, even now with the gun pressed up against his skull.

There was no way he could reach up and wrestle the gun from her before she put a bullet in him, and there was no way he could wriggle out from under her either. Ronan closed his eyes. He pictured her in his mind’s eye, focusing on her broken wrist. He had one chance. He had to make it count.

He bowed his head, as though in prayer or hiding. It didn’t matter which she thought it was, only that she thought it was surrender.

He let his body go limp, accepting the inevitability of the bullet.

He felt the rhythm of her breathing change. She was mastering whatever last shred of doubt that prevented her from pulling the trigger. It was now or never.

Ronan Frost drove his head straight up.

The gun slipped off the side of his head and she fired into the floor. As the recoil jerked her back Ronan gambled his life on the fact that the surprise would leave her broken wrist unprotected. He grabbed it and yanked down on it mercilessly. She squeezed off a second shot in agony. It went into the wall. He forced her hand back impossibly, the broken bones tearing through the skin. It wouldn’t take a lot for one of the jagged edges to tear through a vein, he knew. That was the difference between them-he had killed before.

he tried to aim the Browning at him, but Ronan slammed his free arm up against hers, sending the gun spinning out of her hand. It discharged again as it hit the floor, the bullet burying itself in the wall beside his head. Ronan threw all of his weight forward, trying to unbalance the woman. She went scrambling backwards, cradling her broken wrist.

He went for the gun.

She ran for the door.

Ronan scrambled across the floor, grabbed the Browning, and rolled half onto his back. He didn’t aim, just pulled the trigger. The shot went high and wide, digging out one of the ceiling’s Artex swirls. He hadn’t expected it to hit.

The woman caught one of the standing hairdryers and, wielding it like a lance, charged at the plate glass window. It shattered around the ceramic bulb of the dryer’s head. The woman didn’t hesitate; she threw herself head-first out through the window even as the glass shattered into jagged teeth and came snapping down. She hit the street on her right knee and shoulder, rolling through the broken glass and coming up on her feet, torn and bloodied. She cast a single backward glance his way, then took off across the road, sprinting toward the press of people coming out of the subway station.

Walking through the broken glass, Ronan asked Lethe, “You got a visual on her?”

“Of course I have,” Lethe said, as though talking to a technologically retarded child. “Hang on, are you telling me a girl just beat you up?”

“Less of the chat. Just tell me where she is.”

Ronan ducked through what was left of the window. People were staring at him as he emerged onto the street. He could feel the blanket of shock that was settling over them. This was sleepy suburbia. Gunmen didn’t run out into the street. They melted away from him as he set off after the woman. He could feel their fear.

“Police,” he shouted, even though it was a lie. That one word reestablished their natural world order.

Ronan ran hard, keeping his body low, arms and legs pumping furiously as he drove himself on. He could see the woman. She had maybe forty yards on him. She had pulled the balaclava off and was running with it clutched in her right hand. She was running flat out, dodging every few steps between commuters on their way to work.

He did the math: The Browning had an effective range of fifty yards; there were a hundred other people in the street, bystanders; she was a moving target, but it was a straight shot. He could almost certainly take her down with a single, well-placed shot-all he had to do was steady himself before he took it. But that meant shooting an unarmed woman in the back. With so many people in the street there was nothing to say someone wouldn’t take a step or two the wrong way, distracted by something in a shop window or one of the newspaper headlines on the newsstand, and cross the bullet’s path. It was all too easy for someone to wind up getting hit by accident in a crowded street. The woman knew that; that was why she was running toward the thickest concentration of people. Like the old saying went, there was safety in numbers-it was just a different kind of safety.

Ronan had five seconds to take the shot if he was going to take it. After that she was going to disappear into the subway system, Lethe would lose his visual contact and Ronan would be left chasing shadows.

The crowd opened up to swallow the woman and she was gone. He cursed.

“Tell me you can see her!” he shouted into the earpiece.

t c3″ face=”Helvetica” color=”black”›“Sorry boss.”

“Bollocks!” Frost cursed again. He pushed his way between the people, but it was impossible not to be slowed down by them. On one side of the station’s entrance flowers spilled into the street, on the other, newspapers. He ran inside and hurdled the ticket barrier. There was only one way she could have gone-down to the platform. Breathing hard Ronan took three and four steps at a time. He tried to see over the heads of the commuters, but one dark, long-haired woman looked very much like another dark, long-haired woman. She was cool. She wasn’t pushing her way through the press of people, she was going with it, which made her all the more difficult to spot.

The PA system announced the impending arrival of the next southbound train in its tinny voice. He felt the ground beneath his feet begin to tremble as the subway rumbled in to the station.

He couldn’t let her get onto it, not if he wanted to find out who the hell she was working for. He squeezed between a pin-striped suit and a mohair jacket. The air was thick with perfume, cigarette smoke and diesel fumes. A busker stood in the corner where the tunnel bent around to go beneath the tracks. His riff echoed off the yellow tiles. Ronan thought about shouting “Police!” again, but people were just as likely to close ranks to make sure he didn’t catch the woman as they were to let him through.

She had to be hurting. The adrenalin would only take away so much of the pain. A broken wrist was a broken wrist. When her body came down from it she’d be in agony. Every bump and jostle against another commuter had to be sending another lancing pain through every nerve and fiber in her body-unless she’s loaded up on methamphetamines, he thought. It made sense. She hadn’t so much as flinched when he shattered her wrist. The thought didn’t exactly fill him with confidence. He’d come up against meth-heads in combat before-it was like trying to take down the bloody Terminator.

Ronan pushed passed a couple of school girls in their jailbait uniforms of short, checkered skirts and too-tight blouses.

And then he saw her.

She was halfway down the platform, weaving her way toward the dark mouth of the tunnel at the far end. He pushed past another suit, his eyes firmly fixed on the woman’s back. The train’s headlights shone brightly, illuminating the entire platform. He felt the displaced wind hit his face as the train slowed to a stop. The doors came open. She made no attempt to board the train, she just walked on toward the end of the platform. She looked over her shoulder, and Ronan saw her face for the first time.

She didn’t ha that crazed look of someone stoned out of her mind. She looked-and he couldn’t believe he was thinking it-beautiful. Heart-stoppingly so. She had that half-cast of the Middle Eastern territories and very sharp, very precise features. It bought her a few precious seconds while he tried to reconcile the beating he’d taken with the delicate beauty of the woman before him. She saw him and started to run.

She reached the end of the platform as the train started to pull out. She didn’t slow down. She jumped down onto the tracks and ran into the all-enveloping darkness of the tunnel.

He pulled the Browning and dropped to one knee, braced to fire into the mouth of the tunnel. He squeezed off a shot. The report was deafening in the confines of the tunnel, amplified by the weird acoustics. There was no accompanying grunt from the darkness. He walked toward the end of the platform.

He could hear her stumbling footsteps as she ran blindly away from him. Those same acoustics that had turned his Browning into a roaring cannon carried the scuff and scrape of her feet on the chips of stone back to him with surprising clarity. Each sound seemed so close he ought to have been able to reach out his hand and touch her.

Ronan stared after her into the black hole.

The sign said four minutes until the next train was due.

The ground beneath his feet shivered as another train rolled into the neighboring platform, scaring a rat out of its hiding place. The sleek-bodied rodent scurried across his feet and disappeared between the cracks in the wall. Ronan watched it go and lashed out at the wall in frustration. He really didn’t want to go haring off into a subway tunnel in the middle of the morning rush hour. He could think of a dozen less painful ways to commit suicide.

Still holding the Browning, he dropped down off the platform. The tunnel was unlit, so twenty feet in it became a solid wall of black. He made sure he was in the middle of the rails and set off after her. Behind him a voice came over the PA system, telling them to get off the tracks. He ignored it.

Ronan followed the woman into the tunnel and prayed to whatever god looked after Irish idiots playing on railway lines that the next train was cancelled.

A dozen paces in the darkness became absolute. He stopped dead still, trying to hear her in front of him. He couldn’t. The darkness was filled with the sound of his own heavy breathing. “Don’t do this,” he called out, still not moving. He heard something then, a soft skittering in response to his voice: more ras. “There’s nowhere to run, and in a couple of minutes the next train’s going to make this tunnel pretty bloody uncomfortable for both of us. Come on, don’t make this any more difficult than it has to be.”

He waited. Nothing.

She wasn’t coming out. He tried to think. He was really beginning to wish he’d taken the shot when he’d had the chance. She was a professional, which meant, more likely than not, she wouldn’t be carrying anything that identified her or tied her in with whoever had hired her to give Fisher’s place a going over. But even professionals made mistakes. He’d taken her by surprise. She’d run before she could find whatever it was she’d gone there looking for-which meant it was still back there waiting to be found.

He chewed on his top lip, took a deep breath.

Ronan started to walk forward. He felt out each step carefully, scuffing his toe along the rough stones until he found the safety of the next wooden tie. One step at a time he edged his way deeper into the tunnel. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure the light wasn’t too far away for him to make it back when the skin along his forearms prickled. The air around him stirred ever so slightly.

And then he felt it: the telltale tremor of the train shivering through the tracks. A moment later light swept around the corner. He saw her caught in the train’s headlights. She was no more than twenty feet in front of him, looking around frantically until she saw whatever it was she was looking for, and started to run toward the oncoming train.

Ronan knew then he wasn’t going to need to take the shot. The train would do his dirty work for him-but there would be nothing left but blood and guts on the tracks for him to pick over, and only then if he managed to get out of the tunnel himself before the train sheered his body in two. He screamed at the woman. There were no words, just this raw explosion of sound from his mouth.

Inside his cabin, the driver leaned on the horn. In the tunnel the collision of sounds was deafening: the screech of the brakes, the shriek of steel sliding on iron as the wheels locked and slid, the blare of the horn as the driver hit it over and over again, the maddening bark of the loudspeaker ordering them off the tracks, and Ronan Frost’s screams as he watched the woman running hell for leather straight at the front of the train.

And then she disappeared.

Just like that.

One minute she was there, and the next she wasn’t.

But there was no bloody detonation of flesh. No impact. No spray of blood across the headlights. No body strewn in pieces across the tracks.

The sight kept him rooted to the spot a second too long.

He felt the next breath die in his throat.

Ronan realized he didn’t have time to run. There was no way he’d make it out of the tunnel and back up onto the platform before the train slammed into his back. He knew what she’d done; she’d run for one of the service stairways.

He looked left and right. The entire tunnel lit up like midday by the onrushing headlights. He couldn’t see anywhere to hide. So much for that god, the thought flashed across his mind. Of all the “last things” he had expected to flood his final moments-beautiful women loved and lost, friends betrayed, lives taken and saved-cursing a make-believe deity hadn’t so much as registered as a possible farewell-to-the-flesh thought.

He thought about throwing himself down and lying flat on his stomach between the tracks and praying there wasn’t a trailing hook dangling from the train’s under-carriage to gut him like a fish and drag him all the way back to the city center.

The headlights were huge now, filling the tunnel. The tunnel itself wasn’t wide enough for him to press himself up against the wall. He looked down at the wheels, then at the tracks and at the curve of the wall, and realized it was his only chance. The horn blared again. Despite the shriek of the breaks the train wasn’t slowing anywhere near quickly enough to save his life. He had seconds to think.


One chance.

It all came down to the width of the tracks and the aerodynamics of the train itself. All he could do was pray there was an inch to spare.

Ronan Frost hurled himself sideways, hitting the ground hard, and wedged himself into the narrow gap between the iron rail and the concrete wall. He rolled over onto his right shoulder, face pressed right up against the cold concrete. He tried to stop breathing and meltt a trhe wall, making himself as thin as possible. The horn screeched in his ears, so close it could have been inside his head. He closed his eyes, willing himself not to flinch. The wind battered him up against the wall. Suddenly an incredible force tried to peel his head up into the train’s path.

Ronan gritted his teeth and pressed his face into the gravel. The vacuum caused by the displaced air and the train’s momentum tore at his hair. His screams were lost beneath the madness of the hellbound train. An agonized sob tore between his teeth. He resisted every impulse to throw his head back to relieve the pain, knowing that it all that was saving his life.

The duh-duh-de-duh duh-duh-de-duh of the wheels filled his head.

He couldn’t breathe.

The wind displaced by the train pummeled the Irishman up against the concrete wall, and he loved every damned second of that pain because it meant he was alive.

And then it was gone. The train had passed him, and he could breathe again. He lay there for a full thirty seconds, listening to the mad rise and fall of his own breathing, then pushed himself to his feet. He thought about going deeper into the tunnel, chasing the woman up the service stairwell to the surface, but she’d be long gone by the time he reached the top. Still, there was no way she could know he’d survived. In her place he would go back to the apartment to finish what he’d started. He had to assume she’d think like him.

Ronan Frost walked unsteadily toward the light.

He felt a warm, wet stickiness on his cheek and reached up to feel out the damage. He pulled his hand away and looked at it. There was more blood than he would have expected. The gravel had cut up the side of his face.

As he came out of the tunnel, the first of the next wave of commuters had begun to file onto the platform. A few of them looked at him curiously; the others adopted the Ostrich’s if-I-don’t-see-it-it-doesn’t-see-me attitude, deliberately not looking his way. That was what the city had become over the last few years. A decade ago a good Samaritan would have come to the end of the platform to help him up while someone else went for help. Today they watched him suspiciously as he climbed unsteadily back to the platform and walked toward them. He couldn’t blame them. He knew what he must have looked like, battered and bloody and, he realized, still holding the Browning in his right hand.

Ronan holstered the gun.

Walking back toward the entrance he hit the speed dial on the earpiece, but he’d lost the network down in the tunnel. He pushed his way through the barriers, ignoring the stares, and hit the speed dial again and again until Lethe answered: “Talk to me.”

“Lost her in the tunnels and nearly got myself flattened by the 8:30 to South Shields. All in all not the best result.”

“Oh, I’d say the nearly part was a home win. So, fill me in?”

“Female. Middle Eastern origin. Lebanese, if I was forced to guess-she had that look. Five eight with a punch like Tyson. Beautiful. And by that I don’t mean the kind of girl you want to take home to meet your mother; we’re talking life as a willing sex slave.”

“I’ll run her against Six’s active database. If she’s running out of the Middle East, odds are Intelligence has got something on her,” Lethe said in his ear. “Maybe they’ve got a ‘hot assassin’ search string set up.”

“She used one of the emergency service stairwells on the southbound rail, maybe fifty yards inside the tunnel. Can you pull up the schematics and see where she’ll have come out?” Ronan asked, ignoring him.

“Already on it, Frosty. Looking for live stream CCTV in the vicinity right now. If she came out that way, I’ll find her, have no fear.”

Ronan walked back toward the apartment on Acorn Road. As he had expected, the police had begun to gather outside the broken window of the hairdressing salon. He had to get back inside Fisher’s place, but he could hardly walk up to the front door looking the way he did; and the back alley was already crawling with cops.

A row of magpies sat on the guttering above the hairdresser’s. He counted them, doing the old rhyme in his head: One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver.

He walked on two streets and stripped out of his leathers and stuffed them behind one of the dumpsters. He would collect them later. One of the bystanders was sure to remember the leather-clad biker who had come chasing the woman out of the broken window. They wouldn’t remember the gray-haired guy in the designer suit.

He took a handkerchief from his pocket, wadded it up and dabbed at his face, using it to soak up the worst of the blood, then dumped it in a trash can. He couldn’t exactly clean himself up properly, but he looked different enough to pass a cursory inspection.

It was all about the instantly recognizable details-that was the way the brain worked. It registered the leathers and more than likely demonized the man holding the gun. Witnesses were unreliable at the best of times. Out of the leathers and tidied up, none of them would identify him as the demon.

“Well,” he said to himself, “time to put the theory to the test.”

He walked back to the alley behind Fisher’s place.

There were two policemen standing guard at the hair-dressers gate.

He said hi as he walked past them. That was part of the trick, having the brass balls to look like you belonged there, no matter where there was. He had to keep his back turned away from them. The last thing he needed was one of them noticing the blood stains. The older of the two police lifted his radio and talked into it. He seemed to be taking a little too much interest in Ronan. He didn’t want him looking too closely.

Ronan kept his pace regular, resisting the temptation to walk faster. He willed the policeman to look away, but he didn’t. Just look like you belong, he said to himself. Keep it natural. You live here. They have no reason to think otherwise. Just walk up to the gate and open it. He was glad he’d taken the extra few seconds to open the green gate before. Now as he reached it, he thumbed down the latch, pushed it open and walked inside. It was a lot less suspicious than boosting himself up over the glass-topped wall.

Inside it took him less than two minutes to find what he’d been looking for.

Beside the computer in the study there was a photo of Fisher and his two girls, and tucked into the frame was one of those little photo-booth instant snaps. The woman in the smaller picture was unmistakably Catherine Meadows. She was cheek-to-cheek and laughing with Sebastian Fisher, and it was obvious in that one photograph that they were in love.

What could make a man burn himself ive? he asked himself, and this time he knew the answer, the only answer: to protect someone he loved.

Sebastian Fisher had loved three people. One of them had burned alive with him-a different place, but the precise same moment in time. The other two were missing.

He called in to Lethe again. “Found the leverage. Some-one took Fisher’s kids.” Judging by the picture and the toys in the room, he made an educated guess at their respective ages, six and eight.

“Bollocks,” Jude Lethe said.

“He was involved with Catherine Meadows, so it isn’t out of the question that Fisher’s kids were used to keep her in line as well. There are enough signs about the place to suggest the pair all but lived together. We aren’t talking an underwear drawer-she’s got half the closet space, half the drawers, and a bathroom cabinet full of cosmetics.”

“Have I told you how much I hate people?” Lethe said. “What are the chances of us getting the kids back alive?”

It wasn’t something Ronan wanted to think about. The truth of the matter was, the kids were almost certainly dead now that they’d outlived their usefulness. “Not going to happen,” Ronan said, rifling the desk drawers as he spoke. “Any joy with the surveillance cameras?”

“Your Jane Bond didn’t come out of the tunnels through any service exit within five hundred yards of where you lost her. Sorry, man. Odds are she doubled back after you were gone and hopped on the next train out of there.” It made sense. She had been thinking at least three moves ahead of him, and that rattled Ronan Frost.

Ronan opened the bottom drawer. Inside was a photograph album that looked as though it had seen better days. He pulled it out and opened it up. It was full of younger versions of Sebastian Fisher and Catherine Meadows mugging for the camera. He thumbed through the pages, looking at the ghosts of two happy people. On the back of the sixth side he found what he was looking for. The top of the page was marked up Masada. The entire gatefold was filled with similar images: the harsh sun, the sand and parched grass and the ruins of the hill fort. He peeled away the film and pocketed each of the photographs. The last one was a group shot of the archeology team. On the back, in neat feminine script, someone had listed the names of the people in the photo. There were thirty in the shot. He recognized almost half of them without having to look up their names.

Four of the Israeli helpers were listed by first name only.

The fifth, shirt sleeves rolled up, eyes like burned-out coals, was labeled as Akim Caspi. Even though he had only seen the one photo of the man in full military regalia, and factoring in the passage of time and unreliable memory, there was no way on God’s earth that the Akim Caspi in the picture was the same Akim Caspi that had been a lieutenant general in the Israeli Defense Force.

Things, as Orla Nyren liked to say, were beginning to get interesting.