SHARK BAIT free sample chapters
* * * STEELE * * *
The worst time to get pulled over by the cops is when you have a body in the boot.
I had no idea the pair of headlights in my rear-view mirror belonged to a police car. Bloody typical. And it wasn’t just the little guy in the boot. I had a gym bag full of stolen cash on the passenger seat, a handgun in the footwell, and a bullet wound in my left arm. Which hurt like hell.
The blue flashers came on. The siren chirped twice.
“Oh, Jesus Christ.”
That’s all I needed. As if tonight hadn’t been hard enough.
No one else on the road. I indicated, pulled over. Put the transmission paddle into neutral. Left the engine running. Hoped the cop wouldn't notice the blood running down my left arm. Or the gun.
He'd freak if he saw the gun. This is England. Police have a can of CS spray, a little baton thing that looks like a squeezy toy, and maybe a taser if they’re lucky. They get awful jumpy over guys with guns.
Even guys like me, who are allowed them.
The police car pulled in behind me. Vauxhall Astra. A policeman got out. He was alone. Budget cuts, I guess. He ambled over, admiring my car.
And so he should. It’s a Mercedes S500. Obsidian black like the night. Costs about eighty grand.
I wound down my window, and he saw me and gave a wry smile. Of course he did. I look like a car thief. Pasty. Bedraggled. Mid-forties. The sunken eyes of a druggy and an unkempt ginger beard like a Scottish hobo.
I’d taken off my jacket to bandage up the bullet wound. I stank of sweat and smoke. At least the dots of blood would be hard to see on my black shirt.
“Is there a problem, officer?” I asked. I have a strong, memorable Scottish accent.
The cop raised his eyebrows. “Do you know how fast you were going?”
I did. Sixty-six mph exactly. “No more than fifty, surely.”
“At one point you were doing seventy.”
Bit of a liberty. “Seventy? Really?”
“I’m going to have to write you out a ticket, I’m afraid.”
“Okay.” It’s not like I’ll have to pay it. Better to get this over with before he began asking me questions about my nice car, or my arm, or what was in the boot to make it sit so low.
“Do you have your driving licence?”
“Not with me.” I don’t carry it when I’m working. No point.
The cop pondered. Then he said, “Can you turn the engine off, sir.”
I thought about just driving away, but the borough’s chief superintendent was already a bit fed up with me. I’d overstayed my welcome, and he wouldn’t appreciate me leading his officers on a wild goose chase after everything else. So I turned off the engine.
“Is this your vehicle?” the policeman asked.
“Yes.” It wasn’t, not really, but all the documents would say it was. HQ was careful about such things.
“I think I’ll just check that.”
Be my guest. I just stared at him.
As he turned away he noticed my bandage. “What have you done to your arm?”
The guy in the boot shot me before I could return the favour. I said, “I walked into a door.” Cute, I know. But I was getting fed up. I still had things to do tonight, and pandering to the police was not one of them.
“You walked into a door.”
“Aye. The handle was sharp.”
I don't think he believed me. “What’s in the bag?” He nodded at the purple gym bag on the passenger seat.
Money. Lots of it. I don’t know how much because it’s not mine. It belongs to the guy in the boot. I said, “My overnight bag. I’m staying at a hotel.” Hence the Scottish accent.
He weighed everything up. Friday night. Nice car. Fortyish Scottish vagrant. Bandaged arm. Looks high on drugs. “Would you step out of the vehicle please, sir.”
There we go. Inevitable, really.
He tried to open my door, but it was locked and he just stood flapping the handle.
I sighed. Time to show my ID, then. I braced my feet, pushed up off the seat and pulled my wallet out of my left trouser pocket. Awkward. Had to do it with my right hand, because my left arm was dead as a plank of wood.
And the cop just stood flapping the handle and saying, “Out of the car, sir, out of the car.”
And that’s when the guy in the boot woke up.
* * * * *
He began banging and calling out.
Me and the cop just stared at each other for a moment, and then, before he could radio in for back-up, I got my wallet open and held it up to his face.
My ID. My LV licence. Black and gold. Security Service stencilled on top. My name: John Steele. My photo: ginger and rugged. Quite like a mug shot. My LV number. Signed by Jacqui Smith, who was Home Secretary when it was issued.
The cop let go of the handle, took a step back. His eyes widened.
Exactly as expected. I have that effect on people.
The guy in the boot kept banging and yelling out, but the policeman didn’t look like he heard. Probably zoned out. He stammered, “W-what’s that?”
“You know what. I’m sure your duty inspector told you all about me.”
The cop swallowed. “Y-you... you're the guy...”
“Yes.” I'm the LV. And it doesn’t stand for long vehicle.
It stands for Licensed Vigilante. A government hitman, contracted as a last resort to take out those criminals the police can’t touch. You know the ones - the masterminds with the expensive lawyers who muddy evidence, who silence and intimidate witnesses, who are above the law. They know how to stay out of prison. The Criminal Justice System can't bring them down, so I have to.
I’m a ghost. I don’t exist.
And I kill criminals for a living.
The guy in the boot, for instance. One of the Carlucci brothers. Biggest drug barons outside London. Specialists in MDMA. Better known in table form as E, X or XTC. Ecstasy. The party drug. And the Carlucci product would give you a five hour high instead of the usual three and a half.
The Carluccis were untouchable. No hard evidence whatsoever, just rumours on the street and a white tablet stamped with the letter C. Witnesses went missing. Dealers refused to implicate them, or ended up dead in the showers. The Carlucci family lawyer had made a lot of money over the years keeping them out of prison.
Hence the contract. The security service wanted both brothers taking out.
I’d blown up the bigger brother in their den half an hour before. Maybe now I could go on my way and actually finish the job.
And then get to a hospital, because I’m not Sylvester Stallone. I needed stitches.
The cop backed away from the car as if he might catch something. Whispered into his radio, shooting me wide-eyed looks like I might breathe fire on him or something. Then he came back over to me and burbled out, “I... I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t realise it was you...”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“If I’d known I’d have never...”
“Hey, it’s fine.” I started the Merc’s engine. Put the automatic transmission into drive with my right hand. “Just remember: you never saw me. Okay?”
“I don’t exist.”
The guy in the boot was still making a racket, and the cop fidgeted and bit his lower lip and finally said, “Who’ve you got in there, sir?”
“Oh, just some bad guy.” And then I drove away.
* * * * *
About five minutes later my phone rang over my Merc's hands-free. I answered with the button on my steering wheel and Dawn Gainsborough, my operations manager from HQ, said, “Steele, have you got someone in your boot?”
The drugs den had its own exterior security camera system, and HQ had hacked into it and obviously seen me kidnap the tiny Italian drug baron and drive off with him.
“Why exactly is Little Carlucci in your boot?”
Little Carlucci wasn't his real name, of course. We just called him that because his actual name was something stupid and Italian and unpronounceable, and at least 'Little Carlucci' was descriptive.
“He tripped an alarm,” I said. “Or someone did.”
“We knew that would happen.”
“Aye. Well I couldn't hang around and question him there in case more of his guys turned up.”
“They have turned up.”
“Well there you go. And also the building was on fire.”
“Yes, I did notice. The smoke's really thick and the security feed is grainy as it is, but I think I counted six black Land Rovers pull into the car park. About twenty men with guns got out and rushed inside even though the building was on fire.”
“They're too late. Big Carlucci's dead. I blew half his head off.”
I heard keys clacking. Dawn updating the file. “You want to tell me what happened?”
I summed it up for her in a couple of sentences. Plan worked. Went in. Boom. Got out. Got shot.
“You got shot?”
“Only in my arm. No big deal. It's just a flesh wound.”
“Well are you okay?”
“Fine. Apart from being shot.”
“Do you want…”
“No, I'm fine, really. But I won’t be doing cartwheels any time soon.”
“Can you estimate the number of fatalities?” Dawn asked.
“No civilians. Enemies…” I counted up as I drove. “Nine or ten. Targets; one eliminated and one remaining, soon to be eliminated.”
“Where are you taking him?”
“Somewhere secluded. I want the lab location.”
“Be careful, Steele. I recommend you finish this as quickly as possible and get out of there.”
“Advice noted.” And ignored. “Are the Land Rovers still there?”
“Well let me know when you're sure they're gone. I don't want to let the local police and fire go in and get them shot.”
“No problem, I'll let you know.”
“Thanks.” I hung up. Pulled up in a rundown industrial part of town, in the shadow of a long abandoned factory. Totally deserted at this time of night.
I picked up the pistol from the passenger footwell. This too belonged to the Carlucci in my boot. A Beretta, of course. Italian. One of the 90 series. 9mm calibre. 17 in the magazine, minus the ones he’d shot at me.
Little Carlucci was still banging about back there.
I got out. My arm hurt like a bitch, and blood roses still bloomed up on the bandage. Perhaps I should have wound it tighter. Still. I was in a rush. And it could have been worse. The bullet had barely grazed the bone. Could have shattered my shoulder.
Or hit me in the face.
Still. I needed to get to the hospital as soon as I’d finished up here.
I opened the boot and pointed the Beretta. Little Carlucci lay folded up in there like a foetus. At least he wasn’t his brother. Big Carlucci never would have fitted. Not that I’d have been able to lift him, not with my busted left arm. I’d had enough trouble with the smaller brother.
Little Carlucci raised a hand, blinked at the barrel of his own Beretta. His face was a mess, all bloody where I’d hit him with the butt of the gun.
I transferred the Beretta to my left hand, even though I could barely hold it up. I needed my right hand to haul him out of the boot. He slumped to the road and cried out, clutching his leg where I’d shot him twenty minutes ago. It hadn’t been a great shot. I’d been aiming for his heart. But in my defence I had been diving through the air at the same time.
The boot stank all coppery. Crap. There was a lot of blood. A lot. I must have hit his femoral artery.
That'll take ages to clean up.
I slammed the boot shut.
Little Carlucci didn’t even bother trying to crawl away. Just rolled over and stared at me, blood pumping everywhere.
“You die for this,” he said, his accent even thicker than normal. I think I’d bust his jaw. “Think my father will let you get away with this, eh?”
‘Eh’ to rhyme with yeah, not yay.
I shrugged. “He’s in Italy. He won’t be bothering me.”
“What you want, eh?”
My bonus, of course. “Information,” I said. “Where is your MDMA lab?”
He spat blood. “I never tell you. Bastardo.”
My Italian isn't great, but I got the gist. “Now that's just rude.”
“You shot me!”
“You shot me, too.”
Little Carlucci rested his head back against the road. The blood had drained from his face. Probably out his leg. “Who are you, eh?”
“I'm no one. Just some guy, you know.”
“I don't know you.”
“That's not what I meant.” I pointed the Beretta at him again. “Last chance. Where is your lab?”
He couldn't speak. Just lay there, his breathing getting raspy.
I realised he was already as good as dead. He'd lost too much blood, and even if I'd tried to bandage the wound and call an ambulance he was likely to be dead before it arrived.
Not that I had any intention of calling an ambulance.
He lost consciousness soon after, bled out and died in the street.
“Ah shit,” I said. There goes my bonus.
Oh well. He should have gone to prison like a good boy.
I waited for Dawn to phone back, which she did a few minutes later. “They're gone,” she said.
“Positive. The smoke's thick, but I've run the tape again – seven cars go in and seven came back out again.”
“Thanks, I'll let Andrews know. Little Carlucci's dead.”
“Okay, I'll close the file. Cause of death?”
“Blood loss from a gunshot wound to the leg.”
“Did you find out the lab location?”
“No. The bastardo died on me.”
“Never mind. Hopefully some of his people will start to talk now.”
“We'll see.” I hung up and called Chief Superintendent George Andrews, who answered on the second ring.
“Is it done, Steele?”
No greeting. As I said, my continued presence was probably starting to piss him off. He’d obviously been sat waiting for confirmation ever since my last call, two hours earlier, just before I’d gone into the drugs den.
“Yes. Both Carlucci brothers are dead.”
Andrews sighed. “Okay then. So – we done?”
“Aye. You can send in fire and the armed response now. You shouldn't have any trouble.”
He snorted, because all I'd done is bring him trouble. “I hope not.”
“I've got the younger brother with me, though.” I checked for a street name on my satnav. “I'm at the end of Upper Mill Road in the industrial estate. Could you send a van?”
Andrews didn't ask why I'd driven into the industrial estate with Little Carlucci's corpse, just grunted an okay and hung up without saying goodbye.
None of this was a surprise. The police have never known how to react around people like me. Licensed Vigilantes. Ghosts. Government hitmen. People who don’t really exist, who really are above the law. A mixture of awe and trepidation, usually.
The ambulance arrived ten minutes later. No blue lights.
They zipped him up and loaded him in the back. I got one of the paramedics to have a look at my wound and bandage it properly, but I was still told to go to the hospital.
The ambulance disappeared, and I returned to my Mercedes. Checked my left arm again. Blood was now blooming through the fresh bandages. I put the Beretta on the passenger seat and opened the purple gym bag. Whistled. Cash, and lots of it. Twenties, in thousand pound bundles. Too much to count now, but probably between forty and fifty grand.
And mine. I could keep all salvage from my contracts as long as they were completed. And this one was, finally, after two weeks of planning, two weeks relocation, two weeks being John Steele. Both Carluccis taken care of in an evening’s raid.
I fancied an extended break. After I returned the car to HQ and debriefed I’d have a few months at home. Perhaps just take little local jobs. I’d been away for too long.
I put the Merc into drive and turned on the CD player. Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, 1st movement. Slow and moody, perfect wind-down music. I pulled away, heading back into town through the deserted side streets.
And then I saw him, stumbling along the pavement and tripping over his own feet. The man who would complicate everything.
* * * BROOKER * * *
Jeremy Peters owed me fourteen grand.
And the bastard refused to pay me.
He kept saying that he didn't have it or it was too much or he needed more time and generally took the piss.
I mean, was that fair? Did he think it was a goddamn gift?
Was I supposed to just leave him alone? Let him waltz off into the sunset with his ugly wife and my money?
He would pay me. I’d make sure of that.
So at about half seven we picked him up off the street.
You should have seen his face when I pulled up in my Porsche beside him.
“Get in,” I said.
“G-Gary...” Jeremy stammered. His eyes flicked to the back seat, because I had Baz and Terry with me. “I... I have to get this home to my wife…”
A bottle of wine. I raised my eyebrows. “You can afford Pinot Grigio but can't afford to give me my money.”
My guys got out, in case he needed any persuading.
He swallowed. He got in. Terry and Baz squashed in either side of him and Baz took the wine.
“Where are you t-taking me?”
“Oh, not far,” I said. “We just need a chat. Iron out a few things. Make sure we understand each other.”
“Er, Mr Brooker, I think. We're past the niceties now. We're talking business.”
“I'm sorry, Mr Brooker...”
“Later. We'll talk later. When we get there.”
“You got somethin' wrong with you, Peters?” Baz growled, shutting Jeremy right up. “You keep yer mouth shut until Mr Brooker asks you somethin', right? Or do I need to shut yer mouth for yeh?”
Jeremy fell silent and turned pale, shrank in his seat as if he could disappear.
I smiled. That was more like it.
We took him to Stu's garage. The other mechanic had gone home for the weekend so we had the place to ourselves.
Stu was waiting for us. I drove up the ramp and he closed the roller doors behind us.
“Bring him.” I got out. The guys dragged Jeremy after me.
“Right through here, boss,” Stu said, and led the way into the garage proper, between shelves of tools and tyres.
He'd put up a chair in an empty corner, and we shoved Jeremy into it. He sat there shaking, drained of colour, his hands outstretched.
Baz had brought in the bottle of wine. “Do you have any glasses, Stu?”
“There are mugs in the kitchen.”
“Sound.” Baz disappeared off.
The rest of us just stared down at Jeremy, at his wide roaming eyes and the gross film of sweat on his upper lip.
We stood there in silence for five minutes. I was hoping Jeremy would crack and say something, start grovelling, but he just sat there and shook.
Baz returned, expertly carrying three mugs and the bottle. He passed the mugs to me, Stu and Terry and kept the bottle for himself.
We drank Jeremy's wine in silence and stared at him.
The bastard still wouldn't say anything. Wouldn't apologise. Probably didn't think he'd even done anything wrong. I know the type; my wife is exactly the same.
“Where's my money?” I growled.
Jeremy stuttered. “I... Mr Brooker, I told you… fourteen thousand is too much…”
“You shouldn't have borrowed it if you couldn't pay it back.”
“But I only borrowed six...”
“The rest is interest.”
“... I've already paid you back eight…”
“Are you arguing with me, Jeremy?”
He fell silent. Looked from me to Terry to Stu to Baz. Baz was tapping the bottle against his thigh, as if he might lunge forward any second and smash it over Jeremy's head.
And if he did I wouldn't be entirely surprised.
“Please... I just need more time…” Jeremy managed.
“Oh, I'll give you time. You can sit here and work out how you're going to pay me.”
Jeremy blinked. “H-here?”
“Give me your phone.”
He stared at me like I was talking Chinese or something. “My phone?”
“Yes Jeremy, your phone. I don't want your wife to think you've gone missing and call the police.”
He paused. “Please don't bring my wife into it any more…”
“Give me your phone!” And I threw the rest of my wine over him.
One of the guys laughed.
Jeremy wiped his face, dug his phone from inside his coat and handed it over.
“That's better.” I scrolled through his contacts, found 'Home' and dialled.
Mrs Peters answered. “Hi Love.”
And I said, “Afraid not. Guess again.”
“Who... who is this?”
I grinned at the crack in her voice. “It's Gary Brooker. Remember me?”
A long pause. “What have you done to my husband?”
“Oh he's right here, he's fine. We're just having a little chat. I didn't want you to get worried when he didn't come home. The wine was very nice, by the way.”
“I'll... I'll call the police…”
“Now that'd be a very bad idea. Like I said, we're only talking. And you know what would happen if the police started sniffing round. What we did to you before will be nothing to what happens if you start screwing with me, you crazy bitch. And Jeremy. You don't want anything to happen to him, do you? Do you?”
And she croaked, “No.”
“Right then. But like I said, we're only talking. Tell her, Jeremy.” I passed the phone to him.
He said into it, “Honey, I'm fine, honestly. No - we are just talking. I'll sort it out, trust me. Yes. I love you. He wants the phone back.”
He handed it over and I said, “Don't do anything stupid Mrs Peters. He'll be home in a few hours,” and then hung up before the jabbering old cow could reply.
Jeremy said, “A few hours?”
“Yes. As I said, you need time to work out how to get me my money. I get that. So here it is. Your thinking time. Stu, tie his hands.”
* * * * *
We tied his hands behind his back and to his ankles with some tubing. Slight strain on his muscles. He'd start feeling it in a while, and that was just fine.
Then Baz blindfolded and gagged him with a couple of rags. He didn't like that. Began shaking and sobbing. And that was fine too.
We left him like that for more than an hour. Terry went and got pizza, and then the four of us sat in the office eating and watching TV with the door ajar so we could keep an eye on Jeremy.
After a couple of hours we untied him. He was moaning and moping and all his muscles had clamped up so he fell off the chair. We left him lying stretched out for a few minutes and then removed the rags from his eyes and mouth.
“P-please…” he gasped. “My legs…”
“What? You want a massage?” Baz laughed.
“And it hurts me to have to do it,” I said. “But you have my money and I want it back.”
“We have some jewellery we could sell,” Jeremy gasped. “Gold and silver… I'll… I'll sell my grandfather's watch…”
“Okay. That's better. How much is all that worth?”
“I'm not sure… must be a few thousand…”
I highly doubted that, but he was on the right track. “What else?”
“My car! I'll sell my car!”
“No point, Jeremy. It's a heap of shit. You wouldn't get two hundred quid for it, so you may as well keep it. I'm not unreasonable.” I thought for a moment. “Is that it? Some jewellery and an old watch?”
“Er, I... I don't…”
“What about your TV? Computer?”
“We don't have a computer and you've seen our TV - it's about twenty years old!”
That was true. It was a huge brown box of a thing that still had tubes in it. “Well Jeremy, a few thousand pounds isn't quite fourteen grand, is it.”
His face dropped. “I... But...”
“It's not enough.”
“No, please... It's all we have!”
“We'll see about that.” Actually, I'd be happy with an extra three or four thousand pounds. I'd leant Jeremy six, and he'd already paid back eight so I could end up doubling my money. Not great by any means, but I'd pushed Jeremy and his wife pretty hard already.
No harm in trying for a little more, though.
“Put him back in the chair.”
The guys tied him up again, but left his legs free this time because it's not like we're psychopaths, and then I gagged him myself but left off the blindfold.
“You need to do better,” I told him, “or else you're going to make us do things we don't want to do.”
And Stu picked up a wrench and tapped it against his palm. Tap tap tap. Stu was good with that wrench.
“I guess you'd prefer your legs to stay as they are, in one piece?” I asked.
Stu tapped the wrench against Jeremy's shins.
Jeremy wriggled and sobbed and nearly shat himself.
“It'd be a shame,” I continued, “to live out the rest of your life in a wheelchair for the sake of a few thousand pounds, don't you think?”
Jeremy tried to say something. But the gag.
“I think we'll leave you a bit longer to see what you can come up with,” I said. “Just to make sure there's nothing you've... forgotten. Okay?”
I blindfolded him, and we left him there again and went back into Stu's office and watched a film and had a couple of beers.
And then evening had become night time. Jeremy sat with his head down as if he were asleep, but he snapped to attention when he heard us walk over. Began shaking.
I relieved him of his gag and before I'd even removed his blindfold he spat out, “There are medals!”
I stepped back. “Medals.”
“My father's, from World War II.” He dropped his head and sighed. “They're worth about thirteen thousand pounds. We had them valued a few years ago.”
And boy my heart! It started racing, I can tell you!
I tried to keep a straight face. “You have medals worth thirteen thousand pounds?”
I knew the coy bastard was hoarding something!
“Yes,” he said. “My father was awarded a Distinguised Service Order and a Distinguised Flying Cross.”
“Jesus Christ. That's more like it!” I untied him and handed him back his phone. “Go home and get them. I'll send someone round to pick them up.”
I still had contacts from my bailiff days, and knew I'd be able to sell them on with little trouble if Jeremy had what he said he did. “If I get thirteen grand for them we'll call it quits. How about that? You can keep your jewellery. Stu, open the doors.”
Jeremy said nothing as I steered him down the ramp. I don't know why he looked so goddamn miserable - hadn't I just said we'd be quits?
I turned to Baz. “Baz, take Jeremy home and make sure he doesn't arse about.”
Jeremy jumped as if he'd been electrocuted. “No - I'll get a taxi. I'm not having him anywhere near my house.”
That surprised me. Not the fact that Jeremy didn't want Baz anywhere near him - Baz was nuts - but that Jeremy actually had the balls to say it.
“Fine,” I said. “Fine. You go. I'll send Jermaine to pick them up. Do not mess him about, right?”
“Do not keep him waiting.”
“I'll be as q-quick as I can.”
“Good.” I grinned. “Off you go then.”
Baz gave Jeremy one of his ball-shrivelling smiles.
It almost made me shiver. I was surprised Jeremy didn't wet his pants.
Jeremy hobbled off into the night, and I watched after him with a warm glow in my chest.
And I thought, score.
Baz stood and watched him too, wearing a strange smile. “Gary, I want to kill that dickhead,” he said.
I didn't answer, because I thought he probably meant it.
* * * STEELE * * *
My first thought was that the guy stumbling around was probably drunk. Friday night, past 11pm - not exactly unheard of. But then, where exactly had he got drunk? This place seemed an industrial wasteland. Hardly a likely place for a nightclub or bar, I'd have thought. Not that I'm an expert - I haven't had anything stronger than tea for years, and I'm pretty sure the clubbing scene has moved on quite a bit without me.
I slowed down, and the guy limped on and then tripped off the curb and fell across the road. I stamped the brake and stopped a few yards away, illuminating him in my headlights. He grabbed at his legs and began rubbing them furiously as if to relieve cramp.
I sighed. All I wanted to do was go to the hospital and get some stitches and pain relief and then get the hell out of Carlucci territory. I could have probably driven around him (and I admit it crossed my mind). Carjackings come in many forms, and this could be one of them.
Thief sees nice car, thinks he'd like to take it on a joy ride. First step: get the car to stop. Many ways to do this. At traffic lights and junctions is the most usual, when the car is already stationary and the job is done. Running out into the road is another. Falling into the road is a bit more elaborate, I admit, but it kind of leads into the next step:
Get the driver out of the car. Even with the popularity of the Grand Theft Auto video games, many people don't lock their doors and a thief can get in the passenger seat and 'encourage' the driver out with a knife (or a gun). I guess it's easier if the driver gets out on their own accord, so thieves put paper on rear windows, forcing the driver to get out and remove it. Pretending to be ill or injured could work just as well. Guy falls into road, stopping car (step one), and driver gets out to see if he's okay (step two).
Many people wouldn't bother turning off the engine and removing the key, making step three (steal the car) fairly straightforward. Thief, and maybe some friends, appear, jump in and drive off. Perhaps after overpowering the driver. Or knocking them unconscious.
I put on the handbrake. Looked around. Pretty sure the guy in the road didn't have any friends hanging round. But perhaps he had a knife instead, and was just waiting for me to go over and see if he was alright.
He sat up and looked over at my Merc. Raised his hands, maybe against my headlights, maybe in apology.
Maybe asking for help.
Fine. I turned off the engine and the headlights. Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata cut out mid-3rd movement as the CD player powered down. I winced as I pulled my jacket on to hide my bandaged arm. Took the key. Climbed slowly out, on guard for any signs of approaching carjackers. Nothing. I shut the door. Locked it. Put the key in my pocket.
If the guy planned to carjack me he was going to get a shock. I walked over.
He didn't look like a carjacker. He must have been about sixty. Hair greying and thin. He climbed warily to his feet, trembling all over, and I fancied not just from the cold because sweat dotted his forehead and upper lip. He was as pale as a ghost, and so we stood there looking at each other, two ghosts in the moonlight.
“Are you okay?” I asked. Dumb question. I took another look round, just to make sure no one was creeping up on me.
“Do you have any phone signal?” he asked. Whimpered it, actually. “It was fine in… but... I need to get through to my wife and it keeps cutting off…”
I downgraded him from carjacker to potential phone thief. If I handed him my phone would he try to run off with it on his cramping legs?
I doubted it.
So I handed him my phone. He thanked me, and didn't try to run off with it. Fumbled in a number and put the phone to his ear. Stuttered, “Hi Love, it's me. No, I'm okay, I couldn't get through on my mobile… No, they didn't really hurt me, they just…” He looked at me, looked at the ground and lowered his voice. “They were just trying to scare me. You didn't call the police, did you? Good. Look, I'm going to call a taxi - would you… would you look out my father's medals for me. Yes, Love. They're in a box in the wardrobe. No, please don't argue, just get them for me, okay? I'll be half an hour. Bye, I love you.” He hung up. Looked back at me. “Could I call a taxi? My wife doesn't drive…”
“Of course.” Then, “Who tried to scare you?”
He looked dumbly at my phone. “Oh, just…some guys. Do... do you have a number for a taxi place?”
“No. I'm not from around here.”
He said nothing else, just stared down at my phone as if the number for a taxi firm might miraculously appear on the screen.
Oh great. Just what I needed. “Do you need to get back into town?”
“Yes, but I…”
“Do you want a lift?”
He blinked. “What?”
“Do you want a lift home?”
It was a simple question, but my kindness had surprised him. He'd got himself into trouble. Physically, he looked unhurt apart from his cramping legs. But someone, or a few someones, had scared him witless.
“I... I...” he garbled.
He wanted a lift home, but I looked like a serial killer. I was a serial killer, technically. But I'd probably keep that to myself.
I remembered the Beretta in the passenger footwell. He'd freak if he saw it. Telling him I only killed bad guys wouldn't make him feel any better, I imagined.
So I took my phone back off him and returned to my car, round the bonnet, unlocked and opened the passenger door. Unzipped the purple gym bag and hid the gun inside, out of his view. And then I noticed in the footwell the dummy watch that had doubled as a detonator, and although he wouldn't know what it was I thought I better hide that in there too. Then I took the gym bag out and put it on the back seat. Left the passenger door open.
“You coming?” I asked him.
I think he clocked that my car was a Merc, and that may have swayed him.
He limped over. “Thank you so much. I don't live far...”
“No worries. I have to head back into town anyway.” To go to the bleeding hospital.
I circled round and got behind the wheel.
He got in beside me. “Nice car.” A little envious.
“Thanks.” I half thought you might be planning to steal it. “Give me your postcode and I'll satnav it. That'll be easier.”
He did so. Shut the door. Shivered whilst I programmed it in. “Thanks for this. I'm Jeremy Peters.”
“Steele. John Steele.” I didn't mean to do a James Bond impression, it just came out.
“It's not too much out of your way, is it?”
The satnav finished calculating, and yes, it was very much out of my way. “Not at all.” I started the car and pulled away.
“You live in town?”
“No. I'm staying in a Travelodge. I'm only here on business.”
“Ah. You're Scottish?”
“Aye.” Hence the Scottish accent. “You want to tell me what happened to you, Jeremy?”
“W-what do you mean?”
“I mean, how did you end up stranded out here? It's nearly midnight.”
“I… it's nothing.”
“Doesn't look like nothing.”
“No, it's... I'm fine, honestly.”
He was not fine, honestly. He was a wreck. But he obviously didn't want to talk about it, so we drove in silence. I ran the conversation Jeremy had had with his wife through my mind. Well, his part of it, which was the only side I could hear.
No, they didn't really hurt me...
He'd said that almost at the beginning. So the first thing his wife must have asked him was, Are you hurt? Are you okay? Perhaps even, Did they hurt you?
And he'd replied, No, they didn't really hurt me.
So she must have known something had happened, that he was in trouble, or she wouldn't have asked. She must have known Jeremy had been with people who might hurt him.
And it wasn't He didn't really hurt me, it was They didn't really hurt me.
So it wasn't just one guy, it was at least two. Maybe more.
You didn't call the police, did you? Good.
That was the most worrying thing. Jeremy had obviously been frightened for his own safety, but he didn't want the police involved. He'd been worried his wife might call them, I guess because he thought that would make things worse.
You didn't call the police, did you?
Presumably she'd said no, because the next thing he'd said was, Good.
And why wouldn't his wife have called the police if she thought Jeremy was in danger? Maybe because she had been warned of the consequences.
Would you look out my father's medals for me… No, please don't argue…
That was intriguing. Jeremy wanted his father's medals for something, and I had a feeling it wasn't just to clean them. It must have been because of the guys who had frightened him - did they want the medals for themselves? Had they been intimidating him into handing them over like some fascist antique dealers or something?
No, please don't argue…
Jeremy's wife hadn't wanted to look out the medals - she'd argued about it. But Jeremy had insisted.
So who were the guys? Who had Jeremy got himself in trouble with?
I began to find out fifteen minutes later when I pulled up outside his house.
* * * * *
There was a white van parked across the street facing us with its headlights glaring.
Jeremy saw it and blanched.
“He's sent... Oh, it doesn't matter. What do I owe you?”
“Well, thanks very much for the lift, John. I appreciate it.” Jeremy got out and made his way across the drive giving the white van a long look.
He's sent... Two words. But I got a lot from them. Whoever the guys were, the ones who were scaring him out of his father's medals, there was a bossman out there somewhere, and the rest of the guys were just his goons.
Like the guy in the white van. I assumed it was a guy. Not because women couldn't be tough (some of the women I've come across could pound me to a pulp), but because big bossmen operating beneath the police radar don't often see women as likely adversaries.
Except the Chinese. I've seen Rush Hour.
So the guy in the white van. Just another goon. A nobody, cresting on the reputation of his boss.
I don't like goons.
Jeremy was half way across his drive when the driver's door of the white van opened. A huge black guy got out, flopped from the cabin to the pavement like a blob. He was almost the size of a sumo wrestler, and sumo wrestler types make me laugh because of their little heads. “I'm watching you, Peters,” said the blob.
Jeremy stopped and turned, hunched his head like a turtle. “I'm just getting them...”
“Well go on then, what are you waiting for?”
God what an arsehole.
“Hurry up, Peters, Mr Brooker doesn't like to be kept waiting.”
And hey presto, the big bossman had a name.
It took Jeremy about ten seconds to get his house key steady and in the lock. He disappeared inside and shut the front door behind him.
The blob was chuckling to himself and shaking his head.
Oh Jesus. I thought about getting out. Nothing to fear from a sumo wrestler type as long as they don't fall on you. Too slow. They move like jelly. And yes, they have enough protection round the middle but remember their little heads. Pop. And once they're down they don't get up easily.
He had left the key in and the engine running. I had a huge irrational urge to steal his van and crash it somewhere.
But I stayed in my car, because I'd just blown up a drugs den and been shot in the arm and I was almost done, running on empty, and I doubted my adrenaline would sustain another confrontation.
Although a part of me wanted to, a large part.
The blob noticed I hadn't driven off and turned and stared at my Merc. I could see his brain working. First he frowned, and then he winced against the headlights and peered closer. And then he said, “That's not a taxi.”
I swear he said it out loud. Probably found thinking difficult.
I put my headlights on full-beam. Immature, I know. He shielded his eyes as if from a bomb blast and took a couple of steps back. “What the hell, man?”
I stopped full-beaming him. Perhaps he'd think it was an accident.
He didn't look in the forgiving mood, and for one moment I thought he was going to come right over to my car.
But then Jeremy came back outside. He held an A4 envelope, and brandished it. “Here.”
The blob turned his attention to Jeremy. Took the envelope. “Bout time.” Opened it, and pulled out an enamelled white cross by the ribbon.
My stomach lurched. Jesus Christ, it was a Distinguished Service Order. They didn't give out those for nothing.
The blob returned the DSO and started rummaging around some more. There must have been other medals in there too, but he didn't pull anything else out. Just said, “This lot's worth thirteen grand?”
My stomach again, like I was on a rollercoaster.
“T-that's what I was told,” Jeremy stuttered. “We had them professionally valued...”
Thirteen thousand pounds? Jeremy's father must have been a highly decorated officer. There must have been more than the DSO in there - perhaps an award for gallantry too, or an Albert Medal Group or a Military Cross with two bars, something like that.
And Jeremy was just handing them over?
“I hope you're right, Peters,” The blob said, unconvinced, “because if Mr Brooker discovers you've been lying to him...”
“I haven't, I swear.”
I wanted to put a stop to this. I wanted to get out the car and take the medals back and take the blob down.
Ordinarily I would have done so without another thought.
But ordinarily I felt better than this.
The blob got back in his van, medals in hand. Jeremy stood on the drive and watched the envelope disappear inside the cabin, and then put his head down.
I took off my seatbelt and turned off the ignition.
The van pulled away. I watched it go.
You can't get involved, I told myself. You have to get out of town. If the Carluccis catch up with you in this state you're dead.
I couldn't really argue with that. So I let the van drive off.
Mrs Peters appeared at my driver's door, and I wound down my window. “Jeremy said you gave him a lift home,” she said. “I just wanted to say thank you. That was very kind.” She'd come out without a coat and shivered.
“No problem at all.” I smiled at her. She tried to smile back, but I think she'd forgotten how. Her face was thin and gaunt and she had bags like pockets under her eyes. “Who was that guy in the van?”
“He…” She sighed. “Oh, no one.”
“He works for Mr Brooker?”
She'd turned back towards the house but my words stopped her. “You know Gary?”
And suddenly the big bossman had a full name. Gary Brooker. I could picture him. A bald-headed builder-type in T-shirt and jeans, holding a can of beer in one hand and a lit fag in the other.
“Not personally.” Not yet. “Why did your husband hand over those medals?” I couldn't help myself, I had to ask.
Mrs Peters pursed her lips. “He owed Gary money.”
Ah. Of course.
“Jeremy only borrowed six thousand,” she continued. “And we've already paid Gary back eight.”
I blinked. “You borrowed six and you've already paid back eight?”
“Yes. And now he wants another fourteen thousand. Hence the medals. He said he'll leave us alone if Jeremy hands them over.”
Gary Brooker was a loan shark, then. Happy to lend you money as long as you're happy to pay back five times as much in the long run.
Jeremy came over then and put an arm around his wife's shoulder. “It's over, love.”
She tried a smile, but it didn't reach her eyes. “We've thought that before.”
He didn't answer, just turned to me and said, “Thank you again, John, for the lift. I was really in a pickle...”
I said, “Do they threaten you?”
Jeremy paused. “I'm sorry?”
I thought about the blob coming here and how Jeremy had looked when he'd seen him. Oh no... He's sent…
“Do they threaten you?” I asked again. “Gary and his guys?”
They looked at each other without say anything.
So that would be a yes.
Jeremy cleared his throat. “Well, goodbye,” he said, and took his wife firmly by the hand.
She gave me a small, pained smile and then disappeared back up the drive with her husband.
I wound up the window and pulled off, feeling anger bubble beneath my skin. I clenched my teeth and my right hand tightened on the steering wheel.
Gary Brooker and his goons had frightened the Peters so much Jeremy was prepared to give away what must have been a treasured family heirloom.
I sighed. Nothing I could do. The Carluccis knew what I looked like and knew what car I drove, and I was exhausted and shot in the arm.
But then I saw the white van again.
It was parked up in a road on my right, and I could see the blob by the glow of a lamp post. He was on his phone, no doubt telling this Gary Brooker that he had the medals and was on his way. That everything was fine and dandy.
I thought of how I would feel if someone tried to steal my own father's medals. He hadn't won anything quite so valuable, but still. I'd be pretty furious, I reckon.
The difference, of course, was that Jeremy hadn't won any of his own. Perhaps if he had this Gary Brooker would never have picked on him.
But I had.
I'd won the Military Cross and Iraq Medal. I had nothing to fear from this lowlife small-time crook.
I shouldn't get involved.
I wanted to.
So I hung back and waited for the white van to carry on its journey, and when it did I followed him. I couldn't help it.