An Intense West Africa Thriller Excerpt From The Break Line By James Brabazon

An Intense Thriller: Excerpt From The Break Line By James Brabazon

As one of the first impossible-to-put-down thrillers of 2019, The Break Line by James Brabazon is a propulsive, high-concept new novel from a unique new voice in the genre.

A journalist and filmmaker, debut author James Brabazon has traveled to some of the most hostile environments on the planet, including Sierra Leone, where the book is set.

The book is the first installment in a series featuring Max McLean: When it comes to killing terrorists British intelligence has always had one man they could rely on, Max. As an assassin, he’s never missed, but Max has made one miscalculation and now he has to pay the price.

His handlers send him to Sierra Leone on a seemingly one-way mission. What he finds is a horror from beyond his nightmares. Rebel forces are loose in the jungle and someone or something is slaughtering innocent villagers.

It’s his job to root out the monster behind these abominations, but he soon discovers that London may consider him the most disposable piece in this operation.

What follows is an excerpt from this intense West Africa thriller, provided to Mystery Tribune by Berkley Publishing.

*****

PROLOGUE – LAST NIGHT

SUNDAY, MARCH 27, 1994

 

IT BEGAN A LONG TIME AGO. I WAS NINETEEN THEN AND A SOLDIER.

Not a killer.

Early that evening, I was called to Colonel Ellard’s office. He sent an orderly, who asked me to bring my rifle and follow him immediately. I asked if I was in trouble, and the orderly shrugged and smiled.

“There’s a man with him. Smart suit. They’re in a hurry.” We took off down the corridor at the double. The orderly smiled again and hung back, not wanting to be sent on another errand. I entered the room alone. Colonel Ellard was inside with the man who had been watching me all day. He sat at the back of the office behind the door. I couldn’t see him clearly.

That morning, when the sergeant major told us to break for a smoke, I’d noticed him standing inside the wire next to the main gate. It was not long after sunrise, and the air was still cold. He had his hands in the trouser pockets of a dark gray suit and stared at me as I lit and then smoked half a Marlboro. The jacket had a red silk lining that flashed in the breeze and thin lapels that framed a white shirt open at the neck. I ground the cigarette out on a galvanized bin and stared back at him, and he turned and walked briskly to‑ward the officers’ mess. He wasn’t wearing a coat and he was unshaven, which made me wonder where he’d come from.

Later that day I saw him again, speaking to Colonel Ellard. They were pointing at me as I laid out my kit—rifle, slip, scope, suppressor and box of twenty rounds—and then he walked toward me while I lay prone on the firing line. Without introducing himself, he knelt down and asked me if I could see the retaining bolt that held the hundred‑meter target in place. Through the scope I could, I told him. The man asked me to shoot it. I did. Then I looked up at him. He studied my face intently, as if looking for something he’d lost, and then walked away.

I stood in the office, at ease. According to the custom at Raven Hill, no salutes were exchanged, but you could never quite relax with the colonel. He was so soft‑spoken that it was hard to hear him on the range, and so patient with us that he made you feel, instantly, as if his entire focus was on you, and you alone. He was the last Irish officer in the British Army to come up through the ranks. “Not from private, but from the pits,” he told new recruits: before he enlisted, he’d cut coal on his back in the Arigna mines in County Roscommon. Now Ellard walked tall. He expected, and received, absolute obedience. What we feared was not his wrath but his disappointment. And, because they worked, we were unquestioningly dedicated to his methods. We were, all of us, terrified of him, too—because we liked him but did not understand him. I’d learned quickly in the army that there was no progress of any kind without the fuel of fear.

The man asked me to shoot it. I did. Then I looked up at him. He studied my face intently, as if looking for something he’d lost…

Sitting behind the walnut desk in his office, Colonel Ellard motioned for me to give him my rifle, so I detached the magazine and pulled back the bolt twice to show that the breech was clear and handed it over. It was his policy that our weapons always be amber: charged magazine on, nothing in the chamber. He placed it carefully on the desk.

“Thank you. You’ll find a black Mercedes out the front. Jump in and wait. You’re not driving.”

I made to leave. He raised his right hand to stop me and nodded toward the man.

“Max, this is Commander Knight. You are to follow orders from him as if they were given by me. He is your commanding officer until further notice.”

An Intense West Africa Thriller Excerpt From The Break Line By James Brabazon venezuela

Knight sat behind me and said nothing. I saw his face clearly as I walked out. He’d shaved. He smiled and gave me a curt nod of recognition.

I sat in the front passenger seat. Ten minutes later, Knight stepped outside and put in the boot of the car a rifle sheathed in a slip. He joined me and took the wheel. We drove for an hour and didn’t speak. I didn’t have anything to say. It was early spring. Dun‑colored hills soaked up the last of the evening light. The clocks had gone forward that morning, and the late dusk was unsettling. We were circling a large village due west of Belfast on a metaled road coated with mud well trodden by tractor tires and peppered with cow pats. We looped behind the tallest hill and found the moon rising above Lough Neagh.

At a checkpoint below a cut in the road manned by crap hats, we were joined by two soldiers in civvies—most probably from the SAS or the Det. No one saluted. They climbed in the back and seemed comfortable with Knight. They must have met before. Fifteen minutes later, we stopped again. I got out first and saw that one of our passengers had a SIG semi-automatic pistol stuck in the waistband of his jeans. Knight asked me to take the rifle from the boot of the Mercedes and walk with him off the road, directly up the hill. His accent was from Dublin, sharpened in an English public school, and reminded me of my father’s Irish lilt. They would have been the same age, too, had my father lived. The man’s brogues found no purchase on the smooth grass, and more than once he stumbled, so that he had to steady his ascent with outstretched palms. It had been a hot day in the end, and I’d been burned by the sun; now there was a chill, and the air was sharp and brittle again.

As we climbed higher, I began first to smell and then to hear the village. It was a Sunday. Traditional Irish music tumbled out the swinging pub door and down the hillside. A tang of roasting meat lifted on the breeze off the lake, mixing with the reek of peat smoke and wet grass.

Finally, the climb leveled off onto a broad grassy saddle. We ran slowly and at a crouch to the lee of the hill facing the south side of the village, the straps of the rifle slip bunched in my right hand. I could see the evening dew had soaked into Knight’s suit from where he had stumbled. Dark patches spread out from his knees and ringed his cuffs.

Below us, the kitchen clatter that heralded the end of dinner filtered through the half‑open window of a stone house. I took a map and a pair of binoculars from one of the plainclothes opera‑tors who’d followed us up, and I checked the range.

Three hundred meters away, in the failing light, I could see a family of seven lit by a single tungsten bulb, framed by net curtains darkened by smoke from the open hearth. Four children babbled and whooped, whirling round the table, licking grease off their fingers and taking empty plates to a middle‑aged woman in the kitchen. She stood, as if transfixed, behind a deep butler’s sink beneath a second window. At the head of the table a man sat with another child on his lap, a young girl with long hair the color of threshed corn. His daughter. Knight crouched next to me and handed me a charged magazine.

“The man at the head of the table has blood on his hands. Your orders are to kill him.”

“Yes, sir. Understood.”

I eased the rifle from the padded slip. It was my rifle. Despite the bumps and knocks of the journey, it would have kept its zero. I clipped on the magazine, adjusted the scope’s elevation drum and brought the glass in front of my eye. Inside the house I could see the stains on the man’s shirt, the shaving cut on his neck from when he’d prepared for Mass that morning. I saw his daughter’s lips moving. Their eyes were the mirror image of each other’s. I saw his chest rise, watched the rhythm of his breath. The target turned his face to the gathering gloom and stared out the window, listening to the girl. I fed a round into the chamber. The wind dropped. There were no adjustments to make: safety off, weapon live.

“Sir?”

“Weapons free.”

The horizontal line of the crosshairs ran beneath the target’s eyes. The vertical bar divided the tip of his nose. He inclined his head, resting his chin on the girl’s scalp. Time stopped. Taking the first gentle pressure on the trigger, the pad of my index finger crept to a stop, and then drew a hairbreadth farther back.

Nothing.

The clocks restarted. Only the faint, dry echo of metal on metal remained above the sound of blood pumping in my ears, oxygen rushing in my throat. I cleared the breech and chambered an‑other round. A flash of brass glinted in my right eye as the dead cartridge spun out in front of Knight’s face next to me. I settled the crosshairs. We were alone again, the target, his daughter and I. She touched his cheek. He looked out the window straight at me, seeming to hold my monocular gaze. First pressure: already I was part of him, following the pin into the cartridge; already I was tethered to the bullet.

He inclined his head, resting his chin on the girl’s scalp. Time stopped.

Again, nothing.

I gulped a lungful of air and felt the grass‑wet palm of Com‑mander Knight on the back of my right hand as I tensed and moved to rework the bolt. And then those three words that still wake me.

“You did well.”

The firing pin had been removed from my rifle. It was the final test in Knight’s search for what he later described as a “legally sane psychopath.”

“Your father,” he said as we returned to the car, “would be proud of you.”

*****

CHAPTER 1: TWENTY – THREE YEARS LATER

 

I PICKED HER UP AT THE 360˚ ROOF BAR. SHE WAS ALREADY HALF-CUT.

Her ex‑boyfriend was the political officer at the US embassy in Caracas—a crew‑cut spy with a face like a potato and a weakness for local women. He’d dumped her the week before, or so I’d been told. I guessed she was either drowning her sorrows or still celebrating. Outside, the city was disintegrating. Everyone was drinking hard.

I bought her a rum and lemon, cracked a joke in deliberately shaky Spanish and sat down beside her.

“How do you know I’m not expecting someone?” she asked. “Because you’ve been waiting for me all these years, corazón.” She laughed, and her elbow slipped on the mahogany table. A slop of the sticky dark rum ran over her knuckles. She licked it off.

“Just think how much more fun us two blonds could have.” I raised my glass to her. “Double trouble.”

“Double trouble,” she repeated in Spanish with a wide, sad smile. “I’m Ana María.”

She held up her glass, too, and looked at me, waiting.

There we were: a businessman chatting up a local girl at a discreet corner table on the upper terrace, taking in each other and the view. Except she wasn’t a local girl. And I was supposed to kill her.

“My name is Max,” I said. “Max McLean.”

We touched glasses and each took a long swallow of rum. It seemed like an unnecessary cruelty to lie to her, that dead woman drinking. I was growing tired of being everyone except myself.

Spy fucking is bad for your health in Venezuela, especially for the jilted mistress of the Russian ambassador to Cuba. She was nothing, it seemed, if not consistent in her lousy choice of lovers. Now she’d seen and heard enough to get her promoted onto everyone’s kill list. If we hadn’t got to her first, the Russians would have been close behind.

She drank and talked, and I laughed and listened hard. I don’t like killing women, and I don’t like doing the Americans’ dirty work for them. I don’t like killing anyone. And after another glass of rum, I didn’t want to kill her. Not because she was pretty, or fun to have a drink with, but because when you’re about to kill someone up close like that, you watch them very carefully first. Whether you want to or not, you get to know them before they are dead. Time distorts. What would normally take weeks—months, even—to pass between two people is compressed into fast minutes; seconds, sometimes. The emotional pressure cooker of near death evaporates every superfluous detail until all you are left with is the essence of the person you’re going to kill.

She drank and talked, and I laughed and listened hard. I don’t like killing women, and I don’t like doing the Americans’ dirty work for them.

And I didn’t want to kill her because that process of reduction didn’t leave me convinced. Instead, it left me with the sense of something being terribly wrong. None of the details of the brief checked out. Her cover story—that she was a doctor on holiday— was repeated with unnatural nonchalance. Her tipsy banter was light and unforced. She was either an exceptional professional or innocent. And very few people are that good.

I checked in and queried the target. The response was immediate: Verified. Proceed.

But it didn’t feel right. And it has to.

To kill at point‑blank, to feel a last breath on you as the light gutters out of a person’s eyes, that is something—something to live with forever. I’ve killed a lot of people. Some were holding a bomb or a pistol or a cell phone or a switch; some knew things they couldn’t unlearn, had seen things they couldn’t unsee. Some died for good reason. Others didn’t.

That was the purpose of training. That was why I had been sent to Raven Hill. Training ensured you pulled the trigger when asked. No questions.

Most squaddies want to miss their target. My job is different.

For me there are no misses. Only consequences.

But I have to believe in the shot.

So I didn’t take her to the killing place.

Instead I plucked her phone from her handbag and excused myself. I took the lift to the hotel lobby on the ground floor, and I checked into the room I’d arranged to kill her in. I ripped the tracker from the hem of my jeans and left it with her cell phone in the bedside drawer. As a precaution I took the battery out of my own phone.

By the time I’d sprinted back up the fire stairs and scooped her up again, she’d barely noticed I’d been gone.

Half an hour later, we dropped down to the parking lot and wove our way through late‑night Caracas traffic in a private taxi to a low‑rent hotel room at the Garden Suites. We arrived just before two a.m.

Upstairs, I’d held her from behind as we fell on the bed, push‑ing her mane of dirty‑blond hair aside as she sprawled on the mattress to reveal the point, high on the nap e of her neck, where I’d meant to place the muzzle. Then I saw it. Or rather, didn’t see it. Ana María Petrova has a scar the size of a bottle top at the base of her skull where the ambassador’s ovcharka took a lump out of her. This Ana María didn’t have a ready‑made target carved on her. Squirming around onto her back, she giggled and hooked her thumbs into the waistband of her panties. She wasn’t even a natural blonde.

It wasn’t her at all.

My stomach heaved. The unease in my guts spewed up into my mouth. I spat bile into the bathroom sink and ran the taps on my wrists, shaking. She’d been very close to never waking up again.

But you knew, I reassured myself. You knew.

Two hours and half a dozen Diplomático rums later and we both passed out.

*****

THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.

I could hear the mortars before they landed. The air rips. Long, metallic screeches like sheets of black steel being shredded in the night sky. The first bombs landed in a cluster of three, creeping toward our position: one to the left, far out; one to the right, closer; then one behind—closer still. Rapid, deadly triangulation. Then the first white‑hot shards of shrapnel hissed past at head height. Caught in the open. No cover. I dropped and balled up—fetal and braced for impact.

Where was she? Where was Ana María?

Around me, the elbows, chins, bootheels of other men grubbed in the dust. The slightest, shallowest groove you can plow just might make the difference between being shredded or not.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The reports were hard, flat, close and rapid. Then the bombardment paused, and there was only ringing silence. My ears screamed.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

And then a bright white burst of light and a rush of air and sound wrenched me to my senses like a flood tide ripping stone from a storm‑slapped beach.

Ceiling fan. Slatted blinds. Running water.

Caracas.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

“¿Señor?”

Empty bed, sweat‑soaked, twisted sheets. Alone.

Ten a.m. and already the air was heavy, sticky.

She must have left.

“¡Servicio de habitación!”

I reached over and patted the low bedside table, searching out the red and white package and the barrel of a plastic lighter.

Three left.

I drew a cigarette out, lit it and sucked the smoke down. The room pulled into focus as the reality of the dream receded. Sometimes it was Afghanistan, sometimes Iraq. Or Colombia. Uganda. Syria. London.

Almost every day began like that, robbed of clarity by a night of searing dreams. It was easier waking up in the war. Any war. At least I knew where I was then.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

“¿Señor?”

There were hotel staff in the corridor to deal with.

“Su desayuno, señor.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m here. I’m just . . . Espérate.”

Running water.

The shower.

I hadn’t ordered breakfast.

I reached under the bed and tore free the stolen police Glock I’d tap ed beneath the mattress. Somewhere a Venezuelan cop was being framed for a hit that hadn’t happened.

“¡Servicio de habitación!”

A key rattled in the lock. Stopped by a sliding bolt, the door caught with a bang, opening less than an inch. The pressure in the room shifted, sucking at a loose pane in the window that overlooked a garden below.

“OK,” I barked. I dropped the Marlboro into the dregs of her last rum and steadied myself at the foot of the bed, naked. This wasn’t going to be easy.

“¿Qué tal?”

I pulled the bedroom door open, free of its restraining bolt: pistol at waist height; muzzle jammed flat‑on against the plywood paneling.

Early twenties. Sunburned forehead. Neat, close‑cut brown hair. White shirt, black tie. Black waistcoat. Shiny shoes.

“Señor . . .”

His left fist was clenched and held high as if in some mad Communist salute, poised to resume its drumming; his right hand was hidden under an unfolded napkin spread out on a service cart.

MI6 peon.

“Can we do this in English? It’s been a long night.” His right arm sagged. He looked deflated.

“And you can take your hand off that SIG, too.” He stared at me, unblinking, alarmed. “Now.”

“Mr. . . . Mr. McLean,” the peon whispered in English as his empty right hand emerged. “I’ve got orders to—”

“Take me to the embassy, where I’ll receive new orders.” “Yes, and—”

“My current assignment is terminated.”

“Yes, and—”

“I’m in deep shit.”

He looked obliquely along the hallway. “Yes. And . . . Look, I’m sorry, but could I—”

I shut the door on him and hooked the bolt back on. Either they’d let me get away with it or someone had fucked up. Passing out half‑cut in bed with Ana María hadn’t been part of the plan.

By rights they should have had the door off the hinges as soon as I’d walked through it. I listened carefully. No movement outside.

And then I remembered. I didn’t have a plan.

She was in the shower all right, planted like a statue under a fountain, staring into a white‑tiled void. She turned silently when she saw me in the mirror, her eyes widening. I realized I was naked, and that I was carrying a gun.

“¡Coño! Max, qué . . . ?”

I put my fingers to my lips and held up the semi-auto side‑on, unthreatening. She turned around properly, and I pushed back the glass splash screen. Her eyes were dilated, carotid pulse fluttering.

“Ana María.” She moved to stop the water. My left hand caught her wrist. “I have to go. Right now.”

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Her nostrils flared. I let go of her wrist and put my finger back to my lips.

Muffled by the bathroom door and jets of water, the knocking outside was barely audible. She heard it nonetheless and relaxed.

“Who’s that, your fucking wife?”

“It’s complicated. You’re not who I thought you were.” “What? You are a fucking liar,” she hissed in English, her eyes moving between mine and the pistol. Fine spray misted the air between us. It was hard to see properly.

“Wrong Cubana.”

“Wrong Cubana? ¡Coño! You are like fucking unbelievable. You fucked the wrong woman? Eh?”

Then in Russian. “Idi na khui! Mudak!” London had got that bit right at least. And I did feel like an asshole.

“Caracas isn’t safe,” I replied in Russian. Of the many gifts my mother gave me, Moscow street slang was one of the greatest.

“Not with maricones like you around.” She slipped back into Spanish, which was progress of sorts.

“There are men outside who will kill you if they see you. Stay in here. In exactly five minutes ride the lift to the first floor, then take the fire stairs.” I was whispering in Spanish. “Leave through the restaurant out the back and into the children’s playground. Walk up to the tennis club and get them to call you a taxi. I’ve taken your phone.”

“You stole my phone?”

“No. Well, yes. It’s complicated. Don’t look over your shoulder and don’t come back. Do you understand?”

She didn’t.

“Listen. There’s money on the table. . . .” Her mouth pursed as if to spit at me.

“No! Not for that. Ana María, please. Get out of the city. Take a week on the beach out of town and then go back to Havana, even Moscow. Take the money and go. They’d kill me, too. Trust me.”

I tried to kiss her cheek, but she jerked her head away. I touched the back of my hand to her breast. She didn’t move.

“I was supposed to . . .” I could barely get the words out. Train‑ing: it helped you to pull triggers and keep your trap shut. I wasn’t doing great at either right now. “People,” I struggled on, “very dangerous people, my people, think you are someone else. And they want that someone else dead.” She stared at me blankly. “Now you’ve seen my face. You know my name. That’s enough to get you killed, too. For real. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? Fuck, Max, you know what? So am I. ¡Coño! ” She pinched the water out of her eyes. “Get out,” she whispered. “Go.” I stopped the shower and turned around, taking a towel off the back of the door to wipe my face as I left.

She stood there shaking and spoke my name again. But she didn’t follow me. Her chances of making it out alive were slim. One way or another, I’d likely killed her anyway.

I pulled my clothes on, tucked the pistol into my jeans and opened the door onto my chaperone, pushing him and the service cart he’d hijacked a couple of feet down the corridor.

“Let’s go.”

He was staring at the side of my face.

“Sir?”

I looked down at him as we clicked off along the parquet corridor.

“How did you know I . . . I mean, do I . . .”

“Because your bottom waistcoat button is undone. And please stop calling me ‘sir.’ ”

*****

CHAPTER 2

 

“ARE YOU CARRYING?” JIM JONES, THE LOCAL TEAM COMMANDER

at the British embassy, looked at me through his Oakleys. “Stupid question.”

“Fuck, McLean.” He addressed me like a father exasperated with a naughty child. “OK, what are you carrying?”

“Very stupid question.”

We were pulling through Caracas traffic, already close to the safe house.

“McLean, are you or are you not armed?” His bald head showed a throbbing vein in bas‑relief. I smiled at him as I dropped the black‑market 9mm into his lap, hamming up my Irish accent for good measure.

“Dere ye go, liddle fella. An’ don’t ye go hurtin’ y’self wi’ dat, now.”

Jim had spent more time in the SBS lying in ditches in Armagh than he had in boats. He wasn’t exactly a fan of my fellow countrymen.

“Prick,” he sighed. He would have had orders to kill me if I’d run.

“And there was me thinking that sergeant majors still call their superiors ‘sir’ in the army.”

“It’s a good job I’m in the fucking navy, then, isn’t it? Sir.” We both laughed. The MI6 peon laughed, too, but stopped when Jim took his Oakleys off and looked at him. We climbed out at Calle el Vigía. The villa was tucked up on the side of a hill, looking down over the inner‑city air base.

“McLean,” Jones cautioned as we turned our backs on the SUV, “word to the wise before you meet the gaffer. You stink of pussy.” He cracked a broad smile. “Sir.”

HE WAS CLEAN- SHAVEN now, and his trademark Savile Row suit was a little tighter round the waist, but in most respects Com‑mander Frank Knight didn’t seem to have been touched by the years that stretched between the chilly dawn on the firing line at Raven Hill when I’d first seen him and that sweaty morning in Caracas.

Twenty‑three years of sheer, bloody mayhem. I’d seen him grow old; he’d watched me grow up. Without him I’d have had blood on my saddle a long time back. And without me, he was fond of reminding me, he’d have taken early retirement.

“If it isn’t the big fella himself.” He took my hand firmly as if to shake it, but just held it fast, gripping the top of my right arm with his left hand as he did so. He looked over my shoulder and then straight at me.

“You fucked up, Max.”

“I fucked up?”

“Oh, yes. Goddamn, blast, confound and fuck the Office, but you should have killed her.” He was speaking quickly and quietly. Like everyone else who was in it, he always referred to MI6 as “the Office.”

“Frank—”

“No, Max. No. Do not fucking speak.” His voice rose. “You had one job. One kill. Not question. Not think. Not fuck. I mean, fuck her and then kill her if you must. Christ in heaven! Kill her and then fuck her for all I care. But please do actually kill your fucking target, McLean.”

By the end he was shouting my name, his voice deadened by the soft seventies furnishings that dulled the room.

“It was the wrong woman, Frank. You want a murderer? Then pay a sicario.”

His shoulders sagged.

“You are the sicario, Max.”

He sounded tired. But that was the truth. I was the hit man.

Right woman, wrong woman: obey orders. Boom.

“What happens now?”

“You’re going back to London. King is livid, of course.”

Out the window I could see Jones’s silhouette circling the SUV; he was getting ready to chaperone me to the airport.

“Max?”

My eyes flicked back toward his.

“Will I face a court‑martial?”

“Absolutely not. You will face King. Court‑martial? Have you gone stark raving mad? You are not a schoolboy going to the head‑master’s office. You have just spectacularly fucked up a very black, black op. Which is ironic, because . . .” Frank paused, as if weigh‑ing carefully the words that came next. “Because, believe it or not, King’s going to propose you take command of Raven Hill. Or at least he was. Who knows after this cock‑up?” I didn’t speak. Frank continued. “Colonel Ellard should have retired five years ago. Longer, actually. And the truth is—the very bloody irritating truth is—that there just isn’t anyone else who can do it. But . . .after this . . .” He spread his hands wide as if everything that had happened in the last twelve hours had somehow unfolded in the room we stood in. “The Yanks are bloody pissed off, of course. And so am I, McLean. So am I.”

Twenty‑three years of sheer, bloody mayhem. I’d seen him grow old; he’d watched me grow up. Without him I’d have had blood on my saddle a long time back.

“Seems to me that ’m working for a bunch of amateurs.” I shook the last Marlboro out of the pack and struck a match. “That we are working for a bunch of amateurs.” The smoke soothed and cloyed by turn in the thick, wet air. “You want me to take command of Raven Hill? That’s fucking news, isn’t it? So tell me, Frank, please tell me so I can tell all those bright‑eyed boys and girls, how I—I—fucked up by not killing the wrong woman. I don’t know who the madman is here, but right now I’m feeling pretty sane.”

“ Because—do I really have to spell this out after all these years?—because she saw your bloody face. It’s just that simple. Forget everything else. You’re valuable because you’re one of the best damned shots that’s probably ever lived. You’re priceless be‑cause you don’t exist—at least not outside of our mob.”

We stared at each other across the room, but I wasn’t seeing anything but Ana María: her hair wild, her breasts under my palms, the tang of her still on my fingers, mingling with the cigarette smoke. This woman, this unknown woman to whom I’d told my name and who should be dead, still lingered like a ghost on my skin.

“Do you know who she is?”

“Your target. Period.”

“Oh, do fuck off. Let me guess: you have no idea and nothing to say other than, ‘You fucked up.’”

“Yup, that’s about the size of it. And we shouldn’t be having this conversation. And you know why we shouldn’t be? Because she’s supposed to be dead. Christ, man, what were you thinking?” He was roaring at me. I drew hard on the cigarette and waited. The color and excitement drained from his face until he was as beige as the walls that enclosed us.

“King wants to make you a lieutenant colonel. A commissioned lieutenant colonel. That’s not just rare. It’s unheard of.” He spoke calmly. Deliberately. “There’d be a one‑year probationary period. And then Raven Hill would be yours, and with it, if you want it, an identity, any identity. You’d get your life back. A proper life. No more killing. No more running. Fuck, Max McLean would even get a pension.”

“I don’t have a life to get back, Frank.” I looked around the room. “I mean here I am, right?”

He must have known I’d have considered what it would be like taking over from Ellard—not that anyone could ever replace the old man. In fact we’d even spoken about it briefly once, after I’d been shot up in an ambush outside Algiers. There would come a point, and sooner rather than later at this rate, when I would have to stop. Maybe letting Ana María go had been my way of putting the brakes on. But then what? Indefinite gardening leave wasn’t exactly tempting, or even an option, given how hard it would be to tend roses while looking constantly over my shoulder. No, I knew full well, and had done before I passed out at Raven Hill, that I would either have to be tethered to them forever or vanish.

I’d disappeared once already. And this was where it had got me. “Well, maybe you’d better start thinking about what sort of life you do want,” Frank continued. “It’s damned hard to stop

being unknown and not get killed doing it.”

“Have you found her?” There was everywhere to look but at him. I didn’t know whether to tell him to shove his job or thank him from the bottom of my heart. My weakness made me angry. Still, it surprised me that my hands were shaking. “Frank, we’ve done lots of jobs together. But this . . .”

“This is what? Murder?” A fringe of sweat was eating into the fold of his shirt collar: a dark blue, spreading necklace. I looked him in the face, blankly. “No,” he continued, “she wasn’t the target you thought she was. But she was your target. And you don’t get to choose which targets you kill and which you don’t. Most forty‑two‑year‑old assassins have worked at least that much out by now. And if you don’t like it, be my guest to try to change it from the top down. But not now, not while you’re still bloody operational, for God’s sake. This is madness.”

“Have you found her?”

“There are always consequences, Max. Always. And you know when it goes wrong? Really wrong? When you second‑guess what those consequences might be.”

“You haven’t, have you?” I permitted myself a smile then, pointing at Frank with the lit cigarette. “You haven’t found her. And you aren’t going to. Fuck. You really fucked it, didn’t you?” I could see him grit his teeth. He craned his face toward the unmoving ceiling fan as if willing it to turn. Maybe he was searching for inspiration.

“No, Max, you fucked it for me. Congratulations.”

We stood in silence for a moment. He looked back down at me. They must have hacked the CCTV at the 360˚ Roof Bar and tracked me back to the Garden Suites in real time. Why not kill her then and there themselves? Jim Jones was about as likely to have a crisis of conscience killing a pretty girl as to start whistling “Danny Boy.” Perhaps dyed‑blond Ana María had been the real target all along, and Frank had wanted her dead. Or maybe he’d had second thoughts, too.

“So, Max,” he sighed, “I’d be enormously grateful if you’d unfuck it for me.”

“How so?” It was hard not to sneer. It felt like I was winning. “King is going to offer you another job, and, if you want command of Raven Hill, your last job off the books.” Seeing my eye‑brows shoot up, he added quickly, “And no, it’s nothing to do with

this bloody blonde that got away.”

“Offer or order? And she wasn’t blond. Trust me.” “Offer. But it’s a good one. You’ll like it.”

“Sure it will be. Don’t tell me—I get thirty pieces of silver for betraying some other poor sap with a kiss and then get to hang myself in the officers’ mess at Raven Hill. And to think I actually believed for a moment that you were making me an offer. I kill for you; you throw me a bone. Same as it ever was. It’s a good job I like you, Frank.”

“And it’s a good job I have the patience of bloody Job. Raven Hill isn’t a bone. It’s the fattened fucking calf. Jesus.” Frank sighed deeply, almost desperately. “It’s been a long time that we’ve worked together—what, twenty years?”

“Twenty‑three,” I corrected.

“Mind if I tell you a story?”

“Knock yourself out. But if you’re going to tell me that once upon a time there was a wee Irish lad who pulled the trigger when you asked him to, you can fuck off.”

He folded his arms, and then let them hang loose by his sides. “No. Once upon a time, when I was a subaltern, and long be‑fore you and I met at Raven Hill, there was a girl. A young girl, mind. Eight? Nine? Dirty feet, scraped‑back greasy hair. Up in the hills, during Aden. Can see her clear as a bell. She flew at my mate with a knife as we were searching a bus. It all happened so fast, but the thing was, I had my Browning out already, waving the locals off the bus with it. I got a bead on her immediately. I can still see the look on her, screaming above the sights as she ran at him.”

Now Frank was looking out the window. There was no air‑conditioning. The room was boiling.

“I didn’t do it, Max. Couldn’t. Just couldn’t do it. Not to a girl, d’y’see? I just stood there like a damned fool not doing or saying anything while she clobbered him.”

He turned back to look at me. His eyes were wet, but whether it was from sweat or tears was impossible to tell.

“She took a chunk out of him, all right. He was lucky not to lose his eye. But it turned out it was just a bloody comb. A hair comb. Not a knife.”

I stubbed the cigarette out on the empty packet.

“And what did he say to you afterward, this mate of yours?” “He said, ‘Next time, shoot the bitch.’ ”

Frank crossed the room and pulled open the door, pausing as it rasped on the deep‑pile carpet. An RAMC nurse in civvies followed its slow swing into the room, small black medical bag in one hand, clipboard in the other, ready for my post‑operational medical assessment.

“Think about the offer, McLean,” Frank said as he slid into the darkened hallway beyond. “Much misunderstood, your kind. I’d say right now you need all the breaks you can get.”

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Instinct A Flash Fiction About School Shooting By Philip Berry
Instinct: A Flash Fiction About School Shooting By Philip Berry