A: A father. A husband. A killer. In that order.
Q: I understand you met your wife, Maxine, on Christmas day on a beach in the Caribbean. Who made the first move? You or her?
Q: You went on a boat trip shortly after that, with her on board. Where did you travel to?
Q: Couldn’t you tell us where?
A: I could, but then I’d have to kill you.
Q: And now you’ve settled back in the UK. Is that because you wanted to be back where you were born, or Maxine asked you to bring her closer to her family?
A: Here, we are safe.
Q: Do you expect trouble from anyone? Wouldn’t you be safe anywhere you went?
A: I will never be safe, I know that. I only worry about keeping my family safe.
Q: What’s the best part about family life?
Q: And the best part about being a father?
Q: And your son, Cameron. He is only four years old. Any sweet family moments you would like to share with us?
A: Leave my son out of this!
Q: I see you are not what we could describe as a talkative person. Are you an angry person?
A: I spent too long being questioned by psychiatrists to worry about what other people think. You’d be wary too, if you were in my shoes.
Q: I see. What made you reconsider your, umm, career choice? Were you starting to feel guilty?
A: Oh, please, don’t play that card with me, it’ll get you nowhere. I just hate to see innocents dying.
Q: But you said you were a killer. Doesn’t that mean innocent people died at your hands?
A: (gulps) Innocent people did die at my hands, but I didn’t become a contract killer until after that. And I have never killed an innocent.
Q: Does that mean you believe killing is justified?
A: No. But the people I killed were on a blacklist anyway. I earned a living. If I hadn’t done it, someone else would have killed them instead. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have better things to do than listen to your judgemental c*** (storms off).
I apologise for my interviewee’s manners; I always knew he would be a hard nut to crack. Still, I am alive, for which I am grateful. Nick Hunter’s story will be available for purchase on kindle and in POD in a few short days from now.
Here’s a short excerpt that might explain a thing or two.
Five and a half years on since setting sail from the Turks and Caicos with his future wife on board, Nick Hunter drove down the new Tudors housing estate, and then turned the corner into Princess Drive. He could see Mrs. Budleigh waiting for him outside, by her front door. She started talking as soon as she saw Nick’s boot emerge from the car.
“I’m sorry to bother you again, Nick, dear, but what with my daughter bringing over little Oliver for the weekend, I really need that poor little bird out of the house. Amelia wouldn’t approve of feathers in the same house as a small baby. I mean, it’s not like I’ve invited the little blighter in. And there’s nothing wrong with a little bird in the house. I remember my dear old mother used to cook with the door open because the kitchen window was a little sticky and the number of times we used to get birds fly right in – robins, mostly. They’re the cheeky ones. We even got a squirrel in, one frosty January afternoon. I used to think they were funny, you know, like an extra toy. We didn’t have many luxuries in them days. I suppose we are spoilt now, really, everything at the turn of a knob or push of a button… In here, dear, you know the way.”
Nick suppressed a smile and went straight through to the little living room, dodging two fat cats and four coffee tables smothered in doilies and china figurines and closely followed by Mrs. Budleigh who was keeping up a steady flow of chatter worthy of a world tournament. He had a good idea of what the little intermittent chirp that Mrs. Budleigh confused with a bird trapped in her lampshade was, so he’d agreed to pop in on the way home, despite the irrational need he’d felt all day to get home to Maxi as soon as humanly possible.
He opened up the set of steps under the light, to humour the old woman.
“Careful, dear. You don’t want to frighten it now. It might fly out to another room, and then we’ll have a job on our hands. I’ve left out a little food for it – some biscuit crumbs, ginger nuts and shortbread. That’s all I had around the house. And I put down a little saucer with water and one with milk, but he’s not come down to it yet. That’s why I think he might be trapped there, the poor dear.”
Nick smiled and swiftly unscrewed the shade from the light. He turned it upside down under the shocked gaze of the old lady.
“No bird in here, Mrs. Budleigh. But I bet I know where that little chirping sound is coming from. When was the last time you changed the battery in your smoke alarm, Mrs. Budleigh?”
“Er… well… I don’t know, dear. Are you sure that’s what it is?” She followed Nick to the small fitting on the stretch of wall between the living room and the kitchen, craning her neck around his elbow to watch him changing the battery. “I really don’t want Amelia to come and find a dead little bird in the house. It would only give her more reasons to stay away. She visits so rarely these days, I never know when I’ll see her next…”
“There’s no bird, Mrs. Budleigh. I promise you. Look, I’ve just changed the battery. Now, you can leave the food and drink out for the bird if you like, but you saw there wasn’t one in the living room and it can’t be in the kitchen because that light’s a neon strip. Have you been hearing the bird upstairs at all?”
“No, dear, I don’t think so.” The old woman shook her head to reinforce her words.
“Just what I thought. Give me a call tomorrow morning if you hear it again and I promise I’ll come right back and we can have another look for it, ok?”
“Yes, dear, if you’re sure you don’t mind.”
“Now, would I mind helping my favourite lady in the whole neighbourhood? Of course I don’t mind,” Nick winked at her.
“Ooh, steady. You’ll be making me blush and then what will the neighbours say?” Mrs Budleigh swiped her brow and fanned a little air over her face with one shaky hand.
Nick smiled and waved goodbye, then made his way back to his van. Another satisfied customer. His small electrical business had taken off faster than expected, probably due to the fact that he actually knew what he was doing. Maybe there was something good he could take out of his army life, after all. A silver lining.
Maxi would most likely grin and say ‘I told you so’. His lips stretched into a wide smile as he remembered the evening they met – not the most romantic circumstances, but memorable nonetheless. Nick had been ready to become a recluse; he didn’t believe there would be a place on earth, anywhere, for him. A place where he would fit. Maxi wouldn’t take his pessimism. She’d stuck by his side and made it all possible. More than possible, she’d made it all seem easy, fun, normal.
Ten more minutes and then he would be home. Silly how eager he was to get home every day, as if it were the most powerful magnet on the planet.
At first, he thought married life was going to feel too much like being tied down. A nonspecific, ordinary house stuck in some dreary British neighbourhood, with an all right garden, the view from its windows never changing was bound to become boring; Nick thought he would grow tired of it, get itchy feet.
Funny how easily he and Maxi had slipped into married life, how perfectly normal having a child had been, how natural it felt to have a standard job in a nondescript town on earth, a place where he belonged. Cameron was four now, growing up fast and starting to have an opinion about almost everything. Like the newsreader on the television last night. ‘Don’t like him’, Cameron had declared, and then he grabbed his fluffy plush giraffe and held his arms out to be picked up for bedtime hugs.
The shrill ring of his mobile phone pulled Nick out of his daydream. Home, said the caller display. 4.16. There were two missed calls as well – both from his home number.
He pressed the call button without slowing down.
“Maxi. Hello, beautiful,” he started.
“Nick. I thought you’d be home by now, sweetheart. I don’t know how long you’ll be, but I thought I’d remind you. You said you could pick up Cam from Samuel’s birthday party at five.”
“Ah. Yeah. On it.”
“Julia Anderson said they’ll look after Cam for a few more minutes if you’re late, so no rush.”
“It’s ok, I’ll be there. I’m nearly home now.”
“Oh, that’s good news. I’ve got your friend JB here – he’ll be pleased to know he won’t have to wait much longer.”
Nick stomped on the brakes and swerved into a lay-by, narrowly avoiding a collision with a Land Rover pulling a horse-box behind it.
“JB? You mean Jesse Bent?” Nick felt like ice shards had replaced the blood in his veins. He felt numb with foreboding. Frozen. How did they find him here? “Maxi? Max!” he yelled when she didn’t answer right away. “Max, are you there? Are you all right?”
“Of course I’m all right,” she answered, confusion seeping into her tone. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
He ignored her question, panic making his thoughts bump into each other like badly driven dodgems. JB was dangerous. JB worked for the wrong people. JB did not have any qualms when it came to taking people out. But that was not an explanation Nick could give over the phone. Flashes of images of their last encounter on Grand Turk, the day after that fateful night he and Maxi had met, whipped through his mind like sharp flashes of lightning in a summer storm. The interview room of the tropical police station, Maxi and her friends sitting there for hours, giving statements and filling out forms, hungry, exhausted, covered in sweat and harassed by flies. And Jesse Bent swaggering in and past the front desk as if he owned the place. The look in his eye told Nick all he needed to know. King was untouchable, and this case would go the way of so many others. Small fry would be blamed and the real fiend in Cockburn Town wouldn’t even falter in his stride.
Nick squeezed his eyes tightly shut, struggling to pull himself back to the present moment. He needed to get a grip if he was to stand any chance of outsmarting Jesse. JB was a coward, but a clever one. That he was here showed that he felt too comfortable, much too safe to feel threatened by his close proximity to a serial killer. Nick wondered if he’d lost his touch. Did married life soften him so noticeably? And if it came to it, would he be able to kill again? Nick winced at the thought.
“Nick?” Maxi’s voice came through, an edge of concern to it.
“When did JB get there?”
“About twenty minutes ago. He said he was passing and thought he’d say ‘hi’. Oh, and he says ‘hi’ from someone called Dollar, too.”
Maxi mumbled something close to the phone, to JB, Nick guessed. It sounded like light-hearted banter. Not holding a gun to her head, then. Yet.
Ugh! Nick’s lips pressed together in frustration. He should have been there, by her side. He should have listened to his instincts. He should have turned around and gone home as soon as the idea first popped into his head.
“Um…” Nick spoke softly, trying to sound calm so he wouldn’t worry Maxi unnecessarily; maybe all JB wanted was a chat. “Is Jesse alone?”
To have JB prowl around his home was bad enough. But the mention of Dollar’s name sent shivers down his spine. Nick didn’t want him anywhere near his family. Dollar de la Rue was not just bad news, mention of his name had most people who knew him hide somewhere deep and dark and hard to find. The man was hand in hand with the devil, as long as the devil was loaded. Hence the nickname.
“Yes, he’s alone,” Maxi’s voice came clear and untroubled. “He’s been telling me about the time you two were in the army together. He’s shown me a picture of the two of you in combats in front of a derelict tower. I still think you’re the better-looking one, by the way. But you never said you had such interesting friends – JB’s a real charmer.” She giggled. “Good job we are happily married.”
The picture in front of the tower? Nick remembered it well. It had been taken two days before Corporal Rodgers died supervising a bomb disposal, together with two of the best experts. The following day Nick became acting Corporal. Battlefield promotion. Promotion that he didn’t deserve. Promotion that led to the death of six incredibly capable men. Nick closed his eyes against the old nightmare that threatened to engulf him. He was already feeling the weight of his brothers’ bodies, the ripple of bullets through their motionless forms as they protected him even in death, shielding him.
Nick struggled to pull his mind out of the haunting horror of so many years ago and come back to the present once more; he needed to focus solely on the crisis unfolding in the here and now.
He felt trapped. What should he do? Tell Maxi to get out and run? Run where? To the neighbours? Down the road? JB would probably shoot her dead if he did. The neighbours, too. Ignorance was certain to be Maxi’s best chance of survival.
Nick was quiet for a second, tactical manoeuvres, evasion strategies and diversionary scenarios chasing through his head like a hundred miles an hour slide show. Then a spike of adrenaline shot through his frozen limbs, nudging him into action.
They needed to get away. Neither Maxi nor Cameron were safe. Neither was he, but that wasn’t the most important consideration right now. He could look after himself.
Where to go first? Home? Or the Andersons?
Nick shoved the gas pedal down and screeched out into the road again. If he ignored the speed restrictions, he could be home in five minutes flat. And if JB was alone, he would not pose much of a threat. He hadn’t hurt Maxi; she would have said something, or the tone of her voice would have given it away. But she sounded totally relaxed, like nothing more had happened than an old friend called in and proceeded to regale his wife with real-life wartime stories.
He would drive home then. Take care of JB, talk to him, do whatever had to be done to discourage him from ‘dropping by’ again. Then he would tell Maxi to start packing. They could fling the essentials into the van in ten minutes, and still have time to collect Cameron from the party by five. No need to frighten him; he would have more than enough to cope with when they wrenched him out of the community he knew and loved and moved him someplace new and unfamiliar. May even need to spend some time on the run.
Nick quickly mentally catalogued their assets, refining his plans in the process. The Andersons lived just the other side of the main street from home. The shortest route would take them through the middle of town, right past the Spar. They could pick up a bag of provisions on the way. Cameron should be fine at the Andersons’; they were sensible people. They would not let a stranger come anywhere near the kids.
The challenge was only to get Cam and Maxi safely out of town. Once on a train or plane or boat to somewhere very far away, he knew he could make his little family safe all over again. Only this time they would go the whole hog and change their names, too; he wasn’t taking any chances anymore. How stupid of him to think they would be safe here, in a civilized country like England. He’d been so certain the nightmarish, vile felons from his past life wouldn’t dare come after him here. He’d thought that chapter closed, sealed hermetically shut, unquestionably beyond any chance of revival.
Maxi heard the change in his breathing, or maybe the noise of the abused engine alerted her.
“Nick? Nick, are you all right, sweetheart?” But she didn’t wait for an answer. “Oh, JB says his son is at Samuel’s party, too. Can you believe it? What a small world! You could give him a lift there later, maybe. You probably have so much to talk about, old times to remember… Oh, JB says that, apparently, the entertainer was sick, so he rang up an old acquaintance of his who is good with party tricks. Axel. He says Axel wanted to be a magician when he was a kid, he knows a lot of tricks. Isn’t that marvellous? JB literally saved the day.” Maxi’s voice was thick with gratitude.
The ice shards returned and started shooting up and down Nick’s body, draining him of all feeling. His breath came out in a loud whoosh, leaving his lungs empty and aching. His thoughts congealed as the complete reality of this meticulously laid trap sank in. They were good and truly cornered; someone had thought through all the details very carefully indeed. Much too thoroughly to have been the work of a lowlife such as Axel, or even JB. That must be where Dollar de la Rue came in. Dollar was an architect, and if he designed this particular operation, then…
He needed to get home to Maxi as fast as possible; she was in grave danger. Cameron, too. All the worries he thought he’d left behind five years ago, all the fears about endangering other people’s lives together with his own came crashing down on Nick now. The guilt and self-loathing were so strong for a moment, they were wringing the life out of him, stopping him breathing, choking him. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t speak. His hands alone kept moving, continuing to steer the car with robotic accuracy. His eyes were glazed, staring at the road and seeing nothing.
“Can I talk to him? To JB?” Nick said when he recovered. His throat felt tight and raw. He tried again to clear the obstruction in it, taking quick, shallow breaths, like a girl. It didn’t work.
Maxi mumbled away from the phone again. “JB says he’ll be outside waiting for you. That way he can have a smoke.”
JB was getting out of the house. Away from her. That was good.
Nick sucked in a deep breath, willing his tense voice to loosen a little. “I’ll be there in two minutes.”
“Ok. Love you.” She sounded calm, composed – had she picked up on his anxiety? If she had, she didn’t let on.
“Love you, too. See you in a bit.”
The line went dead.
Axel – entertainer at the party. No. That didn’t sound right. He couldn’t carry off a clown act; the mere sight of his little piggy eyes would make the kids run screaming for cover. Nick recognised this part of the story for what it was intended to be – a warning. They knew where his son was. Maybe they even had a man watching him play with the other kids right now.
Would they barge in and take Cam? No, they wouldn’t want to cause a scene; this was England, not the Caribbean. They would probably wait until it was time to go home and then try to slip into the house in the middle of all the end-of-party confusion, a parent looking for their son’s lost toy, or coat, or something.
Nick lurched the van around the corner on two wheels, then he could finally see the house in the crook of the cul-de-sac, with its squat laurel hedge and the neat front lawn bordered by forget-me-nots.
JB was ambling lazily towards the end of the road; he was only twenty or so yards away.
Nick stomped on the brakes, more at ease now that the threat was so much farther away from Maxi.
When he came level with JB, Nick wound down his window and rolled to a stop. This conversation was best kept private.
“Jesse,” Nick said by way of greeting.
“Keeping well, I see,” JB smirked towards him. “Nice house you have there. Pretty wife, too… Four-year old son… You’ve been busy.”
Nick counted to ten in his head. When he could unclench his jaw, he spoke through his teeth.
“What do you want, Jesse? Get to the point.”
JB smiled and pulled hard at his cigarette. “Always in a hurry, you are. Patience has never been your forte.” He smirked and took another long pull. “Ok. Dollar says your services are needed. I don’t see why it has to be you; I can think of a hell of a lot more deserving cases, better people… more focused, if you know what I mean… No… um… distractions in their lives…”
It was imperative to keep any emotion off his face until he found out exactly what JB’s instructions were, so Nick kept quiet and concentrated on breathing evenly in and out. There was a crushing weight on his chest that made pulling the air in almost impossible. He needed air to think, to keep one step ahead and find a way to get Maxi and Cameron out of this unscathed. They were all he had – his life, his entire world was built around them. The best, the only truly good part of his existence happened since he’d met Maxi. If they hurt her now… or Cam – so young and innocent, so adorable…
Nick could feel his control slipping with every thought and every image of Cameron and Maxi his mind brought up from the unfathomable depths of his memory.
JB scrutinised Nick’s expression and leered. He obviously found Nick’s discomfort enjoyable.
“Having a wife and a kid must make it so much harder to concentrate on the job in hand,” he observed.
“I’m an electrician now. I don’t have problems concentrating.”
“Hmm,” JB snorted. “You might have, if you’re not careful.” He tilted his head to the side, staring straight at Nick with cold eyes. His face betrayed no emotion. “Dollar says to be as convincing as I need to be.”
“If you hurt Cameron, I swear –”
“He wants you on board. Badly, I’d say.”
Nick swallowed against the lump in his throat, still feeling winded, and chose his next words with great care.
“I stopped doing that sort of work more than five years ago. I’m not sure how much good I would be now – to Dollar or anyone else. I’m out of practice.”
From the corner of his eye, Nick saw Maxi’s slight figure stop and peer out of the living room window. She’d grown her hair and the soft, shoulder-length silver-gold waves suited her much better than the pixie haircut of the day they’d met. She smiled and waved at them.
“I thought as much. You always used fancy words when you tried to wriggle out of doing your job,” JB spat the last few words out at Nick and then he flicked his cigarette butt high over the van’s roof.