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Authors: Kevin Wignall

The Hunter's Prayer

BOOK: The Hunter's Prayer
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Among the Dead

Dark Flag

People Die

Who Is Conrad Hirst?

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2015 Kevin Wignall

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503946453

ISBN-10: 1503946452

Cover design by bürosüd

For George S.

‘Do you reject Satan?’

Part One

Chapter One

eventeen-year-old boys die in car crashes. They die of meningitis, rare forms of cancer, suicide. Mostly, they don’t die at all. They pass through the age, shedding awkwardness and anger and self-loathing on the way.

Ben Hatto was a seventeen-year-old close to bursting with anger. He was angry with his parents for stifling just about every plan he’d had for the summer ahead; angry with his sister, too, for spending the second successive summer traveling with someone from college; angry with school and life and everything else.

There was no teen awkwardness about him but he made up for it in self-loathing, centered at the moment on his hopeless infatuation with Alice Shaw, a girl completely out of his league, who thought of him as a friend if she thought of him at all. And today someone had asked him outright if he had a crush on her, and that’s where he was now—one feeble, panicky denial away from total social humiliation.

He lay on his bed as the light faded, head propped up on a pillow, headphones with metal pounding, holding the world at bay. He’d eaten early—pasta. His parents had probably just finished their own dinner downstairs, hardly aware that he was even in the house with them.

His eyes were closed and he was thinking how he’d just have to ignore Alice completely through the final weeks of term. If one person suspected something, so would others and he’d become a laughing-stock. So he’d play it cool with her and over the summer he’d get his act together and then maybe it wouldn’t seem so ridiculous that he liked someone that beautiful. Maybe.

It was something he could believe in for as long as he lay there—that he could be good-looking enough, cool enough, interesting enough for someone like her, that he could speak to her and say what he wanted to say, what he felt, and not the mess of words that actually came out. Lying there he could be everything he needed to be.

The trouble came when he left the security of his room, the posters, music, books, as though his personality was locked up in those familiar surroundings. He just wished for once that he could walk out of there, leave the house and not have everything fall apart, to be able to express himself, to be cool.

A track ended and in the two-second digital hush he heard his door open. He kept his eyes closed, let the next track explode into his ears, wanting whoever it was just to go away again. Then for one hopeful moment he imagined it being someone other than his parents—it was crazy, but if she were to come there, she might get to know him for who he really was, and then things might be different.

He opened his eyes. It wasn’t one of his parents. It took him another second or two to take in the man standing there. Ben didn’t know who it was and couldn’t work out the expression on the stranger’s face either: one of regret, or like someone about to break bad news.

Their eyes met. Confused, Ben reached up to take off the headphones. The stranger lifted his arm swiftly at the same time, and the headphones were still in place, the music still pounding, when Ben felt something hit him hard on the head.

That was the last thing he felt, because Ben Hatto had just become a statistic in a subgroup almost entirely his own: seventeen-year-old boys killed in their own homes by professional hitmen.

The killer made his way back down the stairs, bypassing the kitchen where Pamela Hatto lay on the floor in front of the open dishwasher, her blood speckled across the freshly rinsed dishes she’d been stacking.

He passed through the hallway, stepping carefully over the pool of Mark Hatto’s blood that had crept and expanded across the tile floor in the few minutes since he’d shot him. He eased the front door shut behind him, got back in his car and drove away.

The house he left was silent, the only noise the faint tinny racket of Ben’s headphones, a false life-sign, like the lights that were already on here and there around the place. From the outside that’s how it looked—like nothing was wrong, an affluent family home at peace on a summer’s evening.

That affluence was visible, too, in the distance between the Hattos’ house and those of their neighbors, the growing number of lights all isolated from each other in the lightly wooded garden landscape. This wealth was private, unobtrusive, the kind that would leave the deaths unnoticed for the night, the dead undisturbed.

But an earth tremor had taken place here, and however slowly, the shock waves would ripple out from the epicenter of the Hatto household, undermining the stability of people’s lives at ever greater distances. It had already struck; they just didn’t know it yet.

A few hundred yards away, their immediate neighbors were going about their own business, oblivious to the ghoulish adrenaline rush that would sweep them all up in the next twenty-four hours, beyond comprehending the legion of TV crews, journalists and photographers that would make the quiet neighborhood its own.

Further off, but still less than two miles away, the Shaw family was enjoying a barbecue with friends. Alice was there: happy, a little drunk on red wine, unaware that her feelings for Ben Hatto, confused as they were, would soon take on a lifelong significance, a mantle of sadness and regret and lost opportunity.

Five miles away in the nearest town, the CID unit had no idea they were about to have their first murder case in two years. Nor could they yet know who’d been living among them, or that within twenty-four hours they’d be announcing to the media that Mark Hatto’s business affairs had been ‘complex,’ a shorthand way of telling the public not to worry, that this guy had brought it upon himself.

And thousands of miles away, in a small town in Italy, the place where the true force of the tremor would be measured, was a daughter, a sister, someone the police would need to contact to break the tragic news. And too late, it would be the detective who turned off Ben Hatto’s music who’d puzzle over the boy’s death and realize that perhaps his sister was also in danger. He’d stand there dwelling on the pointlessness of it, the fact that the kid clearly hadn’t disturbed anyone, that the killer had known he was there, sought him out. And he alone would realize that this feud was total and that Ella Hatto, wherever she was, if she was still alive, was perhaps in as much danger as if she’d been in this house herself.

Chapter Two

hey were people-watching, sitting on either side of the small table but with their chairs turned facing the street. There was plenty to look at—people sitting outside the other bars and cafes across the way, the
in full flow along this and the other main streets.

Every now and then Chris would point out someone in the crowd, a classic medallion man or a woman dressed like a hooker or transvestite, and they’d laugh about it. For the most part, though, they didn’t talk, satisfied with watching, sipping at their drinks, winding down after the heat and hassle of the day.

The last few days had been hectic—Rome and Florence—but even so, Ella was pretty happy with the way things were going. Thailand with Susie the previous year had been a nightmare and a few people had warned her that traveling with a boyfriend was a classic recipe for a bad holiday and a wrecked relationship.

So far, though, things had gone well, and glad he was there with her. If she’d gone with anyone else, she’d have spent the whole time wishing Chris was with her anyway. She looked at him now, hair unkempt, his skin already tanned. He turned to meet her gaze, gave her a quizzical smile as he said, ‘What?’

‘Nothing.’ She smiled and moved her head toward him. He leaned in for the kiss and gently pushed his tongue between her lips. She laughed a little and kissed him back for a few seconds before becoming self-conscious and breaking away.

‘Later,’ she said, facing back into the street, ‘without the audience.’ She scanned the crowd, reassuring herself that no one had been looking anyway.

‘You’re so Anglo-Saxon,’ said Chris, joking.

‘And you’re such an Italian stallion.’

‘Oh yeah. Trust me, before the night’s out I’m getting a medallion and a chest wig.’

She laughed and they went back to watching. Her eyes were snagged immediately by a man sitting at the cafe directly across from them. He didn’t look Italian but apart from that he was nondescript, average-looking, a guy in his forties maybe: short hair, medium build, a face and look that seemed designed to be lost in a crowd.

And that was the intriguing part, because she’d singled him out and, now that she was looking at him, Ella was certain she’d seen him before. She closed her eyes momentarily but couldn’t picture him like that and had to open them again to remind herself what he looked like.

He seemed to be studying the
so she took the opportunity to study him in turn, staring at him as she tried to recall where she might have seen him. Maybe it had been in the railway station in Rome, or on the Ponte Vecchio perhaps, or the Duomo.

She became uneasy at the possibility of him having been in Rome
Florence, in all of those places, and after trying to shake the thought for a while she said, ‘Chris, see the guy sitting across from us, short-sleeved blue shirt, forties?’

‘What about him?’

‘I know it sounds weird but I’m pretty certain he was in Rome and Florence.’

‘So who do you think he’s stalking—you or me?’ She laughed. ‘Look, somewhere like Italy, everyone goes the same places. There’s probably loads of people here who were in Rome and Florence.’

He was exaggerating, ignoring the fact that this was hardly one of the most obvious stops on the tour of Italy. And yet he was probably still right; in Thailand last year she and Susie had kept bumping into the same people as they’d traveled around the country, some of them in the most unlikely places.

She looked at the man again, annoyed that it was troubling her, finally making an effort to dismiss it altogether.

‘It’s nice here, isn’t it? More relaxed.’

‘Doesn’t seem as hot either. Maybe we should stay here a few days, take in one of the spas, chill out.’

‘Suits me,’ she said. ‘Venice can wait.’ She looked back across the street. It took her a moment or two to pick him out again and when she spotted him she noticed he was looking agitated, an edginess that rubbed off on her. He was looking up the street, and she looked in the same direction, unable to see anything, nobody standing out from the crowd.

She glanced back and jumped nervously. He was staring directly at her now, getting out of his seat. She began to panic, thoughts crashing into each other. A group of kids walked in front of her and by the time they’d passed he was halfway across the street and looking up it again.

He was reaching under his shirt for something as he walked and then it was there in his hand: a gun. This couldn’t be happening. This guy had been following them, she knew it, and now he was heading towards them with a gun. Her heart stalled and for a second she couldn’t speak. The words finally burst out.

‘Shit! Chris!’ She didn’t have time to say any more. She heard Chris respond but couldn’t make out what he’d said. The man was almost on top of her and then she heard the gunshots, deafening, followed by screams, shouts, panic.

He was standing in front of her, his back to her. He’d fired two shots, and a few yards away in the street two men had fallen. He looked around quickly, took two steps forward, aimed at the head of one of the men and fired again. Another shocked chorus from the crowd.

Ella heard Chris again, some garbled expletive, and the man was back with them, his face close, no longer edgy but calm and authoritative.

‘Come with me.’

Ella got to her feet but heard Chris saying, ‘No fucking way.’

‘Come with me or I’ll kill you right now.’ He was pointing the gun at him.

‘Do what he says, Chris.’

They were walking quickly now through the panicked street and it took her a while to notice that the gunman was leading her by the arm. They were all mute, a tight ball of silence moving swiftly away from the chaos behind them. She looked at Chris a couple of times but he wasn’t taking anything in, lost in the shock and confusion of the moment.

They’d just seen two people killed and now they were walking away with the killer, a man who’d threatened Chris too, and yet they were going quietly, unquestioning, putting up no resistance. They were all moving with a shared sense of urgency because somehow in the time-lapse nightmare of the last few minutes it had seemed like he was protecting them.

‘You get in the passenger seat. Ella, in the back. Lie down.’ They got into the car he’d led them to and Ella lay down as he drove away, the movement of the car adding an extra layer of disorientation to the mix. She could hear sirens now, and this man knew her name.

‘What the
is going on?’ It was Chris, his voice too loud, burning off the adrenaline. ‘And who the fuck are you? And what . . . Just . . . What’s going on? Fuck!’

At first it seemed like he wouldn’t answer but after a brief pause he spoke, his voice still calm and low, sounding subdued after Chris’s shock-fueled rant.

‘Probably an attempted kidnap. I’m Lucas. Mark Hatto asked me to watch Ella in case of something like this.’

‘So I did see you in Rome and Florence.’

‘You can get up now.’ She sat up. They were away from the town and it was darker.

‘Where are we going?’

‘Florence for tonight. I’ll call your dad from there.’

Chris turned in his seat and looked at her, his features shadowy and indistinct. ‘Why would someone wanna kidnap you?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘And a bodyguard?’ His tone was accusatory. ‘I mean, what the hell is that all about?’

‘I don’t know, Chris! I don’t fucking know, okay?’

‘Okay! Jesus!’ He turned forward again but after a few seconds he said to Lucas, ‘What about you? Care to enlighten us?’

‘They’re rich.’ It sounded like he’d go on to say something else but he didn’t and in waiting for him to finish they fell into silence by default.

Ella tried to think back to the scene in Montecatini, putting it back together in her head, trying to make sense of it. Lucas had looked agitated and he’d been looking up the street in the direction the two men had come from. The way he’d stood in front of her too—surely that’s what a bodyguard would have done.

She still couldn’t process the fact that two men were dead, or the measured way Lucas had shot one of them in the head after he’d fallen. That hadn’t been defense or protection: that had been an execution. And she still couldn’t process that she was at the center of this, that she needed to be watched, that there were people out there who might want to kidnap her.

Why her? They weren’t rich. They were well-off, comfortable, but it wasn’t like her dad ever made the rich list or anything. That meant there were at least a thousand people in the country who were richer than they were, a thousand people with daughters or sons or grandchildren worth much more to a kidnapper than she was. So why her?

‘Did you follow me in Thailand last year?’


‘Did anyone?’

‘I don’t know.’

Chris turned to him and said, ‘What about at college?’ The question annoyed her, Chris sounding more concerned about his own privacy being breached than he was about her safety or what had just happened. Maybe he was right to be concerned, but it annoyed her all the same.

‘I don’t know,’ said Lucas, as if he, too, was irritated by the questions. ‘I was just asked to keep an eye on you in Europe, that’s all.’

He slowed and pulled over next to a phone booth. There was a small supermarket across the road, a garage fifty yards away, lit like stage sets under the deep black of the sky.

‘Stay in the car.’ He got out and walked over to the phone. They couldn’t hear him talking but he kept looking at them all the time he spoke.

‘He took the keys,’ said Chris. ‘For someone who’s meant to be on our side, he doesn’t seem to trust us much.’

‘Check the glove compartment.’

‘What for?’

‘I don’t know. ID or something.’ Chris reached down casually and checked but found nothing.

‘It’s a rental car.’

A scooter approached at speed from behind, the sudden high-pitched drone startling her. It sped past them, two good-looking Italian boys, the wind pulling at their hair and their shirts, giving them an air of sleekness and freedom.

The one sitting on the back was laughing and had turned briefly and looked at the car as they’d passed. For a second Ella felt like he’d looked at her, the smile for her, his eyes inviting.

And now they’d disappeared and she was envious—of their open road, of their carefree night, a night that had been hers too just half an hour before, though she hadn’t appreciated it then. Maybe she would have if she’d known how soon it would end.

‘I need to call my dad. Have you got your phone?’

‘Yeah.’ He handed the phone back to her. She held it close to the window to pick up some of the streetlight but before she could start dialing she noticed that Lucas had seen her and that he looked in a hurry to end his call. Within seconds he was back at the car, opening the door.

‘Turn it off.’

‘I was calling my dad.’

‘Not on that. Turn it off. I’ll call your dad when we get to Florence.’ She turned off the phone and handed it back to Chris. Lucas shut the door again and got back in the driver’s seat. He turned to face them both. ‘Keep your phones switched off. Don’t be tempted to make a call, don’t be tempted to use your credit cards, do nothing to give away your identity or location, not until we know what’s going on.’

Chris said, ‘What about you? Who were you calling?’

‘Hotel in Florence.’ He started the car and pulled away. ‘It’s high season. Best to book ahead.’ They didn’t respond and a moment later he said, ‘That was a little joke there. Just trying to lighten the mood.’

Chris threw him a look of contempt and said, ‘After what we just saw you do, you expect us to laugh at your standup routine? When do you get to the jokes about shooting people?’

Lucas glanced across at him and said, ‘What did you see me do? Tell me. What did you see me do?’ His voice was threatening and Chris didn’t answer.

Maybe he’d saved them, but Ella couldn’t shake the memory of what she had seen: Lucas taking a step forward, shooting the man in the head. Treading carefully with her tone, she said, ‘Lucas?’ She caught his eyes in the rear-view and felt confident enough to proceed. ‘Why did you shoot him in the head?’

‘He was wearing body armor.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because he didn’t bleed enough when I shot him.’ Again, it sounded like he’d go on to say something else but he didn’t. He seemed to have a way with awkward conversation-ending pauses and none of them spoke for the rest of the journey.

It was after ten by the time they got to Florence, the traffic still fairly heavy and volatile, crowds of people spilling across the streets. They’d been among them the night before, and probably so had Lucas, a realization that left her feeling violated, betrayed.

Lucas parked up in a side street and told them to get out, then opened the trunk. Inside were a large backpack and an overnight bag. He gave the backpack to Chris and reached into the other bag.

‘Take these.’ He handed them a passport each. ‘False passports, for the hotel. Okay, let’s go.’ He picked up the bag, locked the car and led them along the street, clearly sensing they were still in danger.

They’d walked a good twenty paces before Ella thought of looking at the passport in her hand, bearing her picture but with the name ‘Emma Wright.’ Chris showed her his open passport. She couldn’t see the name but it was his picture, too.

BOOK: The Hunter's Prayer
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