Authors: James Becker
About eighty yards ahead, Robin again glanced at the rearview mirror. They were in light traffic, and keeping up with the flow of vehicles wasn’t difficult.
“We may have got company,” she said. “There’s a black BMW four cars behind us, and he’s been there, matching our speed, ever since we left Okehampton.”
Mallory glanced at the speedometer before he replied.
“We’re all traveling at about the same speed,” he pointed out, “and that’s pretty close to the legal limit on this road. Maybe he’s just a law-abiding citizen, in no particular hurry.”
Robin laughed shortly.
“In my experience,” she said, “most BMWs in Britain are driven by aggressive, barely competent dickheads who think the ideal place to overtake somebody is on the brow of a hill or around a blind corner. Obeying traffic rules
and driving considerately are just not a part of their genetic makeup. You know that as well as I do.”
“You’ve got a point,” Mallory conceded. “So what do you think?”
“Like I said, I think we might have company, and that probably means we could be talking to a man with a pronounced Italian accent in the next few minutes. A man who might well be waving a gun with every intention of using it. So I suggest that you unwrap that Beretta pistol and make sure it’s loaded, just in case.”
As Mallory pulled out the black package from under his seat and unzipped it to reveal the blued steel of a compact automatic pistol, she again glanced at the mirror.
“Or there could of course be an entirely different explanation,” she said. “He’s just pulled out and overtaken the cars directly behind us, all of which moved out of his way, no doubt because of the flashing blue lights he’s now displaying. He’s forty yards back and closing, so it’s obviously an unmarked cop car with a couple of woodentops inside. It might be a really good idea to tuck that pistol out of sight somewhere.”
Mallory looked back as the driver of the BMW positioned his vehicle right behind them, then flashed his lights and blasted his horn, gesturing for Robin to pull over.
He slid the pistol into the waistband of his trousers, making sure that his jacket covered it, but at the same time ensuring that it was within easy reach.
“Can you ignore him and outrun him?” Mallory asked.
Robin glanced at him in some surprise. “On this road, probably not. I don’t have the top speed that that BMW’s
got. On narrow country roads, maybe. But do you think that’s a good idea? Running from the cops usually ends up only one way—badly.”
“But that,” Mallory said, “presupposes that that really is a cop car behind us, and I have my doubts about it.”
Robin was already slowing down, steering the Volkswagen toward the entrance of a large turnout on the left-hand side of the road
“Explain,” she snapped, taking her time decelerating.
“Unmarked cop cars normally have at least some of the usual equipment fitted, things like dash cams and other stuff on top of the dashboard, and that car behind us hasn’t got anything that I can see. That’s one thing. The other is that the crews of unmarked cars almost always wear police uniforms, so that when they do stop somebody on the road, there’s no doubt about who they are. The two people in that BMW are wearing civilian clothes and they both look pretty scruffy to me.”
“You know more about that than I do,” Robin said. “So what do you want me to do?”
“What you’re doing right now. Then we’ll see what happens once you’ve stopped.”
* * *
“Easy peasy,” the passenger in the BMW said. “Nothing else in the turnout. We should be out of here in less than a minute.”
“Don’t forget,” the driver said, stopping a few yards behind the target car. “You need to do both of them.”
The passenger opened the door, straightened his jacket to make sure that the pistol was invisible, and then strode
over toward the stationary Volkswagen, heading for the driver’s-side door. When he was about ten feet away, he took a suppressor from his left-hand pocket and at the same time reached into his jacket with his right hand to take out the pistol.
He was casually confident in what he was doing. Two shots to each target to ensure that they were dead, the suppressor reducing the sounds of the shots to dull thuds that would be barely audible a few yards away, especially in the open air. Usually that would be one shot to the chest and the second to the head, but because one of the conditions of this killing was that the dead bodies had to be identifiable, he would fire both bullets into the chests of the victims. Then he would use the digital camera in his pocket to confirm the completion of the contract, and after those images had been sent to the principal who’d ordered the hits, they’d get paid.
It was the kind of job he’d done at least a dozen times before, and expected to do again in the future. Easy work, and very well paid, though not for the squeamish.
But at that instant, something totally unexpected happened.
The passenger door of the Volkswagen opened, and before the approaching assassin could draw and aim his own weapon he found himself staring down the barrel of an automatic pistol, the weapon pointed straight at him.
The man holding it looked entirely comfortable with the pistol, and quite prepared to use it.
“Stop right there,” Mallory barked. “Drop the suppressor on the ground and then take out your weapon with your left hand, finger and thumb only.”
He was already aware that the chances of the unidentified man doing what he was told were extremely slim. He was also acutely aware that he couldn’t cover both the driver and the passenger of the BMW at the same time, and if one of them was armed, the chances were that the other one was as well. That meant two targets and two pistols. He was outnumbered and outgunned.
And even as that unpleasant realization crossed his mind, with his peripheral vision he saw the driver’s door of the BMW start to open, and knew he had to act at once if he and Robin were going to live through it.
The man in front of him suddenly dived to his right, the pistol now in his hand and swinging around toward him.
But Mallory still had him in his sights, and squeezed the trigger without hesitation. The bullet slammed into the moving target and the man howled in pain as he tumbled to the ground, firing his Browning as he did so.
At virtually the same instant, the driver of the BMW stepped out of the car and brought his own weapon to bear, firing two rapid shots toward Mallory. He was a few feet farther away, and the extra distance meant that one bullet missed him entirely, while the other one slammed through the rear window of the Volkswagen and passed between the open passenger door and the door pillar. Mallory almost thought he felt the wind of its passage, which meant it was far too close.
Even before the shots rang out, Mallory had already started to turn, switching his aim toward the new target.
As the driver fired a third and a fourth round, both of which sounded as if they’d hit somewhere on the Golf, Mallory ducked down to offer a smaller target. He was also trying to draw the man’s aim away from the car. He was keenly aware that Robin was still inside the vehicle, and that the thin steel of the car’s bodywork would offer virtually no protection against a pistol bullet fired at short range.
He braced his arms as firmly as he could, and fired twice, aiming not at the man but at the door behind which his body was largely concealed. The pistol bucked and kicked in his hands, but his steady grip kept the weapon exactly on aim.
The two bullets hit the door less than a foot apart, tearing through the metal and into the body of the BMW
driver, at the same moment as the man fired again. The bullet hit the ground just inches to Mallory’s left.
But his own shots did the job. The driver grunted and fell backward, his pistol falling to the ground. Mallory could clearly see the weapon in the gap under the door. Then the man appeared to lie completely still. He could be dead or badly wounded. Or he could be waiting for Mallory to turn his back so that he could grab his pistol and fire a kill shot.
Mallory’s first priority was Robin, but he could attend to her only when he was sure that he’d eliminated the threat to both of them from their unidentified attackers.
He stood up and turned round, his pistol extended in front of him, aiming it at the man who’d walked toward their car. Then he sighed with relief and dropped his aim, pointing the weapon at the ground, because it was no longer needed.
Robin hadn’t stayed in the driving seat of the car, as he’d expected, but had obviously stepped out of the vehicle a few seconds earlier, and was standing over the passenger from the BMW, his pistol in her hand, the weapon pointed down at the wounded man. He was curled into a fetal ball, moaning loudly.
“Check the driver,” she said crisply. “This one isn’t going anywhere.”
Mallory nodded and swung his pistol back toward the BMW and the man lying beside it. The man’s own weapon was still visible, but there was sign of movement from him. Nevertheless, Mallory stepped forward cautiously, the Beretta pointing ahead to cover the fallen man.
As soon as Mallory got a clear look at him, he lowered the pistol. Both of his two shots through the door of the car had taken the man in the chest, and at least one of them must have torn through his heart, judging by the lack of blood on the body. He would have died at the instant his heart stopped beating.
“He’s dead,” he said, turning back to Robin.
“You’re not a bad shot,” she said. “Certainly better than that comedian behind you. So who the hell are these two? Not undercover cops, I bloody well hope.”
Mallory shook his head. “There’s a lot I don’t like about the British police force, but one thing that’s drummed into firearms officers is that they always make a lot of noise. They’re told to shout ‘armed police’ whenever they approach a suspect or enter a premises where criminals are likely to be found. And they never, ever use suppressors. As soon as I saw him take one out of his pocket, I knew absolutely that they were bad guys.”
The man lying in front of Robin moaned again. Mallory switched his attention to him and noticed that his right hand was bleeding, as well as the bullet wound in his torso.
“What happened to his hand?” he asked.
“He was grabbing for the pistol, so I kind of stepped on his fingers to stop him,” Robin said.
“Good.” Mallory bent down beside the wounded man. “Who sent you after us?” he asked.
“Go screw yourself.” The words were forced out with an obviously painful gasp, the man still curled up and hugging his stomach.
“That’s not very polite,” Mallory said mildly. He looked more closely at the wounded gunman. “I’ve heard that stomach wounds hurt more than any other,” he went on, “but they’re not always fatal. If I call for an ambulance right now, I reckon you’ve got a better than even chance of walking out of whatever hospital they take you to. But if you want me to do that, then you need to tell us what we want to know. Otherwise we’ll just push off and leave you to it. And I might just decide to pop a bullet through one of your knees as well. That would take your mind off the hole in your stomach, believe me. So who sent you?”
The man turned an agonized glance up at Mallory’s face. He evidently didn’t like what he saw, because he gave an almost imperceptible nod and then started talking.
“I don’t know who hired us. It was just a contract. Two quick and clean terminations. We were given your details and told the timescale. Nobody told us you’d be carrying.” He broke off and emitted a low wail of absolute agony. “That’s the truth,” he added. “The only thing I know for sure is that the man we thought was the principal was only a cutout. I don’t know who the principal was, and we only found out today that he was an Italian. Or at least he was somewhere in Italy.”
Mallory glanced at Robin, who nodded.
“Not exactly a surprise,” Mallory said. “Okay. Just hang in there. I’ll make the call.”
He took a handkerchief from his pocket and carefully wiped every part of the Beretta pistol he’d used and then dropped the weapon on the ground far enough away from
the wounded man to ensure that he wouldn’t be able to easily crawl to reach it.
“That’ll confuse the ballistics a bit,” he said to Robin. “We’ll leave that and take his Browning. I prefer it to the Beretta anyway.”
He walked back to the wounded man.
“Where’s your phone?” he asked.
“In the car. Quick, mate, please.”
Mallory walked swiftly over to the BMW, opened the passenger door, using his handkerchief on the handle, reached inside, and picked up a mobile from the dashboard, again covering his hand with the fabric to avoid leaving prints. He dialed triple nine, waited until the operator answered, and just said, “Help me. I’ve been shot.” Then he replaced the phone on the dashboard, leaving the line open so the location of the mobile could be triangulated, and walked away.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, walking back to where Robin was standing.
The Golf was a mess. The rear window had been blown out by the second shot fired by the dead driver, and two other bullets had hit the rear of the car, leaving ugly holes with jagged edges in the metal.
“We’re lucky neither hit the fuel tank,” Mallory said, peering under the vehicle to check for dripping petrol. “At least it should still be drivable.”
Robin got back in the driver’s seat and started the engine, which sounded entirely normal.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” she said, releasing the clutch
pedal as Mallory sat down beside her. “This has comprehensively buggered up my no-claim bonus.”
He grinned at her for a moment, then shook his head.
“I didn’t think we’d be in this state quite so quickly,” he said. “Obviously the bloody Italians are still after us, even if they are outsourcing the work.”
“That’s a nice way of putting it. I presume you know more about this kind of thing than I do, but even I can guess that the ‘principal’ is the person who ordered us to be killed, but what did that man mean by a ‘cutout’?”
“Ordering somebody to be killed is a big deal, and nobody who wants a murder committed is ever going to openly make a contract with a couple of assassins for hire. If at all possible, he’ll use a third party, maybe more than one in a chain, to hide his identity. That’s a cutout. I suppose,” he added thoughtfully, “it might have been a good idea to take the mobile, just in case we could have tracked and identified the cutout at least.” Then he shook his head. “Too late, anyway, and I suppose whoever it was will have screened his number so it would be difficult or impossible to identify him, at least with the resources we have.”
Robin had brought the Golf up to speed on the now virtually empty road, and was trying to use as little throttle as possible to avoid exhaust fumes being sucked into the car through the destroyed rear window.
Mallory glanced back and looked at the rear tailgate. Bits of safety glass were still clinging to the window seal around the edges of the hatchback, but virtually all the glass had been blown into the vehicle.
“We’ve got to decide what to do about this,” he said.
“What, the car or the Italians?”
“Both, though I was really thinking short-term, about the car. Getting the rear window replaced will be easy enough, but those two bullet holes are going to be a bit more difficult to hide. We can’t take the car to a garage in this state, because absolutely the first thing they’d do would be to call the rozzers. And we can’t really claim the car was stolen, because that would raise an immediate red flag in front of Inspector bloody Wilson. He’s just itching to find something—anything—that he can pin on us.”
“So what do we do?”
“I think we need to do a bit of modification to the back of it, to hide the bullet holes. If you can find a quiet parking area somewhere well off the road, I’ll see what I can do.”
Fifteen minutes later Robin steered the car off the road and onto a disused track, not a paved turnout, that offered some cover from the road, and she and Mallory hopped out to inspect the damage.
The two holes were fairly close together, one in the tailgate itself and the other one a short distance below it, and it was perfectly obvious what had caused them. Bullet holes in thin metal left unmistakable damage.
“I think,” Mallory said, “that we need a slight rear-end shunt to conceal these.”
He looked around, then pointed a short distance farther down the track at a rocky outcrop. “That might do it. Let me just do a bit of creative panel beating first.”
He picked up a heavy stone about the size of a
grapefruit, one side of it a jagged point, and rammed the sharp edge hard against the lower hole. The fairly thin metal bent and tore, and after repeating the treatment five times, the telltale hole was so torn and distorted that it was impossible to tell what had caused the damage.
Then Mallory lay flat on his back and looked under the vehicle, checking to see if the bullet had lodged somewhere in the chassis.
“There’s a dent and a scar on a part of the rear subframe,” he said, “but the bullet is nowhere in sight.”
“The tailgate is going to be more difficult,” Robin said, “because it’s double-skinned.”
While Mallory scrambled to his feet, she opened the tailgate and peered into the open trunk of the vehicle.
“You’re not going to like this,” she said.
“The bullet stayed inside the trunk. What stopped it plowing through and into the car—and potentially into my back—was your computer bag. And, unless I’m mistaken, your computer.”
Mallory’s expression darkened. His computer was his life, and his main source of income.
“There’s a hole on this side, but no hole on the other,” Robin continued, lifting out the leather bag.
Mallory almost snatched it from her and opened it to pull out his laptop. He looked at both sides of the computer but could see no immediate sign of damage
“It looks untouched,” he said, his tone puzzled. “So what . . .”
“I think this is what you’re looking for,” Robin said,
reaching into the bag herself and pulling out a distorted and bent oblong black metal object, from the side of which about half of a copper-jacketed nine-millimeter bullet protruded. “It’s one of your backup hard disks. Hard, in this case, being the most important part of the description.”
Mallory took it from her, an expression of profound relief on his face. “I always said backups were vital, but until this moment I didn’t know just how important they could be.”
“Look at the angle,” Robin said. “I think that probably saved my life. If that bag had been lying flat instead of standing upright, the bullet would have gone right through the back of the driver’s seat.”
Mallory took the ruined disk from her and looked at it. Then he wrapped his arms around Robin.
“Thank God for that,” he murmured, kissing the top of her head.
“Enough of that. Later,” Robin said, disengaging herself. “We’ve got stuff to do.”
Mallory picked up the hard drive and seized the end of the bullet, but it was stuck fast in the metal of the hard disk. He took out a folding multitool from his bag, opened it to expose the jaws of the pliers, and prepared to grasp the missile once again, but Robin stopped him with a gesture.
“I’d like that as a souvenir,” she said. “With the bullet in place, obviously. It’ll be the first time a computer’s ever saved my life, rather than tried to drive me to suicide. I think I’ll get it mounted.”