ALDEBURGH, SUFFOLK, ENGLAND
Gabriel Wolfe checked his rear-view mirror and tried to ignore the dead woman with long copper-red hair blowing around her face like flames.
He swallowed and screwed his eyes tight shut. When he opened them again, she was gone. His heart was racing.
It had been happening more and more recently. Britta Falskog, who’d lost her life just a few hundred yards away, on the stony beach, was back.
Why? It didn’t make any sense. Eli, his fiancée, had shot the assassin dead on the spot. They’d attended the funeral in Sweden. Gabriel had travelled to Russia to find and kill the people behind the hit.
The tragedy was another in a long line that dotted his life like dark clouds in a summer sky. But it was over. He’d moved on. Eli had asked him to marry her – typical of their relationship that it should have been this way round – and he’d agreed. Readily. No thought of anyone but her.
He’d thought his PTSD was a thing of the past, too. In remission, if not actually cured. He didn’t concern himself with the diagnostic niceties. But the flashbacks had gone. So, too, the waking nightmares when a dead comrade, Michael ‘Smudge’ Smith, would appear in the most unexpected places, jaw hanging off, or missing altogether.
So why the hell was Britta Falskog back in his life? What was she telling him?
Britta had got close to him. And she’d paid with her life. Now Eli was embarking on the same course of action. And he was terrified the same fate would befall her.
No. He wouldn’t let it. He couldn’t. Mustn’t. He shook his head violently. Pushed the thoughts down.
He inhaled deeply and sighed the breath out again. He gripped Lucille’s fat-rimmed steering wheel and turned the key. The Camaro’s engine turned over with a slow, purposeful cough.
He backed out of the narrow drive, inching past the white-painted gate post. He reflected, not for the first time, that owning a car designed for the spacious driveways, suburban avenues and six-lane freeways of America came with drawbacks. Most notably when confronted with Britain’s narrower, twistier and altogether less- forgiving roads.
But the car was a gift from the widow of a friend. And, for that reason, hard to let go.
Gabriel reversed across the narrow strip of Tarmac that separated his house from the car park at the end of Slaughden Road. He waved to the owner of the boatyard that neighboured his property and then stuck the transmission into Drive and pulled away.
Aldeburgh was busy this particular Friday morning. Holidaymakers ambled along the pavements licking ice creams and peering in the windows of the artsy gift shops that flourished in this chi-chi town on the Suffolk coast.
Gabriel nodded to a couple of people he knew coming the other way down the High Street and then, when he reached the outskirts of the town, gave the Camaro its head.
The speed limit was sixty, but he felt no compunction in flouting the law. As a Department operative, he had a plastic card in his wallet that functioned as a literal Get Out Of Jail Free Card. But that wasn’t why he took the big black muscle car up to eighty, and then ninety as the road straightened out.
If he was pulled over, he’d take the points on his licence, and the fine, on the chin. But there was something inside him, some compulsion, that drove him, whip and spur, to take himself to the limits. Behind the wheel or with a knife or a pistol in his hand, it was the same feeling.
He’d sometimes wondered whether it was a death wish of a kind. But he’d dismissed it. After meeting, and then becoming engaged to Eli, he’d rediscovered such a zest for life that the thought of dying, in action or even in bed, had become truly abhorrent to him. In fact, for the first time in his adult life, the fear of death had crept into his consciousness.
He’d talked to Eli about it. She’d tried to reassure him. Said it was normal for people in their occupation. Hell, it was normal, full stop. And who, or what, did he think he was? Superman?
They were just human beings. Men and women. Everybody felt scared from time to time. Had he told her about the visions of Britta? No. He had not. It wasn’t fair to load that onto her as well.
Now she was far away, somewhere in South America. A Department op. Total dark.
He’d never been a religious man. He’d seen too much evil to believe in the idea of an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God. Eli did. With reservations. Being Jewish, the Holocaust tested her belief to the absolute limits. Somehow, though, she had retained her faith.
But religious or not, he wanted so desperately for her to return to him in one piece – one alive piece – that he’d found himself praying for her safety, night after night.
He didn’t imagine a particular end for himself. Though he had a wide and varied mental library of possibilities, none of them involving soft, line-dried sheets smelling of the sea and the meadow flowers in his back garden.
It was more a vague sense of unease. A feeling that, after so many years facing down dangers of almost unimaginable intensity, he’d become aware of his own mortality.
Where once he’d thought only of the mission, or the people alongside whom he was fighting, now he thought of himself, too. And his future.
He tried to channel the feeling into greater preparedness. Checking kit even more thoroughly. Assessing new situations with even greater attention to tiny details. Reading and re-reading briefing notes until the small hours. Striving, always, to identify flaws others might have missed that could compromise the mission and put his life in danger.
Because despite its outwardly devil-may-care image within the security apparatus, The Department was run, ultimately, by bureaucrats. People without skin in the game. Even Don Webster, Gabriel’s former CO in the SAS and now boss of his new outfit, was little more than an office-bound paper-pusher these days.
Don had complained about it himself. Nearer seventy than sixty, his rifle-wielding days were long behind him. But still the old warhorse – friends and rivals alike called him ‘Dobbin’ – yearned for the harness. The weight of armour. The clash of steel and the whine of bullets.
Now that belonged to the operatives. People like Gabriel and Eli. Others, too, though The Department operated on a decentralised basis and teams were kept separate for security reasons. No regimental dinners, annual parades or even casual meals at discreet restaurants for them.
Where had this sudden anxiety about death come from? He thought he knew. Partly, his forthcoming marriage to Eli. An event he’d once thought was for other people. Then, after proposing to Britta and, ultimately, being rejected, as something out of his reach.
Eli had made a play for him early on in their relationship, which until then he’d seen as purely professional. But after Britta’s murder, their partnership had deepened into intimacy and then love. And now they were on the cusp of a life together, as man and wife. Or, given that Eli had proposed to Gabriel, as woman and husband.
Either way, Gabriel had something he cared desperately about for the first time in his life since his brother’s death.
So, there was Eli. And another woman who had entered his life in an unexpected way. Wei Mei, his sister. Christened Tara Wolfe and kidnapped as a six-month-old baby and lost to the family for good, everybody assumed. She’d been working in Hong Kong as a bodyguard to a now-dead triad leader. Now she ran the triad herself and was gradually moving its considerable funds into legitimate businesses.
He dabbed the brake to scrub a little speed off as he approached a sweeping left-hand curve in the road. Beneath him, he felt the mass of the car shift on the suspension as it settled into the bend at a steady fifty-five.
Some engineer in Detroit had done a good job of setting up the Camaro’s steering, and he could feel every undulation and patch of loose grit on the road surface through his fingertips. He smiled as the nearside wheels flirted with the edge of the Tarmac at the apex of the bend.
He glanced up at the rear-view mirror and his stomach jumped. Had he just seen her again? A flash of copper in the hedgerow? He looked again. But she’d gone. Maybe it had just been sun striking some reddish foliage. He forced himself to smile. Just enjoy the drive, Wolfe.
A white car with orange lights flashing on its roof and grille filled the windscreen. Its horn blared.
He reared back in his seat. Gripped the wheel tighter.
Behind the car trundled a huge low-loader. It carried a bright green-and-yellow combine harvester. The unwieldy combo took up three-quarters of the entire width of the road.
His stomach plunged. Adrenaline surged through his bloodstream, recalibrating his systems. Fast.
His heart rate doubled. His pulse dilated. His palms became slick with sweat. Time slowed down. Another effect of the adrenaline.
The car driver was leaning on the horn. Gabriel had time to register the open-mouthed look of horror on his face.
Swerving left, the car hit the soft verge, slewed sideways and rolled over, smashing through the hedge bordering the road.
Pieces of plastic trim flew up in the air, arcing left and right.
The driver of the low-loader had no such option. The massive vehicle and its unwieldy load must have weighed twenty tonnes or more. Its inertia dictated it would stay on course.
Gabriel swerved right, close enough to the low-loader’s cab to see the screaming face of the driver and ploughed through the same hedge that the escort car had ripped through. Fifty yards further on, he skidded to a halt in a wheat field.
Mercifully, his passage through the hedge had not triggered the Camaro’s air bags. Gabriel sat with his hands still clamped to the steering wheel, chest heaving.
Reality seemed heightened. The wheat outside his window gleamed gold. The trees on the far side of the field glowed with vivid greens. He wrenched open his door and climbed out, wincing as he knocked an already bruised shin on the door frame. He ran back to where the car was lying on its side.
He leaned down to look into the cabin. The driver was unconscious, hanging in his seat belt. Gabriel smelled petrol. He searched for the source. And found it. Beneath the car, fuel spewed from the ruptured tank, staining the tawny earth a dark oxblood.
Gabriel climbed up onto the side of the car and pulled the door open. The stink of petrol was stronger in here. But the engine was off, so he was confident the vapour wouldn’t ignite.
He slithered inside, past the driver, and unclipped his seatbelt. The unconscious man slumped sideways and Gabriel lowered him onto the inner side of the passenger door.
There was no way he could lift the guy out of the driver’s door above their heads. He needed to get the car onto its wheels again, then drag the man free.
Gabriel hoisted himself up, using the centre console as a step. He pushed his way out of the door and swung down over the side of the car. The door above him slammed shut with a bang.
He heard a shout. Turning, he saw two men running across the field towards him.
‘Get back!’ he yelled. ‘Fuel leak!’
They ran on for a few more steps, then stopped. He turned away, back to the car. He ran round to the roof side and started rocking it forwards and backwards, allowing the momentum to build a little with each pendulum-like swing.
This was the big risk. As he pushed the car down onto its wheels, a metal part could scrape against another and produce a spark. And then?
Nobody would survive the fireball. He’d seen enough roadside IEDs go off to know what a burnt-out car did to its occupants. And he felt it again. That momentary flash of fear. What if? it said. What if it does blow up? He pushed it away. He wasn’t going to leave a man to die.
He kept pushing.
The car reached the balance point.
He let it swing back towards him one more time, then, as the car began its final traverse away from him, he pushed harder and, as his muscles screamed, felt it reach, then overtake, the tipping point.
With a thump and a crack as the windscreen crazed and sagged inwards, the car fell through ninety degrees and came to rest on its wheels.
Gabriel raced round and dragged the passenger door open. The driver flopped halfway through the aperture. Face bloody. Eyes closed. Still out cold.
He grabbed the man under his arms and heaved him free, hoping he’d no broken bones, especially a rib that could puncture a lung.
As the guy’s feet hit the earth, Gabriel leaned backwards and propelled himself away from the car with his heels. After going ten feet, he yelled out.
The two others ran forward. He heard their boots thumping on the hard earth, and the swish of the wheat stalks.
‘You, his waist. You, his ankles,’ Gabriel said, shifting his grip under the man’s armpits.
They took a few staggering steps, finding their rhythm. Gabriel breathed a sigh of relief.
Behind them, the petrol vapour ignited with a whoomp.
‘Faster!’ Gabriel urged.
They took a few more staggering steps, then the petrol tank exploded.
The blast threw them all to the ground. The orange fireball boiled up into the air above their heads. Gabriel felt the intense heat sear his skin.
Something hit him in the back. Left side. High up. He reached over his shoulder and his questing fingertips closed on a jagged piece of glass. Not in too deep. He’d have known. The adrenaline meant no pain. For now.
His ears ringing, Gabriel picked himself up. The two men from the low-loader were getting to their knees. Wide, white eyes stared from blackened faces. Their mouths were hanging open. They seemed stunned.
He’d seen it before. Battlefield shock. Civilians caught up in a firefight. Blast victims sitting in lakes of blood – theirs and other people’s – after a suicide bombing on a London bus.
He grabbed the nearest man by his shoulders and brought their faces to within inches of each other.
‘We have to get him to safety. He’s badly hurt.’
Nodding, but otherwise expressionless, the man got to his feet. Together with Gabriel, he pulled his colleague upright.
Together, they carried the driver well away from the car and laid him on his back near the edge of the field.
Gabriel began methodically checking the unconscious man for injuries. He found a pulse beneath his jaw, weak, but steady.
As gently as he could, he ran his palms over the arms then legs. No major breaks. He bent his ear to the man’s nose and listened to his breathing. It was slow and deep, but he could hear no rasping or bubbling that might indicate a punctured lung.
‘The ambulance is on its way,’ the taller of the two men. He glared down at Gabriel. ‘And the police.’
‘Good,’ Gabriel said. He felt a flash of pain from his left shoulder blade and half-turned away. ‘What’ve I got stuck in my back?’
The man peered down. ‘Looks like a wing mirror.’
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