Authors: Barbara Elsborg
Tags: #MM;m/m;romantic suspense
“You must have been spotted making your preparations. Careless. Losing your edge, Ten?”
“Who knew I was in Paris doing this job? Who would want me not to do anymore work for you? Or are you tired of me? Think I’m a threat? Some conniving scheme you’ve concocted?”
“No,” Phoenix snapped. “It has nothing to do with me. Do you still have a problem?”
Of course I fucking do.
“I dealt with it.”
“Good. Were you able to have a conversation?”
“Not as such. He was American—possibly. I’ll send you a photo. Find out who he is.”
Archer ended the call and once he’d sent the image, he took the battery out of his phone. He didn’t linger after he’d drunk his coffee but continued with his counter-surveillance, toying with the notion of changing his plans completely and going south to the sun instead of north to a cold UK. He had safety deposit boxes that contained money and new IDs stashed in several European cities, but until he knew what all this was about, he was reluctant to use them in case they were compromised. He was more confident of accessing his accounts with the two Swiss banks.
France wasn’t safe. Whoever set him up, whoever had given the shooter his photo, could also have given it to the police. Could Phoenix want him dead? Archer had done a number of jobs for him and there’d never been a problem. If not Phoenix, then who? One of his other brokers? Again, Archer could see no motive.
He’d booked a seat on a train from Gare du Nord to Calais but wouldn’t be on it. As he moved around Paris on foot, by metro and by bus, he saw no indication he was being followed, but he wasn’t reassured. He purchased a new bag, a few items of clothing, a box of macaroons and a couple of dog toys before he headed for Gare Saint-Lazare. Although customs was unlikely to stop him, he needed something to show for his trip. The police could be waiting at all exit points. He was all too aware the tiniest mistake could be fatal. By now, whoever wanted him dead would know he wasn’t and Archer doubted they’d give up.
It was late afternoon by the time he boarded the ferry in Le Havre. He’d changed trains twice and on the last stop when no one had got off with him, he’d finally felt easier. The police didn’t stop him, nor did the immigration officers. His bag was scanned, his passport checked and he even won a smile from a pretty French woman who checked his ticket. Archer returned the smile but she was the wrong sex to be of interest to him.
Up on deck, as he watched the lights of Le Havre recede into the distance, he put the battery back in his phone. There was no message from Phoenix so he called him.
“We’ve not been able to identify him. The French police have the building cordoned off. I trust you left nothing incriminating.”
Archer let his mobile fall into the water. Unless Phoenix or another broker managed to contact him by some other means, Archer was off the radar and running. Not a comfortable feeling, but then being shot at hadn’t been comfortable either.
Six hours to cross the channel. Six hours to wonder if he’d be picked up on arrival. Six hours to try and fathom things out. All that happened was that he arrived safely and no one stopped him, but his heart beat uncomfortably fast.
Another train journey from Portsmouth to Bristol, a city he chose at random, where he spent the night in a cheap hotel room. He burned the passport that had brought him out of France into the UK. He ought to burn that photograph but it had the shooter’s blood on it, probably his fingerprints too and Archer didn’t want to give that up. The picture had been taken outside the Novotel on Novoslobodskaya str. He tried to imagine himself back at the spot to see if he could remember anything, but he wasn’t even sure which day it had been. He was intensely irritated he’d noticed nothing.
He slid the picture inside a piece of wrapping from a plastic cup supplied by the hotel and put it in his bag. The ashes of Jeremy Klein’s passport went down the toilet. His credit card, cut into tiny pieces, was swallowed by the River Avon before Archer left the city. More journeys by train, more doubling back and making last-minute decisions on destinations while all the time he remained on high alert and intensely stressed.
Once Archer reached Leeds, he was as sure as he could be that he hadn’t been followed. Apart from someone already knowing this was his destination, the only thing that could go wrong would be if the Audi, the bag in the trunk, and the packages in the wall were no longer in the lockup garage.
He’d set up this drop in Leeds nine months ago after he’d killed a guy in Venezuela and seen two teenage girls fall sobbing at their father’s side. The guy had been an arms dealer but Archer’s reaction to the distress of the children had alarmed him.
Going soft in my old age?
When getting out of the country had proven more difficult than he’d anticipated, he questioned whether he ought to continue. He told himself if he did this for too long he’d lose his edge and get caught, but it wasn’t just that. The longer he worked as a hired killer, the greater the chance it might permanently change something inside him and make a future impossible.
Archer had no links with Leeds. He’d been here once to arrange his new life, though he hadn’t actually envisaged starting it quite so soon. As sure as he could be that the garage was free from observation, he unlocked it, slipped inside and relocked the door. He allowed himself a smile when he found the car in place and his bag in the trunk. He retrieved the packages he’d hidden behind breeze blocks in the garage wall and took out his new passport, birth certificate, driver’s license, debit and credit cards. He’d also hidden a hundred thousand in cash, a new mobile phone and a gun. He left some money in the hiding place. He’d paid for two years rent of the garage. In one way it was safer than a bank.
He drove north on the A1 with his phone charging and no destination in mind. For the next few months he’d move around, set up bank accounts, use deposit boxes for the cash. The whole hundred thousand would have been too bulky to carry anyway, too risky if he lost it all. Settling was also too risky. It didn’t seem possible Phoenix or any other broker could have knowledge of his new name, but he could never be one hundred percent certain of anything.
To Phoenix he was Ten. In Paris he’d been Omar bin Sherif and Jeremy Klein. He was now Archer Hart, age thirty-seven. Archer was his default name, the one he liked the best. It gave him something permanent in an impermanent world. He had untidy dark hair, dark eyes, was six-three, and lanky with olive skin thanks to a father he’d never seen. He was an expert at becoming someone else, though not at looking like someone else without a disguise. He never thought of himself with the name he was born with. He barely remembered how old he really was.
He drove for miles, circled back, took country routes and when he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer, he chose a hotel in Newcastle, crawled into bed and let sleep take him, the only thing that could.
As soon as Conrad was coherent enough to make his wishes clear, he said he wanted no visitors. For reasons beyond his comprehension, the nursing staff had taken that to exclude family. Of course he’d want to see them. Er…no. But no one listened and it infuriated him. On the other hand, could he honestly have expected anyone to stand firm against his tsunami of a mother? She’d swept into his room bearing flowers, books, fruit and a bloody teddy bear. All bought from Harrods. She planted the bear next to his head, patted it and after a slight hesitation, patted Conrad’s cheek.
With less fucking affection.
He wished he was strong enough to throw the bear out the window. Or his mother. Or himself.
“Darling,” she said. “You poor, poor thing.”
Which was as much sympathy as he expected and far more than he required. She’d arrived with Alexander in tow, Conrad’s recently acquired fourth stepfather. Another wedding of hers he’d refused to attend. Unlike her last groom, at least Alexander was older than Conrad, but as far as Conrad could see that was the only thing going for him. Oh and the fact that he was rich. Wealth trumped looks, age and personality as far as his shallow-as-a-puddle mother was concerned.
She chatted on about where they intended to spend Thanksgiving—Alexander was American—in Maine as guests of some senator. She bored Conrad with talk of people he neither knew nor had any interest in, and filled in his side of the conversation when he stayed silent.
“You must come and stay with us,” she said, “when you’re better, of course. We can have…things put in for you.”
Which was sort of a contradiction in terms. If he was better, there would be no need for…things. If he was better, there was no way in hell he’d go and stay with his mother and Mr. Zero-Personality. He doubted they really wanted
in their smart, glittering marble bathrooms. Hoists and handrails. Bedpans and bed baths. His heart lurched. Was that really his future?
When he failed to open his mouth to reassure her, she babbled on for a few more minutes in a loud voice as if he was deaf as well as unable to walk and finally put the back of her hand against her forehead and asked Alexander to take her home.
“I’m so sorry, darling. But the medicinal smell upsets me.” She gulped back a sob. “And this bed, all these…machines.”
And presumably the sight of her paralyzed son upset her as well. Alexander hurried her out, glaring at Conrad as if lying there was
fault, as if he’d deliberately thrown himself in front of the car. No one believed the car had aimed for him, that Conrad had seen it coming down the road and then mount the pavement just before it hit him. Quite an irony he’d failed to convince anyone, since as a barrister, Conrad spent his days trying to persuade people his clients were telling the truth even if he thought they were lying pieces of shit. As long as his clients didn’t tell him they were making it all up, Conrad did his job and tried to get them off.
His claims that he’d been deliberately mown down by a black car had been treated as confused ramblings and although Conrad had not stopped pressing the police to continue with their enquiries, he’d said nothing to his parents. His mother would only freak out and he doubted his father would believe him. His mother had made only three visits, but his father turned up every other day, which had both amazed and annoyed him.
On the face of it, Conrad’s father was far less of a force of nature than his mother. He was a quiet, unassuming man who achieved what he wanted by very different means to his former wife. There was something in his father’s bearing and cultured tone of voice that instilled both deference and a need to please in those he encountered. Conrad too until they’d fallen out fifteen years ago. He hadn’t expected to see him despite having been hit with the car. Then one day he woke to find him sitting at his bedside, reading
Conrad hadn’t spoken a word because why should what had happened to him
make any difference to their relationship, but his father kept returning. The nursing staff ignored Conrad’s requests to keep him out and eventually Conrad gave in. Every time his father came, Conrad was determined to say nothing and his guilt and subsequent irritation at feeling guilty—because why the fuck should he feel guilty?—meant he had a bad night. Eventually, he’d managed monosyllabic responses to his father’s questions and that seemed to make things easier between them.
The police had been to see him less often than his mother. They’d found the stolen car burned out near a tower block in Deptford and concluded it was reckless joyriding by teenagers. Conrad had asked Sev, his senior evidence gatherer, to quietly make some enquiries. Someone must have seen the car or spotted him out running. There had to be more to this than the police had uncovered.
While Conrad was aware there were plenty of people who didn’t like him, it was disconcerting to feel one of them didn’t like him
much. Someone he’d prosecuted and sent to jail? Someone he’d defended who’d been sent to jail? If he thought his client was going to go down, Conrad always warned them. He didn’t recall anyone threatening to kill him. Had it been a friend or relation of a client, or were the police right and he was wrong? Until he knew for certain, how could he feel safe? Having said that, he’d lain helpless in the hospital for weeks and no one had come to finish the job.
Sev came up with nothing to suggest it had been anything more than bad driving, a lapse of attention and bad luck for Conrad. The guy was thorough and Conrad knew he should accept it as an accident, but part of him couldn’t. He wasn’t amused by Sev’s suggestion that the driver had been dazzled by Conrad’s backside in his Lycra shorts. He didn’t wear fucking Lycra when he was running. He didn’t wear it when he wasn’t running. Anyway, the car hadn’t hit him from the rear.
The stolen BMW had been taken from outside an accountant’s house in Ham. The man had no connections to Conrad, Sev was certain of that. The vehicle was caught on CCTV several times as it had been driven into London, but there were no clear images of the driver, only a shadowy face under a dark hat. Until the point that Conrad had been hit, which wasn’t on camera, the car had been driven sensibly and within the speed limits. So why speed up and veer off the road unless the driver had wanted to knock him down? It could have been some lunatic looking for street cred with his gang. Conrad ran the same route every morning. Had someone been watching him? He tried to let it go, accept what the police told him and what Sev confirmed, but there was that twitch in his gut that refused to go away.
While the medical staff had given way to his parents, they
turn away his friends and colleagues and for that Conrad was grateful. The pile of get-well-soon cards on the bedside table proved he wasn’t universally detested, but he’d asked the nurses to redirect any flowers he’d been sent to patients who’d appreciate them. He’d written to everyone who’d sent him a card or flowers and thanked them. He had bugger-all else to do.
The one visitor he’d hoped might come and yet was the one he didn’t want to see occupied his thoughts more than was healthy. When the guy finally snuck into his room, Conrad thought for a moment he must be hallucinating. Malachi, the love of his life, stood in front of him wearing a white coat with a toy stethoscope hanging around his neck. It almost made Conrad smile before he remembered Malachi was no longer his, and that someone else was laughing at his jokes, feeding him, fucking him. He and Malachi had been together seven years, which was longer than a lot of marriages lasted. Conrad still smarted from Malachi’s rejection.
As Malachi approached the bed, Conrad turned his head and looked the other way because he was in enough pain without Malachi adding to it, no matter how unwittingly.
“Fuck off,” Conrad said.
“Look at me and tell me that.”
It was a long moment before Conrad
look at him. He wanted to ask Malachi to hold him and he couldn’t.
He was Harper’s now. The thought was like a dagger in his gut and Conrad snapped straight from sulky to furious.
“How did you get in here? That stethoscope couldn’t have fooled anyone.”
“I told them I was your son.”
Conrad groaned, his anger melting like snow. “Do I look
Malachi fumbled for his hand and clutched it.
“That’s not how to take my pulse,” Conrad said.
Malachi blinked. “What have I always taught you? Look right, then left, then right again and only if the road is clear do you cross. Even kids get that right.”
“Oh shit. I looked left, then right, then left again.”
Malachi gave a choked laugh. “You should have looked for an old lady to help you. Or a chicken. They’re always crossing roads.”
When Malachi squeezed his fingers so hard it hurt, Conrad held back his gasp because he didn’t want him to let go. He ached to tell him he wasn’t sure it was an accident but he knew what Malachi was like. He’d believe him and go off half-cocked trying to find out who was responsible and end up in trouble.
“If you need looking after…” Malachi said.
“I won’t be asking you. You throw up at anything gross and you can’t make toast without burning it.”
“I mean it.”
“I know you do. Wouldn’t work though, would it? Not sure Harper would approve.”
“Harper owes you. He told me to tell you to come and stay with us. As long as you like. He means it.”
Tears glistened in Malachi’s eyes and a lump rose in Conrad’s throat.
“Do me a favor?” Conrad asked.
“Anything. Well no, not anything because you’ll ask for something stupid and no, I won’t do that, I can’t, so don’t ask me. You’re going to be back on your feet in no time.” Malachi groaned. “Shit, you just wanted a drink or something, didn’t you? You didn’t want me to pull the plug, though you’re not plugged into anything. Not like before. Christ, rip my tongue out now.”
The lump grew large enough to choke him.
Not like before?
Did that mean Malachi had visited when he’d been unconscious? Was there no one in this place who did as he told them?
“Don’t get all huffy,” Malachi said. “You snuck in to see me when I was in the hospital.”
“I happened to be in the area.”
Malachi harrumphed. “Liar.”
Conrad’s lips twitched. When he discovered Malachi had been injured in a fire, desperation to get to Leeds as soon as possible had fired him up in court and he’d annihilated the prosecution in a blistering attack that surprised even him. He’d hired a private jet to fly him to Leeds-Bradford airport.
At the sight of Malachi lying motionless, a tube coming out of his mouth as he recovered from smoke inhalation, his heart had ached in a way he’d never experienced before. He’d always thought that particular organ was a lump of ugly rock with a few interesting veins that occasionally shone under the right light, and he discovered it wasn’t.
It was a delicate crystal easily broken. At the side of Malachi’s bed he’d seen a man slumped on a chair, his eyes closed, his head resting next to Malachi’s hand.
Harper was good-looking with dark hair and a dusting of stubble on his cheeks. He’d spent ten years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, quietly continued to maintain his innocence and somehow taken the one thing in the world Conrad wanted.
“Stopped talking to me?” Malachi asked.
“Yes.” That wouldn’t shut him up.
“Was it an accident?” Malachi asked. “You, the car?”
“No, I deliberately stepped in front of it to see if it could brake in time.”
Conrad sighed. “Wrong place, wrong time.”
“I want you to get better.” Malachi stroked his hand with his thumb.
“I want you to go away and not come back.”
Malachi’s shoulders dropped then he straightened. “You’re not in charge of me anymore.”
Conrad’s heart jumped. “I don’t want you to see…”
Me like this.
Malachi opened his mouth, closed it and nodded. He let go of Conrad’s hand.
“Thank you for coming.” Conrad’s voice remained steady, which surprised him considering his heart pounded loud enough for Malachi to hear.
When Malachi reached the door, he turned and looked back. “Get better soon, okay? And don’t just
. Make it happen.”
“That never worked when I said it to you.”
Malachi grinned. “Didn’t it? Why bother doing stuff myself when I knew you’d do it for me?” He stopped smiling. “But you have to do this yourself, mate. You can do it. I know you can. Just don’t give up or I’ll come back and make you live with us. That should be a big enough threat.”
“I feel the urge to pick up my bed and walk.” He didn’t.
Malachi leaned against the door. “I still love you, you know that, right?”
Conrad tensed. “Better not let Harper hear you say that.”
“He knows. You and I might have gone wrong but it wasn’t all bad. You need someone different from me, someone you can’t boss around, someone who can stand up to you, maybe boss you around, get you to…open up. Someone you can tell jokes to instead of me always hogging the limelight. You’re not nearly as serious as you let people think.”
The door swung shut as Malachi left. Conrad listened to him walking away down the corridor and fought not to call him back.
When he thought about what had gone wrong between them, Conrad accepted much of it was his fault. Malachi had been a boy when they’d met and Conrad hadn’t wanted him to change. Yet even as he told himself he liked things the way they were, part of him had wanted more. He’d sensed his growing desperation to make Malachi happy, to make him want to stay. The more desperate he’d become the more surely he’d driven Malachi away.
Malachi’s greatest gift had been that he needed him and Conrad hadn’t been able to accept there would come a time when that would end. The day Malachi moved out, Conrad’s world imploded. He knew he’d been too controlling, too manipulative, too cold. For the seven years they’d been together, Conrad had never opened his heart. He’d maintained the persona and façade he’d adopted years before. He’d become so mired in it he’d been unable to be himself because he didn’t know who he was anymore. He’d hidden behind the games he’d made Malachi play.