Praise for Stephen Leather
‘An up-to-date story of intercontinental crime . . . fast-moving, lots of atmosphere’
Mail on Sunday
‘Excitement is guaranteed’
The Double Tap
‘Masterful plotting . . . rapid-fire prose’
‘One of the most breathlessly exciting thrillers around . . . puts [Leather] in the frame to take over Jack Higgins’s mantle’
The Evening Telegraph, Peterborough
‘A fine tale, brilliantly told – excitement which is brilliantly orchestrated’
The Oxford Times
The Birthday Girl
‘Action and scalpel-sharp suspense’
‘Terrifying, fast-moving and exciting thriller’
‘A whirlwind of action, suspense and vivid excitement’
The Long Shot
‘Consolidates Leather’s position in the top rank of thriller writers. An ingenious plot, plenty of action and solid, believable characters – wrapped up in taut snappy prose that grabs your attention by the throat . . . A top notch thriller which whips the reader along at breakneck speed’
‘The plot blasts along faster than a speeding bullet’
‘The book has all the ingredients for a successful blockbuster’
‘If you feel a sleepless night coming on, here’s something to help you meet it head on; Stephen Leather’s fifth thriller. His last was praised by Jack Higgins who couldn’t put it down. The same goes for this’
‘Will leave you breathless’
‘Plenty of visceral excitements’
‘A gripping story sped along by admirable, uncluttered prose.’
‘The sort of book that could easily take up a complete weekend – and be time really well spent . . . A story that’s as topical as today’s headlines’
Bolton Evening News
‘Very complicated. Fun’
‘A pretty impressive debut . . . sharp and economical . . . a pacey read’
Also by Stephen Leather
The Long Shot
The Birthday Girl
The Double Tap
The Solitary Man
The Tunnel Rats
Spider Shepherd Thrillers
Fair Game (July 2011)
Jack Nightingale Supernatural Thrillers
HODDER & STOUGHTON
Copyright © 1989 by Stephen Leather
The right of Stephen Leather to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in Great Britain in 1989 by Fontana
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
Epub ISBN 978 1 84456 865 9
Book ISBN 978 0 340 67222 8
Hodder & Stoughton
A division of Hodder Headline
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH
The first sound would have been the sound of the naked and wet body hitting the glass, a dull, flat thud followed by a crack as the window exploded into a thousand shards.
Maybe she’d have screamed then, but fifteen floors above the ground it would have been lost in the wind as she followed the fragments of glass into space and began the long fall, arms and legs flailing for something, anything, to hold onto.
I saw an old newsreel once, black-and-white and grainy; it had started off with a helium-filled airship coming in to land, swooping down with long ropes trailing from the nose. A ground crew of eight or nine men ran forward to grab the ropes and anchor the giant balloon, but a sudden gust of wind sent it soaring back into the air. Half the guys were smart enough to let go immediately, one dropped about twenty feet and broke both ankles.
Three held on and rode the airship up into the grey sky, turning slowly on one rope as it climbed higher and higher. The guy filming was a real pro. He pulled back, showing all three of the men like lead weights on a fishing line, then followed them down as they fell, one by one, to their deaths. He tracked the first one down, then slowly panned back, showing just how high the remaining two poor sods had gone.
He almost missed the second fall, but got the guy in the centre of the frame a second before he hit the ground. Then, slowly, he moved the camera back up and homed in on the last man on the rope, close enough so you could see his straining hands finally open and slip, so close you could almost feel the palms burn as they began to slide.
The camera followed the doomed man every foot of the way to his death, you could see the arms whirling, the legs kicking, the mouth opening and closing as he screamed, all the way down. It’s not true what they say about people dying of shock, that your heart stops and you die long before you hit the ground. The fall doesn’t kill you, the desire to live is too strong for that, it’s smashing into the ground at one hundred and twenty mph that brings oblivion. Right up until the last moment you’re conscious and screaming.
She’d have screamed as she realized that nothing was going to save her, that she was falling to her death in a shower of glass. She’d have screamed, but that high up no one would have heard her and once she’d started to move fast, once gravity pulled her down to her final bloody embrace, then the wind would have ripped the yell from her throat and dispersed it instead into the hot night air.
The next sound would have been the sickly crump as she slapped into the ground like a wet sheet. I guess horns would have blared, passers-by would have screamed and before long the sound of a siren would have cut through the night as an ambulance arrived, too late.
She’d have died alone in the road, a long way from home. I should have been there. She was my sister and I should have been there.
I love a good rape. A gangland killing can sometimes make the front page, but more often than not it’ll be below the fold, or shoved inside in later editions. A robbery has to be into seven figures at least before it’s worth a mention, and unless someone gets his head blown off it’s not going to get any further than a page three lead. A hit and run isn’t even going to merit a couple of paragraphs in the ‘stop press’ column. But give me a good juicy rape, preferably with a dose of over-the-top violence, and we’re talking page one, possible splash.
The one I had in my notebook was a cracker of a tale, mother and daughter in a caravan on a site just outside Brighton. Husband tied up and forced to watch before being beaten over the head with one of his own golf clubs. Two youths, one black, one white, one of them carrying a shotgun, the other a kitchen knife. Jesus, the story had everything, sex, violence, a police warning that they could strike again. The only thing missing was an orphaned dog. So long as the Prime Minister didn’t call a snap election or die of AIDS it was going on to page one. I’d picked up the story myself from a pal on the Serious Crime Squad, and I’d talked my way into the hospital room where the daughter lay bandaged and on a drip feed. It had been easy. OK, so I might have given the orderly the impression that I was with the police and not just a nosey hack, but I hadn’t actually lied. I would have done, but I hadn’t had to. I’d just said that we had a few more questions and that and the fawn raincoat did the rest. The girl had lost her front teeth and she didn’t, or couldn’t, open her eyes for the twenty minutes I spent interviewing her, but I could hear her clearly enough. Good quotes, too, or at least they would be after I’d polished them up a bit.
I was practically running to my desk when Bill Hardwicke’s gravelly voice grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and jerked me back to his office. Office, that’s a laugh. One of six glass-sided boxes tagged onto the side of the open-plan converted wine warehouse where we worked, it was more like a squash court with furniture.
Bill always reminded me of a hamster in a cage, looking in vain for his exercise wheel. I bought him a pack of gerbil nibbles once and left them on his desk, but he didn’t find it funny. No sense of humour, but Bill Hardwicke is one of Fleet Street’s best news editors. Not that there was anything left of the Street now that all the nationals had moved out to the East End, but you know what I mean. He looked like a balding boxer, squashed nose and all, but one who hadn’t trained for half a dozen years and who’d developed a taste for the finer things in life, like high-cholesterol food and malt whisky. He was sitting in his ergonomically-designed desk. He was totally out of place in the hi-tech office, a relic of the days of hot metal, Linotype machines and 3 am deadlines.
‘How did it go?’ he growled.
‘Magic,’ I said, and I could feel myself grinning from ear to ear. I rushed the details past him and he raised his eyebrows.
‘Then get thee to a terminal, my son. Now.’ I turned to go, when he added: ‘By the way, a call came for you while you were out. Switchboard put it through to my office, it was from Hong Kong.’
‘Sally?’ I said.
‘No,’ he replied, not looking up as he toyed with his page plans. ‘It was some copper. Wouldn’t say what he wanted, said he had to talk to you. You got a story going on in the exotic Far East?’
‘Chance’d be a fine thing,’ I said, and left him to it. I slung my coat over the back of my own ergonomically-designed chair and sat down heavily. I logged onto the system using my three-fingered technique – first and second finger of my right hand, first finger left hand. It was OK for a thousand words or so, beyond that and my hands began to ache. What the hell, when was the last time a tabloid hack had to write a thousand words?
There was an air of gloom hanging over the office, dampening the electricity that you normally find sparking through a newspaper. The technology was partly to blame, removing forever the clickety-click of typewriters and the whirr of stories being pulled out to be thrust into the hands of waiting copy boys. Now it is all done electronically and the only time paper is involved is in the final product.
We’d been writing all our stories into the computer for about four years, and the subs were well used to working on the machines, but now we were trying to do full-page makeup on screen and traditional newspaper skills were about as useful as a rubber sledgehammer. Management had brought in a team of young, thrusting computer programmers in three-piece suits to do the business. Except that they couldn’t. Now the silicon chip whizz-kids, headed by the chairman’s son, a curly-headed bastard called Simon Kaufman, were working in tandem with the middle-aged shirt-sleeved grumblers who made up our subs desk. Tempers were getting frayed, young Kaufman had publicly humiliated and sacked two of the older down table subs and there had been one stand-up fist fight, but we were no nearer to getting the production fully computerized and it was starting to get everybody down.