Authors: Nichole Christoff
As chaos erupted, the Gorilla paid me no mind. He looked past me, eyes on his targets. I stepped close to disarm him, gripped his pistol, and twisted. I knew what I was doing, but so did he. He pivoted with the move, kept his weapon in his gripâand planted a square hand in my chest.
When he shoved, I went down hard, extending a palm to break my fall. The heel of my hand connected with the concrete. Pain radiated up my arm. Involuntary tears stung my eyes. Through the blur, I saw Gorilla take aim again at Katie and the Oujdads. I saw them huddle together against the faÃ§ade of the bookstore.
The sound of the shot made me sick to my stomach.
Still, I made myself look toward the bookshop. Katie hadn't moved. She crouched with her arms covering her head. The Oujdads clung to one another like peaches in syrup.
Beside me, the Gorilla tripped over the lip of the curb. He collapsed on the sidewalk. A red spot bloomed in his chest.
It was a gunshot wound.
And it was a kill shot.
I rolled to my knees, scrambled toward Katie and the Oujdads as they climbed shakily to their feet. I peered up the street, tried to see the shooter. Dashing away my tears, I was too late to see more than panicked pedestrians scattering like dead leaves in the wind.
Yet, in the midst of the chaos, I could've sworn I glimpsed the back of a ball cap crammed low on a blond head bobbing through the crowd. I could've vowed I saw a determined set of broad, boxer's shoulders. Worst of all, I could've testified those shoulders belonged to the man who'd wooed me on my sofa just the night before.
But what would Barrett be doing in London?
And why would he fire the kill shot that left a man dead in the street?
Of all the tourist attractions Great Britain has on offer, the emergency room of a London hospital has never been on my Must See list. Under the present circumstances, though, submitting to a series of X-rays in one of those healthcare hotspots beat cooling my heels in a Metropolitan Police interrogation room. And if my attending physician could stop the pain spiraling up my arm and squeezing the breath out of me like a jungle snake, so much the better.
The police weren't very far away, however, and I knew they'd keep me busy once the doctor was done. Case in point, a uniformed constable and the plainclothes detective inspector who'd ordered me transported here remained stubbornly planted outside the flimsy curtain shrouding my examination cubicle. Meanwhile, the doc, a dishwater blond with a basset hound's bags under his eyes, reviewed my films.
“I'm afraid you've cracked the radius in your left wrist,” he informed me.
A broken bone and the cops, though, were the least of my worries. The Gorillaâwhoever he was and whatever he'd beenâhad meant to do more than steal a couple of passports when he showed up in Covent Garden. He'd meant to kill the Oujdads. And in spite of all I'd done, he would've succeededâif someone who looked too much like Barrett hadn't killed him first.
I knew Barrett had killed a man before. I also knew he carried scars on his soul because of it. And I knew those scars had cut him more deeply than the ones I'd seen peppering his skin. But to my knowledge, he'd never walked up to a man on a crowded city street, shoved a gun in his chest, and blown him away. What would make Barrett do such a thing?
And why would he do it here, in Britain, at the site of Katie's meet?
As for Katie, I'd hustled her and the Oujdads into the bookstore after Barrett had crashed her party. And I'd ordered them out the back and to head for the hotel. But I hadn't been able to join them. The arrival of London's finest put paid to that. Thanks to a quaking eyewitness and his pointing finger, four police officers burst into the bookstoreâand arrested me.
As a result, I couldn't call Katie to check up on her. The London cops had confiscated my phone. They'd taken my slim little wallet with plenty of ID and the key card to my hotel room, too. The key card was unmarked, but it wouldn't take long for the forensics gurus to peg it as belonging to The Elizabethan Rose.
At The Elizabethan Rose, in the manager's vault, they'd find the contents of Katie's diplomatic pouchâand I could find myself in a heap of trouble.
I'd convinced Katie to stash the passports at the hotel to keep them away from the Gorilla and his crony, just in case they managed to meet up with us again on London's crowded streets. But if the Brits got their hands on the documents, they might not approve of the way those passports entered their country. If no one in Her Majesty's Government backed up Katie's story, we could face charges for forgery, smuggling, and possibly human trafficking. Our faces would be on every news channel known to man. And my father, sitting pretty on the Armed Services Committee, might find it advantageous to forget he had a daughter.
That prospect hurt worse than my broken arm.
“You're finished,” the doctor said.
I almost agreed.
Then I realized he meant I'd finished having my forearm sealed in plaster.
Past the privacy curtain, the detective inspector was quicker on the uptake than I was. I heard him calling for a car and I knew I was in for a short trip to a long stay in that interrogation room. I wasn't looking forward to it.
Before he could whip aside the curtain and caution me on my right to silence, though, I caught the smart step of leather soles coming down the hall. I glanced at the strip of tiled floor visible beneath the drape, saw hand-sewn shoes as black as Whitby jet bypass the police constable's glossy combat boots. When they stopped, they stood toe-to-toe with the DI's scuffed loafers.
I caught the rumble of conversation. I couldn't quite make out the words. But I didn't miss the squawk of the copper's radio as he called for backup.
Two more pairs of boots arrived on the double.
And plain as day, I heard the DI say, “She is a suspect in a shooting death and she will remain in my custody.”
Apparently, Hand-sewn Shoes didn't like the sound of that. A note of warning warmed his deep, dark voice. “Perhaps you've misunderstood me, Detective Inspector.”
The DI shuffled from loafered foot to loafered foot.
And on my gurney, I sat bolt upright.
I knew that voice.
Sure, email and overseas distances meant I'd heard it less often in recent years, but I'd heard it plenty in college. That voice had argued with me about parliamentary versus presidential politics, and whether someone should tell Professor Mackenzie to quit the comb-over and cut his thinning hair. And after more than one Saturday-night barhopping extravaganza, that voice had whispered wicked suggestions involving my room or his.
I'd resisted every time.
Commencement Weekend that voice had begged me to come to England for the summer. But by then, my father had had other plans for me. For one thing, he'd already introduced me to the young army officer I'd eventually be foolish enough to marry. And then there were the job interviews our shared last name had secured for me. As the son of a powerful and decisive man himself, the owner of that voice had said he'd understoodâand to this day I was sure he had.
Through the years, however, the voice's owner and I had kept up a running friendship. When my marriage imploded, that voice had commiserated with me on my messy divorce. It had also invited me to the UK once again. I didn't go, but I'd been sorely tempted to cross the pondâand all sorts of other boundaries. So, in that London hospital, tucked away behind a curtain, I was certain I knew that voice.
And that it belonged to my old friend, Philip Spencer-Dean.
“Your investigation,” Philip told the DI, “ends here. Your interest in Miss Sinclair is ended as well. Whilst she is in Britain, she is the concern of the Foreign Office. Is this clear to you?”
The detective inspector muttered his understanding on his side of the curtain.
On mine, the doctor handed me a vial of pills.
He said, “I'd suggest you stay for a cold compress, but the Foreign Office seems rather eager to speak to you.”
I had to agree.
And I wasn't sure how I felt about that.
The doctor cleared his throat. He whispered, “Shall I contact the American Embassy for you?”
I squared my shoulders, gave him a kind smile. “No, thank you. That's not necessary.”
And all the while, I prayed that that was true.
With a cast on my arm, a sling around my neck, and painkillers in my trouser pocket, I left the emergency room's treatment cubicle and set out to find my old friend. It didn't take long to locate him. All I had to do was follow the nurses. Whether breathlessly young or majorly middle-aged, their heads turned toward the handsome man thumbing through his text messages near the Head Sister's station. And their feet found excuses to follow.
And why not? Philip Spencer-Dean was a prince among men. Like a lordling in a medieval portrait, Philip's body was long and lean and his ginger locks were tipped with gold. His suit was the silvery color Brits call Prince of Wales gray. And if his haberdasher were to see him, the man would probably have a meltdownâbecause Philip had broken the Old Boys' dress code by sparking the staid and stuffy tailoring with a rocking, royal purple tie.
And really, royal purple suited him.
Philip's maternal grandmother had been Victoria's favorite grandchild. That made Philip kissing cousins with the present queen. As if that weren't enough, his father's family had handed down fistfuls of their own titles for generationsâand his old man sat in the House of Lords.
Of course, Philip was his father's younger son. So, he wouldn't inherit any pomp and circumstance. But he could've taught a master's class about familial obligation. He knew all about high expectations, too. And he understood the kind of pressure a powerful father could apply to a younger sonâor even to an only daughter.
In short, we were two of a kind. And maybe that was the secret to our long friendship. Or maybe Philip's flirting was.
“Jamie.” He clasped my good hand, pulled me close, and despite all those nurses, brushed a kiss against my cheek. “Still getting into scrapes, I see.”
“And you're still right beside me when I do. How did you know I was here?”
“I'll tell you.” Philip tucked my palm into the crook of his arm and escorted me toward a pair of glass sliding doors. “First, let's get you into my car.”
His car turned out to be a chauffeur-driven Mercedes.
Philip gave the order to drive us to The Elizabethan Rose, then raised the privacy partition that separated the backseat from the front.
“Does your wrist pain you?” he asked me.
Terribly. But instead I said, “Philip, I didn't tell you I'm staying at The Elizabethan Rose.”
He handed me my room's key cardâthe one the Metropolitan Police had taken from meâand pulled my skinny wallet and BlackBerry from his suit coat pockets. I couldn't get my mitt on my cell phone fast enough. I unlocked the screen with my password. No one had called. No one had texted. No one had emailed. Not Katie, not my father, and certainly not Barrett.
Frustration rolled over me like a wave on a rough sea. Fear followed closely in its wake. I'd come to London with a single job to do. For my father's sake, I'd agreed to safeguard Katie. But I'd underestimated the danger to her. And even if Katie and the Oujdads hadn't paid a high price for my miscalculation, Barrett certainly could. Murdering a man was a capital crimeâand my conscience whispered he'd murdered that man to protect all of us on that street since I'd been too slow to protect myself.
Of course, I wasn't the only one who'd formed a definite opinion about my recent behavior.
Philip had as well.
“You're traveling under your own passport, Jamie, and you checked into a preeminent London hotel using a credit card in your own name. You're not difficult to trace. The man who accosted you, on the other hand, had been evading our authorities for some time.”
“Who was he?”
“A contract killer. An Albanian called Teodor Dalmatovis. My colleagues tell me he's recently returned from Greece, where he met with several men close to a particular Middle Eastern dictator.”
Philip's colleagues were probably right. He and his associates served Her Majesty through Britain's Foreign Office. In short, Philip and his pals were diplomats. Social creatures one and all, diplomats are the face of their nation in every country where they're welcome. Sure, they work hard to forge mutually beneficial trade agreements, defense plans, and the like. But they also fall in love with the people of their host countries. Often, that feeling is mutual. As a result, diplomats get to see a lotâand they get to hear even more.
“My question,” Philip said, “is why was Dalmatovis after
Really, I figured he hadn't been. I figured he'd been after Katie and the snitch visas and the Oujdads. But I didn't want to tell Philip this. I didn't want him to ask me why the Oujdads were so important to some Middle Eastern regime. And I didn't want to tell him my father and Congress's Armed Services Committee couldn't wait to get Dr. Ikaat Oujdad back to Washington where the good doctor could spill all his secrets about covert nuclear facilities.
Fortunately, we reached The Elizabethan Rose before I had to come up with any kind of reply.
As the hotel's doorman opened the car for me, I squeezed Philip's hand. “I'll call you. I promise. But right now, I just want to get to my room.”
“Of course.” And to my chagrin, he climbed from the vehicle after me. “You must be exhausted after your ordeal and in a great amount of discomfort. I'll see you to your suite.”
I opened my mouth to protest.
Philip interrupted me. “Perhaps you'll introduce me to your friend.”
The word triggered thoughts of Barrett and that stopped me cold. He was supposed to be thousands of miles away, on an assignment of his own, yet he was in LondonâI was certain of it. I'd seen him with my own eyes. And I'd watched him kill a killer. The memory made my stomach cramp.
But Philip wasn't talking about Barrett.
“If Katie deMarco isn't your friend,” Philip asked, “does that make her your client?”
I frowned. I didn't want to talk about my client list with anyone. I certainly didn't want to discuss it with Philip.
I turned away from him, intending to change the subject. My head grew light with the move and the pain in my left wrist burrowed through the broken bone. I must've faltered, because Philip slid a protective arm around my shoulders.
“Come, Jamie. I'll help you inside.”
And since his suggestion suddenly seemed like a good one, I didn't object.
Philip and I rode the lift to my floor. The doors slid open silently. Down the hall, a housekeeper with thick white towels over her arm and a basket of chocolates in her hand keyed the lock to my suite and went inside.
Turndown service and a chocolate on my pillow sounded pretty terrific just then. Finding Katie and the Oujdads safe in my room would be even better. But I didn't get to have either one. Because behind the closed door to my room, a woman shrieked. And her scream was nearly harsh enough to break glass.
Instantly, Philip and I broke into a run. With my good hand, I ripped my key card through the lock. Philip pushed his way inside and I followed, hard on his heels.
The sitting room was as dark as Dickens's tomb, but light from my bedroom fell in a fat wedge across the carpet. It ran up and over the housekeeper, who lay on the floor like a damp mop. Blood, red and viscous, glistened at her temple and the porcelain lamp from my bedside lay shattered beside her head.