I Spy Something Wicked
An excerpt from the novella by Josh Lanyon
The Glock was taped beneath my seat. I freed it, reached for the magazine in the glove compartment, and palmed it into the frame. I scanned the empty car park, the black windows of the house in front of me.
I spy with my little eye...
Nothing moved. The bronze autumn moon shone brightly through the barren branches crosshatching the bell-cast rooftops.
I turned off the radio in the dashboard console, cutting off Jack White midnote. “Dead leaves and dirty ground” was about right. I unlocked the door of the Range Rover, got out, and crossed the deserted lot, boots crunching on gravel, breath hanging in the chilly October night. There was a hint of wood smoke in the air; the nearest house was roughly eight kilometers away. A full five miles to the nearest living soul.
I walked past a large banner sign lying facedown in the frosty grass and studied the building’s facade. Two stories of battered white stone. Broken finials and dentils. Arched windows -- broken on the top level, mostly boarded on the bottom. The narrow, arched front door was also boarded up. Once upon a time, this had been some founding family’s mansion; in the early part of the last century, it had operated as a funhouse. Now it looked like a haunted house. That was appropriate since I was there to meet a ghost.
I went around to the side of the long building, found a window where the boarding had been ripped away. I hoisted myself up and scrambled over the sill.
Inside, moonlight highlighted a checkerboard floor and what appeared to be broken sections of an enormous wooden slide.
According to Stephen, it was a long time, decades, since the place had operated officially, but it was still a popular place for teens to romance -- and vandalize. Especially around Halloween. That was two nights away. I didn’t anticipate any interruptions.
I proceeded, soft-footed, along an accordion strip of mirrors, some broken, some not, my reflection flashing past: a man of medium height, thin, dark, nondescript. The pistol gleamed in my hand like a star.
Down a short flight of stairs, a twist and a turn, another short flight down. I froze. At the bottom of the steps, a woman sat hunched over. She wore tattered French knickers and a blonde wig. It took a couple of seconds to realize she was covered in cobwebs. One of those mechanical mannequins. I glanced at her in passing and saw that someone had bashed her face in.
A floorboard squeaked. I spun, bringing the pistol up. Jesus. He’d arrived before me. I was getting sloppy in my old age.
The shadow raised its arms high. Hands empty.
“Christ on a crutch, Hardwicke. I don’t think much of your taste in meeting places.”
I lowered my pistol. “Malik.”
He was still bitching. “Really, old boy. Don’t see why we couldn’t have done this in more comfortable surroundings. Some place civilized where we might have a drink and a chat.”
Why? Because I thought I might have to kill him. But I wasn’t so socially inept as to say that -- for all Stephen thinks, I’m lacking in the social graces. Instead, I replied, “I like my privacy.”
“So I gathered. May I put my hands down?”
“Yes. But keep them where I can see them.”
He suddenly laughed. “Christ on a crutch! You think I’m here to twep you!”
“Good luck with that.”
He was still chuckling; I didn’t find it nearly as amusing. “You think the Old Man ordered an executive action against you?”
“How should I know?”
“Just the opposite, mate. He needs your help.”
I relaxed a fraction. “Sorry. I’m no longer in the help business.”
“Private citizen, eh? How’s that going for you? I should think you’d be climbing the walls with boredom by now.”
“You don’t know me.”
“Course I do. You’re just like me. Like all of us in The Section.”
“I’m not in The Section. I’m retired. Happily retired.”
“So we heard. Decided to get married and grow roses. Think I’d prefer Oppenheim Memorial Park. You know, the lads have a bit of a wager going on how long you’ll last in the private sector. Granted, you’ve lasted four months longer than I thought you would. Tigers don’t change their spots.”
I didn’t bother to correct him. Not about the spotty tigers, and not about the fact that I was quite content in my role as private citizen.
Mostly. According to Stephen, I still had a lot to learn about “coloring between the lines.”
Malik was saying, “You must have seen the news. You must know what’s going on in Afghanistan with Operation Herrick.”
“I watched the UK death toll pass two hundred.”
“That, yes. But I mean what’s happening with the Old Man. The heat he’s taking from the cabinet and the ministers.”
“Nothing he hasn’t faced before.”
“It’s different this time.”
If I had tuppence for every time I’ve heard that.
“No.” I was already turning away. “I can’t help.” This was a promise I wasn’t going to break. Not for anyone. Not even John Holohan.
Malik cried, “Hear me out at least, can’t you?”
His vehemence surprised me. I faced him, saying nothing. I didn’t want to hear it. Wasn’t going to let it change anything. But I owed John this much; I’d hear his emissary out.
Malik said, “He’s fighting for his survival.”
Welcome to the club, I thought. I didn’t say it.
Malik was Anglo-Indian, a few years younger than I was, and quite good-looking. Medium height, slim and dark; just the way John liked ‘em. I should know. He was saying earnestly, “You know what the political climate is like these days. What the media are like. They’re making him the scapegoat for two decades’ worth of gutless policy and bad decisions. They’re trying to make him pay for policies he fought tooth and nail to prevent.”
I did know. But ever the hard man, I said, “Everyone has to pack it in sooner or later. Even the Old Man. Did he think they were going to let him run forever? He must be near the mandatory age of retirement as it is.”
“We’re not discussing retirement. We’re talking about disgrace, scandal, the ruin of a brilliant career. Is that what you want for him?”
I had no answer. I didn’t want that for John. He didn’t deserve that. But I had given my word to Stephen. And I was never going to disappoint Stephen again. Never give him grounds to regret giving me that second chance.
“If you do this for him, he’ll never bother you again.”
I nearly laughed -- although it wasn’t funny. “Do you know how many times I’ve heard that?”
“Look, Hardwicke, it’s the world we live in. Promises... well, there are no guarantees in this life. If anyone should know that, you should.”
“You’re not helping your case.”
“He wouldn’t ask if there was another way.”
“Right, well speaking of that, why didn’t he come himself then? Why’d he send you?”
“They’re watching him. The media. The other agencies. He can’t step outside his door without someone from the press trying to snap his picture. It’s chaos. We can’t operate like that. The Section requires secrecy to remain effective.”
I could not afford to care about this. To even ask the question aloud was an indicator to both of us, but I heard my voice, reluctance evident. “What does he want me to do?”
“He wants you to go back to Afghanistan. Use your influence with Pashtun tribal leaders in Helmand to back our play. To support British and NATO forces against the Taliban in Operation Sword Strike.”
“I can’t go back there!” Whatever I’d expected to hear, it wasn’t this. Maybe it was naïve, but I was genuinely shocked. No one knew better than John Holohan why I couldn’t ever return to that region.
“You’ve got the friends; you’ve got the network.”
“My contacts are dead. My network was blown with me. There’s a price on my head.”
“No one’s asking you to stay in. It’s just a-a cakewalk COA. Touch base and config alliances for the big push, then bombshell out.”
I’d forgotten how much I hated the self-important acronyms and slang. I stared at his fierce face, and suddenly it all made sense.
“Jesus. You’re in love with him. You’re in love with John.”
“What of it?” I could see him bristling. “Not the first, am I?”
No. Not by a long shot. Nor the last, though I didn’t tell him so. I said, “Your opinion on this is not exactly objective.”
His Adam’s apple jumped in the wavering light. “No, I’m not objective. Neither should you be. Not with what you owe him.”
“I don’t owe him fuck.”
Malik’s mouth curled into a semblance of a smile. “You wouldn’t be angry if you didn’t believe it was true. Listen, you know -- we all know -- he let you walk away unscathed. He didn’t have to do that. He even saw to it you got your full bloody pension.”
I was shaking my head, refusing this, refusing what he was asking. My death. That’s what he was asking.
“No one else can do this,” he insisted fiercely.
“Then it won’t be done.”
“You ungrateful, sodding bastard. And he holds you up as the paragon of loyalty!”
“Go to hell.”
That was my cue. My exit line.
I didn’t move.
And as the seconds passed, and as we stood there, furious, breathing hard, glaring at each other, I saw Malik’s face change. Saw him recognize that I had not turned and walked away when I should have.
That I was considering it.
I said slowly, unwillingly, “When do you need an answer?”
“I can give you forty-eight hours.”
I clenched my jaw on the things I wanted to say. I needed to think. Think hard. As much as I wanted to refuse -- I wasn’t sure I could. I said at last, bitterly, “You’ll have my answer in forty-eight hours.”
* * * * *
I let Malik leave first. Waited with the faded clowns and broken toys for his footsteps to die away, listened for the faraway growl of his motorbike to be swallowed by the hungry autumn night.
Silence settled. Sank its claws in.
I couldn’t go home yet. Couldn’t face Stephen. Not till I’d figured out what to tell him. What was it Dickens said? An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.
A shadowrun. A black op. That was what the Old Man was asking. Sending me in as an illegal, naked into hostile territory. Knowing I was blown, knowing there was a price on my head, he was asking me to go back. Yes, that would take a little explaining. To Stephen -- and to myself.
When I decided it was clear, I headed back to where I’d parked. The Range Rover’s headlamps blinked as I pressed the key fob. In that flash of light I saw a shadow detach itself from the trees and glide toward me. I laced the Rover’s keys between my fingers like makeshift brass knuckles, and when he grabbed me, I went with the momentum, using it against him, flipping him over. He landed on his back in the dead leaves, his breath expelling in a hard oof.
I knelt on his scrawny chest using my left foot to grind his flailing right hand into the ground, my right pinning his left wrist. With my free hand I pressed the point of the longest blade in my key ring against his carotid artery.
“Surprise, surprise,” I said gently, and pressed a little harder just to make my point.
He wheezed in panic, his eyes bulging. Clearly an amateur. I studied him in the colorless moonlight. Narrow nose; close-set brown eyes; a small mouth; lank, greasy dark hair. An unlovely specimen. I didn’t know him.
He blubbered something lost in spit and snot.
“Didn’t catch that,” I said. And then, “Don’t move if you don’t want an emergency tracheotomy.”
He held still -- if we didn’t count the trembling -- and I felt around, found his wallet, flipped it open, and checked his driver’s ID.
It meant nothing to me. Age 31. No occupation, but I’d already guessed it: loser.
I made a mental note of his address.
“I’m trying to think of a good reason not to punch a hole in your throat, Bradley. Nothing occurs to me.”
More inarticulate protests.
“What were you doing here? Planning a spot of B and E? Nah. Nothing worth stealing in there. Waiting for some poor old wino to roll? No. Winos are in short supply here. Waiting to rob some kid and his bird? Hmm? That’s it, I bet. A spot of robbery and rape?”
He frantically shook his head.
“Course you were. Nothing personal, right? It’s what you do. What you are.” The temptation was to kill him, this miserable scrap of an excuse for a man, this predator who waited in the shadows for someone smaller, younger, weaker.
Someone like me -- but without my peculiar brand of skills.
I said harshly, “You weren’t out here stargazing, we both know that.”
He gibbered something, little flecks of spittle hitting my face.
He was revolting. The perfect companion for an already bad day. I clenched my keys so hard, my hand shook, denting his clammy flesh. It was all I could do to control the disquieting urge to give release to the rage and frustration churning inside me.
He began to cry. The pungent stink of ammonia reached my nostrils. In his terror he’d pissed himself.
“Shut it,” I bit out. “I’m going to let you live. I’m going to give you a second chance. If I ever see you here again, I will kill you. Got it?”
He nodded feverishly.
I took my keys out of his throat, eased my boot off his hand, stood, and stepped back. He continued to lie on the ground, sobbing.
Pitiable. But I felt no pity. Something terrible had had happened to me over the years, had killed something inside me. Were I Stephen, I would feel compassion for him. I would hope that this was a turning point in his life. But being me, I only thought that it was probably a mistake to let him go. Even if it was dark enough to obscure my features, not so many blokes with English accents hanging about. I felt no compassion. I was letting him live because I knew that was what Stephen would do.
* * * * *
I parked in the tree-lined circular drive of the white Victorian mansion. The lights were on downstairs, the curtains wide open. It was like looking into a doll house or a stage set. Downstairs I could see Buck curled up on the sofa in the den. The bookshelves where my books now crowded Stephen’s. My paintings symmetrically arranged around Stephen’s. Upstairs, Stephen walked from the bathroom into the bedroom. He wore a pair of pale green pajama bottoms. He was toweling his hair.
I sighed. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get Stephen to take the concept of security seriously. Granted, he was better than he had been; he remembered to lock the doors now, at least. But that was just to relieve my mind. When I’d tried to explain why this was so important, bewilderingly, he’d apologized and said, “I know you need to feel secure. I promise to be more careful.” As though it were about my safety. About my feelings.
I ejected the magazine from the Glock and dropped it back into the glove compartment. I bent, re-taped the pistol beneath the seat, got out of the Range Rover, locked it, and went quickly up the stone steps to the long, covered porch. There was a pyramid of resin jack-o-lanterns at the base of one of the posts, electric eyes and smiles glowing brightly. Black rubber bats on string hung from the porch rafters, stirring in the breeze.
As I locked the front door behind me, Buck came to greet me, tail wagging while he growled in that way of Chesapeake Bay retrievers. He’d been shot back in May when a team of assassins hired by a senior Taliban commander had come calling for me, but he was doing fine now. A little stiff in the mornings, but -- as Stephen had gently teased -- who wasn’t?
Upstairs, the stereo was playing. I could hear the music drifting down the staircase: simple, intensely emotional, and somehow fragile. Barber’s Adagio for Strings. An appropriate soundtrack for the return of old ghosts.
Trailed by Buck, I went around checking windows and closing curtains. I was relieved to see that while Stephen hadn’t bothered with the curtains, he had at least locked everything.
In the kitchen, I poured myself a glass of milk and leaned against the sink while staring out at the black diamond glitter of the lake behind the house. I hadn’t been able to spare time for dinner, but I wasn’t hungry. It had been a long day. I was taking courses at the University of Shenandoah, their Career Switcher Program, which was designed for people like me, frustrated teachers who hadn’t completed the training curriculum but had “considerable life experiences, career achievements, and academic backgrounds that are relevant.”
Apparently I’d have been better off reporting to the target range every day and practicing my Pashto. In the mountains of Afghanistan they have a saying: A wolf cannot outrun its shadow.
I tried again to think how I would tell Stephen, how I would explain what I was considering, and I decided that it would be better to work it out in my mind first. I was too angry and confused just now -- and Stephen had zero tolerance for the Old Man even at the best of times.
I washed the glass, rinsed it, and set in the sink. I turned out the lights and went upstairs.
Stephen was in bed, reading the New England Journal of Medicine.
He glanced up, and smiled, and my heart did that little flip it always did. He was so beautiful. At fifty he made everyone else look callow and crude. Tall, lean, broad shoulders and long legs. His hair was prematurely silver, but it just emphasized how young and handsome he really was. He looked like the quintessential doctor on the telly, a man you wouldn’t think twice about trusting with your life or your heart.
I went to him and he kissed me, but as our lips parted, his green eyes were searching. He said, “You’re late.”
He was waiting for an explanation. That was one of the difficult things about being with someone. Accountability. I just wasn’t ready to discuss Malik’s proposition with him, and I didn’t want to lie, so I said nothing.
When I didn’t offer an explanation, Stephen, patiently explaining the customs to a foreigner, said, “You should have phoned. I was worried.”
“I wasn’t thinking of that.”
His mouth quirked wryly. “Obviously not.” He was still studying me, looking for clues. “Have you eaten?”
I shook my head. “Not hungry, really.” I added quickly, as his brows drew together, “Not for food.”
I loved the way the concern in his face gave way to that wicked grin. He tossed aside the journal and, reaching for me, murmured, “Oh yeah?”
I mimicked that soft Southern accent, “Oh yeah.”
Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.