About the Author
One of Britain's most exciting thriller writers, SIMON KERNICK exploded onto the scene with his acclaimed debut The Business of Dying. His big breakthrough came with Relentless which became the bestselling thriller of 2007. Simon's research is what makes his thrillers so authentic. He talks both on and off the record to members of Special Branch, the Anti-Terrorist Branch and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, and hears first hand what actually happens in the dark and murky underbelly of UK crime.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
They killed her as soon as she opened the front door.
It was all very easy. Bull was dressed in a navy blue Royal Mail cap and sweater, with a blue shirt underneath, looking just like any ordinary postman, and he was carrying a mid-sized empty box with the Amazon logo on the side in front of him, so the girl didn’t suspect a thing.
Fox was standing just out of sight. He was dressed similarly to Bull, and was wearing a backpack. He also had a semi-automatic pistol with a suppressor attached down by his side, so that no one walking past the front gate would see it. Not that they would have been able to see much anyway, with the huge laurel hedge in the way. He brought the pistol up as the girl came into view, and before she had a chance to acknowledge his presence, he pulled the trigger, shooting her in the temple at point blank range. The gun kicked in his hand, but thanks to the suppressor the noise it made was little more than a loud pop. The girl fell back against the doorframe, blood pouring down the side of her face, and Bull dropped the empty box and caught her under the arms as her legs gave way.
Moving past him, Fox produced a balaclava from his back pocket and pulled it over his head as he walked through the cluttered hallway, the still-smoking gun outstretched in front of him. He was making for the back of the house where he could hear the noise of a family breakfast time. Behind him he could hear Bull dragging the dead girl into the hallway and closing the front door.
“Who is it, Magda?” a male voice called out from the kitchen.
“Nobody move,” said Fox, striding into the room as if he owned the place, which right then he pretty much did.
A well-built middle-aged man in a shirt and tie sat at the table holding a mug of tea. Opposite him were a boy and a girl in different school uniforms. The kids were twins but they didn’t look much alike. The boy was tall for fifteen, with the same broad shoulders as his father, and a shock of boy-band blond hair, while the girl was small and dumpy, and looked much younger. All three of them stared at Fox with shocked expressions.
“I’m afraid Magda’s dead,” said Fox, pointing the gun at the father, his hand perfectly steady. “Now, everyone needs to cooperate, or they die too. And that means stay absolutely still.”
Nobody moved a muscle.
Bull joined him in the room. He was wearing his balaclava now and he stood near the doorway, waiting for orders. As the name suggested, Bull was a big guy. He was also dim-witted and did what he was told without question, which was why he’d been chosen for this particular job. That and the fact that he didn’t seem to possess any obvious compassion for or empathy with his fellow human beings. Fox glanced at him and noticed there was a dark smear on his shirt collar where Magda had bled on him.
“Please,” said the father, meeting Fox’s gaze and keeping his voice calm for the sake of the children, “take what you want and leave. We haven’t got much.”
Fox glared at him. The father had been a police sergeant for seventeen years before being invalided out when he’d been stabbed on duty three years earlier, and he was therefore used to being in control of confrontations, which made him potentially dangerous. Fox’s finger tightened on the trigger. “Don’t say another word or I’ll put a bullet in your gut. Understand? Nod once for yes.”
The father nodded once, slowly placing his mug on the table and giving his two children a look of reassurance.
“Stand up, turn around, and face the wall.”
“Don’t hurt my dad,” said the boy, who Fox knew was called Oliver. His voice was deep and irritatingly confident.
“No one gets hurt if you all do as you’re told.” Fox’s tone was cold but even. He knew it was essential that he didn’t give off any sign of weakness, but also that he didn’t do anything to panic the prisoners. It was all a very delicate balancing act. For the moment, they had to be kept alive.
“We’re not going to offer any resistance,” said the father, getting up and facing the window. “But can you tell me what this is all about?”
“We’re just an ordinary family.”
Well, you’re not, thought Fox, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. But he didn’t say that. Instead he said, “Because it’s early in the morning, I’m going to pretend that you’re still only half-awake and didn’t hear me the first time. If you talk again, I will shoot you. I’d prefer to have three of you alive, but I can just as easily manage with two.”
That was when the father belatedly seemed to realize that he was dealing with professionals and fell silent once again.
Fox slipped the backpack off and threw it to Bull, who unzipped it and pulled out plastic flexi-cuffs and ankle restraints. With Fox covering him, he went over to the father, pulled his hands roughly behind his back, and started to put on the cuffs.
This was the dangerous part. If the father was going to try anything, it would be now.
“I’m not pointing the gun at you anymore,” Fox told him, moving his gun arm a few feet to the left, “I’m pointing it at your son’s head. Remember that.”
The father stiffened, and seemed about to say something, then settled for a simple nod.
“Where’s your phone?”
“In my pocket.”
“Thank you. If you’d be kind enough to get it, Bull.”
Bull nodded, fastened the father’s ankles, then did a quick search of his pockets, coming up with an iPhone 4 which he handed to Fox.
“What’s the code to unlock it?”
The father told him. Fox pocketed the phone and wrote the number down on the inside of his forearm.
“Right, kids, your turn. Up against the wall, next to your dad. We’re going to put restraints on you as well.”
The father started to look around, wanting to say something, but was sensible enough to hold his tongue.
For a few seconds the twins didn’t move. The girl—Fox had been told her name was India—was staring down at the table, as if by doing so she could make this whole thing go away, while Oliver was breathing heavily and clenching and unclenching his fists. He got up first, giving Fox a defiant look, before going over to stand to the right of his dad. Fox admired his guts. It took something to pull a face at a man who was pointing a gun at you, especially when you were only fifteen. India was a different story. She remained glued to her seat, and Bull had to lift her to her feet and shove her bodily against the wall.
When all three had been restrained and were standing in a forlorn row with their backs to him, Fox took out the father’s iPhone and took a photo of them. Then he told them to turn around and took another one. India was looking weepy; the father was looking scared but in a manly, lantern-jawed way; Oliver was still glaring from beneath his blond hair, as if he was some brave superhero who’d been caught unaware by the dastardly villain and was now plotting his revenge. Well, too late for that, boy, thought Fox. You had your chance.
He got them to turn around again so they were facing away from him, and handed the gun to Bull. “Cover them,” he said. “Anyone moves, shoot them in the leg.” Fox knew he wouldn’t have to do it, but it was worth ramming home the penalty for noncompliance. Subtlety really isn’t a useful trait in hostage-taking.
Pulling off his balaclava, Fox went back out toward the front door, stepping over Magda’s body, which Bull had propped up against the wall, walked out of the house and down to where he’d parked the van.
The street was fairly quiet. It was an affluent area of detached 1950s homes built when space wasn’t so much of an issue in the outer London suburbs, and Fox guessed that people minded their own business here. He saw an overweight man in a suit get into his car, a new-looking Lexus, thirty yards up the street. The man didn’t see him. He looked tired and stressed. A sheep, thought Fox contemptuously. Not living, just existing. Unaware of everything outside his own little suburban world. Well, today would be different. Today, this man, like millions of others, would take notice of the world outside his door because today the world was coming to them all with a vengeance.
Fox backed the van through the gates and up the gravel driveway, stopping just outside the front door. He opened the van’s rear doors and went back inside the house.
“OK, we’re all going for a short drive,” he announced as he entered the kitchen, pleased to see that nobody had moved.
“Can you tell us where we’re going?” asked the father, without turning around.
“Unfortunately not, but I can confirm that your stay will be temporary. By this evening you’ll be released, and this will all be an unpleasant memory.”
As he finished speaking, he pulled the Taser from his backpack, clipped on the cartridge, and let the father have it with the two electrodes. He went down with an almighty crash, and the kids both jumped.
“What are you doing to my dad?” yelled Oliver.
“Keeping him quiet for a moment,” said Fox calmly.
One of the keys to successful hostage-taking is never allowing your hostage to get used to the situation, and the best way to achieve this is by delivering constant shocks. Which Fox then did for a second time by stepping forward and punching Oliver on the side of the head.
The boy clearly hadn’t been expecting the blow. He stumbled and almost fell, but Fox grabbed him by the collar of his school blazer and dragged him out into the hallway as he fought to keep his balance in the ankle restraints. At the same time, Bull wrapped one of his huge arms around a now near-hysterical India’s neck and, shoving the gun in her back, brought her out behind.
Oliver gasped when he saw Magda’s corpse. Her head was slumped to one side and her mouth was slightly open, her bottom lip and tongue jutting out, as if she was pulling a face. Her eyes were closed, and her blond hair looked like it had been dipped in blood. “She’s dead,” he said with the first hint of a wail.
Before he could say another word, Fox kicked his legs from under him and forced him to the floor, so that his and Magda’s shoulders were almost touching. Bull forced India down next to Magda on the other side, pushing the end of the suppressor into her forehead to help things along. She’d stopped crying now but still looked suitably distraught.
Fox pulled out the father’s iPhone for a second time and took two photos of the three of them together, then switched the setting to video as Bull slowly moved the gun from one child to the other. The message was obvious.
When that was done, Fox put hoods on the kids, securing them in place with duct tape, and led them out one by one to the van. He made them lie next to each other on the floor, checking their pockets to make sure they weren’t carrying mobiles before locking the van doors. He also switched off the father’s iPhone. Like every criminal worth his salt, Fox knew how easy it was to trace mobiles, and it was essential that the journey this one made should never be known to the security services.
Finally he turned to Bull. “You know what to do,” he said slowly. “It’s time.”
Bull nodded, and the two of them went back inside.
The father was still lying on the floor, the shock from the Taser having made a serious if temporary mess of his nervous system, but he was a big guy and he was already beginning to recover.
While Fox watched, Bull sat down on his chest, his knees pinning the father’s arms down, and pushed the end of the suppressor into his face. The father’s eyes widened in alarm and he tried to move his head, but he was still largely incapacitated. Bull glanced up at Fox, like a dog waiting for its master’s command.
Fox gave an affirmative nod, and Bull pulled the trigger.
It had never been the plan to take the father along with them. There was just too much risk of him trying to be a hero, and, anyway, the kids were far more useful to them than he was.
“Now you’re one of us,” he said as Bull got slowly to his feet.
Bull smiled. He looked pleased.
Fox took the gun from him, slipping it into the back of his trousers, and checked his watch as they went back through the house.
7:51. So far the whole thing, from the first knock at the door, had lasted six minutes. Bang on schedule.
But as they walked back to the front of the van, Fox ran into the first complication of the day. An old lady with a mad head of white hair like the silent one in the Marx brothers was walking a couple of rat-like dogs past the open gates. She had that perpetually suspicious demeanor of a neighborhood watch coordinator, and straight away she slowed down and clocked him and Bull with a long stare that said (a) she’d not seen them around these parts before, and (b) because of this she was noting all their physical details just in case they were up to no good.
She was going to have to die too.
Relying on the fact that he was a fairly ordinary-looking white man in his mid-thirties and therefore not all that threatening to an old suburban lady, Fox smiled broadly. “Excuse me,” he called out, striding down toward her, his gun hidden from view. “I wonder if you can help us?”
His plan was simple. Pull her inside the gate, break her neck with one quick yank, and hide the body in the bushes. Then throttle the yappy little hounds.
The old lady stopped, but she was looking past Fox, who was still grinning from ear to ear, and toward the van and Bull. That was the flaw in the plan. Bull. He was sure the big oaf was trying not to look suspicious and coming across guilty as sin. Or worse still, giving the old bitch one of his dead-eyed glares.
Fox, though, was closing in on her. He kept talking, trying to allay her suspicions. “We’re meant to be delivering a washing machine, but there’s no answer . . . ”
Three more seconds and she’d be his.
But the old lady suddenly looked scared. “I’m sorry I can’t help,” she said quickly, and before he could put out a hand to grab her she turned on her heel and hurried beyond the gate, just as a UPS truck came past, slowing down to negotiate the parked cars on either side of the road.
Fox cursed and walked quickly back to the van.
“You didn’t give her one of your looks, did you?” he said to Bull, getting in alongside him.
Bull shook his head, his expression defensive. “I didn’t look at her at all, Fox. Honest.” His voice was deep yet with an irritating childlike whine to it.
Fox sighed, knowing there was no point pursuing the matter, and he started the engine and pulled out of the drive.
The old lady was twenty yards away now with her back to them, her head cocked slightly as if she was listening for signs of pursuit. It was almost light, way too risky for them to try anything now, so he drove off in the opposite direction, hoping that by the time she realized the significance of what she’d just seen it would be far too late for her, or anyone else, to do anything about it.
It started to rain, that cold November drizzle that goes right through to the bones, and as Fox looked up at the leaden gray sky he thought that it really was an awful day.
And for many people, not least the ones in the back of the van, it was soon going to get a whole lot worse.
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