I stand at the top of the mountain and take in a deep breath. The views are glorious.
A few people clamber up behind me. I was going to have a good scramble along the more dangerous ledges of the Munro’s, the Scottish mountains, but if I fell then I’d be leaving Ethan, Luka, or Liam to take on the job I start on Monday. A female writer called Kate, who works under a male pen name and has been doxed by a fan revealing her real name and leading her frankly insane stalker to find her.
Right now, a friend of Liam’s is with her, a woman who runs her own protection business. Run for women, by women, but she can’t stay beyond this weekend due to work she’s already booked in. She’d asked Liam to help, and he’d asked me, what with him trying to make things work with Abi. I know Gina, the woman who runs the agency, too, but she’s a casual acquaintance, not a friend. I agreed to help, though.
So instead of an exhilarating scramble, I’ve had a steady walk up the path to the top of Ben Lomond. I was meant to be going to her home in Scotland, but stalker boy found her bolt hole there, and so the two women rented a holiday cottage. Apparently, Kate knows the area well and the lucky girl also has a holiday home on the coast of North Wales. Crime writing pays well!
My legs are burning from the climb, and I relish it. I’d rather be doing some proper alpine climbing but that will have to wait a while now. I love the mountains. Doesn’t matter if they’re here in the UK, or out in the Alps or the Himalayas. They all have their own unique beauty and atmosphere.
Luckily for me, the writer isn’t some couch potato who won’t want to do anything more than a five-minute stroll. She’s big into hill walking and getting into the mountains when she can from what I’ve read about her. She’s in her early forties, and worth a whole lot of money, all earned from writing about fucked up men and the women they terrorize in her sordid crime thrillers. Seems weird to me to write shit like that when you’ve had your own stalker, but who am I to judge? Maybe it’s a form of therapy for her, and helps her deal with what she went through?
“Afternoon,” an elderly couple pass me. The man saying hello and the lady giving me a smile.
“Lovely day for it,” I say, making conversation even though I wish I had the place all to myself. It is a particularly beautiful mountain range.
I smile at them and they smile back. The man is carrying a small backpack that I imagine carries a flask and sandwiches. The sort of mundane things people do all the time that point to a blissful ignorance of the horrors of this world. For a while, I get lost in a weird little fantasy about their lives, how they read a novel each at night, look through the Radio Times like my grandparents still do to plan their nightly viewing, and drink copious amounts of tea. The innocence that can only come from not having a Twitter account, or watching the nightly news regularly.
Their generation would have survived the second world war. Maybe not fought in it, not old enough, but survived it as children or young adults, and then the rationing that followed. Made them tough, in my opinion, but also cautious. My grandparents still stockpile things—tins of food, dried milk, dried fruit, etc…in case.
I’d love a marriage like theirs. It’s ironic as fuck, if you ask me, that my three closest friends who were all total commitment-phobes have settled down, whereas I’ve never met anyone I want to date seriously, let alone marry forever. I might seem like a playboy, girl in every port, is an old joke about me from my time in the marines, but I’d pack it all in if the right girl came along. Sadly, she never has.
Well, that’s a lie. A few girls who could have been the right ones have come along at various points and I somehow fucked it up. Got cold feet when the thing I thought I wanted suddenly became an attainable possibility. Shit, when it comes down to it, maybe I’m as much of a commitment-phobe as the others, only I lie to myself about it. Spin myself fairy tales about how much I’d like what my grandparents have. Except…with the freedom to take off and climb whenever I want, to go off for the day, no explanations asked, if I need to get my head on straight.
I have a terror of being trapped. Both literally, as in I don’t do small spaces, and metaphorically, as in I need to be able to take off whenever I want. No woman wants that. And that’s when the trouble always starts. The anger, the nagging, the poison bleeding into what was good.
Yet when I let the fairy tale in, I believe it for a while. I could go for someone like Isla, my friend Ethan’s girl, I let myself think sometimes. So innocent and soft and untouched by the harshness of this world, but girls like her don’t grow on trees, and Ethan claimed her. Found her.
I can’t begrudge him either, because Ethan’s a hard bastard, and she’s softened his roughest edges. Made him more bearable to be around these days. And if I did find my very own Isla then what? Ethan doesn’t do anything without at least telling her. The idea makes me want to loosen my non-existent collar. Isla is gorgeous but she’s a little bit needy, or so it seems to me from the outside looking in, and I think Ethan likes that. Loves it. Drinks it up and gives her what she needs, and in doing so gets what he needs. Not for me, though. I’d be wanting to go off and leave her for days on end while I hiked to Everest base camp or something.
I take a seat for a moment, resting my bum on a jagged rock and look out over the view. A breeze washes over me and once more I think how beautiful this land is. I missed it all the time when we were away. Missed the green bucolic indolence of it all. The lazy, soft beauty.
Liam and Luka used to talk about how they missed the desert, before they got pussy whipped into loving life. Not me. I don’t care if I go a whole lifetime without the taste of dry sand in my mouth or tickling at my nose. The only sand I want to see again is on some tropical beach. I don’t like to think of the sand, though, or I end up thinking of my time in the service and the of that forlorn, dusty room, where Liam and I sat side by side and listened to a man lose his soul. The fucking room I blame for my aversion these days to small spaces. Needing to move and shake off the cloying thoughts, I stand and start to carry on briskly.
A few hours later and I’m back at my hotel for the night, legs aching pleasantly from the exercise. I’ve been here a few nights, researching Kate, the area, and her stalker. I’ve told Liam I can’t see myself being back anytime soon because the guy is insane from what I can gather, and persistent! Now, I take out the file I have on Kate Taylor, or as her writing name states, David Tyler. She’s a best-selling author in the crime field. Apparently, she makes the sort of money from writing that can buy you a lot of protection. It’s not common to earn so much. Being the nosey fucker I am, and a bit of a nerd, I ended up researching authors, and what they earn, and it’s pitiful for the majority. Most earn less than ten grand a year. Fuck that for a laugh.
Kate though, or her alter ego, David, has earned great money. Now she’s been doxed, someone disgruntled with her for not answering their increasingly weird fan mail apparently. Another stalker, only a female one this time, and judged as harmless by the police. Or she would have been, if her act of online sabotage hadn’t grabbed the attention of a much nastier piece of work. The man who stalked Kate before, causing her to leave her job as a court reporter, leave her family and friends, and start a new life, miles away.
She’s as off the grid as can be, not on the electoral roll. Didn’t fill in the census to show where she lives. No credit cards or online accounts. But she had to give her real name and address to her publishing company, and this idiotic fan of hers somehow found it, and then published it with great malice, claiming Kate was a fraud as she wrote under a male pen name.
Exactly one week later, Kate came back from the local shops to find a single black rose on the roof of her car. The calling card of the man who terrorized her before. The police haven’t managed to catch him, but a man who leaves the same notes, flowers, and other paraphernalia has already raped four other women, and possibly murdered two.
It fucks me off that the police can’t catch him. I think I can though. I won’t use the same legal tactics they do, and he’s human, which means he’s open to hacking. No matter how clever he thinks he is with his set up, I can probably get the info I need, and if I can’t I know plenty who can. I need the start of the string, the beginning of a trail to point me in the right direction of who the suspect might be, and for that, I have contacts.
In the file is a grainy picture of Kate. Taken about six years ago, it shows a pretty woman with long brown hair. Nothing remarkable, but pleasant looking enough. For a stupid moment, I get a weird wish that I was going to go and guard some young, gorgeous innocent. A woman who will fall for my knight in shining armor routine and look up to me to be her protector. Like Isla and Ethan…except my armor isn’t shining anymore.
I’ve got a deep need to protect, but also a deep need to dominate…to control. None of the guys know. They think I’m easygoing and laid-back, and I am, in many ways, but not when it comes to sex. I like it rough and ready and I like to be the one calling the shots. It’s why I end up fucking around with women as jaded as me because despite what porn might pretend, most innocent young women don’t want it hard and fast. They want it gentle. Although…maybe not all of them, because I can’t imagine Ethan or Liam being all hearts and flowers. I drag my mind from going down that route though, because imagining my friends and their other halves in bed together is too fucking weird, even for me.
I down my beer and go clean my teeth, before taking off my clothes and leaving them in a pile by the bed. I take my hair out of its ponytail and it brushes past my shoulders. I can’t bear to keep it short after so many years of having to do so while serving. I’ve gone and got more tats too. Bright as fuck ones that would have been far too easily identifiable with the work I did. Most of them are to do with the ocean, the only other place than the mountains where I feel truly at home…at peace.
The next morning I’m up bright and early, showered and dressed in smart jeans, a Henley style top, and my hair is pulled back into a man bun. Yeah, so I am in my thirties and I wear a man bun, so fucking sue me. The guys never stop ribbing me about it, but you won’t believe the amount of pussy my hair gets me. I’m not some washed up old rocker who looks like shit with his overlong hair—I’m six-foot-five, two hundred and fifty pounds of pure muscle, and tan with dirty blond hair and blue-green eyes, and women fucking love me. I use it to my advantage regularly. I don’t care if that makes me big headed, or a bastard, or both.
My phone buzzes on the nightstand and I grab it and see it’s Liam. I press speaker, so I can fasten my shoes as I talk.
“Morning. You ready to go meet Kate and Gina?”
“Yup.” It pisses me off he’s calling. Would he if he’d sent Ethan or Luka? Being seen as the laid-back joker has its downsides. If only Liam knew half the off-the-books stuff I’d done, he’d revise his opinion of me as a gentle giant. Of course, he knows I’ve killed, but he doesn’t know the half of it.
He clears his throat and I know there’s going to be some kind of a warning, like not to be late, or to call in if there’s trouble.
“Don’t sleep with her, okay?”
“Excuse me?” My voice is cold, his words fucking me off completely.
“You shag anything female that moves, mate. Sorry, but you’re a bit of a nightmare. If it weren’t for the fact that the rest of us are loved up, and our women wouldn’t exactly like us spending night after night with a strange woman, I’d have sent someone else.”
“Fucking hell, mate. Luka used to be as much of a whore as me, so lay off. Anyway, she’s in her forties, not some hot young thing. I doubt she’s going to be falling into bed with the first guy to give her some attention. She’s wealthy, clever, and got her shit sorted. Anyway, she’s distinctly average looking if her picture is anything to go by.”
“Erm, you’re in your mid-thirties. You sound like some dirty old man who’s only interested if they’re jailbait.” He laughs at his own wit.
“So says the fucker who is with someone almost young enough to be his daughter, and don’t even get me started on Ethan and Isla. Girl looks positively illegal half the time.”
“Yeah. I’ve seen the way you look at her. You ought to stop that. If Ethan ever sees it, he’ll rip your fucking head off.”
Shit. His words bring me up short. I might have given Isla an extra glance or two now and again, she’s fucking gorgeous, but I never meant anything by it. Even if she were the type to cheat on Ethan, and girl’s got serious love hearts in her eyes for her man, I’d never do that to him. He’s like a brother. I make a mental note to be more careful in future.
“You ever look at Abi that way and I’ll do the same.”
I don’t tell him Abi doesn’t do it for me. Those big, scared eyes of hers make me want to give her a brotherly cuddle, nothing more. Girl’s been through a total nightmare, and I know far too much of it, thanks to me and Liam working her case.
“I’m hanging up, fuckface, as I’ve got to go. I’m meeting them in the village pub at eleven. Gina wanted it to be on neutral territory as apparently she’s worried Kate won’t feel comfortable with a man.”
“Well it’s tough-titty if she doesn’t because Gina can’t turn down this next job, and she hasn’t got anyone else spare.”
“There are other women in the industry if Kate hates me on sight. I’m sure she can find someone.” I’m wanting this conversation over.
“Don’t make her hate you on sight then.”
“How the fuck do I guard against that?”
He sighs. “I don’t know. I think she might think you’re a total douche. Would probably have been best if I’d gone. Or Ethan. You and Luka are both far too pretty, and I’m worried your man-whore/ part-time Instagram model vibe, will put her off.”
“My what?” I’m going to kick his head in, swear to God. Part-time Instagram model? If I’d chosen to do that shit, I’d be full time, and earning plenty.
“You should have cut your hair. Women think men with long hair and man-buns are douches.”
“Shows what you know,” I reply. “I get more pussy than you can dream about. Now go back to your ball and chain and leave me alone. Last I checked we were equal partners in this which means you ain’t the boss of me anymore.”
I’m half joking, but also mean it, and want him to know he needs to back off.
“You’re lucky I’m on the phone and not there to kick your ass.”
I snort and hang up…but he probably can kick my ass, despite my extra height and muscle mass. Liam’s one scary, cold, motherfucker truth be told. I’d hate to ever be on opposing sides to him for real.
I sigh, head out and get into the high-end car I’ve rented for this. Dark windows, comfy feel, kick-ass engine so I can outrun any shithead trailing us. Now all it needs is a secret flamethrower that flips up on the sides and I’ll feel like James Bond.
It only takes a brief time to arrive at my destination. The pub is an old-fashioned affair with a hanging sign proclaiming it’s been in existence since 1810.
I head inside to the small, cozy den where there’s a fire already lit, and a few people sat around. Old men mostly, all supping pints. The thought turns my stomach this early. I go to the bar and order an orange juice then head to a table tucked into the farthest corner.
About twenty minutes later I’m getting worried, but then the door to the nook swings open and two women walk in. One is Gina, who I’ve met before. Fucked before, if I’m being honest. She’s cut her blonde hair into a short style and it looks good on her, if a lot darker now all the highlights have gone.
Next to her is, I presume is Kate. Except…she looks nothing like her picture. Her hair is a long, shiny curtain of auburn and it glows in the low light of the room. Her eyes are big and almond shaped, and I can’t tell the color from where I’m sat but they are arresting. She’s got great bone structure, and when she smiles at Gina, her face lights up.
They go to the bar and get a drink. As they chat, I study Kate some more. She seems competent, in control. Regal almost. She’s wearing jeans tucked into riding style boots, a silky shirt, open at the collar with a big turquoise pendant against the bare, tan skin of her collar bone. There’s more turquoise on her right wrist and her middle finger on the same hand.
She looks classy, upmarket, but also a little bit bohemian all at once. Like a surfer girl who grew up and didn’t quite leave that world behind. I like her style.
When she smiles there are wrinkles at the corner of her eyes, and a small frown line between her eyes, but nothing much more. She looks great for her age. She’s not my type. I don’t go for competent, classy brunettes. I prefer blondes with big racks, and big eyes that widen when I push into them with my huge cock.
Yep, not my type, but arresting nonetheless.
I once read that a man never meets a woman without assessing whether he’d fuck her or not, and I realize I’ve done that to the person I’ve been assigned to protect. I drag my mind out of the gutter, and away from busty blondes, and get into professional mode.
The two women head on over, and Gina reaches out to shake my hand with a flash of a grin. “Reece.”
“Gina. Nice to see you again.”
“This is Kate.”
The other woman holds her hand out, too. I take it and give a brief shake, not some bone crushing show of manly strength that only weak men seem to feel the need to do, but a simple grab and release.
They sit opposite me.
“So, you’re going to take over from today.” Gina takes out a diary. “I feel awful having to leave Kate in the lurch like this, but I’ve told her she’s going to be in very capable hands. The threat is very real, this guy’s a fucking lunatic. Police think he’s behind a fair few rapes and even a couple of murders.”
I see Kate flinch at Gina’s casual words.
“I read the files,” I say. I turn to Kate. “I’m so sorry this asshole has found you again, but believe me, I will do everything in my power to make sure he doesn’t get to you, and to find out who he is.”
She raises her gaze to me and there’s surprise there.
Green with flecks of gold, I think as I stare into her stunning eyes. For a moment, I’m lost in them. I’ve never seen such beautiful eyes before.
“Find out who he is?” Her words bring me back to the moment.
Her voice is such a contrast to her appearance. It’s smoky and husky and a little bit worn, as if overused…or not used often enough. It’s a voice made for sinful whispers in the dead of night. She could narrate erotic audiobooks and make a fortune.
“I’ll try my best,” I promise.
“The police have been looking for him for years. They don’t even know if it is definitely the same man. They’ve deduced it is from a profile, but he doesn’t leave any concrete evidence. He’s good at what he does, at hiding his identity and covering up.” She casts her eyes back down, but not before I see the dismay there, a tinge of hopelessness that I suddenly want to erase.
“Reece here used to work special forces and also…some intelligence bits and bobs.” Gina gives me a sly smile. She knows some of the shit I used to do. Gina did some of it as well. Infiltrating deep into foreign governments or organizations, by fair means or foul.
“He’s an expert hacker, and if anyone can follow this bastard’s online trail, Reece can.”
“If he even leaves an online trail, which is doubtful because all the stuff he’s sent me has been old fashioned paper. Why don’t the police have people like you working for them?” Kate asks a damn good question.
“They do have special teams, but they don’t have the money or resources to use them widely, plus…there’s the legalities to consider. I don’t have to worry about those.”
“But if you break the law to find him, then he won’t be convicted, will he?”
“We can worry about those things later,” Gina butts in. “Reece won’t do anything to compromise stopping this arsewipe.”
I don’t bother to tell Kate that my plan isn’t for this dick to go to jail, but for me to give his information to a group of people who won’t take kindly to a raping murdering bastard, and will sort him out themselves. My Ukrainian friend, Andrius, would make, probably literal mincemeat of him.
I note Gina glance at her watch, and I’m keen to get going, too. Get Kate out of the public glare of this pub, small and cozy at it may be.
“I’m nipping to the gents, and then we can get out of here,” I tell Kate.
I see Kate shoot a glance at Gina before nodding, the frown divot deepening.
Great, I think Liam might be right and she hates me on sight.