The jeweller stretched his thick arms above his head, linked his sturdy fingers and rotated his calloused palms towards the ceiling. As the stretch travelled down his aching spine there was a tap on the office door accompanied by a sharp trilling voice.
“John, Miss Worthington-Hurley is here to collect her ring.” A pause then another rap. “John, John, can you hear me?”
“Yep, be right there,” he called in a rough voice as he lowered his arms to his sides and pushed to his feet. A nerve in his jaw twitched as he forced weight onto his left leg. “Dead son of a bitch,” he muttered.
Using the table for support, he moved to the safe and pulled out Miss Worthington-Hurley’s ring. He slipped it into a black velvet box embossed with gold lettering, flicked open the lock on his door and limped to the front of the shop. As he stepped into the glittering display area, he pasted a dazzling smile on his rugged features and forced a flame to life in his eyes. “Miss Worthington-Hurley, such a pleasure to see you,” he said brightly.
“Mr. Taylor.” The young woman bounced to the glass counter, blonde bob swishing, blue eyes flashing. “I trust you are well.”
“Fine, thank you, and yourself?”
“Fine, great…excited actually…really, really excited.” She clasped her hands beneath her chin and skipped on the spot.
“I thought you’d be looking forward to finally getting it.” He held out the small black box. “The alteration went fine. No hitches. I think you’ll find the fit perfect.”
She flicked open the lid and sucked air through her glossed lips. “Oh…I’d forgotten how beautiful it is. It’s completely stunning… Don’t you think?”
“It is indeed, flawless in every way. You could not have chosen better, madam.”
She pulled the ring from the spongy holding and slid it onto her left ring finger. “It fits perfectly. You’re so clever. It feels made especially for me.”
“It was made especially for you.”
She held the three-stoned ring up to the artificial lights, tilted her hand and sighed as the light fracturing through it pebbled the counter with frantic stars. “Thank you so much. You’ve done a simply marvellous job.”
“Has Tobias settled the account?” she asked, scooping the presentation box into a Gucci handbag.
“He has, and once again, congratulations on your engagement.” John leant his hip against the counter and shifted his weight.
“Thank you, you’re so kind. We’ll be in to order the wedding rings when we’ve set a date.”
She pulled her handbag onto her shoulder, tapped across the redwood floor and breezed onto Park Lane, leaving behind a cloud of spiced perfume.
John’s smile slipped as he left the display area. There were no other customers in the shop. Just two junior female assistants chatting quietly as they conducted a laborious stock take.
He secured the lock on his office door, reached into a metal filing cabinet and withdrew a half full bottle of whisky. He splashed a triple into a stained mug and downed two-thirds in two gulps. He sank into his chair, shoved up his sleeves and pushed a heavy microscope to one side. The solid steel base scattered several delicate instruments onto the floor. He left them lying haphazardly—a complicated game of pick-up sticks.
He crossed his forearms on the table and rested his head on a deeply ingrained snake tattoo. He shut his eyes shut and his mind drifted. Alcohol eased the way.
Suddenly, he was hit with the stale scent of unwashed men and the creaking sound of straining canvas overhead. The atmosphere was studied, the tension mounting. He could hear himself asking questions, making calculated, important decisions, yet like being on a plane and waiting for ears to pop, his own voice sounded unfamiliar and watery. He took a deep breath and watched the Al Jazeera broadcast. Was there anything he could glean? His mind whirred through the finer details of the intelligence, piecing it together like a macabre jigsaw he knew off by heart.
He raised his head, disorientated, and squinted into the staring glare of a table lamp. Remembered where he was, in his office, he reached clumsily for his mug, swallowed, banged it down and fumbled for the light switch. He closed his eyes once more, and sleep claimed him.
The temperature plummeted. He was being jolted over stones and boulders. His jaw rattled and his spine tensed. The wheel suspension groaned its complaint. He studied Cobra One. They were an intimidating bunch. From their boots to their balaclavas, everything was the colour of the darkest night, including exposed flesh. Gadgetry and hardware bulged from every pocket, their outfits swollen with deadly loads. There was an atmosphere of grim anticipation. An energised but sombre tension only men going into battle emit, it filled the APV, inhabiting the space like another physical presence.
He jumped onto a ruined suburban road. Dust scattered around his heavy boots as his legs absorbed the impact. His night vision goggles gave the area a surreal green glow. A skinny Afghan dog stopped and stared, luminous pupils flashing, then it ran away, whip tail straight as a cane.
He was outside the house now—dilapidated, barely a roof and only three and a half walls. No complete windows and rusting corrugated iron wedged as a feeble fence. He flattened against the pockmarked wall at the north side with Eagle and Hig. The other three men rounded the corner to the south side to act as deadly lookouts.
Through the shadows, he saw his own gloved hand sign three, two, one. The doorframe brushed his shoulder as he ducked through the narrow gap. He came face to face with a bearded man—stained turban, round glasses, the right lens cracked like a lightening fork— with a primed AK47 in his hand.
John’s reflex created a sickening crack. He felt the soft flesh of broken neck on his forearm and the slack of dead tendons melt over his wrist. He lowered the body to the floor.
He tuned into the low hum of distant conversation. Hig and Eagle moved in tight behind him, and although he couldn’t hear them, he knew they were following. Adrenaline raced through his veins and his heart rate sped. His senses were sharp, acute, alive.
The voices were clearer now, men laughing and talking in Arabic, high pitched and jabbering. He reached the end of the passageway and came to a splintered door, which was open a convenient crack. He flicked his head and eyeballed the candle-lit room to see what they were dealing with. Two hostages, bound and gagged, sat in the far left corner, five armed insurgents hung around, weapons relaxed.
He braced for the contact, gathering his energy ready to burst into the room. His nerves were on fire, his survival instincts in control.
Suddenly gunshots burst from the street outside. Ear splitting cracks. His men out the front must have been spotted.
His forward momentum switched to a hasty retreat down the corridor with Eagle and Hig.
Treacherous light filled the passageway as the door was flung open. Frantic Arabic shouts punctuated the air, and John knew their shadowy figures had been seen.
Eagle and Hig ducked out into the night. But spinning just past the dead guard, John was greeted with the unblinking eye of a gun. He raised his weapon and fired a double tap, watched two small black holes appear on a forehead. They oozed as the body crumpled.
He ducked outside and slammed his back against the wall. “Shit. We gotta get the hostages out now!”
Eagle swung his arm and rolled a flash bang into the house. It rattled like a tin can before exploding into a burst of lightning and slamming out a clap of thunder.
He charged back in, saw hazy, glowing movements in the swirling smoke and fired—the ground absorbed the solid thud of a body. Hig’s mass moved with him. More hysterical shouts and screams, terrified English accents mixed in with panicked Arabic.
“Hostages down on the floor!” The shouted words tore at the flesh of John’s throat.
He connected the sole of his boot with the door. He lined a standing man in his sights and pulled the trigger, twice. Hig and Eagle flanked him, mimicked him. Three satisfyingly heavy thumps.
Four more thunderous shots rang out.
A force like a charging bull flung John on top of the terrified hostages. Pain in his back circled and squeezed his body armour, pushing every scrap of air from his lungs. He gasped for breath like a fish out of water, suffocating on empty lung cavities. There was a shocking tearing sensation in his left leg. The agony was sickening, every nerve in his body screamed for attention. He caught his breath, cried out—a primitive, guttural scream. He dropped his gun, grabbed for his leg, sure it would be gone, sure he would feel nothing but a soggy stump.
His mind was a white blank of panic. Death smiled at him.
“Shit, boss there were six of them.” Eagle swung his gun away from a now slumped body in a concealed nook behind the door.
Hig bent double, taut blue tourniquet in his hand. There was sorrow in his eyes, a look of sympathy, and in that unguarded second, before Hig’s professionalism intercepted, John knew it was all over for him.
Another bang on the office door brought John back to the present day.
“We’re off now. It’s five-thirty.”
“Okay.” His voice was hoarse. He reached for the last drop of whisky. “I’ll be right out to lock up.” He flicked on the light, pushed up and headed out of the office with only a hint of a limp. At the front door, he said a final goodbye to his colleagues. They didn’t know it was the last goodbye, but he did.
He performed the elaborate locking ritual for the last time, set the high tech alarm then pinched up the gems he’d been working on that morning—the three diamonds he’d expertly removed from Miss Worthington-Hurley’s engagement ring and replaced with cheap cubic zirconia.
He dropped them into a small, well-used fold in the lining of his trousers and smoothed down his shirt. After switching off the light, he grabbed his jacket and headed into the early evening sunshine humming an old tune. Life was finally on the up. Soon, he’d be readdressing the balance, equalling out all of the shit inflicted on him since that fateful night. Soon, he’d be living it up in the sun, away from endless physiotherapy, which caused nothing but more pain, away from London, away from all the reminders of what he used to have and of the man he used to be. It had taken a long time to squirrel away what the British tax payers owed him, what the British government had denied him, but now he had enough, enough to live in luxury for the foreseeable future and he couldn’t wait to get on his way.
He walked slowly round the block to a secure car park, the pain in his knee nipping like piranhas now the whisky was beginning to wear off. For the millionth time, he wondered what those dumb ass do-gooders had been doing in Afghanistan. If they hadn’t gone and got themselves taken hostage, he’d still have two functioning legs and a job he loved. He hated them. He knew it wasn’t how a military man was supposed to think but he couldn’t help it. They were as much to blame as the insurgents.
He shoved his hand into his pocket and pulled out a key fob. He clicked it once and a silver Porsche blinked to life, greeting him with a sharp, echoing beep.