Everything was working out nicely.
The black Saab had arrived at the First Avenue turn-off shortly after 8am, just as he had been assured it would. He let three other cars go first, then followed it straight along Highway 509 towards the airport.
The Seattle sky was the colour of raw oysters. The October rain fell in a steady drizzle, reminding him of the well-worn local joke: 'What comes after two days of rain? Monday, of course.'
This was not the weekend he had planned.
When the call came, only seven hours before, he immediately turned them down. 'C'mon. You're shitting me. You have to be.' But nobody was joking.
'This one comes from the top.' Joel Frampton listened to the urgency - and fear - in his controller's voice. 'It's a question of national security. Don't blame us. It's the Brits. They pressed the panic button and we promised to bail them out.'
Bail them out, mused Frampton. Amazing the number of euphemisms there were for killing a man. He reckoned he had heard them all.
Over the years, his targets had included the Presidents of two South American republics, a Senator from North Carolina, a wealthy Californian industrialist and a labor leader from Ontario. Each of them had died quickly, quietly and without fuss. Frampton never troubled himself with wondering why they had to die. That was someone else's job. He was part of a team and you trusted your team-mates.
In the trade, he was known as the Sandman.
And when they woke him, the Sandman had listened and then said, 'No.'
Killing, like any other business operation, required proper lead time and meticulous planning. Anything less was amateur time.
'Joel, you're not reading me. This isn't a request, it's an instruction. From the top. We know the circumstances are less than ideal. That's why it has to be you.'
As the private jet winged its way north along the West Coast, the Sandman had taken in the briefing, studied the dossier and then caught up on his sleep. Three hours later he was striding through drizzle and sleet in the Emerald City, where he swiftly rejected the offer of a driver to trail the target's Saab to the international airport. Much better to do it himself. Company would only distract him.
It seemed simple enough, he had to concede. The one irritation was that his preferred weapon, twenty-six inches of piano wire that could slice a man's throat before he'd even had time to inhale, would have to be swapped for a knife. It was important, he was instructed, to make it look like the target had been plain unlucky. In the wrong place at the wrong time.
The only thing that startled the Sandman was the target's age. He was so young.
The Sandman winced as an Alaskan Airways plane came in so low the nose-cone seemed about to rip out the hire car's windshield. Unless the knife was waiting for him exactly as planned he would simply abort the job. Just as they had their rules of engagement, he too had his stipulations.
The Saab pulled onto the third floor of Sea-Tac's parking garage, but the Sandman wasted no time searching for a space. Go directly to the eighth floor, they'd told him. It's uncovered, so there's always plenty of room. You'll get to the terminal before your target arrives.
The main concourse was quiet, far quieter than he would have wished. That made his job harder. Had the Sandman been properly in command of this operation, his first action would have been to switch the venue to a place with crowds.
At least he looked right. Dressed in a calf-length olive green overcoat, open to reveal a crew-neck navy sweater, his slightly oversized tan briefcase in one gloved hand and his Post-Intelligencer in the other, the Sandman was as respectable as he was forgettable. Any cop looking to make up the numbers for an ID parade of middle aged Boeing executives would have welcomed him into the line-up.
He made his way towards the blue and white Amex sign, watching the desk clerk sip her early morning Starbucks. Only minutes into her shift and still on automatic pilot. She handed over his ticket with a professional smile. 'You have a good trip now, Mr Frampton.' She wouldn't recognise him again, not even if a $10,000 door prize depended on it.
That was another thing. Invariably, it was safer to use your own name. Whenever he read those so-called true stories about assassins with their disguises and their aliases it just made him laugh. If Carlos the Jackal was so smart, how come he'd gotten caught? Not that he ever thought of himself as an assassin. Not really.
Joel Frampton hadn't risen to the top of his profession by accident. He picked his assignments with great care: only three in the past eighteen months, each of them big hits. The rest of the time he was perfectly content to do desk work.
It wasn't until Desert Storm that he had discovered his true vocation. Electronic surveillance had always been his speciality. But Joel Frampton, it turned out, was a natural-born killer. Not a psycho-killer; the only pleasure he took from his work was in the satisfaction of a job well done. Not a big-bucks killer; he was entirely content to remain on the government payroll and had never contemplated testing his skills on the open market. But just as some people need no lessons to sit down at a piano and make it sing, and others are born with the ability to serve and volley their way to Grand Slam silverware, Frampton knew how to take lives. He was good at it.
There was no secret to what he did. Ask any of his neighbours. He was just plain Joel Frampton, who lived alone in one of apartment houses on Capitol Hill, his wife passed away from leukaemia, his two kids grown up and moved away. Joel Frampton who mostly kept to himself, but came alive when he talked about baseball. Joel Frampton who worked for the government at an office downtown. Something to do with trade and Japan, wasn't it? Joel Frampton who was all of these things, and whose occasional additional responsibilities included killing people on behalf of his government. He'd come so very close to Saddam Hussein once, but you couldn't win them all.
Frampton took the satellite transport system to the North Terminal, passed through the security check without incident and headed straight for the rest room. Third cubicle from the left. He slid the bolt across the door, lifted the waste-bin lid and flipped the plastic sack to one side. Just a slight stretch and his fingers closed around the black, basket-weave sheath, taped to the bottom right-hand corner of the bin, exactly as it was meant to be.
The Sandman checked out his weapon and grimaced as he realised they'd given him a Smith & Wesson pocket S.W.A.T. knife. A model that retailed for less than $50 at outdoor shops in any mall. Not exactly a connoisseur's choice, but so much the better for a job that needed to look like an amateur robbery gone wrong. The handle fitted comfortably in his hand. He squeezed the thumb stud and examined a pristine, serrated blade the length of his index finger. Stainless steel liners locked it firmly in place. It would do. Like most fashion mistakes, it would be seen out in public only once. With the knife inside his overcoat pocket and the sheath discarded in the trash can, he returned to the main concourse to study the Departures Board.
Bell Air BL109, flying directly to London Heathrow, was scheduled to take off in ninety minutes. Boarding would be at Gate N15. The Sandman paid for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and ambled towards the check-in desk. He took up position in a bucket seat three rows back from the counter, turned his Post-Intelligencer to the sports pages, and waited for the target to show.
Seven minutes later, he showed.
Jack Hollander had been unlucky in his choice of baggage trolley. It squeaked. More seriously, it looked in imminent danger of collapse. Three bulging suitcases sat one above the other, rising from the foundation of a black trunk secured by straps. A suit-carrier was draped across the top case, and a black bag that looked like it contained a laptop was perched in the basket. He evidently planned on more than just a week's vacation. The heavyweight cargo was nevertheless being steered safely towards the check-in desk, its owner undaunted by the need to make a sharp right turn to avoid a woman pushing a stroller.
The Sandman continued to observe. Hollander was dressed in what was often called the Seattle tux: a rag wool sweater, khaki pants and a fire-engine red Gore-Tex hooded jacket, complete with zippers, pockets and drawstrings. Casual, comfortable and equally appropriate for autumn in London. Right down to a pair of virgin white sneakers.
He'd never killed a man who wasn't wearing proper shoes before. And not anyone quite so young.
Hollander looked every inch the student his passport declared him to be. Perhaps a little less outrageous than some of the kids that hung out on campus. No nose stud or earring. Mid-brown hair that looked like it had felt the barber's scissors in the recent past. And real suitcases, rather than the ubiquitous back-packs that nowadays seemed to be the emblem of youth on the move.
The counter clerk examined his travel tickets. Hollander suddenly swung around and gazed directly at the Sandman.
Christ, the kid's face looked honest and open, with skin so fair he wouldn't be in trouble if he'd forgotten to pack a razor. On the basis of the physical evidence, no father would object to his daughter dating Jack Hollander.
Not important. Hollander was never going to kiss another girl. Or even get to see London. He'd be leaving Sea-Tac in a body bag.
His suitcases, however, were disappearing one by one on the conveyor belt that led to the cargo loading depot. Hollander stood aside, allowing the next customer to check in.
The Sandman couldn't help it. He just had to ask himself how come this kid posed a threat to national security. Drugs, probably, although you'd never know just by looking. But of course that was how they did it; the same way he did his own job. This was not the time to second-guess his superiors though. It was none of his business. He blinked once, set aside the thought, and refocused on the target. It was time.
The Sandman punched out six numbers on his cell phone. 'Let's go,' he murmured into the mouthpiece. Two minutes later, the signal came. 'Will passenger Jack Hollander travelling to London please report to the check-in desk.'
Hollander had stowed the latest issue of Wallpaper inside his carry-on bag and was pocketing his change when he heard the announcement. He retraced his steps.
'Sorry Mr Hollander, but I'm afraid there's a slight problem with your baggage.' The airline official who had checked him in was matter-of-fact. 'One of your cases has come open and we need you downstairs in the office, in case you have to make an insurance claim.'
'Okay. Thanks. I'll go and take care of it.'
The Sandman watched as the official pointed in the general direction of the escalator at the far end of the hall. Then he rose from his seat to follow.
This was the moment he couldn't anticipate. But there were really only two options. Either Hollander would do as he had been invited and report to the office - in which case he would take him on the escalator just as he reached the lower level. That would be ideal. Or else, supposing there was something in the luggage that shouldn't be there, Hollander would most likely make a run for it. If that happened, the Sandman would have at least five minutes to complete his assignment somewhere between the North terminal and the loading zone.
Hollander seemed in no hurry. It looked like he was making for the escalator. Perfect. The Sandman quickened his stride. The handle of the Smith & Wesson knife sat snugly in the palm of his right hand. It was going to be easy.
Ten paces short of the escalator Hollander took him by surprise. First he hesitated. Then he veered off towards the right, leaving the Sandman with no choice but to follow him the short distance to the airport post office.
The Sandman slipped into line behind his target, and continued to finger his knife. He watched as the kid rummaged around in his carry-on bag and pulled out a big brown envelope.
'I need to send this by global priority mail.' Hollander pushed the envelope towards the counter clerk. The Sandman leaned forward and squinted, but couldn't make out an address.
'Where's it going?'
Strange. Wasn't the kid booked onto a London flight? Before the Sandman could figure it out, the clerk took the envelope out of Hollander's hands.
'I don't know. My grandmother asked me to throw it in the mail. I promised I'd do it yesterday, but I forgot. I just want it off my conscience.'
He was a polite young man, the Sandman noted. But he was still going to die. Just as soon as he'd posted this damned envelope.
'I'll have to examine the contents of your package before I can put it into the system. We need a customs declaration.'
Hollander nodded his assent and the clerk tugged on the flap. The Sandman craned his neck, trying to get a better look, his nose so close to the target that he caught a whiff of his hair gel.
'That's fine, it's just a bunch of papers,' said the clerk. 'What's this, though?' She plucked a second envelope from amongst the papers. This one was white, and had something written on the front. But once again, the Sandman couldn't make out what it said.
'Are you Jack Hollander, by any chance?' the clerk enquired.
'Well it looks like your grandma's worried about you.' A half-smile spread across her face. 'She says this gets opened if you come to any harm.'
Hollander laughed and shook his head. 'You never know what's next with my grandma. I'll try to be careful.'
The Sandman walked away. He'd heard enough. His orders had been non-negotiable. 'If the target does anything out of the ordinary, anything at all, you abort.' In the Sandman's professional judgment, that envelope had just saved Hollander's life. For the time being, at any rate.
As he began the journey back to the parking lot, he wondered idly whether the kid would yell at the office staff when they denied all knowledge of his damaged baggage.
'Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Mercer speaking.' The distinctive Boston accent cut abruptly into Jack Hollander's thoughts. He'd been worrying about Grandma Lorna, wishing there was more he could do for her. But it was too late now.
He concentrated on the pilot's invitation to take a last look at Mount Rainier, and as the snow-capped peak's stark magnificence faded, he felt himself relax properly for the first time in weeks. It was time to look forward, not backward.
He'd already had one piece of good luck. The 747's only empty seat was next to his own. Thank God - the last thing he needed was some moron jabbering away for nine hours and expecting him to reciprocate. Jack preferred to keep his life story to himself. It was easier that way. He skipped his watch eight hours ahead to British time, and wondered how the next chapter would pan out. It was looking good.
In the end, it had all happened so fast. The competition for a scholarship to the University of London was always going to be fierce. Thousands of young architectural hopefuls would give anything for the chance to study in the midst of all those glorious historic buildings for a year, and Jack was no exception. It was every bit as prestigious as being a Rhodes Scholar.
Once it got to the final selection, he really thought he was going to make it. His grades were excellent. He had slaved night after night on the environmental architecture paper. And his designs for a continuing care retirement community could survive the fiercest scrutiny.
When the letter came, telling him that after careful deliberation he was second choice, the disappointment was intense. No matter that the judges' panel showered him with generous praise and assured him that a glittering career lay ahead. It didn't even begin to compensate. Some lousy East Coast brat would be going to London, and he wouldn't.
Jack tried to convince himself it didn't matter. He went swimming every evening, slicing his way up and down the pool with a vicious front crawl, telling himself over and over, 'I'll finish my studies here. Makes no difference.'
But it did make a difference. He'd been counting on an immediate, guilt-free escape route to London. It was disloyal even to think it, but he just had to get away from Grandma Lorna and her crazy stories. If he left for the sake of his career, no-one could argue. Not even him.
Twelve weeks later, when the scholarship winner tripped over his kid brother's skateboard and fractured his leg in two places, Jack tried to feel sorry, but couldn't. When his rival's parents insisted their son remain in Washington until he was out of plaster, his remorse was genuine. So was his elation.
'I'm free,' he shouted inwardly. 'I'm free.'
Mount Rainier had given way to a view of the Pacific coastline. Jack thought it was like looking at a patchwork quilt. The green zig zags were connected to narrow black stripes by earthy brown oblongs and circles of grey, all bordered in aquamarine.
The image brought him back to Grandma Lorna. She'd always had a passion for sewing and stitching. Hand her a needle now though, and she would be more likely to try and stick it in her tongue. It crucified him to see the old lady diminished by Alzheimer's. No-one would have guessed she had once been famous for ruling Gatzert Elementary School as efficiently as any military establishment in America. She had insisted on continuing her career, despite her husband's enormous wealth. Jack had always admired her for that.
In the beginning, it had been easy to dismiss the symptoms as just Lorna's little lapses. She'd lose her keys. Spend twenty minutes deciding which blouse to wear. Or confess she'd forgotten to balance her cheque book. It got serious the day her regular afternoon stroll around the streets of Medina ended at nightfall. Lorna was brought back to the family home by a neighbour. 'I found her staring out at the lake. I'm sure she was lost,' he said.
Lorna, who had lived in Medina for over fifteen years, protested she had merely been taking a rest. She was usually so cranky when questions were asked about her increasingly eccentric behaviour. But this time her voice lacked conviction.
The following Sunday at brunch, when she forgot her own grandson's name, Lorna's objections were over-ruled and she was booked in for a full physical. That had been a little more than two years ago. She was pronounced unfit to live alone and had been at the nursing home ever since.
Jack pushed his seat back into the recline position, acknowledging his relief that he wouldn't have to go there any more. He'd never told anyone how much he dreaded those weekly visits, although yesterday's had started out better than usual.
'She's pretty coherent today.' Caroline Mack, Lorna's personal nurse, greeted Jack with her usual sunny smile.
The old lady had been dressed in a loosely fitted floral blue dress and a white cardigan. She was wearing her pearls, although nowadays, they served only to emphasise the frailty of her turkey neck.
'Hi, grandma, it's Jack.' She often forgot his name. 'How are you?'
'I know who you are.' Lorna leaned forward in her chair. 'You're my grandson.' Her eyes were more sharply focused than usual, but Jack couldn't meet them. He stared instead at the silver-framed photo of his grandfather which sat on Lorna's bedside table. Darryl Masters seemed to glare right back. His good looks had prevailed even into old age. Just a shame about his character. It had been almost six months since Jack had stood, dry-eyed, alongside Lorna at Darryl's graveside, flanked by over two hundred members of America's media elite. Masters had been one of their own. Now Lorna was all the family he had left. Perhaps the one good thing about her illness was that she seemed to have forgotten about Darryl's fatal heart attack, and often talked about her husband as though he were still alive.
'Come here.' Lorna tugged hard on Jack's hand and he sat down beside her. 'I've got something for you. Something special.' She reached into the battered blue suitcase that she insisted stayed by her side at all times, even when she visited the bathroom. 'Here.' Jack stared at a pair of shoelaces. 'Those are for you. Keep them safe. You might need them in London.'
'London Bridge is falling down, naughty Jack will break the crown.' Lorna pushed the shoelaces into the pocket of Jack's pants.
'Yes, grandma, I'll be sure to send your regards.' He was never sure what to say when her conversation descended into nonsense. Caroline said it was best just to keep talking. That way, Lorna's thought patterns often returned to normal and you could pick up the conversation again.
Jack felt a bony finger dig into his shoulder. 'London. That's where you should be. That's where you belong.'
'Yes,' he agreed. 'But I'll be back for the Christmas vacation.'
'Thanksgiving,' Lorna insisted.
'That might be a bit soon.'
'No!' She spat out the word. 'No. You don't understand. They should give thanks that you'll be locked up in the Tower of London.'
Jack swallowed hard. 'I'll make sure I go there,' he promised.
'And the Savoy. Cabbages come from Savoy. But you come from London.' Lorna's voice was rising. She was becoming agitated. 'You're not Jack Hollander at all. I recognise you now. I was telling him just the other day.' She pointed in the direction of the wardrobe.
'Who were you telling, Grandma Lorna?' Jack kept his voice calm and low. He had seen this happen once before. It had been scary. Lorna had insisted there was a Roman senator in the room with them. Wearing a crown of laurels.
'I was talking to your father. He said to apologise, but I told him it was far too late.'
Lorna shrank back into her armchair and pulled the suitcase onto her knees. Her eyes flickered and said more plainly than words that she realised she wasn't making sense.
The nurse came into the room. 'She looks pretty tired, Jack, and it's time for her medication. We're already late with it, but she insisted on waiting till you got here. It's a shame. She was fine this morning, but you know how it is with Alzheimer's. Impossible to predict whether a day's going to be good or bad.' The young woman sighed.
Christ, he had no business jaunting off to the other side of the world, leaving his grandmother all alone in this place. Except that every week, when he showed up at the home and saw the husk she had become, a part of him died, too. Besides, the real Grandma Lorna would insist he took up the scholarship rather than putting his life on hold for her. Jack was certain about that.
'Maybe you should just say goodbye.'
Jack seized the opportunity. He bent down, kissed Lorna full on her cracked lips and left the room. She sat like a stone, her eyes fogged over like early morning in Seattle.
'Send us a postcard from London,' called Caroline.
Twenty-four hours later, Jack still felt guilty as hell. At least he'd remembered to mail the envelope Caroline had prompted his grandmother to fish out of her suitcase. It had been a strange moment. Lorna held it out and chanted, 'Mail it now. Mail it now,' while Caroline looked faintly uncomfortable. There had also been a second envelope - this time with his name on it - which he was saving for later.
Jack felt a hand on his shoulder. Are you the vegetarian?' asked the flight attendant.
'Nope. Not unless you've run out of real food.'
'This is about as real as it gets.' Their hands brushed as she passed across the standard tray, weighed down with plastic containers. Jack looked at her properly for the first time. Pretty. Nice smile.
Smiling at him just like Megan used to.
'Enjoy your meal.' The attendant moved along the cabin, but Megan's face stayed fixed in front of him, clear as the picture he still carried in his wallet, hidden behind his college ID card. Every time he sneaked a look at it he could hear his ex-girlfriend's voice - and disgust - as she spat at him, 'How could you have done that, Jack? How could you?' The picture would have to go, although so far, he hadn't been able to throw it away.
Jack picked at his meal. His appetite had vanished. He pushed the tray onto the empty seat alongside him, hunched his head towards his shoulders and slipped into restless sleep.
Six hours later, just as the British Isles came into view, Jack reached for Grandma Lorna's other envelope. He'd been saving it especially for this moment, and wondered idly how much the old lady had given him to spend during the year ahead.
Lorna, of course, was extraordinarily rich, as befitted the widow of Darryl Masters. He just about remembered his famous grandfather selling the newspapers and television stations and retiring from public life, a few weeks after he'd come to live in Seattle. 'One point four billion. That's my lucky number,' Darryl used to joke. Much of the money had gone to charity, but there was still a healthy trust fund for Jack. Not that he was entitled to so much as a nickel as yet. His grandparents had insisted he work his way through college, just like the other kids. That was fine, it was fun to compete against the other waiters at the pizza place off Pioneer Square to see who could collect the most in tips by the end of a Saturday night. His record was ninety-seven dollars.
At least there was plenty of cash to ensure the nursing home would take good care of Grandma Lorna, even if she carried on for years. Whenever Jack had that thought, the word euthanasia popped into his mind. He couldn't help it, he'd rather be put down like a dog than live like that.
Forward not backward. From now on, he would remember the Lorna who raised him. His grandmother in her prime, not the fragile old lady she had become.
The envelope felt bulky. Five hundred dollars perhaps? Jack decided, student or not, that as soon as he was over the jet lag, he would go to the Savoy hotel and drink a glass of champagne in his grandma's honour. He ripped the envelope, munched another peanut, and discovered five sheets covered in dense handwritten blue ink.
Very Dear Jack,
I don't know when you will read this letter. But if it's in your hands now, the right time has arrived. I have to tell you something very important, and it's only sensible to put everything down on paper.
I know my mind is beginning to wander. Sometimes, I just can't seem to hang onto my thoughts, and I know it's going to get worse. At the same time, it makes me mad that my body's still so strong, even though we've just celebrated my seventy-first birthday.
Jack did the calculation. Hell, that meant Lorna had waited two years to tell him. But tell him what?
Today, though, my mind is working just fine, and what I'm about to tell you is the truth. Don't ever doubt that. Jack, it's about your parents. There's no easy way to tell you this, so I'll just come right out with it. Greg wasn't your dad. Your father is still alive. He's an Englishman called Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor. You'll know him better as Prince Charles.
Jack sometimes thought that at the age of twenty-three, he had lost the capacity to be surprised. He realised he'd been wrong.
It all happened that summer when your mother was determined to try her wings. She headed for Europe, and ended up in Switzerland. Emma Jane had worked through the ski season and was getting ready to come home. Then, just as she was about to confirm her return ticket, she was given exciting news. Her employers were to prepare for a very important visitor: Prince Charles.
Now you know how some of us get all excited about British Royalty. I'm sure any one of the ski girls would have gone with him, given the chance. But Prince Charles chose Emma Jane. They were, by all accounts, immediately attracted to one another. They talked and talked, and as young people do - except for you Jack, and I might say it's high time you started to loosen up - they talked about relationships.
Jack's throat was dry. He summoned the attendant and asked for more water. As she carried out his request, the girl thought he looked like he might also be about to make use of the paper bag stuffed into the seat-back.
Emma Jane was getting over her first broken heart. He was a ski guide called Bruno. One of those arrogant, enormously handsome Italians, who regarded the chalet girls as part of his employment package. And as for Charles.... well I know it's history to you kids, but people my age, we lived through it.
Prince Charles was just a few weeks away from his arranged marriage to Diana Spencer. She was so lovely. Of course, he was by no means the first person to wait at the altar knowing that even though the dress is beautiful, it's definitely being worn by the wrong woman. But Charles felt he had no choice.
He was wrong about that, Jack. We always have choices.
What happened between your mother and Charles was probably the inevitable outcome of two young and unhappy people who exchanged confidences only to discover they shared the same kind of disappointment. They wound up in bed together.
And there it might have ended. Let's not pretend it could ever have been anything more than just a brief encounter, except they were foolish, the pair of them. Emma Jane came home pregnant. There was an enormous row. But in the end she named the father. It was so incredible, we knew she was telling the truth. For better or worse, your grandfather fixed it so she married Greg. Powerful men can do things like that, We were all very fortunate it worked so well. Much better than the Royal marriage, and Greg certainly loved you like his own flesh and blood, you can be sure of that.
What I have to tell you next will seem even more incredible.
'Ladies and gentlemen,' interrupted the captain, 'I am pleased to tell you we will be arriving at London Heathrow in just over thirty minutes. Air Traffic Control informs me that by the time we're on the ground, it will be a damp but mild October morning with temperatures rising to fourteen degrees. Welcome to Britain and thank you for flying Bell Air.'
You've grown up knowing your grandfather was convicted of rape, and because he never denied it, or even discussed it, you've never been as close to him as you are to me, my precious boy. I've pleaded with him over and over to tell you the truth, but he's determined to make sure you come to no harm. Darryl went to jail to protect the Royal Family. There's no doubt about it. On the one hand, it was his position as a famous media man that kept you alive. Otherwise, you'd never have lived until your first birthday, I'm convinced. But equally, the Royal Family were terrified Darryl would print the story of your birth, and bring terrible disgrace to them, They warned him once, but he wouldn't be pushed around. He showed them what he was made of by trying to buy the London Times. That was when they moved against him and had him incarcerated.
Unfortunately, it didn't end there. Jack, sit tight, honey. They murdered your mother and father. When that plane crashed, it was no accident. Darryl's always blamed himself. If only he hadn't taken you to London that time, it might not have happened.
The British may have good manners, but they are ruthless bastards, if you'll forgive my language. They invented the divine right of Kings, and by God, they believe it gives them the right to do as they please.
Darryl and I have done our best to bring you up as Emma Jane and Greg would have wished. The only thing we've quarrelled about over the years is whether to tell you the secret of your birth. After all that's happened, Darryl lives in fear, but I will not allow you to be robbed of the right to know about your true parentage.
It's up to you, of course, what you do with this information. All I ask is that you believe I have told you the truth. I have no reason to lie.
My mind may be growing dim, but I can still see the little boy who told me, "My mommy's dead. My daddy's dead. And I want to be dead too. Why do I have to come and live here? Why can't I just go to sleep?"
Life is what you make it, my darling boy. You're doing so well, and I am enormously proud of you. You do have a father who is alive and living in England. And you have two half brothers, one of them just a few months younger than you. They look like nice kids, and I'm sure they still miss their mother, too. It's a pain that never quite goes away, even when you're all grown up.
You may choose to contact your natural father, or not Jack. Like I said, we always have choices.
Jack's eyes blurred as he read the signature. Grandma Lorna had been mad as a hatter for even longer than anyone had realised. Somehow, that made it even worse.
The weather in central London was worse than the weather in Seattle.
The man in the brown cashmere overcoat picked his way through the knot of derelicts and drug dealers who had taken refuge in the warmth of the tube station. Keeping his eyes carefully averted from the beggar who sat with only a tattered blanket between herself and the urine-stained concrete, he emerged into the driving rain, umbrella at the ready.
'Bugger.' Sir Gerald Akehurst, KBE, shuddered with distaste as his highly polished brown shoe was ambushed by a dog turd. That would teach him not to look where he was going. Now he faced a dilemma. Should he attempt to remove the excrement by dipping the sole of his hand-made brogues into the puddle and then scraping his foot on the curb? Or better to ruin a fine linen handkerchief by removing the offending waste more thoroughly? Bloody dogs.
He opted for the dip and scrape. Irritated by the fact that it was only partially successful, he thought - not for the first time - that Piccadilly Circus was one of the most uncivilised places in London. All human life was there. And most of it, he didn't care for.
Fortunately, London's aristocratic hinterland was just a few minutes away - a quietly smart part of town where elegant houses, dignified shops and sheltered arcades had stood for centuries in peaceful co-existence.
Within sight of the Ritz Hotel, Akehurst turned sharply into St James's Street. He glanced at his Rolex. It was 8.52. He was compulsively punctual, but on this occasion he would just have to be early. It was too cold and too wet to window-shop.
The grandly anonymous building was sandwiched between a hat shop and a purveyor of the finest caviar. Two carriage lamps sat sentry on either side of the short flight of stairs. Akehurst pressed the doorbell. It was answered immediately and he hurried inside.
White's Gentlemen's Club was older than the Bank of England, yet most of England had never heard of it. The members preferred it that way. It had always been the most exclusive of all London's private clubs. Behind its neatly symmetrical façade, the British elite - politicians, bishops, generals, public servants, dukes and royalty - had debated, in their day, Napoleon's impending defeat (a sure thing), the advent of the motor car (merely a fad), the invention of television (disgraceful), and the trend towards weapons that destroyed buildings but left people unscathed (something of a mixed blessing).
As usual on a Saturday, White's was officially closed. However, on occasions when the utmost discretion was required, the premises remained quietly available to three dozen or so of the most influential members. Akehurst was among the elite.
He awaited his colleagues in the Smoking Room, pleased to see they had finally toned down the green paint so it no longer looked brand spanking new. The essence of White's was that it represented traditional standards of dignity and restraint.
'Terrible night,' boomed a voice that although tempered by the years, remained familiar to those who knew their politics. Lord Robert Dunstan settled himself into the ancient, overstuffed armchair. With a conjurer's flourish, he produced a Monte Cristo cigar from his breast pocket.
The former Tory Chief Whip was ageing well. Slightly overweight, even for such a bear of a man, his broken nose and beetle brows were topped by a full head of unkempt hair the colour of snow. He could have passed for a retired prize fighter who had managed to steer clear of most of the punches. Dunstan had always looked belligerent, as befitted a political enforcer responsible for making sure his colleagues toed the party line, but his eyes still sparkled and his face was curiously unlined. Even with his seventieth birthday rapidly approaching, he remained in full command of all his faculties, and all his prejudices.
As if by magic, a white coated waiter who looked scarcely younger than Dunstan himself appeared with a silver tray. Upon it were two full bottles, a small jug of water and three antique glass tumblers. He placed it on the table and left. Akehurst winced inwardly as Dunstan immediately splashed a generous measure of ginger wine into his single malt. Barbaric.
Dunstan took a greedy gulp. 'Did you go to the game this afternoon?' he asked.
Even though he was one of Britain's most senior public officials, Akehurst rarely missed the Saturday football match at White Hart Lane. Dunstan, a rugby man, couldn't see the attraction. He was spared a kick-by-kick description of the back four's latest heroics by the arrival of Barry Bell.
At thirty-nine, Bell was the youngest of the three by a good twenty years, and much more at home in a night club than a gentlemen's club. At least on this occasion, he had left most of his dreadful gold jewellery at home and was wearing a tie. It featured Homer Simpson cramming four doughnuts into his mouth.
Barry Bell, 'the acceptable face of British business' as his latest corporate posters modestly announced, had recently been named as the sixty-third richest man in England. Even if he became the most wealthy he would never be granted membership of White's. Akehurst and Dunstan would find themselves in rare agreement on that.
Dunstan preferred to keep the company of men who, like himself, had been privileged to serve under Margaret Thatcher. He would meet them in the tea-rooms of the House of Lords, at Simpsons-in-the-Strand, or right here at White's, and evaluate the performance of the present incumbent of Number Ten. The general verdict was that he continued to run the country rather well.
Akehurst, by contrast, had no desire to mix with politicians unless he had to. They got in the way of business.
'So shall we get on with it?' Barry Bell, sitting alongside Akehurst on the leather sofa, lit a cigarette and attempted to lasso Dunstan's broken nose with a perfect smoke ring.
The Sceptre Committee was officially in session.
'Gentlemen,' Akehurst began. 'This is our most critical meeting to date. I've prepared the following report to ensure we're all singing from the same hymn sheet. Let's review it before we dine.'
He handed the printed sheets to his colleagues.
To: Dunstan, Bell
As you are aware, Queen Elizabeth II is suffering from cancer. Until now, this has been a well-kept secret. Her Majesty's last public engagement was four weeks ago. It had been hoped she would be sufficiently well to preside over the State Opening of Parliament next month.
The situation, however, has now changed dramatically.
It was confirmed yesterday that the cancer has advanced with regrettable speed. It has now spread from Her Majesty's colon and lungs into the liver. Twenty-two tumours have been identified and the prognosis is bleak.
As a result of talks between Her Majesty and her medical advisers, it has been agreed that surgery is not an option. The Queen feels it is her final duty to the nation to 'go quickly and with dignity' rather than to undergo protracted medical treatment with no chance of a happy outcome.
Tomorrow, Her Majesty will be taken by private ambulance to he home in Sandringham. As part of a programme of palliative care, her discomfort is being alleviated with morphine, but at the present time, she remains fully conscious and alert.
I am informed by the Royal Household that an official press statement will be issued shortly before midnight tonight. Editors and broadcasters are being informally advised that Her Majesty's condition is terminal, and that her survival beyond the next four or five days cannot be assured.
Akehurst was always so pompous. He insisted on these formal reports, when simply telling them what was happening was all he needed to do. Even so, Dunstan realised this was an historic moment for the Sceptre Committee, perhaps the most important moment since its inception sixty-seven years before. The reign of Queen Elizabeth II was drawing to a close. He had known it was coming, but it nevertheless felt strange to see all the secret details written down like this.
Bell was first to break the silence. 'How do you rate my chances of securing a final interview with the old girl?' He flicked his cigarette in the general direction of an ashtray the size of a dinner plate and grinned broadly at his colleagues. Akehurst and Dunstan exchanged a glance. The man was outrageous.
'That's hardly the point.' Akehurst removed his spectacles and polished them with the white handkerchief he kept in his breast pocket. He fought to control his temper. 'I appreciate that your business interests in Royal-TV are important to you, Barry. But please. Let's just remember why we're here and concentrate on our priorities.' He replaced the gold-rimmed spectacles and led the way upstairs.
The enormous salon with its magnificent vaulted ceiling was one of the most splendid rooms anywhere in London.
'If you ask me, this dining room looks like an Indian restaurant.' Barry Bell had a point. The faces at White's might change - just a little - every generation or so. But the room's red flock wallpaper remained reassuringly the same. Every third decade, the original blocks that had hand-printed it at the turn of the eighteenth century were taken out of storage somewhere in Paris and pressed back into service.
'Actually, we call it the Coffee Room.' Dunstan rose to Bell's bait, but Akehurst cut him short.
'Gentlemen,' he intervened. 'I would like to propose a toast.' He poured each of them a generous glass of claret. The men stood up from the table and raised their wine glasses. Akehurst paused a moment, straightened his shoulders, and said, 'Solum solium in aeternum.' The three glasses made brief contact and two voices echoed their chairman. 'Solum solium in aeternum.' Only the throne, eternally.
Akehurst prided himself on his sense of occasion. He had chosen this table because it was where Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Queen's uncle and founder of Sceptre, had sat on the night of his appointment as Viceroy of India. Mountbatten would certainly have approved of Sceptre's careful stewardship of the monarchy in the intervening years. Now, it was merely a question of making sure the British people were properly prepared for the shocking news that their Queen's life was about to end and that the succession of her son - Charles, Prince of Wales - was a forgone conclusion.
The three men made uneasy conversation over dinner. They agreed their medallions of pork were overdone, disagreed about the ideal place for a winter holiday, and by unspoken consent, said not a single word about the Royal Family. Only when the dessert plates had been cleared away was it time for Barry Bell to deliver his report.
'Everything's fine.' Sceptre's paymaster drew heavily on his thirty-second cigarette of the day. 'My people have made 75,000 calls in the last forty-eight hours. That's the biggest telephone poll ever. And Charlie Boy has never been more popular.'
'I do wish you'd call him the Prince of Wales,' Akehurst couldn't help himself. He was convinced Bell did it to annoy him.
The younger man ignored the interruption. 'Eighty-five per cent think he's done a great job of bringing up William and Harry. Sixty per cent say they wouldn't be concerned if the Queen decided to abdicate, which is a much higher figure than ever before. And best of all, ninety-two per cent want him as our next monarch.'
'Do we know why that is?' enquired Dunstan, running five fat fingers through his shock of white hair.
'Yeah. They think he deserves it, because he's waited so long. And they also reckon Big Willie's entitled to a bit of a life before he takes over.'
'What do you know about the media's state of readiness to respond, once they know about Her Majesty's illness?' This time, the question came from Akehurst.
'They're going to cream themselves.' Bell's own eyes glittered with excitement. 'It's going to give them the best ratings since the World Cup. The BBC and ITV have been updating the Queen's obituary since the moment she was born. They rehearse their coverage for her death three times a year. The Funeral Plan's in place, and there's an understanding with St James's Palace that Charlie will speak to the nation as King within a couple of hours of his mother's death. I'm told the press office is working on the speech now.'
Akehurst nodded. 'With the statement going out tonight, we're assured of saturation coverage on a Sunday. Which is exactly as we planned it. The media will clear the schedules and spend the whole day preparing viewers for the death of the Queen. We'll have wall-to-wall pundits telling them how sad they should be. And by tea time, there will be all manner of delicate speculation about the King-in-waiting.' That, at least, was how the BBC would play it. Akehurst shuddered to think what form Royal-TV's coverage might take. Bell, he knew, regarded Prince Charles as 'a mate' and had spent several weekends at the Royal country retreat in Gloucestershire.
'It was wonderful,' he'd reported. 'There I am, protecting Charlie Boy's interests, and he hasn't got a clue. He kept asking whether he could appear on my King For A Day slot. I was worried until I realised he was joking!'
Dunstan had never met Prince Charles and had no particular wish to. He and his cronies shared the view that he would never have been able to hack it as a back-bencher, not even as a Liberal Democrat. But Charles would probably make an adequate King, and when all was said and done, the monarchy was far more important than the man. If the monarchy faltered, the United States of Europe beckoned. If that were ever to happen the British might just as well start speaking French or German. The very thought of such a surrender made his stomach turn.
It was time for Dunstan to toss his hand grenade into the meeting. He'd been looking forward to this moment, even though it meant Sceptre was in trouble. 'Let's get on with the serious business,' he told the other two. They looked at him with surprise, just as he intended. Before they could cut him short, he broke the news. 'Jack Hollander is still alive. It's a complete bloody mess.'
There was a moment of absolute silence. Bell recovered first. 'He can't be,' he protested. 'We agreed he wouldn't get any further than the airport
'And you took responsibility for the operation,' Akehurst weighed in.
'Only because you botched the surveillance.' Dunstan's voice was rising.
'Steady on Robert. Remember your blood pressure. Why don't you just tell us what happened,' Bell crunched his empty pack of Benson & Hedges and immediately opened another.
Dunstan relayed the gist of the message he had received just before leaving for the meeting. 'Our man heard everything, but he couldn't see the address on the damned envelope. He had to walk away. And at this very minute,' he went on, glancing at his watch, 'The boy's on his way to London.'
'Well at least he's on one of my planes,' Bell managed a smile.
'What good's that?' The question came from Akehurst. 'Unless you're suggesting we blow it up.' His sarcasm was wasted on the other man.
'I've ordered our chap in Seattle to get on the next flight and finish off the job,' Dunstan announced.
'Don't be so bloody ridiculous.' Akehurst spat out the words and then checked himself. 'Let's just keep calm and review the situation.' Even as he spoke, Akehurst's own mind was racing. So Jack Hollander was alive and presumably well, rather than laid out on a slab somewhere. He felt a curious sense of relief.
It was, however, an enormous complication. 'I think your chap was entirely correct to abort the mission,' he told Dunstan. 'Before we do anything else, we need to be certain of our facts. I'll make sure the boy's picked up at the airport and taken to his hall of residence. You get hold of America and find out about that envelope. We need to know who it's addressed to and exactly what those papers say.'
'The matter's in hand.' Dunstan replied. 'But it mustn't linger. Jack Hollander has been a risk since the day he was born. If I'd had my way, we'd have dealt with him a long time ago.'
'Don't you think we've dealt with enough people over the years?' Akehurst sounded weary.
Dunstan sensed his advantage and moved in for the kill. 'Look here. Not only did we give our word to Buckingham Palace that Hollander would never set foot in Britain, but the timing couldn't be worse. Do you really want some little Yankee bastard crawling out of the woodwork right now? Charles's bastard, conceived a matter of days before he married Saint Bloody Diana?'
'Yeah. If that happens, Sceptre might as well pack up and go home.' Barry Bell took up the argument. 'It's not as if this is America, where even a blow job in the Oval Office doesn't really matter. Our standards of hypocrisy are so much higher. If anyone finds out about Hollander while the Queen is still alive, Charles will be out of the picture before you can say abdicate. No question about it. The anti-Royalists and pro-Europe brigade will climb into bed together and hijack the moralists' bandwagon. Next thing you know, the Prime Minister and his pals will recognise it as a God-given opportunity to get rid of an institution they've always despised.'
Bell's disaster scenario was accurate and succinct.
'The necessity to take care of Hollander is simply something we have to do to protect the monarchy,' Dunstan summed up. 'That is our duty, after all.' He adopted the pious expression he wore whenever he scored a particularly good point at someone else's expense in Parliamentary debate.
'I'm well aware of why Sceptre exists, thank you.' Akehurst began polishing his spectacles again. 'But there's still not a scrap of evidence to suggest Hollander's aware of his, ah, British connection. There never has been. In my opinion, we've over-reacted once already. Let's not do it again. We'll meet as soon as you've gained the pertinent information from America. Then we'll decide what happens next.'
Sceptre's meeting was over. Akehurst collected the copies of his report on the Queen's health and put them carefully in the pocket of his jacket. He'd shred them as soon as he was able. It was getting late. Should he trek all the way to Notting Hill to visit Rachel, or simply go straight back home to north London? While he was trying to make up his mind, Dunstan passed him on his way towards the underground. Neither man acknowledged the other.
Barry Bell was still at White's. He lit a cigarette on the eternal flame which had been installed in the lobby so that Winston Churchill could enjoy a fresh cigar whenever he visited.
'I'll be back in a moment, mate,' he told the liveried official who was waiting to lock up.
In the privacy of the Gentlemen's Cloakroom, Barry Bell took out his mobile phone. He hit the keypad and waited impatiently to be answered. The news editor of Royal-TV, one of Britain's most popular digital channels, picked up on the second ring.
'It's me,' he whispered. 'The Queen's going to croak. Three or four days, they reckon. Start running the tapes right now. Bugger the embargo. It's a world exclusive.'
In Seattle, it was late afternoon when the stocky, well-dressed man appeared at the reception desk of the nursing home in Magnolia.
The name he gave the receptionist was not the one his parents gave him. That was Joe Stoakes. But he seldom used it when he was on business. 'I'm here to see Mrs Masters,' he said with a flash of perfect white teeth. Saturday was always the most popular day for visitors. He rested his lavish bouquet of stargazer lilies on the counter and stretched out his hand.
A good, firm handshake, the receptionist thought. 'Lorna Masters? You haven't been to see her before, have you?' There was a hint of surprise in her voice. In the year she'd worked at the home, Lorna's only visitors had been that good-looking grandson, plus a couple of formidable-looking old biddies who had apparently drummed history and math into several generations of Gatzert Elementary pupils.
'No. And I'm feeling kind of rotten about that. She's my grandmother.'
'Your grandmother, but...'
'Family feud. When I was a kid.' He managed to look sheepish. 'I'm here on business from New Orleans, and I thought better late than never, right?'
The old lady's nurse, Caroline Mack, was equally taken aback when she came into the lobby to meet him.
'I'm certainly sorry to hear she's never mentioned me.' Joe Stoakes made it sound like an apology. 'There was a big falling out in the family when I was a kid, so I only met my grandmother a few times. But Jack and I keep in touch. I'm very fond of my cousin. He must have just about arrived in London by now.'
Satisfied with his credentials, Caroline led the way up the staircase and along the corridors to Lorna's room. When they reached it, she paused, her hand on the door, and tried to prepare him. 'Don't expect too much, Alzheimer's is a strange disease. Some days you can hold a coherent conversation with Lorna, especially about events from her past. But other times, it's hopeless. She's delusional. And today hasn't been so good.'
'I understand.' The man turned to Caroline with a look of sudden dismay. 'Hey, I must have I left the flowers down on reception. Would you mind fetching them while I say hello?'
'Sure.' Caroline began to retrace her footsteps.
Lorna was sitting in her armchair, gazing sightlessly out through a rain-spattered picture window with its distant view of the ocean. The blue suitcase rested across her knees.
The man wasted no time. He bent down in front of Lorna so that his eyes were level with hers. 'OK. That fucking letter you got Jack to mail. Who was it addressed to?' His friendly Southern drawl had vanished. Lorna stared back at him. She smiled with total incomprehension, and remained mute.
Her visitor snatched the suitcase and began rummaging through it. Photo album. A cheap blue hair-clip. A dog-eared driver's permit. Two woollen hats. Pair of tap dancing shoes. Three novels by Ernest Hemingway. It was garbage. All fucking garbage. He straightened up at the sound of Caroline's footsteps along the corridor. The door opened. 'I'm afraid she doesn't seem to want to talk to me.' His voice held just the right amount of regret.
Caroline knelt alongside Lorna. 'It's Terry. Your grandson,' she said.
'No. My grandson's Jack.' Lorna's voice was strong and clear.
At least the old bag could talk, the man thought. And she seemed to have some grasp of reality. Maybe the information he needed wouldn't be so hard to come by after all. 'Look,' he said to Caroline. 'The rain seems to have stopped. Why don't I take my grandmother for a drive. She always loved Lake Washington.'
The nurse looked doubtful. 'I'm not so sure that's a good idea,' she said. 'Lorna rarely goes out.'
'All the more reason why she should take advantage of me then.' His voice was firm.
'I'd have to ask the nursing superintendent.'
'If you reckon we need a chaperone, you're welcome to come along too.' He laughed easily, giving Caroline the full benefit of his expensive dental work. It was an unnecessary complication, but better than involving another member of staff who might check out Lorna's family details.
Caroline grinned back. Exchanging the routine of endless bedpans and medication for a Saturday afternoon jaunt with this handsome new relative of Lorna's seemed like an excellent idea. 'Why not. I'll get us both ready.'
Thirty minutes later, her lipstick freshly applied and a light floral perfume dabbed hastily on her wrists and throat, Caroline sat in the back of the blue sedan with Lorna up front. It looked like the rain was over for one day at least, and there were still faint traces of blue fighting their way out of the darkening sky.
The journey passed quickly as they crossed under 509 and then I-5. The light was beginning to fade, but the drive along Lake Washington offered sparkling views of the water. It was as if you had left the city much further behind, thought Caroline. This was real country, with greenery, trees, water and even a small flock of birds hovering above the Lake.
The man, taking in the same scene, was pleased to note only the occasional car. It was better than he had hoped.
Caroline was enjoying herself. This surprise grandson seemed happy to listen more than he talked, and in her experience, there weren't many men who had that gift. It was fun to chat about her favourite patient. 'We have our good days and our bad days,' she explained. 'When she first came to us, all she wanted was to go back home. Didn't you Lorna?' She patted her charge on the shoulder. 'But the memory lapses put her at risk. Then they started to happen more and more. With your grandfather getting on and Jack studying, it was the only safe solution.'
'So you've looked after her all along?' The man swung the Volvo away from the shoreline for a block and then into Seward Park.
'For two years now. I should head back towards the Lake if I were you,' she added. 'This isn't a great place to drive.'
But the man behind the wheel knew exactly where he was going. He made two quick turns to the right and pulled into a small parking lot. It was deserted. He stopped the engine.
Lorna spoke for the first time since they had left Magnolia. 'He's not my grandson. I've never seen him before.'
Caroline released her seat-belt buckle, the knot of unease tightening in her stomach. Something wasn't right. Before she could speak, the man reached into his coat pocket. Caroline stared at the Police Captain's badge he offered her. 'At least she's still got some of her marbles,' he said cheerfully. 'She's right, I'm not her grandson.'
'Who are you? And what do you want?' The badge trembled in Caroline's fingers.
'I just need to know about that envelope she gave Jack yesterday.' The man rested his arm across the back of the passenger seat, almost touching Lorna's shoulders. His orders had been explicit. Find out who it was addressed to and exactly what it contained.
'Then why all this stuff about being her grandson?'
Lorna picked at the sleeve of her coat, oblivious to the rising tension.
'Listen lady. Jack's in trouble. Big trouble. I'm just trying to help sort it out.' That, at least, was true.
'I'm not telling you anything while we're sitting here,' Caroline retorted. 'Let's get out of here and go to South Precinct. Or back to the nursing home. Then you can tell me what this is all about.'
'You don't get it do you.' The man realised he would most probably have to call upon on his technical skills to complete this assignment, but he gave it one last shot. 'We can do this the easy way or the hard way. Your call.'
Caroline's hand reached for the car door catch. But the man was ahead of her. The thud of the central locking as it clicked into place was like a gunshot.
'Go to hell!' Almost before the words were out of Caroline's mouth, the man slapped Lorna across the side of her face. Hard. It was time these two learned who was running the show.
'You bastard.' Caroline lunged towards him, pushing him back into his seat. He pivoted easily from the hips, shrugged her hands off his shoulders and reached across the divide, clasping her in a bear hug. 'You're going to tell me. Believe me.' He stared deep into her eyes. There was a moment's impasse, punctuated by Lorna's quiet sobbing.
Caroline tried to remember the self-defence class she had taken. Her brain didn't seem to want to work. She took a deep breath, sat straighter in her seat, lifted her head until she could feel her throat muscles straining and then sank her teeth as hard as she could into the bridge of the man's nose. With a snap of the chin, she squeezed the bone between her teeth. She jerked back in surprise as she felt it snap.
The man was unaccustomed to being on the receiving end of pain.
'Bitch!' he gasped, as the first flecks of blood dribbled onto his teeth.
Shocked by her own success, Caroline failed to press home her advantage. Her self-defence coach, an excitable Chinese exile, would have yelled, 'Good girl! Get your nails into his face!' But she sat dumbly, staring at the blood.
The man turned back towards the windshield, felt under the dashboard to open the vanity compartment, and fetched out the tools of his trade. An instant later, Lorna's fragile right wrist was handcuffed to the driving wheel. She stared beseechingly at her captor like a bewildered puppy eager to please but not quite sure how she had screwed up this time. 'OK bitch. Out of the car.' He slid back the locks.
Caroline saw the gun and decided not to argue. She walked in step with the man towards a dense covering of rhododendrons and douglas fir at the edge of the parking lot, trying to concentrate on the fact that he was clutching his broken nose in one hand, and attempting, unsuccessfully, to ignore the Walther .380 that he held with apparent familiarity in the other. But it was no use. Her feistiness had crumbled. 'Don't hurt me. Please. Whatever you want to know, I'll tell you.'
'Not so fast. We don't need to hurry. You wanted to play rough, and that's fine by me.' The man ran his tongue along his top row of teeth, tasting the blood as he manoeuvred Caroline up against the largest tree. 'Let's see what you've got in here first.' He reached inside her pink cotton jacket and closed his fingers around her right breast. Then he squeezed and kept on squeezing. Caroline's scream was so loud that Lorna turned her head and looked out through the car window, a silent witness as her nurse was thrown to the ground.
The man was feeling better. It was a matter of personal pride. The silly bitch had hurt him, and he wasn't going to let it pass. Wouldn't do her any harm to think she was about to be raped, either.
He sat astride Caroline, forcing her hands and her buttocks deep into the rough ground. 'OK, so tell me what was in the envelope,' he ordered. By way of encouragement, he snuggled the pistol against her ear. It freed her tongue, just as he intended.
'Lorna just gave Jack some money for his studies. That was all, I swear.'
The man pistol-whipped Caroline across the head. 'You silly girl.' He waited patiently until she stopped trying to free herself and then shook his head with mock regret. 'We know Jack mailed the envelope. Now I'm going to have to punish you for lying. Don't go away.' He left his prisoner clutching her skull, still sprawled against the tree, and sauntered back to the sedan.
Lorna put up no more resistance than Caroline when he took a heavy-duty plastic bag from the vanity compartment, placed it over the old woman's head and secured it at the neck with an elastic band. Just to be on the safe side, he handcuffed her other wrist to the seat belt and locked the car again. 'Over here,' he shouted.
Caroline rose unsteadily to her feet and obeyed. The man helped her take the final paces to the car, and draped his arm around her waist as she took in the scene.
'Not Lorna, please,' she pleaded. 'You can do what you want with me. But in the name of God, don't hurt her any more. I'm begging.'
'She's got eight minutes before she suffocates. Give or take.'
Caroline felt the full force of her captor's smile. It scared her more than anything else she had experienced.
'Do we stand and watch her choke to death, or do you want to tell me about the envelope?'
The nurse watched helplessly as Lorna struggled slightly in her seat. 'I'll tell. Just take that thing off her. Please. I remember now. First day she arrived at the home she wrote two long letters. She gave them both to Jack yesterday. That's all I know, I swear.'
So there were two envelopes. The nurse's belated honesty was a bonus. They'd be pleased with him. 'And you know what was in them both?'
Before Caroline could answer, a blue Nissan with a scrape along the fender pulled into the parking lot. The man didn't hesitate. 'Don't move,' he ordered as he strode towards the vehicle.
The high school sweethearts who had been making out at this secluded spot for the past three Saturdays were briefly aware of a man with a big smile on his face. Before they had time even to take a last look at one another, two bullets flashed through the windshield and into their heads.
'That was unfortunate,' the man told Caroline. By the time he returned, she was leaning on the car for support. She had seen plenty of people die, but until now they had all been elderly and in bed.
'You're going to have to give me your word you won't tell anyone about that.' The man's implicit promise gave Caroline a burst of fresh hope.
'Don't kill me, Christ Jesus, please. First she wrote this letter to Jack, like it was all normal, I mean it had all the right punctuation, it didn't look crazy or anything. But she told Jack his father was Prince Charles. I swear I'm telling you the truth. I swear on Lorna's life.' She was sobbing now. 'The big envelope was addressed to some lawyers. In London, England. As well as some papers or other, there was this little envelope inside it. I saw it just like I can see you. It just said "Not to be opened except in the event of the death of Jack Hollander". Something like that. Please don't...'
'Who were these lawyers?'
Caroline's sobs grew louder. 'I can't remember,' she mumbled. 'I'm so sorry. I'd tell you if I knew...'
The man sensed it was true. He tried another tack. 'So how come you know so much?'
Given the circumstances, it was silly. But Caroline couldn't help herself. She blushed. 'I had to, please, it wasn't my fault. We have to. We read all their letters, you know. Sometimes, well sometimes they make up a whole load of complaints and lies to get away. They don't want to be there, and it's best if their folks don't know. But I'd heard it before from Lorna. She'd told me stories about the Prince Charles business when I became her personal nurse. She seemed sane, but she couldn't have been, could she? I mean it was unbelievable, I knew that. And when I checked it out with Mr Masters, before he died, I mean, he just said it was all very sad that she should say such a thing. But she still used to say it to me, and even though I knew it was all nonsense, I played along. It wasn't for real, you understand.' She watched in horror as Lorna began to thrash wildly inside the car.
'What about the papers that went to the lawyers?'
Caroline didn't hesitate. 'Oh that was mostly something to do with a legacy to some dogs' home. She had a bit of her own money, you know.'
Given the other stuff he'd just heard, the man thought it might well be true. 'Is that everything.'
Caroline thought quickly. 'No - yes - I don't know. If I tell, will you take it off her head first. Please.'
'You've got a deal. But move right away from the car. No tricks now.'
Caroline watched as he removed the bag from Lorna's head. She wasn't close enough to see the grey pallor of the old woman's skin. The man thought she might have croaked already. Who cared. 'She's fine. Now what was it you wanted to tell me?' There was nothing else he needed to know, and he was eager to proceed.
'Lorna made me promise, you know, if she got too sick to know what she was doing, or if she died, then I'd give both the envelopes to Jack when I thought the time was right. He's a smart kid, so I knew he wouldn't be phased by it. And because he was going to London, I thought...' Caroline had finished the story. Her voice trailed off in anticipation of what might happen next.
'That's good Caroline. Very good. Now let's take a little walk. You first. Back towards the bushes' He produced the gun again, quelling her hesitation. 'You've already saved Lorna's life. It would be a shame if I had to kill her now, don't you think?' The man gave Caroline his very best smile, and climbed back inside the Volvo.
Caroline had a surge of sudden hope. Perhaps, he'd gotten what he wanted and was about to make his getaway. But what about Lorna? And those poor people in the other car? Maybe if he drove off she would, at least, be able to help them. But the man wasn't leaving. He drove the car towards her and inched it forward until the hood nosed into the shrubbery. They'd told him what he was to do if there was any mention of the British Royal Family and he had no problems with that, even though it seemed bizarre. First, though, there was a little score to settle.
Caroline struggled as fiercely as she could, but it was no contest. With her hands tied behind her back, she had no chance of removing the thick blindfold the man had produced on his return.
He sat her on the car hood and jammed the barrel of his pistol firmly against her nose. He waited patiently until she figured out what it was.
'Please. No. I won't tell. I swear. Leave us here. Just leave us and go. Or shoot her, not me. It's her fault...'
The man heard her out.
Then he straightened his arm, stepped back as far as he could and pulled the trigger.
He pushed her body into the bushes, cursing softly as the splashes of blood, and clumps of tissue and membrane dripped onto his loafers. The moaning told him Caroline was still alive.
It was time to finish the job. He strode the short distance to the Nissan, shoved the boy's body aside, got into the driver's seat and backed up the car as close as he could to the Volvo. He took the sweats and running shoes from the trunk of his own vehicle, quickly changed into them and threw his jacket, pants and shoes back into the compartment before removing a can of gasoline. Quickly and methodically, he splashed a ring of gas around both cars. He dampened down the Nissan's upholstery. Then he opened the door of the Volvo.
'You're a wicked man.' Lorna's voice was soft but clear. The man leapt out as if he'd been scalded.
'Maybe you're right, but I'm just doing my job.' He made sure her coat was saturated with the gasoline. Then he tipped the dregs from the can over the engine compartment and tossed a match inside each vehicle in turn.
The man jogged away towards downtown in the gathering darkness, rubbing occasionally at his nose. The pain didn't seem so bad now. He was almost to the bridge where it crossed over the Lake when the explosion hit with full force. 'Fireworks!' he called out to a lone walker, who returned his brilliant smile.
The pertinent information from America had been obtained with relative ease.