No word from Andeanna by the time I fall asleep. I spend all of the next day waiting. After an early dinner, I clutch my cell phone and sit by the window watching the twilight. As the sky darkens, I don't move. I could see my ghosts in the glass if I looked up, but I keep my sights trained on the street below.
I'm so sure Andeanna isn't going to ring that when the cell finally goes off in my hand, I drop it with shock. Cursing, I dive after it and answer curtly, 'Yes?'
I move to the bed, relaxing. 'Hi.'
'Are you back in London?' Andeanna asks.
'How did things go?' Trying to sound blase.
'All sorted. What have I missed?'
'Mikis is up in arms. He thinks Axel has betrayed him, that he fled ahead of a planned hit on the house. His people are scouring London. He even took my guards away to concentrate on the search.'
'He doesn't suspect you?'
'No. He bought my lie, hook, line and sinker.'
Her choice of phrase puts me in mind of Axel Nelke. I try not to linger on the image of him floating at the bottom of the sea, fish stripping his bones bare.
'We have to meet,' Andeanna says.
'Not at your place,' I reply promptly.
A sick laugh. 'No. Somewhere neutral, where we can talk freely.'
She thinks about it. 'Yes. St James's. Outside Inn the Park - it's a restaurant.'
'I know it. Tomorrow?'
'Tonight?' I glance out of the window at the darkness and rain.
'Tonight or never,' she says, then hangs up.
This smells of a trap, meeting in the open on a dark, wet night. Few people will be out at this hour, in this weather. Easy for the Turk and his men to ambush me. But I have to trust her. I've nothing to cling to if I don't.
The streets are mostly deserted and the cab makes swift progress. When I get out, I pass no more than four people in the park. Andeanna is alone when I spot her, seated close to the pond, sheltered by a petite umbrella. No sign of lurking conspirators. But there wouldn't be, not if they know who I am and what I used to do. If she's told the Turk about me, he'll have had time to research my past. He'll know better than to underestimate me.
As my stomach tightens, I stride to where Andeanna is seated. She looks up, meets my gaze briefly, then looks away. Her face has healed, though there are still bruises around her left cheek. I wipe the bench clear and sit a foot away from her, holding my umbrella high above my head. There's a long, uncomfortable silence. Finally, without looking at me, she asks what I did with Axel. I give her a condensed version of the story, leaving out names and places.
'Very clever,' she notes numbly when I finish.
I shrug. 'Getting rid of a body isn't so difficult. If you don't panic, the chances of someone catching you are slim. Dump it at sea, drop it down a well, bury it in a forest. It's the people who start trying to chop it up or dissolve it in acid who come unstuck.'
'I've been thinking about what you said. About being an assassin.' At last her head turns and she stares at me. 'Was it true?'
She flinches. 'You killed people for money?'
I shake my head a fraction and glance at the ghosts which have followed me everywhere all these years, Nelke now nestled comfortably among them. 'You don't want to know.'
'How many?' she presses.
'Half a dozen,' I reply stiffly. (I actually only killed five of them for money. One was for revenge. But this isn't the time to slip that in.)
'Did you just kill bad people?'
I don't answer.
'Tell me you didn't kill women and children, Ed.'
My gaze snakes to the slim young girl. She was an accident. I didn't mean to hurt her. But that's no excuse. 'I killed who I was paid to,' I mutter.
'How could you murder for money?' she gasps.
'It was business. If I hadn't taken the contracts, someone else would have. I was only a tool in the hands of the real assassins.'
'Bullshit,' she hisses. 'You killed. Blaming others is - '
'The truth,' I cut in. 'My victims were marked for death. I couldn't have saved them. The world is full of greedy, vicious scum prepared to slit a few throats if the price is right.'
Her face crinkles. 'But why were you one of them? Why involve yourself in such distasteful affairs? You're intelligent, gifted, wealthy.'
'Where do you think the money came from?' I counter.
'You mentioned an inheritance . . . '
'I lied. I made a fortune killing people and I've been living off the profits. My books could never have been written otherwise. I'd have been tied to some lousy job, struggling to keep afloat.'
She opens her mouth to object. Closes it and shakes her head. 'I thought I knew you, Ed.'
'No. The man I fell for was kind, gentle, loving.'
'That's who I am, who I've become.'
'But you're a killer!' she shouts, then immediately glances around to make sure nobody has heard.
'I was,' I correct her. 'That's in the past. Six years dead and buried.'
'Until Axel,' she sniffs.
'Which was for you,' I remind her.
'I don't know what to make of you,' she sighs. 'The way you talk about what you've done . . . You show no remorse.'
I hold in a bitter laugh. 'You don't know shit,' I grunt. 'There were nights when I sat alone in the dark, a gun pressed to my head, hating myself, trying to work up the courage to end it all. But there's only so much self-hatred you can take. If you don't pull that trigger - and in the end I couldn't - you have to accept what you've done and find a way to live with it.'
The rain starts coming down heavily. Andeanna draws her legs in under her small umbrella. Reaching across, I take hers and force mine into her hands. She doesn't shy away when our fingers meet. 'Tell me how it started,' she whispers.
'It's a long story,' I warn her.
'We have plenty of time.'
'OK. Remember that night on the boat, when I told you I was married once?'
She has to think back. Then she recalls our first meeting and nods.
'Well, it started for real when I met Belinda Darnier - my wife - but I have to go back further than that, to when I was in the army . . . '
I enlisted about a year after my father died, eager to put the difficulties of my teens behind me and see more of the world. I'd have made a good soldier. I enjoyed being part of a finely tuned system of command, where everyone knew his place and all worked for the good of the whole.
I wasn't a withdrawn, softly spoken figure in those days. I was a good-natured young man, mixed freely, got on well with others. Awkward around women - I was never a natural charmer - but fine with the guys.
My closest friends were Bill Phelps, at twenty-three the oldest of the recruits. Abe Lambourne, quiet and studious, but a wild man when he'd had too much to drink. And Lars Liljegren, Lily Lars, a born joker. We were no Musketeers, but we were tight.
Bill's twenty-fourth birthday fell on a weekend when we all had passes out of the compound. We drank until we fell into a stupor on Friday, spent Saturday recovering, launched back into action that night.
There were two cadets we despised, Simon Dale and Parson McNally. They were widely loathed, more loyal to our commanding officers than to the rest of us. That pair would rat you out without a second thought, just to get a salute from a sergeant.
Lily Lars was itching with devilment. Dale and McNally were sitting at a table near ours, drinking light beers, acting like a pair of generals. He wanted to shake them up. He started plotting ways to get under their skin, and cooked up a plan with Abe. Bill and I were in on it. If any of us had been sober, we'd have stopped him, but we were all drunk.
Lars had brought a handgun to impress the ladies. It was loaded with blanks. Lars and Abe faked an argument. They yelled at one another, then exchanged blows. Lurching to their feet, they thrashed around the bar. Bill and I followed, pretending to be concerned, pushing customers out of their way.
As they stumbled towards Dale and McNally's table, Lars drew his gun. People screamed and ducked. Not the arrogant cadets. They glared at the grappling pair, waiting coolly for the fuss to die down. Abe darted away from Lars, towards Dale and McNally. He deliberately slipped as Lars took aim, exposing Dale. As Dale's face registered the first flickers of fear, Lars fired twice. Dale shrieked and threw his hands over his face. McNally also yelled and rolled away, terrified. Lars's scheme had worked to perfection.
Lars and Abe collapsed laughing. Bill and I laughed too. When Dale realized he'd been made a fool of, his face darkened. Getting to his feet, he ran a hand through his cropped hair, furiously studied the howling pair in front of him, then took a knife from a strap on his left thigh, stepped forward, took hold of Abe's nose, jerked upwards to expose his throat and lashed the blade across the soft flesh.
As a surprised-looking Abe fell, spraying blood, Dale went after Lars. Bill hauled him to the ground. I got hold of Dale's arm and bit into it. Lars was too shocked to join in. He was staring at Abe, who was jerking feebly in his death throes.
As we grappled with Dale, McNally jumped us. He may have been coming to the aid of his partner, or he might have been trying to assist us. Nobody would ever know, because as he rushed in, he ran on to the knife, which drove into his chest an inch or so below his heart.
The sight of his dying friend brought Dale to a halt. The fight drained from him and he slumped to the floor, covering his eyes with an arm. Lars, Bill and I didn't look away. We watched the two men die, stunned by how our world had turned so fatal so swiftly.
Parson McNally's death was declared an accident. Simon Dale was charged with the murder of Abe, but the judge took Lars's provocation into account and handed down a soft sentence. He was free within two years. That disgusted me then and it still does. Dale deserved to suffer a lot more than he did.
The rest of us had disgraced the army and we knew what we had to do. Our resignations were accepted without question and we were released within days of each other. Ashamed of the part we'd played in Abe's death, we went our separate ways and I haven't seen Bill or Lars since.
I stop and study the violent splashes of rain on the pond. Andeanna stares at me silently. Her hand rests on my knee. It must have crept there while I was speaking. 'It wasn't your fault,' she says. 'You didn't mean for anyone to get hurt.'
'I know,' I sigh. 'But I let it happen, so I have to share the blame. There's no getting away from that.'
Andeanna's fingers squeeze my knee sympathetically, then slide away as she asks what happened next. Glad to be moving on, I tell her of the next couple of years, my withdrawal into myself, the drinking binges, the fits of rage, the short spells in prison, usually for creating a nuisance and destruction of public property. I wandered aimlessly, trying to lose myself in foreign lands where my guilt couldn't haunt me.
I ran into one of my old instructors, Carter Phell, in a bar in Mexico. I thought it was coincidence, but I soon learnt that he'd tracked me down. He got me to take a long, hard look at myself and helped me realize how pathetic and self-pitying I'd become. He weaned me off the booze and steered me straight. Once I'd sobered up, Carter revealed his motive for rescuing me. He'd moved into the business of recruiting assassins, and thought I'd be a perfect addition to the team.
'A growing market, is it?' Andeanna asks sarcastically.
'Yes, actually,' I murmur. 'Professional killers are always in demand, but hiring one is a complicated procedure. A well-connected, trustworthy middleman can charge what he likes. Carter died last year and left an estate in excess of eight million dollars.'
'How much of that did he make from you?' Andeanna enquires.
'Not as much as he'd planned,' I mutter, and return to Mexico.
I turned Carter down. He accepted my rejection and we parted on good terms. He gave me a contact number and said the offer stood indefinitely. I threw away the piece of paper, but not before glancing at the number. Not before my brain had a chance to store it away with all the other phone numbers in my memory bank.
Over the coming years, I saw more of the world than I'd ever dreamt of. Africa, Asia, South America, Europe. I wandered at whim, staying in hostels or sleeping rough, hitching rides, dodging fares on public transport. It was during those years that I first began to write. I kept a diary, in which I jotted down my experiences and thoughts. That developed into longer descriptions of the places I visited and the people I met. It never struck me that I might make a living as a wordsmith. It was just a way to pass the time.
In Seattle, everything changed when I ran into Belinda Darnier.
Belinda should have been out of my league. She was beautiful and exotic, and moved in the sorts of circles I normally would have had no access to. But I'd recently struck lucky at the racetrack and was living the temporary high life.
'I used to like the occasional flutter,' I tell Andeanna. 'In Seattle I won on an accumulator, almost fifty thousand dollars. That brought me into Belinda's world - we met at an art launch. She liked the fact that I was awkward. I'd never had much experience of women or money, and while most of her acquaintances viewed me with disdain, Belinda was amused. She let me wine and dine her for a couple of weeks. I was an entertaining aside - a bit of rough, as you say over here.'
'Sounds like I have a lot in common with her,' Andeanna sniffs, and I detect a hint of jealousy in the way her eyes narrow.
'Belinda was beautiful, but not as beautiful as you,' I whisper.
'Forget the compliments and get on with the story,' Andeanna huffs, but she can't hide a quick, pleased smile.
It was an incredible fortnight. Top hotels, fine restaurants and champagne every night, amazing sex, not a dull moment between rising and falling asleep. I was sure it wouldn't last - once the money ran out, I couldn't hold her interest - but that was fine. I was determined to enjoy the ride and let her go without a whimper when it ended. I figured even a small slice of a woman like Belinda Darnier was more than I had any right to hope for. I was looking forward to savouring the memories.
Belinda loved casinos. She was a born gambler, though she only bet with other people's money. My luck from the track followed me when she took me along. I won a further twenty thousand on roulette and blackjack, which kept Belinda sweet for an extra week. I spent money wildly, tossing fifty-dollar tips to cab drivers, splashing out on clothes, watches, wine, blowing my stash as lavishly as I could. I even went on a short cocaine binge, which wasn't my style, but Belinda had told me not to be a prude.
One night, high on coke, I told Belinda about my past, how I got kicked out of the army, my hatred for Simon Dale, Carter Phell's obscene offer. Her interest in me skyrocketed. She wanted to know the going rate for an assassination, how Phell trained his men, the sort of people a killer would have to deal with. She regarded me with renewed respect, as if I was a celebrity. In the face of such a response, my ego soared. I couldn't answer her questions fast enough.
In three weeks the money was gone. I expected Belinda to go too, but to my shock, she hung on. She kept threatening to leave, but didn't. I was stunned but ecstatic. I'd been planning a trip to Australia, but cancelled it, got a job, rented an apartment and kept my fingers crossed.
A couple of weeks became a month, and Belinda suggested giving up her pad and moving in with me. 'While we're at it,' she added with a mischievous smile, 'we might as well get married too. If you'll have me.'
'How romantic,' Andeanna says, and her annoyed look tickles me. I have to hold back the laughter and remind myself that this isn't the time to be chuckling.
I could only nod numbly at Belinda's unexpected proposal and wonder if I was dreaming as she arranged the wedding. It was a quick registry service, just a few of her friends in attendance, but I felt like a man who'd won the lottery. That day was one of the happiest of my life. It still is, even given all that followed.
For a long time I was sure I'd wake up one morning and she'd be gone, but as the weeks ticked by, I came to believe that she was into me for the long haul. I couldn't imagine what I'd done to merit such good fortune, and I didn't care. She had made herself mine. That was all that mattered.
A short while later, Belinda began complaining of headaches. She was tired and irritable most days. I told her to see a doctor, but she wouldn't. Eventually, when her condition didn't improve, she agreed to seek medical advice.
I came home from work early that day, but she wasn't there. Night closed in - still no sign. I tried calling her doctor, but his phone was engaged. Finally, as I was growing frantic, the door opened and an ashen-faced Belinda walked in. She staggered past me as if I didn't exist, poured herself a huge vodka, downed it in one. Then she stared at me with wide, frightened eyes and said, 'Cancer.'
And she collapsed into tears.
'Oh, Ed,' Andeanna sighs. 'I'm sorry. You should have told me before. I never - '
'Save the tears until you've heard the rest,' I snort.
It was tragic and awful. It felt like the end of the world. I had a hard time getting specifics out of Belinda - she broke down every time she started to explain - and it wasn't until I discussed it with her doctor that I learnt how serious it was.
'It's a rare form of cancer,' he explained plainly. 'It's in her brain. By rights she should be dead already, but luck's on her side and it's spreading slowly. But it will kill her soon unless treated.'
'It can be treated?' I asked, sensing hope.
'Yes,' he said hesitantly. 'Surgery is out of the question, but there's a new procedure involving an advanced form of radio-surgery. There's no guarantee it would work - it's still at an experimental stage - but she'd stand a chance.'
'When do we start?' I asked.
'It isn't that simple. As I said, it's experimental. Her insurance won't cover it.'
'I'll make up the difference,' I promised.
He grimaced. 'I'm talking about a serious shortfall. Just to be accepted, you'd need three hundred thousand dollars.' I gawped at him, unable to even contemplate such an amount. 'I wouldn't mention this procedure to most clients,' he continued, 'but I know Belinda had some wealthy boyfriends over the years. I'm guessing she must have stored away jewellery and cash. If she can raise the money, and if we can enrol her on the programme within the next few weeks, she might pull through. Otherwise . . . '
Sitting down with Belinda later, I told her what the doctor had said, and she laughed sickly. 'I haven't been as frugal as he thinks. I don't have much set aside. We might as well start looking at coffins.'
Refusing to abandon hope, I made her list everything of value that she owned, added my meagre possessions to it and rounded it up to the nearest thousand. Belinda was worth more than she'd thought, but we still came in two hundred and forty thousand short of the sign-up fee.
I spent the next days desperately angling for money. Tapped old friends - no joy - then hit the loan sharks. I knew that no one would advance me such a huge lump sum, so I intended borrowing smaller amounts from several lenders. A cunning plan, but I wasn't the first to think of it, and the sharks weren't fooled. The first two deals went without a hitch, but when I hit the third, alarm bells rang and I wound up having to immediately pay back the money I'd borrowed. There should have been harsh reprimands, but when they found out why I'd been trying to play them for suckers, they took pity on me and let me off with a beating.
I was back where I'd been at the start of the week, facing the prospect of Belinda's slow, painful death. That's when the crazy schemes started. I could rob a bank. Run drugs. Kidnap a millionaire's child. Train a gun on the doctors with the miracle machine and force them to treat her.
Belinda listened to my wild plans with a sad smile. She'd shake her head every so often, tell me I was insane, then let me carry on plotting. It wasn't long before I hit on the idea of calling Carter Phell. Belinda didn't dismiss that one as she had the others. She didn't jump at it, but her lips pursed, her eyes went distant and she leant back thoughtfully. Seizing hope, I ran with the idea, barely aware of what I was saying.
'I could get him to advance us the money. Training shouldn't take more than a few months, maybe less. A couple of early hits will cover the next crop of invoices. After that, we can take it a treatment and a hit at a time.'
'You're not a killer,' she whispered.
'I could be. For you.'
'I couldn't ask it of you. There must be another way.'
But of course there wasn't, and over the next seventy-two hours I convinced her to let me give it a go.
I had reservations - I wouldn't have been human if I hadn't - but I called the number Carter had given me. He was surprised to hear from me, but agreed to fly in for a meeting. I didn't tell him about Belinda, just said I needed the money badly. He agreed to forward me an advance. I gave it to Belinda, then went into training.
'As simple as that?' Andeanna asks sceptically.
I nod. 'I didn't have time to waste and Carter wasn't a man to drag his feet. Neither of us knew if I'd be able to kill - that's something you only learn when you come to the crunch. Carter had trained men before who'd backed out when it came time to strike. He said he'd bear no grudges if I couldn't go through with it and would give me as long as I needed to pay back the advance.'
'Nice guy,' Andeanna grunts.
'Not nice,' I correct her. 'Professional.'
Training was laborious. Two months with virtually no rest, no chance to see Belinda. I kept in contact by phone. She'd been accepted on to the programme and treatment had commenced. Her doctors were pleased with how she was responding.
My apprenticeship was gruelling, physically and mentally exhausting. Endless drills, dismantling and putting together every known make of gun, learning how to turn ordinary objects into weapons, how to shadow people, how to plan a hit, how to arrange transport in and out of countries. But I took to it with the ease Carter had predicted. He had a keen eye for potential.
By the end of my training, I still didn't know if I could kill. Doubt had set in. I went to visit Belinda. She looked drained but healthy. Her doctors were hopeful, though it would be months before they'd know if the cancer had been whipped.
I told her of my fears. I didn't want to kill. Wasn't sure I could. She took me in her arms and said she expected nothing of me. She said it was a terrible thing to ask, so she wasn't going to. If I could find it within myself, she would be grateful to me for ever. If I couldn't, she wouldn't hold it against me. Either way, she'd go on loving me to the end, be it sooner or later.
Her calm resignation decided me. She was battling bravely and with dignity for her life. If I could swing the battle her way, I would, no matter what the cost to myself. I rang Carter that afternoon and told him I was in. A few days later, I was given my first assignment, a businessman in Germany. I flew in, shadowed him, slipped into the apartment he shared with a mistress one night when she wasn't there, drowned him in the bath, making it look like an accident. I was on a plane out in the morning, home with Belinda by nightfall.
'How did it feel?' Andeanna croaks.
I pause. 'Honestly? It was exciting. Terrible, but thrilling. I came away on a high. Later, I felt empty, wretched. I didn't cry, but for three weeks I lived in a nightmarish fugue, replaying the hit over and over, unable to put it behind me.'
Although I don't mention it to Andeanna, not wanting to reveal the complete picture of my fragile mental state, that was when the first of my ghosts appeared. He materialized as I was sitting in a bar, drowning my sorrows. Walked through a wall and hurled himself at me, cawing wordlessly. I fell from my stool and screamed with terror, shocking everyone else in the bar. Fled into the night, the ghost trailing behind, wrapping himself around me, seeking revenge. I finally curled up in a ball in an alley, shut my eyes and rocked myself to sleep. I told myself I was hallucinating, that the ghost was a by-product of the drink, but when I woke in the morning, he was still there.
I went crazy again. I lashed out at the spectre, trying to make it go away. I didn't think it was a real ghost. I was sure I was insane, that the phantom was my subconscious way of punishing myself. I made appointments with psychiatrists, then broke them. Telling someone about my ghost would necessitate unburdening myself fully, explaining about the hit. I wasn't able to do that, so I had to deal with my demons on my own.
I survived by putting Belinda's needs first. She had regressed. She told me the doctors wanted to move up a level, but that would require more money. I'd have to continue killing or Belinda would die.
I thought the first would be the worst, that I'd grow accustomed to murder and take the subsequent assignments in my stride.
I was wrong.
Second time, Carter sent me to kill a woman, a reporter who'd been waging war on major drug cartels. I begged him to give it to someone else, but he said hit men couldn't afford sensitivity. If I turned the hit down, he wouldn't offer me another.
I tracked her for a week. From a technical point of view, it was a fascinating exercise. The authorities knew she'd been targeted, and an armed guard travelled with her everywhere. I treated it like a game of chess. I was able to distance myself emotionally until the time of the actual execution. But when I outwitted her guards and the moment came to pull the trigger . . .
I shudder at the memory. Instead of taking my shot, I hesitated, which gave her time to beg for her life. If she'd stopped at that, I might have crumbled and let her go, but she made the mistake of breaking for freedom. Acting on instinct, I fired. Hit her low in the back. Brought her down but didn't kill her. As she lay there like a wounded crab, gasping, sobbing, begging for mercy, I had to walk across and fire directly into her face, finishing her off.
'Please,' Andeanna interrupts with a trembling wave of her hand. 'Spare me the details. You're a sick son of a bitch. I don't want to know how you killed them.'
She gets to her feet. I gently pull her down. 'I'm almost finished,' I promise. 'You have to hear me out.'
'I don't want to.'
'I know. But you must.'
She stares at me, then nods. I continue, quicker now, rushing to the finale.
I sank into depression after killing the journalist. I hated myself. I hated Carter Phell. I hated Belinda. I tried to leave her and drink myself to death. We'd both die young and horribly. It would be simpler than way. More humane.
I got as far as the airport. My feet wouldn't take me any further. Try as I might, the lure of Belinda was too strong. I slunk back to her, ashamed of myself for almost deserting her. I accepted another assignment and went about it mechanically, listlessly, professionally.
The third hit went without a hitch. A gangster, deserving of death. Not that it made much difference to me. Innocent or guilty, what did it matter? I'd abandoned morality and given myself over to the darkness. At least I thought I had.
The fourth hit broke me. A minor Russian politician who had made too many enemies. The locals didn't dare tackle him by themselves - he had powerful allies - so they hired me. As with my first hit, I had to make it look like an accident. But after ten days of trailing him, I realized he was too closely guarded at home and work. It took another week to figure it out. He owned a villa in the mountains and went there most weekends. The road climbed steeply. A sharp drop if you went over the side.
I didn't hit him on the way up. Instead I chose my spot and settled in, rifle trained on the road, until late Sunday evening, when he started back. He was alone in his BMW - or so I thought - sandwiched between two other cars. I sighted on a rear wheel, waited for the ideal moment, then fired. The tyre exploded, the car veered off the road, down the cliff. I returned to my hotel.
The next day, waiting for a taxi to take me to the airport, I saw his photo in one of the papers. There was a photo of a girl too. I asked the guy behind the counter to translate the headline - Family Horror! Two Die In Tragic Crash! - then paid him to read out some of the article for me. The mark hadn't been alone. His nine-year-old daughter was asleep on the rear seat. Killed along with her father.
That was the end. It didn't matter what happened with Belinda. I couldn't go through something like that again. I was out of the game. I told Carter and he accepted my decision. Paid me the money I had coming. No hard feelings.
Belinda didn't argue with me. She was a tower of strength. Told me I could cry on her shoulder if I wanted, but I still couldn't find tears within myself. I felt nothing but self-loathing. I spent the days numbly studying the faces of my five ghosts, especially the young girl I'd inadvertently killed, as they swept around me in a hateful whirlwind, silently trying to break my mind, drive me to suicide or nudge me towards having a fatal accident.
I was in the process of withdrawing completely from the world, waiting for the visions to break me, at my lowest ebb, when I had an unexpected visitor. A face from the past. And that was how I learnt the brutal, crushing truth about how low I had actually fallen.
Belinda had gone away for another treatment. I was asleep, dreaming of the people I'd killed, unable to escape them even when I retired at the end of the day. An alien click brought me snapping back to my senses. I awoke facing up into the barrel of a revolver. A man said, 'It won't trouble me in the slightest if I have to use this, so I'd keep still as a corpse if I was you.'
I didn't recognize the voice. It was only when he stepped back and switched on the lamp that I realized who it was.
'Simon Dale?' I gasped.
'Wait,' Andeanna interrupts. 'The guy who killed your friend in the army?'
'What the hell was he doing there?'
'I'm coming to that.'
I thought I was still dreaming. Then Dale fired and the pillow where my head had been resting exploded in a shower of feathers. I knew then that this was real.
'That bullet was meant for you,' Dale said, grinning viciously. To my surprise, I wasn't afraid. Dying didn't bother me. In many ways it would have been a relief. The ghosts pressed in eagerly, faces alight at the prospect of my execution. 'Is this personal or business?' I asked.
'A little of both,' Dale replied.
'Did Carter set you after me?'
Dale shook his head. 'He doesn't know about this.' Pulling out a chair, he sat and made himself comfortable. 'Did you ever try to find out what happened to me after I got out of prison?'
'No. I didn't give a fuck. You don't matter to me.'
'I do now,' he chuckled. 'Carter recruited me.'
'So you're still in the assassination business,' I noted bitterly.
Dale's smile dropped. His gun didn't. 'Wise guy,' he snarled.
'Bored guy,' I said. 'If you're going to kill me, get it over with.'
'But I'm not going to kill you,' Dale said softly. 'I've been paid to, but for once I'm going to renege on a deal. It'll be more fun this way.'
My eyes narrowed. 'What the hell are you talking about?'
'A woman came to see me.' He lowered his gun, but I made no move to attack him. 'She knew about the bad blood between us. Asked if I'd accept a lower rate than usual for the privilege of bumping you off. I'm not sure how she found out about me. I guess through Carter. I have a feeling she tracked him down, seduced him, humped him senseless and got him to talk when he'd spent his load and was feeling groovy. You know what guys are like - please us in bed and we'll tell you how many times we wipe our ass after we shit.'
'Who was she?' I asked hoarsely, knowing already but hoping - praying - he'd prove me wrong.
'I thought it was a trap,' he smirked. 'I checked up on her. Found out she was a scam artist with a taste for exotic risks. Her latest scheme was a doozy. She'd convinced some sap that she was dying of cancer. Hired a fake doctor to fool him. Persuaded her distraught husband - yes, the dumb bastard only went and married her - to become an assassin. Took the money he earned, said it was for treatment, then squirrelled it away. When he lost his nerve and retired, she came to me.'
'No,' I moaned softly, pointlessly.
'I wasn't going to accept the hit,' Dale went on. 'I try not to mix business with pleasure. But then I had an idea.' He got up and crossed to the door. Paused and looked back. 'What if I accepted, but instead of killing you, I told you the truth? You and your asshole friends fucked up my life, Severs - '
'That's my real name,' I interject. 'Brad Severs.'
'Very American,' Andeanna says drolly.
' - and now it's time to return the favour,' I continue in Dale's voice. 'Killing you is too easy. This is far sweeter. Say hi to the missus from me.' He winked and slipped away, leaving me to suffocate in the coils of the vile, inhuman truth.
There's a long silence. I'm thinking about that night. Andeanna is putting all the pieces of my story together. 'It was a set-up?' she finally asks.
'A beauty,' I whisper, staring dead ahead at the pond, through the misty shapes of my ever-vigilant ghosts. 'She planned it all in advance, once she found out about my secret past. Fake cancer, make a fortune by tricking me into becoming an assassin, use Dale to get rid of me when I was of no more interest to her.'
'There must have been easier ways for her to make money,' Andeanna objects.
'Sure. But the cash was secondary. She got off on the danger. The game. The thrill. That's what she lived for.'
Andeanna gulps. 'Did you kill her?'
I close my eyes. My head aches. I wish I had something to drink.
'I tracked her down the next day. Found her sharing her doctor's apartment. They were fucking in the living room when I arrived. I kicked in the door, put a bullet through her boyfriend's forehead - ' my eyes open and I gaze at the angry-looking shade to the far right of the six ghosts - 'then took aim at Belinda.'
She didn't plead for mercy. Just sat on the couch, naked, covered in her dead lover's blood, staring at me with eyes as cold as diamonds. There were so many things I wanted to say, but nothing would come out. Eventually I told her to wash, get dressed and take me to the money. 'No need,' she replied without missing a beat. 'It's here.'
It was in a safe, ready cash, eight hundred and twenty thousand dollars, not just the fees I'd been paid, but funds she'd squeezed from other suckers too. The price of my soul, plus a bonus. I emptied it all into a large plastic bag, then tried to kill her.
I couldn't. For all that she'd done, part of me still loved her and I wasn't able to finish her off. At the same time I couldn't just walk away and leave her. She had to be punished. Binding her tight, I fetched a knife from the kitchen and went to work on her face.
'Ed!' Andeanna gasps, hands flying to her mouth.
'She had to pay,' I croak. 'I carved her up until I was sure she couldn't be stitched back together again. I had to neutralize her, so she'd never be able to play another guy like she'd played me.'
Andeanna stares at me. To fill the silence, I complete my tale.
Leaving a wailing, ruined Belinda behind, I walked away with the money. For more than a year I lived in a daze, contemplating suicide, tormented by ghosts and memories of the past. (I still don't mention the ghosts to Andeanna. We don't need to go there.) But I didn't have the strength to kill myself, and gradually my will to live returned. Fear of what I'd assumed to be my inner ghosts turned to interest when I considered the possibility that they might be external, supernatural phantoms. I embarked on a quest to prove that ghosts were real, hoping that if I could do that, I could find a way to deal with my own half-dozen. As I played around with all sorts of crazy ideas, I began to write short stories, thinking I might find the truth through fiction. In time I moved on to write Nights of Fear.
'And the rest is history,' I conclude blithely.
'And Belinda?' Andeanna asks.
I smile bleakly. 'She changed her name and went to work for Simon Dale.'
Andeanna's jaw drops. 'What?'
I shrug. 'Intrigue and killing are what she excelled at. Once she recovered, she approached Dale and offered her services. Told him how much more he could be making if he ditched Carter and set up on his own, with her running things behind the scenes. I'm sure he was wary of her, but he gave her a chance, she made the most of it and they're still together. Doing very nicely from what I hear.'
'You're something else,' Andeanna laughs. 'Christ!'
The rain has eased, but Andeanna hasn't lowered her umbrella. She holds it at an angle, shielding her face from me, thinking. I want to know what's going through her mind and whether we have a future together now that she knows the truth about me, but I hold my tongue and wait.
'Would you have told me?' she asks in the end. 'If Axel hadn't stumbled in on us, and we'd run away together, would you have come clean?'
'I don't know.'
'That's not good enough,' she growls.
'It's the truth. My past was a closed book. I never intended reopening it. Then again, I never thought I'd fall in love again. I'd have carried on lying to begin with, but whether I would have continued . . . I honestly don't know.'
Another long silence. Then she says, 'I don't think I can love you. You killed people. I understand that it's not black and white, and I want to accept you, but you murdered for money. I could never forget that.'
'Then go back to your husband,' I respond harshly.
Her gaze drops. 'I don't know if I can do that either. You're part of my life. You killed for me. I can't cut you out and pretend you never happened.'
'What do you want?' I snarl, growing exasperated. 'Just tell me. If you want me to stay, I'll stay. If you want me to go, I'll go. It's your call.'
'Ed,' she says, shaking her head, tears falling. I wait for her to continue, but she doesn't.
'Is that it? Ed?'
'Yes,' she sobs, rising. 'I have to think about this. I need time alone, to work out where I stand.'
'What if I'm gone by then? I'm not going to stick around for ever, waiting for you to make up your mind. You want me or you don't, it's as simple as that.'
'No,' she disagrees. 'I want you but I might not be able to have you.' She turns to leave.
'Andeanna,' I call. She stops and waits but doesn't look back. 'Now that you know about me, you know what I'm capable of. I can eliminate the Turk. If he's the only obstacle between us, he can be removed.'
She starts to turn towards me, then shakes her head and scurries away, leaving me alone on the bench in the dark.
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