Jose Nilson dos Linos was brushing dandruff from his hair when he was executed. A committed civil rights campaigner, he had spent the day scouring the records of a local orphanage, seeking proof that it was a front for one of Santiago's largest criminal organizations. He had been dogging the orphanage directors for several months, but had only recently made headway when a repentant doctor sought redemption by turning informer.
Jose had not yet been able to rack up significant evidence against the Chilean crime lords, but he was closing in on them. He was convinced that the truth would soon surface, affording him his triumph in court.
He was thinking of dramatic closing speeches as he climbed the stairs to his humble apartment on the third floor of a crumbling mansion. Letting himself in, he made for a circular window which faced on to the streets of Santiago, and stood there, gaze trained on the people below, idly observing. Then, smiling at the thought of sleep, he turned to his writing bureau to record the day's events in his diary.
The diary was a thick, leather-encased ledger. He laid it on the desk, found where he had left off the evening before and started to write. He got through three lengthy, meticulously detailed paragraphs before pausing. Laying his pen aside, he closed his eyes and stroked the bridge of his nose with the thumb and middle finger of his left hand. Opening his eyes, he pushed the diary away, leant over the bare desk and gently ran his fingers through his hair. Flakes of dandruff fell in front of him like snow. Jose watched, amused, imagining himself somewhere cold and relaxing.
While dandruff drifted through the air, Jose's assassin moved in for the kill, unseen and unheard. His chosen name was Sebastian Dash, and there was nothing personal in what he did. He did not know why he had been hired to eliminate Jose Nilson dos Linos and would not have cared if he had. Sebastian Dash was paid to kill, not to question.
Dash placed the muzzle of his pistol to the back of Jose's skull. It touched so lightly that Jose thought it was a moth settling and carried on stroking his hair. Dash hesitated, surprised by his victim's non-reaction, then squeezed the trigger gently.
Jose Nilson dos Linos's head exploded in a cone of bone, brain and blood. The bullet made a tiny hole upon entry, but emerged in a furious crimson torrent, eradicating Jose's face above his upper lip. The bullet embedded itself in the wall ahead of the men, the cranial matter forming a pearly corona around it.
Dash carefully adjusted Jose's head and laid it to rest on its side, so that it was facing the door through which Jose's wife of eleven years would enter when she returned. The grisly touch had been requested by Dash's employer. Across Santiago, an overly talkative doctor had already been found in a similar state by his beloved. It had been a profitable night for Sebastian Dash.
The assassin strode to the door, made sure the angle was correct, then retraced his steps. He did not bother to remove the bullet from the wall - the gun was untraceable. Instead he bent to adjust Jose's shoes. With a frown, he discovered that the dead man was wearing slip-ons. He quickly examined the apartment and found a pair of laced black shoes in a closet. Jose always wore these shoes to court and would have been wearing them when he prosecuted the directors of the orphanage. Dash was not aware of this. Any pair of shoes would have sufficed, as long as they had laces.
Dash slid off Jose's slip-ons and worked the corpse's feet into the shoes. Once they were on, he tied the lace of the right shoe but left the lace on the left undone. This was his trademark. It was not always possible - there were times when he had to hit and run - but he enjoyed signing his name to a killing whenever the occasion permitted. Even in Dash's sinister, secretive business, it paid to advertise.
When everything was to his satisfaction, Dash took the diary - his employer wanted it destroyed - and crept to the door. Opening it a crack, he swept the corridor with a cool, critical eye. Spying nobody, he stepped out, closed the door and took the stairs. Shoulders hunched, lower face concealed by the lapels of his jacket, eyes obscured by thick glasses - plain glass, as he had 20 - 20 vision - and hair swept to the left. Not an elaborate disguise, but Dash had found that the more mundane one appeared, the less notice people paid.
Sebastian Dash strolled through the streets of Santiago. He dropped the pistol down an open drain. It was not the best way to dispose of incriminating evidence, but he wasn't intimately familiar with Chile's capital and it was better to be swift than certain. Next he disposed of the diary and his gloves in an incinerator, then headed for home.
Back at his hotel, Dash ran a bath, undressed and immersed his clothes in the water. That was the trouble with blood - it got everywhere. In the morning, when the clothes were dry, he would stuff them in a bag and return to the incinerator.
Dash stood by the window, naked, observing the Chilean sky, comparing the moon's corona to the one he had created in dos Linos's apartment. He was interrupted by a knock on his door.
'Mr O'Hara?' a woman called. The manageress, Mrs Covarrubias. A local woman, but she'd spent time in the United States when she was younger and spoke fluent English. If Dash had known that before he checked into the small hotel, he would have looked elsewhere for lodgings.
Moving closer to the door, Dash cleared his throat and adopted the thick Irish accent that he'd adopted when registering as Donal O'Hara. 'Is it yourself, Mrs C?' he sang, maintaining the pretence that he was incapable of pronouncing her surname.
'It is,' she laughed. 'Are you decent?'
'I'm afraid not. May I be helping you in any way, or would you rather come back when I'm dressed?'
'A letter came for you,' Mrs Covarrubias said. 'Express delivery. All the way from Swee . . . Swi . . . Swizzerland?'
'Switzerland,' Dash corrected her. That would be Antonia. To hire Dash, one had to go through Antonia. She was the only person apart from his employer who knew that he was in Chile.
'Mrs C,' Dash said, 'would you be a darling and slide the envelope under the door, assuming it fits?'
'It's quite thin, so let me try.' He heard the crinkling of the woman's dress as she bent and pushed the envelope through the crack at the base of the door.
'Many thanks, good lady,' Dash said in his Irish brogue. 'Well, I must be off to dry my hands. I was just out of the bath when you knocked.'
'I thought I heard the water running,' Mrs Covarrubias said. 'I'll see you in the morning, Mr O'Hara.'
'Indeed you will,' Dash chuckled, then listened with an irritated frown as she walked away, not bending to retrieve the envelope until he was sure she was gone.
A plain white envelope nestled inside the larger one. A first-class British stamp and a London postmark. Antonia had opened the letter, read it, then resealed it. Dash slit it open again with a fingernail. He took out a sheet of paper and unfolded it to discover a handwritten message. Dash always insisted on handwritten requests - an extra insurance policy.
The note was from Mikis Menderes, better known as the Turk. Menderes had been born in Turkey but had lived in London for most of his life. He'd hired Dash twice before. On the second job, Dash made the kill - a crooked police officer who wouldn't be missed - but also took out the target's mistress, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Turk was furious - a genuine inquiry had been instigated and he'd had to spend a lot more on bribes than he'd bargained for in order to keep his name out of it. He blamed Dash and demanded a refund. Dash refused, since the target had been eliminated, and the pair had engaged in an ugly war of words until Dash relented and offered a twenty-five per cent discount. The Turk argued him up to a third and they hadn't been in contact since.
Dash read the letter while standing by the door, and again a few moments later, sitting down. It was curtly written, in the style of the Turk's previous letters.
My woman has been seen on the arm of another man. Not happy. Want to talk with you about it. Lodgings set aside for you. If you're agreeable, move in and wait. I will be in touch.
It was signed Mikis Theopolous Menderes, and there was a north London address printed beneath.
Everything seemed straightforward. The Turk's wife or mistress - Dash wasn't up to date with Menderes's personal life - was having an affair, and he wanted Dash to kill either his woman, her lover or both.
Dash was reluctant to accept the assignment. Hits could get messy when a loved one was involved. Employers could have a change of heart and act irrationally. He liked it when his paymaster was as cold and calculating as himself. He usually turned down revenge-seeking husbands.
But if Dash rejected the hit, the Turk might think that the assassin held a grudge. Dash did a reasonable amount of business in London and didn't like the idea of the Turk bad-mouthing him. He had worked long and hard to establish himself as a discreet, detached killer. If clients thought that he let personal feelings get in the way of his decisions, business might suffer. He didn't like the Turk or what he was being asked to do, but if he accepted the assignment, the bad blood between them would be erased and he need never again worry about turning down the tight-fisted gangster.
Dash slept on the matter, then went online early in the morning and changed his flight. He had been booked to fly back to Switzerland - he hadn't touched base in two months - but home could wait. Business was business.
Next, he rang Antonia and told her he was popping over to London for an arts festival.
'Will you hook up with your Turkish friend?' Antonia asked.
'I imagine so,' Dash replied.
'When can I expect you back? I'm missing you.'
Dash grinned. Antonia was as emotionally distant as himself. It always amused him to hear her acting human. 'I'm hoping it won't be more than a week or two.'
'And if anyone asks after you while you're away?'
'Take a message. Tell them to be patient.'
They said their goodbyes and hung up. Dash stood over the phone a moment, thinking of Antonia and the Alps, then sighed and shook his head. He was working too hard. What use was money if you didn't have the time to enjoy it? A few more years and he'd think about retiring somewhere warm. He wouldn't make the mistake of outstaying his welcome. There was good money in killing, but if you weren't careful, it could be the death of you.
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