His whole world collapsed exactly three seconds after the door opened.
In the first second, her pale, beautiful face peered through the gap, then disappeared as she moved aside to let him in. The next second saw him walking into the cramped front room and, with a rather foolish flourish, lifting up the small bunch of petrol-station flowers he’d brought her. And the third was when the man in the hood appeared out of the shadows to his left and pointed a gun at his head while Mika closed the door, plunging the room into semidarkness.
“What’s going on?” asked Akhtar Mohammed in a voice several octaves higher than usual. “Take my money, but—”
“Sit down and shut your mouth.”
Akhtar stole a glance at Mika—his beloved Mika. She was standing in the middle of the room in just a nightdress, her pale skin almost translucent in the dim light, her face set fast in an expression of pure fear. Tears ran down her cheeks and Akhtar wanted to reach out and hold her, tell her that everything was all right, but the gunman
grabbed him roughly by the back of his shirt and shoved him towards the nearest chair.
“I said, sit down.”
Akhtar stumbled into the seat and turned to his assailant, putting his hands in the air so that the other man knew he wasn’t going to do anything stupid. He was neither a brave man nor a foolhardy one, and he was fully aware that the only way he was going to get out of here was by cooperating.
The gunman stepped towards him and pushed the barrel of the gun against the side of his head. It felt cold and hard, and Akhtar swallowed. Was this some kind of divine punishment for his adultery? If it was, then he prayed God would be merciful. He’d never intended to hurt his wife or his children or to bring shame down on his family’s head.
“I don’t want any trouble,” he said, conscious of the fear in his voice.
“I’m going to give you a task, Mr. Mohammed,” answered the gunman in a tone that was worryingly calm.
His accent was English, so Akhtar knew he wasn’t Mika’s pimp. So who on earth was he? And how did he know who he was? Even Mika didn’t know his last name.
“If you carry it out as instructed, you’ll be free to go and you’ll never hear from me again. If you fail to do what you’re told, however, I will kill your girlfriend here. Slowly, and very painfully.”
Mika gasped. She was still standing in the middle of the room, unmoving, and Akhtar wondered why she didn’t try to escape. Then he saw the restraints around each of her ankles, separated by barely a foot of thick chain, and he realized she was as helpless as he was. He gave her a small, hopeful smile and she stared back at him with those big oval eyes of hers that had so bewitched him in the first place, and he wished by all that was holy that he’d never met her.
“And just in case Mika dying slowly isn’t enough to motivate
you,” continued the gunman, still keeping the gun pushed down on Akhtar’s head, “there’s this.”
He held out a remote control and switched on the TV. For a couple of seconds the screen was blank and then an image of two people having sex on an unmade bed appeared—the woman on all fours facing the camera, the man kneeling behind her, his eyes closed. The gunman pressed another button and the couple began moving frantically on the screen, their joyful moans filling the room.
Akhtar cringed as he recognized himself. Had Mika set this all up? Had she hidden a camera when they’d been making love? He looked up at her and she shook her head silently. This was nothing to do with her.
The gunman switched off the TV and the room fell quiet once again. “I have more than an hour of footage taken on three separate occasions, showing you in various acts with Miss Donovic here, all of them as explicit as this. Some of them even more so.” The gunman chuckled. “But then you knew that, didn’t you? If you don’t carry out the task, I’ll have copies of the footage delivered to your wife, your mother, and the imam at your mosque.” He calmly reeled off the names of all three, and the addresses to which the copies would be sent. All of them were correct.
Akhtar felt his breathing speed up and he began to tremble. If this happened, his life would be finished. No one would forgive him for such a rank betrayal of everything his community held dear. He’d be shunned. Exiled. Worst of all, his children would grow up knowing the terrible, sordid sins he’d committed.
“What do you want me to do?” he whispered.
“It’s a very simple job that will take you less than an hour. You’re to deliver that”—he pointed to a plain black backpack sitting on the floor next to the fleabitten sofa—“to the address on the contacts section of this phone.” He dropped a BlackBerry into Akhtar’s lap. “It’s a twenty-minute drive from here, half an hour if the traffic’s bad. You
need to be there by eight A.M., and I know you’ve got a TomTom in your car, so if you leave now you’ll make it on time. Park right outside. Then as soon as you’re ready to go in, call me immediately. Do you understand?”
Akhtar nodded. He had no idea how this man knew so much about him, but the fact that he did made it imperative that he did what he was told. Then perhaps he could emerge from this nightmare unscathed and go back to living his life again. He would miss Mika—God, he would miss her—but in the end it would be a very small price to pay.
The gunman lowered his weapon and took a step backwards, motioning for Akhtar to get to his feet.
Pocketing the BlackBerry without even checking the address, he grabbed the backpack and hauled it over one shoulder, surprised at its weight. He wondered what was inside. Initially he’d thought it would be drugs, but it was far too heavy for that.
The gunman seemed to read his thoughts. “Under no circumstances look inside that bag, Mr. Mohammed. However tempted you are. Because if I find out you have—and I will find out—then our agreement’s void, and I’ll carry out my threat.”
The gunman stepped aside and Akhtar walked past him. He glanced briefly at Mika, and she gave him a hopeful look back.
“Please do what he says,” she whispered. “He means it.”
“I will,” said Akhtar, opening the door and stepping out into the gloom. “I promise.”
But not for you, he thought. For me.
Martha Crossman opened the door to her local coffee shop and stepped inside.
The place was busy with the pre-work crowd—mainly businesspeople—and a powerful blast of coffee, conversation, and central heating hit her straight away. The normality of the scene filled her with an intense jealousy. When Martha had last been here a few days ago, her life had seemed so normal and straightforward. Not happy—she hadn’t been happy for a long time—but at least back then she hadn’t been burdened by the secret she was now carrying.
She took a deep breath. She wanted to throw up. To run out of the café, find a cold, quiet spot where no one could see her, and vomit up the scrappy contents of her stomach. If it wasn’t for her daughter, she’d end it all. There was no question. What had happened—what she’d found out—was so devastating that, in one single stroke, it had destroyed her will to live. But Lucy—dear, beautiful Lucy—was what kept her going.
That, and the need for justice to be done.
The man she was meeting, Philip Wright, was already there, sit
ting in a booth in the far corner next to the gleaming silver coffee machines on the counter, facing the door, with a large cup of coffee in front of him. She recognized him from the photos straight away, and it was clear he recognized her too. He gave a small nod, and she tried a smile in return as she walked over.
“Mrs. Crossman, it’s good to meet you,” he said, getting up from his seat and shaking her hand. He was a big man in his early sixties, and his grip was firm.
“Thanks for seeing me,” she said, taking off her coat and sitting down opposite him.
“Can I get you a drink of anything?” he asked. He had a gentle demeanor, and for the first time in days she felt her burden beginning to lighten.
“I’m OK for the moment, thanks.”
“You said on the phone that it was extremely urgent.”
She looked around the room, making sure no one was watching her. “It is.”
“I have to admit, I’m surprised. As you know, my expertise isn’t in an area where urgency tends to be an issue. And as we don’t know each other, I’m assuming this isn’t something to do with my personal life.”
“It’s not. It’s your professional opinion I need.”
He wrinkled his brow, still not quite understanding. “Well, ask away.”
She put down her handbag but kept it close to her. It made her feel sick knowing what it contained, but at some point she was going to have to give it to him; otherwise there was no evidence. She looked him straight in the eye, saw a warm intelligence there, coupled with many years’ experience in what he did, and felt reassured.
Leaning forward in her seat, she started talking, keeping her voice low.