Author Susanna Shore
Paranormal and contemporary romances, light mysteries

 

The Assassin

Prologue          Chapter One          Chapter Two

 

Prologue

The sharp retort of a ball hitting the centre of the tennis racket reverberated around the court. The sound was much like a single round from a marksman’s rifle with a silencer on. His rifle. And he’d timed the shot perfectly to coincide with the women’s number one returning the first serve of the third best player in the world. It was the women’s final at the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament. No one would pay attention to the strange echo. And as his mark didn’t collapse and the dark colour of his shirt covered the entrance wound, he would be well on his way before anyone even noticed that the man was dead.

As it was, he was in the service area on the ground floor when the ruckus began, audible through the loudspeakers that broadcasted the game to the dressing rooms. He was carrying a tennis racket shaped bag like so many others there, dressed in fashionable tennis clothes, with wrap-around sunglasses and a cap pressed deep in his head. He didn’t look back when people around him reacted to the sounds from the court, but just put the bag into the booth of the car that was exactly like at least a dozen cars on the players’ parking area. What was it with tennis players and black Audis anyway?

He drove calmly to the gate where the security waved him out, the news not having reached them yet. It was only coming in that they’d payed any attention to his right to be there, but his credentials were sound—if fake. After the gate, he blended into the Saturday afternoon traffic, heavy, but not congested. He’d scouted beforehand a route with the least CCTV surveillance, and followed it to an anonymous rental garage in Kingston, ten kilometres west of Wimbledon. Securely in, he took out the racket bag containing his rifle, spent ten minutes cleaning both, and shelved the bag with its rifle among all the similar innocent-looking items.

He removed the number plates from the car and replaced them with the originals, careful not to scratch them. The fake plates went on the shelf in their box with others. A quick change of clothes into a dark, tailor-made suit, a removal of the blond surfer wig he’d worn over his short black hair and adding brown contact lenses, and he was indistinguishable from the couple of million suits filling London.

After the last check that the garage was neat and the car was in pristine condition, and wiping the door handles and the steering wheel clean with his gloves on, he drove out. Forty minutes later, he was in a car rental at the Heathrow airport, chatting up the pretty receptionist as he returned the key, leaving her an impression of a charming Frenchman. A television mounted on the wall behind her showed breaking news from the Wimbledon tennis court where a high-level Saudi diplomat had been assassinated. The police had no clues.

He was out of the country before the borders were closed.

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Chapter One

In an overpopulated and insanely expensive city like London, getting an affordable flat in Wimbledon was a stroke of good luck comparable to winning a jackpot. Or not dying when your chopper landed on an anti-tank mine in Iraq. It was also a feat Olivia Morris couldn’t have managed without her employer pulling some strings, but that was neither here nor there. The MI5 took good care of its employees.

That she actually liked the place was a bonus: one level with its own access from the street and a back door to a tiny yard. Nothing grew there except concrete and dandelions, and she couldn’t really call it her own, but she could place a tiny table and chair there to have breakfasts on warm, lazy Saturdays—or brunches more like at this hour, if she was prone to such fancies. The building was fairly new, her neighbours didn’t bother her, and the landlord actually cared about details like leaky faucets.

The flat itself was nothing more than a large studio with a proper kitchen and a bath for all that it took a lion’s share of her civil servant’s lousy income. The size didn’t matter. She used it mainly for sleeping and retiring from the world when she didn’t feel like facing anyone. She’d made the place her home during the eight years she’d lived there, but since her tastes were simple, the interior was fairly utilitarian. Most of the room was taken by a motorised bed, a writing desk and TV. She’d used to own a sofa too, but she’d sold it as a useless space-hog once it dawned on her that she never invited anyone over. She limited her socialising to after work drinks on Fridays where she could pretend for an hour or two that she cared about what was going on in her co-workers’ lives. It had worked so far, and she saw no reason to change.

She definitely didn’t need the sofa for sleepover guests. Her parents had visited once in all this time, and they’d only stayed for a cup of tea before continuing to the airport on their way to Marbella. “London’s such a long way from Manchester, dear,” her mother always said, but Olivia knew her prosthetic leg made her parents uncomfortable, as if it was their fault. She couldn’t sympathise.

To be fair, she seldom travelled to Manchester to see them either, but that was because she hated the place. Her parents were sort of all right; they just didn’t have anything in common anymore. They remained entrenched in their views they’d inherited from their parents, whereas her life was filled with international affairs and domestic espionage. Well, teenage boys dreaming of martyrdom in a bedsit in Ealing, but she still had to see the bigger picture.

Then again, she’d changed already before her current job. War did that to a person. The year she’d stayed with her parents after being released from the hospital had made that painfully clear. London wasn’t far enough to recover from that experience.

The floors of the flat were hardwood and bare, as rugs and carpets were treacherous under her prosthetic leg. She didn’t have pictures on the eggshell white walls, or photos on all available surfaces like her mother. A framed picture of her in the RAF dress uniform had stood on the desk for about a year, until she decided it only made her yearn for things she could no longer have and placed it face down. The photo of her and Jonathan in full flight gear in front of a Puma taken in an air base in Iraq she had hidden in the bottom drawer. She’d taken an occasional look, until it stopped hurting. Then she’d let it be.

The picture of her in the uniform still stung.

Wimbledon was a great, sought-after area to live in too, quiet and green. The flat was around a corner from a high street with a Coop less than fifty metres away and a District Line tube station a hundred and fifty metres up the street from there. The tube took her all the way to Westminster in forty-five minutes where she only had a kilometre’s walk upriver from the Big Ben to the Thames House on Millbank where the MI5 was located. She preferred the tube for commuting; she could sit down—most mornings, as she liked to leave early—and mind her own business. She didn’t own a car. When she needed one in her work, the company provided.

The only drawback to living in Wimbledon was that once a year in July the place went mental for two weeks. The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club that hosted the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament was less than two kilometres from her home—closer, if one could cut through the golf course on this side of the Wimbledon Park—and her tube station was the closest station to the tennis courts. For two weeks, travelling was all but impossible with cars blocking the streets and people flocking in the trains. Restaurants added ten per cent to all their prices. Running in the Wimbledon Park became an obstacle course of swerving around people who were looking for the best picnic spot, and listening to their horrified exclaims in all the languages of the world when they saw her running blade. Thank God the men’s final was the next day, and then it would be over for another year.

She wouldn’t stir from her flat until Monday. And she most definitely wouldn’t follow the tournament on TV. Tennis was for the toffs anyway.

Relaxed in her garden chair, Olivia first became aware of the approaching helicopter as a pressure in her bones, even the ones she no longer had, and as a seeping, nauseating dread that made her swallow convulsively, before she heard the actual noise the rotors made. Ten years on, and the sound still paralysed her. Ten years after landing her Puma on an anti-tank mine, and the sound still conjured a memory of the explosion: the sudden jerk as her body was thrown up against the harness, the heat and the pain. She remembered the dead too: Mike, Trevor—and Jonathan.

She hated her weakness with as great a passion as she’d loved flying the things, but try as she might, she couldn’t get over the fear. In London, choppers flew over her every day, providing plenty of opportunities for curing herself, yet here she was, as damaged as during her first months of rehabilitation at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine in Birmingham, the place where she’d spent almost a year yet never once talked about her fear.

She sat absolutely still, holding her breath, wishing the chopper would be passing farther away. But as the voice grew louder, it was clear it was coming her way. The ambulance helicopter flew right above her and she could only stare at the beautiful, dreadful form until it disappeared from her view. But the voice didn’t go away. It landed somewhere near.

And then another chopper approached from a different direction, and another, both flying low out of her sight, hovering in place for long stretches of time not far from her home. When she heard a third chopper, she forced her body back to action with an effort that left her sweaty and dizzy. There was only one reason for that sort of activity: a man-hunt. And that meant she would soon be needed.

She was ready when the phone rang fifteen minutes later.

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Chapter Two

“It has to be the Russians,” James Collins, the Deputy Director General in charge of the international counter-terrorism branch at the MI5 stated. It was Sunday morning, eighteen hours after the shooting, and they had nothing.

Olivia had spent the entire Saturday at the Wimbledon tennis court. As the closest intelligence officer to the scene, James had given the task to her to get a head start over other operators and to stake a claim in the highly contested field of domestic security. Investigative field work after the crime had already taken place wasn’t what she had been trained for, she was more into preventing crimes, but she’d done her best.

The place had been a chaos: the spectators in shock and getting on everyone’s way, the organisers in dismay and disarray, and the uniformed officers of the Metropolitan Police Service running up and down in search of a shooter long gone. The press had haunted anyone even remotely in charge, but Olivia had managed to avoid them. She wasn’t an undercover officer, but it would make her future work more difficult if her face was connected with the MI5.

The prime minister had expressed her condolences, for what good that did. The men’s final on Sunday had been removed from the Centre Court for the first time since the completion of the retractable roof. The interrupted women’s final had resumed in a smaller court without spectators once the players had sufficiently recovered from the shock. No one but them knew, or cared, who’d won.

Olivia had asked questions, observed the scene, and hunted for the possible locations for where the shot could have come from with the Met forensics team and the head of the club security, which had meant climbing endless stairs, always fun with her prosthetic leg. All that for nothing.

They were in James’s large, elegant office at the Thames House, having just returned from an early morning meeting in the Whitehall with the Met and the Joint Intelligence Committee that was overseeing the investigation of the assassination of Akram Al-Khalil, a Saudi politician, diplomat and businessman. For all that it was July, the Home and Defence Secretaries had both been present along with a number of people well above Olivia’s paygrade. She’d gone with James to present her initial report, which stated that they had absolutely no fucking clue of what was going on—though in more polite terms. To her utter amazement, she’d exited as the intelligence officer in charge of the investigation.

As she sat in front of James’s imposing mahogany desk, she tried to contain her excitement. Bloody time she got a high-profile case of her own. She’d pulled long days for eight years, studying the movements of suspicious individuals to prevent large scale terror attacks, slowly making her way up to more interesting cases, yet James had started to hint that the firm would relocate her to Manchester to observe domestic terror cells there. She’d rather fly a chopper again than to go back there. She had joined the RAF to get away from Manchester, fought in Iraq and sacrificed her leg for her country. She deserved to not go back.

She kept her face calm as she considered her boss, a greying man in his early sixties. She needed a diplomatic way to disagree with him—never her strong suit. “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like their style.”

“What, using a sniper instead of poisonous gas? I’m fairly sure they have their fair share of top marksmen in that country. It’s pretty large, you know.” The smirk on his face was infuriating, but she ignored it. He’d been in the game since before the Cold War ended, and he still tended to think of Russians first when it came to the enemy.

“Russians needed Al-Khalil for the chopper contract. Why would they kill him? And so publicly?”

The meeting at the Whitehall hadn’t been entirely useless. After everyone who felt the need to speak had spoken, and the pissing contest over who would lead the investigation had been won by the Security Service, the floor had been given to Victoria Barrow, Permanent Under-secretary at the Ministry of Defence. A high profile civil servant integral to the Defence Intelligence, she was also the person in charge of selling British defence technology to foreign countries; not that the latter was openly mentioned, but Olivia knew. She was in her late forties, short and stocky with a blonde bob and stern expression Olivia recognised from her own face of someone who constantly had to prove herself better than the men around her, as if a smile was a weakness. But if Olivia had hoped she would be a fellow veteran, it soon became clear that Mrs Barrow was first and foremost a businesswoman.

“Al-Khalil’s death couldn’t have come at a worse time,” she’d stated, annoyed. “We’ve been competing with the Russians for a sale of twenty light multipurpose helicopters to the Saudis worth billions for our defence industry for the next fifteen to twenty years, and Al-Khalil was their chief negotiator. With this, who knows how long it’ll take before the negotiations resume. And Saudis might go with the Russian Kazan Ansat in the meanwhile. We cannot let that happen. Find the killer and deal with it, fast and discreetly. Unless it turns out Russians are behind it; then make it as public as possible. We need this contract.”

Olivia had nodded, her mind blank for the mere mention of helicopters, because of course it had to be helicopters. That was probably why she’d been put in charge of the investigation in the first place. Maybe she should’ve mentioned her current aversion to them to the agency psychologist she had to talk with once a year. The man would’ve made a mention of it in her file, and she could avoid all unpleasant assignments.

Yeah, right.

“The British public isn’t exactly happy with the UK doing business with the Saudis, let alone selling military technology to them,” Olivia reminded James. “There are groups actively opposing it. Maybe one of those wanted to prevent the helicopter deal from happening.”

“A vigilante group wouldn’t have resources to pull off a contract kill of this level, even if there had been a security leak revealing the negotiations in the first place, which I doubt. I’m on security business, and I didn’t know about these negotiations. And the choppers are sold for search and rescue purposes. Why would anyone object to that?”

Olivia barely managed not to roll her eyes for the thought that anyone would believe the choppers wouldn’t be used in the Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war with Yemen. “Labour Party has traditionally opposed to dealing with the Saudis, and they would have inside intel about the negotiations,” she only remarked. “But Al-Khalil had enemies in his own country too and some of them attended the match. And many of the foreign dignitaries present had brought their own security with them. Some of those guys have résumés that would land them behind the bars in any civilised country. How difficult would it have been for one to slip away unnoticed, do the deed and return to their post?”

“But why would they kill him on our turf?”

“That’s what I’m here to find out.”

James frowned. “I’d concentrate on the chopper angle. If Russians want that deal too, they could’ve killed Al-Khalil just to shuffle the pack in their favour.”

“How would a public assassination work in their favour?”

“This is highly embarrassing for the Saudis. They might want to distance themselves from us and look for a deal elsewhere. If you can’t solve this fast, that’ll definitely happen.”

Olivia nodded. “Very well. I’ll just interview Al-Khalil’s people first and see if that gives me something.”

“Didn’t the police do that already?”

“No. The widow was too shocked to talk. Besides, it’s our investigation.” And he’d better not to forget it.

“Well, off you go then. Report to me when there’s something to report. And remember: you’d better handle this discreetly.” Meaning, she’d better not to mess the chopper deal or it was off to Manchester with her.

Olivia exited his office, careful not to fall on the soft carpet she couldn’t rely on with her prosthesis, stifling the anger James’s words had caused. She didn’t need to be threatened to do her work. Her professional integrity demanded she do her utmost best until she ran into a wall. Which, admittedly, might be sooner rather than later in a case involving foreign operators.

She descended two floors to the third floor, taking the stairs instead of the lift. Just because her left leg from the knee down was titanium didn’t mean she could slouch. The floor was the dominion of the technical and surveillance operations, i.e. the hackers and other data wizards. Dozens of people worked there even on weekends, silently staring at their screens for surveillance feed or monitoring suspicious web activity. She located the correct room at the back, and a tiny thrill ran down her spine as she entered. This was her operation.

“Have you made any progress with the surveillance footage from the tennis court?” she asked Noah Fallon, a data analyst assigned to her team for the investigation. The bloke was a half a head shorter and a decade younger than her, barely out of the uni, but efficient and skilful, as she knew from the previous assignments they’d worked together. MI5 didn’t hire other kind. It was only through decades of service that they changed.

Maybe it was the job.

He shook his head, both excited and daunted. The colour of his hair was the same rusty red as hers, but his head was covered with soft curls, whereas she kept her hair cropped short—pixie style, not military, after it was pointed out to her that she was now a civilian. His face was youthfully soft, he’d avoided the dusting of rusty freckles that covered her sharp nose and lean cheeks, and instead of hazel, his eyes were soft, watery blue. Everything about him was soft except his mind.

“There are hundreds of hours of it. The gates, the entrances to the court and some, but not all, places inside were covered with CCTVs.”

“Why not all?”

“These people value their privacy and at the level they play tennis, they get it.”

Olivia nodded. “I bet the shooter knew it and used only routes without cameras.”

“With the amount of people there is around during a tournament like this, every inch could’ve been covered and we still might miss him. It’s not like he’s skulking around dressed in black and wearing a ski mask. One guy in sports gear is much like the other there.”

“What about the footage from inside the court?”

He perked. “TV stations gave us everything they’d shot, which is far better quality material than the CCTVs’. HD all around and there’s loads of it. Some cameras were solely shooting footage of the audience and the architecture of the court. I think I’ll start with those and see if anything pops up.”

“Do your best. Ask for more men if you need them.”

Noah turned back to his screens, his attention already at the task. “Will do.”

Leaving the tech department, Olivia climbed a floor up to the dominion of the intelligence officers where her own little corner was located too. The place was mostly empty, but the few people she came across nodded at her politely and didn’t treat her any differently. The agency rumour mill hadn’t spread the news of her appointment yet. She tried to look self-confident and like she wasn’t panicking inside, but when she caught her reflection from a window she was passing, her face was more like a rigid mask.

Instead of her room, she went to see Louisa Hemsworth, a senior intelligence officer with softly combed grey hair at odds with her sharp blue eyes. At fifty-eight, she was the most competent person in their branch, and Olivia was glad she was in her team. Louisa would’ve been perfect for running the entire Security Service, and why they hadn’t chosen her instead of James to lead the international counter-terrorism branch, Olivia would never know. She certainly hoped it had nothing to do with gender, because she had not sacrificed her leg for her country for that kind of bull.

“Do you have a contact at the Russian Embassy I could talk to?” she asked Louisa, who frowned.

“Are we blaming this on them?”

“James definitely wants them to be behind it. And Under-secretary Barrow from the Ministry of Defence does too,” she added, remembering the gleam in the woman’s eyes.

“What’s the angle?”

“We’re competing with them for a lucrative helicopter deal. With Al-Khalil out of the way, the Russians might have a better shot at it.”

“Well, it’s certainly a motive. Let me check with my contacts and get back to you.”

“Thanks. If anyone needs me, I’ll be at the Saudi Embassy.”

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