I am delighted to be the next stop on the blog tour for End As An Assassin by Lex Lander. Today for my stop I am excited to be able to share an extract with you.
End As An Assassin by Lex Lander
Published: Kaybec Publishing (1st May 2016)
THIS TIME IT’S NOT FOR MONEY.
THIS TIME IT’S FOR BLOOD, PURE AND SIMPLE.
André Warner is a professional killer, ex-British Secret Service. Thirty-nine contracts have made him a wealthy man, and his fortieth is to be his last.
The hit goes smoothly enough, and the victim – a degenerate drug baron – is dispatched with minimal fuss and no traces left to incriminate Warner. He drives off into the sunrise to hang up his gun and retire to his home in Geneva.
Then into his life comes Gina, a hauntingly beautiful divorcee, fugitive from a bad marriage. The timing is perfect, coinciding as it does with Warner’s new beginning. They soon become lovers, and all seems set fair for a life together.
Their idyll is shattered when a former associate turns against Warner, and he faces exposure and arrest. Accompanied by Gina, he flees his Geneva home, only to run from the clutches of the Swiss police into the far deadlier embrace of a Marseilles crime syndicate whose boss has a score to settle on behalf of Warner’s last victim. Suddenly Gina is at risk through her association with him, and in trying to protect her he only makes matters worse.
His retirement plans in shreds, his life on the line, Warner is forced to stage a comeback. Only this time it’s not for money. It’s for blood, pure and simple.
About Lex Lander
LEX LANDER is a British born writer of crime thrillers, living and working in Montreal. Despite heavy business commitments – he is a partner in a Property Realtor business – he is currently finding time to produce two novels per annum. Lander is also the author of political thriller ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER JACKAL, published by Kaybec in 2013.
Over breakfast, consumed standing at a mobile sandwich bar near the hotel and shared with my personal retinue of blowflies, Collier and I somehow converged.
‘Thanks for the nursing,’ was his opening line as he pitched up beside me at the bar counter.
The tone was grudging but I didn’t let it rile me.
‘You’re welcome,’ I said, breaking a chunk off an over-baked roll and spreading it with honey. ‘But don’t you think you owe me an explanation?’
His look was blank. ‘Explanation? What the fuck for? Nobody asked you to stick your snout in last night. I didn’t need your help.’
‘Not at the club, I grant you. But if I hadn’t stuck my snout in, as you delicately put it, you would’ve spent the night in a police cell, having your other arm broken. Bakhoum pulls weight here, including with the law. Aside from that, who else would have fixed your arm and kept quiet about it?’
‘All right, all right,’ he growled, waving away a persistent blowfly. ‘You want me to grovel? You want dough? I don’t mind paying, just tell me the going rate for splinting an arm.’ He reached inside his jacket, awkwardly left-handed, and drew out a roll of money fat enough to block a sink.
The money would have been useful but I let the opportunity pass. ‘Put that away, this place is teeming with pickpockets. Just tell me one thing, Ken: why wouldn’t you let me take you to the hospital? What are you up to in Cairo?’
Unable to tear his croissant one-handed, he took a bite from it whole, his close-set eyes boring into me. He made me feel he could see inside my skull.
A babble of voices, raised in argument, wafted over us. It was all Egyptian Arabic, but insults were clearly being exchanged.
‘That’s two things,’ Collier said, after a lengthy deliberation. ‘I guess I gotta tell you anyhow. This arm is gonna give me a king-size problem.’
I sipped coffee. It tasted vile, which was the norm in the places where I could afford to buy refreshment.
‘What do you do, Andy?’ The sun was on his face, highlighting deep rifts around his nose and mouth. Daylight had put ten years on him. I doubted he’d see fifty again.
‘Me?’ I was unprepared for the question. I’d thought I was conducting the interrogation. ‘Nothing much. I came here to meet a guy, see about a job. He fixed me up at the hotel, and I’m supposed to wait for him.’
‘You don’t say. Me likewise, though I saw the guy yesterday and got the job already.’
Coincidence? If so, pursuing it with Collier wasn’t likely to produce results. He wasn’t the kind to open up to a stranger. Well, that was my impression until he suddenly said, ‘I need to talk to you someplace more private. Let’s go up to my room.’
I fluttered my eyelashes. ‘My goodness. This is so unexpected.’
‘Oh, for Christ’s sake.’
Up in his room he sat on the edge of the bed and with an old-fashioned wick lighter ignited a cigarette from a pack of Lucky Strike Export. I plunked on the straight-back chair. It shuddered and groaned.
Without preliminaries, he said, ‘How’d you like to earn thirty grand?’
‘Thirty grand?’ I said stupidly. ‘You mean thirty thousand dollars?’
He unleashed a snorting laugh. ‘What else?’
‘Thirty thousand dollars,’ I repeated, tasting the numbers. They were succulent, all right.
‘Thirty thousand in cash?’
He lifted a buttock and broke wind extravagantly. ‘Look quit saying it over and over. I’m offering you thirty big ones for maybe a couple of hours’ work. Now, are you interested or not?’
Having finally adjusted to the amount of money involved, I became wary. ‘What do I have to do for this thir– What’s the job?’
‘Kill somebody.’ He said it quickly but matter-of-factly. ‘A policeman, sort of.’
‘Kill a policeman?’ There I went again. Then it penetrated. ‘Are you off your fucking skull?’
He got up and walked to the open window. The argument down below was still in progress and escalating. A yelp of pain was followed by shouting. The empty right sleeve of Collier’s shirt flapped in the breeze. He stood there for a while, stirring restlessly at intervals. Half of me hoped he would let the matter drop. The other half was already hooked. Or let’s just say I was curious. But to kill a man? Having done it before, albeit only with Government sanction, didn’t mean I wanted it to become a habit.
Or a living.
Breathing out hard through his nose, Collier came back into the centre of the room.
‘I’m here on a … contract,’ he announced. ‘You know what that means, I figure.’
‘A contract?’ I made a small giggle in the back of my throat. ‘Sure. You’re going to kill someone on behalf of a third party and being paid for it. No mystery about that.’
It explained his practiced handling of the gun at the Aubergine Club. Also his refusal to go to hospital. A professional hit man needed to stay away from officialdom in whatever form.
‘That’s exactly right.’ He ran agitated fingers through his grey-flecked hair. ‘Hell, Andy, I wish I was sure you could be trusted.’
‘Come off it. If you had any doubts, you wouldn’t have told me in the first place.’
‘Yeah.’ Slowly, reflectively. ‘Yeah, I guess that’s so.’ He sat on the bed again, drawing hard on his cigarette. ‘What about it then? Will you do it?’
‘What makes you think I’m capable of it, Ken? You’re talking about murder.’
His face fell then, as if it hadn’t occurred to him.
‘Yeah, well, if you ain’t, you ain’t. It’d bug you, huh, wasting a guy, just like that, cold?’
‘Tell me some more.’
So he talked and I listened. He talked about the time, the place, and the target, a high-ranking police officer who doubled as a vicious thug. Collier’s paymaster – paymistress, rather – was the widow of a political dissident who died under torture, presided over by the police officer. If true, he deserved to be put down. If it wasn’t true … Funny, but the moral aspect didn’t trouble me as much as I would have expected. It was a job. It was a purpose. It might even have been a vocation-in-waiting. You might say I needed it more than it needed me.
When Collier was done talking, he lit another Lucky Strike and focused his gaze on me.
‘Make it fifty thousand.’
Ultra-high temperatures were of course the norm for Egypt in June. I just wasn’t in the habit of exposing myself to them. It was too hot even for sweat: all moisture just evaporated. The rocks on which I sprawled were plenty hot too, which was fine for the basking lizard community. So there I was, gently cooking. At least I had known enough not to wear shorts and short sleeves, and to bring a hat and a flask of chilled juice.
It was ten to three: ten minutes to go if the hit – I still didn’t know his name – was punctual. Part of the plan was that Collier would call me on my cell phone when the subject set off. I wasn’t hopeful he would succeed in making contact. Reception out here would be weak at best. No need to answer it, he told me. If I heard a ring, it would be him and the hit would be on the road.
I took up the rifle. It wasn’t new, not by a few decades, but it had been well cared for along the line. The walnut stock was oiled and unmarked, the metal parts free of rust. The words Weatherby Mark V were etched along the top of the barrel, beyond the Weaver V8 telescopic sight with its neat hinged covers. It was a bolt-action piece, five-round magazine, .300 calibre. A quirky choice for an assassination. My own preference would have been a Belgian FN 7.62mm or an M14; both semi-automatic, allowing me to squeeze off three or four shots while I’d still be operating the bolt of the Weatherby. It was accurate enough though. At a practice session near the remote Lake Qarun, west of Cairo, I placed all five rounds in an inch group at a hundred paces. Then, as today, I wore surgical gloves to handle the gun. The only fingerprints on it would be Collier’s. Impromptu contract though it was, I was taking all the right precautions by instinct.
The minute finger of my watch was hovering over the hour when my cell phone trilled feebly. I flipped it open, put it to my ear. Static was all I heard. No sweat. The call alone was enough to tell me that the hit had started out from Sinnuris, twenty minutes’ drive distant.
All was quiet, the road evidently seldom used. Even the flies dozed. On a flat stone, just beyond arm’s reach, a sand-coloured lizard, about a foot long from tongue to tail, regarded me with an unblinking eye. It was motionless, prostrated by the heat, which made both of us. I changed my position and in a blur of movement it was gone.
The vista before me, from my perch above the road, was unrelieved ochre with a solitary splash of green at the limit of my vision. Fayoum Oasis, according to my map. I wished I was there, under the swaying palms, scoffing dates, with a bevy of Fawzias fanning my sweaty brow.
A puff of dust rose from the road out by the junction with Route 2, the Cairo to Luxor highway. It grew into a long brown pennant with a boxy vehicle at its head. Land Rover or Jeep. My watch said twenty-five past two. It was bound to be my man. The vehicle was about a mile away now, travelling fast for the rough terrain. Three minutes at the outside and he would be here, making the hairpin turn at the end of my escarpment, slowing to a crawl. A perfect sniper’s target. Three minutes left for me to reflect, to return to sanity, to pack up and scuttle off back to the hotel. To wait for the mysterious Karim, who also needed a gunslinger.
To hand back to Collier the advance payment of twenty-five thousand US dollars.
Not me, not today. I lifted the Weatherby, cuddled the rubber recoil pad into my shoulder, lined up the crosshairs of the scope on a pair of boulders at the curve of the hairpin. Made a last-minute adjustment to the focus. Worked the action, a series of satisfying metallic clunks, shunting the topmost bullet into the firing chamber. The dust trail was much closer now, under half a mile. The vehicle was temporarily screened by some low dunes alongside the road. When it came back into view I saw it was a Willys military jeep. Well-worn with beige paintwork. The canvas top was raised to keep the sun off. Just two occupants. The driver wore a short-sleeved beige tunic and fez. His passenger similarly attired but with peaked cap and epaulettes. Through the flat windscreen I could make out the latter’s features: swarthy, moustache like a hairy caterpillar on his top lip, hooked nose. He would make a first-rate Hollywood villain.
The crosshairs cantered on his chest. Still I held my fire. They were doing about forty, though the driver was coming down through the gears now as they entered the long, looping curve before the hairpin itself. My chosen killing place.
All emotion rushed out of me. I was now no more than a machine. Press the starter button and off I would go, like an electronic toy. Nothing existed outside me, the gun, and the target. It was not necessary to think. Only to follow a sequence of prescribed functions. It was just a job. It was business.
That afternoon, lying there on a rocky escarpment in the Egyptian wilderness, I discovered my true vocation.
The rifle barrel was as steady as if mounted on a tripod. The sun flailed the skin of my wrists, the only exposed part of me. I scarcely noticed. All that registered was the hard outline of the edge of the escarpment where it came down to meet the road, the air above trembling in the heat, the arid, tree-less backdrop, the unreal blue of the sky.
The jeep ground around the hairpin, filling the scope, and I fired. Just two shots, fast as I could work the action and aim.
The first bullet smashed through the windscreen and struck the officer in the chest, plumb centre, bending him backwards over the seat back. The flowering smudge of red provided an aiming point for bullet number two, though my aim was spoiled by the jeep’s sudden swerve. It careered off the edge of the road, into a draining ditch, pitching the driver from his seat. As it toppled onto its side, I fired twice more, at front and rear tyres in succession. Collier had urged me to eliminate the driver too, for my own safety. Faced with the decision, I copped out. The flat tyres should slow him long enough to see me back in Cairo and off the streets. While the dust was still billowing around the overturned jeep I was up and sliding down the hillside to the Beetle parked in the shadow of an overhanging crag. I shoved the Weatherby in the front end trunk and with a muttered prayer turned the starter key. The engine spun, faltered, died. Don’t let me down now, you bitch! I repeated the process – whirr, burp, whirr, cough, and with a lusty vroom she fired in traditional Beetle fashion, a sort of controlled explosion, settling down to a ragged beat.
I took off from under the crag as if I were piloting a Formula One racer instead of a weary jalopy, bumped across the rock-strewn ground that lay between me and the road. Nothing in sight in either direction. I turned right, away from the hairpin, and made that Beetle perform miracles of acceleration that in theory it was not capable of, even when new. In the mirror, a receding ribbon of empty road, tapering to nothingness.
My nerves quit fluttering and I began to believe I might actually have gotten away with it. For now.
The assassination was announced over Nile FM, the English-speaking radio, that evening. That was when I learned that my victim was a police Brigadier-General by the name of Rehab Iskandar. At the time of the broadcast I was in Collier’s room, the two of us making short work of a bottle of zibib, the schnapps-like local rotgut. To give Collier his due he handed over the rest of the cash without any prompting.
‘Well?’ he said, staring at me when I finished counting those crisp, crackly hundred-dollar bills. ‘How does it feel?’
I riffled the wad before tucking it in my hip pocket. ‘Like money.’
‘Not that, you dork,’ Collier said in exasperation. ‘To kill somebody. Don’t tell me it’s an everyday event for you.’
‘Not quite. But it’s not the first time.’
Collier had been balanced on two legs of a chair; now he rocked forward, his expression incredulous. ‘You mean you do this kind of thing for a living?’
‘Sort of. Once upon a time. As a by-product, not for a living.’
Though he pressed me to elaborate, I clammed up. We said our goodbyes. I settled my hotel account and moved to the other side of town, where I had set up a hideaway with an Egyptian contact from my SIS era. Ten per cent of my wages from Collier bought me a month in a top floor apartment with full room service, even female company, if I were so minded. I wasn’t. I was still in love with my dead wife.
My plan was to stay indoors until the heat died down. A daily delivery of the English-language Cairo Times was included in the facilities, and this kept me abreast of developments in the slaying of Iskandar.