The traffic lights had already changed to green. Of course James O’Connell had seen them through the rain-splashed windscreen as they flicked from red to amber, then to green. It’s just that, because his head was so full of Alychia, he wasn’t concentrating. The wipers scooped the water off the glass and threw it away somewhere, but the space was filled immediately by the thick, heavy drizzle.
He gave a deep sigh. How could he have gotten so involved with her, and in such a short time, too? He decided it was all Nanette’s fault. He had been so dependant on her. She had been the backbone of his little business for all those years, and then she goes and retires on him. Still, she was sixty years old, and the arthritis was giving her a lot of grief lately. And getting up at five o’clock every morning of the week had also taken its toll on her health. Her husband, Danny, had already retired. He had a bad heart, so they bought a place in Spain, and they went off to spend their last days in the sun.
James O’Connell had worked at the Listowel Road Petrol Station ever since he finished school. Four pumps and a little shop, with a used car salesroom next to it, it was the last thing that you saw when you left the town, and the first thing you saw when you arrived. Old man Reilly was a good boss, but he preferred the long dinner hours in the pub to actually working for a living. Nanette was left to run the place. Then the bottom fell out of the used car market, so Old Man Reilly decided to sell up. James was devastated. He was married now, with a child on the way. He loved the job. He knew nothing else. But the site was old by this time, and no one was interested in it.
Then James heard from a friend that a new housing estate was to be built on the field behind the petrol station. He spent a whole month putting a business plan together, and he took it to the bank manager.
The first thing he did was to add four more pumps. Then he opened for business twenty-four hours a day, capturing the commuter trade in the mornings, and the travelling salesmen and the builder’s lorries during the day. Eventually he was selling over a million litres of fuel a month. But the margin on fuel was not that great. The main thrust of the business was the shop. The showroom was knocked through, and a seating area with a fast food counter added. And now he had twenty-two people working for him around the clock.
The key to all this was Nanette. Dependable, reliable, he counted on her completely. Leaving now was a bitter blow. Out of all his team, there wasn’t one who could replace her. They were all part-timers, with children of their own, and all sorts of other commitments.
Nanette’s final gesture was to recommend a girl that her daughter had met some weeks before. She had come to Ireland as a refugee from the war in Yugoslavia, and she was looking for a job. Apparently she had the experience too, having worked for a year in a petrol station just outside Dublin.
The moment he saw her walk in the office, James was mesmerised by her soft, smiling blue eyes and easy confidence. Of course he took her on, and it wasn’t long before she’d convinced him that she could handle the books, too. Eventually she was doing the stock ordering, completing the legal paperwork, doing the weekly stock take. He felt comfortable with her.
The housing estate was built, and the shop now incorporated a Post Office as well. A second baby was born, and Sue was contented to let James take care of the business. She rarely visited the place these days, which was just as well. She was bound to notice how distracted James was whenever he was near Alychia, how miserable he seemed if she wasn’t there. On her day off he was irritable, missing her smile and her cheerful banter, even the smell of her perfume.
Then came the Christmas dinner. Staff only, no partners, lots of food and drink. Not a good combination. It ended with a lingering kiss under the mistletoe.
And, tonight, everything had suddenly stepped up a gear. The dismal, wet evening had a cloud that was so low you could reach up and touch it, and it created a heavy drizzle that stuck to everything. It would soak you to the bone in minutes. James couldn’t just let her walk home in that.
Naturally, she asked him in for a cup of coffee. Then she went straight to the bedroom to change into something more comfortable. What she came back in was a pink bath towel. As she shook her long black hair around her shoulders, the towel accidentally slipped to the floor. She didn’t react, just stood posing for a moment in front of the full-length mirror. Then she gave James the most amazing smile and beckoned him with her eyes to follow her.
Did he regret it? He couldn’t honestly say. Everything was now a concoction of emotions, guilt about Sue, who would be waiting for him at home. His supper would be in the oven, and the children would be bathed and ready for bed, covered in baby powder and just hanging about to kiss him goodnight. He had a terrible knot in his stomach. He knew what he’d done with Alychia had caused a whole lot of complications now. He was ripped apart by the feelings he had for her, and confused about his commitment to Sue and the children.
An angry toot from the car behind snapped him out of his daze. An old Ford Fiesta roared loudly as it skimmed out around him, and four faces with baseball caps glared at him as they zoomed past. He forced a smile and shuffled at the gears, but, before he could move, the Fiesta’s brake lights came on. Then it came hurtling back towards him.
His hand went instinctively to the mobile phone in his shirt pocket. It was a useful little toy. It looked like a normal phone, and you’d have to study it hard to find the two secret chambers, one on either side, with a .22 bullet in each one. A friend had given it to him the day after the petrol station was raided by some local cretins. They were high on crack and carrying an assortment of weapons, including a shotgun. His friend had done a tour of duty with the UN, and he picked it up in Bosnia for the price of a packet of fags and a cup of real coffee. He adapted it to make the loudest bang possible. In his experience, a pack of idiots like this was usually made up of a handful of spineless nerds who were too scared to stand alone, preferring to follow the one with the biggest mouth. Hit the key person with a lot of noise and smoke. When the rest see the main man go down, they’ll be off like rats up a mouldy drainpipe.
But right now James was too disturbed about Alychia to get involved in a confrontation. He slammed the car into reverse and raced back down the road before doing a handbrake turn, spinning around in a cloud of mud and spray. He could easily out run the little Fiesta in his Lexus, and he was familiar with the roads around this town. He knew there was a road branching off to the left, just around the next bend. As he took it he flicked off his lights. Seconds later he watched the Fiesta shoot past in his rear view mirror.
Grinning broadly, he flicked the lights back on again. Something hit the front of the car, crashed against the windscreen then rolled off the bonnet. James slammed on the brakes, slid sideways across the road and smashed into a tree. The door flew open with the impact, and now James was hanging upside down, held in place by the seatbelt and almost suffocated by the exploding air bag.
His head was throbbing as he frantically untangled himself, slid onto the ground and scrambled back to see what he had collided with. And, in the dim light from a nearby streetlamp, he was horrified to discover that it was a man.
Now he was on his knees and turning the body over. The man groaned as James gently wiped the mud off his face. “Where the hell did you come from?” he heard himself asking. “You’re dressed all in black, in this weather? I’m sorry, but I just didn’t see you.”
The man was breathing erratically now. James went to lift him up, but something made him hesitate. There was something strangely familiar about him. James looked closer, but the light was too weak. But there definitely was something. Did James know him? He shook his head.
“First things first,” he said out loud. “I’ll call an ambulance!”
He pulled out his mobile phone and waved it in the air, but it was no use. He couldn’t get a signal. He was in some sort of blind spot. The man opened his eyes and gave a soft cough. James leant closer, and when the man saw his face as it was lit up by the pale, blue glow from the phone, he gave a sudden, strangled cry.
“You?” he gasped. “What’s going on? How the hell can it be you? For God’s sake, how can it … ”
His hand shot out and grabbed James by the throat with fingers that felt like steel wire. “This can’t be happening!” he repeated, his face contorted in pain and horror. In sheer panic, James threw himself backwards, causing the fingers to lose their grip. The man gave a desperate sob as he too fell back onto the grass.
James was stunned. Who was this guy? He obviously knew James, but why did he attack him like that? And the voice! James knew that voice! He was sure he knew that voice.
A movement behind him made James spin around. He got the fleeting impression of someone darting through a gap in the hedge.
“Hey!” James jumped up and sprinted after the shadow. “We need some help over here.”
The gap in the hedge was actually a gate that led to a large, detached old house. James stopped dead. He thought he knew every house in the town. He’d cycled through these lanes a million times as a child. How could he have misses one this big? The front door was open and the porch had a light on. As he approached he could hear voices, and soft laughter. He tapped on the glass panel then went in, following the voices down the hall to an open door.
A man and woman were studying some photographs that were tumbling out of a printer on a large desk. They seemed to be pleased with them as they passed them to each other, and it took a second for James to register what he was looking at. The man was older, with a mop of white hair and an expensive suit. Alychia looked small and fragile beside him. They were both animated, all waving arms and flicking heads, and speaking in a foreign accent. When she suddenly looked up and noticed James, Alychia hesitated for the briefest of moments, then she gave him a huge smile.
“Alychia, what are you doing here?” His mind was racing. He had only just left her apartment. How could she have gotten here so quickly? Of course! He was so confused, and gripped by the guilt of his moment with Alychia, that he couldn’t go straight home. He needed some time to think. He went back to the shop and had a wash in the toilet, trying to erase her scent from his hands and soul. How long did that take?
“I might ask you the same question.” Alychia smiled again. “Have you been following me?”
“What? Why would I be following you? I didn’t even know this place existed. I had an accident, right outside your gate. A man is hurt. I couldn’t get a signal on my phone, so I came in to use yours.”
The man took the photos out of her hand, shuffled them together and put them neatly on the desk. Then he disconnected the digital camera from the printer.
“The phone is in the hall,” he said casually, as he put his arm around Alychia’s shoulder and drew her to him. James glared at him, angry and even more confused when she smiled back up at the man.
“And who the hell are you?” he spat.
“He is Alex. He is her husband.” The voice behind him made James spin around. The younger man was grinning broadly as he leant casually against the doorframe. His arms were folded, and James could clearly see the Walter .22 tucked into his belt. His heart started to race. This was totally unreal. He only came in to use the phone. Now a spotty youth with a gun was actually telling him that the love of his life was already married. And to a man who was old enough to be her father!
He took a slow, deep breath and looked back at Alychia.
“What’s going on?” he asked her.
“James,” She gave him another beautiful smile. “You shouldn’t have followed me.”
“But I’ve told you already. I wasn’t following you. I had an accident. I knocked down some poor eejit, right outside your front door. He needs an ambulance!”
“Well, you could have ruined everything,” she said, with a wave of her hand towards the photos.
“Ruined what, exactly?”
The older man took his arm from around Alychia, and he tapped the photos with his finger. “Well, maybe it isn’t so bad you coming here. You weren’t supposed to see these. Not unless things became awkward, that is. But, now that you have come, please take a look!”
James didn’t have to move too close to see that the photos were of himself and Alychia at her apartment earlier that evening. He closed his eyes. How did she do it? Surely he would have noticed a camera. Of course! The big mirror by the bedroom door! He knew his face was flushed at the thought of someone else watching them. He thought it was an act of genuine love. He didn’t think, for one moment, that she was performing for the camera.
“What’s this all about, Alychia? Are you blackmailing me? Is it money you want from me?”
All three of them laughed out loud.
“Actually, no.” Alex shook his head slowly. “The fact is we want to give you money. Lots of it.”
James felt himself sway, and he shook his head to clear his thoughts. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “You’ve lost me there.”
Alex took a glass off the sideboard. “Can I offer you a drink, James?”
James waved it away. “Just tell me what’s going on here, will you?”
“Well, it is very simple, really. You have a nice, solid business here, in this quiet little town on the west coast of Ireland. The tax inspectors have looked you over and found everything in order. Trading Standards, Environment Health, everyone who is likely to show any interest, have been, had a look around then went away satisfied. Now, the thing is, my – our – little business has, shall we say, a surplus of funds, and this might cause some unwelcome interest from these very agencies. What we need is a secure home for these funds.”
It took a moment to sink in. “Money laundering?” James sputtered. “You want to use my company to launder dodgy money? Not a chance. There’s no way on God’s earth I’m going to get involved in that kind of racket.”
“But you already are, I’m afraid,” Alychia told him with a casual wave of her hand.
“What do you mean?”
Alex smiled at Alychia, and he put his arm around her again. “When was the last time you looked at your books, James?” he asked with a broad smile. “How many suppliers do you actually pay on a weekly basis? How many people do you actually employ? Have you ever seen them all, the names on your payroll?”
James couldn’t think straight. He tried to make sense of Alychia’s blank expression. She was looking at him, but her eyes were so empty it frightened him. Earlier tonight he would have sworn that she had feelings for him. Serious feelings! Otherwise how could she have shown such passion, such raw emotion? It stunned him to think someone could actually be acting that part. He felt sick. She had him hooked, now she was reeling him in like a stupid lovesick little fish.
“If it’s already going on, what do you need those photos for?” James asked her. The thumping of his heart was making the blood pulsate in his ears, and he had to swallow hard. He was struggling to think clearly. All he could think of right now was how this was going to affect Sue and the children. All his hard work, all his dreams, squandered in seconds, because he was mesmerised by a beautiful face. His business was evaporating in front of his eyes, and they were standing there grinning at him.
“Oh, they’re just for insurance,” Alex said, and he gave Alychia a gentle kiss on the forehead. “You see, now that the business is so successful, the workload is too much for one person. You really need a partner to share the burden. The next phase of the plan is to make Alychia that partner. We just need you to sigh the relevant paperwork. Amazingly, we actually have that paperwork right here.”
James swallowed hard. “But why me? Why my business? Surely my little shop isn’t that good a proposition?”
“Oh, don’t underestimate your little gold mine. Of course, on it’s own it would not be, but, as part of a bigger picture, it makes very good sense.” Alex pushed a typewritten form across the desk.
“What bigger picture?” James sighed. His hands felt lifeless and his feet were stuck to the floor. It was never like this in the movies. If John Wayne was here right now, he would immediately see a way out, formulate a plan in the blink of an eye. But James wasn’t John Wayne. His mind was a blur. All he could think about was Sue and the kids. She’d be so tormented if he just disappeared off the face of the earth, not knowing if he was dead or alive. And if she ever found out about all this, the photos, the betrayal, it would destroy her completely.
“The bigger picture is extremely bright,” Alex was telling him, from somewhere in the fog of his panic. “All over this beautiful green isle there are hundreds of little businesses just like yours. All of them are just nicely ticking over, and then gradually, slowly, so as not to arouse any undue attention, they become moderately successful. As I said, on their own …”
“The petrol station outside Dublin,” James nodded at Alychia. “I presume that was one of them.”
Alychia smiled. “One of the easiest, I must say! The owner jumped at the idea, and he never even saw the photos. He left his wife and seven children after our first night together, and he signed the partnership the very next day. Unfortunately, he died not long afterwards.”
“Oh, it was natural, James. Nothing sinister. He was an older man. He liked his beer and his food. His heart couldn’t take all the excitement.”
Alex tapped the paper on the desk. “Anyway, it’s getting late. Your wife will be waiting for you. Just sign this, and we’ll call it a day. All right?”
James looked at Alychia. She looked away. If he signed it, was he really going to just walk away? She’d own the lot if he just vanished. He closed his eyes. Where was John Wayne now?
“The phone!” The young man snapped his fingers and James spun around. “It’s no good to you now. Give!”
James studied the phone as if he’d never seen it before in his life. “No signal,” he mumbled. “Look.”
He flipped back the cover and gave the little handle a soft tug. The gunman watched calmly as James pressed the red button, and then, through the thick eruption of smoke and shattering bang, a tiny red dot appeared in the middle of his forehead. That’s another thing that’s different from the movies. There was no slow motion, no dramatic spinning backwards with flying arms and legs. He just dropped down, as if he’d fainted.
Everything froze for a second. James was stunned. How could he have done that? He’d shot someone. It was unbelievable. He’d actually fired a gun and shot someone.
Alex was the first to move. James turned just in time to see him reach into the drawer of the desk. When his hand coming up it was holding a black handgun. But he fired too soon. The explosion took a chunk out of the corner of the desk. The phone gave another shattering bang, and Alex dropped back into the big leather chair. His limp hand dropped the gun with a clatter onto the wooden floor. James was mesmerised. He’d done it again. He’s shot another person. But there was no apparent damage, no spatter of blood. He couldn’t even see where Alex was hit. Then a tiny trickle of blood appeared on his shirt, right in the middle of his chest.
James felt an eerie calmness take over his whole being. Everything became crystal clear. Was this how John Wayne felt in the shootout with the Commancheros? He turned to Alychia. She was slumped in the corner by the fireplace, the flames glistening on her face. Her eyes were looking at him, but they were totally unfocused now. He leant down, and only then did he see the blood oozing through her fingers that were clamped tightly against her side. The wild shot Alex had taken had ricocheted off the marble fireplace and hit her. James stared at her for a few moments, trying to resurrect a spark of the feelings that he’d felt for her less than fifteen minutes ago. He was amazed that there was none. Anything that they had had evaporated as quickly as the smoke from the gun. He didn’t even feel a twitch of pity. Maybe relief, but he didn’t have time to dwell on that right now.
Right, think straight! Fingerprints. The only thing he’d touched was his own phone. He put it back in his shirt pocket. Using a handkerchief, he picked up all the papers and photographs on the desk, and he put them in a pile on the fire. He watched the flames lick the edges before devouring them and leaving just a lump of grey ash. He looked in all the drawers on the desk. There was nothing in them except a stapler and a used roll of sticky tape. All Alex had in his pockets was a wallet and some loose change. The wallet went on the fire. James threw the camera against the marble fireplace then picked out the bits that looked like electronic memory components. He knew that you never erased anything totally from a memory chip. Everything you did left a ghost that could easily be resurrected by a computer expert. It all went on the fire. The printer followed it, the relevant bits separated and smashed to a pulp.
The cold rain on his face as he walked out the front door suddenly snapped him awake again. He’d forgotten about the injured man! He checked his phone again. Still no signal. His best bet was to try and get the car started and take him to the hospital himself.
He sprinted out of the gate and onto the road where the car should have been, but there was no sign of it. He ran to the tree. This had to be a trick. This was where he skidded into the tree! But there was no mark on it, no sign of an impact. There weren’t even any tracks across the wet grass. He stood there for a moment, totally confused. What was going on? He ran back in through the gate, looking for another way out of the house. But there wasn’t another way out. This was the way he’d gone in to the garden. This was the only way in, and out. He staggered back out onto the road and walked along it to where he was sure the man would be lying injured. His heart was thumping again. The ice cold John Wayne feeling had evaporated in the confusion that had now filled his head. What was going on here? Was this some kind of a dream, a hallucination? He wiped his face with his shaking hands and took a deep breath. Right, walk along the road to the corner and look again. He must have come out on a different side of the house. There was no other explanation.
Suddenly, as a car came screeching around the bend, James was totally dazzled by the headlights. Then, before he had a chance to move, the lights went out. James was rooted to the spot. Instinct made him turn and run, but it was too late. The impact threw him into the air, and then the thump of the wet grass threw a blanket of darkness over him.
Now someone was turning him over, and he groaned as the man gently wiped the mud off his face. “Where the hell did you come from?” he heard the man saying. “You’re dressed all in black, in this weather? I’m sorry, but I just didn’t see you.”
The man was breathing erratically. James hesitated for a second. There was something very familiar about that voice. He tried to look at him but the light was too weak. But there definitely was something. Did James know him?
“First things first,” the man said out loud. “I’ll call an ambulance.”
He pulled out his mobile phone and waved it around. James gave a soft cough and the man leant closer, and when James saw the face, lit up in the pale blue glow from the phone, he gave a sudden strangled cry. “You?” he gasped. “What’s going on? How the hell can it be you? For God’s sake, how … ”
His hand shot out and grabbed the man by the throat. “This can’t be happening!” he repeated, his face contorted in pain and horror. In sheer panic, the man threw himself backwards, causing the fingers to lose their grip. James gave a desperate sob as he too fell back onto the grass.