It all started with a murder. The scene that greeted police was of a break-in gone badly wrong. The victim, an elderly man in his late eighties, had been knifed in the abdomen, not once but three times as he struggled. Blood had soaked his dapper white shirt and congealed upon the cream carpet and over the broken glass-topped walnut coffee table, where the man had fallen; subsequently, pieces of black glass had pierced the poor soul’s back and scalp as well, though the coronor would conclude, quite rightly, that these were superficial wounds and had not contributed to his death. From the looks of it, the door had been forced open – heavy kicks had cracked the old mahogany wood and the lock had been broken. Consistent with the break-in theory, neighbours had reported hearing loud noises and shouting, as well as the sound of items breaking – and sure enough, the thief had ransacked the living room, breaking several ornaments and yanking out the hi-fi and blu-ray systems (sending the flatscreen TV to the floor in the process) before fleeing. It was a messy scene, with the meagre collections of photos and memories of one old man left in tangled, broken and bloody pieces across the floor, and all for the sake of a blu-ray player and a sound system.
Despite the chaos, there had been few witnesses of any note. The alleged assailant had been dressed entirely in dark clothing, he or she had struck at just after 10pm, using cover of night, and they had ran off, disappearing into the cold November, London night. Cleverly, the burglar had worn biker’s gloves, Concealing fingerprints and limiting the trace of fibres. Frustratingly for police, there was not very much evidence to go on. Next of kin were informed, the case remained officially open, but it was absorbed into the system, another case of random violence, probably to do with drug money. The funeral was a low-key affair, attended by close friends and family.
It was early December, in a very different part of London, the affluent region of Mayfair. Police were called to a double murder that reached the national newspapers and shocked the world. There had been no signs of forced entry into the apartment, no indication of a struggle or any kind of commotion within the property. The victims, a man in his late fifties and a woman in her early fifties had been found by their housekeeper in the early hours of a Friday morning, hands and ankles tied behind them and face down upon their bed. Both had a single bullet wound to the back of the head. In an unpleasant turn of events, the killer had taken the time to remove the bullets, making it even harder to trace the weapon used. To make matters worse, there was evidence of torture upon both victims, though the police would not disclose details.
In the town of Haywards Heath, south of London, four days before Christmas, a man in his early sixties was crossing the road first thing in the morning, heading for his local shop for his newspaper, as he had done every morning for the past two and a half years. He was at the corner of a junction, waiting for the traffic lights to change, pulling up the collar of his thick winter jacket as a defence against the harsh winter wind. He had just started to cross the road when an old Ford Sierra, coming up to the junction, lost control and veered sharply toward the pavement. The car struck the man at forty-two miles per hour, sending him flying across the road. Passers-by attempted first aid and an ambulance crew attempted further help, but the man died at the scene. Investigating police found, the car, abandoned several miles away in a ditch. They concluded, from the traces of heroin and the half-empty bottle of vodka, that it had a tragic accident, motivated by stupidity. There was never a good time to go through such a terrible loss, but to be put through a bereavement right before Christmas felt even worse for friends and family, especially in light of the senseless nature of it.
New Year’s Day was usually met with sore heads, some regretful reflection on antics from the night before, and well-meaning resolutions that after a month were forgotten. For the two men meeting up at just after 8am, outside an as yet still closed Greggs on the corner of Leather Lane and Hatton Wall, not far from Farringdon train station. Despite the early hour, lack of reliable public transport and the epidemic of hangovers sweeping the city, London remained quite busy, with a great many other early risers looking to sink their teeth into New Year’s Day sales, even though many shops would not be open for at least another hour. The men met each others gaze levelly, then with just the briefest of pauses, shook hands.
“Eric.” The shorter of the two men spoke first. He had donned a smart-looking yet lengthy charcoal jacket to deflect the cold air, yet had done nothing to conceal or protect his head, exposing his thinning hairline to the elements. Silvery strands, now cut short, still managed to waft as the wind blew down the street. Slightly sunken grey eyes stared at Eric with a mixture of old resentment and a deep understanding.
“Reg.” Eric enjoyed a slightly healthier physique, a combination of being a little younger and greater effort into personal fitness. He enjoyed a thick mane of hair, though like Reg, grey was the dominant colour. Like Reg, he wore a coat, though the blue puffy number was quite distinctive against Reg’s more sedate look. Despite outward appearances, Eric’s greenish-blue eyes were alert and bright. He greeted Reg in the same guarded tone.
“You heard the news then?” Reg asked.
“Yeah. What does that make, three of them?” Replied Eric, more rhetorically than anything else.
“You know what’s going on, don’t you?” Reg had allowed a trace of anxiety into his gruff voice.
“I’d never have believed it, if not for Charlie and Maria. Have the police contacted you?”
Reg huffed. “The police haven’t made the connection yet. Oh, they know the London cases both involve ex-army, but different types of murder means different teams. I promise you they haven’t connected Luke to this either yet.”
“We were so careful…” Mused Eric. “We covered off everything.”
“Well clearly we didn’t.” Said Reg tartly. “There’s only one answer behind this. We’re being hunted Eric.”
Eric sighed and rubbed his temples and turned his gaze to the street. After a moment spent staring at history’s ghosts, he turned back.
“I know.” He replied quietly. “We never should have done it. It was always going to be a mistake.”
Reg’s grey eyes were stern. They narrowed at Eric.
“They had it coming, all of them. You know what those bastards did, what they were capable of.”
“We went off mission! We let things get personal! Now we’re being picked off! And for what? What Reg?”
“We taught those savage bastards a lesson. I don’t regret it.” Reg snarled. “If we’d done more back then, our friends would still be alive now.”
Eric shook his head. “We were monsters Reg. We both know it. I don’t want to die mate, but let’s not pretend, not with each other. Those guys were evil, but so were we.”
Reg stared at him for a moment. “We were keeping the peace. We had to give a taste of their own medicine. It was the only way they’d learn. You know that.”
“It was bullshit mate. It’s why we’re being picked off, one by one. Has anyone heard from Jeremy?”
“No. I don’t think anyone’s heard from him in years. Little coward.” Spat Reg. Eric winced.
“Well, if he doesn’t already know, he needs to. We need to pull together.”
“Bah, he’s the one who abandoned us all. He’d have sold out the lot of us if he’d not go down with us.”
“Maybe.” Replied Eric quietly. “Maybe…” He repeated. “… But we virtually stuck a gun to his head to make him take part in that. I don’t blame him for wanting nothing to do with us.”
“You’ve gotten soft in your old age.” Remarked Reg, with just a hint of mockery, before sighing. “I suppose we should tell him. Strength in numbers.”