Chapter 1 – A Calling Card

Sunday, 24th October 2004

The Bungalow

Lennoxtown

East Dunbartonshire

“Phil,” Annabel whispered. She reached under her pillow as she turned to check the time. “It’s 4:30 am, and we’ve got a visitor.” Annabel slipped out from under the duvet, and raised her right hand, so her Beretta pointed upwards. By the time she reached the bedroom door, Phil was standing alongside her, gripping his trusty Browning 9mm.

Phil tapped Annabel’s shoulder with his left hand and indicated himself with his thumb. He opened his palm to show she should wait and follow.

She nodded and stepped back. As her naked partner stepped into the hallway with the stealth of a wild animal, Annabel grinned. How many men would get out of bed and move through the house to greet an intruder, while carrying a loaded automatic, but with no clothes on?

Annabel wore a short black negligee, so was dressed; after a fashion. She followed Phil along the short hallway and stood back as he cleared the kitchen diner at the back of the house. Phil moved forward and eased open the door of the multi-gym. Nothing. He moved on to the spare room and checked the en-suite. He advanced, checked the bathroom, turned and shook his head.

Phil tried the door to the basement where they maintained a small armoury. He held up his hand once again and stepped forward inch by inch to the spacious lounge which overlooked the large front garden.

Both of them glanced at the small tea-light candle burning in a container on the marble coffee table. The tea-light had been lit by the intruder because Annabel wouldn’t leave one burning, and if she had by accident, it wouldn’t have lasted all night.

The pair stood near the table, and the tiny flickering flame created an eerie glow over their bodies. Phil stared out of the lounge window towards the long driveway and hedgerow which led to the country road fifty yards distant. The full moon crept out from behind one of the few clouds. It created the silver lining often seen on a clear night.

“Phil.” Annabel handed him a business card with a picture of small purple flowers surrounded by dark leaves. In the strange, flickering light, Annabel’s features brightened.

“What is it?” Phil turned the card over to see ‘R xx’, on an otherwise plain white side.

“Atropa Belladonna.” Annabel half-turned to look out of the window.

“Nightshade?” Phil queried—his brow furrowed.

“Deadly Nightshade.” Annabel’s lips curled slightly, as she pointed out towards a silhouette at the end of the driveway.

The dark shape of a motorcycle and rider were highlighted by the moon. The two people in the house had no need of detail to know that the big bike was a Kawasaki.

Both Phil and Annabel raised their left hands to wave—confident they’d be seen because of the flickering tea-light on the low table in front of them.

The mysterious rider’s right arm raised, and the fingers touched the helmet visor briefly. A few seconds later the motorbike lights flicked on, a low rumble sounded, and the powerful machine headed off into the beckoning day and the rider’s future.

*

FOUR MONTHS LATER

Tuesday, 22nd February 2005

St Fillan’s

Loch Earn

Scottish Highlands

Dennis McQuade sat on a fallen tree outside a small cabin enjoying a smoke. The burly forty-year-old was staring down at the point where the loch narrowed and continued east as the River Earn. From his forest hideaway the man could see the small village down below, and though it looked near, few people ventured into the forest area where he’d taken refuge.

McQuade had spent more of his life behind bars than as a free man. Having started his life of violence by bullying his brothers and then schoolmates, Big Den, as he became known moved on to be a runner for his heroes—underworld leaders. Although he enjoyed inflicting physical pain on a victim with his bare fists, head, or feet, as he matured he preferred a blade or a gun. It was his most recent venture which was replaying in his mind as he sat on the wooded hillside.

“Silly old bastards never stood a chance—they should have just given me the money.” He spat and shook his head that anybody would be stupid enough to argue with a man holding a gun.

The sound of an engine drifted through the dense woodland and then the quiet purring became a loud whining before it stopped. All that remained was the sound of wildlife and the cool winter breeze. A car door slammed and this was followed by unsteady footsteps in the undergrowth.

“McQuade,” a timid voice called. “McQuade … are you there?”

“I’m behind you,” McQuade growled.

“Jesus Christ—you scared me.”

“Well, there’s a fucking surprise. Why didn’t you come in a fucking fire engine, you noisy bastard?” McQuade lifted his coat and slipped his gun inside the back of his jeans.

“I’m not cut out for this stuff—”

“You think?” McQuade shook his head. “Did you get my merchandise moved?”

“Yes, and it took four trips—”

“Four fucking trips—did you go and rob somewhere else?”

“No, I can’t carry the same weight as you. I took a big holdall with me and filled it each time.”

“Is it all secure now?”

“Yes, it’s in my garage.”

“Oh my fucking god.”

“What? I don’t have a long history of hiding stolen goods.”

“Follow me if you can stay on your feet.” The big man stepped in front and led the way through the trees. When he lifted a hand or dodged branches he let them fly back, knowing rightly that they’d smack his visitor in the face. The crook grinned for the five minutes it took to reach the tiny cabin.

“Where is your car—I didn’t see anything parked among the trees?” The lawyer was nervous.

“Some people don’t have to drive all the way to the fucking door.” McQuade turned to look at his classmate from long ago—nothing had changed with Franny Elliott. “Don’t bother wiping your feet.” He laughed as he pushed the door open and entered the cabin.

Elliott stepped inside and turned up the collar of his heavy overcoat. “There’s not much to it, is there?”

“It’s a hunter’s cabin for fuck’s sake—what do you want—a fucking jacuzzi and a wine bar?”

“No, it’s just … you know, small, even for a cabin.”

McQuade shrugged off his heavy padded jacket and threw it on one of the two hardback chairs. He busied himself for a few minutes with a portable gas stove and set a camping kettle on top. “You can have tea, or tea, Franny, and there’s sugar but no milk.”

“I’m not really—” Elliott paused when he registered the over-the-shoulder scowl. “Tea with sugar is fine—thanks.” He paused. “Could you please stop calling me … Franny.”

“It’s what I’ve called you since we were ten years old.” McQuade grinned as he lifted two battered metal mugs and wiped dirt from the rims with his thumb. He organised the two brews and pulled the second chair over to sit opposite the other man at the small wooden table.

Elliott squinted at the steaming mug, unsure if he should venture to drink the contents or insult his host by leaving it to go cold. He unbuttoned his coat, displaying his dark blue pinstripe suit.

“So, Franny—what news from the outside?”

“My name is Francis, for … for fuck’s sake. I thought you had a radio here?”

McQuade grinned. “Reception is shit, so for two nights I had to trudge through the woods to listen to the car radio. After I ditched the car I’ve heard fuck-all. It’s been better for me to sit it out quiet.”

“Well, the police in Glasgow are not happy—both of those people in the jewellery store died before an ambulance arrived.” Elliott lifted the mug, burned his lips, and put the tea back on the table. He squinted and licked his lips. “The reported value of what was taken is close to six figures, but it depends who moves the stuff for you what sort of return you’ll get.”

“I’ll worry about that—I’ve got options. Was there anything else in the news about my haul?”

“Obviously, the armed robbery was bad enough, but the double-murder of two elderly people hasn’t impressed anybody.”

“I don’t give a fuck about impressing people—I robbed the fucking place to get money, and the silly old bastard said there was nothing in the safe because most sales are by card.”

“It’s the nature of retail these days—everybody knows that very few jewellers don’t handle a lot of cash anymore—”

“I didn’t fucking think of that—okay?” McQuade gulped his tea, immune to the temperature of the metal mug. “The point is, I’ve now got a shitload of top class jewellery, and that will get me money. All you have to do is make a couple of contacts for me.”

“There is one thing.” Elliott inhaled deeply. “The police have identified you from the CCTV footage.”

“Bollocks—I was wearing a ski-mask until I reached the car, and I went out the back way.”

“I’m afraid another piece of modern technology most people have become accustomed to is CCTV being everywhere. Within the first few hours of the robbery there was footage on the news showing your beard, and three views from the back.”

“You’re just full of fucking good news, Franny—how the fuck can they identify somebody from a beard … and from the fucking back?”

The solicitor inhaled deeply. “Your beard has a distinctive grey patch on the left side, and it was the back of your jeans which stood out on camera.”

“You’re fucking joking.”

“No—you were wearing regular jeans like a lot of people, but your rear right pocket is missing and the darker patch of material stood out.”

“That’s no big deal—”

“I’m afraid it is because the day after their initial report they showed a variety of sitings from CCTV footage in the city, and they got two clear pictures of you when you stole the car.”

“Fucking hell.” McQuade held up a hand for silence. “Fuck this … we’ll sit outside. I can’t hear shit in here. We’ll sit on that big tree out there.” McQuade pulled on his heavy jacket.

The pair took their mugs of tea outside and sat on the large fallen tree, both facing the view of Loch Earn and the hills beyond.

“I can’t believe they found me by using those fucking cameras.”

“They’re all over the city—you can’t escape them.” Elliott sensed the criminal’s anger, and the danger he himself was now facing. “I’m pretty sure if you can get rid of the goods and get passage out of the UK on a private boat you’ll be fine.”

“That’s not the point mate—it’s the identification thing.”

“Well, if you can get away, you can change your appearance and—”

“I was supposed to be collecting protection money on behalf of somebody else, but the robbery was a bit of freelance work to beef-up my funds.”

“Oh shit … does that mean this person will want a … cut, of your haul?”

“No mate—it means the person will want a cut of my fucking throat—that jewellery store was one of the places that paid for protection.” McQuade gulped more tea. “When I got released a couple of months ago I was taken on by one of the top players in Glasgow—Jazz doesn’t take kindly to being taken for a fucking idiot.”

“Jazz?” Elliot spilt tea from his shaking mug, due to fear—not anger. “Jazz Armstrong … first name, Louis?”

“Well done, Franny,” McQuade murmured with sarcasm. “I offered my services to Jazz and he doesn’t take fucking prisoners.”

“He bloody frightens me.” Elliott gulped tea and swallowed without considering the taste.

“How do you know Jazz, apart from his reputation?”

“I’m his bloody solicitor.”

“Fuck.” McQuade lit up a cigarette and gazed out at the view of the loch hundreds of feet below. He smoked his cigarette, occasionally shaking his head side to side.

The strange pair sat for five minutes in silence, apart from the sound of McQuade exhaling as he blew smoke, and the irritating coughs of Elliott as the bluish-grey cloud drifted past his face.

Elliot whispered, “When will you be collecting the … your merchandise?”

“The day after tomorrow, and I’ll need a rental car.”

“How will you get that without arousing suspicion?”

“You’re really not with the fucking programme, Franny—you’ll be hiring the car for me.”

Francis Elliott briefly closed his eyes. “Why would I hire a car when I have one—”

“I hope you’re better as a lawyer than you are at being a crook. You hire the car and tell them it will be left at an airport, or docks or wherever—you meet me and hand over the car.”

“Right … I just thought—”

“Don’t think, Franny—just do as I tell you, and when all the shit settles you’ll be paid well for your efforts.” He dropped his cigarette end and extinguished it with his boot. McQuade turned left and right, squinting as he looked between the trees.

“Is there something—” A raised hand silenced the nervous lawyer.

The big man stood, took a step forward and turned to look around. Satisfied all was okay, he moved back and sat on the tree. He tapped the area to his right. “Sit down, Franny—take the weight off your feet mate.”

Elliott had stood up due to nerves and made a token attempt at wiping the rough bark before sitting again. He forced himself to put up with the childhood nickname; Franny. It would be all over after today. He half-turned to his left. “Do you know where you’ll go when you’ve … you know, when you have money?”

“No, but I’ve got a few options, and when I’ve gone, I won’t be fucking back.”

“Right.” Elliott hoped the relief wasn’t obvious in his single word response.

McQuade focused on a man and woman in a small rowboat out in the loch. “Ha, ha, ha—fucking pussies.” The crook raised his right hand, pointed with his forefinger and moved his thumb, imitating taking a shot at the couple in the boat.

“At least they’re not wrapped up like a little old lady.” A woman’s voice said from close by.

Elliott gasped and stopped breathing for a few seconds. He looked left and right without moving his head.

McQuade sat upright, slowly eased his heavy coat aside and started to slide his right hand inside to the back for his gun. His elbow pressed against the trembling man on his right. The vapour on the cold air bore witness to the change in McQuade’s breathing—now much more rapid than before. The useless lawyer even managed to sit too close.

The woman said, “Don’t move that hand any further McQuade.”

A noise to the left among the trees had McQuade withdrawing his right hand from inside his coat. He fired twice in the direction of the sound he’d heard. He would have fired more shots but following a low ‘phutt’ sound, a bullet entered McQuade’s right thigh. He dropped his gun.

“Bastard!”

“Oldest trick in the book,” the woman said from the right of the two men. “I thought it only worked in the movies.” The blonde stepped out from between the trees near the cabin.

“Please don’t—” Elliott was panting and staring in disbelief at the attractive young woman in black biker leathers holding the gun. He might be a lawyer, but he recognised a silencer when he saw one, and his immediate concern was that nobody would have heard the first shot—or any others if there were more.

“Judging by your nice coat, pinstriped suit and leather shoes, this is an unusual place for you to do business.” The woman stepped to within a few yards of the men on the tree. “What’s with the big eyes and the slack jaw—have you never seen a girl in leathers before?”

“Not one that looks as good as—”

“Fucking shut up Franny—you pussy.” McQuade turned, looked down at his fallen weapon and then to his front at his assailant. “Who are you working for—fucking bitch?”

The blonde smiled. “Who do you think I’m working for?”

“Did Jazz send you?” Elliott gasped, thinking he might help his own situation.

“Fucking shut up Franny—Jeezuss.” McQuade slowly shook his head as he gripped his injury and gritted his teeth. “I don’t know who … you’re working for, but you’d better fucking kill me, bitch.”

“Why—is the big bad injured coward going to hunt me down?” The tone dripped with sarcasm.

“I don’t care who you’re working for—you’re fucking dead.”

“I’m freelance, and for however long you’ve got left, I’d suggest you improve your attitude.”

“Or fucking what—bitch?” McQuade panted as he applied pressure to the bleeding thigh.

“If you don’t sort your attitude, I’ll sort it—the next one goes in your other thigh.”

“Fuck you.” McQuade spat at her as he gripped his wound with both hands.

“Not what I would call an improvement.” The woman raised her right arm and squeezed the trigger. Once again there was a sound like a drinks can ring-pull.

“Fucking hell … I’m gonna—” McQuade gripped his other thigh. His lips parted and he gazed upward to the tree canopy as he struggled to deal with the pain.

“Oh my God.” Elliott moved a few inches away from his companion and continued to stare at the woman with the gun. “What do you want?”

“Cooperation is what I want … Mr Elliott.” She smiled when his eyes opened wider.

“How do you know ….”

“Franny,” McQuade gasped. “You say one more fucking word—”

“Stop calling me fucking Franny.”

“I’d stop making idle threats McQuade,” the blonde said. “You’re a loser, whereas Mr Elliott here knows he might survive if he plays to my rules.”

“Yes … that’s right … I’ll play along.” Elliott turned and nodded rapidly.

“One thing you’ll both learn about me before one of you dies is that I don’t take shit from anybody, and if I suggest you do something—you’d be best advised to do it.” The attractive blonde bent down and with leather-gloved hand lifted McQuade’s gun by the barrel. She tucked her Beretta under her arm, before unclipping the magazine from McQuade’s gun and emptying the rounds. She replaced the empty magazine into the weapon.

The two men watched but neither spoke.

“Move further away from your friend, Mr Elliott, but remain seated on the tree.”

The trembling lawyer sidled along to his right, increasing the distance between himself and the killer he had been assisting.

When satisfied that the gap was more than an arm’s length, the woman took hold of her Beretta from under her arm and held McQuade’s gun out to the lawyer, pistol grip first.

“I can’t take that—I’ve never fired a gun … please don’t make me.” Elliott’s lips continued working but words had ceased to come.

“Don’t worry about firing it Mr Elliott, that’s the easy part—worry about where you aim. There are no rounds in the magazine, but there is still one in the chamber. In your language, that means the gun is ready to use, and you have one shot.”

Elliott accepted the weapon and held it like a frightened person would—with both hands; one grasping the pistol grip and the other holding the barrel. “Why do you want me to have this thing?”

“In a moment, I might ask you to shoot that piece of shit beside you. It’s important that you know if you try to shoot me and you miss—I will peel your skin off and use it to tie you among those trees behind you.” The woman stepped off to the right by two feet, which meant if Elliott was to aim at her, he’d have to turn to face her.

It would have been physically impossible for Elliott to tremble more. As he imagined his possible punishment it left his features contorted.

“Don’t listen to the bitch, Franny—she’s fucking bluffing.”

“Oh, dear,” the blonde said. “Is that your way of asking for your biceps to be next McQuade?”

“You’re fucking crazy.” McQuade’s voice was trembling as trauma descended on him. The condition didn’t allow for how hard or brutal a person was—it was a physical symptom of excessive loss of body fluid.

“I’ll ask you once—why did you kill the jeweller and his wife?”

“Fuck off. bitch.”

‘Phutt’

“Jeezz …” McQuade’s big trembling body fell forward and he rolled onto the cold, damp earth. “The old man wouldn’t open the fucking safe—”

“Why did you kill his wife?”

“The old dear was collateral fucking damage.”

“Shoot him in the mid-section, Mr Elliott.” The blonde lifted her left hand to steady her pistol as she aimed at the trembling, sobbing lawyer’s head. “You have one bullet—I have fucking loads.”

“Please … don’t make me—”

“Shoot the bitch, Fra—” The two final thoughts in McQuade’s mind were, Franny will miss, and I’m gonna kill the pair of them. He was wrong on both counts.

When the lawyer fired, he pulled the trigger instead of squeezing. This combined with the firer’s loose grip caused the barrel to jerk upwards. Having aimed roughly at his target’s chest, the shaking lawyer shot McQuade in the throat. It wasn’t the area he’d been told, but it was effective.

Elliott retched and puked over his suit, coat, and the now deceased murderer, Dennis McQuade. When the lawyer finally regained control of his body and some of his senses he tried to drop the gun, but his forefinger was caught in the trigger guard. He waved his hand around until the weapon flew off and landed on the ground.

The blonde unscrewed the suppressor from the barrel of her Beretta and fitted both into a shoulder holster under her jacket. She lifted McQuade’s pistol, dropped out the magazine and reloaded the five rounds she’d dropped on the ground a short while before. She replaced the magazine and placed the weapon in a clear plastic bag.

“What … what are you going to do … with that … gun?” The lawyer was crying openly.

“That’s not a gun anymore.” The blonde smiled sweetly as she tucked the plastic bag inside her leather jacket.

“What do you mean … it’s not a gun?”

“It’s now a contract.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Come on now, you’re a solicitor. While I have possession of the weapon which you used to kill Dennis McQuade in cold blood, you will do whatever I want you to do.” She smiled again as she pulled up the zip on her jacket.

“What do we do about—”

“We?” She shook her head. “I think you’re getting me mixed up with somebody who gives a fuck, Mr Elliott.”

“What do I do now … who are you … what do I call you?”

“So many questions.” The young blonde reached into a jacket pocket and produced a business card. “You don’t call me—I’ll be in touch.”

The lawyer accepted the small card and studied the purple flowers, green leaves and read aloud the two words printed in italics across the base, “Atropa Belladonna?”

“Nightshade, Mr Elliott—Deadly Nightshade.” The blonde squatted beside the dead crook and slipped a business card into his coat pocket. She stood, straightened her leather jacket and walked off between the trees.

***

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