Monday 28th February
Green Pastures Crematorium
David Brennan, the smartly-dressed officiant stood at a decorative lectern. He welcomed the gathering and offered the eulogy, addressing the one hundred people in attendance. There were no songs to be sung, but classical music played in the background throughout the service. The music had been chosen by the man who made his entrance in a casket.
The tall, dark-haired Brennan delivered the information in a clear, but friendly manner. He spoke of the deceased as if they’d known each other in life.
“… and following in his father’s footsteps, at the age of eighteen, Barry joined the Royal Marines. He served as a Commando for twenty-three years, seeing active service in the Falklands War in 1982, and the Gulf War in 1991. Between those two major conflicts, in 1988, Barry was decorated for inconspicuous bravery while working on anti-pirate patrols off the coast of Somalia. He was an advocate of justice—however it was served.” For thirty-five minutes, Mr Brennan continued in his conversational manner.
Most of those in attendance were unaware of their late friend’s heroic adventures. He was not a man to boast of such things, so was known mainly for having at one time served his country and then becoming a jeweller.
To the sound of the canons in the 1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, the pine casket containing Barry Steven Blackwood, VC, MM, was silently concealed as a heavy purple curtain slid around a gleaming gold rail. The service ended, leaving a variety of emotions with those in attendance.
Due to the procedures to be followed, the congregation were respectfully asked to vacate the chapel. At the front right corner was the exit, near the lectern. A sombre, but nevertheless handsome female usher stood next to a donation box. As had been the music, the idea of voluntary donations instead of flowers was another request by the deceased in his funeral plan. The small wooden box bore a leaflet from the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA).
For fifteen minutes the congregation remained outside but in the vicinity of the main building. Small groups of men and women in black stood around, all with their own memories of the man who’d been taken from their lives. Some were fellow retailers, others were neighbours and yet others were strangers to the main congregation.
A group of three men stood apart from the rest, and all three wore a similar tie and miniature medals.
The smallest group was a couple; a man and woman in their thirties. They held each other’s hands and stared out towards the hills which surrounded the peaceful, modern crematorium site. Rod Blackwood and his wife wanted to be alone for this short time for good reason.
Their farewells were not over.
In a black Range Rover in the main car park, a man and woman sat observing the gathering. They’d attended the service and had crossed to their car where they waited out of sight before joining the next.
“What makes you think she’d come here?” Eddie turned to his partner, squinting.
“She’ll be here.” Amy’s lips curled briefly. “It doesn’t matter how hard we look—we’re not going to see her unless she wants to be seen.”
“You mean like turning up on a big black bike?”
Amy nodded slowly. “Trust me, Eddie, our girl is right there in front of us, standing casually among one of those groups of strangers, chatting amicably and fitting right in.”
For fifteen minutes the two detectives observed the many groups of people, all, as they were themselves, respectfully dressed in black. A few of the younger women wore short skirts and high heels as part of their outfit, but they also wore black hats and many wore veils.
Eddie and Amy got out of the car and walked across the car park, reaching the door as the dark-haired usher looked around for any last-minute attendees.
The woman nodded politely but impassively to the couple, allowed them entry and quietly closed the door behind them.
David Brennan started the next service with a heartfelt opening for which he had requested permission.
“I would like to thank Mr Blackwood Junior for granting me leave to begin this eulogy with a personal message. In my role I am privileged to create a respectable and honourable farewell to those who leave us behind, mourning their passing. I have performed my role for many years, but today is the first time I have ever had to deal with such a tragic double loss.”
For a few minutes, there was silence as the pallbearers walked solemnly forward carrying a pine casket identical to the one used in the previous service. The coffin was slowly, carefully and silently placed on the same polished, wood and metal platform which a short while before had borne the remains of Barry Blackwood. The purple curtain was back in position at one end of the shining brass rail, and the small rectangular purple curtain was in place as before, covering the electric doors at the foot of the casket. It felt like a replay, except for the name of the deceased.
Mr Brennan commenced the eulogy as had been intended by its author, the dead woman’s son. The words were once again uttered with sincerity and the audience were attentive. Janice Blackwood had devoted her life to her husband and son.
It was peculiar that the only person in the chapel who heard merely partial statements was the man who had written both eulogies—Roderick Blackwood. The loss of one parent would have been traumatic, even to a man of Rod’s life experiences so far, but to lose both parents at once in such a senseless fashion had affected him deeply.
Rod was in the front row for the second time inside an hour, looking at the wooden box with its brass trimmings, knowing that his devoted mother was lying within. It had been Rod’s wish that his father’s service was held first, in a sort of ‘clearing the ground ahead’ notion. The kind and tender words that the thirty-five-year-old had written about his parents would never say enough.
“… and so, with the only consolation being that she will be reunited with her devoted husband, we commend Janice …” The words were clear to everybody else, but drifting in and out of Rod’s consciousness as he heard them spoken.
The purple curtain eased around on its short journey once again, and this time to another Tchaikovsky piece—The Sleeping Beauty.
Rod reached up and wiped the tears from his eyes, and as he inhaled deeply, overriding his obvious sorrow was a dark, deep, resentful anger that his parents should die such a violent death.
Rod stood with his wife, Katya by his side, shaking hands and thanking every member of the small congregation as they filed past outside the building. Some offered their condolences, while others simply hugged the couple and nodded in recognition of their loss. Rod and Katya went through the motions, not knowing every face.
Near the end of the line of people were three men wearing miniature medals, all men now in their fifties, but carrying themselves with a physical bearing reminiscent of Rod’s late father. Each of the three ex-Servicemen shook Rod’s hand, and every one said the same thing as they handed him a business card.
“Any time, any problem—call me.”
The final two people in the line approached.
“Thank you both for coming,” Rod said. “It would have impressed my dad that you made the effort. I’d appreciate it if your next visit is to the business when I reopen.”
Amy squeezed Rod’s hand in both of hers. “Please remember, Mr Blackwood … if anybody out of the ordinary visits—contact us.”
“I will, and thank you.” He half-turned to watch the detective as she briefly hugged his wife before walking out into the car park.
Eddie responded in kind to the young man’s firm handshake. “Stay strong Mr Blackwood. We’ll give you all the time you need.”
“Thank you.” Rod watched as the second detective headed out to the car park.
“What’s wrong, love?” Katya held both of her husband’s hands.
“I was wondering how much they would tell me if I asked. I’ve spoken to those two detectives twice before, and although they’re sincere, I feel as if I’m not getting the full story.”
As the detectives walked across the car park together Amy paused to look around at the wide open area with its rolling grassy banks and neat flower beds bordering a series of neatly laid car parks.
“It’s like a conveyer belt,” she said. “The majority of people from the most recent services have gone and there are already cars arriving with those attending the next cremation.”
“Yes, and it’s peculiar to think that every hour for six hours services will take place.” Eddie pressed the remote as they approached the Range Rover. “Another strange aspect of cremations is that the caskets might disappear behind the curtain and go through the little hatch, but the incineration might take place up to three days later.”
“That’s not strange—that’s creepy.”
They went either side of the car and jumped in.
“What the f—”
“What’s up Eddie?” Amy looked at the dashboard but whatever Eddie was staring at was partly obscured by the steering wheel. Amy leant over and then quickly looked through the windscreen and side windows at the car park area. “I hate to say I told you so ….”
Eddie lifted the business card from the dashboard. “How does she bloody do it, Amy?” He shook his head as he turned the card. “It says, Amy alone, 13:00 -14:00 today. Coffee in the city.”
Amy laughed. “I know where to go.” She turned and winked. “Come on then, lover, back to the office.” She continued to look around the beautifully landscaped grounds and wondered if Rachel was out there somewhere watching them. She absently raised her right forefinger to her forehead and gave a casual salute.
From within a group of mourners, a young woman smiled beneath her veil as she observed the black Range Rover slowly easing out of the car park, the driver trying to see in every direction at once. Eddie didn’t realise how humorous he looked at times.
Rachel nodded and murmured to the two people closest to her, and then walked over to her dark green Land Rover Discovery.
The people in the small group queried each other about the identity of the strange woman who had joined them briefly at the memorial for their long-lost friend.
Thirty minutes after leaving the Old Kilpatrick crematorium Eddie pulled up at the barrier to insert his pass into the slot of the auto-entry. A slender hand gripped his left thigh and he turned as the passenger door opened.
“Give me two minutes.” Amy leapt out of the car, slipped off her black jacket and exchanged it with a heavier, red coat which was on the back seat. “I’ll see you upstairs later.” She winked and walked away, using a circuitous route through Glasgow’s grid system to reach her destination. A straightforward walk to the meeting place would take around ten minutes, but a detour into a couple of stores and changes of direction made the journey last thirty minutes. Security was paramount.
At the coffee shop on Cambridge Street, Amy bought an Americano and went upstairs. She paused and looked around. A young brunette was gazing back at her over the frame of black glasses. The woman, who was wearing a white blouse, had a bright red scarf draped around her neck. She was sitting in a corner booth drinking a latte and stood when Amy made eye contact.
“Oh my bloody god,” Amy murmured as she walked toward the booth. She placed her cup on the table and then embraced her friend, tears running down her face. “Rachel, it is so good to see you—to know you’re okay … we were worried when—”
Rachel held up a hand. “I know, and I’m sorry, but as you know from experience, sometimes we have to do things in a certain way and in a certain order.” She held the detective at arm’s length and looked her up and down. “Living with Eddie agrees with you, and he’s looking pretty good too.”
Amy laughed. “Once he got over the card on the dashboard he did say, ‘tell the little tease I send my regards’.”
Rachel gave what was now a rare smile.
For a moment the two women sat gazing at each other in silence.
“You’ve been a very naughty girl.” Amy lifted a sachet and poured sugar into her coffee. “Have you been in touch with Phil and Annabel since you resurfaced?”
“I called them this morning before I went to the crematorium. I’ll be meeting them later this afternoon.”
“Were their instructions as cryptic as mine?”
“Yes, pretty much. One of the first things I learned from those two was when it came to meeting places, the best security was relying on memory, using minimal description, and then an illogical route.”
“I have so much I want to ask you. Do you promise we can have a proper catch-up sometime soon, so I know what the hell I’m doing around you?”
“Yes, I promise, and don’t worry, I’ll try to keep you and Eddie in the loop.”
“Are we to take it that the recent hit wasn’t a one-off for personal reasons?”
“No, for better or worse it’s the start of a campaign, but for now, I’d rather not elaborate.”
“That’s okay.” Amy nodded. “I’m sure you have your reasons and that’s good enough for me. You put your life on the line for me and that’s not easily forgotten.” She sipped her coffee and gazed at her friend. “Sometimes when I think about you and the BTL team I can understand the philosophy of those men and women who serve in the armed forces. Having your life saved by a friend leaves a big chunk of gratitude in your everyday life.”
Rachel reached out and squeezed Amy’s hand. “Sometimes people do things simply because it’s the right thing to do.”
Amy nodded, realising that the woman in front of her didn’t need to be patronised. “So, I take it you’ve got a secret den somewhere?”
“Yes. Last year Jake and I bought a place as an investment.” She looked down at the table for a moment before meeting Amy’s gaze. “I went to Stella’s agency, and with her help, sold the house and found somewhere I’d have privacy, but the option of returning … well, returning.”
“The big boss would never say it out loud, but you should have seen his expression when he showed us the fax of your card sent from Perth HQ.”
“Who is the big red-haired guy with the beard?”
Amy had to hold back from spitting coffee across the table. “Jesus, Rachel—when did you see him?”
“When you and Eddie were up there looking at the scene. I was impressed by that young PC finding the tyre prints of my bike.”
“I shouldn’t use the word unbelievable, but you are bloody unbelievable.” Amy shook her head. “I suppose I should let you get to whatever the business of the day is—go ahead.”
“When are you and Eddie going to visit the Blackwoods, and are you going to the house, or to the jewellery store?”
“We’re not sure yet when the store will be open for business, but at Mr Blackwood’s request, he’d like all matters related to the incident dealt with at the store. It’s a strange request, and there’s something nagging at the back of my mind about such a decision, but it was his parents, so ….”
“The store is being refurbished and will reopen next Monday, 7th March.”
“I don’t know what you had for breakfast but I wish we could package it and feed it to some of our department.” Amy shook her head. “What would you like us to do for you?”
“I’d like you to set up an introduction, as soon as possible.”
“Who are we talking about you meeting?”
“Rod Blackwood, and as usual, you’ll have to trust my reasoning.” Rachel paused. “I did speak to both Rod and his wife at the crematorium but they assumed I knew his parents through retail.”
“How do I contact you, or vice versa, if I’m allowed—”
Rachel raised an eyebrow. “Are you and Eddie still on the same mobile numbers?”
“I am, but Eddie’s changed a month or two ago.”
Rachel lifted out her mobile phone, pressed a sequence of keys and a few seconds later a low buzz came from within Amy’s handbag.
“Got it,’”Amy said and gazed at her friend. “I’ll list you as Bella D.” She tapped a few keys rapidly. “I’ll tell Eddie about this in person and we’ll have the same name showing.”
“If you guys will let me get on with things as we did before I’d like to offer you a special gift.”
“You’re clear to continue as far as Sam is concerned, and you know you’ll be safe with Eddie and me in the loop.” Amy gave a sly grin. “What is the special gift?”
“I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but if we meet here after I’ve been to the jewellery store to meet the new management, I’ll give it to you.”
“Will it be okay for Eddie to come along next time?”
“Yes, of course.”
The People’s Palace and glass-encased Winter Garden in Glasgow Green had been where Phil McKenzie, aka Hawk, had first outlined his plans to Annabel Strong. In the summer of 1996, the ex-SAS man had sat at a table in the Encore Cafe and briefly explained his vision for recruiting a small team of vigilantes.
Annabel, a tall, curvaceous woman with attractive features and auburn hair had sat there, absorbing the man’s idea and formulating ways to help him enhance his venture. Of course, Annabel was no stranger to death and covert activities, having worked for both MI5 and MI6. The codename Chameleon was whispered in certain circles and few people still above ground knew that the mysterious assassin was the enchanting and deadly—Annabel Strong.
Nobody that day back in ‘96, sitting in the cafe, or outside at the tables with their ice-cream would have suggested that the handsome man chatting with the attractive woman in the summer dress could be any more than an average couple.
Within a month, Phil’s idea had become a reality and the initial BTL team was formed. To ensure basic personal security, Phil retained the codename, Hawk. Annabel was unofficially seconded from MI5 but used aliases when they were required—no official codename.
The pair went on to recruit Jake Carter, a particularly skilful young pickpocket, and Rachel Donoghue, a young, but talented vehicle thief.
Jake impressed Phil by using a simple disguise as a jogger to bump into him and steal his wallet. Phil’s faith in Jake was reinforced when the wallet was returned and the large sum of money inside was intact.
While interviewing Rachel in a coffee shop, Phil asked the attractive girl what her unique selling point would be if she had one. Rachel responded, ‘I’ve never attempted to steal a submarine, and helicopters are a bit specialised. Generally, if it has an engine, I’ll get it moving and deliver.’
The two younger team members were trained in new skills and tested on real missions, both proving they had the integrity and the guts to tackle whatever was set out for them.
As the team became more organised it adopted a business name, for the purpose of renting offices and creating a modern, functional operations centre. BTL Enterprises was the name on the plate outside the office door. Nobody was told that the abbreviation stood for ‘Beyond The Law’.
Now, in 2005, over eight years since their initial liaison in the wonderful building, Phil and Annabel strolled along the wide open spaces of Glasgow Green towards the People’s Palace. The museum was situated at the eastern end of the huge public park. In keeping with the chill in the air, Phil was wearing a woolly hat, and heavy, fleece-lined coat. Annabel wore a padded jacket. Both wore jeans.
The pair approached the large, ornate building, glancing at a young dark-haired woman who was adopting a variety of poses to take pictures of the Doulton Fountain, outside the museum. Phil went up the steps and stood back to allow Annabel through the revolving doors. He looked again at the girl with the camera as she adjusted her zoom lens and knelt several yards away from the spray blowing in the breeze.
Annabel passed the wide staircase of the museum and went straight into the cafe. She chose a table which offered her a good view of the cafe, the entrance, and the park as seen from the large windows on either side of the building.
Phil bought the coffees and as he stood at the counter he surveyed the place and thought back to that day a few years before. A smile curled his lips as he looked at the woman who now shared his life in a much deeper sense.
“There’s not much going on in here today,” Phil said to the girl behind the counter. He looked around at the dozen or so tables and only four were occupied.
“We have a few foreign tourists who warm up either before or after being out taking pictures around the area.”
“We just saw a young lady taking pictures of the fountain,” Phil said as he lifted the tray.
“Long dark hair and glasses, carrying a touring booklet?”
“Yes, has she been in here already?”
“Yes, I think she’s German, or Austrian … no difference in accent.” The assistant smiled. “She’s nice—said she’d be back in before she left the park.”
Phil nodded and walked across to the table.
“Practising your patter on the local talent, Phil?” Annabel reached out to pour a sachet of sugar into her coffee.
“I mentioned the woman outside with the camera braving the temperatures.” Phil repeated the conversation he’d had.
“Yes, I noticed she had one of those red and blue travel guides in her coat pocket.”
“Talking of young women, I’m looking forward to seeing our girl.” Phil emptied two sachets into his coffee and stirred. “I think you’ve done something terrible to me.” He sipped his coffee.
“What?” Annabel knew when to take her man seriously. She arched a shapely eyebrow.
“I’ve got this strange feeling about seeing Rachel again … you know, after all that’s happened, and we haven’t set eyes on her for months. I think a normal person might call it … sentiment.”
Annabel laughed. “When we did last see her it was pretty bloody spooky—a silhouette at the end of the driveway in the early hours.”
“How would you suggest we handle the subject of Jake?”
“We don’t, love—we let Rachel handle that particular topic.” Annabel moved her head slightly to see over Phil’s shoulder as the cafe door squeaked and swung closed behind a customer. “It’s that German, or Austrian lass with the camera.”
The dark-haired girl looked around before turning to the counter to buy a coffee. She lifted her tray and walked halfway to a table near the window. She paused and looked over the frame of her glasses at the couple nearest to her.
“Excuse me,” the girl said in a heavy Germanic accent. “I am looking to sit and talk with local people if that is okay?”
“Actually—” Phil went silent and his lips remained parted when the girl winked and smiled.
“Please … do join us.” Annabel sniffed briefly. “We’d be … delighted to talk with you.”
“I am most grateful.” Rachel lifted her latte before ditching the tray on a nearby table. She pulled back a seat. “Actually, I must say excuse me—I will be right back.” She turned and headed toward the Ladies.
Annabel stood and touched Phil’s shoulder as she followed her protege.
The door closed slowly behind Annabel and after glancing at the three empty cubicles she embraced a sobbing Rachel.
“What if … somebody … comes … in.”
“I’ll bloody shoot them.” Annabel laughed and held her shaking friend close.