Canning Street Police Station, Liverpool
Mike shivers uncontrollably, retching even in sleep as his stomach tries to expel the putrid yellow bile accumulated through days of mindless drinking. A face appears in his mind; the innocent and fearful image of a young child gazes at him accusingly. The stench of burning flesh fills his nostrils as the girl’s face melts in a hellish phosphorous flame, sloughing skin as her eyeballs melt in the merciless heat. She raises an accusing finger and points at him in blind silence...
‘Noooo...!!! Please GOD! Forgive me...’
His screams echo through the crowded prison cells. Rough hands shake his shoulders. Mike wakes. Rolling instinctively to the hard floor of the cell he balances on his haunches, intuits the figure standing over him and strikes upwards with stiff, swordlike hands, driving upwards with the strength of his uncoiling legs. The figure screams, falls back. Mike launches himself forward, strikes at the figure's eyes with stiff fingers...and wakes, stops the deadly strike in mid motion. The figure jerks back, falls heavily.
Cowering in the corner of the cell, eyes wide in fear, a scruffy, unshaved young man stares up at him pleadingly, clutching at his crotch, mouth wide in a silent scream of agony. Mike focuses, looks around and bends forward, retches violently.
He spins as a key clatters in the cell door and stands, staring ahead as doubt and hesitation overwhelm him. The uniformed policeman looks sharply at the cowering figure on the floor, then back at Brand.
‘What the fuck’s going on here?’
Mike lifts his gaze, meets the policeman’s unwavering, hostile gaze. ‘Nothing officer,’ he whispers, ‘just a little misunderstanding, that’s all.’ He reaches forward, offers his hand to the fearful boy in the corner. He recoils from Mike, hugging his crotch..
‘Are you alright?’ the policeman barks unsympathetically. ‘I asked you boy...are you alright?’
The boy nods, turns his head away and stares at the wall.
‘Okay, then...but any more shit from you, Brand and you’ll be dealing with more than a bloody drunkenness charge...understood?’
Mike nods, steps back and seats himself on the narrow cell bed. The policeman leaves. He looks over at the pathetic figure in the corner.
‘I’m sorry – you startled me – woke me up – I didn’t mean to hurt you, mate...are you alright?’
The young man nods, rises hesitantly to his feet, leaning heavily against the cell wall as his torso unfolds itself. Mike stands up, walks over and offers his arm as support. The young man hesitates, then leans heavily on the offered support, shuffles the few steps to his cell bed and sits gingerly.
‘Jesus Christ, man...what the fuck did you do that for...?’
‘I told you, you startled me...I’m sorry.’
‘You were screaming, man...enough to wake the fuckin’ dead.’
‘As I said…I’m sorry...’
‘Peter...Peter Stoltz...what you in here for?’
‘Just the usual...pissed and broke on the streets...you?’
‘Nothin’...I’m in here for nothin’...the bastards stitched me up man...’
Mike remains silent.
‘Where’d you learn to fight like that, man?’
Mike shakes his head, lies back and stares at the bleak, sterile ceiling. He dare not sleep...not here...not now amid the ghosts of horrors past. ‘I need a drink...’ he whispers.
The hours pass uneventfully, save for the occasional scream and scuffle of Liverpool’s itinerant dross being bundled into the cells around. Mike focuses his mind on no-thing, on the void inside his head that conceals his fear and quickens the flow of time in the real world. It’s an old trick he learned even before his army days, and has served him well in the quiet hours of lying up behind enemy lines, unconscious, yet alert, a priest of violence and of death in so many strange lands.
Footsteps...Mike’s eyes open wide, but he lies still, waiting.
He rolls to his side, swings his legs over the edge of the cot. The cell door swings open, revealing a uniformed bulk that stands there, beckoning imperiously.
‘Out Brand...we’ve found a better use for Her Majesty’s hotel rooms.’
Obediently, Mike follows the policeman out towards the exit.
‘You know the routine, Brand...pick your stuff up before you leave...and for fucks’ sake, Mike, stay out of trouble...we’re sick of the sight of you. Your girlfriends’ already left.’
Mike’s eyebrows raise fractionally, and he moves on, collecting his sparse possessions before shuffling out onto the street. He rubs his hands thoughtfully over the unkempt stubble on his cheeks, sniffs gingerly at his hands and clothes, grimacing at the sour odours of old sweat and vomit.
‘God, I’m hungry...’
He gazes leerily into the cold dawn of Liverpool’s gray, deserted streets, pulls his jacket tight against the chill and walks towards the nearest bus stop. An hour later, an ancient green double-decker 82C trundles into view and draws up beside him. The vehicle is empty. He fumbles for small change, and retires to the rear of the miserable vehicle, pondering nothing in particular.
As the bus draws up outside his stop in Wavertree, Mike shudders, suddenly alert. He ventures cautiously onto the pavement, his jaded senses sniffing at the chill air, peering at the deserted street, sensing undefined danger. He trusts his senses too well to ignore this foreboding. Cautiously, but casually, he approaches the door of the terraced house, sees immediately the narrow opening, breathes deeply, listening intently. Nothing. Gently, he pushes the door open, slides into the dim light of the narrow passageway and pauses. Crouching slightly, Mike moves stealthily past the bottom of the stairs and listens at the closed door of the lounge, pressing his ear to the door. Satisfied, he gently turns the handle, silently, slowly opens the door a centimetre. The small, spartan room has been ripped apart, but no-one moves inside. Scanning but briefly, he closes the door quietly and heads towards the stairs, silently gliding up the carpeted steps three at a time, until he stands at the open doors of the two small bedrooms. The sounds of stifled sobbing echo in his aching head, and he moves forwards, pauses a meter from the doorway of his bedroom, registers Mara, beaten and bruised, spreadeagled naked on his bed. Jerking her head to the side, suddenly aware, she sees him, shakes her head wildly.
The door explodes outwards, catching his shoulder savagely. Instinctively, Mike curls and rolls as he topples onto the stairs and falls. In his wake, two figures plummet downwards.
‘Get that bastard,’ a voice screams from the bedroom, ‘bring him here.’
One upstairs, two down, probably armed. Mike quickly assesses the odds, makes his decision as his tumbling body reaches the bottom of the stairs. Rolling leftwards, he runs at the front door, hears the splintering thud of a round smashing into the wood panels over his head.
Silenced, he registers. These are not ordinary criminals.
‘For fuck sake Ivan, don’t shoot the bastard, you fucking idiot...we need him alive you crazy motherfucker!’
Mike lurches out into the street. The traffic’s increasing now. Early morning workers make their way onto the gray pavements, ignorant of the drama playing out in their humdrum world of work and pay and play. Mike sprints away, thinking fast. A dozen old scenarios play through his head, through the streets of Belfast, the slums of Bogota, the chaos of Kabul, the horrors of Beirut. He doesn’t look back, senses his pursuers behind him and slows down, feigning exhaustion. A hand slaps his shoulder, grips him, pulls him down.
‘Got you, you bastard.’
The long silencer of a nine millimetre pistol stabs into his back. Mike grasps the man’s free arm, pulls him down to ground behind him, using gravity to his advantage, turning onto his back as he falls. Surprised, the man drops his weapon, which clatters dully onto the pavement like a dead steel crow. Still holding his enemy’s arm, Mike pulls him down, smashes the heel of his hand into his nose with enormous force, releases him and rolls onto the discarded weapon. Briefly, dispassionately, he wonders if the man will live. Probably not...
A boot lashes past his fast moving head. Mike notes the weapon in his hand, Heckler and Koch P12 – German government issue – semi automatic – 15 rounds – professionals – and fires two rounds into the second man’s shoulder. He doesn’t want him dead – not yet. The man falls backwards, stunned by the synergetic impact of the nine millimetre rounds, and drops his weapon, falls, turns to crawl away. Then Brand is upon him. He smashes the butt of the weapon into the mans head, stunning him further, and drags him into the nearest doorway. Time is short. He pushes the silencer into the man’s throat.
‘Who the fuck are you? What do want with me...?’
‘Fuck you, Brand...you’re a fucking dead man...’
He notes the accent – African, South African, and smashes the pistol across the man’s cheeks.
‘Who the fuck are you?’
‘You! - Hey You! A voice sounds from the other side of the road.
Brand knows his time is up – there’ll be a crowd here soon. He considers briefly – one more back in the flat, and aims the silencer into the man’s chest. No-one hears the muffled thud as the round explodes the man’s heart.
Rising quickly, he runs down the street and turns at the first corner, then again, and again, until he’s sure he’s not been followed. He slows his pace, breathing heavily. Out of shape- too fucking old for this shit...
He tucks the gun into his belt, pulls his jacket closed. There’s little time to think... must get back to Mara. A thousand questions course through his mind, all centred on one – who the fuck are these people?
Walking briskly, he heads back to his flat, all the while calculating the odds, measuring his unknown enemy, falling back into the long discarded role of the special forces operator.
To be continued...