Series: Sarah Stone Series, Book 1
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Summer was nearly here, but the bugs were early. Sarah hopped from the bus to the sticky pavement and swatted at a wasp. When the buzzing menace refused to flee, she gritted her teeth and snarled, but the wasp seemed amused by her frustration. As it dove at her head for a third time, Sarah’s temper flared, and she snatched it out of the air and crushed it in her fist. The dickish creature got off a parting shot before it died, and the piercing pain in Sarah’s palm reminded her of the virtue of calm. Getting angry only ever hurt her, yet it was her default emotion—the one she always grasped at first. Often as not, it would be followed by guilt, which is what she felt now for having taken the life of something weaker than her.
She threw the crushed wasp carcass to the pavement and resumed her journey. Sorry, Mr Wasp, but you picked the wrong woman to mess with. You were the one who made it personal.
As she marched through the high street, Sarah could have ignored the gawking strangers glancing at her scars, but instead, she met their stares head-on. If they wanted to gawp, she had every right to stare right back at them. Either that or they could pay for the freak show.
It didn’t take long to reach the bank. It was in the middle of Birmingham’s busy Corporation Street. Sarah joined the winding queue inside and grunted. Out of the six serving windows, just two were manned. She glanced at the gaping arse-crack of the woman queuing in front of her, and at the snot-nosed toddler running around screaming, and sighed.
The toddler stopped its screaming for a second when it spotted Sarah’s disfigured face. Sarah bared her teeth, and the child hurried away. Its mother was too busy with her iPhone to give a shit. Sarah often wondered why people had children when they couldn’t be bothered to watch them.
If Sarah could’ve helped it, she’d do away with her monthly trips to the bank. Other aspects of her life could be dealt with via the Internet or over the phone, but there was no choice when it came to the bank. She needed to visit the city once a month to pay in her foreign cheques for US dollars.
“Come on,” she mumbled as the queue moved by a single body. Her wasp sting was itching now. She ran her ragged nails over her throbbing palm and tried to ease it. She regretted crushing the wasp. They were alike. People flinched at the sight of Sarah, too.
A well-kempt businessman strolled away from the tellers after having concluded his business. He smiled at Sarah as he approached, but once he got close enough to see the far side of her face, his eyes fixed on the floor and he sped up.
Men often gave Sarah a smile if they caught her good side—from that angle she was a shapely blonde woman—but as soon as they glimpsed the scarred left side of her face, their stomachs turned and they’d act as if they suddenly realised they were in a hurry. It happened so often that Sarah didn’t even care anymore
The queue inched forward. Sarah shuffled along. It was Monday morning, didn’t the bank expect to have so many customers? What made things worse was that there were another three members of staff available, but they were hanging around in an office behind the serving windows. One guy was even swigging coffee and laughing, oblivious to the customers waiting.
Sarah thought about the bomb that had gone off yesterday in the town of Knutsford. Were all those people hanging around like this, thinking everything was normal? Did they even see it coming?
She’d visited Knutsford once. A place just outside Manchester with a cosy Italian restaurant that served the best ravioli she’d ever tasted. She and her husband, Thomas, had eaten there one night before they caught a flight out from Manchester Airport. Thomas had ordered spaghetti and made her leak wine out of her nose by letting the strands hang out of his mouth like a monster. Knutsford was a nice place. Sarah had been shocked to see it littered with bodies on last night’s evening news.
The BBC claimed some disgruntled pensioner was behind the attack, but that just raised more questions than it answered. Like: how did a retired postal worker learn how to make a nail bomb? And why attack a town like Knutsford?
The queue shuffled up another half-step. Four of the six serving windows were still unoccupied. The dickhead in the office was still sipping coffee and laughing, while his equally lazy colleagues joined him in ignoring the bank’s waiting customers.
Sarah had suffered enough. She exited the queue and marched on up to the serving window. “Hey, d’you think you might come out and do your jobs for a while?” she shouted through the security glass. “There are people waiting out here, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
A few chuckles from the people standing in the queue, but mostly awkward silence. The young guy with the coffee ambled towards the other side of the window like a swaggering cowboy. He was wearing a cheap suit with garish cufflinks he clearly thought were stylish. His badge read: ‘Assisant Branch Manager’. Sarah wondered if he was aware of the spelling mistake. She guessed not. When he noticed the scars on Sarah’s face, he stumbled mid-step, but recovered well enough to make it to the window and pretend he hadn’t noticed. “Ma’am, you need to join the queue.”
“I did join the queue, but I’m worried that by the time you people get to me, I will have joined the afterlife.”
“Ma’am, if you won’t join the queue and wait to be served, I will have to ask you to leave.”
“And I will have to ask you to kiss my arse. All these people are waiting while you’re standing around like a couple of monkeys.”
The Assisant Branch Manager adjusted his tie and looked down his nose at her. “I’m now asking you to leave, ma’am.”
Sarah folded her arms. “So you won’t let me cash the cheque I get from the US Army for my dead husband? He was blown up in Afghanistan, in case you’re wondering. It was so bad they couldn’t even put his body back together. And what about the money I get from the British government for losing half my face fighting for this country? Will you not help me with that? Look, I understand you like to drink your cappuccino in the back and pretend you’re a real businessman, but I need my money to live. I’m strange like that.”
The Assisant Branch Manager shifted uncomfortably. “I’m… very sorry to hear that, ma’am, but I’m afraid you’ll need to leave if you’re going to be difficult. Please call our customer service number if you’d like to make a complaint.”
Sarah moved her face right up to the glass so that the obstinate prick could get a good look at her. “I’m not the one being difficult. Don’t you people get paid enough not to treat your customers like a nuisance? Your job is to serve us, but you make it seem like you’re doing us a favour. We give you our money and you act like it’s yours. We ask for it back and you make us jump through hoops. You fine and charge us every chance you get, then refuse to explain why, as if we should just accept that you make the rules. Well, let me tell you something, Mr Assisant Manager, I got my face blown off fighting in a foreign country so that oil companies and fat cat bankers like your bosses could keep their big houses and shiny sports cars. So, when I say get your bone-idle arses out here right now and do your goddamn jobs, I think I earned the right to say so.”
There was an outright cheer from the queue of customers. They were solidly behind her now, but the Assisant Manager was not. He nodded over Sarah’s shoulder, as if he were Augustus Caesar having a dissenting peasant dragged away and executed.
Sarah spun around to see a wide-shouldered security guard stomping towards her. With his bald head and tattoos he looked absurd in the smart uniform they’d given him. “You’ve been asked to leave, luv.”
“And yet I’m still here. Whatever should we do?”
More chuckles. The crowd was egging her on, eager to see what happened. Sarah rolled her eyes. They were happy to let a disfigured freak entertain them for a while, but she doubted any of them would step in and help her if she needed it.
“You need to leave,” the guard commanded, giving her his best impression of a snarling bear.
Sarah waved a hand in front of her face. “And you need to take a breath mint.”
The guard reached out his hand to grab her shoulder.
Without thinking, Sarah grabbed the big man’s hand and twisted it. She yanked him one way and then the other, flipping him over his own wrist. It was a basic Aikido throw, and one that was second-nature to her. Like riding a rusty old bike.
The guard hit the ground like a sack of potatoes. He was unhurt, but more than a little surprised. Sarah stood over him and snarled. “I’d advise against standing up, mate, or I’ll make a deposit up your arse with my foot.”
The other customers bellowed with laughter. Their blood lust was up and the violence had excited them. Sarah knew enough about mob mentality to know how people’s morals soon changed when their neighbours acted up. It was time to leave; she’d made her point.
Sarah looked back at the stunned Assisant Manager, still safe behind his glass barrier, and pointed her finger at him. “Get your name badge replaced, dickhead. It gives away how much of an idiot you are.” She then strolled out of the bank and into the crisp air of early May, wondering how the hell she would get by without her cheques being cashed. Maybe if she came back tomorrow they wouldn’t remember her face.
Sarah picked up her pace and hurried away from the bank. If they called the police she would be easy to identify. Heavily scarred women wearing jeans and work boots were easy to spot, and sure enough, it didn’t take long before Sarah was certain she was being followed.
Her pursuer was staying back, slipping behind other pedestrians. Every time Sarah looked back, the man pretended to be busy with his phone or the produce of a nearby market stall. He was wearing the long grey coat of a middle-class car salesman.
Sarah slid into an alleyway between two estate agents and headed around the rear of the high street, where there was only a car park and a dingy hairdresser’s. She picked up speed and glanced over her shoulder. The man could make no secret of pursuing her now. His footsteps echoed on the concrete behind her, keeping pace rather than catching up. He was apparently in no rush to catch her.
Sarah rounded a brick wall that sectioned off a small parking yard belonging to the bank, of all places, and slid herself behind a large, steel wheelie bin. Her pursuer would’ve seen her sneak around the wall and into the parking yard, but wouldn’t have seen her slip behind the bin.
The stranger approached, his footsteps growing louder. Sarah crouched and waited.
Clip clop clip clop.
Sarah leapt up from behind the wheelie bin and swung her leg in a flying roundhouse. It was a knockout blow, designed to end the confrontation before it had chance to begin. If the stranger was an off-duty police officer, taking his head off was an ill-advised action, but he asked for it when he’d started with the cloak-and-dagger bullshit.
The stranger ducked Sarah’s leg and swept her feet out from under her as soon as she landed. She was so surprised, that her head struck the concrete and left her lying in a daze.
“Captain Stone,” said the stranger. “I prefer to shake hands upon meeting, but I’m open to other customs too. Would you like to get up and try something easier?”
Sarah gazed up at the man and saw he was clean-cut and handsome. His chin jutted like a superhero’s and his dark sideburns could have been shaped by a laser. Not a single crease found its way onto the tailored shirt beneath his grey coat.
This guy isn’t Old Bill.
Sarah shoved herself backwards and sprang to her feet, then leapt at the man again, this time opting for fists. Her first blow missed, glancing sideways off a blocking forearm, and her follow-up blows struck thin air. Her humiliation was compounded by her legs being swept out from under her again.
As soon as she hit the ground, Sarah sprung up and launched into yet another attack, but this time the man pulled a gun from inside his coat and pointed it at her forehead. “You’re testing my patience, Captain Stone,” he said. “Please, calm down.”
Sarah let her fists drop to her sides, but kept them clenched. “Who the hell are you?” she demanded.
The man let his own fists drop and took a step closer. “You can call me Howard.”
Sarah frowned. The man didn’t look like a ‘Howard.’ “What do you want with me?”
“An afternoon of your time.”
Sarah went to turn away. “Sorry, I’m busy.”
“Busy with what? Cashing the pittance the US Government begrudgingly pays you in widow’s benefits, or the marginally more generous giro the British Government gives you for taking half your face?”
Sarah snarled. The mention of her scars made them tingle, and her left eye blinked sorely where the pink creases met her eyelid. “You know nothing.”
“I know that you made a fine Captain until you hit that IED, the same day that a British missile mistakenly took your husband, US Army Ranger, Lieutenant Thomas Geller. I know that you’ve been slinking around for the last five years like a feral fox, snapping at anybody who comes too close. You’re angry, Sarah, and I don’t blame you.”
Sarah snorted. “So what,” she said. “Half the world is angry. The other half are pushovers. What do you care?”
Howard looked at her. It had been a long time since any man had kept his eyes on her for more than a few seconds. “I can give you the chance to do some good again, Sarah,” he said. “I want to give you the opportunity to pull yourself out of the quagmire of despair you’re in.”
“Who are you?” Sarah was getting tired of the vague talk and wanted straight answers. “Who do you work for?”
“An agency you’ve never heard of. An agency whose job it is to keep this country safe. I work for the government.”
Sarah smiled. “You work for the government? Well, why didn’t you say so? In that case, you can go to Hell.”
She tried to walk away again.
“The bomb that went off yesterday…”
Sarah stopped walking and turned back. “Yeah, good job protecting the country there. How many died?”
“Forty-two. The people responsible have owned up to it.”
“People? I heard it was a geriatric with a grudge.”
“It was,” said Howard. “The bomber was Jeffrey Blanchfield. Sixty-eight years of age and a retired postman, just like the news reported, but there’s more. The grudge may have been his, but the bomb came from Shab Bekheir.”
Sarah froze. For a moment, she couldn’t move or speak. She spluttered before she could get her words out. “Y-you’re telling me that a terrorist cell in Afghanistan is responsible for a pensioner blowing up a town in Cheshire?” She couldn’t help but laugh; it was ridiculous.
Howard was serious. “We received a videotape this morning taking credit for the attack. Al Al-Sharir made the claim himself.”
Sarah’s eyes widened. Her scars stretched and itched, the wasp sting on her palm throbbed, and her blood was pulsing. “Al-Sharir?”
“That’s right,” Howard continued, “Al-Sharir, the man responsible for the IED that hit your squad. You’re the only one who survived, right?”
“No one made it out alive that day, not really.”
“Fancy a chance at getting even?”
“What? By going with you? I don’t even know you.”
“No, you don’t, but what do you have to lose by trusting me? I didn’t go to the trouble of tracking you down just to pull your leg. You have experience we can use Sarah. Help us.”
Sarah didn’t have to think. The guy was right, what did she have to lose? “Where are we going?”
“A place that doesn’t exist.”
Sarah was about to ask what he meant when a door opened at the back of the parking yard. A man stepped out of the bank’s rear exit. To Sarah’s surprise, it was the Assisant Manager, out for a cigarette, no doubt while the bank’s queue still trailed out the front entrance.
Sarah stretched her neck, and it clicked. She looked at Howard and said, “Just let me deal with something, and I’ll be right with you, okay?”
Howard looked confused, but shrugged and nodded.
When the Assisant Manager saw Sarah stomping toward him, he seemed at first surprised, then worried. As she got closer, however, he stood his ground, puffing up his chest like a peacock.
Sarah grinned. Men never ran from a woman; they always thought they were the ones with the power.
Sarah kicked the smug git right in the bollocks before walking back to Howard. “Okay,” she said. “Now we can go.”