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The Assassin And The Arriving Angels by Michaela Francis

EXTRACT FOR
The Assassin And The Arriving Angels 
(Michaela Francis)


Slaves Of The Amethyst 10

Narrators Foreword

 

In that pivotal summer of the history of the House of Mathom, so many factors came to be of significance that it is sometimes difficult for the researcher to separate the threads and identify the specific events which were instrumental in the founding of the new age. There was, of course, the beginning of the Wars of the Goddess which impacted directly on the Imperial House in many ways, not least of which were the refugees of war that drifted like flotsam onto the very steps of Mathom Hall itself with consequences that were barely understood at the time. It is occasionally said that the new dynasty was forged in the crucible of war and there is much truth in the statement. The young slaves, who arrived in Mathomdale that summer to rejuvenate the Line, came through many routes but, undoubtedly, a high proportion arrived through their displacement as a result of conflict.

It is important to recognise the effect and ultimate contribution of these new arrivals. Whereas many historians have focussed primarily on the more central characters in the rich drama unfolding in Mathomdale, these newcomers were also of critical importance in the foundation of the dynasty that would emerge from those chaotic and troubled times. It seems indeed, in hindsight, that while the House of Mathom’s attention was distracted by the necessities of war, the immediate threats within Mathomdale itself and the frightening unfolding of Prophecy One, it almost overlooked the steady stream of quiet arrivals that would have such profound consequences to its future.

We do a disservice to the story to overlook these arrivals in our turn. The simple fact remains, that, virtually unseen, an extraordinary collection of young people, from all corners of the globe, were gathering in Mathomdale; the future Slaves of the Amethyst who would invest the dynasty with such dazzling promise and glittering hope.


Chapter One

 

Danny and Darren were up a tree. It was a venerable old tree, many of its branches sagging with senility towards the clear waters of the still pond. The pond was called the Golden Pool and it was easy to see why with the fringes of yellow water lilies about its banks and the odd almost, gilded tint to the water as the sun lanced down into it. It was a fairly shallow pool, heavily grown with weeds and lilies, and beautiful in its concealed location, sheltered among the trees. Dragonflies hawked along its margins and bright blue, metallic damselflies perched on the weed stems above the water surface. The surface of the water was unruffled by any breeze and the flat tranquillity was disturbed only by the meanderings of the odd moorhen and the humping dark shapes nosing about in the weeds. “Bloody ‘ell!” breathed Daniel in excitement “Look at t’ size o’ that bastard! It’s forty pound if it’s an ounce.”

“Where? Where?” asked Darren caught up in Daniel’s excitement.

“There! Just by that sunken branch. Yer must see it!”

“I got too much glare off the water there.”

“’Ere. ‘Ave a look through me glasses.” Daniel handed Darren the polarising sunglasses he wore.

With the glare reduced by the glasses Darren saw the big carp immediately. “Holy shit! That’s a real lunker.” Even as Darren watched another even larger shape joined the first nuzzling around the branches of the partially submerged tree. “Jesus Christ! There’s another one Danny. Damn me if it ain’t even bigger!”

“Give us the friggin’ glasses back quick!” Daniel snatched the sunglasses and whistled in astonishment. “Sod me! I don’t even like ter think ‘ow big that sod is.”

“How big do you reckon?”

“Robin said as ‘ow t’ carp in ‘ere went up inter t’ upper thirties but that bastard’s closer ter fifty! Bugger me! Just ‘ow big do the bloody things grow in ‘ere?”

“Does Robin fish this water then?”

“Not much Ah don’t think. ‘E’s more ov a salmon an’ trout fellah. I tell yer summat though, there’d be bloody carp anglers wot’d flog their own mothers fer a crack on this place. It don’t look as if anybody ‘ardly fishes it either. Far as I know it’s only t’ odd folk wot works on t’ grounds wot even know about this pond.”

“Maybe we should have brought a couple of rods with us.”

“Nay not yet Darren. We know where the buggers are. They’re not going nowhere. We’ll come back an’ bait a patch off that bush there fer a few days, gerrem used ter findin’ food an’ then we’ll lay a trap fer ‘em.”

“You’re the expert here Danny. I ain’t fished much for carp.”

“Don’t yer get ‘em where you come from then?”

“Sure. We got carp all over the place in the States but most folks don’t bother with them much. Kinda figure like they’re trash fish. Most folks fish for game fish or pan fish, like trout, bass, bluegills, catfish and the like.”

“Bloody heathens!”

“Well in the last few years there’s been more interest in fishing for them. Some folks go fly fishing for them now.”

“Yer wouldn’t shift those buggers out from under yon tree wi a bloody fly rod.”

“Nope. Got to agree with you there. You’d need a pole could stop a moose to hold those lunkers.”

“This place is bloody fantastic! Look at that group ovver on that gravel bar. That tail end fish is well ovver twenny and ‘e’s just t’ babby in t’ gang. There’s got ter be at least two thirties among ‘em. We’ve got ter give this place a go Darren. Do yer fancy it?”

“Hell yes! Count me in. You got the rigs to deal with this place?”

“Oh aye. Still got all me carp rods an’ what ‘ave yer. We ‘ad ter flog off a fair bit o’ stuff ter mek ends meet me an’ Alice when we got wed but I weren’t givin’ up me fishin’ tackle fer nobody.”

“You got gear I could borrow?”

“Oh aye. No need ter worry about that. We’ll mek a proper English carp angler out o’ you yet Darren.”

“Suits me! I got me a hankering to see what forty pounds of carp feels like on the end of my line.” Darren paused “Hey somebody’s coming.”

Daniel looked away from the water to see a familiar figure walking through the bushes along the bank side. “Ey up!” he whispered conspiratorially. “It’s our Becky. Shurrup an’ we’ll give ‘er a surprise.” Rebecca was wending her way slowly along the bank. When she was beneath their tree Daniel called “Now then Becky!” Rebecca jumped in alarm and her eyes flew wide in surprise to spy the two young men above her as she staggered against a tree trunk.

“You bastards! What the devil do you mean by giving me a shock like that? I thought for a second it was a pair of goblins sat up there or something.”

Daniel and Darren laughed delighted by the surprise they’d pulled on her. “Yer ought ter be more careful Becky love.” Daniel told her. “Yer never know what might be lurkin’ in t’ trees above yer.”

“And just why are we up a tree boys might I be so bold as to ask? In retrogression toward our primeval instincts are we? Shall I slip back to the hall and fetch you a bunch of bananas for your lunch?”

“We’re just watchin’ t’ fish like.” Daniel told her.  

“Oh really? What are men like? Remove the smallest veneer of domestication from them and they can shed thousands of years of civilising influence and evolutionary progress in a twinkling. You can take the man out of the jungle but you can’t take the jungle out of the man it appears.”   

Daniel laughed “At least we’re not after draggin’ you off to us cave Becky. Wot are yer doin’ out this way anyway?”

“I’m out looking for Jenny actually. She still hasn’t come back to the Hall yet and I’m starting to get worried about her. Have you two seen her when your attention could be spared from your precious fish?”

“No ma-am.” Darren told her “Surely she’ll be safe enough here on the Hall’s grounds though won’t she?”

“Well….” Rebecca began but she paused and with her hand on her hip. “Look will two do me the honour of coming down out of that bloody tree. I refuse to hold a conversation with a pair of barely domesticated lower primates.” Grinning the two men scrambled to the ground.

“So where’s she’s got to then?” asked Daniel.

“I’m damned if I know. I’ve been looking for her everywhere. Nobody among the ground staff or the security forces seems to have seen her either. I thought she might be up on the sports fields but there’s no sign of her. I’m checking out around some of the lakes and ponds now because Jenny’s got a thing about water. It would be just like her to be sat somewhere staring wistfully into some pond while she feels sorry for herself.”

“I’m sorry ma-am.” Darren interrupted, “I guess this is mostly my fault.”

“No of course not Darren. It’s just the way Jenny is. With all the best will in the world you can’t be expected to take responsibility for her conduct.”

“Excuse me ma-am but isn’t Miss Jennifer a grown woman? Isn’t she allowed to go off somewhere on her own if she feels the need for a little solitude?”

“Well it’s not quite as simple as that Darren. For one thing she has duties that she is neglecting and for which she could be punished if I don’t get her to attend to them. But that’s not the main reason that I want to run her to earth.”

“That is ma-am?”

“I’m concerned for Jennifer herself Darren. Jennifer’s on an emotional roller coaster for the moment and she needs somebody to keep an eye on her. We’re under strict instructions to make sure that she’s well protected and given plenty of love and attention Darren. Jenny’s the youngest among us and she can be dangerously unstable.”

“But hell…. what harm can come to her?”

“With all due respect Darren you don’t know Jenny as well as I do. This summer she’s had her world turned upside down, lost her family and been asked to grow up too quickly. She’s got other troubles bothering her as well and her mood swings can be wildly unpredictable. I just want to make sure that no harm comes to her.”

“You mean she could do something crazy, hurt herself or something?”

“Goddess! Don’t even say that Darren. Jenny can swing from euphoria to black depression in an instance at the moment and there’s no telling what sort of idiocy she might get it into her mind to do.”

Darren looked at Rebecca closely seeing the evident anxiety there “I’m sorry ma-am. I thought you were just being overly invasive of Miss Jennifer’s privacy but I see that you’re genuinely concerned.”

“Tell yer what,” Daniel suggested. “Why don’t me and Darren ‘elp yer look Becky? You can go off in one direction an’ we can try in another.”

“The grounds are huge Danny and you don’t know them well yourselves. You could end up getting lost.”

“Give ovver Becky. We can allus find us way back ter t’ ‘All! It’s not like it in’ t big enough for ‘eaven’s sake. Yer can see it from miles away.”

“Are you sure your fish won’t pine for you whilst you’re neglecting them?”

“Fish ’ll still be ‘ere when we come back ter reacquaint our sens wi ‘em.”

“In that case thank you for your offer. I’ll look over towards the Oriental Gardens in case she’s wandered that way if you two cover the area to the east. If you don’t find her, we’ll meet back at the Hall in two hours for lunch. If she doesn’t turn up or we don’t find her by lunchtime I’m sending out security to look for her. If necessary I’ll have her dragged back to the Hall in chains and confined to the cellars until the Lady’s return.”

“Jesus!” said Darren, “Let’s not get too dramatic. She’s probably just lost track of time or something.”

“I hope you’re right Darren.”

“Listen Miss Rebecca. I’m sorry but I do have some responsibility in this. Miss Jennifer was kinda upset with me last night so I’ve got to take some blame if she’s gone off in a huff.”

“Oh Darren. Don’t concern yourself with that. Let’s just find her and see if she’s all right. Maybe I am being a bit of a drama queen but I can’t help it. I’m worried sick about her. I love her you see.”

“Aye well we’re not doin’ owt about it standin’ ‘ere talkin’.” Daniel pointed out sensibly. “Let’s get lookin’.”


Chapter Two

 

Jennifer was walking down the slopes towards the distant Hall when the assassin decided to make his move. She was isolated now... the young one, far from help. It would only take seconds and then he would melt back into the trees where he had been hiding these last days, waiting for his chance. The others were dangerous but this young one was terribly vulnerable. He’d stalked her for days now, on her morning runs in the grounds, but the heavy security about the Hall’s grounds had denied him his chance. But he was patient in his craft, this lone killer. He was a solitary wild card infiltrated into the inner domain of the Hall, there to kill and disappear, as wraith like as he had entered. It had been easy to identify a target. The young auburn-haired girl was the weak link in this perilous inner sanctum where a single mistake could mean death. He’d been virtually invisible during his patient wait in the vast grounds. From the camouflaged den he’d created in the woods in the grounds he moved silently about garnering information from afar about his victim. She was apt to wander away from the Hall and its heavy military presence on her daily runs and she had favourite routes she liked to take. It was almost too easy.

He’d hoped originally to catch her on one of her sorties away from the Hall’s grounds but the witch that ruled this land had trumped that possibility and no longer was her little favourite allowed away from the grounds without an escort. Very well then, he had infiltrated into the grounds themselves; creeping in under cover of darkness to lie concealed until his moment to strike. It was a fantastically dangerous move. There were eyes everywhere in these grounds and, behind those eyes, people who would kill without hesitation but his target was making his life easier; drifting away from her umbrella of security, flouncing about with her head in the clouds and unaware that death stalked her in the peaceful surroundings of the parklands. She seemed sad today the assassin thought. Well she would not have much longer to mope about her worries. He was within fifty yards of her now; moving silently through the bushes, his tread quieter than that of a stalking cat. He had already earmarked the killing spot a little further down the path. He let the thin metal cord slip through his fingers. It took five seconds for an expert garrotter to kill his victim once he had whipped that cord about their neck. It was fast, quiet and deadly and the assassin was very expert indeed.

He moved closer to the interception point watching her. She was walking very slowly now, her head bowed, her mind concerned with her own petty worries. He was fixated on the slim neck above the running vest. It would be a few quick steps and then his garrotte would be about her throat. There would be a few moments of silent struggle with his knee in the small of her back and then the slender body would fall limp. She would die without even seeing her murderer. There would be a few seconds of incomprehension as she felt the garrotte about her neck and the life ebbing from her before oblivion. Quickly and efficiently, that was how the assassin liked his victims to go. It was quiet up here on this hillside. By the time they found the body he would be long away. Maybe he’d have time to violate her dead body before fleeing. She was pretty this young victim he noticed. Well they were all ugly in death. Sometimes they soiled themselves in their death throes. He liked that. He felt the familiar sexual thrill at the thought of her last struggles with his garrotte about her throat. He enjoyed killing.

He moved into position; the killing very close now. His loins were aching with the desire of it. Taking life was food and drink to him, a sensual pleasure that he took greedily. He yearned for her death agony like a sexual release. Sometimes he would whisper in the ear of his victims in their last moment of consciousness so that they would die hearing his voice as the last thing they would ever experience. He would do that with this one he decided. Slowly he moved into position to pounce. Then he froze into rigid immobility, his heart pounding in his chest. Somebody was coming. A man with a double-barrelled shotgun under his arm stepped out into the path to intercept the girl. He sucked his breath silently between his teeth and slunk back into the undergrowth in great stealth, foiled at the very moment of the kill. But he could wait. There would be other opportunities. His craft had taught him great patience and the assassin was a very patient man.

Jennifer jumped with surprise as the figure emerged before her on the pathway. “Good afternoon Miss Jennifer Walstow-Mathom.” the figure said grinning at her in delight.

“Why Mr Baxter! You startled me.”

“Aye well a bit ov a shock’s allus good for the soul they allus say. Yer’ve wandered a bit far from t’ All terday aven’t yer Jenny love?”

“I…. I was just out running Mr Baxter.”

Baxter looked at Jennifer in her tiny shorts and skimpy running top in unholy glee. “Well yer should be more careful Jenny lass. Runnin’ about wi’ next ter no clothes on. Yer don’t know oo might be about up this end o’ the park. Didn’t yer know there’s a bit of a scare on?”

“I…. I thank you for your concern Mr Baxter but I was just on my way back to the Hall. If you would excuse me please?”

“Now then Jenny. Just being considerate is all. I’ll escort yer back if’n you want. Can’t be ‘avin’ yer traipsin’ all ovver t’ place on yer jack when there’s an alert on can we? Any road I’ve bin meanin’ to ‘ave a little chat wi yer when I could get t’ chance.”

“I’m sorry Mr Baxter but it’s not very convenient. I do have to get back to the Hall.”

“There’s no rush Jenny. I just thought yer might like ter discuss some o’ t’ difficulties your young Miss ‘Awthorne ‘as got her sen inter.”

“Julie? I’m sorry Mr Baxter but I fail to understand you.”

“Do yer?” Baxter chuckled meaningfully “Well yer’ve a bit o’ time surely ter pass t’ time o’ t’ day Jenny.” Baxter reached into his pocket “’Ere would yer like a cigarette Jenny?” Baxter proffered a packet of cigarettes.

“I… I don’t smoke Mr Baxter.”

“Nay? Well that’s funny cos neither does young Julie either. Funny why she should want so many cigs isn’t it?”

“I’m at a loss Mr Baxter. Perhaps you would care to explain yourself more clearly.”

“Cigarettes Jennifer love. Lots of them! Your little girlfriend’s bin a bit of a naughty girl ‘asn’t she?”

Jennifer looked bewildered “What on earth are you talking about Mr Baxter?”

“’Ave a look at that packet Jenny love.” Baxter tossed the packet to Jennifer who caught it by surprise. “All the way from sunny Spain them are. Contraband Jennifer. Black market. Cigarettes wot never saw a customs stamp on ‘em Jennifer. Nay don’t ‘and ‘em back. There’s plenny more where them come from. Couple o’ thousand cartons by my reckoning. I ‘appened ter slip inter t’ ‘Awthorne’s depot one afternoon Jenny. There they was. Fifty odd thousand-pound wuth of illegal fags ‘idden under a tarpaulin. Not just a couple o’ cartons from t’ duty free shop. Oh no! Your Julie’s bin up ter no good Jenny. There was tens o’ thousands ov fags in there wot t’ custom and excises would be right interested in knowin’ about.”

Jennifer was staring at the cigarette packet in horror. “Surely you can’t think that Julie has anything to do with contraband. It can’t be true.”

“Nay? I’ve been seein’ your little madam about recently Jenny. Come up a bit in t’ world ‘asn’t she? Expensive new clothes, jewellery, posh cars pullin’ up outside t’ village shop; doin’ right well for ‘er sen isn’t she? Nice little racket she’s runnin’ down in t’ village be looks o’ things.”

“That’s a monstrous suggestion.” Jennifer was white with shock.

“Aye well we’ll be seein’ as to whether or not t’ authorities think so Jenny. It’s time some conscientious citizen were ‘avin’ a quiet word wi t’ police about Julie ‘Awthorne’s illicit activities.”

“But it doesn’t follow that Julie’s involved Mr Baxter.”

“Now come on Jenny love. Yer not that daft. It’s common knowledge in t’ village that young Julie runs t’ Awthorne business. If there’s any funny business goin’ on your Julie ‘ll be up to ‘er neck in it. I’ve allus said that class will tell. A leopard can’t change its spots. She might be ‘angin’ about wi t’ likes of you an’ t’ other fine misses from t’ All but common she were born and common as muck she’ll stay. Well I don’t suppose yer’ll be seein’ much ov ‘er in days ter come. I’d say a nice long ‘oliday at ‘Er Majesty’s pleasure in a juvenile correction facility is Miss ‘Awthorne’s most likely future prospect an’ even when she gets out I can’t see ‘Er Ladyship allowin’ yer ter mix wi the criminal classes now.”

“You…… you can’t be telling the police about it Mr Baxter. Please no!”

“Oh but I can. I’ve me duty as a law abidin’ citizen ter be thinkin’ about.” Jennifer reeled in shock. So much now seemed to make sense; Julie’s secrecy of late, her mysterious absences, new clothes, sapphires and pearls. It all added up. No wonder Julie hadn’t wanted to tell her what was bothering her. She was involved in criminal activities. “Of course.” Baxter continued “I might be persuaded ter be reasonable about it. Like as not Julie’s just fallen in with the wrong people. I might be open ter givin’ ‘er a second chance. She’s only young after all an’ maybe it’s not too late for ‘er ter see t’ error ov ‘er ways an’ go straight. Of course I’ll ‘ave me price like.”

“Wh…. what do you want Mr Baxter?” whispered Jennifer hardly daring to breathe.

In two quick steps Baxter covered the ground between them and took Jennifer by the elbows. His voice grew deep and husky as he gripped her arms in sudden lust. “Yer know what it is that I want Jenny. I want you! I want you down at my cabin, stripped down for me pleasure. That’s what I want Jenny. That’s what I’ve allus wanted.”

“No Mr Baxter! Please!”

“Aye! I want yer naked Jenny.” Baxter’s ferocity was relentless “I want yer naked an’ dancin’ ter t’ tune o’ my whip Jenny love. Yer know a bit more what to expect now, I’m thinking. Yer got idin’s enough while you was in t’ cellars didn’t yer? Oh aye! I know all about it. I were watchin’ that day when old Sebastian gave yer a good leatherin’ in t’ prison garden Jenny. A right bonny picture yer were tied to that stake whimperin’ after ‘e’d tekken ‘is lash to yer. Well it’s my turn now little Jenny. That’s ‘ow I want yer. This very afternoon. Young Julie ‘Awthorne ‘ll ‘ave nowt to worry about just as long as you present yersen nicely fer my pleasure this afternoon. Your body fer my whip. That’s the price o’ my silence Jennifer.”

“No! No please!” Jennifer was trembling in fear.

“Oh but yes Jenny. Of course yer could be tellin’ yer Mistress about me an’ I’d be losin’ me job but then your girlfriend ‘d be facin’ a nice salutary sentence wouldn’t she? So I think we’ll keep this just between ourselves Jenny. ‘Alf past two this afternoon Jenny. Down at my cabin in t’ Low Woods. I’ll be waitin’ for yer. Say nowt to nobody about it an’ your Julie keeps er sen out ov jail.”

“I…. I can’t leave the grounds Mr Baxter. We’re under restrictions.”

“That’s easy enough Jenny. Just take the little path wot goes past the old mill on Barling Beck down the east end. After a while yer’ll. come to a little secret gate wot leads inter t’ woods an out o’ t’ grounds. Nobody ’ll see yer that way if yer take care. Go down the path through t’ woods an’ after a mile or so yer’ll come to a lane. Cross that an’ there’s a gate on t’ far side that leads down inter t’ low woods. Foller the track inter t’ woods and another mile or so an’ yer’ll see a big old tree by the side wi a path leadin’ off ter the left. I’ll leave a sign on t’ tree so yer know yer way. My cabin’s a couple o’ undred yards down that path. It’ll tek yer about three quarters of an hour all told if yer don’t ‘ang about. I’ll be waitin’ for yer. Mek yersen pretty afore ye come along Jenny. I’ll want yer lookin’ yer best when yer strip down fer me whip.”

“I…. I can’t do it!”

Fiercely Baxter grasped the front of Jennifer’s shorts and hauled her to the tip of her toes by them, the material cutting into her sex. “Yes yer can Jenny. I’ve waited too long fer this now. That’s my price fer keepin’ me mouth shut. Just you an’ me tergether down t’ Low Woods nice an’ quiet where there’ll be nobody t’ ‘ear yer squeals when I tek me whip to yer.”

“No please!”

In a sudden dart Baxter thrust his hand into Jennifer’s shorts and grasped her sex. “Oh yes Jenny! Yer want ter come don’t yer? Don’t lie ter me now.” Jennifer moaned despairingly, the violation of her sex compounded by the betrayal of the moisture seeping from it. “Say yer’ll come Jenny. Say yer’ll come an’ nobody ‘ll ever ear a thing about wot Julie’s got ‘idden in her depot. Yer’ve ‘ad whippin’s before. One more won’t ‘arm yer.” He released her sex and stared at her a dangerous glint in his eye.

“I… I’d have the promise of your silence if I do as you say?”

“Aye! I’m telling yer. Julie ‘ll ‘ave nowt to fear from me Jenny. It’ll just be between the pair of us. ‘Alf past two Jenny. Don’t be late now.”

Jennifer surrendered completely knowing that once more Mathomdale demanded a sacrifice of her. “V… very well Mr Baxter. If you swear to hold by your promise. I…. I’ll be there.”

Baxter exulted. “Good girl Jenny. I’ll be true ter me word yer can bank on that. Now be running on along an’ be getting’ yersen pretty fer me. I’ll be expectin’ yer at ‘alf two sharp.”

“Very well.” she whispered in quiet, ultimate despair. Then she was reeling away down the path her face white and her eyes staring beyond tears.

Baxter watched her go in triumphant satisfaction. Even in the moment of his exultation however, a worm of uncertainty insinuated itself into his consciousness. Perhaps it was just the tiniest rustle from the undergrowth, the merest whisper of unexplained movement or perhaps it was an unfamiliar scent on the air. Whatever it was Baxter whipped around to glare at the dense bushes intensely. For all his insanity Baxter was an Alpha Sensual and possessed the keen acuity of the senses that his inheritance had bequeathed him. For a second he was sure that he was not alone on the quiet path.

He snapped the breach of his shotgun back into place and thumbed back the hammers, his eyes scourging the undergrowth fiercely “Oo’s there?” he called “Come on! Show thee sen!” He strode forward to the bushes his weapon held before him and paused to listen in intensity. But there was silence from the bushes now and just the cawing of the crows from the poplars along the path to disturb the morning air. A blackbird flew out from the bushes. Perhaps it had been just that. Perhaps all he had detected was the thrush scrabbling in the detritus beneath the bushes for worms. But he was troubled, his instincts screaming caution at him. Slowly he backed away from the thick bushes but he kept his weapon cocked, his eyes alert. He moved off down the path but his attention never wavered from the bushes until he had turned the bend in the trail and they were lost to view.

The assassin made it back to his hidden culvert with his heart pounding knowing just how close he’d come to death. The man with the gun had known he was there. He had trained for years in the art of stealth and silent movement yet the man had detected him. Had he persisted in his scrutiny of the undergrowth he would have found him. The killer was a veteran of many assassinations but none had carried the peril of this infiltration into the nest of vipers these seemingly innocuous parklands represented. He wondered, not for the first time, if the money was worth it. These people were dangerous. He didn’t know who they were or what they stood for but their innate peril was clear and evident. He was living on borrowed time here on these grounds. His employers had sent him into a poisoned garden, alone and expendable, some discardable pawn in the game they were playing.

He looked for the thousandth time at the small collection of photos he had concealed in his culvert. They were the pictures of five young women, his targets, and he wondered why his employers wanted one of them dead. He fingered the newest photograph almost lovingly. It showed the auburn-haired girl that had been just seconds away from death before the intervention of the man with the gun. She could thank him for her life now he thought. But only for a short while. He’d overheard the conversation between them. He pulled out his plans of the grounds. They were inadequate these plans he knew. Nobody seemed to have a firm grasp on the topography of these parklands and he’d been pencilling in details almost constantly. Nevertheless he thought he could find the track over the Barling Beck by the mill and somewhere, down in the woods beyond, he’d whisper in the young girl’s ear.