I spotted all four members of the snatch squad before they made their move: the pseudo-couple by the door plus two supposed delivery drivers bellying up to the long counter in Stans Cafe (no apostrophe). I guess minimising civilian casualties was still a consideration, but they gave the game away by waiting too long – this wasn’t an eatery where the patrons dawdled over their food.
Unless you were someone like me, with nowhere in particular to go, and in no rush to get there. I was content to sit by the unisex toilet, from where I could take in the entire room, and deal with the obvious threat when it materialised. Preferable to making a run for it on general principal and risk a close pursuit.
When the real customers were down to just some old guy and his terrier in the far corner, it kicked off. All four rose as one and came my way – with two drawn pistols, wrist ties and a black head bag on display.
All four fell dead to the worn lino.
The girl serving behind the counter screamed but I was already on my feet and into the loo. I’d sussed the original window behind the cistern had been replaced by hardboard when they’d installed an Xpelair fan, and only tacked into place. Two straight-arm palm thrusts on the diagonal were enough to send the surround toppling out into the rear alley, with me slithering in close pursuit. With no formal access from Stans, I gambled it wouldn’t feature in anyone’s containment strategy.
I twisted to land on a shoulder rather than outstretched hand. My heavy wool overcoat took the brunt of it, reducing the impact with broken glass, rusting cans and other crap to future bruising rather than lacerated palms. Still bloody hurt, though.
Back on my feet I shrugged off the soiled coat and headed down the alley towards Essex Street. As I walked, I fashioned my silk scarf into an ersatz cravat, and buttoned up my jacket. Another gamble – that surveillance would be concentrated on the main and side entrances to the café, and my ad-hoc change in appearance would be enough to escape a distracted human observer.
I emerged into the confusion of pedestrians encountering the secret state in action. Two plain-clothes officers sporting compact machine pistols were advancing on the café door, and I assumed similar around the corner where the bins were accessed.
Turning left I walked less than 20 yards and down another alleyway that exited into Victoria Mews – literally a different post code. Despite the October chill as dusk drew on, the pavement tables outside Coffee Cabana were quite busy. As I passed, a young woman slid a banknote under her saucer and stood up, talking on a mobile. She was warmly clad in overcoat and leather gloves, topped off with a woolly bobble hat. Not best pleased at what she was hearing if her frown was anything to go by. I took a half-step to the right around her radiated annoyance, avoiding eye contact.
Two men walking towards me hand-in-hand broke contact and reached into the outside pockets of their matching bulky jackets. I didn’t react other than to slow my pace, waiting for the full ambush to unfold.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and a woman’s voice, Scottish accent, in a rush to get the words out. “The palm of my glove contains a shaped charge that will detonate if I break contact.” Miss Bobble Hat took a breath. “We simply wish to have a civilised conversation concerning your situation. No blindfolds, no extreme rendition, no sudden, unexplained, deaths. Your choice of public venue, but one where you cannot keep all of us in sight simultaneously.”
It could have been a bluff, I suppose, but it seemed I’d now used up my luck for this afternoon. I gestured across the street. “That pub, Brodies. It caters mostly for the evening crowd so should be quiet enough, but public enough, to satisfy both parties.”
“Lead the way, Mister Gabriel.”
I sat facing the blonde woman (hat removed), with untouched coffees in front of us. She exuded a cheery disposition that didn’t extend to her eyes. Her two associates sat at tables behind me so that I was in a triangulated field of fire. Perhaps the glove had been a bluff, or I’d missed her disarming it, but in any event, they now had me cold.
Across the room, one of the other patrons was feeding the music system. He hesitated for a moment, then also slid a coin into the ‘Disco’ box on the wall beside it. The slighted muted strains of “Jeux sans frontiers” – by my namesake, no less – issued from the wall speakers.
My companion almost smiled. “You can call me Fiona, Mister Gabriel – or can I call you Peter?” I shrugged. “Well, Peter, we may be the first to identify your, um, unique talent, but if you won’t work for us, well, such a potentially destructive ability can’t be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. I’m afraid it’s as simple as that.”
“You think I wanted things this way?” Each word was edged with bitterness. “It’s taken years to reign it in, to stop killing everyone who makes me angry.”
“But now you can direct it, take a life as you wish, in line of sight?”
I sighed and rubbed my eyes. “Yes, even a reflection is enough.”
Fiona sat back. “Excellent. Well, you’ll be, um, doctored to ensure your loyalty-”
“You mean compliance.”
“Same thing – but other than that, you’ll find working for us quite agreeable.”
“Killing to order”
Another almost smile. “Quite.”
Music filled a sudden lull in the low background chatter. “It’s a knockout.”
I sat back and raised my eyes to Heaven. The mirror ball descended, displaying a myriad bar interiors as the ceiling spots weren’t turned on. Sometimes Fate displays a sense of humour, or at least synchronicity.
“If looks could kill…”