Assassin (Alex Hawke Series #2)by Ted Bell
Alex Hawke is back. In this explosive,jaw-tightening follow-up to Ted Bell's ""rich, spellbinding, and absorbing"" (Clive Cussler) debut national bestseller, Hawke, fearless intelligence operative Lord Alexander Hawke matches wits with a cunning and bloodthirsty psychopath in a desperate race to avert an American Armageddon.
In an elegant palazzo/b>/i>… See more details below
Alex Hawke is back. In this explosive,jaw-tightening follow-up to Ted Bell's ""rich, spellbinding, and absorbing"" (Clive Cussler) debut national bestseller, Hawke, fearless intelligence operative Lord Alexander Hawke matches wits with a cunning and bloodthirsty psychopath in a desperate race to avert an American Armageddon.
In an elegant palazzo on the Grand Canal, an American ambassador's tryst turns deadly. In the seamy underbelly of London, a pub-crawling killer is on the loose. And in a storybook chapel nestled in the Cotswolds, a marriage made in heaven turns to hell on earth. Isolated incidents? Or links in a chain of events hurtling towards catastrophe? So begins Assassin, the tour de force thriller that heralds the return of every terrorist's worst nightmare, Alex Hawke.
A shadowy figure known as the Dog is believed to be the ruthless terrorist who is systematically and savagely assassinating American diplomats and their families around the globe. As the deadly toll mounts inexorably, Hawke, along with former NYPD cop and Navy SEAL Stokely Jones, is called upon by the U.S. government to launch a search for the assassin behind the murders.
Hawke, who ""makes James Bond look like a ""slovenly, dull-witted clockpuncher"" (Kirkus Reviews), is soon following a trail that leads back to London in the go-go nineties, when Arab oil money fueled lavish, and sometimes fiendish, lifestyles. Other murky clues point to the Florida Keys, where a vicious killer hides behind the gates of a fabled museum. And to a remote Indonesian island where a madman tinkers with strains of a deadly virus and slyly bides his time.
Hawke must call upon resources deep within himself. He must enter a race against time to stop a cataclysmic attack on America's most populous cities and avengethe inexplicable and horrific crime that has left him devastated.
Brimming with relentless action and stylish detail, and featuring a hero that readers wil"
"Fast and furious....Readers will be caught in the whirlwind of action and find themselves having a grand old time."
"Fascinating characters, a hairpin plot, and wonderfully talented writing. Assassin is what you get when you pair a great story with a great writer."
"Hawke is the kind of character somebody really should put in a movie: he is smart, resourceful, attractive everything we want in an action hero. Bell is a nimble writer, and fans of the first Hawke adventure won't want to miss this sequel. New readers will be enthralled and will immediately track down the first novel in the series."
"I love to read books from authors like Clancy, Ludlum, and Flynn. Ted Bell, the author of Assassin, is in that league. His research is so amazing you'd swear the events in the book actually took place. And here's the scary part they could....If you're going to read just one suspenseful-thrilling-emotional roller coaster spy novel this summer, you've got to read Assassin by Ted Bell....Make sure you clear some reading time on your schedule...you will not be able to put Assassin down."
Glenn Beck, nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and author of The Real America
"Assassin is the most highly imaginative thriller to come along in a long while."
"Outstanding...[A] rip-roaring tale with a grand hero....A commercial blockbuster packed with pleasure."
"A perfect summertime thriller."
Dallas Morning News
"Ted Bell is the new Clive Cussler...."
"Nautical, rugged, and sophisticated."
Read an Excerpt
The late afternoon sun slanted through the tall windows opening onto the Grand Canal. There were silken peacocks in the velvet draperies and they stirred in the salty Adriatic breeze. These warm evening zephyrs sent sunstruck motes of dust swirling indolently upward toward the vaulted and gilded ceiling.
Naked, lying atop the brocade coverlet of the grand canopied bed, the Honorable Simon Clarkson Stanfield rolled over and impatiently stubbed out his cigarette in the heavy crystal ashtray beside his bed. He lifted his keen grey eyes to the windows and gazed intently at the scene beyond them. The timeless and ceaseless navigation of Venetians had never lost its fascination for him.
At this moment, however, the vaporetti, water taxis, and produce-laden gondolas plying their way past the Gritti Palace were not the focus of his attention. Nor were the fairy-tale Byzantine and Baroque palazzi lining the opposite side of the canal, shimmering in the waning golden light. His attention was directed toward a sleek mahogany motorboat that was just now working its way through the traffic. The beautiful Riva seemed to be heading for the Gritti's floating dock.
He swung his long legs over the side of the bed and stood, sucking in the beginnings of an unfortunate gut reflected from far too many angles in the mirrored panels between each of the windows. He'd recently turned fifty, but he worked hard at staying in shape. Too much good wine and pasta, he thought patting his belly. How the hell did these local Romeos stay so thin? He was sliding across the polished parquet floors in his leather slippers, headed for the large open balcony when the telephone jangled.
"Signore, prego," the concierge said, "you asked to be called, subito, the moment la Signorina arrived from the aeroporto. The Marco Polo taxi is coming. Almost to the dock now."
"Grazie mille, Luciano," Stanfield said. "Sì, I can see her. Send her up, per favore."
"Va bene, Signore Stanfield."
Luciano Pirandello, the Gritti's ancient majordomo, was an old and trusted friend, long accustomed to the American's habits and eccentricities. Signore never used the hotel's entrance, for instance. He always came and went through the kitchen, and he always took the service elevator to the same second floor suite. He took most of his meals in his rooms and, save a few late night forays to that American mecca known as Harry's Bar, that's where he stayed.
Now that he was such a well-known personage in Italy, il Signore's visits to Venice had become shorter and less frequent. But Luciano's palm had been graced by even more generous contributions. After all, the great man's privacy and discretion had to be ensured. Not to mention many visiting "friends" who had, over the years, included a great number of the world's most beautiful women, some of them royalty, some of them film stars, many of them inconveniently married to other men.
Shouldering into a long robe of navy silk, Stanfield moved out under the awning of the balcony to watch Francesca disembark. Luciano stood in his starched white jacket at the end of the dock, bowing and scraping, extending his hand to la Signorina as she managed to step deftly ashore without incident despite the choppy water and the bobbing Riva. Sprezzatura, Francesca called it. The art of making the difficult look easy. She always behaved as if she were being watched, and of course she always was.
Not only Stanfield watched from the shadows of his balcony, but also everyone sipping aperitifs or aqua minerale and munching antipasti on the Gritti's floating terrace stared at the famous face and figure of the extravagantly beautiful blonde film star in the yellow linen suit.
Luciano, smiling, offered to take her single bag, a large fire-engine-red Hermès pouch that hung from her shoulder by a strap, but she refused, pushing his hand away abruptly and snapping at him. Odd, Stanfield thought. He'd never seen Francesca snap at anyone, especially Luciano, the soul of beneficent charm. Foul humor? She was six hours late. Hell, six hours of sitting on your backside at Rome Fiumicino Airport would be enough to put anyone in a bad mood.
Stanfield watched the top of Francesca's blond head disappear beneath his balcony balustrade and took a deep breath, inhaling both the scent of damp marble within the room and the smell of springtime marsh that came in off the canal. Soon, his room would be filled with the scent of Chanel Number 19. He had known she would not dare look up and catch his eye and he had not been disappointed. He smiled. He was still smiling, thinking of Francesca's backside, when there came a soft knocking at the heavy wooden door.
"Caro," she said as he pulled it open to admit her. "I'm so sorry, darling. Scusa?"
Stanfield's reply was to gather her up into his arms, inhale her, and waltz her across the floor. There was a champagne bucket full of mostly melted ice, two upside down glasses, and a half-empty bottle of Pol Roger Winston Churchill standing by the window. Putting her down, he plucked a single flute from the bucket and handed it to her, then filled the glass with the foaming amber liquid.
She downed it in one draught and held the glass out for more.
"Thirsty, darling?" Stanfield asked, refilling her glass and pouring one for himself.
"It was, what do you call it, a fucking nightmare."
"Sì, un fottuto disastro," Stanfield said with a smile. "All part of the glamour of the tryst, the illicit liaison, my dear Francesca. The endless obstacles the gods delight in placing between the two venal lovers. Traffic jams, rotten weather, the suspicious spouse, the vagaries of Italian airlines what happened to you, anyway? You were invited for lunch."
"Caro, don't be angry with me. It was not my fault. The stupid director, Vittorio, he would not let me leave the set for two hours past the time he promised. And, then it was a vagary with the stupid Alitalia. And then "
"Shh," Stanfield said, putting a finger to her infinitely desirable red lips. He pulled a small gilded chair away from the window, sat, and said, "Turn around. Let me look at your backside."
Francesca obeyed and stood quietly with her back to him, sipping her third glass of champagne. The dying rays of light off the canal played with the taut curve of her hips and the cleft of her celebrated buttocks.
"Bella, bella, bella," Stanfield whispered. He emptied the balance of the cold wine into his glass and, without taking his eyes off of the woman, picked up the phone and ordered another bottle.
"Caro?" the woman asked after the click of the receiver in its cradle had punctuated what became a few long moments of silence.
"Tiptoes," he said, and watched the fetching rise of her calf muscles as she giggled and complied. He had taught her the word tiptoes soon after they'd met and it had become one of her favorite words. She flung her blonde hair around, twisting her head and gazing down at him over her shoulder with those enormous brown doe eyes. Eyes which, up on the silver screen, had reduced men the world over into quivering masses of helpless, dumbstruck protoplasm.
"I have to pee," she announced. "Like a racecourse."
"Horse," Stanfield said, "Racehorse." He smiled and nodded his head and Francesca walked across to the bathroom, pulling the door closed behind her.
"Christ," Stanfield said to himself. He got to his feet and walked out onto the balcony and into the gathering twilight. He found himself breathing rapidly and willed his heartbeat to slow. He saw this emotion for exactly what it was. Unfamiliar, yes, but still recognizable.
He might actually be falling in love with this one.
A phrase from his plebe year at Annapolis floated into his mind as he stared at the familiar but still heartbreaking beauty of the Grand Canal at dusk. An expression that the pimply cadet from Alabama had used to describe the path of his alcoholic father's personal ride to ruin.
My daddy, he was in a hot rod to Hell with the top down.
She could bring it all tumbling down, this one could, like one of those devastating Sicilian earthquakes. His thirty-year-old marriage, his hard-fought place on the world's political stage, his
The Campanile bell tower in the nearby Piazza San Marco tolled seven times before he turned and went to her.
Pale blue moonlight poured through the windows. Francesca feigned sleep as her lover slipped from the bed and went toward the dim yellow light of the bathroom. He left the door slightly ajar and she watched him perform his usual rituals. First he brushed his teeth. Then he ran two military brushes through his silver hair until it swept back in perfect matching waves from his high forehead. She admired his naked back and the muscles bunched at his shoulders as he leaned forward to inspect his teeth in the mirror.
He then pulled the door softly shut. She couldn't see him but she knew precisely what he was doing. He'd be lifting the seat to urinate, then putting it back down. Then he'd take a hand towel and wash himself, down there. His grey trousers, white silk shirt and cashmere blazer were all hanging on the back of the door. Reaching for them, he
It would all take five minutes, easily. More than enough time to do what she had to do.
She'd deliberately left her shoulder bag on the floor just under her side of the bed, shoving it there with her foot while he was admitting the room service waiter. She rolled over onto her stomach and reached for it, pulling the drawstrings apart. She reached into the bag, slipping two fingers inside a small interior pouch. She found the tiny disc and withdrew it. She then backhanded the heavy bag under the bed again so that he wouldn't step on it when, as was his custom, he bent to kiss her before slipping out for his traditional solo nightcap.
She rolled over to his side of the bed and reached for the alligator billfold on his bedside table. She held it above her face, opened it, and ran her index finger lightly over the gold monogrammed letters S.C.S. Then she carefully slipped the encrypted micro-thin disc into one of the unused pouches on the left side, opposite the credit cards and a thick fold of lire on the right. The thin disc was made of flexible material. The odds of his discovering it were nil. She put the wallet back on the bedside table, exactly as he'd left it, then rolled over onto her back.
A soft shaft of yellow light expanded on the ceiling as the bathroom door was opened and Simon padded quietly around the foot of the bed. Eyes closed, her bosom rising and falling rhythmically, Francesca listened to Stanfield slip his cigarette case, billfold, and some loose change into the pockets of the beautiful black cashmere blazer she'd bought for him in Florence.
He came around to her side of the bed and stood silently for a moment before bending to kiss her forehead.
"Just going over to Harry's for my nightcap, darling. I won't be long, I promise. One and done."
"Ti amo," Francesca whispered sleepily. "This is for you, caro," she said, handing him a small red rosebud she'd plucked from the vase on her bedside table. "For your lapel, così non lo dimenticherete, so you won't forget me."
"Ti amo, too," he said, and, after inserting the stem of the rose into the buttonhole in his lapel and stroking a wing of her hair away from her forehead, he left her side. "Ciao."
"Ritorno-me, caro mio," she said.
A moment later, the bedroom door closed softly behind him and Francesca whispered in the dark. "Arrividerci, caro."
Stanfield took the service elevator down to the ground floor, turned to his right and proceeded down the short hallway that led to the kitchen. Il facchino, the ancient hall porter named Paolo, was dozing with his chair tilted back against the tiled wall. Stanfield placed the tasseled key to his suite on the folded newspaper in the old fellow's lap.
"La chiave, Paolo," he whispered.
"Con piacere. Buona sera, signore," he said as Stanfield passed. He's been through this routine so often he now says it in his sleep, Stanfield thought.
Stepping through the kitchen's service door and out into the empty Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, a smile of pleasure played across Stanfield's features. It was his favorite time of night. Very few people about, the enchanted city now turned many shades of milky blue and white. He started walking across the plaza, the recent memories of Francesca still blooming in his mind like hothouse flowers, the lush scent of her still lingering on his fingers.
Yes. Her ivory skin, whiter in those places where the most delicate articulations of the joints showed through; and her lily fingers which danced upon his body still, to some mystic memory of music.
And now, the small perfection of a quiet stroll over to Harry's for a large whiskey, straight up, an appropriate cigar, the Romeo y Julieta, and some time to reflect on his incredible good fortune. He'd always enjoyed wealth, been born with it. But he'd played his cards right and now he'd reached the point where it was time to see what serious power felt like. Now he knew. A thoroughbred pawing the turf in the starting gate.
And, he's off! called the announcer in his mind, and indeed he was.
He turned right on the Calle del Piovan, then crossed the little bridge over the Rio dell'Albero. It was only a quarter of a mile to Harry's, but the twisting and turning of the narrow streets made it
What the living hell?
There was a strange, high-pitched chirping sound behind him. He turned and looked over his shoulder and literally could not believe his eyes. Something, he could not imagine what, was flying straight towards him! A tiny red eye blinking, blinking faster as whatever the thing was headed rapidly for him, and he realized that if he just stood there it would, what, hit him? Knock him down? Blow him up? Breaking into an instant sweat, he turned and started running like a madman.
Insanity. No longer out for an evening stroll, Simon Stanfield was now running for his life.
Feeling the surge of adrenaline, he sprinted down the Calle Larga XXII Marza, dodging passersby, flying past the darkened shops, headed for the Piazza San Marco where maybe he might just lose this apparition. A quiet drink at Harry's would just have to wait. He'd shake off this thing somehow, and what a story he'd have to tell Mario when he got there! No one would believe it. Hell, he himself still couldn't believe it.
Stanfield was a man who took care of himself. He was, at fifty, in impeccable physical condition. But this thing matched his every move, never losing nor gaining ground, just hurtling after him turn for turn. He raced over another tiny arched bridge and dodged left into the Campo San Moise. The few people he passed stopped and stared after him, open-mouthed. The chirping, blinking thing streaking after a running man was so absurd it made people shake their heads in bewilderment. It had to be a movie scene. But where were the cameras and crew? Who was the star?
"Aiuto! Aiuto!" the man shouted at them, screaming now for help, calling for the police. "Chiamate una polizia! Subito! Subito!"
There were always a few carabinieri hanging about St. Mark's Square, Stanfield thought feverishly. He'd just have to find one to get this goddamned thing off his back. But what could they do? Shoot it down? He was getting winded now, he realized, looking over his shoulder at that horrible flashing red eye as he raced into the nearly empty piazza. Very few people around, and no one at the distant café tables lining the square paid much attention to the screaming man since they could see no one chasing him. A drunk. A loco.
What the fuck am I going to do? Simon Stanfield thought feverishly. I'm fast running out of gas here. And options. The familiar shapes of the Basilica of St. Mark and the Doge's Palace loomed up before him. Can't run much farther. Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. His only hope was the goddamned thing hadn't yet closed the gap. If it were meant to take him out, surely it could have easily done so already.
Maybe this was just a really God-awful nightmare. Or this little flying horror was someone's incredibly elaborate idea of a practical joke. Or maybe he had acquired his own personal smart bomb. He was not only running out of gas, but ideas as well. And then he had a good one.
He angled right and made straight for the tall tower of the Campanile, swung hard right into the piazzetta leading to the canal. Pumping his knees now, Stanfield passed through the columns of San Marco and San Teodoro and kept on going. The thing was getting closer now, louder, and the chirps had solidified into a single keening note. He couldn't see it, but he guessed the red eye wasn't blinking anymore either.
The Grand Canal was maybe twenty yards away.
He might make it.
He put his head down and barreled forward, just like the old days, an enraged bull of a Navy fullback bound for the end zone, no defenders, nothing standing between him and glory. He reached the edge, filled his lungs with air, and dove, flew into the Grand Canal.
He clawed his way down through the cold murky water, and then he stopped, hung there a moment treading water. He opened his eyes and looked up. He couldn't believe it.
The little red-eyed bastard had stopped too.
It was hovering just above him, a glowing red oval contracting and expanding on the undulating surface of the water.
Gotcha, Stanfield thought, relief flooding him along with the realization that he'd finally managed to outwit the goddamn thing. That's when he saw the red eye nose over and break the surface, then streak downward through the shadows towards him, growing larger and larger until it obliterated everything.
Few people actually witnessed the strange death of Simon Clarkson Stanfield, and those who did, did so from too far away to be able to tell exactly what they'd seen.
There were a number of gondoliers ferrying a group of late night revelers from late supper at the Hotel Cipriani back to the Danieli. Singing and laughing, few even heard the muffled explosion in the dark waters just off Venezia's most famous plaza. One alert gondolier, Giovanni Cavalli, not only heard it, but saw the water erupt into a frothy pinkish mushroom about fifty yards from his passing gondola.
But, Giovanni was in the midst of a full-throated rendition of "Santa Lucia" as he poled by; his clients were enraptured, and the gondolier made no move to pole over and take a closer look. Whatever he'd seen had looked so unpleasant as to surely dampen the Americans' generosity of spirit and perhaps seal their pockets as well. Minutes later, as his gondola slid to a stop at the Hotel Danieli's dock, he ended the solo with his famous tremolo obbligato, bowing deeply to the vigorous applause, sweeping his straw hat low before him like a matador.
Early next morning in the Campo San Barnaba, the gondolier Giovanni Cavalli and his mother were inspecting the ripe tomatoes on the vegetable barge moored along the seawall of the plaza. Giovanni noticed the owner, his friend Marco, wrap some newly purchased fagiolini in the front page of today's Il Giornale and hand them to an old woman.
"Scusi," Giovanni said, taking the bundle of green beans from the startled woman and unwrapping it. He dumped her carefully selected vegetables, just weighed and paid for, back on the heaping mound of fagiolini.
"Ma che diavolo vuole?" the woman shrieked, asking him what the devil he wanted as he turned his back on her and spread the front page out over Marco's beautiful vegetables. There was a picture of a very handsome silver-haired man with a huge headline that screamed: Murder In Piazza San Marco!
"Momento, eh?" Giovanni said to the outraged woman, "Scusi, scusi." Ignoring the woman's flailing fists, which felt like small birds crashing blindly against his back, Giovanni devoured every word. There had indeed been a most bizarre murder in the piazza last night. An American had died under the most curious of circumstances. Witnesses said the apparently deranged man dove into the Grand Canal and simply exploded. Police were initially convinced the man had been a terrorist wearing a bomb belt who had somehow run amok. Later, when they learned the identity of the victim, a shockwave rippled throughout Italy and down the long corridors of power in Washington, D.C. The dead man was Simon Clarkson Stanfield.
The recently appointed American Ambassador to Italy.
Copyright © 2004 by Theodore A. Bell
The gods would never have the nerve to rain on his wedding. Or, so Commander Alexander Hawke told himself. The BBC weather forecast for the Cotswolds region of England had called for light rain Saturday evening through Sunday. But Hawke, standing on the church steps of St. John's, basking in the May sunshine, had known better.
Hawke's best man, Ambrose Congreve, had also decided today, Sunday, would be a perfect day. Simple deduction, really, the detective had concluded. Half the people would say that it was too hot, while the other half would say that it was too cold. Ergo, perfect. Still, he had brought along a large umbrella.
"Not a cloud in the sky, Constable," Hawke pointed out, his cool, penetrating blue eyes fixed on Congreve. "I told you we wouldn't need that bloody umbrella."
Hawke was standing stiffly in his Royal Navy ceremonial uniform, tall and slender as a lance. Marshal Ney's ornamental sword, a gift from his late grandfather, now polished to gleaming perfection, hung from his hip. His unruly hair, pitch-black and curly, was slicked back from his high forehead, every strand in place.
If the groom looked too good to be true, Ambrose Congreve would assure you that this, indeed, was the case.
Hawke's mood had been uncharacteristically prickly all morning long. There was a definite tightness in his voice and, were Ambrose to be perfectly honest, he'd been rather snappish. Curt. Impatient.
Where, Congreve wondered, was the easygoing, carefree bachelor, the blasé youth of yore? All morning long the best man had been giving this storybook groom a decidedly wide berth.
Heaving one of his more ill-disguised sighs, Ambrose peered hopefully up into the now cloudless sky. It wasn't as though Ambrose actually wished for rain on this radiant wedding day. It was just that he so despised, detested really, being wrong. "Ah. You never do know, do you?" he said to his young friend.
"Yes, you do," Hawke said, "Sometimes you actually do know, Constable. You've got the ring, I daresay?"
"Unless it has mysteriously teleported itself from my waistcoat pocket to a parallel universe in the five minutes since your last enquiry, yes, I imagine it's still there."
"Very funny. You must amuse yourself no end. And, why are we so bloody early? All this lollygagging about. Even the vicar isn't here yet."
The Scotland Yard man gave his friend a narrow look and, after a moment's hesitation, pulled a small silver shooter's flask from inside his morning coat. He unscrewed the cap and offered the flagon to the groom, who clearly was in need of fortification.
Rising early that morning, a cheery Congreve had breakfasted alone in the butler's pantry and then hurried out into the Hawkesmoor gardens to paint. It was delightful sitting there beside the limpid stream. Lilacs were in bud and an unseasonably late snowfall had all but melted away. The light haze of spring green in the treetops had recently solidified. Beside the old dry-stone wall meandering through the orchard, a profusion of daffodils thick as weeds.
He'd been sitting at his easel, slaving over what he judged to be one of his better watercolour efforts to date, when the memory of Hawke's earlier remark stung him like a bee. Hawke had made the comment to the aged retainer, Pelham, but Ambrose, lingering at the half-opened Dutch door leading to the garden, had overheard.
I think Ambrose's paintings are not nearly as bad as they look, don't you agree, Pelham?
Of course, Hawke, his oldest and dearest friend, had meant the jibe to be witty and amusing, but, still that's when a solitary raindrop spattered his picture and interrupted his revery.
He looked up. A substantial pile of gravid purple clouds was building in the west. More rain today, of all days? Ah, well, he sighed. The fat raindrop's effect on his picture was not altogether unpleasant. Gave it a bit of cheek, he thought, and decided the painting was at last finished. This lily study was to be his gift for the bride. The title, whilst obvious to some, had for the artist a certain poetic ring. He called it The Wedding Lilies.
Packing up his folding stool, his papers, paints, pots and brushes, he looked again at the purple clouds. The best man had decided on the spot that, while an umbrella may or may not come in handy on Alexander Hawke's wedding day, the brandy flask was a must. Grooms, in his experience, traditionally needed a bracer when the hour was at hand.
Hawke tilted back a quick swig.
When Ambrose recapped the flask and slipped it back inside his black cutaway without taking a bracer for himself, Hawke shot him a surprised look.
"Not even joining the groom in a prenuptial?" Hawke demanded of his companion. "What on earth is the world coming to?"
"I can't drink, I'm on duty," Congreve said, suddenly busy with his calabash pipe, tamping some of Peterson's Irish Blend into the bowl. "Sorry, but there it is."
"Duty? Not in any official sense."
"No, just common sense. I'm responsible for delivering you to the altar, dear boy, and I fully intend to discharge my duties properly."
Ambrose Congreve tried to appear stern. To his life-long chagrin, achieving that cast of expression had never been easy. He had the bright blue eyes of a healthy baby, set in a keen but, some might say, sensitive face. His complexion, even at fifty, had the permanent pinkish pigmentation of a man who'd once had freckles lightly sprinkled across his nose.
For all that, he was a lifelong copper who took his duties extremely seriously.
Having gained an upper rung at the Metropolitan Police, he had had a distinguished career at New Scotland Yard, retiring four years earlier as Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department. But the Yard's current Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, unable to fill Congreve's shoes at CID, still retained his services from time to time. Sir John was even kind enough to let him keep the use of a small office in the old Special Branch building in Whitehall Street. In the event, however, Congreve spent precious little time in that cold, damp chamber.
Numerous globe-trotting escapades with the fidgety groom now standing beside him on the church steps had mercifully kept the famous criminalist away from his humble office and hot on the trail of various villains and scoundrels these last five years or so. Their last adventure had been a somewhat heated affair involving some rather unsavory Cuban military chaps down in the Caribbean.
Now, on this bright morning in May, on the steps of this small "chapel of ease" in the picturesque if unfortunately named village of Upper Slaughter, the groom was giving a first-rate impression of a lamb on his way to the slaughter. Hawke's glacial blue eyes, normally indomitable, finally wandered from the study of a lark singing in a nearby laurel to rest uneasily upon Congreve's bemused face. Hawke's gaze, Congreve often noted, had weight.
"Interesting. Since I was a child, I've always wondered why they call this place a 'chapel of ease,'" Hawke remarked.
"Any sense of 'ease' being notable by its current absence?"
"These small chapels were originally built to ease the overflowing congregations at the main churches."
"Ah. That explains it. Well. My own personal demon of deduction strikes again. I'll have another nip of that brandy if you don't mind. Cough it up."
Congreve, a shortish, round figure of a man, removed his black silk top hat and ran his fingers through his disorderly thatch of chestnut brown hair. Alex had nowhere near the tolerance for alcohol he himself possessed, even at his somewhat advanced age; and so he hesitated, stalling, pinching the upturned points of his waxed moustache.
"And, of course," Congreve said, with a sweeping gesture that included a good deal of Gloucestershire, "every one of those yew trees you see growing in this and every other churchyard were ordered planted there by King Edward I in the fourteenth century."
"Really? Why on earth should young Eddie have gone to all that bother in the first place?"
"Provide his troops with a plentiful supply of proper wood for longbows." Congreve had removed the flask but hesitated in the uncorking of it. "You know, dear boy, it was King Edward who "
"Good lord," Hawke said, exasperated.
"I want brandy, not arboreal folklore for God's sake, Ambrose. Fork it over."
"Ah. Smell that air."
"What about it?"
"Alex, it's only natural for the groom to experience certain feelings of anxiety at a time like this, but I really think...ah, well, here comes the wedding party." Ambrose quickly slipped the flask back into his inside pocket.
A procession of automobiles was winding its way up the twisting lane, bounded on either side by the hawthorn hedges, leading to the little church of St. John's. It was a beautiful chapel really, nestled in a small valley of yews, pear trees, laurel, and rhododendron, many just now coming into full pink and white bloom, the trees filtering light onto dappled grass. The surrounding hillsides were green with leafy old forests, towering oaks, elms, and gnarled Spanish chestnuts many hundreds of years old.
The little Norman church was built of the mellow golden limestone so familiar here in Gloucestershire. St.
John's had been the scene of countless Hawke family weddings, christenings, and funerals. Alexander Hawke himself, red-faced with rage, age two, had been christened in the baptismal font just inside the entrance. Only a mile or so from this wooded glen, stood Hawke's ancestral country home.
Hawkesmoor still held a prominent place in Alex's heart and he visited his country house as frequently as possible. The foundation of the centuries old house, which overlooked a vast parkland, was built in 1150, with additions dating from the fourteenth century to the end of the reign of Elizabeth I. The roofline was a fine mix of distinctive gables and elaborate chimneys. Alex had long found great peace there, wandering about a rolling landscape laid out centuries earlier by Capability Brown.
At the head of the parade of automobiles was Alex's gunmetal grey 1939 Bentley Saloon. Behind the wheel, Alex could see the massive figure and smiling face of Stokely Jones, former U.S. Navy SEAL and NYPD copper and a founding member of Alexander Hawke's merry band of warriors. Sitting up front with Stokely was Pelham Grenville, the stalwart octogenarian and family retainer who had helped to raise young Alex following the tragic murder of the boy's parents. After the subsequent death of Alex's grandfather, Pelham and a number of uniformly disappointed headmasters had assumed sole responsibility for the boy's upbringing.
"Let's duck inside, Ambrose," Alex said, with the first hint of a smile. "Vicky and her father are in one of those cars. Apparently, it's unlucky for the groom to see the bride prior to the ceremony."
Congreve's eyebrows shot straight up.
"Yes, I believe I mentioned that custom to you any number of times at the reception last evening. At any rate, we're supposed to have a final rendezvous with the vicar in his offices prior to the ceremony. He is here, actually, I saw his bicycle propped by the vicarage doorway as we drove up."
"Quickly, Constable, I think I see their car."
Congreve breathed a brief sigh of relief that Hawke had not bolted on him, and then followed his friend through the graceful Norman arch into the cool darkness of the little church. Now the event itself was inescapably set in motion, Alex seemed to be shaking off his case of the heebie-jeebies. Here was a man who wouldn't blink in the face of a cocked gun. Amazing what a wedding could do to a chap, Ambrose thought, glad he'd so far managed to avoid the experience.
The church could not have looked lovelier, Ambrose observed as they approached the rear door leading to the vicar's office. Because of the narrow leaded glass windows, candles were needed even at this time of day and the churchwarden had lit them all. Their waxy scent mixed with the lily of the valley on the altar caused a rising tide of emotions within Ambrose's heart. Not mixed emotions exactly, but something akin.
He adored Vicky, everyone did. She was not only a great beauty, but also a dedicated child neurologist who had recently won acclaim for her series of children's books. Alex had met Dr. Victoria Sweet at a dinner party thrown in her honor at the American ambassador's residence in Regent's Park, Winfield House. Her father, the retired United States senator from Louisiana, was an old family friend of the current ambassador to the Court of St. James, Patrick Brickhouse Kelly.
Kelly, a former U.S. Army tank commander, had come across Hawke during the first Gulf War. Hawke and "Brick," as he called the tall, redheaded man, had remained close friends since the war. The soft-spoken American ambassador, whom Congreve now glimpsed sprinting up a side pathway to the chapel, had saved Hawke's life in the closing days of the conflict. Now, Hawke's chief usher was late.
Congreve had goaded Alex into asking the beautiful American author to dance at Brick Kelly's home in Regent's Park that night. The two of them had been inseparable ever since that fateful first waltz. Vicky had, that very evening, effectively put an end to Alex's legendary status as one of Britain's most eligible bachelors. No, it was not Victoria's future Congreve was so much concerned about, but rather the long-term prognosis of his dearest friend Alex.
Alexander Hawke led, to put it mildly, an adventurous life.
Having been thrice decorated for bravery flying Royal Navy Harriers over Iraq in the Gulf War, Hawke had subsequently joined the most elite of the British fighting forces, the Special Boat Squadron. There they'd taught him how to kill with his bare hands, jump out of airplanes, swim unseen for miles underwater, and blow all manner of things to kingdom come.
Having acquired these basic skills, he'd then gone into finance in the City. His first order of business was to resurrect the somnolent giant known around the world as Hawke Industries. After his grandfather retreated from the boardroom, he reluctantly relinquished command to young Alex. Hawke had no great love of business; still, he never dared disappoint his grandfather and so, a decade later, the already substantial family interests flourished once more.
Some called his series of brilliant but hostile takeovers around the world piratical and there was some truth to that. Alex was a direct descendant of the infamous eighteenth-century pirate, Blackhawke, and he was fond of warning friend and foe alike there was indeed a blood-thirsty hawk perched atop his family tree. With his black hair, his prominent, determined features, and his piercing blue eyes, a black eyepatch and solitary gold earring would not have looked even remotely ridiculous on him.
As Alex had told Congreve after one particularly fierce takeover battle, pools of blood still much in evidence on the boardroom floors, "I can't help myself, Constable, I've got the pirate blood in me."
As the man who presided over the sprawling Hawke Industries, Hawke had friends at the highest levels of the world's major corporations and governments. Because of those contacts he was frequently asked to engage in discreet missions for both the British and American intelligence communities.
Highly dangerous missions, and that's what concerned Congreve. Alex Hawke put his life on the line constantly. If he and Vicky were fortunate enough to have children, well, Ambrose hated to think what would happen to the brood if
Congreve realized he'd been daydreaming as the plump little vicar droned on and Alex, who had his own private views on religion, did his best to appear both compliant and reverential. By the rising hum of conversation now emanating from the direction of the chapel, Congreve could tell the pews were filling with ladies in shades of lilac and rose and big brimmed hats and men all in morning clothes. He could hear the level of keen anticipation growing for what was, after all, the biggest small wedding of the year in England.
Or, the smallest big wedding, depending on your tabloid of choice. Although Alex had tried desperately to keep the wedding secret, weeks ago someone had leaked the details to The Sun, sending the rest of the tabloid press into a feeding frenzy.
Security in the Cotswolds had never been tighter. In addition to members of H.M. Government, the British prime minister, and the American secretary of state and ambassador, all close friends of the groom's, there were a number of foreign dignitaries and heads of state seated amongst a select group of Alex and Vicky's friends and family. Alex, dogged in his determination to keep the affair small, had deliberately chosen his family's rustic chapel. The press was barred entirely, although they were certainly manning the police barricades at every obscure little lane leading to the tiny village.
A suspicious helicopter circling above the church at dawn had been quickly escorted out of the area by two RAF fighters and
"Well, your Lordship, I think it's high time we got you married," the vicar said to Hawke with a smile. "The good Lord knows you've broken quite enough hearts for one lifetime."
Alex's eyes narrowed, wondering if the vicar was having him on.
"Indeed," Alex finally replied, stifling whatever riposte was surely forming in his mind, and he and Ambrose followed the old fellow into the chapel itself and took their assigned places before the altar. The church was full, a sea of familiar faces, some bathed in shafts of soft sunlight streaming through the tall eastern windows.
Hawke couldn't wait to get the whole bloody thing over with. It had nothing to do with misgivings or second thoughts. He had felt nothing but spontaneous and unstinting love for Vicky since the first second he'd seen her. It was just that he hated ceremony of any kind, had no patience with it at all. If not for Vicky and her father, this wedding would have been taking place in some ratty little civil service office in Paris or even
The organ boomed its triumphal first notes. Victoria appeared in the sun-filled chapel doorway on the arm of her beaming father. All eyes were on the bride as she made her way slowly up the aisle. Standing before the altar with a trembling heart, Alex Hawke had but one thought: By God I am a lucky man.
She had never looked more beautiful. Her lustrous auburn hair was swept back into a chignon held by ivory combs that also held the veils that fell to the floor behind her. Her white satin dress had been her mother's; the bodice was festooned with swirling patterns of pearls which, as she moved through gold bars of sunlight, cast a soft glow upwards, lighting her face and her smiling eyes.
The groom would remember little of the ceremony.
His heart was now pounding so rapidly there was an overpowering roar of blood in his ears. He knew the vicar was speaking, having begun his intonations in a slow, deep register, and he was aware he himself was saying things in rote reply. The vicar kept upping the oratorical ante and, at some point, near the end of the thing, Vicky had squeezed his hand, hard. She looked up into his eyes and, somehow, he actually heard her speaking to him.
"I, Victoria, take thee Alexander to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance, and thereto I give thee my troth."
There was the exchange of rings and suddenly the organ pipes filled the church with what could only be called the sounds of heaven and he was somehow aware that he was lifting Vicky's veil to kiss her; that Congreve, having delivered the ring, stood now with eyes full of tears, and then he heard the vicar's final volley of oratory thunder.
"Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder!"
He embraced his bride, actually lifting her off her feet, to the delight of all assembled, and then he was hurrying her down the aisle festooned with white satin and lilies, through all the applause and smiling faces of their friends and towards the sunshine which filled the doorway and the future. Outside the entrance, his uniformed comrades formed two opposing lines. On the command, "Draw swords!" steel was raised, forming an arch, cutting edge facing up.
He'd meant for the two of them to quickly duck through the gleaming silver arch created by his Royal Navy Guard of Honor and race for the Bentley, but the overflow of well-wishers had spilled out onto the steps and he and Vicky were forced to stop to receive the hugs and kisses everyone seemed determined to bestow upon them amidst the clouds of white blossoms filling the air.
Out of the corner of his eye, Alex saw Vicky bend to kiss the cheek of the pretty little flower girl and he turned away from her for a moment to embrace her beaming father. Vicky was rising from the kiss, smiling up at him, extending her arms towards him, clearly wanting as much as he did to escape to the back seat of the waiting Bentley.
It was just then, when he was bending to embrace his bride, that the unthinkable happened.
Suddenly Vicky was not leaning into him, she was falling away with a breathless sigh, white petals whirling from the folds of her veil. There was a bright flower of red blooming amongst the snow-white pearls of her satin bodice. Shocked, staggered by what he saw, Alex grabbed her shoulders and pulled her towards him. He was screaming now, as he saw her gaze go distant and glaze over, feeling the gush of warm blood flowing straight from her heart. Victoria's blood soaked through his shirtfront, and it broke his own heart into infinitely small pieces as he stared into her lifeless eyes.
Copyright © 2004 by Theodore A. Bell
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