One man, one woman, two terrible secrets...
RANDOLPH LOWE is a distinguished British Secret Agent in the twilight of his career.
When he is handed a mission to kill one of the world’s least accessible, yet most wanted assassins, he never expected a beautiful young woman with the alias, STELLA.
Stella leads him around the world as she picks off her marks with ease, during which time Randolph grows infatuated and falls in love.
But Stella has her own dark secret. Forced into making a terrible sacrifice, she is destined to live her life as a lone killer.
The love of one man may be enough to free her, and only that man can save her now… but only if he can find her...
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About the Author
Colin Galbraith was born in Paisley in 1973 and raised in Bridge of Weir. After attending the Open College of the Arts, he began writing seriously in 1999. He lives in South Queensferry.
Read an Excerpt
Randolph Lowe had slept all day. Now, as he sat watching the golden glow of an Amsterdam sunset from the window of his canal barge, he wondered just how long it had been since he'd last enjoyed any form of human contact. The moon would soon rise, and then he would do as he always did. Trace its path as it crossed the night sky, disappearing and reappearing between buildings and trees, leaving so many haunting memories in its wake.
The moon fascinated him; its glow, its familiarity, its representation of a previous life. The last six years of his long and empty existence reflected upon, each time he stared into the night sky when the moon was full. Randolph often wondered if others were admiring its magnificence from somewhere else in the world at that same moment. For hours he would stare at it, using its silver hue to focus his mind on the memories that haunted him. Memories of hunting, of being hunted, of always looking behind and never knowing quite where he was going or why. But above all--memories of a love now lost.
Over the last few weeks night had turned into day for Randolph, but when he thought about it his life had always been that way. He had always lived a vampiric existence, an unfortunate downside to his job--and it had left him unable to follow any normal kind of sleeping pattern. Only the moon shone light into his darkened world, and offered him the only form of regular contact he had with anything he regarded as meaningful.
When Randolph did manage sleep it was during the day, and with one hand on the pistol hidden under his pillow. Sometimes he dreamt of far off places he had visited during his life, but onedream in particular he had more than any other. Most nights he would wake having been through the same experience; confused, upset--always angry.
He would be wandering New York, a place he had spent some time in the past, although only for a brief visit on his way somewhere. In the dream, the repetition of that visit continued in infinite detail as though he had spent half his life there.
The dream took him through the streets of New York City, wandering for hours as night passed into dawn. When the summer sun rose too high, and the heat of the city became overbearing, he would pause and look around. That was when he found the café, right behind him on the sidewalk--obvious, yet hidden. He'd never noticed it before.
A young woman was sitting at a pavement table enjoying the sun and an espresso. She wore large shades over her eyes, her wavy blonde hair lifting softly in the breeze. She looked sophisticated, sexy, mysterious; a woman for every man's fantasy.
Randolph sat down at a table near the side, a single empty cup and fresh pots of sugar and cream already set out. A buckled man with his eyes half closed was busy putting chairs on tables and sweeping the floor. The old man wandered over with a pot and served Randolph coffee despite him never having asked for any, then bent down and collected a shiny quarter from the floor, put it in his pocket, glanced up at Randolph and winked.
The dream was over.
It was almost dark now and the heat from the sun had gone, the moon blowing the sun away as it rose into the sky. The night crawlers were coming out to play and the narrow streets and canals of Amsterdam would seem narrower for the next few hours. Randolph would probably go for a long walk soon, but only once it got darker and the streets ceased to bask in long shadows of amber and grey.
Randolph was tired. He knew he wouldn't sleep. His mind wandered from one memory to another, memories of the woman he had spent years chasing yet had never managed to hold. He curled up on the narrow bed of his barge and pulled the thin sheets over his shoulders, felt for his pistol, still there. He tried to forget everything, to empty his mind and use the gentle sway of the canal, the lapping of the ripples against the hull to try and induce the sleep he knew would never come.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door.
Three years earlier: July 1985
"Operation Baccara," said Everette Burke sternly. "It's your new assignment."
Everette Burke was a senior MI5 officer of considerable experience. He was also Randolph Lowe's boss. Standing at average height and build, he concealed extraordinary hidden strengths both mentally and physically. A natural leader, he displayed little emotion, had been married and divorced, and had one child, a boy, who died at birth. Colleagues attributed his modern manner to that single life event; those who'd known him longer disagreed.
It seemed to Randolph that Burke had been around forever. His rise to Director of the MI5 Royal Protection Unit certainly hadn't been a surprise, but it hadn't been expected quite so soon either. One day the old guard was gone, thawed out faster than an ice cube in a hot oven, and the next day Burke was in control, making all the big decisions from the luxury of his carpeted office with mahogany and gold furnishings that overlooked the Thames and the Houses of Parliament. No one voiced any disagreement when the decision was made. Randolph knew nobody important enough that such a complaint would ever be heard; the result of a working life spent on the streets with no interest in climbing the political ladder. For Randolph, assignments came and went, and life went on.
"Baccara?" said Randolph. "Can I see the spec please, sir?"
Burke handed over a light brown loose-leaf folder with the operation title printed on the centre of the cover, beneath blood-red words: 'No Eyes'.
He paused. "Should I be seeing this?"
Burke spoke with fierce authority. "This is about as sensitive a mission as you can get, Lowe. Speed read it before you leave this room, then give it back to me to be destroyed."
Randolph opened the folder with a shiver of caution. He had only ever heard of a case file being labeled 'No Eyes' on one other occasion--and that was when the plot to assassinate Hitler was first put on the table.
On the first sheet of paper was the profile of a young woman. She had no confirmed name but had been given the alias, Stella. The paper gave her estimated height and weight: medium and medium; her features: defined and blonde; her general appearance: tidy and classy. All these observations were noted down in neat, anonymous handwriting. The file also included details of her last known whereabouts, some of her regular hangouts, and a picture of her sitting in a coffee shop somewhere in Eastern Europe. Her hair was blonde and wavy, and she was dressed in jeans and casual blouse with fashionable shades covering her eyes. She looked more like an A-class Hollywood actress than an MI5 target.
Randolph turned the page and read the section on her most recent movements and known acquaintances. She was wanted for questioning by several governments around the world, mostly on suspicion of being involved with assassination or plots to assassinate. There was no paper trail behind her and no electronic-banking, or credit transactions traceable. She had been known to spend time with various government ministers and important businessmen from countries across three continents, but nobody could identify her formally. Needless to say, there were no witnesses to any of her crimes, her whole existence seemingly based on hearsay.
"She's an assassin?" Randolph asked, surprised that someone with such striking beauty stood accused of being a cold-blooded killer.
"We believe so, yes. One of the best, too. She's been able to get to high ranking government officials and VIPs without leaving so much as a single hair follicle."
"Why are we interested in her?"
"We believe she's been meeting with some 'friends' of ours in Northern Ireland," said Burke, fingering quotation marks around the word 'friends' as he spoke. "We think there's a developing conspiracy to try and get to a member of the Royal family."
Randolph looked at her picture. "Her? Kill a Royal?"
"She's good Randolph. Don't underestimate her. It might not be her that attempts it, but she's got the capability and the contacts to form a team. It could be an error in the intelligence but we doubt it, and anyway, we can't take the risk. She's taken out some big players so far--or at least we think it was her. So she must be located, placed under surveillance, and then eliminated if the Intel proves positive."
"Who am I working with?"
"You're on your own. This is strictly a clandestine operation."
"Don't I get a team?"
"You'll have full comms support at all times and a transparent budget. As far as anyone is concerned you're on an STO--Standard Training Op. That's as far as it goes. If you mess it up, you're on your own."
"Is anyone else looking for her?"
"If you mean other governments, then yes, they have been. Nobody can get to her, though. She's a modern day chameleon."
"So why me?"
Burke sighed. "You're the best we've got, Lowe, as much as it pains me to say it. You're fifty one, have the body of a thirty eight year old, and you've got more experience than most of our team put together. There's nobody else I want working on this one."
"Yes, sir. And thank you, sir," said Randolph, a little taken back by the compliment, but not in any way fooled.
The folder contained little else of interest to Randolph so he handed it back. Burke pressed open a small metal bin by the side of his desk, dropped the folder inside and closed it. There was a rushing sound, like that of a small concentrated blast of wind, then silence, and the scent of charred paper.
"Be careful with this one, Randolph. You may be our best, but we don't quite know how good she is yet."
"When do I start?"
"Ten minutes ago. Your comms team is assembled in the Thames Room. Go and meet them and get saddled up. Then get yourself straight to Heathrow; there's a plane leaving for Athens in two hours and I want you on it."
"Where's she staying?"
"The Grand Bretagne. She checked in last night."
Randolph touched down at Athens International Airport at quarter past three in the morning. The air was warm and dry, the sky dark and clear. Tree insects relaxed on the branches voicing their relief the heat of the sun was over for another day. The constellations twinkled around the full moon, which met Randolph's gaze like an old friend. Always there when he needed reassurance, as though guiding him on his journey. By morning the heat would be intolerable and he was relieved of his early-late-arrival. He stretched his legs, still sore after a cramped flight made worse with the family from Scotland, flying to Greece for a wedding. He loosened his tie and slapped his lips together--he needed a proper drink.
With only a single case doubling as a briefcase-travel bag, he joined the queue at passport control. It was the part of undercover missions he hated most. On British soil he could often use the services of drivers and helicopters to get around quickly, but when working undercover, particularly abroad, he had to wait in line with the rest of the herd. The internal conflict often left him frustrated.
"Where you travelling from, sir?" the Controller asked in near perfect English.
"Great Britain," said Randolph, making sure the emphasis was on the word 'great'.
The Controller scanned Randolph's passport, lifted his hat with one hand to wipe the sweat from his brow, and flicked through the pages with the other. "And are you travelling on business or pleasure?"
"Business," said Randolph, without hesitation.
"How long is your stay?"
"Two days, maybe three."
"What kind of business, sir?"
Randolph pulled out a marketing leaflet with a waterfall on the front below the words Foreign Spring. "I sell bottled water," he said. "Maybe you know it?"
Randolph had used the legend for years. Bottled water was something every nation needed. It was boring and entirely uninteresting; perfect for intelligence officers working undercover.
"Very good, sir." The Controller said, and stamped the book. "Next."
Randolph smiled and thanked the man as he took back his fake passport. Greece had recently become a member of the European Union, and as he slung his bag over his shoulder he shook his head at the slackness of the airport staff.
He followed the signs to the taxi rank and was pleased to find no queue. It appeared most of the other passengers from his flight were booked on package holidays and would soon be escorted away on coaches, like cattle packed into vans heading for the slaughter house.
The driver stepped forward to greet him. "Where you go, sir?"
"Grand Bretagne Hotel, please."
"Certainly, sir. Your luggage ... shall I put in storage?"
"No thanks, I'm fine carrying it."
Randolph always carried his luggage. It was a habit he found hard to break even when on leave. His natural suspicion of everyone and everything he came into contact with had left him paranoid. A downside to the job, but one he had learned to live with.
He slid into the back seat as the driver pulled away to the sound of late night Greek folk music. Fast guitars and even faster violins sounded through the door speakers, as the taxi wound through the streets to its destination. Randolph slid low in the leather seat, peered skyward to the moon through the gap in the window; it looked like it was following him.
Occasionally he caught the driver's dark eyes in the rear view mirror, but nothing was said. He reckoned it was down to the language barrier more than anything else, and his mind drifted back to the folder on Everett's desk. Stella--who exactly was she?
With nothing but pure speculation and experience to go on, his mind had already started to piece together her personality as he imagined it might be. Everyone who met her probably felt they never really had. She was most likely exciting to spend time with, a lot of fun even, but left people feeling empty once she had gone. She would be cold-hearted, blunt, self-preserving; all facets she used to disguise her true identity. She played the game on its flipside, too; forthcoming, honest, likeable, flirtatious, and all with a feminine grace and sophistication that neither men nor women could resist. Randolph imagined her luring prey like a Black Widow spider before snuffing out its existence. But why? What was her motivation? And was she acting alone?