By Our Lady
‘He’s at Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church. Come here, Lucas, love,’ said Amanda. ‘Mummy’s crying,’ Lucas informed Herrero. ‘Go to your Mummy,’ Herrero told the boy. ‘Put him in his chair,’ he told Amanda.
‘Fasten him in, you stupid bitch. Do as I tell you.’
With arms shaking, she lifted the boy and placed him in the brightly coloured booster seat attached to one of the dining chairs. She strapped him in, kissing his cheek, his forehead.
‘Now, you’re going to run an errand for me,’ Herrero told her. ‘Come with me.’ He took Amanda out into the hallway, and opened the front door.
‘You see down there? That silver Toyota?’ He pressed a button on his key ring and unlocked the doors. A comical squeak reverberated up the street. ‘There is a grey bag in the boot. You’re going to get that bag and bring it back here. And you are not going to do anything else, or I will very calmly walk back to your table and shoot little Lucas in the face. Are we good, yes?’
Amanda nodded emphatically. She could not speak. She stepped into Brotherswater Road and walked down towards the car, her legs wobbling, the antennae on her bee slippers quivering as she stepped. She opened the car boot and removed a grey holdall. When she returned to the house, Herrero pushed her into the dining room.
‘Sit,’ he said. She sat on a dining chair. Herrero placed the bag on the table, and pointed the Glock at her. ‘Open the bag,’ he said. She unzipped it. It was full of plastic wrap and rolls of gaffer tape, and, oh God, a knife.
She stood up. ‘Please!’ she said. ‘Let me sit by my baby.’ Herrero dragged her over to the chair next to Lucas. He wound gaffer tape around her wrists, binding them together, then he taped her torso and arms to the chair.
‘Out, Mummy! Out!,’ said Lucas, his body straining against his harness as his face reddened.
‘It’s just a game, love,’ Amanda told her son, as Herrero bound her ankles to the chair. ‘Like hide and seek. It’s just a game.’
Herrero stuck a piece of tape over Lucas’s mouth. ‘Leave him alone,’ Amanda screamed.
Herrero slapped her. ‘You listen to me. I’m going to go and see your faithless brother. If he isn’t at that church, I am going to come back and torture your children in front of you until you tell me where he is. Now, where is this church?’
Amanda told him the address.
‘Sensible girl,’ he said, and he taped up her mouth.
He zipped up the holdall. ‘I won’t be long,’ he said.
‘Wait a minute,’ said Marketa. ‘Based on what?’
‘We don’t have time for this. Come on.’
‘Coffee? Just because she said “coffee”. It’s ridiculous.’
‘She knows I don’t drink coffee. Tea. I drink tea. I only drink tea. It was a signal, I know it. I could hear it in her voice.’
‘What if you’re wrong?’
‘Then I come back here.’
‘So, what if you’re right? We go to her house? Give ourselves up to fuck knows who?’
Pete stopped on the stone spiral staircase. He thought for a moment, the choices flipping through his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘We don’t give ourselves up. I give myself up. It’s their only chance. You get as far away from here as possible, but you call that detective constable as soon as you can and you tell her where I went. Whatever happens to me, they don’t get away with it. Promise me.’
‘Promise me, OK?!’ he pleaded. ‘Chapman can’t get away with this. He just can’t. I want people to know I tried.’ He was crying, actually crying. Where did that come from, he wondered? Fear? Frustration? ‘Promise me!’
They carried on down the stairs, and burst out into the Lady Chapel. ‘Take it all,’ he said. He pulled the wallet out of his pocket and handed Marketa all of the money inside. Then he rooted in his laptop bag and took out the disc.
‘You fucking brought the disc?!’ Marketa said. ‘Are you insane?’
‘Shut up. You’ll need it. It’s the only evidence linking Chapman to everything. Take it.’
‘Take it. I don’t have time for this shite.’ He pressed the disc into Marketa’s hands. ‘Now, come on.’
The slam of the front door was still echoing through Amanda’s house. She forced herself to calm down, to put aside the visions Herrero had put in her head. She had had to betray Peter. There was no choice at all, her children or her brother? No contest. It was his fucking fault anyway. If he hadn’t brought that psycho here… The anger was building. Stupid Peter. Stupid, stupid Peter. She had done all she could. She had given him a clue. If he still had the brains he had when he was a kid, he would have picked it up, and be on the first bus out of town by now.
What then? Rahman, or whatever his name was, would be back, empty handed. The anger began to overwhelm the fear. The lioness protecting her cubs. That could not happen. That would not happen to her kids. She had very little time to act, 15 minutes, maybe?
That was why she had chosen to sit on the wobbly chair. When she saw she was going to be bound, she realised it was her only hope. She began to rock on it, against the table, back and forth, feeling the legs creak under her. Harder and harder. Her eyes were set on Lucas. It was the only thing she could do to reassure him. Back and forth, back and forth, harder until…
It cracked. The chair legs splayed beneath her and she hit the floor. The side of her head knocked against the laminated planks and she had the feeling of blood in her nostrils, as if she had been punched. She rolled onto her front and tried to stand. Her hands were still bound with gaffer tape behind her, and her arms and torso were firmly stuck to the chair back, but she had freedom of movement in her legs. It was no good. She could not stand. But she could crawl, after a fashion, making her way, her nose sliding along the polished floor, to the wall. She turned over, the chair back against the wall, and pushed with her legs against the floor. Her slippers were too slippery and she kicked them off. Now using the grip of her bare feet she pushed again, her eyes still on her son. The chair moved up the wall until, finally, she was on her feet.
Amanda shuffled carefully into the kitchen, the chair legs braced against her own, and turned against the worktop, feeling for the drawer. She pulled it open, and rummaged inside for the scissors.
The London train tore across the railway bridge, leaving Liverpool as fast as it could. Underneath it passed Pete and Marketa, as they rushed along Smithdown Road, past shops already dressed for Christmas. ‘This is yours,’ Pete said, as they reached a bus stop. ‘You can get any bus here. Go straight to the coach station and get on the first bus out of town. It’s your only chance.’
Marketa clutched his hand. ‘You know they’re probably dead, don’t you?’
‘I don’t know that, not for sure.’
‘Come with me.’
Marketa pulled him into a hug. ‘You’re a fucking idiot, Brophy. Two packs. Score within.’ She felt him shaking. ‘Good luck, OK? Try not to die. I’ll be really pissed with you if you die.’
‘I’ll do my best,’ he said, as they pulled apart.
And that was when she saw him, across the road, parked at the pelican crossing, in the driver’s seat of a silver Toyota. She had seen him the last time that day in the office, one of the men who had visited Karl Chapman along with Moran, dark, Mediterranean, maybe Middle Eastern. She was paralysed.
‘What is it?’ Pete asked.
‘Him. He’s there. He’s here. Shit, shit, shit…’
As the lights changed to flashing amber, the driver looked across the dual carriageway. He picked out Pete and Marketa, looking her in the eye. He bashed his steering wheel in clear frustration and began to drive.
‘That’s him?! Fuck, run!’ Pete and Marketa ran along Smithdown Road. He flung a look behind them. Herrero’s car was making a U-turn. ‘Over here, quick!’ He pressed the pelican crossing button again, as the lights changed, and they flew across the dual carriageway again, putting their pursuer on the wrong side of the road.
They tore up Earlsfield Road, back to the sanctuary of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. They reached the church door just as Herrero’s car turned into the road, and they clattered into the nave. The church was as empty as before. ‘Over there,’ Pete said, and they crossed the church to the confessionals, a series of four doors. Pete opened one, marked with the name of Father Stuart Williams, and pulled Marketa inside. He slammed the door shut as Herrero entered the building.
The hitman took in his surroundings. They were as familiar in their own way to him as they were to Pete. He closed the church door behind him, and pulled across the three heavy bolts. Nobody would be entering and nobody would be leaving.
He stepped into the nave, and dipped his hand in the holy water, crossing himself. ‘Peter,’ he said, ‘I don’t want to hurt you. I know you have something my client would like and I’m sure we can come to some sort of arrangement, but this is very silly. Come out and we can talk, and perhaps we can make this problem go away, eh?’
Pete was crouched in the confessional watching Herrero through the keyhole. He saw him approaching.
‘Now,’ he whispered. He pushed Marketa through a curtain into a room behind the confessional booth. It was the little room where young Peter Anthony Brophy had made his infrequent confessions to Father O’Driscoll, face to face, as recommended by the Second Vatican Council. He knew it well. Crucially, it had an unmarked door into the church. As Herrero kicked open the confessional entrance, Pete and Marketa burst out of the confessional exit.
They started to run to the church door, but Pete saw the bolts were closed, so they turned and ran towards the sacristy. The door was locked. Father Williams had found wet towels in his bathroom a few minutes before, and had chosen belatedly and very recently to improve ecclesiastical security. They had one choice. Pete pulled open the door to the choir loft and raced up the spiral staircase with Marketa.
Herrero, in contrast, took his time crossing his church. He had no reason to rush. They were going nowhere. He pulled the holdall over his shoulder and headed for the choir loft door.
Pete and Marketa burst into the choir loft, hitting Misery Mary as they ran past. The statue rocked on its base. Pete looked over the ledge which ran along the mezzanine. If they dangled from the ledge and dropped, how far would it be? They would land at best on wooden pews, at worst on the polished wooden floor. Their ankles would be broken, maybe their legs. Could they fight him? Both of them? Maybe. If he were not armed, maybe they could. Was there anything they could use, some sort of weapon? Shit! Where was he? Why hadn’t he come up? Was he just waiting?
Felipe Herrero was not just waiting. He was deciding. This was his twelfth job and would be his sixteenth and seventeenth… no, seventeenth and eighteenth kills. Every job had been different, and some needed more improvisational skills than others. He unzipped the holdall and checked. His knife was there, his serrated hunting knife, the one Senor Moorcroft had given him, back when he was a boy in Puerto Banus, back when he had first become ‘useful’. It was his favourite. Somebody had recommended a Japanese blade, and he had tried it on an errand, but it was too sharp. He could not feel it going in. You need at least a little resistance to know you have cut somebody properly.
OK, this was the plan. He would use the knife on Brophy. It would be justice for the inconvenience he had caused. Besides, a painful death would serve as a deterrent to others. In theory. But then, he had done that to Gruszka, and here he was, in a church hundreds of miles from home, dealing with two people who had very much not been deterred. Perhaps he was losing his touch. Fuck Brophy for making him doubt himself. He was really going to enjoy this one. So, yes, the knife on Brophy. Then he would use the gun as leverage. He could not sedate the Czech bitch there and then carry her down a spiral staircase. He would make her walk to the car, then he would sedate her. Then he could drive back to Brophy’s sister and tie up that loose end – no need to hurt the child, not now, anyway. He had become attached. God, perhaps he really was losing his touch. Maybe the older child? He took some scrubs out of his bag and put them on over his clothes.
Cutting through the gaffer tape binding her wrists together was the hardest part. Amanda had to hold the scissors open and use them as a rudimentary saw. Once they were free, it was a matter of moments to liberate her arms and legs. She ripped the tape from her mouth. ‘That was funny, wasn’t it, lovey? That was a silly game,’ she told her terrified little boy. ‘Let’s just take this off.’ She eased the tape away from his mouth, then pulled it off like a sticking plaster.
Lucas began to howl. ‘Ooh, love, did it hurt? Come here.’ She hugged her little boy, pressing him to her breast with the knowledge that she might have lost him. She might still lose him. Betty! She pulled apart from him, and scrabbled around for her trainers. She had done a 5K around Sefton Park – she had the medal and everything, hanging off a drawer knob in her bedroom – and was training for a 10K, in theory. She had 10 minutes – no, nine – to get to school before Betty came out. The mums would already be arriving. Would he be there? Rahman’s mate? She would fucking kill him with her bare hands. She pulled on her trainers, and she yanked Lucas, who was still bawling, out of the harness and straight into the pushchair in the hall, in one movement.
The pushchair’s wheels hit the pavement hard, juddering Lucas, as his mother sprinted towards the school, pushing him before her.
Chapman’s thug called up the stairs. ‘You can’t go anywhere. It would be better for all of us if you just cooperated, Peter. It would certainly be better for your sister and her little boy.’
Pete’s brain was ripping through the possibilities. If he gave up the disc, would Marketa be free? What about Amanda? Would he really just let her go? Of course not. He could see Marketa scrabbling about on the choir benches, looking for something, anything at all, to use as a weapon. And all the while Misery Mary was staring down at him, disapproving, her arms apart in what looked like a shrug…
‘Marketa,’ he whispered. ‘Help me with this.’
He started to push the life-size statue of Mary towards the entrance to the choir loft. Marketa stumbled off the benches and began to help, pulling Misery Mary, guiding her to the top of the stone spiral staircase.
‘Fine,’ the hitman called up the stairs. ‘Have it your way.’
Pete’s chest was thumping. They only had one chance. ‘Ready?’ he whispered. Marketa nodded.
And for the first time, as the hitman rounded the spiral, Pete looked Jerzy’s killer in the eye. In that split-second, he took everything in, the dark eyes, the green scrubs, the gun in his left hand, and the knife in his right. ‘Now!’
Pete and Marketa pushed Misery Mary forward, with a cry that was half a grunt, half a roar of defiance, toppling the plaster figure.
‘Madre…’ said the hitman, his eyes wide and glassy, as the statue hit him, knocking him backwards. He tumbled down the cold hard steps, followed by shattered fragments of the effigy of the Mother of God.
Pete had overbalanced, toppling forward. Marketa’s hand darted out to stop him, but in vain. He tumbled down eight stairs until his head hit the wall, breaking his fall. His temple was grazed, bleeding, and he felt groggy, but it was not over. He stumbled down the stairs, picking up the knife which Herrero had dropped and carrying on down to the bottom. Could he really kill a man?
But the hitman was lying there, his arms and legs folded and broken, surrounded by shards of plaster and the head of Misery Mary, still disapproving. His eyes remained wide, but now glazed, unmoving. Blood was starting to spread from the back of his head, leeching into the porous grey stone of the staircase.
Pete was woozy. Was he concussed? He staggered and braced himself against the wall. Could he kill a man? He just had. ‘Brophy?’ Marketa’s voice came from the choir loft. ‘Is it OK. Is it all over?’
Pete wiped his forehead with the back of his left hand. He was still holding the knife in his right. He dropped it with a clatter.
‘Yes,’ he lied.