The following is the opening chapter of Unholy Crusade, my first alternate history novel.
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A significant problem with filming the undead was that they moved so fast it was almost impossible to be sure they were there at all. This problem was compounded by the fact that grainy CCTV footage was terrible at filming everyday events even in good light. So a vampire fighting in the dark was never going to provide Oscar-winning footage.
Nevertheless, Seth Baron sat with a mug of hot coffee in one hand and a DVD remote in the other, watching the same piece of film over and over again.
The footage showed a woman entering the yard of Pearson’s Holdings, a warehouse on Fenton Industrial Estate just outside of town, during a drug deal. The participants had taken umbrage with her arrival and attacked. She killed three of the four men involved in the deal, and left with the fourth man slumped over her shoulder, unconscious.
‘Who is she?’ asked Tom Carter. He was a young man by Seth’s reckoning. Mid thirties, slightly receding hairline and two kids by a wife he hardly ever saw any more.
This was just about the sum total of what Seth knew about his partner. They had been teamed up on the last staff rotation eight months ago but neither man liked to share much personal information, so everything Seth knew was gleaned from details that slipped into conversation here and there.
‘I don’t know,’ said Seth.
‘But she’s important.’ It was a definite statement, not a question. Tom Carter never asked a question if he thought he already knew the answer.
Seth grunted his acknowledgement. ‘Print out a copy of this frame, would you? I want to run an E-FIT, see if we can find her in the database.’
The printer in the corner of the room churned and spat out a sheet of cheap A4 with the frame of video on it. Carter handed the paper to Seth, who slipped it into a file.
Seth grabbed the remote again and let the video proceed until he found another frame he wanted. This one showed the face of the man who had survived the deal going sour. Whether he was still alive now the woman had him was another matter.
‘Print that too,’ said Seth. ‘Let’s see who our missing gentleman is.’
It took all of two hours for a basic E-FIT to be worked up for the man and the results of a cursory search through the Police National Computer to come back. He was Mark First, also known by three other names: Thomas First, Mark Jameson, and Anthony Fields. Given the repetition between the first three names, Seth was willing to go out on a limb and believe Mark First was the man’s real name.
Seth sat in his office, sipping a mug of coffee, his fifth that day, and read over the report that accompanied First’s summary sheet. It was not pleasant reading. First had been active in both the international assassin and the paranormal communities for well over a decade. At 45 years old, he showed no signs of slowing down. In fact if last night’s escapade was anything to go by, he appeared to be diversifying even further.
There was a knock on the door. Three quick raps. Carter entered without waiting for a response.
‘I got your message,’ said Carter. ‘Results came back positive?’
Seth tossed First’s file onto the desk in front of him. ‘Take a look at that.’
Carter picked up the file and flicked through its contents. It was full of photographs, police reports and newspaper clippings. ‘Nice chap. Gets about a bit. He-llo! What do we have here?’
‘You got to the bit about the zombies in Belize?’
Thomas nodded. He looked a little green around the gills. ‘He’s a pervert who’s dealing now? Doesn’t seem like his kind of business.’
Seth shook his head. ‘Agreed. He’s an assassin, not a dealer.’
‘So why would he be at a drug deal?’
‘For a hit?’ Carter suggested. He placed the file on the desk and pointed to a cut-out from The Times. ‘It wouldn’t be the first time. Says here he posed as muscle for a Canadian dealer over in Quebec, then killed him after the deal went down and fled with the cash.’
‘That was twenty years ago,’ said Seth. ‘He doesn’t take risks like that any more.’
‘I’m just saying it’s a possibility.’
‘It’s more likely he was there for something they were bringing in with the drugs,’ said Thomas.
Seth nodded. ‘Or because he knew someone would be there.’
‘The girl, you mean?’
‘Any news on her yet?’ asked Carter.
Seth looked over at the door, saw it was closed, and pulled a sheet of paper from the top drawer in his desk. ‘Sign this. It ups your security clearance.’
Carter pulled a pen from his jacket and scrawled his signature on the dotted line. ‘Does it also bump up my pay grade?’
Seth hunted around in his jacket for a keyring. He unlocked the top drawer in his desk and removed a red, loose-leaf file. Stamped on the cover were the words ‘Top secret. KC3. Eyes only.’
He looked the other man in the eye. ‘What I’m about to tell you does not leave this room. Understand?’
The younger man nodded.
Seth opened the file and took out the grainy, monochrome photograph from the top of the pile of papers inside. He handed the photograph to Carter.
‘Her name is Gretl Lune,’ said Seth. ‘Or at least we think it is. She goes by several pseudonyms and, like First, she’s a dab hand at disguises.’
Carter looked at the photograph, slipped it back into the file. ‘Looks a lot like the woman from the video. So who is she?’
‘Nobody knows,’ said Seth as he sifted through the ream of papers in the file. ‘But here’s where things get interesting.’
He selected a report and handed it over.
‘This is a coroner’s report for…’ Carter’s voice trailed off for a moment before he regained his composure. ‘You’ve got to be joking.’
‘No joke,’ said Seth. ‘Officially at least, Gretl Lune died in 1963.’
The rain bleached down, chilling the air and destroying any evidence that was still to be found on the pockmarked concrete floor. Seth stood in the middle of the warehouse yard, his umbrella providing only minimal cover from the downpour, and surveyed the scene.
Carter wondered if the old man saw something here that he could not. As far as he was concerned, the coroner’s report and the site reports from the investigating officers were more than enough to go on with. No need for him to freeze his arse off in the rain too.
‘Let me get this straight,’ said Carter. ‘We’re here looking for evidence that a dead person wandered in here and killed a man police from around the world have been hunting for years?’
‘That’s pretty much it,’ said Seth. He tried to light a cigarette but the wind was too strong for the flame to lick the tip.
Carter shone a torch around the floor, not sure what he was supposed to be looking for. Did the dead leave a trail? Would there be evidence of half-chewed brains laid around. He was here to hunt occultists and other fraudsters, not walking corpses.
‘But that makes no sense,’ Carter protested. ‘The dead don’t go around killing people. I’d have noticed.’
‘Oh I don’t know about – hold on! What’s that?’
Carter shone his torch at the wheel of a truck. ‘I don’t see anything.’
Seth crouched by the wheel and felt under the cab. ‘Got it.’
He pulled his hand back, opened his fist and shone the torch onto the palm of his hand.
Laid on the worn leather of his glove was a bullet, silver and flattened on one end. The specks of dried blood covering its surface began to liquify in the rain and run off onto his palm.
Back in the relative warmth of the car, Seth turned the packet over in his hand and stared at it. Silver alloy. Compacted tip.
‘Hollowpoint?’ he asked.
Carter shook his head. ‘Unlikely. It hasn’t fractured.’
‘Something doesn’t add up here,’ said Seth. ‘If it’s solid, there’s no payload. If there’s no payload, he couldn’t kill her. We’re missing something.’
‘This is definitely from his gun?’ asked Carter.
‘Think of the ballistics. It was fired in the wrong direction for her to have used it.’
Seth clenched his fist around the bullet in its packet. The younger man looked at him expectantly. ‘Maybe the police found something?’
‘Maybe. Get their report.’
Seth stuffed the packet into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled on his seatbelt.
‘And put out a search for anyone matching Lune’s description,’ said Seth. ‘Maybe we’ll get lucky and find where she’s been hiding.’
The police report revealed nothing of use. Seth dropped it onto his desk, ran a hand through his hair and sighed deeply.
‘So close,’ he said, talking to himself.
He looked over at the window, saw his reflection; the night sky turning the glass into a mirror. His gaunt face, all thin wire glasses and grey-black stubble, stared back at him through tired eyes. God, he looked old. When had that happened?
He reached into the lower drawer in his desk and pulled out a bottle of Glenlivet. The bottle had been a birthday present from his son. It still had a message attached, tied around the neck with a piece of string.
Happy fiftieth, Dad. Here’s something to finish off your liver with.
He had intended to open it when he caught the bastard who killed his son, but that would not happen now. He was in the police morgue. That bitch Lune had got to him first.
He looked at the bottle. It glinted in the light from his desk lamp. No sense leaving it to collect dust in a drawer any longer. Time to toast the memory of dead children.
At least someone had brought Craig’s killer down. It should have been him, but at least it wasn’t old age.
He was about to open the bottle when someone knocked on his door. The bottle clinked enticingly as he slipped it back into the drawer.
‘Come in,’ he said.
Carter entered, holding a pale blue file.
‘You’re still here?’ asked Seth. ‘I thought everyone had gone home.’
‘This just came in,’ said Carter. He was smiling as he handed over the file.
Seth flicked through it, scanning the pages quickly; absorbing the gist. He looked up and smiled.
‘I’ve already called Thomas,’ said Carter. ‘He’ll meet us there.’