He had imagined that when he announced he must leave with his dog there would be protests. There were not. Everyone gazed out of the window. Over their shoulders, he could see across a lawn, over a wicket fence and on to the road that ran down through the village to the crossroads in its centre. An old woman, dressed in black as if to commemorate recent bereavement, was walking along it, leaning heavily on a stick.

He left the certificate on the table among the food, bottles and glasses. He made excuses, but received no response. They watched her advance towards Petar’s house. He had not seen her before but he recognised authority. The handler went into the bright light of early afternoon and the heat hit him. She came up to him, stared into his face. He noticed – always had sharp eyes for what was different, a gift that kept him alive in the fields – that she wore no wedding ring, or any other jewellery. She had no ring, but neither did Petar’s wife, nor Andrija’s. His puzzlement was cut short.

She had a harsh, reedy voice. ‘Have you finished?’

‘Yes, I have done that section of the field as far as the riverbank.’

‘It is clear?’


‘Did you find bodies?’

‘The dog would not be concerned with bodies if they were buried. We found none on the ground.’

She left him and went up the steps to the front door.

The handler walked to the four-wheel drive. The dog made a laboured jump into the back. Not a cloud above him, no wind, a sky of brilliant blue.

There was an estate of tower blocks across the road and to his right. If any man or woman had been out on their balcony, enjoying a cigarette or hanging washing on a frame and had seen him, and the man in front of him, they might have thought of a feral cat that lived behind the fifteen-floor towers and stalked rats. As the cat would, he valued the time he spent learning the movements, habits and styles of the target. If any man or woman in the cafe he passed, the launderette, the small gaming arcade or the kebab restaurant had seen him and noticed him, then let their eyes fasten on the back of the target ahead, a similar image might have locked in their minds: hunter and hunted in the tight alleyways between the blocks, where the bins were stored and the vermin found food. A cat did not hurry when it stalked prey. It attacked on its own terms and at the time of its choosing. Before it surged forward, it would feign indifference to a scurrying rat. He might have been seen, but he was not noticed, and that was a skill he shared with the cat, the killer.

The man in front of him had come out of a good-sized house, four bedrooms and a brick-paved driveway to a double garage, had turned in the doorway and kissed the face of a woman in a silky robe. He had used a code at the gatepost to pass through electronically controlled gates, then walked briskly up the pavement and past the first tower block. He had gone into a newsagent to buy a tabloid, some chewing gum and a plastic bottle of milk, then had stopped at a cafe to linger for ten minutes over a pot of tea. Now he was on the move again, going back to the house.

The cat on the street was Robbie Cairns. He knew that the rat he stalked was Johnny ‘Cross Lamps’ Wilson. The name was of little importance to him. He assumed that the nickname related to an eye problem. Before that morning he had had little idea of what Johnny ‘Cross Lamps’ Wilson would look like. He had not been given a photograph – never had been since he’d started out in his line of work – or a description other than that the man was balding and wore big spectacles, but he had been provided with the address. Didn’t need much else, except a sense of the location and any personal security the target kept around him. Robbie Cairns had not seen an escort. On familiar ground, where he ruled and was respected, Johnny ‘Cross Lamps’ Wilson would not have reckoned he needed one. Different if he was on a stranger’s ground.

He did not know why the life of the man ahead was on offer for ten thousand pounds. He did not know who had agreed to pay, after a brief negotiation with his grandfather, for the taking of a life. He did not know when the first approach had been made to his father, or when his grandfather had been brought into the deal. He did know that his reputation was strong, and that his father and grandfather would not have considered a cheapskate hit. Robbie Cairns walked with confidence, knew he was top of the range.

Only an idiot or a cowboy went in too fast. Robbie Cairns was self-taught. He had never had a mentor, never been on a day’s firearms course, never read a book on the procedures of foot and vehicle surveillance. The talents were in the blood. He had learned well at his father’s knee – when Jerry Cairns was not on enforced absence from the family home – and when he’d sat close to his grandfather in a second-floor flat on the Albion Estate. He had gained more of the tactical skills on a six-month sentence at Feltham Young Offenders, aged seventeen, and more on a twelve-month sentence handed down a week after his eighteenth birthday.

An older officer at the prison – perhaps he’d taken a fancy to him – had said, ‘Robbie, lad, it doesn’t have to be like this for you. You don’t have to spend half your adult life traipsing into court, being driven from one gaol to another.’ He had taken that advice. Robbie Cairns had not been before a magistrate or judge since 2003, had not been in court or prison. He had been in police cells and interview rooms, then kicked out on to the streets when the holding time was up. He listened also to his father: ‘Always do ground work, Robbie. Always put the hours in.’ He’d listened to his grandfather: ‘Will it all be there tomorrow? Will it be the same? You’ll know more about where you’re going and what you’re going to do when you get there.’ He saw Johnny ‘Cross Lamps’ Wilson edge into the doorway of an estate agent’s premises and do the old one of checking reflections in the window glass. He kept walking.

He wore no weapon. Robbie Cairns never took one with him unless he was about to use it. Another of the small ways – from a long checklist – in which he protected his liberty and stayed out of reach of the Flying Squad, the families and associates of those he’d done a contract on. He never passed on the chores of reconnaissance to others. He did it himself.

He was level with the man. He ducked his head, mild and apologetic, seeming to apologise for crowding the man, then reached past him to the open top box by the agent’s door and took out a brochure of properties. His man had gone, satisfied he had no tail. Robbie Cairns had been so close to him he could smell the aftershave on the man’s face, and the toothpaste. He could see the shaving nick on the throat, the small birthmark on the chin and, through the the spectacles, the man’s squint. He stayed a moment in the recess, but he wouldn’t go into the estate agent’s because he would be picked up on internal security cameras. Couldn’t miss them all, but could miss a hell of a number of them. For the ones on the street he depended on frequent changes of outer clothing, the big-brimmed baseball cap he wore and the shades.

He was pleased with himself. An estate agent’s brochure was good cover. Robbie Cairns’s head was down in the pages when the man did a last spin turn at his gate, before concentrating on the pad screwed to the outside of the gatepost. Then he was inside and the gate clanged shut. What would he have seen before he pumped the digits into the pad? Not much. Someone of average size, who wore nothing distinctive, carried nothing memorable, looked at ease on the street and wasn’t a stranger. Robbie Cairns was twenty-five years old.

He was a fraction less than five feet ten, but hadn’t been measured since he’d stood in his boxers in the induction hall at Feltham, and had no major distinguishing marks on his face. His hands did not carry scars from fist fights or from when he had protected his eyes from a knife slash. Under his cap his hair was short, tidy, like a clerk’s. He wore dark jeans, dark trainers, a drab T-shirt without a logo, and a lightweight jacket. He had no tattoos on his body. He saw Johnny ‘Cross Lamps’ Wilson cross his driveway and slip a key into the front door.

He turned away, had seen enough.

He walked a full quarter of a mile, the sun beating on him, his shadow minimal at his feet. He had crossed the main road, then gone through the centre of the estate, where there was a little shade from the towers, to a central car-parking area in front of a line of shops. Robbie Cairns could not know where all the high cameras were but the cap was down on his forehead and little of his face was exposed. As he approached, a Mondeo – ten years old from the registration plates – eased from a bay and came to idle in front of him. A door was pushed open. He slipped into the front passenger seat and was driven away by his brother.

‘How did it go?’

‘All right.’

He eased back in the seat. The car had once been grey but most of that anonymous colour was now covered with a light coating of dust and dirt. All that was remarkable about the car was the engine, the pride and joy of Robbie Cairns’s elder brother.

‘When you going to go for it?’

‘When I’m ready.’

He was driven away from north London, where he was a stranger, towards the bridges over the river and the

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