LOOKING THROUGH the viewfinder of his old DSLR camera, Henri zoomed in on the point of contact as the man on the park bench rubbed his thumb over the back of his companion’s hand. The warring mixture of need and aversion that curled in Henri’s chest was something he’d become accustomed to over the past few years, but that didn’t make it easier to bear. His skin hungered for the touch his mind refused, and yet the obsession covered a much deeper thirst the past three years had denied him. Connection.
He lowered the camera, studied the screen. The photo would look so much better with a black-and-white filter, and he silently bemoaned the age of his DSLR. Even smartphones had filtering options on them these days. Unfortunately, until he got settled somewhere he’d have to leave his work equipment in storage. He couldn’t drag all those expensive cameras and accessories in and out of hotel rooms or leave them sitting in his parked SUV while he traipsed around Northern Ontario.
He set the camera on the park bench and pulled the tie from his long, straight hair. Before retying it, he collected the escaped strands. As he pulled the last loop halfway through, his gaze strayed to a man walking along the path. Although walking didn’t seem quite the right term; it was more like the guy was strolling on clouds.
Henri snatched up his camera and zoomed in on him. He depressed the shutter button in a series of soft clicks but knew there was no way he could possibly capture the magnificence of that walk in still pictures. A sense of frustration swept over him as he determined that in this case, photography was an extremely limited medium.
He lowered the camera and looked at the counter. He’d taken almost twenty shots of the guy. With any luck something in at least one of those shots hinted at those beautiful, long strides or what it was that created that floating gait.
Henri glanced at his watch. It was nearly time to check out of his hotel. After tucking the camera in its carry bag, he wandered back through the park towards his car.
Back home in Australia, or what used to be home, it was autumn, and he revelled in the fact that this year, at least, he would completely miss winter. Although he would probably suffer the consequences as the mild Australian season did not compare to the severity of a Canadian winter.
Exiting the park, he crossed the road and continued down the street to the intersection, where he turned left. He fished in his jeans pocket for his car keys. Getting used to driving on the other side of the road had taken all of about two minutes, except when it came to going in and out of driveways. He still had trouble with that, even after a month.
With keys in hand, Henri dashed across the street to his SUV, clicking the locks as he went. He reached for the door handle and felt a hard nodule at the back of it. Something had been taped there. He stripped the tape from the handle and lifted the object—a bullet, tape still clinging to it. As he recognized it, the blood drained from his head, leaving a chill in its wake.
He would never be safe again.
How could this be happening? Russell was supposed to be locked in Goulburn Supermax. On the other side of the world, for chrissakes!
Henri battled shaking hands as he grappled with the key and locked the vehicle again. Clutching the bullet in his palm, he turned and tried to maintain slow steps as he headed towards the intersection. He couldn’t think. Trying to keep from zoning out, he focused on the weight in his hand and the way the tape stuck and pulled at the skin of his palm.
Eyes would be watching, so he turned the first corner and sought out a place where he could sit unobserved long enough to collect himself. The moment he was around the corner, the shakes worsened. Despite the cool day, perspiration beaded on his upper lip and forehead. The letters of the signs hanging above the shops were clear, but his brain had lost the ability to comprehend. A chalkboard with a picture of a steaming cup drew his attention, and with the recognition, he fought to keep from breaking into a run, the sooner to hide in the depths of the café.
He ignored the smattering of customers and made his way to a booth in the rear, where he slid into the side that gave the best view of the door so he could see those entering. Once he had fumbled the phone from his pocket and brought it to life, he opened the contact list.
“Are you all right?”
Henri jumped at the sound of the teenager’s voice. The cloth in her hand suggested she worked there. He tried to speak, but unable to find his voice, he nodded.
“You have to go to the counter to order.”
He nodded again.
Staring at his contact list, he tried to find Jason’s number, but his brain couldn’t process the names. If he could decipher the first letter, he would be able to press it, but his ability to read the list was hampered by his shaking hand.
“Mister, you’ve got to order something to sit here.”
Focused on the phone, Henri held two unsteady fingers up to indicate he’d order in a few minutes and was relieved when she issued an exasperated sigh and stalked off. He scrolled slowly. Was that a J? He blinked and tried again to read it. He pressed it and put the phone to his ear. His leg jiggled wildly beneath the table. He watched the café entrance as he listened to the ringing.
“Jason?” asked Henri in little more than a whisper. He cleared his throat. “Jason?”
“Jason?” God! Why couldn’t he say anything other than Jason’s name?
“Henri? Is that you?”
“Henri, concentrate on slowing your breathing.”
The instruction made him aware of his quick, shallow breaths, and he made an effort to bring it under control. “Jason.”
“Breathing first, Henri.”
The man in the next booth popped his head up over the back of the seat and looked at Henri. Shaggy black shoulder-length hair framed a face with dark eyes and high cheekbones. “I couldn’t help overhearing. You seem to be having trouble talking to your friend. Do you want some help?”
Who was this guy; was he in cahoots with Russell?
“Jason?” The panic in his barely audible voice was still rising. He was getting close to shutting down. The phone fell from his hand onto the vinyl seat.
The man from the next booth came around. He bent at the knee and slowly moved his hand towards the phone while maintaining eye contact with Henri. “I’m just going to pick up the phone and speak with your friend.” Even after he had the phone, he made no sudden moves. “Hello? My name is Birch Jacobs, and I am in a café with your friend.”
The man went silent for a moment, then said, “You need to speak slower. I’m having trouble understanding your accent.” He paused again. “Ontario, Canada. He doesn’t look very well. Is he ill? Does he need medication?”
Henri needed Jason to know about the bullet. He set it on the table. A mixture of surprise and wariness emerged on Birch’s face.
“Ah, he’s put a bullet on the table.” He took a few breaths while he waited. “Look, hang on and I’ll put you on speaker, okay?” There was a break as Birch listened to the voice on the other end. He scanned the café. “No, there aren’t too many people here.” Punching a button, he set the phone on the table.
“Can you hear me?” came Jason’s disembodied voice.
“Yes,” Birch answered.
“Henri, is the bullet an F1A1?”
“He’s nodding yes.”
“Birch, do you know the local cops?”
“Head of the OPP around here is Geoff Sayer.”
“Ontario Provincial Police.”
“Okay. Henri, I’m going to give this Geoff Sayer a ring, and I’ll call you back in about ten minutes, okay?”
“He’s nodding yes.”
“Birch, are you in a hurry, or can you stay with him until I ring back?”
“Thanks. Talk in ten.”
Birch rang off and set the phone on the table in front of Henri. “Do you want something to drink while we wait?”
Henri took his wallet from his jeans pocket. He had a false start before he managed to form comprehensible words. “Thanks. Coffee.” If he could get rid of this guy for a few minutes so he could pull himself together in peace, that would be good.
He held out a ten-dollar note, but the violent shaking of his hand made it seem he was impatient for Birch to take the money. He set it on Birch’s side of the table, and as he drew his hand back, he picked up the bullet and put it in his pocket.
“You’re not going anywhere, right?”
Henri didn’t know whether the question was intended to be rhetorical. “No.”
Over the past two and a half years, he couldn’t claim to have made peace with the past, but the intervening time had lulled him into the belief that this shit with Russell was behind him.
Henri buried his forehead in his palm. Although sweaty, he was shivering, and numbness spread through him. It was starting all over again. And now Jason was calling the cops. He didn’t want anything to do with them—not after last time. All that effort spent trying to convince them he wasn’t the crazy one, and for what?
Wasn’t that ironic? By the time Russell had finished with him, he had been so messed up they’d transferred him to a psych unit. Well, fuck it! Not this time. He’d do whatever he must to protect himself. If that made him appear mad, so be it.
Instead of calming, the roiling in his stomach grew worse. Nothing was going to settle this bout of nausea. He scanned the café for the toilets and hurried for the nearest one. Thankfully, the stall was empty, and he made it in time, but even after his stomach was empty, he retched until his muscles burned.
Afterwards, he rinsed his mouth and washed his face before returning to the booth, where Birch was setting the coffees on the table.
Henri slid back into the booth opposite Birch.
“You left your phone, so I figured you hadn’t gone far,” said Birch.
With rising dread, Henri looked down at the phone. How could he have been so reckless as to leave it unattended? He scanned the restaurant. “Did you see anyone near it?”
“Near your phone?”
“No. Were you expecting someone to do something to it?”
He didn’t want to sound paranoid, but there was a chance someone might have. He gave a noncommittal grunt.
“Did I detect an Australian accent in that grunt?”
Henri appreciated the guy trying to lighten the mood, but he didn’t think his mood would lift until Russell Andrews was dead. He wiped the back of his wrist across his still-moist brow. “Yeah.”
“Is your friend Jason Australian too?”
“Sorry, being nosy wasn’t my intent. I was just wondering if his was an Australian accent as well.”
“Australian born Samoan.”
The phone rang and Henri snatched it up. He looked at the screen. “Jason?”
“How you doing now?”
“Good. Am I on speaker?”
“By all accounts this guy Birch Jacobs can be trusted. A local horse trainer, even-tempered, has been in the area for a good ten years, no arrests. Do you know where the cop shop is?”
Too hard to explain that his brain wasn’t processing the way it should and he didn’t know if he could read street signs or safely cross roads. “No.”
“Okay, can you put me on speaker?”
“Hang on.” Henri pressed the speaker button and set the phone on the table between them. “Okay.”
“Hi, Birch. Is the OPP within walking distance?”
“Not really, but that’s not a problem. I have a pickup.”
“No!” snapped Henri. “You can’t get involved.”
“It’s okay. It’s really not a problem,” said Birch.
“It is! I don’t think—”
“Good.” Jason wasn’t going to brook any more argument. “It would be better if you’re not sitting around waiting for the cops to pick you up. Birch, about how long will it take you to get there?”
“Ten minutes or so.”
“I’ll let Geoff know to expect you, Henri. I’m trying to get a flight now, and I’ll let you know when I’ll be there.”
“Thanks, Jason.” The word seemed so inadequate for the gratitude he felt.
“You’re welcome, Henri. Now get a move on. And Birch?”
“We owe you. I can’t thank you enough.”
“No need to owe me anything. Just helping out.”
BIRCH GUIDED Henri to his pickup in the supermarket parking lot. He snatched glimpses of him as they walked. He really liked the guy’s long red-gold hair. The way he had it tied up emphasized his sharp jawline and straight nose, and together it made up one sexy as hell combo.
He unlocked the doors, and they got in. Henri’s constant scanning of the area was beginning to make him jumpy.
With the engine started and the pickup in gear, Birch pulled out of the space and wound his way through the car park and then onto the main road. “Do you know who left the bullet for you?”
If conversation was going to be an uphill battle, Birch wouldn’t bother. They drove in silence for a few minutes.
“How far have we got to go?” Henri dipped his head and looked in the passenger-side mirror.
“About five kilometres.”
“Whatever happens, do not stop. Just keep going to the police station.”
Birch was about to ask what Henri expected to happen when the black SUV behind them rammed into the back of the pickup.
“Keep going!” yelled Henri.
“But that guy ran up my ass.” The SUV rammed them again.
“The light ahead is turning red.”
“Work around it. Don’t stop!”
When they were rammed a third time, Birch decided he wasn’t about to stop for this psycho. He probably had a gun in his car—one that matched the bullet he’d taped to Henri’s vehicle.
The line of cars ahead stopped for the red light. Birch steered into the turning lane and prayed like hell he could slip into the oncoming stream without incident. He did, but so did the chaser, who rammed them every chance he got. Birch put his foot down and headed for the next main road before turning again. Although he barely slowed, he only overshot the corner a little.
He tramped it again and raced down the road, relieved it wasn’t as busy as the last one. Recalculating their whereabouts, he turned right so they didn’t have to face the next set of lights. Bad move! The suburban street carried the likelihood of kids and dogs near the roadside. Potential accidents caused his nerves to jangle, but he tried to block it out, hoping for the best until they could reach the main road again.
He slowed to see if there were oncoming cars, but the SUV pushed them out onto the arterial road. A car came to a screeching halt, barely missing them. He felt as if he’d jumped onto the scariest carnival ride and then found it was too much but couldn’t get off.
Making it through the next set of lights without incident gave Birch the incentive to try to pass every car in the lineup so they’d have free run at the next set of lights. Despite Birch holding the pedal to the metal, the chaser rammed them again, and the pickup jumped forward. This time the guy didn’t back off. Birch took his foot off the accelerator. At least this way the cars travelled at a slower pace instead of going so fast he didn’t have time to think or react.
“What the fuck are you doing?” yelled Henri.
“Conserving fuel! What the fuck do you think I’m doing?”
The vehicle behind braked, and the pickup slowed, but Birch took up the slack by depressing the accelerator again. “It looks like he’s backing off.”
Henri turned in his seat. “He’s just planning his next attack!”
Without slowing, Birch raced through the last set of lights before the turnoff to the police station. They still had to cross the oncoming lanes to reach their destination. Trying to give the oncoming traffic fair warning that it wasn’t business as usual, Birch leaned on the horn as he drifted across the dividing line. He’d almost made the turn when their pursuer hit the tail of the pickup again. The truck slewed sideways to end at an angle in the crossroad.
“Move!” yelled Henri.
With no time to straighten the truck, Birch accelerated forward and did his best to steer as the pickup mounted the curb. He crushed a picket fence, tore across a lawn, and obliterated a flowerbed before he got back onto the road headed in the right direction. But the other vehicle was behind them once more and hit them again.
The police station was in view, but since parallel parking wasn’t an option, Birch decided to drive up onto the sidewalk. Before he could do so, the SUV rammed them again. Trying to avoid passing the station, Birch stood on the brakes. The SUV kept coming and pushed the pickup into a parked police car, the sound of grinding metal deafening as the pickup bumped and slid against the police vehicle.
The SUV reversed, pulled out, and with tires squealing, took off. As abruptly as it had started, it ended.
“Sorry about your car,” said Henri into the sudden silence.
Birch’s heart was racing, his entire body shaking. “What?”
“Your pickup,” said Henri as he patted the dash like he was tapping on a bongo drum. “I’ll pay for the repairs.”
Several police poured out of the station, and a police car pulled up behind them.
“If you get a quote from a panel beater and….”
A policeman tried to open Henri’s door, but it was jammed shut. He knocked on the window. Henri glanced at him and held up a staying finger before turning back to Birch.
“I don’t have a stable address at the moment, but I’ll give you my phone number.”
Birch stared at him. He hadn’t even begun to think about the ramifications of their life-threatening adventure. “Are you kidding me?”
The policeman knocked again, but Henri ignored him. “No, seriously. I’ll pay for it. You were only trying to help me.”
Birch needed to be away from this crazy man. They stared at each other for a moment, and something began to push its way up from Birch’s chest into his throat. A sharp laugh erupted from him. He put a hand to his chest, which calmed him enough to recognize that chaos was occurring outside the pickup. “Wind down your window,” he told Henri when a policeman knocked again.
With his head still turned to Birch and his brow furrowed, Henri absently wound down the window. “Don’t you want my number?”
“Are you all right?” the policeman asked.
“Sure.” Henri turned to Birch. “Are you?”
“Yes.” Birch pointed at Henri. “But he may have hit his head.” There was no other explanation for the way Henri was behaving. Minutes ago, the guy had been sitting in a café having a panic attack. But immediately after someone tried to kill them, he was chatting as though they were sitting outside a shop discussing whether they needed milk or not.
“What? I didn’t hit my head,” Henri declared.
“Then you must be mad.”
Within a blink, Henri’s warm blue-grey eyes turned to icy steel. “Well, if you’re going to play with mad, you better get used to some fucking crazy, because this shit isn’t going away. You’re fucking in it now, sunshine.” Henri pressed his lips together and drew them into a smile so sharp it could have been carved with a stiletto. “Welcome aboard.”