Chapter One



Buckinghamshire, England


WHAT a bloody mess. Emphasis on the bloody.

Before you say anything, I know what you’re thinking. How the hell do you get yourself into these situations? It’s a good question. I’ll let you know when I have an answer. A guy in my position should have known better, considering my experience with this sort of thing. Even without said experience, the sharp pain in my gut should have been my first clue. Oh no, it was the familiar feel of blood seeping between my fingers that finally triggered that little voice in my head saying, You’ve been shot—again.

Only after my little realization did I start to feel the flames lapping my side, as if it were trying to set me ablaze from the inside out. I hated getting shot. Then again, what sap didn’t? I shrugged out of my jacket with a groan, then unbuttoned my vest and cast it to the floor alongside my tie. This was what I got for not packing heat. Since when had firearms become a prerequisite for a morning stroll through the woods? On my own lands, no less? That ought to learn me. Weren’t people who lived in the country supposed to live longer? I was obviously the exception to the rule.

Well, time for the verdict. I ripped open my shirt and looked down at the crimson pool spreading through my clean white undershirt. Jeepers creepers, I had a belly full of lead. I had turned into a bad movie cliché. Well, I’d be damned if I was gonna end up dying like one. This ain’t no Warner’s picture, and I ain’t James Cagney. You want to know who I am? I’m the guy who ends up getting plugged so the real hero can learn some poxy life lesson, grow wiser from the experience, and in turn redeem us all. Like hell. The hero of this story ain’t in the habit of learning lessons. He’s in the habit of giving them. I should know. I’ve got the scars to prove it.

I’m the right-hand man, the Watson to his Holmes, the Jekyll to his Hyde, the Laurel to his Hardy, the—you get the picture.

This explains a lot more about my current situation than you might think, but we’ll get to that. First, I had to do something about all this blood. I tore up my shirt and wrapped it around my torso, giving it a good tug and gritting my teeth at the sharp pain that rippled through my body like a pebble in a pond. At least that should keep some of my blood inside me for the time being. Goddamn it, I was getting too old for this. At the age of thirty-six, I had truly believed my days of finding myself face to face with the barrel of a gun were well and truly behind me. Not the first time I had been wrong.

What a way to go, waiting around for a mug whose idea of a good time is dragging me through a string of pubs and starting brawls in each one, but only after half a dozen pints and a scone with enough strawberry compote and clotted cream to give him a coronary. Who am I to gripe about it? It won’t be the first time he’s seen me shot up. Or punched or smacked or—well I’ve got a list. One so long I doubt I have enough time to tell you about it. In fact, thinking back on it, I realize I’ve spent most of my young adult life willingly taking some form of physical or mental pounding on account of him. But why, you ask? Who is this man continuously accompanied by chaos and some form of deep-rooted lunacy? And why the hell would I voluntarily allow myself physical and mental harm over and over on account of him? Just who the hell is he? Well, believe it or not, pal, you’re about to find out.

But I thought you said you didn’t have enough time?

No, I said I didn’t have enough time to run down the list of everything he’s ever done to me. I have more than enough time to tell you how I had the fortune or misfortune—depending on the mood I’m in, which, as I make myself comfortable in some woodland creature’s home in the forest of a town whose name I can’t pronounce with a bullet hole in me, I’m leaning more toward misfortune—of meeting him. What I can say for certain is that he changed my life in more ways than I care to admit. So here goes— What, another question? What are you, some kind of newshawk? Spit it out. If you haven’t noticed, I’m not exactly oozing with hospitality here.

Aren’t you scared?

Scared? No.

Bored? Yes.

Annoyed? Most certainly.

I’ve approached Death so many times over the years the guy’s become a close personal friend of mine. I drop in occasionally, we have a few laughs, then he tells me to scram. In my line of work, especially with him around, my life is in grave danger a good seventy-five percent of the time. The other twenty-five percent of the time is spent in moderate danger. Now, I ain’t so good at math, but if my sums work out, that means I spend a hundred percent of the time in some kind of peril or high alert. Right now, I’m wondering if my pal Death ain’t getting a little too accustomed to my company.

Don’t go buying me any daisies just yet. One thing you need to know about Jacky Valentine—that would be him, not me. My name’s Chance. Well, actually, my real name is Chauncey Irving. I know. Who names their kid Chauncey? My no-good parents, that’s who. That’s why I stick to Chance. A name bestowed upon me by the man himself many moons ago. Where was I? Right. Jacky. One of the most stubborn men you’ll ever meet. If he doesn’t want me to die, then God almighty himself ain’t gonna get in his way. Help is coming, and I should be back at Hawthorn Manor, tickling the ivory in no time flat, but not before I beat on his head like a couple of bongo drums for getting me into this fine mess in the first place. I can see I’m losing you. Stick with me, kid. I’ll explain.

When I met Jacky, I wouldn’t have traded places with him for all the tea in China, and considering who the guy was and who I was, that says a lot. The fella really had his work cut out for him. I know for a fact that in the whole of Jacky’s career, I was his biggest challenge, and when you do what we do for a living, that ain’t no compliment. Back then I wasn’t the man I am today. Far from it. A multitude of events in my life had led me onto a path of vice and self-destruction. You name it, I had done it. I was on a fast train to the end of the line, and that train had no brakes.

Now, I ain’t gonna sit here and feed you some sappy story about how my circumstances were to blame for what I became. How society had a hand in my creation, how I was really just a good kid unloved and misunderstood, blah, blah, blah, because frankly, that’s a bunch of baloney. I became who I was out of my own anger, self-loathing, and bad choices. I could have taken the higher path, decided to learn from my experiences, become focused and determined to get myself out of the desolate hole I found myself in, but instead, I chose to be a hazard to myself and everyone around me. Why? Because I could. Because it was easy.

From the age of seven, I had had various jobs, none of which lasted longer than a couple of weeks. I was told countless times I was insubordinate and beyond the pale. That was partially true. I did lack discipline and was indeed deplorable, but that’s not why I couldn’t hold a job. It was because I hated every job I had. I thought they were beneath me, and if I didn’t want to be somewhere, heaven help the poor sap who tried to make me stay put. I didn’t really consider the rights or wrongs of being put to work. I didn’t really know any better. What I did know was that I didn’t like it, and if I didn’t like it, why should I do it? My other problem came from being told what to do. Which is, of course, ironic, considering where I ended up. But I digress….