Deadlock - chapter one
Cornwall, England: Sunny spells, 17°C
Marcus Galt stared at the carnage in disbelief. As he turned his head to take in the full extent of the damage, his long grey plait writhed on the back of his jacket like an angry snake. He clenched the top of the tube-shaped weapon he held across his chest, grinding his thick-soled black boots into the mud.
‘That’s it! I’ve had it up to here with them.’ He chopped at his throat. ‘They’ve totally devastated everything. They’ve got to die!’
His partner, a willowy woman in her early sixties, stood beside him, blonde hair threaded with white but worn long like a girl. Her hand fluttered to his arm, appealing for mercy, as her tie-dye scarves flapped in the breeze.
‘Isn’t that a bit cruel, my love?’ she asked.
‘It’s no more than they deserve.’ Marcus’s face was set behind his steel-rimmed glasses. ‘The stuff’s ready now – been brewing long enough. We have enough to wipe them all out. It’s my secret weapon of mass destruction.’
‘But, Marcus –’
‘By tonight, there won’t be a single one left alive. What do you think of that, eh, Darcie?’
Marcus Galt raised his voice to snag the attention of their guest who was in the bean patch, half hidden behind the shed. Darcie stood up and stretched – her back was killing her from all the hard work they had put her to since her arrival.
‘Yeah, go for it,’ Darcie said, slicking back her black fringe as it tumbled into her eyes.
‘Good girl. Got more gumption than you, Claire.’ Marcus unscrewed the top of the plastic bottle and tipped. A pale brown liquid glugged into a shallow tub set into the soil. ‘Anyway, it’s all organic. Bye bye, slugs. Die happy in my homebrew,’ the gardener chanted vindictively, nudging one over the edge into the liquid.
Job done, Marcus took a swig from the bottle for himself and returned to digging his row of potatoes.
Darcie watched him for a moment, but when he didn’t explain, decided she had to ask.
‘Mr Galt –?’
‘Marcus, love, Marcus.’
‘Erm, Marcus, what’s with the beer?’
‘The slugs have been ruining my brassicas. They sniff out the homebrew and drink themselves to death. Not a bad way to go.’
Pondering this strange form of chemical warfare, Darcie put down the full basket of runner beans and sat on the step by the shed. She poured herself a coffee from the thermos flask and nibbled on one of Claire’s wholemeal biscuits. She was starving. Since arriving in the dead of night at Mr and Mrs Galt’s house a week ago, she had spent most of the daylight hours with them on their allotment on the edge of Truro, a pretty cathedral city in the far south-west of England. It had been a surreal experience: at one moment, she was in Egypt, running from the American president, her escape masterminded by her friend Stingo, an SAS officer; next she was in a green corner of the English countryside where the biggest enemy were slugs. She remembered asking Stingo to find her a quiet, sunny beach to lie on until her problem with President Morris blew over; he’d brought her here, to get a tan while picking beans with his parents.
‘Truro, no safer place,’ he’d told her. Beaches only a few miles away. And she’d be back home in England where it would be easier to protect her from her enemies.
Perhaps he was right – though to be honest, England felt a foreign country to Darcie, who had spent most of her life abroad. But it was as good a place as any to go to ground because, even if the president stopped chasing her, there was still the little matter of a grudge borne her by Madame Tsui, head of an organised crime syndicate in the Far East. It was more than enough powerful enemies for one fourteen-year-old schoolgirl to have made in the last few months.
But then, Darcie Lock’s life had stopped being ordinary when she first learned that her parents were spies. Michael Lock was a British Secret Intelligence Service agent; her mother, Ginnie, a CIA operative. Darcie had been sucked into their life of espionage and couldn’t seem to find a way out.
In Truro, she was trying her hardest to escape the octopus grip of the secret services. Cut off from contact with her parents for the time being, holidaying in a place well off everyone’s radar screen, she might be able to claw back some normality for herself. It was a strange, hangover-from-the-hippy-sixties normality with the Galts, but it was safe. No one was shooting at her, trying to blow her up, or leaving her pegged out in a desert to die. Safe.
‘Well, well, look who it is!’ exclaimed Claire, shading her eyes as she gazed down the slope to the road. Beyond the boundary of the allotments, the spike of the cathedral spire shot up from the bottom of the valley like one of Marcus’s cabbages that had gone to seed, towering over the other buildings. Much closer, walking briskly up the cinder path towards them, was Stingo.
‘Hardly ever get a visit from him and now he comes twice in ten days,’ muttered Marcus, digging his spade into the soil to leave it standing.
‘Darling, this is unexpected!’ exclaimed Claire, wiping her hands on her patchwork apron and moving down the path to hug her son. ‘Everything all right?’
‘Hi, Mum.’ Stingo returned her embrace before letting go. He ran his hand briefly over his short sandy crop as if suddenly reminded of how different he was from his long-haired parents. Stingo was about Claire’s height but at least twice her bulk, thanks to the serious physical training he did each day. ‘Yeah, everything’s fine. How’s things? Is she behaving?’ His pale blue eyes flicked towards Darcie, already smiling.
‘She’s been an angel.’ Claire beamed at her guest.
‘Of course I’m behaving,’ said Darcie, returning Stingo’s hug. ‘They’ve survived having you in the house as a teenager; I must be a dream.’
Darcie was so excited to see him, having felt completely out of the picture for the past few days. He’d know where her parents were – how President Morris had reacted to her disappearance – where she was going next.
Stingo reached out a hand to his father. ‘Dad.’
Kennedy? What kind of a name was that, wondered Darcie as the two men shook hands stiffly. No wonder he used a nickname.
‘I hope you’re staying for lunch, darling?’ asked Claire.
‘Yeah, if you’ve enough. I promised Darcie a beach so I thought I’d take her surfing this afternoon.’
‘Great!’ Darcie smiled broadly at him, feeling the day was definitely looking up – anything was better than an afternoon of gardening chores among the drowning slugs.
‘Thought we’d hit the north coast – the surf’s up and some of my squad will be there. They’re sorting you out a board and a wetsuit.’
‘Fantastic!’ She could think of nothing better than spending time with Stingo and the other SAS men; they worked hard but really knew how to play when they had a chance.
‘We’re already taking bets on how long you’ll last.’
She punched him in the ribs. ‘Longer than you. I’ve got pretty good balance.’
‘OK, I’ll take that bet.’
‘What do I get when I win?’
‘When?! Prepare to be humiliated, Darcie. Ready to put your money where your mouth is?’
‘Kennedy!’ his father said reprovingly.
‘Er, you get the glory, of course. Couldn’t possibly encourage a teenager to place money on a bet, could I?’ Stingo said with false innocence as he winked at her behind his father’s back. Being with his parents was making his mischievous side emerge.
Lunch was vegetarian pâté sandwiches, celery sticks and carrot cake, eaten on a picnic blanket on a grassy patch in front of the shed. Stingo’s parents kept pressing him for personal stuff – information about his girlfriends, career, what he did with his free time – but he avoided answering them with expert diversionary tactics. Darcie enjoyed following the game, picking up tips for when she next saw her own parents. When Claire asked if he was still seeing ‘that nice Italian girl’, he asked about progress on her quilting. When Marcus began to express loud views as to the war on terror and role of the Special Forces therein, Stingo turned the subject to the ongoing battle his dad was having with the neighbour on the next allotment over the use of pesticides.
The question Stingo couldn’t dodge was the one to which he knew he owed his parents an answer. Taking advantage of the opportunity presented by Darcie going off to take the picnic basket back to the car, Claire Galt jumped in with the subject they had been saving up all week.
‘If you don’t mind me asking, darling, how do you know Darcie, exactly? You said she was in trouble – I know we spoke to her parents on the phone about having her to stay for a while – but can’t you explain some of it to us? We’re dying of curiosity.’
‘She’s done nothing wrong,’ Stingo said quickly, wondering how much he could tell them. They all watched Darcie walk down to the Galts’ cranky old car, her long black hair bobbing in a high ponytail. Tall for her age, she moved with the rangy pace of an athlete.
‘Of course not. She’s a sweet girl, we know that. But still . . .’
‘I met her on a personal protection assignment in Africa. She got involved in something dangerous thanks to . . . well, let’s say her parents don’t stack shelves in the supermarket for a living.’ He decided not to mention the Egyptian angle: his parents were bound to have followed the Shelly Morris kidnap on the news and would guess too much. ‘She needs to stay somewhere for a while until things die down. In fact, I was going to ask you a favour: can she stay a bit longer?’
Claire glanced at Marcus. ‘As long as she needs, darling.’
‘I can’t pretend that there’ll be no danger if we’re really unlucky and the people after her catch up with her whereabouts. It shouldn’t happen – but I can’t promise it won’t.’
‘Even more reason for her to stay,’ said Marcus gruffly, fiddling with the gold hoop he wore in one ear. ‘Sounds like she needs some friends.’
‘Thanks.’ Stingo met his father’s eyes. ‘You know, Dad, when I was going out on a limb to help Darcie a few weeks back, I thought of you.’ He looked down. ‘I thought it’s the one thing I’ve done you’d be proud of.’
Marcus cleared his throat. ‘But I am proud of you, Kennedy: I may not agree, but I’ve always been proud. I respect you for doing what you think is right. We’ll take care of her for you and her parents, don’t you worry.’
Darcie was unaware that she’d been the catalyst for something of a family reconciliation when she returned, but she could feel the warmth in the family group and see the smiles. Stingo looked much younger than normal, squatting alongside his dad as they discussed the cricket. The tough-nut warrant officer had cracked to reveal the sweet fact that he was somebody’s son. It was good to have him around: Marcus and Claire were nice enough, but they were a bit odd and knew nothing about who she really was. Stingo was her only connection to her real life with her parents. Perhaps he’d come to say they’d found a way to get her out of hiding?
‘So, Darcie, how do you fancy going to school in Truro?’ Stingo asked.
Darcie felt a swoop of disappointment in her stomach like missing a step in the dark. It seemed as if she was going nowhere fast. ‘What, here?’
‘Yeah. Schools go back next week. Your parents want your nose to the grindstone, studying for your GCSEs. They’ve sorted it out through their own channels and picked a school for you. Enrolled you as Darcie Galt.’ He gave her a wry smile. ‘We’ll pretend you’re my cousin.’
Annoyed with her parents now, Darcie wondered why they hadn’t asked her first, instead of sending Stingo to do their dirty work. ‘So what you’re really saying is that it’s all sorted and I don’t have a choice?’
‘Don’t blame your mum and dad,’ said Stingo, ‘they’re out of it at the moment. Your mum’s been hauled back to Washington – she’s getting a lot of hassle.’
Darcie scowled. It wasn’t difficult to work out who was giving her mother a hard time. Ginnie’s chief would be down on her hard, trying to find out where she’d hidden her daughter. In most cases when someone at work gets at you, there is a boss higher up to whom you can appeal; the problem for Ginnie was that her chief was the president of the United States and you can go no higher than that. He was on the campaign trail and was worried that if it came out he had sanctioned the use of a child to spy on his own daughter, it would ruin his chance of re-election. He wanted to tuck Darcie away somewhere until the danger of a media backlash passed, but there was no guarantee when that would be.
‘You should cut your parents some slack,’ Stingo continued. ‘This isn’t easy for them either.’
Darcie crumbled the remainders of her bit of cake so that it fell between her fingers. ‘OK. Fine. Whatever.’
Stingo rolled his eyes. ‘Well, that’s a really mature response, Darcie, after everyone’s gone to so much trouble for you.’
‘Who are you now, Stingo: my dad? ’Cause you sound a lot like him.’ Darcie jumped up to walk off her frustration. Stingo watched her stalk away, his brow creased.
Claire reached out and patted her son’s hand. ‘She’s right, you know. You were being too tough on her considering you’d just delivered bad news. I think she was hoping you were going to take her home.’
Marcus chuckled. ‘I never thought I’d see the day when my son turns into an old nag.’
Stingo’s face cracked into a smile. ‘Teenagers!’ he said with an exaggerated sigh. ‘Bet I was never like that.’
‘You were just like that, Kennedy,’ said Claire with a fond smile. ‘Exactly like that.’
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