/ AN EXCUSE FOR MURDER

Prologue

By: Vanessa Westermann


Gary couldn’t stop thinking about the way her skin felt under his hands. How the curve of her shoulder had glowed palely in the dusky room that morning, the faint shadow of a bruise below her knee, the almost translucent skin on the underside of her wrist.

His concentration should have been centred on the parking lot, planning and scanning the premises, alert to potential danger. It was what he was paid for, what he was good at. One of the best, in fact. The sun, low and intense on the horizon, glared off of car windows, in flashes of light that left dark imprints across his vision. Despite the glare, the air was damp and cool. If necessary, he could recite the license plates of the vehicles parked on the street in that London borough, but still, there were blind spots, and he knew it. Tension shimmered like heat waves at his peripherals. His jacket collar chafed uncomfortably against his skin. There was an edginess Gary couldn’t explain. Something pressing at him, threatening. But still he could feel a smile lingering on his lips, warm as her hand resting on his arm.

“Did you read it?”

“Read what?” He looked back at her, an involuntary move, assuring himself she was there. It should have been another day like any other, but there was something in the details, he couldn’t grasp hold of, that felt wrong. It was just the faintest impression of fear, a tingle at the back of his neck.

“The book.” She was insistent now, meeting his eyes with hers, and he found himself looking too long, caught again by that small brown fleck in the iris of her right eye. “The one I gave you?”

“You’re like a cat,” he laughed. “You only want my attention when I’m busy.” He glanced at the sidewalk, at two passing pedestrians, white male and female, mid-forties, heads bent together with the easy closeness that years of marriage provided.

“That’s not true. I always want your attention.”

“Now if only that were true,” he teased. “Your father hired me to protect you. Let me concentrate on the job at hand, and I promise you’ll have my undivided attention later.” What was it about her that always made him want more, even though it was wrong? “Don’t worry, you’re always on my mind. You’re like a poison. I can’t get you out of my head.” The way she had led him in long strides through the Victoria & Albert museum earlier, past exhibits without so much as a glance for artwork, porcelain and stained glass, until she stood in front of one cabinet. Floral marquetry of walnut, pine, oak and ivory. Sprays of berries tied with ribbons, a central door concealing tiers of more drawers. Aged wood, birds rich with detail, and a prowling lion, claws extended, had been caught in the passage of light, spilling dimly from the sloped windows above them. You can look and look, she’d said to him, and always see more.

Movement on their right had him pivoting, placing a hand beneath her elbow, pulling her closer to him. He searched for the source of the threat, scanning sidewalk, empty cars, opaque windows, skyline. Instead of a casual shift in their positions allowing him to shield her, his muscles had tightened, not with the useful surge of adrenaline, but with mindless and inexplicable dread. He resisted the sudden urge to rush her to the car, away from that space filled with too many unknowns.

“What is it? You’re hurting me.” She tried to pull her arm from his hand.

“It’s nothing,” Gary said, loosening his hold on her reluctantly. Just a door opening and closing across the street. Nevertheless, he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being watched. He glanced at Adriana’s bent head, her features hidden behind a wash of pale hair, and pulled her closer to him. She was toying with the necklace he had given her, running her finger over and over the orchid impressed in the pendant. “I’d lose my job if your father found out about us.”

She looked up at him then, with that serious expression he’d seen so many times before. “Is the job more important than me?”

“Of course not.” He counted five empty parked cars, one of them a Ford Focus with a distinctive scrape across the passenger side door.

“So quit then.”

“And let someone else protect you? The jealousy would kill me.” The smile was for her, although he was looking away, towards the building on their right, the shape of the tree and the shadow beneath it.

He felt the movement of her body as she turned towards him. “I love you, you know.”

Gary couldn’t tell if he was walking or rooted to the spot. She was a client and he should keep his distance, at least until the assignment was over. But all he could see was the smile playing at the corners of her mouth, the softness in her eyes that was only for him. To hell with the rules. Gary knew he was grinning like a fool, quick and reckless and carefree. “Adriana -“

The pressure came from above his left shoulder, a sudden shift in the air. A whistle of sound past his ear. Her body jerked against his as she staggered. At first he thought the bullet had missed its mark. That sweet, heady gasp of relief.

His next instinct was to find safety, to clear the scene. His thoughts were already racing through the following stages. Make sure the shooter was no longer on the scene. Check for wounded, for injury. She was sliding towards the ground. It was as though a weight was pulling her down, and him with her, until he was on the pavement next to her.

He pressed against the wound, blood running warm across his knuckles to pool on the ground, damp beneath his knees. He knew there was little to be done for a chest wound like this. The acrid-sweet metallic smell of her blood was nauseating and unforgettable, altering her familiar scent into the bitter stench of impending loss.

There was a surge of focussed movement behind him, running footsteps, cries for help, a siren in the distance. Her heart beat beneath his hand, fainter each time. With each beat, she was slipping farther away from him, and all he could think about was finding the person who pulled that trigger.

Rage compressed within his chest, a cold force. Hatred pulsed in the sharp pain at his temples, in the clenched fingers of his blood-stained hand.

He should have moved faster, turned in time, gotten her out of the way. He should have relied on his own instincts, instead of being distracted. Hell, he’d warned her against routine, but all it had taken for him to let her go to the museum was a touch of her hand against his and an unhurried kiss. If only the empty apartment and coffee with him had been enough. Instead, she’d wanted antiques and lunch, pasta and wine. As though nothing else existed.

It was his fault.

He could feel her last painful breath burn in his own lungs. He would calculate the exact trajectory of the shot. He would dissect that moment, tear it apart and find who did this. Hunt them the way they hunted her. Dense impressions crowded his mind, clarifying and concentrating. The pavement grinding against his knees, the sun reflecting off of her blood, steam rising, the weight of her in his arms, the wild arch of her throat, the curve of her cheek. The guilt aching like violence in his bones.