People Die
By Kevin Wignall
Published by Simon & Schuster
April 2002; 0-743-21267-3; 224 pages

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People Die by Kevin WignallChapter One


MOSCOW, NOVEMBER


JJ hesitated at the door. He could hear a voice in the room and stopped to listen but realized after just a few seconds that Bostridge was talking to a prostitute. He was talking his way through putting on a condom, the strange reassuring tones middle-aged men seemed to fall into when they were in bed with young women, all guilt and denial and embarrassment.

So much for the information. Viner had stressed one thing above all about Bostridge, that he was a real family man, never played away from home, that he'd definitely be on his own at that time of the evening. And Viner of all people should have known better, the messy unpredictable ways people went about getting sex.

He eased the lock and walked in -- a large room running to darkness at the edges, pockets of light, one of them around the bed. Bostridge was kissing her on the neck and shoulder like it was something he'd seen in some "better lovemaking" video. He clearly hadn't heard JJ come in. She saw him straight away though, and moved awkwardly, at first earning more misplaced reassurance before Bostridge too realized there was someone else with them.

He glanced across the room and saw JJ and then sprang away from her, almost comically, as if trying to suggest the two of them were just sharing the bed. It was typical of men like him, to move instinctively away from the one thing he might have used as a shield against the bullets. Not that it would have made any difference in this case.

 

JJ put one through his heart, another in his head, the silencer producing two concentrated little sneezes that seemed to stop the clocks. For a while the three of them were suspended there in the cozy fabric-light of the table lamps, like a tableau in a wax museum, the moment captured for people to speculate on what might have happened before or after, and on the characters: heartless killer, hapless victim, the girl between.

It was the girl who moved first, sliding calmly from the bed without looking at either of them. He was taken aback by how young she looked, easily still in her teens, corn blond hair cut boyish, loose limbs, pale skin, almost painfully beautiful. No wonder Bostridge had been embarrassed.

He was waiting for her to grab her clothes and leave while she could, like any other prostitute would have done, knowing the ropes, knowing that to stay around or get hysterical or look like anything other than a prostitute was to ask for a bullet. For whatever reason though, maybe just her youth, this one didn't know the ropes, and instead got down on the floor and ran her hand under the edge of the bed, as if looking for an earring or some other piece of lost jewelry.

He stared at her, transfixed, not sure at first whether she was in shock, oblivious to any danger, even to the fact that he was still there, watching, unable to take his eyes off her easy nakedness. He was hooked now anyway, wanting to know what she was looking for.

Finding nothing with her hand, she put the side of her face to the floor and looked underneath the bed, then got up and walked around to the other side. She seemed unhurried, completely unruffled by the death she'd just witnessed, a death that filled the room now with a visceral charge that was hard to ignore.

But Bostridge could have been sleeping it off for the complete disregard she was showing him as she moved around his corpse, as though she'd been in on the kill, as though she'd merely been biding her time in his grasp, waiting for the hitman so that she could get on with her part of the job. She hadn't been in on it though, and continued to ignore JJ too, like he didn't matter, like the two of them were in different dimensions, ghosts to each other.

This time she found what she was looking for, visible relief on her face as she pulled it from under the bed, something large and flat, a book or picture tied up in heavy cloth. She held it tight against her chest, lifted her clothes from one chair, her furs from another, shoes from the floor, never once easing her hold on it, clutching it against her breasts like she was suddenly trying to cover her nudity.

He wanted to see what was inside it but felt powerless to ask because of how absorbed she was, because of the air of total privacy that surrounded her. And in truth it had nothing to do with him anyway, and better to keep out of other people's business.

Finally she left, still without looking at him or at the man behind her on the bed. She looked content, or perhaps more, like she was trying to conceal her elation at having found the package. And despite the bewitching surface calm he could see now that her nerves were only just holding it together, that perhaps she did know how it was and wasn't convinced yet of making it out of there alive.

As she walked past him he drew in the stirred air, catching the smell of her perfume and a deeper musk that made him turn and stare after the last glimpse of her as she closed the door. The spell was broken then, leaving him alone with his work and a question mark over what could have been so important, what threat or promise had made her so determined that she would have that package.

Intrigued by association, he did a quick sweep on who Bostridge was, something he often did anyway if he had the time, for his own benefit, keeping ahead of the game. There wasn't much among the business cards and receipts though. His wallet contained a picture of him with his wife and two kids, an attractive family, part of the illusion.

Finally JJ came back to the man himself. What had he been doing there? JJ was guessing the package was art or religious plunder, so either he was a trader who did agency work on the side or he was an agency guy playing the black market. Either way, he'd somehow managed to take a hit from both lines of work in the same evening, JJ and the girl both sent there to do a job, both pulling it off smoothly.

Probably for a while there Bostridge had thought he was somebody; maybe that had been his problem, the way it was for a lot of Westerners doing business in Russia. And now he'd been reduced back to brutal truth, all pretense done with, transactions over, a flabby American with thinning hair, wearing only a yellow condom and a torn veil of blood across his face and chest.

When JJ left he found her sitting on one of the chairs facing the elevators, dressing slowly as though she'd been hit by fatigue, the package on the floor under the seat. She still looked beautiful in the harsher light out there, her skin flawless. He looked at her, hoping she'd glance up, but her eyes remained downcast as she worked through the thought-free movements of dressing.

He even turned to face her in the elevator before pressing to go down, staring at her again. She was buttoning her blouse, simple and white, expensive; not the kind of girl who got picked up on the street or in any old bar. Maybe Bostridge had been a family man after all, but whoever had sent this girl had chosen a bait he wouldn't have been able to resist.

She reached the top button as the doors began to close and for the first time she looked up, gray eyes fixing him with a gaze too expressive to read, of youth and premature wisdom and a plaintive yearning, something out of reach. Without thinking about it, his hand lifted and pressed the control panel, the doors stopping in their tracks and opening again.

They held each other's gaze for thirty seconds more. He wanted to speak to her, to say something, anything, but what was there to say? She was a teenage girl who'd just seen him kill a man, a girl he should have killed too but who'd captivated him because of the way she'd behaved and because he'd seen her naked and she was beautiful. There was no other bond between them, no other unspoken territories to explore. He let the doors close the second time, let her disappear, her eyes on him till the last.

He couldn't get her out of his thoughts though. In the cab on the way back to his own hotel he stared out of the window, a heavy sleet falling, lights and shadows from the passing traffic, and he kept seeing her face and the way she'd looked at him. And in the back of his mind he was telling the driver to turn around and calculating whether it was too late to catch her before she disappeared into the city darkness.

He knew he'd regret not doing it. There'd been something about her, something different, a secret locked away and communicated to him in code with that one acknowledgment of his presence. He knew if he didn't go back he'd be haunted by her. Even now he was regretting that he hadn't spoken, hadn't asked her name or where she lived, hadn't asked what was in the package, what could be so precious that she'd been willing to risk her life for it.

Whether or not, he remained silent, the driver continued on his way, the girl on hers. He wanted to go back, but it was easier not to. He closed his eyes, listening to the background hum of the engine, the rhythmic squeaking of the wipers, the surface water hissing under the tires. He switched off and let himself be lulled and thought of nothing. It was one of his weaknesses; sometimes he thought too much.


The weather had worsened the following day, an icy sleet driven horizontal by the wind. The plane sat on the tarmac for longer than expected, and when it finally began to taxi there was an uncomfortable silence. JJ was uneasy with the whole thing but bemused too that no one was saying out loud what they were all thinking: that it was crazy to take off in these conditions, that the plane would crash.

The silence became breathable as the plane built speed, as the nose lifted, the stomach-tugging pull away from the ground. They were climbing steeply but it felt like they weren't going fast enough, and then for a moment the wind seemed to buffet them, knocking the plane to one side with a judder, throwing the engines into a sickening whine. Still the other passengers remained quiet, but he could feel them clenching their armrests just as hard as he was.

Within a few minutes it was all over. The plane continued climbing but less steeply, its course smoothened, the cabin slowly returning to the business of flying. People began to speak, conversation and laughter spilling out as they let off steam. The middle-aged guy next to him was polishing his glasses frantically and said in JJ's direction, "Makes you count your blessings, doesn't it?"

He smiled but didn't say anything. He wasn't sure what his blessings were -- that he was a twenty-eight-year-old history graduate who'd somehow managed to end up killing people for a living, that he was alive himself for the time being, that in some small intangible way he was beginning to fall through the cracks. Maybe it would have been a blessing if the plane had crashed.

The guy finally put his glasses back on and said, "My wife won't fly at all; she was in a plane crash once." JJ turned to look at him, showing interest. "Oh, not a serious one. The plane overshot the runway into a field. Not a crash really, an incident, but one of the passengers was killed. Something fell from a luggage locker and hit him."

JJ nodded. "Some people die really easily."

"That's true. Yet some seem to survive almost anything."

He nodded again and let it drop, but that was true as well; some people did take a lot of killing.

Farther up the plane one of the flight attendants was crouching talking to a passenger. He could hear her say, "The plane really wasn't in any danger." Her voice was familiar. When she stood and turned, smiling, he blanked for a second but then remembered where he knew her from. As she walked toward him he caught her eye. She smiled back, not recognizing him.

"Hello, Aurianne." Her smile faltered, looking puzzled at the edges. He laughed, adding, "We met skiing one weekend last winter."

She grinned at the explanation and said, "I don't believe it! JJ. I didn't recognize you."

"No. Different environment."

She looked, her eyes mischievous. "Why didn't we swap numbers?"

He shrugged his shoulders, and she answered herself, "I thought we were bound to run into each other in Geneva. It's strange how we haven't, isn't it?"

"Oh, I don't know. We both seem to travel a lot."

Someone called her farther down the aisle. Aurianne looked away, saying, "I'll be back." After she'd gone he could sense the guy next to him itching to say something, but JJ didn't turn, didn't give him license.

He was thinking about the weekend they'd met, how they'd hit it off, how they'd kissed late on the Saturday night but only kissed, a sure sign they'd expected to see more of each other. He couldn't remember why they hadn't. Possibly he'd taken for granted too that they would bump into each other again, or perhaps nine months before the need hadn't been strong enough.

It was a while before Aurianne got back to him, but she threw him knowing glances every time she passed. She was pretty. He liked her mouth and her eyes -- dark laughing eyes, full of fun. He even liked the way she looked on duty, her hair pulled back, her uniform offering hints of what lay beneath.

When she eventually came back it was only to apologize for being so busy. Then she said, "Do you have plans for dinner tonight?"

"I feel I'm about to."

She grinned again. "Good. Speak to you later."

Still aware of the guy next to him, JJ leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes, not wanting to speak inanities.

He thought about the trip which, when it all stacked up, hadn't been that bad. There'd been a couple of inconveniences, the usual things around the periphery, but the job itself had gone smoothly, and now there was this, bumping into Aurianne. He'd still hassle Viner about the information though, partly for the hell of it but partly to keep him on his toes, because this time it had been a prostitute but the next it would be a bodyguard and then a whole militia.

Copyright 2002 Kevin Wignall
Reprinted with permission.

 

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Synopsis

JJ is a model employee. He does his work quietly and competently, and he keeps his nose clean. But JJ's job is murder for hire, and when the kind of company he works for undergoes restructuring, people don't get fired -- they get fired upon. So for the first time in his life, JJ is not just a predator; he's the prey, and he doesn't even know why. All he knows is that the people close to him are being killed, former allies are turning against him, and the only person offering help is the best friend of one of his victims.

It's one of the golden rules -- never become involved with a target's friends or family, with the people who loved him. But JJ's running out of options, and, despite himself, he's drawn by the lure of passing through that door, from his side of death to theirs.

Much more than a straightforward hitman caper, People Die is a rare debut, combining tongue-in-cheek sensibility with heart-in-mouth suspense to provide killer entertainment.

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Author

Kevin WignallKevin Wignall, thirty-four, was born in Herentals, Belgium, where his father was stationed as a soldier. After living in Northern Ireland and Germany, the family settled in a small town in the west of England where he still lives. He graduated with a degree in politics and international relations from Lancaster University. Certain only that he didn't want a regular graduate job after leaving university, he traveled, campaigned, wrote on the environment, and taught English as a foreign language. Having always written, it was during his brief stint as an English teacher that he began work on his first novel, People Die.

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