- book two of the Game Trilogy
She had been awake just a few seconds when she realized that the man was behind her. Something told her that he had been standing there for a long time under the scorching sun while he waited for her to come round.
She had been dreaming about an al-ghourab – a scrawny little desert raven with shimmering, blue-tinged feathers that had been sitting not far from her on the sand. The bird had tilted its head and looked at her curiously with its peppercorn eyes, almost as if it was wondering what she was doing out there all on her own.
She didn’t actually know if she had imagined it, or if a real raven had chosen to take a closer look at her inert body.
But, real or not, the bird was gone now – possibly scared off by the man’s silent presence.
The man’s return could mean only one thing.
Suddenly she was wide awake – her pulse was pounding against her eardrums.
She took a deep breath before slowly twisting her head to look in the man’s direction.
The sun was reflecting off the object in his hand, blinding her and making her instinctively raise one arm to her sunburned forehead.
And at that moment she realized that the Game was over.
He was on her in two quick strides.
She didn’t even have time to react before he had dragged her out of her chair. Her back was against the wall, one of his hands in an unshakeable stranglehold round her throat – so hard that the tips of her toes began to lift from the soft carpet – while he fumbled for the object on the table with the other.
There were gasps of horror from the other diners, a clatter of porcelain – but he didn’t care. The lounge was on the sixth floor and it would be at least three minutes before the security staff got here. Three minutes were more than enough for him to do what he had to.
She was gurgling, desperately trying to ease his grip, but he tightened it further and felt her resistance drain away. In a matter of seconds the colour of her immaculately made-up face dropped from bright red to chalk white, suddenly matching her little pale suit.
Blonde businesswoman – my ass!
He released his grip enough to let a small amount of blood reach her brain. A sudden badly aimed kick at his crotch made him jerk, but she’d lost her shoe and without Jimmy Choo’s help the kick wasn’t hard enough to make him loosen his grip. He tightened it again and pressed his face right next to hers. The terror in her eyes was oddly satisfying.
‘How the fuck did you find me?’ he hissed, holding the mobile up in front of her eyes. A shiny silvery object with a glass touch-screen.
Suddenly the phone burst into life. Out of reflex he held it further away from him, and to his surprise saw his own face reflected in the screen. Staring, bulging eyes, sweaty, bright-red face. The mobile must have a camera on the other side because when he moved his hand her terrified, pale face moved into shot. Beauty and the fucking beast, in podcast!
Totally fucking mad!
What the hell was he actually doing?
He was supposed to be a superhero, a saviour of worlds – but this? Attacking a woman? Had he really sunk so low?
He met her gaze again, but this time the fear in her eyes merely made him feel empty.
He wasn’t himself.
He wasn’t …
‘Hmm?!’ HP came to with a start.
A little man in a uniform was standing next to his table, his soft voice just loud enough to drown out the soporific background noise of the lounge.
‘Sorry to disturb you, sir. Your new room is ready.’
The man held out a small envelope containing a key-card.
‘Room number 931, Mr Andersen: we’ve upgraded you to a junior suite. Your luggage is on its way up. I hope you continue to have a pleasant stay with us, and I can only apologize for the confusion regarding the change of room.’
The man bowed lightly and gently placed the envelope on the table.
‘Can I get you a refill, sir?’
‘No, thanks,’ HP muttered, casting a red-eyed glance at the window table. Yep, the woman was still there, and beside her cup he could still see the little silvery rectangle that had made his imagination go mad.
He closed his eyes again, pinched the bridge of his nose and took several deep breaths.
Apart from the fact that the phone looked familiar, what evidence was there to suggest that they might have caught up with him?
He was on his umpteenth false passport, and none of them had the smallest connection with the previous ones. And he had put on a few kilos, a deep suntan and a long, fair hippie beard to match his even longer hair. He hadn’t spoken Swedish for at least a year, not since he left Thailand. In other words, the risk of anyone being able to identify him was pretty fucking small, not to say microscopic. Apart from him, there wasn’t a single soul in the whole world who knew where he was.
So your conclusion, Sherlock?
The phone had to be a coincidence. Almost all smartphones on the market looked pretty similar, most of them were probably made in the same Chinese sweatshops. Besides, this was hardly the first time he had imagined he had been found …
He’d lost count of the number of times he had panicked and escaped through rear exits and down fire-escapes to get away from imaginary pursuers.
Even if it had been a couple of months since his last dope-trip, his over-heated little brain still played tricks on him on a fairly regular basis, serving up ghosts in broad daylight, courtesy of the little grey men in the withdrawal department.
His lack of sleep was hardly making things any better.
He had just managed to nag his way to a more comfortable room, further away from the lifts.
But he already knew that wasn’t going to help …
The woman whose phone it was showed no sign of picking it up.
Instead she was calmly sipping her coffee, glancing out at the sea, and didn’t even seem to have noticed him. She was pretty fresh, forty-something, with her hair cut in a tight little bob. Jacket, trousers and low pumps. Now that he was looking more closely, he could see that she had her ankles crossed, and had slipped her heel out of one of her presumably extremely expensive shoes, and was dangling it rather absent-mindedly from her toes.
For some reason this casual act made him feel a bit calmer.
He took a deep breath through his nose and slowly let the air out through his mouth.
The whole of his dreamlike existence had, almost imperceptibly, changed its character and become something completely different.
Fourteen long months in exile. That was four more than he had spent locked up for killing his sister’s violent boyfriend, and obviously in many ways a fuck of a lot nicer. Even so, the sense of restlessness was almost the same now, weirdly enough.
The nights were worst. Grass huts, youth hostels, airport hotels, or platinum palaces like this – it didn’t really make much difference. His insomnia didn’t seem to care about the weave-density of the sheets.
At the start of his tour he’d made sure he always had company. He’d pulled numerous carefree backpack girls at campfire gatherings, all of them willing to party the night away.
Then, later on, when he was sick of the meaningless pillow-talk and beach-busker versions of ‘Oooh baby it’s a wild world’, he had restricted himself to the pickings in the hotel bars.
But by now it was a long time since he had felt any real human intimacy.
Instead he was left having a doped-up wank to one of the stupid porn-films that his increasingly desensitized sex-drive demanded. Then a bit of lukewarm room-service grub while he surfed through the Thai knock-offs of blockbuster films until he slid into a state that was at least reminiscent of sleep. A grey fug where his imagination ran riot, exploring places he’d sooner forget.