The Hidden Man - Excerpt

Opening chapter - Winter

The Russian is sitting alone on the driver's side of a rented Mercedes Benz. The key in the ignition has been turned a single click, just enough to power the radio, and it is snowing outside, wet flakes of soft ice falling like ash in the darkness. A song comes on, an old Sinatra tune the man has not heard in many years: Frank singing live to a room full of screaming Americans, hanging off his every note. Sometimes it feels as if his whole life has been lived inside parked cars listening to the radio: sudden movements on side streets; a light snuffing out in a bedroom four floors up; moments of snatched sleep. Cars that smelled of imported cigarettes and the sweat of tired, unwashed men.

A young couple turn the corner into the street ahead of him, walking arm in arm with a jaunty, light-hearted step. Drunk, most probably, coming towards the car and laughing up at the falling snow. They are delighted by it, letting the flakes melt in the palms of upturned hands, embracing one another as it settles in their hair and on their clothes. Like so many London girls, he thinks the woman is worryingly thin: legs like saplings in high-heeled shoes. He fears that she may topple over on the wet pavement and, if she hurts herself, he will have to get out of the car to help her. Then there will be two witnesses who have seen his face.

The song ends and fades into an advertisement narrated in slang and dialect, words he cannot make out. English is no longer clear to him; somehow, in recent years, the language has changed, it has moved away. The couple skip past the Mercedes and he watches them disappear down the street using the mirror on the passenger side. An old technique. No need even to turn his head.

Now he reaches down to switch off the radio and everything is once again silent. Just a very faint impression of traffic in the distance, the city's constant hum. Then, as an extension of the same movement, the Russian turns the catch on the glove box with his left hand, holds it as the casing falls open, and takes out the gun.

This no longer feels like an act of vengeance. It has been too long for that. It is simply a deep need within himself to attain some level of peace, to sow up the wound of his grief. In this sense his need to go through with it is almost like a lust: he has no control over himself, no way now of turning back.

From the backseat of the car he takes out a woollen hat and a pair of leather gloves, items purchased at a shop in Hammersmith three days before. They are flimsy, but warm enough to cope with the timid British winter. Then he checks the street one last time and steps out of the car.

The flat is on the fourth floor of a large apartment building at the north-eastern end of the street. His legs are stiff and tired as he crosses the road, sore in the knees from waiting so long and tight along the sciatic nerve of his left thigh. Snow falls onto the shoulders of his coat; it flutters into his cheeks like puffs of dandelion. As he is climbing the steps of the building a woman comes out and, for the first time, the Russian feels a sense of concern. Instinctively he looks to the ground, taking a bunch of keys from his pocket with the ease and routine of a resident. The woman, mid-forties and slight, is hurried by the snow, muttering under her breath as she springs the catch on an umbrella. The noise of this is like birds breaking for the sky. The two do not look at one another directly, though he knows from experience that this may not be enough to absolve him, that the stranger may have seen his shoes, his trousers, perhaps even caught a glimpse of his face when it first appeared at the door. For an instant he thinks about turning back, but the possibility evaporates in the heat of his obligation. The force of revenge, the lust, carries him through the street door and into the lobby, where a clock on the wall tells him that it is twenty-past one.

He has been here before, twice, to premeditate the act, to scout the building for exits, to get a sense of its layout and design. So he knows that there is a white plastic timer switch inside the front door that will illuminate the stairwell for approximately two minutes, and an old, wrought-iron caged lift on the right-hand side of the lobby, with a staircase leading down to a locked basement and up to seven floors of apartments.

All of his experience has told him to take the stairs, to leave an option should anything go wrong. But he is older now, the fitness ripped from his legs, and has decided to ride the lift to the fifth floor and to walk down a single flight to the fourth as a way of preserving his strength.

The lift is waiting. He slides back the gate and steps inside, pushing a red ceramic button marked 5. The cabin ticks as it passes each floor, slices of red carpet and banister visible through the metal grilles of the lift shaft. The ageing wheels of the elevator mechanism twist through grease and oil, pulling him up through the building. At the third floor the lights go out on the stairs, sooner than he had anticipated, but a single pearl bulb inside the cabin provides him with enough light to reach into his coat, pull out the gun and place it in the right-hand pocket of his overcoat. Now he squints outside, passing level 4, eyes moving quickly left and right to detect any sign of movement. Nothing. The lift continues to climb, halting ten seconds later on the fifth floor with nothing more than a slight jolting bump, like a sprung dancefloor. He notices a fresh piece of chewing gum wedged between the roof and the left panel of the cabin. He would like some gum now, something to take the dryness from the inside of his mouth.

Why does he feel nothing? Why, when he is just minutes away from an act that he has envisaged with total clarity and rapture for more than twenty years, why then has his mind given way to everything but a very basic sense of process and technique? He is trying to convince himself that a moment of catharsis is imminent, but as he pulls back the cabin's metal grille, pushes open the heavy door of the lift with his left hand, reaches into the pocket of his overcoat to release the safety catch on the gun, he is little more than a machine. It is like every other criminal act in his long, corrupted life. Tonight has no special resonance, not yet any sense of joy.

In one of the flats at the end of the corridor, the Russian can hear voices on a television, teenagers shouting at one another, then a screech of tires. A late-night American film. The volume must have been turned up high, because he is able to pick out the noises and his hearing is not what it was. He holds the door of the lift as it swings slowly back on its hinge and then heads for the stairwell, taking each step slowly, keeping his heartbeat down. It is very dark and he has to hold onto the banister with a gloved hand, the leather sticking on bumps of dried polish as it slides down the wood. A car sounds its horn on the street just as he reaches the fourth floor.

Simultaneously he feels the first burst of adrenalin, not what it was in his youth, but a quickening nevertheless, lightening his arms and chest. He knows that his heart is beating faster now and has to check his pace moving down the corridor, deliberately slowing as he approaches the door of Apartment 462. Twenty feet away the Russian stops and takes out the set of lock-picks. He sees light glint dully on the metal surface of the keys and finds its source - a Fire Exit sign at the end of the corridor, bold white lettering within an illuminated green case. Then he pinches the main key between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand and moves towards the door.

With his head pressed to the splintered wood, cold against his ears, the Russian listens. No sound inside. Then, way below, there are voices, at least two people, their footsteps clattering on the marble floor of the lobby. Immediately he moves away from the door and walks back to the edge of the stairwell, waiting for the lift to jolt free of the fifth floor and ride back to ground level. But they are walking: when he peers over the banister he can see two heads that stop at the first floor. He assumes - although he can neither see nor hear - that the couple go to an apartment to the right of the staircase, and waits a full minute for silence to re-engulf the building before returning to the door.

Perhaps the distraction has hurried him, for the Russian listens only briefly now before sliding the key, with extraordinary slowness, into the lock. A perfect fit. He pushes open the door, just enough to fit through, and winces as it scrapes on linoleum. Immediately there is the smell of good, fresh coffee; the flat is thick with it. His eyes adjust to the total absence of light in the tiny hall. He knows from a plan of the apartment that the bedroom is beyond the closed door on the other side of the living-room. The kitchen is directly ahead of him and it is empty. A Post-It note has been stuck on the frame of the door, and he can just make out the scrawl.

Call Stephen Taploe re: MK

The yellow paper moves very slightly as, in these first few seconds, he stands quite still, listening for any indication that the Englishman may be awake.

It is only now that he hears the music. Was it playing as he came in? He has been holding the gun in his right hand all this time and his grip now tightens around the butt. Classical music, a piano, very slow and melancholy. The kind of music a man might listen to if he were having trouble getting to sleep.

It is coming from the bedroom. With his heel the Russian pushes the front door until it is resting against the frame. Then, without needing to look back, he feels for the latch with his hand and closes it very slowly. He waits for the lock to engage and moves one step forward towards the door of the living-room, the gun now up and level.