He moved down the narrow hallway with the grace of a martial arts specialist. Through the debris of moving day – boxes upon boxes stacked, bottom to top and shoulder to shoulder the length of the passage – he passed through his new abode reassessing the layout and terrain. Just like any other assignment.
There were high gates at the front of the house, and no access to the rear. The high ceilings had moulded cornices and the boards underfoot were polished to a high shine, not that these were necessary details. Those were: a bedroom, a study, a kitchen and a living area. A single bathroom. Two windows and door that opened to the street, all secured. A walled courtyard to the rear. Just as required.
Dark sweat patches showed on his chest and made his t-shirt cling to the muscles of his back. His feet moved forward cautiously on the mottled floorboards; then backtracked.
Throughout the house boxes were grouped at the openings – doors and wardrobes alike. But not here. Here at the foot of a cupboard halfway down the hall, here there were no boxes at all. This cupboard had not been here earlier. He would have noticed it. To say he had an aptitude for attention to detail was to suggest that hyenas were pretty good at sourcing prey. His nerves thrummed continuously from being always on the alert. Unpacking his gear all day from the hired van, constantly alive to his surroundings on the street, when his back was turned, and with doors open to the street, he was always noting and annotating. And at no time, coming or going, had he noticed this cupboard. On his initial inspection of the terrace house, he had carefully observed the number and location of its storage spaces. A generous linen cupboard, big enough to hide a fully grown man, would not have escaped his attention. Yet here it was. He moved his hand to the knob, but something made him stop. He slid two boxes across the floor to the front of the cupboard for unpacking later, and continued on to another room with renewed vigour. The sooner he was settled the sooner he could turn his mind to the assignment.
Darkness had descended outside, but the lights in the man’s kitchen were bright. The kitchen windows overlooked the private courtyard with ivy-covered walls. Unpacking, sorting and stowing ceased for the day as the man reached for a battered holdall. The holdall had seen better days, if ‘better’ was an apt description of what it had seen. It held various things he routinely needed; chief among them a hunting knife, a set of lock picks, a flashlight, a shifter, a clean t-shirt, a Glock G21, a hammer, a sandwich, a bottle of wine and a tumbler. In his line of work he moved often enough to have worked out what he needed – wanted – at the end of a day of shifting those possessions that were incriminating enough not to be left behind. This holdall kept the most important ones in a single location.
The man’s biceps flexed as he removed his damp t-shirt and swapped it for the clean one. He placed the sandwich, wine and tumbler on the countertop and pulled up a stool. Several bites of the sandwich and half a tumbler of wine later, he could no longer ignore the nagging feeling, and took his tumbler with him into the hallway.
He stood in front of it. The hallway cupboard. The door handle had a circular brass plate and a brass knob with spiral grooves stamped into it. In the centre of the spherical knob, where the spirals converged, was a tiny insignia. He grasped the handle with his free hand and tugged – the door refused to move. He put his glass down on the floorboards and braced his right hand on the door jamb, this time pulling a little more firmly with his left. Nothing.
The man’s 6’4” frame had been physically tested often enough in combat that if a door could resist his attentive force on it, it was genuinely stuck. If anything, he was concerned about damaging the woodwork of this old house, and getting bogged down in repairs that could divert him from his purpose in being here. He did not need distractions, and the unexpected existence of this closet had itself brought with it an uncomfortable suspicion that perhaps he had already lost his edge. He shrugged off the idea and set his mind to the problem at hand.
The man took his glass back to the kitchen and retrieved the flashlight, utility knife and a screwdriver from his holdall. Returning to the cupboard he ran the utility knife around the 3 millimetre gap between the door and its frame. The gap indicated that the door hadn’t swollen, so that at least was in his favour. He checked the hinged side for dried paint sealing the door shut sealing the door. No paint residue where it shouldn’t be. The door’s hinges were housed internally, so no chance of knocking the bolt out. He shone the flashlight through the gap adjacent to the knob – no spindle, no mechanism. Just a standard latch that must somehow be caught. The man used the screwdriver to lever the gap on the hinged side of the door. No leeway. No movement.
He dug around in some of the boxes remaining in the hallway and various parts of the house and assembled a number of items not to be found in his standard holdall: spray lubricant, pliers, a sheet of paper, a putty knife, a credit card.
For thirty minutes he worked assiduously; prising, spraying, levering. He tried the credit card on the latch with no result. Taking the sheet of paper, he ran it around the edges of the door, from top left around, down and then left again. As he passed the paper along the underside of the door it trembled. Air was passing over and under the paper, making it vibrate. He held the back of his hand at the lower gap and felt a breathy gust of warm air flowing under the door. Somehow this entirely internal cupboard was ventilated.
He held his hand there for a beat or two. The airflow stopped, restarted, stopped – more accurately there seemed to be an outward gust, followed by an inward flow. Like breathing. Slow, deliberate breathing.
This cupboard was creating a curious problem for the man, who did not like problems of any kind.
Determined now, the man returned to the holdall in the kitchen and retrieved the Glock, a small cube of C4 and some detonation caps.
He stood in front of the door and paused. These two options were the last resort. He as a resourceful man, but also a man with a very great need for privacy. While the house was as secure as it could be under the circumstances, he could not be sure a loud noise wouldn’t raise an alarm. The man pulled the knob again, just to be sure. The knob felt warm in his palm; in fact, the tiny insignia in the centre of the swirling pattern was burning hot and was starting to glow red. He looked closer at the insignia. It was an inverted pentacle.
His employers on a previous assignment had used the inverted pentacle in their livery. They were avowed satanists who had required the swift despatch of a double-dealing disciple. His work had been clean and quick, and he had moved on. It was strange to see the pentacle again.
He abruptly made a decision. He took three small pieces of C4 and positioned them over the hinges and latch locations of the cupboard. He inserted the blasting caps and ran the fuses to a transmitter operated by his mobile phone. The explosion should be small, and he would have to repair the damage to the wall and door himself, but this question now needed an answer. He took cover in the kitchen, keyed a code into his mobile phone and waited for the blast.
His calculations had been correct. The low ‘boom’ emitted by the C4 could have passed as a common kitchen gas explosion and was unlikely to draw unwanted attention. He fought his way through clouds of dust and plaster. Shards and splinters of timber littered the hallway. The door had been ejected and stood lopsidedly against the wall.
The man stepped in front of the void created by the absent door and took a breath.
Tendrils of a vengeful white mist reached from the void and wound round his muscular arms, curled round his legs, trussed his chest and squeezed. Lucifer came to him and in payment for the souls he had taken in his lifetime of assignments, searingly, agonisingly, sucked his soul from his body for an eternity of torment.