UNDERDOGS

 PROLOGUE

Nick Harrison, tall and well dressed, with a short no-nonsense haircut, stopped in front of the window of ‘The Polygon’. The menu was displayed prominently in one corner within a wooden frame, backlit by a strip light which made the list of dishes stand out clearly against the sunlit, faded paper.

A bead of sweat ran down between Nick’s shoulders and he shivered slightly. He was nervous. He had an urge to reach inside his jacket to where the Walther usually rested reassuringly beneath his left arm, but he knew that on this particular evening it wasn’t there. His hand lifted involuntarily and he continued the movement, stroking his chin thoughtfully as he turned to his companion.

“What are you having?”

Bruce Coldfield smiled and transferred the small plastic bag that he carried to his left hand. The man had no nerves at all. It was unnatural.

“Something expensive?”

Nick gave him a look of disapproval, but then why not? The Government was picking up the bill.

“Steak?”

“Sounds good,” Coldfield agreed. “Pity we can’t have a nice bottle of red to go with it.”

Bruce turned so that his back was to the window and said quietly, “They’re at the back. On the far wall, just to the left of the kitchen.”

Across the street his words were repeated by a speaker set into a box of electronics, which stood on the floor of a white Ford Transit. The passenger door opened and a heavy set man with a beard got out and started across the road. As he reached them he caught Nick’s eye, gave an almost imperceptible nod and turned left down the street.

Bruce reached for the door. As it opened, a wave of sound washed over them; animated conversation, the sound of cutlery on crockery and classical music in the background. The music was vaguely familiar – Rossini maybe?

The door closed behind them, shutting out the early evening air and the maitre d’appeared at Nick’s elbow.

“Good evening sir. You have a reservation?”

The man had a French-Irish accent. Either it was put on for the benefit of the customers or the Frenchman had been in Ireland considerably longer than Nick had.

Bruce nodded towards the table at the back. “We’re with Mr Ellis.”

The maitre d’ looked worried and became even more deferential.

“Ah oui. This way please.”

The restaurant was crowded. Of the twenty or more tables, only two were unoccupied. The majority were taken by couples or foursomes, with just one or two larger parties. At the back, a table for six was occupied by three men.

Donnie Ellis rose as they approached, but the others remained seated. Ellis tried a smile, but to say it looked strained was an understatement. Nick wasn’t surprised. The man was probably taking the greatest risk of his life, although if things went to plan, he and his fiancée could look forward to a new life on the other side of the world.

“New Zealand!” Coldfield had said with genuine surprise. Neither of them could quite believe that Ellis was doing it. The girl knew enough about his past, but she still wanted him. She had been the catalyst that had brought them together over two months ago and this evening was the culmination of their uneasy alliance.

Ellis put out a hand and they shook. The handshake was firm, but his palm was sweating.

The maitre d’ hovered for a moment until they were seated.

“Drinks gentlemen?”

The older of Ellis’s two companions waved him away.

“A few minutes if you don’t mind. We’ll order drinks with the meal.”

“Very good sir.”

The maitre d’ gave a slight bow and left.

Ellis coughed nervously. “So gentlemen. The introductions.”

He went around the table clockwise, “Mr Smith, the gentleman who is interested in your merchandise. Billie Brown, his associate.” He turned to Smith.

“This is Bruce Coldfield, who will obtain the goods for us, also Nick Harrison, who can supply them here in Belfast.”

Nick glanced at each in turn. Smith (better known as Tom McCormick), was late forties, greying at the temple and high enough in the Provos to make the operation a success if it went to plan. Billie, much younger, wore a designer suit and had a hard, menacing look about him. His jacket was unbuttoned at the front and as Ellis introduced him, he leant forward slightly so that they both had a clear view of the automatic in the leather holster beneath his shoulder.

“Just so that we understand each other,” Smith said with a cold smile, as he watched them carefully.

“Of course,” Nick agreed, “we all have to take precautions.”

Having acknowledged Smith and his companion, Nick turned to survey the tables around them. Smith had the advantage. With his back to the wall he could see the whole restaurant. Immediately behind them, at a table for two, two men – one of Billie’s age and the other slightly older, met Nick’s gaze and then turned away.

“Yours?” Nick asked.

“Does it matter?” Smith replied.

Nick shrugged, “I guess not.”

Smith passed over the menu. “Here, why don’t we order?”

The tension eased slightly as all five bent to study their copy.

“Steak,” Bruce said, setting his aside without looking at it.

“And me,” Ellis agreed.

The waiter, watching from a discreet distance, hurried over, notepad in hand, to take their order. Smith opted for the fish, Billie for stuffed pasta in a cream sauce, whilst Nick also ordered steak and a bottle of mineral water.

“So,” Smith said as the waiter hurried away, “to business. Did you bring a sample?”

Bruce nodded and passed over the carrier.

Smith took it and pushed his chair back so that he could rest the bag on his knees and look inside without removing the contents. Inside was a small box holding 50 rounds of 7.62 x 39-mm M1943 ammunition for an AK-47. Smith took one out, produced a similar round from his jacket pocket and compared the two.

Nick swallowed nervously and looked away. They’d been assured that there was no way to tell that the rounds had been coated, but assurances were one thing and reality was another. By now the dye that fluoresced under ultra violet light would be on Smith’s finger tips and would transfer to anyone else who handled the ammunition or the box that it came in.

“Good,” Smith pronounced himself satisfied and dropped the round back into the box, before replacing the lid and handing it, still in its carrier bag, to Billie.

Nick realised that he’d been holding his breath and exhaled slowly. Billie reached inside his jacket and Nick’s pulse quickened for a moment, but his hand came out holding a slim brown envelope, which he handed to Smith.

“Our part of the bargain,” Smith said, passing it across the table.

The envelope was open at one end and Nick lifted the flap to see the contents. Inside was a sheaf of £50 notes wrapped in a paper band. Without taking them out, Nick inserted a finger into the centre of the bundle, checking that they were all similar and nodded to Bruce.

“An advance payment you understand,” Smith said, with a cold smile, but a slightly threatening tone. “We want the first delivery within the week.”

Nick waited for Bruce to reply, but the usual confident look had slipped from his face and he was watching in horror as an attractive woman, dressed in a figure-hugging red dress approached from the direction of the door.

“Bruce . . . ?”

“Bruce Coldfield. It is you isn’t it?”

Bruce pushed his chair back and made to get up. “Excuse me. An old acquaintance – I’ll not be a moment.”

A heavy hand suddenly rested on his shoulder from the table behind, keeping him in his seat and then the woman was upon them.

“It is you. I knew it was. I’ve not seen you since Natasha’s party just after we graduated . . . . God, that seems so long ago.”

Bruce managed a smile and as the man behind him let go of his shoulder, he struggled to his feet.

“Sarah! What a surprise. What on earth are you doing in Belfast?”

The woman beamed, lifted her left hand and held it up for Bruce to inspect the ring on the third finger.

“You’ll never believe it. I’m getting married. We’re over here for a week to celebrate.”

Bruce took her hand. “Congratulations.” He pulled her closer and gave her a hug. Nick thought that he might have whispered something to her, but he couldn’t be sure. In any event Sarah had a slightly puzzled look on her face when they parted.

Bruce reached into his pocket for a pen and Nick saw Billie tense across the table.

“Sarah, I’d love to invite you to join us, but I’m afraid I’m here on business this evening.” He’d also managed to produce a scrap of paper and he scribbled down a phone number.

“Phone me. We can meet up while you’re here and you can introduce me to your fiancé. Oh . . . it’s not Rob Farmer is it?”

Sarah laughed. “No of course not. You don’t know him.”

Watching from behind, Nick thought that they were going to get away with it. But then a look of puzzlement came over Sarah’s face and she opened her mouth to say something.

Whatever it was – the look on her face, the tension in the people around him, or just his gut feeling – Nick knew what was coming next. The background noise seemed to die down for a moment and all eyes at the table turned towards her. Nick clenched his fist, the nails digging into the palm of his hand, willing it not to happen, but then it did.

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Copyright © 2013 J. Hall, JRGM Publishing.

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