Chapter 1

Barry Hammond swivelled his muscular legs from beneath the duvet and pressed his feet deep into the tufts of the plush bedroom carpet. He sat on the bed and stretched his arms, unaware he was introducing his magnificent body to the last day of its life.

Thankfully, most people lack the knowledge of such a looming fate as they perform their first yawn of the morning. A few might know their demise is imminent, but that’s usually because other folk have arranged their deaths on their behalf, and they never schedule those engagements for a Sunday. It’s an absolute no-no, the forlorn souls who are obliged to keep their appointments with the chair and the noose and the needle are never required to meet their maker on that day. And, despite being neither the most endearing nor the most popular guy around, Hammond had never come close to being condemned to join that select band of outcasts. When he did find out that today was the day on which he was to depart his life the realisation therefore came, to put it mildly, as an unpleasant surprise.

So it was with no inkling that he was destined to perish at around the time the Sun would be setting behind the clouds which smothered the winter sky, that he stood and stared down at his sleeping girlfriend, his gaze settling upon her face for the final time. He knew she wouldn’t thank him for waking her up while it was still dark outside, so he didn’t risk even a gentle kiss on her cheek and instead left her to her dreams.

Not only was Hammond a vigorous man of twenty-two years, he was a darn sight fitter than most people approaching what should be their physical prime. Only a couple of weeks earlier his heart, lungs and a catalogue of the more obscure constituents of his anatomy had been subjected to a scrutiny that pronounced him one of the healthiest among a strong and sturdy elite. Most men who fancy themselves a bit special as a gym god would end up gasping on the floor desperate for every molecule of air they could suck in after running around for five minutes with Barry Hammond.

An hour after getting out of bed he loaded his rifle into his Range Rover, with its bolt removed and its hollow-point semi-jacketed ammunition locked inside a steel box which was screwed into the chassis. Everything was perfectly correct and legal, he was careful enough to satisfy even the most inquisitive and pernickety of police officers. He had already donned his Philipp Plein camouflage jacket and trousers and placed his wide-brimmed hat, with its wavy shades of russet, green and black, onto the seat beside him.

Hammond wasn’t driving away from home that Sunday morning expecting to die, he was setting out intending to kill. But the shock that ended his existence was soon to arrive in the guise of a nine-millimetre bullet. A missile like that can cause a lot of damage, even to tissues and organs so recently asserted to be as robust as Hammond’s.

He definitely heard the report of the gun that killed him – not for Barry Hammond the luxury of an instant death granted by a bullet through the skull. A small band of very clever people who later gathered around his corpse were certain he had glimpsed the weapon that slayed him, too. He would have seen a little more after that, but he wouldn’t have been interested in his view of the bare trees and grey sky and crispy brown leaves as he drifted away to his everlasting sleep, lying on the forest floor with his rifle still clamped in his hands.

Because by then Barry Hammond understood that this Sunday really was the last day of his life, and there’s not much more you’re inclined to think about when you know that.

*****

‘Whenever I remember that it’s our very own boy who provides the swill to go in that pig’s trough, it makes me sick,’ grumbled Trevor Hammond to his wife at about the same time as their son was being shot. ‘I wish Barry had never set eyes on him.’

‘Do you suppose that would have made any difference?’ asked Fran Hammond. ‘Do you really believe that would have changed the way he’s turned out?’

The couple were standing at the bow window of their house, a house that was too big for just a pair of middle-aged people, with its half dozen bedrooms and a back lawn that seemed to them large enough to lose a golf course in. Their home stood brash at the end of a frying pan-shaped close made of similar properties, and as they stood there looking out they could see a neighbour polishing the big car parked in his driveway. They didn’t know his name. They didn’t know any of their names.

‘I suppose not,’ sighed Trevor. ‘He was already on the turn by the time Mick Stamp got to him.’

‘When did it happen? When did it all start to go wrong?’

The husband thought for a moment before replying. ‘I don’t think you can put a date on it, but in a way it was sudden; one minute he belonged to us, the next he seemed to be ignoring us, neglecting us.’

‘Ashamed of us? Like we weren’t cool to be seen with?’

‘That’s it. But there must have been signs we missed. People don’t really just change like that overnight.’

They stood watching the anonymous neighbour for a couple of minutes, polishing harder and harder, faster and faster, glancing up nervously as the clouds scowled darker and darker. Eventually Fran Hammond spoke again.

‘Do you think we’ll ever get him back?’ she asked.

Mr Hammond lifted his left hand behind her and placed it around her back and then onto her shoulder, pulling her gently towards him.

‘Of course we will, Fran. I remember I was a bit of a hothead when I was his age. He’s only a lad, really, not long out of his teens. Us men always calm down a bit. It takes some of us a while longer than others, that’s all.’

But his wife could tell from the lack of conviction in his voice that he wasn’t too optimistic. And she knew that the most hot-headed prank Trevor had pulled in his twenties was to leave a rubber spider in the bath.

‘People have turned his head and they’re using him,’ she said. ‘He looks up to that awful man Stamp, takes more notice of what he says than he does his own father. And he’s ditched all his old friends from school; the people he hangs around with nowadays aren’t the sort of people Barry would have mixed with a few years ago.’

‘He bought us this house, though,’ replied Trevor Hammond, sticking up for his son. ‘He’s done his best to look after us.’

‘They all seem to buy a house for their parents,’ countered his wife. ‘And, if we’re honest,’ she continued through a wry smile, ‘we might have been happier if he hadn’t.’

Trevor shared her thoughts with a small grin of his own. As the rain began to patter onto the nameless neighbour’s car, sending him frantically gathering his polishing paraphernalia and diving into the sanctuary of his house, the couple’s smiles widened and they half turned to look each other in the eye. He pecked his wife on her forehead.

‘Barry’s a young man going through the upheaval of leaving home. That’s not always the easiest thing in the world, not for him and not for his family. And he’s lucky he’s got Mr Adamidis to look after him. He’s a good man. Not everyone who our son is involved with is bad or after his money.’

‘That’s true,’ conceded his wife. ‘But we’re his parents, and it’s like he’s turned his back on us.’

‘He’ll come around, Fran. Good kids don’t suddenly turn rotten,’ he said as he guided his wife away from the window and led her across their front room. ‘We haven’t lost him, it’s just like he’s gone away for a while, that’s all. Let’s get the veggies sorted for dinner.’

But, of course, they had lost him. They had lost him forever, out in the woodlands barely ten minutes before. But Trevor and Fran Hammond wouldn’t find that out for another couple of hours, not until the ringing of the doorbell by the good Nikolaos Adamidis spoiled their dinner.