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Stiletto (The Checquy Files #2)
Author:Daniel O'Malley

Stiletto (The Checquy Files #2)

Daniel O'Malley


If you had taught her, from the dawn of her intelligence, with your utmost energy and might, that there was such a thing as daylight, but that it was made to be her enemy and destroyer, and she must always turn against it, for it had blighted you and would else blight her; — if you had done this, and then, for a purpose, had wanted her to take naturally to the daylight and she could not do it, you would have been disappointed and angry?

— Charles Dickens, Great Expectations Optometry is the discipline of vision. What its boundaries will be depends upon what the word vision means to the profession.

— A. M. Skeffington, May 1974





To Felicity Jane Clements, Pawn of the Checquy Group and ward of HM Government:

You are herewith called forth by the authority of the Lord and Lady, in accordance with your obligations and your oaths, to give service, in secret, for the protection and security of the Monarch, the People, and the soil of the British Isles.

On this day, you are to proceed with all haste into the London borough of Northam, to the location commanded. There, you will bend the abilities instilled within you to the task ordered.

To ensure that you remain unknown and that none remark upon your presence, you will be given clothing to blend in among the populace.

To discourage civilians from approaching you, you will be sprayed with urine.


Bring milk and chocolate biscuits.

— Odgers





1


The woman was crouched in an alley, her back against the wall and her hands pressed awkwardly to the bricks behind her.

She was not an appetizing sight. A tangle of dirty dirty-blond hair hung down over her grubby face. Behind it, her eyes were open a slit, showing white. A string of drool dangled from her mouth. Apart from her ragged breathing, she was utterly still. She was dressed in several layers of filthy clothing and a pair of trainers whose mesh sides had rotted away almost completely and whose soles were peeling off as if trying to escape.

She was also not an appetizing smell. There was a pungent odor coming off her, one that suggested an ongoing lack of access to bathing facilities. And laundry facilities. And toilet facilities. She was actually pretty enough behind the dirt, but to discover that would require several minutes’ concerted attention with a damp sponge and, possibly, a trowel. As she was, she fit into her surroundings perfectly.

The alley was terribly narrow, more of an incidental gap between two sets of row houses. Hypodermic needles, feces of unspecified provenance, improperly disposed-of prophylactics, and general domestic rubbish were the primary topographical features.

For a few minutes, rain drizzled in and soaked her, but still she did not move.

A rat scurried between the rubbish, presumably on its way to somewhere more salubrious.

Finally, she moved her hands away from the wall behind her and opened her eyes wide. She took a deep breath that would have been cleansing had she been in a place that was slightly less vile. She licked her lips, felt the drool that had dripped down her chin, and moved to wipe her face with her sleeve before realizing how disgusting her sleeve was. She sighed and, still crouching, swung her arms about stiffly. Then she looked up blearily at the sound of someone approaching down the alley.

That someone was a tall redheaded man with lily-white skin and freckles that had cornered the real estate market on his face. Behind him was another someone who looked much the same except that he was bigger and had shaved his head so there was only a corona of orange fuzz. Both of them were dressed in clothes that did not look at all out of place in the alleyway.

“Oh, hello,” said the first man. The woman squinted up at him and grunted. “Look at this, Petey,” he remarked to his associate. “We’re looking for something to do, and here something is.”

“What?” she said.

“Shut up,” said the man easily. Then, just as easily, he punched her in the face. Her head slammed back against the wall, and she fell onto her bottom.

“The fuck?” she spat, pressing her hand against her jaw.

“I told you to shut up,” said the man mildly. “Now, me and my mate are gonna have a bit of fun right here, and you’re not going to give us any trouble unless you want another fist to the face.”

“And that’d be just for starters,” said the other man, Petey.

Rather than being terrified by the prospect of a vicious assault upon her person, however, the woman seemed unperturbed and somewhat incredulous.

“Are you serious?” she said. Her accent was not one you would have expected to come out of the mouth of a person in those environs. It bespoke an expensive education. “You actually want to do this? To someone who looks like me?” She glanced down at herself and then around at the refuse that filled the alley. “Here?” They didn’t answer her, but apparently for these men, a blond woman was a blond woman, even if she smelled like carrion left out in the sun. The first man, the hitter, put his hands to his belt. “Such a mistake you’re making,” she said.

Then she reached out and grasped the man’s ankle. The smirk didn’t have time to leave his face before she’d yanked on his shin and kicked him, in dizzyingly quick succession, in the testicles, the stomach, the chest. He toppled backward into his colleague’s startled arms, and she drew herself up. Moments before, her posture had been hunched and defensive, but now she held herself in the classic boxer’s stance.

“Bitch, you’ve got to be kid —” began Petey, but his assertion was cut off as the woman stepped forward and briskly broke Petey’s companion’s nose with a smart right jab. The companion’s wail of pain broke off as she punched him in the stomach and drove the air out of him. He sounded like a set of bagpipes that had just been stabbed. His knees buckled, and Petey staggered to keep him upright. The woman took a few steps back, sized them up, and was lunging forward when the toe of one of her shoes landed in something vile and squishy. Denied any purchase, her leg shot out from under her, and she lurched violently to the side.

“Bugger!” She bounced off a wall, fell against a pair of rubbish bins that were, ironically, completely empty, and ended up sprawled on her back on the ground. Then the breath rushed out of her as Petey, who had apparently jettisoned his friend in favor of subduing her, dived onto her and pressed her into the pavement.

The man who had hit her seemed to have righted himself.

“Stupid bitch,” said the hitter in a sort of wheezy falsetto as he came down the alley to them. “It’ll be bloody now. So much worse now.”

“Yeah,” said Petey. He was lying across her, his weight holding her down, and he pressed his face into her vile hair. “You know,” he said, “under all that hair and muck, you’re not bad-looking. But you will be when me and Joe are done with you.” She struggled, but he had her well and truly pinned. She sighed and looked up. Joe was staring down at her, and the expression on his face was terrible to behold.

“I really didn’t want to do this,” she remarked. “Pawn Cheng?” The men exchanged confused looks.

“Uh... I got your porn right here, slut,” said Joe, grabbing his crotch.

“I’m not talking to you,” she said coldly.

Then Joe clapped his hands to his head and seemed to fling himself backward. As Petey and the woman watched in fascination, he fell onto the ground, revealing a petite Asian woman. She was wearing a black yoga outfit and a grim expression. On her feet, somewhat incongruously, was a pair of heavy boots that looked suitable for undertaking construction work or possibly some sort of hate crime. It appeared that to pull Joe down, she had simply buried both her hands in his thick red hair and yanked with all her strength. There had been no sign of her a minute before.