Size: 6.00 x 9.00 in
A hard-working family is threatened. Two vicious killers and their ruthless boss are to blame. One man stands between them.
When unscrupulous men try to force Greek restaurateurs, the Constantines, out of their business and their home, they stand firm. Until the head of the family, Orestes, is attacked and left fighting for his life. Their neighbours are running scared. The police are turning a blind eye.
Former Royal Marine and international fugitive, Ryan Kaine, receives a mysterious text with an address and the terse message: “Help them”. With one of The 83—the families of the people who died aboard Flight BE1555—in trouble, Kaine flies straight back into the heart of danger, without a second thought.
Trying to avoid the attention of the thousands of facial recognition cameras installed in London, Kaine finds himself waist deep in a mesh of treachery, lies, and deception, caught in a fight to the death that he cannot afford to lose.
Using his years of covert field experience, intelligence provided by a secretive hacker, and a loyal team of his former colleagues to trace the threats back to their source, Ryan Kaine is … On the Defensive.
If you like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Mark Dawson’s John Milton, and Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, you’re going to find the Ryan Kaine’s 83 series compulsively addictive.
Wednesday 30th September—Justina Constantine
Bistro Mykonos, London
Justina blinked as the sun flickered between the fast-moving clouds and shot bright yellow beams through the Bistro’s big windows, highlighting the dirt and the grime sprayed by passing traffic. Orestes, her darling Ore, had promised to clean the glass before the evening service, but, as usual, he would need another reminder.
Her eyes stung, in part from chopping strong onions, and in part from their financial troubles, but mainly from the loss of Papa Onassis. Three weeks after her father-in-law’s death aboard Flight BE1555, the tears still bubbled up when she least expected them.
Eventually, the pain would fade, as it had done when her own dear parents passed, but this would take time. The loss of Papa Onassis was still so terribly raw.
Justina sniffled and dried her tears with a tissue.
How long could they survive? How long would it be before the bank forced them to close their doors forever?
What had once been a thriving family business was now struggling under the weight of falling sales and crippling debts. Where once the business generated a small, but steady profit, she and Ore now owed thousands of pounds to the bank and yet more to their suppliers. He tried to hide the worst from her, but the business was in terrible trouble, that much was obvious.
Ore was scared, she could tell. The official-looking letters—the ones Ore hid from her—made him worse. Every time she asked about them, he snapped at her and Ore never did that. Not her calm, steady, loving husband.
All she really knew was their business would soon fail, and when it did, the family would lose their comfortable little upstairs flat. They would be left homeless.
Sighing, she dabbed away another tear, scraped the finely diced onion into a plastic container, and placed it in the half-empty fridge.
Hopeful Ore had added bookings without telling her, Justina checked the diary. Nothing. Not a single reservation.
Preparing the rest of the vegetables and the meat could wait. Why waste ingredients that would otherwise keep for one more day?
Justina had plenty of other tasks to keep her occupied while waiting for Ore to return from the school run. The girls would be hungry. She smiled in anticipation of hugging them tight. The quiet family time before evening service was the very best part of Justina’s working day.
She washed her hands, enjoying the warmth of the water and the lemon-scented soap—the only thing that could take away the taint of garlic and the onions.
Justina took a clean dishcloth from the drawer next to the sink and rolled the heavy canteen trolley into the dining room. It bumped over the slight lip between the tiled kitchen floor and the dining room carpet, causing the cutlery to rattle and the glasses to clink. Happy sounds, she always thought—the sounds of friendship and hospitality.
As usual, she started at the four-setting table in the corner furthest from the entrance and worked her way towards the entrance.
She smoothed the white cotton tablecloths, set out the cutlery, folded the plum red serviettes into attractive serrated fans, and polished each glass to a shine before placing it in its correct position in the centre. Finally, she added the centrepiece—a small glass vase with its posy of fresh flowers. With only ten tables, Bistro Mykonos could never be described as big, and might not boast a fancy Michelin star, but no one would ever find fault with the food, or the front-of-house ambience.
In such things, Justina could still take great pride.
The bell over the front door jingled.
Unexpected and harsh, the noise shocked Justina out of the familiar, mindless actions that became her meditation. Her heart leapt. She placed a hand flat to her chest and turned. Two men, strangers, stood inside the open doorway.
She must have forgotten to flip the sign from ‘Open’ to ‘Closed’. But surely, she had locked the door?
The wall clock above the entrance showed half past three. Ore and the girls wouldn’t be home for at least twenty minutes. She stood alone.
“Sorry, gentlemen,” she said, surprised at how weak her voice sounded despite the relative quiet. “We’re closed.”
Being alone in the restaurant didn’t usually worry her, but something about these men’s intensity made her uneasy. The way they carried themselves sent a shiver through her body. Ore, born and raised in London, would have called it a ‘bad vibe’. In Greece, it would have been given a different name, ‘to simádi tou diavólou’—the sign of the devil.
She stood behind the trolley, gripping the dishcloth tight. The trolley offered little security, but it acted as a barrier and hid her trembling knees.
“We don’t open until seven o’clock,” she called, forcing the words from a dry throat.
The first man stood tall and straight. He had wavy blond hair and the lean, athletic build of a footballer. With his smooth, angular face, strong jaw, and high cheekbones, some women might have thought him handsome, but only if they ignored his hard, lifeless blue eyes. He carried a shiny metal briefcase in his left hand and moved quietly towards her, lips bared in a wide smile that exposed sharp white teeth—the movements of a wolf circling its prey.
Although the blond man was intimidating, his partner was worse. A dark-skinned giant, he had to turn sideways and duck to fit through the doorway. The expression on his tattooed face was angry, his eyes were as dark as his skin, the eyeballs yellow, not white. Muscles bulged and rippled beneath a stretched T-shirt, and his grey two-piece suit, although well-tailored and expensive-looking, seemed out of place on the body of an ape.
Justina’s heart thumped faster, and she shuddered under the monster’s fixed gaze. The dishcloth she’d been wringing slipped through her sweaty hands.
The big man shut the door and turned the lock—she had turned the sign to ‘Closed’. He stood with his back to the door, feet apart, arms folded over his barrel chest. A man on guard. A rock. Immovable.
Dear Lord, what is this?
Beyond the windows, the world continued as normal. Cars still crawled by, slower now, and pedestrians still tramped the opposite pavement, but no heads turned towards her.
She was alone. Helpless.
The clouds chose that moment to break apart once again, and the sun burst through the windows. The monster cast a huge shadow into the room, but somehow, with his tattooed face hidden by the glare, his ominous presence became even more terrifying.
The blond man stopped in front of her, keeping a table and the trolley between them.
“Good afternoon, Mrs Constantine,” he said. “Or may I call you, Justina?”
He knows my Christian name!
His voice carried a heavy East End of London accent and had the guttural rasp of a heavy smoker. It sounded older than his looks.
“My name is Alfred Lovejoy, but you can call me, Alfie.” Again, he smiled, but it was equally as chilling as the first. “It’s always nice to call people by their first names, isn’t it? Much more conducive to pleasant conversation. My big friend over there is known as Tugboat, for obvious reasons, but I call him Tuggy.”
The fact that Lovejoy stood over her, menacing and scary, was bad enough, but that he didn’t mind telling her his name seemed somehow worse. It showed he didn’t care she knew.
“W-Who are you, and what do you want?”
Lovejoy’s smile melted away and his cold, blue eyes drilled straight through her.
“Weren’t you listening?” he said, his tone aggressive, harsh. “I just told you my name. Clear out your fucking ears, bitch.”
Her mouth dropped open. She backed away until stopped by a table, but Lovejoy stayed where he was, his upper lip peeled back into an animal sneer.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “Thought that would get your attention. I hate resorting to foul language. Swearing is the last resort of the ill-educated, don’t you think? But sometimes, the shock value helps get the message across. So, what do I want? Hmm. I’ll tell you what I want. I’ll tell you what I really, really want.” He hummed a familiar tune, jiggled his hips, and chuckled. “Ah, the Spice girls. Lyrically brilliant, weren’t they?”
He swung the metal briefcase, slammed in on the table and pushed it towards the middle. Justina jumped. Glasses smashed and cutlery scattered. The centrepiece vase broke. Water spread over the tablecloth and dripped to the floor.
A long-stemmed wine glass, the final one, wobbled. Justina’s arm twitched involuntarily. She wanted to rush forward to catch it, but Lovejoy’s presence locked her in place.
The glass toppled and fell slowly to the floor. It hit the carpet, bounced, and rolled under the table, intact and safe.
Dear Lord, the mess.
Insurance wouldn’t cover such a small loss, but how could they afford to replace the broken glasses and the vase? A flash of anger pricked Justina’s bubble of fear. How dare he do such a thing? She’d only just finished setting the table!
She ground her teeth but kept quiet and lowered her gaze. The trolley’s cutlery drawer was part-way open, showing her the wooden handle of a steak knife. Within reach. She only had to stretch out a hand …
Without taking his eyes from her, Lovejoy snapped the clasps of the briefcase, opened the lid, and removed a document bound in a clear plastic cover. He dropped it on the table amongst the shards of glass, the flowers, and the crushed napkins.
“W-What’s that?” she managed to say.
Lovejoy lowered the briefcase lid, secured the clasps, and placed his hands together as though in prayer.
“That there,” he said, back to his smiling, quiet worst, “is a contract for the sale of this … shithole.”
For the first time since entering the Bistro, Lovejoy dragged his eyes from her and scanned the dining room through half-closed lids.
“Jesus H Christ, what a pitiful excuse for a restaurant. Not worth half the price we’re offering, but the boss is a generous man. Too fucking generous if you ask me. He recognises the challenges involved in ‘uprooting young families from their homes’. His words, not mine.”
He snorted and shook his head.
“If it were up to me, I’d torch the place one night with you, your hubby, and your sweet, little girls still inside.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the monster blocking the door. “Tuggy there’s a dab hand with a Molotov cocktail. Aren’t you, Tuggy?”
The giant didn’t move or make a sound.
Lovejoy continued. “Trouble is, that wouldn’t give the boss what the lawyers like to call ‘ownership with vacant possession’. Get me?”
Justina shook her head.
“Stupid cow. It’s all hubby’s fault. He keeps refusing to sign the papers we send him. Damn it, the bastard didn’t even acknowledge receipt of the fucking things. Didn’t answer our phone calls either. If he’d responded, the boss might have been prepared to negotiate a better price, but … Ah well, water under London Bridge. Too fucking late now. Much too late. Time’s short and a new deal’s out of the question. Orestes has caused too much irritation. Do you get me now, bitch?”
Despite his supposed explanation, Justina didn’t understand any of it. Ore had kept so much from her, telling her things like they had to “soldier on” and “stay afloat until the good times came back.” Sometimes, even after nearly nine years of marriage and ten years of living in London, Justina still had no idea what Ore was talking about. Although she spoke good English, and was proud of her ability to converse easily with the customers and the suppliers, some English expressions sailed above her head like the wind over the Aegean.
What did money and papers have to do with one of the bridges over the river Thames? No sense. No sense at all.
“Rude bitch isn’t paying attention, Tuggy,” Lovejoy said and sidestepped the table. As he rushed towards her, she stood transfixed, shaking, any hope of reaching for the steak knife gone.
He jerked the trolley aside and stopped within arm’s reach, staring down at her. Even taller than she first thought, Justina had to tilt her head up to look at him, but she didn’t want to look into the dead eyes. She wanted to scream for help. She wanted to run, but there was nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide. No one to save her.
She shuddered under his eyes.
Lovejoy leaned closer. Justina’s nose wrinkled in distaste at his overpowering, spicy aftershave.
“Let me make this perfectly clear, so even you can understand, you thick Greek bitch.”
The sweetness of his peppermint breath freshener made her gag.
“If hubby doesn’t sign the contract, Tuggy’s gonna pay you a visit one night. You like playing house with little girls, don’t you, Tuggy?”
Justina lunged forward, clawing for his face. She wanted to scratch and tear, gouge the eyes from his head.
“Don’t touch my babies!” she screamed. “I’ll kill you!”
Laughing, Lovejoy dodged to the side. He caught her flailing arms and crushed them together, holding them by the wrists in one big, powerful hand. He slapped her so hard with the other, the blow rattled her teeth, and lights flashed behind her eyes. Her knees buckled, but he held her up by her arms, and stopped her from falling.
Lovejoy grabbed her hair and tugged, snapping her head back. The skin stretched tight across her vulnerable neck. She was totally at his mercy.
Justina stopped struggling. Stopped fighting. He was too strong. His powerful grip hurt her wrists and her scalp stung where he pulled her hair so hard. Her eyes watered again, more tears flowed. Her stomach churned. She fought the desperate need to vomit.
“Tut, tut,” Lovejoy said, his face millimetres from hers, his spittle wetting her chin. “Now, that’s a rather aggressive way to react to a legitimate business proposition. And all because I mentioned Tuggy in the same breath as your offspring. That’s likely to hurt his feelings. Don’t let his size fool you. Tuggy has feelings, don’t you, mate? I call that unjustified, Justina. Unjustified.”
He laughed again. A horrible, cruel laugh, it turned her stomach. Loud sobs erupted, unbidden, from her mouth. She couldn’t help herself, couldn’t fight it. The thought of her babies in the clutches of these evil men tore her insides apart, but she could do nothing but struggle impotently against the evil man’s grip.
Lovejoy turned towards the glowering monster and stepped to one side, lifting Justina’s arms above her head, displaying her to the creature—a piece of meat for his approval.
“See what I did there, Tuggy? Justina—justified? That’s called a pun. So, what d’you say, mate? Fancy paying a night-time visit to a couple of frightened kiddies?”
The monster tilted his head to one side as though appraising Justina. After a moment, he nodded and pointed a massive finger at her.
“You want this scrawny bitch too? Yeah, you can have her, if you like. Don’t see why not.”
Tugboat’s lips peeled back. White teeth gleamed against the brooding background.
Lovejoy pulled her head close to his again and whispered in her ear. “Insatiable, he is, Justina.”
Her cheek still throbbed from his slap, but her vision had cleared and his dead eyes skewered her so badly, she couldn’t look away.
“Tuggy’s a dynamo, you know,” Lovejoy continued. “Women have told me he can go all night. How would you fancy a man that huge on top of you hour after hour?” Lovejoy leaned away and shook his head. “Nah. He’d probably break a little thing like you. Wear you out from the inside.”
The brute released her hair and her wrists, and pushed her away. Justina staggered to the side and stumbled against the trolley. She held on tight to the handle. She wouldn’t fall—they wouldn’t make her grovel in her own home.
“On the other hand,” the braying man continued, “I could be wrong. A woman like you might enjoy Tuggy’s attention. What do you reckon, Justina? I bet the thought turns you on, doesn’t it! I bet you’re wringing wet right now, hey? I wonder.”
He stepped back and looked her up and down, undressing her in his mind.
“You know what? Despite everything, you aren’t bad looking. Quite tasty, in fact. Decent sized tits and they still look firm despite having been used to feed the spawn. Flat stomach too, and a nice round arse. Wonder what you look like without that baggy apron and daggy dress? Maybe I should find out. How about it? Fancy stripping for me and bending over that table? I can help you with the buttons if you like.”
Justina’s chin trembled, she gripped the trolley tighter, and prepared to strike for the steak knife. This time, she would grab it. No doubt. No hesitation. If he made a move, she’d stab him in the throat and run out the back way. She avoided looking directly at the drawer and waited.
A car horn broke the near silence. In the street outside, a man shouted something, and another, further away, laughed. Beyond the windows, traffic continued to rumble.
Clouds returned to block the sun, the shadow faded, and warmth bled from the room.
Lovejoy sighed and shook his head once again.
“Nah, don’t worry, darling,” he said. “Only kidding. I don’t need to force myself on a bitch even if she is a bit of a MILF. Just making a point that there’s no one to save you. And don’t bother calling the cops. They’ll do nothing. You see, I can find fifteen friends and the barman who’ll swear that Tuggy and me are in the pub, see. Right now, we’re knocking back the Belgian beers and telling bad jokes. The till receipts will show me using my credit card and everything. Got it all covered, see. In short, we’re protected and you aren’t.”
Lovejoy straightened his tie and smoothed back his blond hair before grabbing the handle of his briefcase and lifting it from the table. More pieces of glass fell to the carpet. He laughed again.
“You have until the end of next month to sign those papers. That’s midday October the thirty-first. Hallowe’en. Got it?”
He stopped talking, probably waiting for an answer, but she didn’t give him one.
“Five weeks ought to be plenty of time for you to clear this place of your garbage and fuck off out of it.”
Lovejoy pointed at the contract.
“Don’t forget what I said. Sign and deliver those papers by midday, Hallowe’en, or we’ll be back with a dirty great ‘trick’ for you and your spawn. Now,” he continued after a short pause, “we’re going out the way we came in. And remember. If we hear you’ve gone blabbing to the filth—and we will, believe me—all bets are off. You, your hubby, and Tuggy’s little ‘treats’, Kora and Rena, are fair game. Right?”
He stared at Justina and held the look until she nodded. Only then, did they leave.
The moment they’d gone, Justina rushed to lock and bolt the front door, and collapsed into a chair. She buried her face in the crushed dishcloth and sobbed.
During the whole terrifying episode, the monster, Tugboat, hadn’t uttered a sound, and that was perhaps the scariest part of the whole nightmarish incident.
Justina didn’t know how long she sat crying, but a rattling on the door made her jump. She spun towards the sound, preparing to run, but found her beautiful smiling girls tapping gently on the glass.
“Rena, Kora!” she cried again. “My darlings.”
She jumped up, tore open the door, and swept the girls into her arms, squeezing tight. She absorbed their smell, their warmth, their love.
“Too tight, Mama,” Kora said, squirming. “You’re hurting me.”
“Sorry moraki mou,” Justina said, easing the pressure but not letting go completely. “It’s just that I missed you so much.”
Rena ducked out of Justina’s grasp and darted inside. “Mama, did you have an accident?”
“I … tripped. Stay away from the table until I pick up the broken glass. It’s dangerous. You’ll cut yourself.”
Rena shuffled closer, her eyes narrowed, staring hard.
“Mama,” she said, “your eyes are puffy. Have you been chopping onions?”
“Yes, my darling,” Justina said, unable to stifle a laugh. The relief at seeing and hearing her babies was overwhelming. “That’s exactly what I’ve been doing.”
Justina picked up Kora, locked the door, and carried her past the damage.
“Rena, come away from there. I told you it’s dangerous!”
“Now, upstairs and get changed while I clear the mess. I expect you’re hungry?”
“Starving, mama,” Kora said.
Rena nodded and slid the satchel from her shoulder. “Yes please, mama. School dinner was horrible.”
Justina ruffled Rena’s hair. “Help your sister change out of her uniform and, just this once, you can watch television before doing your homework, okay?”
She shooed them up the stairs to the flat before rushing back to the kitchen in time to meet Ore, who’d parked the car around the back as usual, off the busy street.
Before he had the chance to step fully into the kitchen, she flew into his arms and poured out her heart.
For the longest time, they clung to each other.
Ore listened, stroking her hair and whispering soothing words. Eventually, she recovered enough to let him clear the damage and make supper for the girls.
With Ore in charge, she ran upstairs and stood under the shower until it ran cold, scrubbing her skin raw to remove the stench of Lovejoy. She cried for a full hour.
Later, after they closed the restaurant—six covers all evening, barely enough to pay the night’s electricity bill—she and Ore sat in their living room. The girls were fast asleep, blissfully unaware.
They read the new contract together. She found the legal wording difficult to follow, but Ore snorted at the document’s promised to pay them the full ‘independently-assessed full market value’ for the building’s leasehold and the goodwill of the business. To Justina, the total purchase price—laid out in words and figures at the bottom of the final page—looked impressive.
“It’s not enough,” Ore said, holding her close and gently kissing her bruised and swollen cheek. “After paying off the mortgage, we’d barely have enough to clear our other debts. There’d be nothing left over for the deposit on a new home. And worse than that, we’d both need to find jobs straight away.”
Despair wrapped around her, choking her, making it difficult to breathe.
“Ore, what are we going to do?”
He threw the contract on the coffee table and turned to face her, holding her hands and kissing her wrists where the marks from Lovejoy’s grip still showed red and sore.
“I don’t know. I’ve been trying to find a way out, but …” Ore squirmed in his seat, creating a gap between them. “Before he died, Papa and I had a blazing row. He was planning to sell a share in the Bistro, but I hated the idea. The Bistro is the girl’s inheritance, their future. Papa thought the money would tide us over until after the development company finished renovating the block.”
“Is that why Papa was on that flight to Amsterdam?”
Ore lowered his head. “Yes. He knew a man in The Hague, a rich man who owed him a favour. Darling, Papa died thinking I hated him.”
Ore wept and, even though she thought herself all cried out for the day, tears filled Justina’s eyes, too. They held each other.
“Papa knew you loved him, Ore. He knew.”
They kissed and, for a time, things were better.
Eventually, Ore leaned back on the sofa, his arm draped around her shoulders. Justina rested her head against him, listening to the slow, steady beat of his heart. The soft rise and fall of his chest lulled her, helping to calm her involuntary emotional and physical twitches.
“After Papa’s funeral,” he said at length, his soft words vibrating through his ribcage, “I found the contact details of the man in The Hague, but … it is too late. He didn’t want to help me. He said the debt he owed Papa died with him. Darling, I don’t know what to do.”
She had no idea either and they sat in silence for hours.