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THE KILLING GAME

Prologue

So, how are you going to play this one?

First you switch off your cell phone, then you take a deep breath and count to ten. Knee-jerk reactions are not your style. You need time to process what you’ve just heard, a moment of quiet reflection before leaping into the hurricane. Once those ten seconds are up you’re going to make two lists, one for the pros, one for the cons. Then you’ll take everything you’ve learned and put it in one column or the other. Inevitably, you will end up with more cons than pros, otherwise you wouldn’t have got the call.

Your clients don’t live in the real world, which is just as well. That one simple fact is the reason you’ve got a convertible Maserati Spyder, a suite of offices up with the clouds, and a condo with views across the valley in one of LA’s more exclusive zip codes. These people believe their own hype. They think they’re gods, but they’re not. Deep down they have the same insecurities and flaws as the rest of us, and, like the rest of us, they screw up occasionally. The big difference is that when they screw up it makes the headlines. This is where you come in. Trying to stop those headlines is an exercise in futility, but you can angle them to your advantage. And that is the Art of Spin.

So, what do you know?

You know this particular client isn’t a regular A-lister, he’s in the A+ category. There’s rich, and there’s Learjet rich, and this client is most definitely Learjet rich. He’s got the leading man looks, the healthy, twinkling smile and a great body. He made his name playing the all-American good guy and has basically rehashed the same role in every movie he’s ever made. However, so long as he keeps packing out those movie theatres, this doesn’t cause the studio bosses a problem.

Mr A+’s whole reputation rests on him being seen as whiter than white. According to the media he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t do drugs or screw around. He eats healthily, exercises regularly and does plenty for charity. He married his high school sweetheart and they have a couple of kids, a boy and a girl. You’ve seen the photos. How could you miss them? There’s the four of them with their perfect teeth, perfect skin and perfect smiles, living their perfect life. There’s even a cute little pooch at Mr A+’s feet to complete the picture. Mr A+ came from nothing and now he’s sitting right up there at the top of the mountain. This is the American Dream made real.

If something looks too good to be true, it is. That’s something you’ve seen time and again in this town. So it comes as no surprise that Mr A+ is currently languishing in a Beverley Hills police cell, nursing a hangover and wondering what the hell he’s doing there. As far as he’s concerned he hasn’t done anything wrong. As far as the law is concerned, he has. This time the law wins big. Being caught in a sleazy motel with a dead hooker and a large bag of cocaine definitely contravenes a law or two.

And you know one more thing. Rather than phone his lawyer, Mr A+ phoned you.

Your clients fall into two broad categories. First up are the quiet ones. They know they’ve royally screwed up and will do anything you say to make the problem go away. Then there are the clients who roar like lions. In the end they’ll do what you tell them, but it takes time and persuasion to help them see the light. Mr A+ is a lion, and then some. Before he can wind himself up into a righteous fury, you tell him to shut up and listen.

Home truth number one: things will get uglier before they get better. 

Home truth number two: he’ll lose contracts.

Home truth number three: for the foreseeable future his career will resemble a car wreck.

Judging by the silence on the other end of the line, you’ve got his attention. No mean feat when dealing with an A+. Now he’s listening, you lighten your tone and tell him to hang on in there because things will get better. So long as he plays the long game and doesn’t get suckered into short-term thinking, everything will work out fine. You repeat this a couple of times to make sure it sinks in.
Next, you tell him he has to follow your instructions to the letter. No ifs, no buts. You’re in the driving seat now. You’re calling the shots. Unless he does everything you say, he can kiss his precious career goodbye. The grunt coming from the earpiece indicates that he isn’t convinced. Not a problem. What he thinks is irrelevant.

You let the silence stretch to breaking point, then tell him you want a million dollars, the whole amount up front, the money transferred to your account immediately. His first reaction is to tell you to go to hell. You keep quiet and give him all the time he needs.

‘You’re really that good?’ he asks tentatively.

‘For your sake, you better hope I am.’

By the time you hang up he’s a believer.

Your first call is to the presenter of America’s highest-rating daytime chat show. Not her office, the woman herself. You promise a soul-baring confessional. You promise tears. You promise great TV and a ratings bonanza. She tells you she’d be delighted to do the interview.

Your second call is to the National Enquirer. Half a million dollars secures them exclusive rights to a fuzzy video still of Mr A+ using a plastic straw to administer cocaine to the hooker in an unusual and imaginative way. For your strategy to work, Mr A+ needs to be seen to have hit rock bottom. As with all great tabloid stories, the more spectacular the fall, the better.

Your third call is to a five-star rehab clinic.

Your fourth call is to your pet pap to give him an ETA for Mr A+’s arrival at the clinic. As usual, the split on any photos sold is seventy/thirty, the percentage in your favour.

Once the important calls are out of the way, only then do you call in the lawyers.

Your name is Jody ‘JJ’ Johnson and this is what they pay you the big bucks for.

 

13:00-13:30

1

JJ dropped her car keys into Victor’s waiting hand and checked the time. Four and a half minutes late was about right for this particular business lunch. Just late enough to come across as the busy professional she was, not so late as to appear rude.

Victor slid into the Maserati, started the engine, then pulled away from the kerb and reversed expertly into a nearby slot. The valet was in his late fifties, an ex-Marine cruising gracefully towards retirement. He doubled as Alfie’s security guard, which basically amounted to keeping the paparazzi out. In all the years JJ had been coming here there had never been any trouble inside the restaurant.

The four feet of sidewalk that separated the road from the entrance was covered with a large plain white canopy to discourage aerial photographs. It also provided shade from the relentless onslaught of the LA sun, a definite advantage on a day like this when the temperature was pushing into the nineties. As usual, Tony Bertollini met her at the door with a kiss for each cheek.

‘JJ, my darling, you look spectacular. There’s something different. No, don’t tell me. It’s your hair, isn’t it?’

Tony was larger than life in every way. He weighed in at close to three hundred pounds, but carried it like it was two hundred. He was in his late fifties, with a full head of neat white hair and permanently flushed cheeks. His blue eyes twinkled with boyish mischief. The camp, affected, high-pitched Italian accent sat just the right side of annoying.

‘It is your hair,’ Tony added. ‘You’ve had highlights put in.’

JJ smiled and shook her head. ‘Tony, my hair’s the same as it was last week. And the week before that. And it’s the same as it’s going to be next week.’

And it was the same. Black and short and not a highlight in sight. Time was too precious to spend worrying about hair. This philosophy carried over into her wardrobe. All her suits were black and tailored to fit, and more or less identical. The uncomfortable truth was that she operated in a man’s world, and she found it easier to do that in pants rather than a dress.

That said, she did own a couple of black dresses for those rare occasions when she needed one, or it worked to her advantage to wear one. Pragmatism was a theme that ran through both her wardrobe and her life. Whatever got the job done. And, anyway, she liked black. It brought out the green in her eyes.

Tony took a sharp, dramatic intake of breath and slapped a meaty hand across his mouth. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve finally come across to the Dark Side and been Botoxed, darling.’

JJ laughed. ‘No, I have not been Botoxed.’

‘Well, whatever it is, you look amazing.’

‘Since you brought it up, you’re definitely looking younger today, Tony. Anything you wish to share?’

‘Only that after all these years of searching, I might finally have found the secret of eternal youth.’

‘And what’s his name?’

Tony answered with a smile, then took her by the elbow and led the way inside. ‘Dan Stone has already arrived,’ he whispered. ‘He’s handsome. And ten minutes early, so he must be keen. And, if the rumours are to be believed, he’s hung like a donkey.’

‘Behave,’ JJ whispered back.

She followed him into the dining room, the parquet flooring creaking underfoot. The walls were a cool, neutral grey, the ceiling a gentle off-white. Large Pollock-inspired paintings hung around the room, dazzling white canvases streaked with bold splashes of colour. The smells drifting through from the kitchen were to die for. There were a number of reasons why Alfie’s was her favourite restaurant, but right there at the top of the list was the food. Chester, the head chef, was either a miracle-worker or he’d sold his soul to the devil.

The restaurant was small and intimate. That and the fact there wasn’t a single window had made it a favourite haunt of the Hollywood elite. The entertainment industry was all about being seen in the right places, and, ironically, sometimes the best way to be seen was by not being seen. From the second Tony welcomed you through the smoked-glass doors, the outside world ceased to exist. The waiting list for a lunch reservation was currently running at six months. The wait for dinner was closer to nine. People tried to queue jump, and invariably failed. Tony was immune to both bribery and flattery. The only person he bent the rules for was JJ.

A few years ago there had been an incident involving a rent boy, and she’d made it go away. She had even waived her fee, which was a first. Tony had pledged his eternal undying gratitude, and she’d told him that she was happy to help. She’d been even happier to accept his offer of a lunchtime table once a week. She had actually been angling for a table once a month.

Since then they’d become BFFs. JJ loved Tony’s irreverence and the fact that he had a heart the size of the sun. She loved that he could make her laugh so hard that she worried she might actually pee herself. Tony knew plenty of her secrets, and she knew plenty of his. What’s more, she knew that he would never betray her trust. It was good to have someone she could just relax and be herself with. In a place as superficial as Hollywood, a friendship like that was as rare as a unicorn that crapped diamonds.

Usually there were only five tables, three on the upper level and two on the lower, all five spaced far enough apart to allow the guests total privacy. Today there were six. As a special favour to JJ, Tony had squeezed in an extra two-seat table on the lower level. She glanced over at it as she breezed past. The couple sat there were too wrapped up in themselves to notice her. They appeared to be getting on, although it wouldn’t have mattered if they hadn’t been. What did matter was that anyone looking at them saw two kids who were crazy about each other. Tony led the way to her favourite table. It was tucked away in the far corner of the upper level and was perfect for surreptitiously watching the other customers.

Stone stood when he spotted her. He gave her a cold hug, his lips brushing against her cheeks, then sat back down. Everything about the agent screamed look at me. The expensively casual clothes, the large TAG Heuer on his wrist, the diamond pinkie ring. He was in his late forties, but surgery made him appear a decade younger. His eyes were blue, his black hair finished in a widow’s peak, and his fingernails were perfectly manicured. The dimple in his chin was pure Travolta. Stone was both handsome and rich, and anywhere else in the world he would have been a prime catch. But this was LA. Standards were different here. There were plenty of men who were handsome enough to make him look plain, and plenty of those were rich enough to make him look like a pauper.

Tony pulled out a chair and JJ sat. Seconds later, Holly, the head waitress, swooped in, deposited two menus and a vodka and tonic on the table, then swooped off again. It happened so effortlessly that JJ barely noticed. It happened before she even had a chance to flash a plastic smile at Stone.

‘Sorry I’m late, Dan. Traffic was a nightmare. You know how it is.’

‘Tell me about it. You know, I took delivery of a new Ferrari last week. Beautiful car, but what’s the point in being able to do 180 miles an hour when you can’t get up to twenty?’

JJ was only half-listening. While Stone talked, she stole glances over his shoulder, checking out names and faces against the databank in her head. Sorting, categorising, collating. There were people she knew, and a few she didn’t. There were people she wanted to know better and people she would prefer to avoid.

Gary Thompson was a prime example of the latter. He was one of the top people over at DreamWorks, a bully and a grade-A asshole. They’d had a run-in a few years ago and ever since she had done her best to avoid him. The movie exec was cutting into a steak at the table nearest to hers. As far as JJ was concerned, that showed what a Neanderthal he was. You have someone like Chester working miracles in the kitchen and you order a steak. It was wrong on every level.

Excluding herself and Stone, there were fifteen customers today. It was the usual lunchtime crowd of actors, directors, producers and agents. There were two pairs, a threesome and two foursomes. The split of male to female was pretty much fifty-fifty. 

There was even a face from old Hollywood. Elizabeth Hayward had been a star in the fifties, an era when everything looked golden but was made from the same tin as today. Multiple facelifts had left the ageing actress with skin stretched so tight it glowed, and eyes pinned open in a look of permanent astonishment. She was part of the group of four on the lower level. There was some sort of celebration going on. A birthday party was JJ’s best guess, although she doubted Hayward would be celebrating her real age.

It was sad, but JJ understood why the actress had taken such extreme measures with her appearance. Once upon a time Hayward had been one of the most beautiful women in the world. But time could be cruel, especially to Hollywood actresses. As her looks had faded, the parts had slowly dried up until nobody wanted to hire her. That was why she’d done everything in her power to halt the ageing process, getting increasingly desperate with every passing year.

The depressing reality was that JJ knew more women who’d had surgery than hadn’t. A nip here, a tuck there, a little Botox. Up until now she’d resisted the temptation, but there would come a point when she’d need to get some work done. She was thirty-eight and the years were catching up. There were lines and wrinkles that hadn’t been there six months ago. Lines and wrinkles that could easily be erased.

The problem with plastic surgery was that it was a slippery slope. Where did you draw the line? And it wasn’t just women who succumbed to the lure of the knife. Men were not immune. Take Dan Stone, for example. And he wasn’t alone there. Admittedly, it was easier for men to age in Hollywood, but more and more of them were getting surgery these days.

Ed Richards was at the next table. As well as being one of the most handsome men in the world, he was currently the most bankable star in Hollywood. His last three films alone had grossed over a billion dollars. But he was pushing fifty, and not getting any younger. Richards was adamant he hadn’t had surgery. He’d told JJ this to her face, and been totally convincing. However, she had it on good authority that even he’d had work done.

And then there was Alex King. The actor was sitting at that little two-seat table on the lower level, enjoying a lunch date with Simone Kristiansen, a stunning Norwegian supermodel. King was the new kid on the block. If his career continued on its current trajectory, he’d definitely end up an A+. Killing Time had been the summer’s surprise blockbuster. The film had launched him as the new must-have action hero.

King was the real deal, the complete package and then some. He looked great on screen, had an amazing body, and he could act. His was the sort of stellar talent that only came along once a generation. He was currently on three million a film, but that figure was rising fast. It wouldn’t be long before he joined the eight-figure league. JJ glanced over again, just to make sure he was behaving himself. So far, so good. He was sitting there with a look of rapt concentration, as though his date was sharing the secrets of the universe with him. The kid could certainly act, she’d give him that much.

JJ had planned the whole thing like it was a military campaign. The paparazzi would be waiting for the couple when they left Alfie’s, and by the end of the afternoon the pictures would be all over the Internet. Tomorrow night they’d get ‘spotted’ leaving a nightclub, which would confirm that Alfie’s wasn’t a one-off. An intimate snap of them making out beside a pool would prove this was the real thing.

By this time next week they would be Hollywood’s next golden couple. The new Brangelina. JJ was still looking for a suitable tag. Simonex didn’t work, and Alsimone sounded like something you might use to treat haemorrhoids. She would come up with something, though. It was just a matter of time. Like so much of what she did, this particular love story was very much a work in progress.

2

Alex King smiled at Simone, then glanced around the dining room, trying to take it all in. There were moments like now when he still couldn’t quite believe how much his life had changed. It was insane. Totally off-the-charts crazy. A couple of years ago he would have struggled to get a busboy’s job in a place like this, and now here he was eating lunch. Hell, a couple of years ago he would have struggled to pay for a meal at McDonald’s.

Since Killing Time had gone supernova, he’d felt like he was living in two universes simultaneously. In one, he was Alex King, the action hero. In the other, he was Alex King, a trailer-trash white boy from Ohio who was never going to amount to anything. A part of him was just waiting for the dream to end. At any moment he was going to wake up and find himself back in that crappy two-bedroom apartment in downtown LA that he’d shared with Sapphire, a drag queen whose hands were too big and whose Adam’s apple stuck out too much, and who’d snored so loudly he’d almost shaken the paper-thin walls down.

Simone said something, then paused. The pause went on long enough to indicate that she was expecting a contribution from him. King nodded, hoping this was the right response. And then Simone was off again, talking at a hundred miles an hour.

King tuned her out and let his gaze drift towards the upper level. He spotted JJ and his blood froze. She was at a table right at the back, talking to some dude who was trying way too hard to get noticed. What the hell was she doing here? He shrank back in his seat and prayed for the ground to swallow him up. Today was going to be hard enough without having this to deal with. How was he supposed to focus with JJ watching his every move? How was he supposed to concentrate?

He tried to shift position so JJ wouldn’t see his face. Not that it would do any good. She’d already seen him and it would be crazy to pretend otherwise. She would have spotted him the second she walked into the room. He took a deep breath and tried to push JJ from his thoughts, but no matter how hard he pushed, there she was, larger than life and twice as scary.

There were thousands of restaurants in LA and she’d come to this one, on this particular day, at this particular time. Thinking it through, it made perfect sense. After all, it was JJ who’d suggested he come here, JJ who’d somehow managed to secure a last-minute reservation. She was obviously checking up to make sure he behaved.

‘Everything okay, sweetie?’ Simone asked.

King forced a smile. ‘Yeah, everything’s fine.’

Simone was peering across the table, candlelight softening the fake concern in her face. Her accent was an odd mix of Norwegian, English and Valley Girl. King reckoned she’d probably overdosed on too much US TV as a kid. Judging by the way she kept going on about those lame reality shows, she was still addicted. Reality shows aside, a love of all things TV was one of the few things they actually had in common. His childhood had been a living nightmare. TV hadn’t just been a mother and a father to him, it had been his lifeline, a promise that there was a better life out there just waiting for him.

‘Are you sure you’re okay? You look pale.’

King forced an even bigger smile, then leant across the table and touched her hand.

‘You are so beautiful. Do you know that?’

Simone smiled in a way that made it obvious that this wasn’t exactly front-page news. And it wasn’t. She was one of the most beautiful women in the world. All her life, people had been telling her how attractive she was.

For the thousandth time, King asked himself what he was doing. Millions of red-blooded males across the planet had wondered what it would be like to get hot and sweaty with Simone, and this afternoon he would find out. The thought was enough to make him feel physically sick. The only way to survive the next few hours was to treat it like any other acting job. Smile for the cameras, deliver the right lines at the right moment, and make sure he hit his mark. 

Lights, cameras, action.

He hated JJ for putting him in this situation. Hated her crazy-assed schemes.

‘Could you excuse me for a minute?’ he said. ‘I need to use the restroom.’

‘Sure, sweetie, but don’t be long.’

‘I’ll be back in two seconds.’

King folded his napkin and placed it on the table. Wrapping his head around the do’s and don’ts of eating somewhere like this was so stressful. And dumb. You had to use the correct fork, the correct knife, drink from the right glass. It totally messed with his head. Where he grew up, napkins were made from paper, and you only ever got them on burger night.

A waitress saw him stand and moved into a position where she could steer him towards the restroom. King walked clumsily across the room, feeling like everyone was watching him, which they weren’t. They were all far too involved in their own dramas. Even Simone was ignoring him. She’d slipped a compact from her Gucci bag and was busy fixing her make-up.

He hurried into the restroom and pulled the door closed behind him. It was good to have a few moments to himself. He felt safe here. There was nobody watching him. Nobody talking at him. No one making demands. The men’s room was small and clean and smelled of oranges. And it wasn’t anything like he’d expected. In places like this, the restrooms were usually totally over the top, but not here. The walls were plain white, the taps made from stainless steel. There was soft lighting, a shelf with some towels on, a bowl of mints, and that was about it.

King locked himself into the cubicle in the far corner and sat down on the toilet lid. He took a deep breath, told himself to get his shit together, and did his best to push back the feelings of uselessness that seemed to be constantly hovering in the background. He could do this. He’d been through much worse and survived. It was only a date, for Christ’s sake. Okay, it was a date with one of the world’s most beautiful women, but, when all was said and done, it was just a date. It wasn’t like he was being asked to murder anyone.

It had been so long since his last real date he wasn’t sure what to do anymore. Before Killing Time everything had been so much simpler. Back then, he’d been in a steady relationship. He could go see a movie, go to a bar, just hang out and have a good time, and nobody would care.
Nowadays it was so much more complicated. The people he went out with only wanted to be with him because he was Alex King the movie star. They didn’t want him, they just wanted to brush up against his fame. And the few times he had been with someone who’d seemed genuine, they’d ended up playing dodge-the-paparazzi, which was a real mood-killer. 

He forced in another deep breath and the world retreated to a more manageable distance. It was just a date, he told himself again.

Just a date.

3

Christ, he goes on. JJ didn’t let her smile falter, not for a second. She had a strong urge to leave Stone here talking to himself, but he probably wouldn’t even notice she’d gone. Right now, Dan Stone was sitting slap-bang at the centre of the universe, which was his favourite place to be. JJ remembered why she’d put this meeting off for so long. The guy was so self-obsessed he’d turned it into an artform.

Unfortunately, keeping narcissists like Dan Stone happy was a tedious but necessary part of the job. Agents like Stone were her bread and butter. They looked after the talent, the very same talent who had a knack for getting into trouble on a regular basis, the very same talent who kept repeating the mistakes of those faded stars and starlets who’d gone before them.

You’d think they’d learn, but they never did. This was something JJ thanked God for each and every day. If anyone ever came up with a cure for stupidity, she’d be out of business. This was a line she had heard a hundred times from the late, great Johnny Wiesner. Out of the few people she actually admired in this town, Wiesner topped the list every time. He’d survived more than fifty years playing the Hollywood PR game, which was no mean feat. The fact that he survived with his integrity more or less intact was nothing short of a miracle. You’d have to search hard to find someone who had a bad word to say about him.

Wiesner was already well into his seventies when he’d hired her fresh out of college. To this day she didn’t know why he’d done that. There had been plenty of people out there who were better qualified, and more experienced. Clearly he’d seen something, though. He’d taken her under his wing and been both a mentor and an inspiration. It was Wiesner who’d rebranded her as JJ. ‘From time to time you’re going to have to break balls,’ he’d told her in that gruff, warm voice that had saved and made a thousand careers. ‘No one called Jody could ever break balls.’

It was Wiesner who’d persuaded her to strike out on her own. She’d visited him in the hospital after his first stroke and he’d told her to go for it. ‘JJ,’ he’d said, ‘you’re never going to be truly happy until you’re the captain of the ship.’ The stroke had made it difficult for him to speak but he could still sell an idea. He’d gone on to tell her that she reminded him of himself back in the day. He also told her that he’d point a couple of clients in her direction.

Six months later, Wiesner had had a second stroke and died. By then JJ had been renting a small office that was as close to the action as she could afford. Her roster of clients numbered six, all courtesy of Wiesner. Those early years had been tough but fun. The business got bigger, the client list expanded, and she moved to larger premises. Brightlight was a long way from being the largest PR firm in town, but it was one of the most respected. JJ liked to think that Wiesner would have been proud.

While Stone droned on, she sipped her vodka and tonic and watched Simone out of the corner of her eye. The model was gazing around the room like she’d died and gone to Disneyland. A flirtatious twinkle here, a flirtatious twinkle there. Simone and King really did make a great-looking couple. JJ reckoned that a three-month relationship would be about long enough.

The beautiful thing about this plan was the fact that even after they split up the headlines would still keep coming. First up, there would be the inevitable kiss and tell, where Simone would inform the world what a stud King was. Or not, as the case might be. Even a negative story wouldn’t pose a problem, since King’s legion of loyal female fans would assume it was sour grapes. Then there would be all the speculation as to whether or not they were going to get back together again. Spin it hard enough and they’d maintain traction for at least another six months. Wiesner would have loved it.

King was still in the rest room. Either that or he’d done a runner. JJ wouldn’t have put that past him. Getting him to come here today had been like pulling teeth. She knew everything there was to know about the actor. She knew all about his trailer-park past. She knew all about the beatings and the abuse. She also knew that it didn’t matter how sparkling the future was, the past always had a way of sneaking up on you when you least expected it. The past defined you, it shaped who you were. It didn’t matter how good an actor you were, there was no getting away from that fact.

King’s handlers were going to have to be careful. If they kept him on the right path then everyone would make a ton of money. Get it wrong and he’d end up being yet another casualty of the Hollywood machine.

‘I’m going to turn Carmine into the biggest thing ever,’ Stone was saying. ‘We’re talking bigger than Marilyn.’

Sure you are, thought JJ. This was Stone’s favourite theme. Every new client was going to be the next big thing. His evangelical optimism was tiring.

‘And when does shooting begin?’ she asked.

‘Already started. Carmine’s up in Montreal as we speak. By all accounts, the dailies are incredible. I’m telling you, JJ, she was born to do this. The director loves her, the crew loves her, everyone loves her.’

JJ wondered how long that would last for. If Carmine Hart followed the usual trajectory then it would last just long enough for her to start believing her own hype and turn into a prima donna bitch from hell.

‘Sounds like you’ve got a real diamond there, Dan. You make sure you keep hold of her.’

Stone laughed. ‘The contract I got her to sign, even Houdini couldn’t escape from it.’

JJ reached for her menu, which was Stone’s cue to pick up his. She knew the menu by heart, but anything to shut him up, even for a minute or two.

Someone suddenly screamed and JJ’s head snapped up. The scream sounded all wrong in the rarefied atmosphere of Alfie’s. It was jarring and surprising, and completely out of context. Conversations stopped, cutlery rattled onto plates, the room fell silent. All eyes turned towards the woman who’d screamed. Her hands were over her mouth and she was staring wide-eyed towards the corridor that led to the kitchen.

JJ followed her gaze and saw a suicide bomber. For a second, she just stared. Three details demanded her complete attention. The black balaclava, the silenced submachine gun, and the explosive vest.
The kitchen staff were walking in front of him, hands in the air, expressions of fear and disbelief etched onto their faces. Chester was leading the way. JJ couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t seen the chef smiling and laughing. He was one of the gentlest souls she’d ever met. Holly the waitress was there, too. Tears streamed down her face, and the only reason she was managing to stay on her feet was because she was being supported by one of the kitchen hands. She couldn’t see Victor. Hopefully he was okay. JJ’s fork clattered onto her plate, and every single muscle went taut as she braced herself for the explosion. A millisecond of intense light and searing heat, and then nothing. It would happen so quickly there wouldn’t be time for pain. One second alive, the next vaporised.

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