I left the hotel alone, passing the receptionist who had started the night shift well after we had checked in. He didn’t know who I was. I wandered out the door and paused on the street, looking casually left and right like a tourist out for a nightly stroll.
Following the route we had planned, I wandered down some quiet streets, aiming for centre. The only noise was when I passed a few bars who were still open for business.
Our meeting point was by the river. I stood, hidden in the shadows, jumping every time I thought I caught sight of movement in the darkness.
But nothing happened.
Six did not show.
Six loaded the magazine and aimed down the sights. Wielding it looked like second nature for him. It fitted his hands perfectly and was light and small enough for him to carry it around undetected.
“Walther PPS,” he said suddenly, holding it up for me to see. “9mm rounds. Light enough for me and adapted for concealed carry. Automated trigger safety so I don’t accidentally blow my privates off.”
“Always good,” I grin.
“This one’s been modified to fit my hands and so I can use a silencer. Most professionals use something bigger, but then most of them are bigger and older than me. I like it. I guess if I’m still doing this when I’m older, I’ll probably grow out of it eventually.”
“So they gave you that?”
“That’s right. Done every job with this – or three other identical ones I have hidden around the place.”
“You mean like a go bag?”
“Three of them,” Six said. “I’ll need to visit one of them when we’re in London.” He got up and took a glance through the curtains. “We’re clear. We should go.”
“We were all taught to shoot from distance. We were all trained as snipers,” Six explained, concentrating on the task of cleaning his gun. “The way you were loooking out, any of us could have done it. I could. Seven could have taken you down with a handgun with one shot.”
“What did I do wrong?”
“You have to look quicker. And take everything in. Start where the danger’s most likely to come from. Rooftops and windows opposite, then the street below. And all before they have time to get a shot away.”
Six finished cleaning his gun and put it back together really quickly. “Where did you get the gun?” I asked him.
It was nearly time. I stood at the window, peaking through a gap in the curtains every so often, my gaze sweeping the street below. A couple of streetlamps cast a dim golden glow over the cobblestones. It was very quiet. There was no one around.
“If there was a sniper out there, they could have killed you a hundred times over,” Six said casually.
He had cleared everything off the coffee table, taken his gun apart and was now giving it a thorough cleaning.
I backed away from the window.
“What do you mean?” I uttered. “There’s a sniper out there?”
“Could be,” Six shrugged. “Anyone I know could have shot you from the rooftop opposite and you wouldn’t have even seen them.”
“No one out there is missing him?” I texted. “No parents looking for him?”
Then Silas replied to my text.
“No one. I have no idea who he is. Same goes for the three on the bus we can’t identify. They could be anyone.”
I examined the pictures again. The three Silas couldn’t identify were the couple on a walking holiday and the young woman traveling alone.
“Could any of them be after you?” I asked Six.
“I don’t recognise any of them,” he shrugged. “But they could be. We were always told the organisation we worked for was much bigger than us, that they had people everywhere. Sometimes it was used like a kind of a threat. You know, try running away and we’ll find you.”
Then, like it was just something on his to do list, Six pulled a gun from his coat and began taking it apart.
My next question was a more dangerous one, but I couldn’t help myself. It had to be asked.
“So who else out there would know about you?”
Six’s jaw set. He scowled.
“Seven. Nine. Eight.”
“But there must be someone else out there from your old life. Family? Parents?”
“I don’t know,” Six shrugged.
“Wouldn’t your parents have missed you when you disappeared and joined your employers?”
“No,” Six said shortly.
A text arrived on my phone.
“I’ve eliminated seven of them,” Silas texted. “Three of them have no digital footprint at all, no presence on social media – not even a single photograph. The same three hiding in every photo you took.”
Once Six was busy studying the photos again, a second text arrived: “Had a good look around for your friend Six. There was nothing. No missing persons or anything. If someone out there is missing him, they’ve never said so.”
There was no point getting too relaxed or comfortable. We weren’t going to be in the hotel very long. I had to take my chance.
“So who else have you had to be?” I ventured.
Six looked up sharply – as he usually did when I started the questions about his past. “Kids,” he shrugged. “Kids other kids like. Kids grownups like. Kids who they like and trust and are happy to invite into the home or play outside on the street without thinking they’re about to break into their house. Kids who seem so unthreatening, that the target just lets their guard down, reveals something about themselves they wouldn’t tell another grownup. Kids who can disappear to the loo and no one questions if that’s really where they’re going.”
“You did all that?”
“I thought your speciality was finding people.”
“That wasn’t all I did. But to find someone, you have to understand them. and that means getting in with friends and family sometimes. Doesn’t matter who it is, someone else out there always knows something.”
It looked like three of them were avoiding the camera. It happened so many times that it couldn’t be a coincidence.
“Some people just don’t like having their photo taken,” I shrugged.
“And some of them have a good reason,” Six said.
“I’d have thought you’d be one of them,” I ventured.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you don’t seem the type who likes being in pictures, yet you’re grinning like a Cheshire cat in every one.”
“Yeah,” he said – like he was talking to the slow one in the room. “Wouldn’t have worked any other way would it?”
I looked at him.
“You were acting?”
“Kind of. I was being the kid on the bus. I wasn’t me anymore. I wouldn’t be very good at what I do if I couldn’t be other people. I don’t like being in photos, but that kid does.”
A few hours later, the bus pulled up at its final stop – a small city popular with tourists. Six and I disembarked with everyone else, knowing we would fit right in. heading for our hotel, I could feel someone watching me again, but every time I stopped to survey the old buildings and quaint cobbled streets, I didn’t catch sight of anyone. Six and I even tried taking selfies and pictures of each other, but no one we recognised appeared in the background of any.
I checked us in while Six wandered around the reception area looking bored, then we locked ourselves in our room.
“Didn’t see anyone,” Six reported.
We ate in our room, looking over the photographs we had taken, using my laptop to enlarge them and study each one. Some faces appeared a lot more than others.
“Is it me?” I said. “Or do the same ones happen to be looking away or down at their food in pretty much every picture?”
The bus stopped outside a café in a small town and we all got out for lunch. Fish and chips all round with cups of tea.
Six played along, taking pictures of his lunch. Then we took a few more selfies in the café. I left my phone alone until a text came a few minutes later.
“Got them all. Threat assessment coming up.”
Back on the bus, I flicked through the photos we had just taken – like a happy holidaymaker would. As well as the ones we’d taken, Silas had somehow added a load more – of the two of us in different locations in the area.
Something else struck me. Six was smiling in all of them – like he was a different person.