AN ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
Though it was early, with the sun suspended low on the horizon, the sky was bright. On the estate, a fine layer of frost coated the grass and cars. Sarah, concealed by a tree, stood watching a house across the street, a hood obscuring her face and hair. In her hand, she clutched the handle of a long, wheeled, black bag.
It was almost eight o’ clock. Any minute now, Richard would leave.
As if she willed it, the front door of number ninety-two opened, and a tall man with dark hair stepped into the cold. He fiddled in his pocket, extracting a bunch of keys – she could hear the faintest jangle from where she stood. Double-locking the door, he tested the handle, then headed towards the station, his breath visible as a thin vapour. Sarah stepped back. For a moment, as he strode across the street, he turned towards her. She froze, but he continued, unaware.
Richard lived alone and was private by nature. When their lives were connected, he only ever told her what he wanted her to know. Yes, it frustrated her then, but now, it worked in her favour. Little did he realise, she was good at keeping secrets too.
She’d watched his movements for a few days to be certain he wouldn’t return home unexpectedly. If he did, her plan would be ruined. She’d travelled for days, and many people were depending on her. Richard worked freelance and his routine was inconsistent, but lately, he left the house at approximately eight, returning by six. That would give her plenty of time.
Glancing left and right, she crossed the street with the bag, before anyone spotted her. She slipped down the path at the side of the house towards the wooden gate which separated the front garden from the back, stretched her arm over the top, undoing the latch. It wasn’t easy as she stood on tiptoes, the cold causing the latch to stick, but she gently eased it up and down with the tips of her fingers until it loosened. She dragged the bag behind her. It contained, amongst other things, latex gloves, and the knives she’d sharpened the night before. Later, she’d use the bag for removal purposes.
From where she stood, she scanned the garden – it had been a while, but Richard was a creature of habit. Beneath the laburnum tree in the corner, she saw what she was looking for – a collection of rocks of different sizes. It wasn’t easy to spot the right one, but eventually she did. Picking up a smaller stone, less dense and a shade darker than the rest, Sarah flipped it over. Underneath, she caught a plastic flap with her fingernail, and gently, it clicked open, revealing hollow insides. She turned it over, shaking the opening over her hand, until a pair of keys fell into her palm.
Putting the rock back, Sarah glanced at the windows of the neighbouring houses. No-one was watching. Good. Next door, a busybody regularly peered out, and since Sarah started surveying the place, she’d struggled to keep out of her view. It was important she remain anonymous, as knowledge of her presence in the country might get into the wrong hands.
The conservatory door opened easily, though the door into the main house was more complex. She jiggled the key, pushing it far back into the lock, until it clicked. Only then did she realise she was holding her breath.
Rolling the bag into the kitchen, Sarah settled it onto the floor and unzipped it. It would take hours, but she had everything she required, and it was important she work fast. At four forty-five, she took her phone and dialled, ‘I’m ready. Let the others know – tell them to come around the back. Make sure no-one sees you.’
It was a long thirty minutes. Sarah had prepared for this moment for so long, organising meticulously. She couldn’t afford for something to go wrong now. Her nerves jarred as she heard a noise at the side of the house, then three dark-haired men – broad, well-built – appeared on the patio at the back.
Sarah let them in.
‘Did anyone see you?’
‘No – we parked out of sight.’
‘And the others?’
‘They’ll come later. First, he’ll find out exactly why we’re here.’
It wasn’t long till keys rattled in the front door, and immediately, they arranged themselves in their pre-agreed positions. Sarah remained by the counter, while the men awaited her signal, out of sight. In advance, she’d closed the door between the kitchen and hallway. The element of surprise was vital.
As the handle of the door nudged downwards, Sarah hands gripped the work surface, her knuckles white.
And then, he stood before her.
Apart from a scattering of grey on his hairline, he remained exactly the same – tall, wide-shouldered, yet trim.
‘Sarah!’ He stopped dead in the doorway.
She placed her hands on her hips.
‘Oh Richard, I’m disappointed. Aren’t you even a bit pleased to see me?’
His eyes narrowed, ‘How did you get in?’
‘That’s not important.’ She turned behind her. ‘Okay,’ she called to the empty air.
As the group of men stepped out, Richard jerked back. He focused on each one in turn, then back at her.
‘You…’ The word was an accusation.
No-one moved or took a breath.
Finally, Richard fractured the silence with a long laugh. Sarah felt what he felt. This meeting was a long time coming. Years, in fact.
‘I could never trust you.’ His voice broke.
‘This is your fault?’ He inclined his head towards the three men, and to the room beyond.
‘Of course.’ She paused a moment, then giggled. ‘Come on, bro… lighten up. You’re only forty once.’
‘Bloody balloons,’ he said, as she hugged him, ‘and banners. You know I hate surprises.’