Excerpt from Double Pursuit

Mel turned over in the bed trying to find a cool spot. Even the thin cotton sheet felt hot and heavy. Her skin was damp with light sweat; everywhere, especially in her groin and under her breasts. Rome in a heatwave was purgatory. Not so much the temperature – she’d experienced over 40°C every day when on operation with her regiment in the African Sahel – but the humidity. She leant over and drank tepid water from the glass on the bedside table.

Andreas was still asleep beside her; his blond curls reminded Mel of a Renaissance angel. Even though separated by several centimetres, just the extra heat from his body made the room so much warmer. The fan was no substitute for broken air conditioning, but it wasn’t the heat that was keeping Mel awake. It was frustration.

Their investigation had stalled. Their one contact was dead. Mel had knelt by the body in the street last night and touched the dark hair on the back of his head to find it matted and wet with blood and tissue. When they’d turned him over, she’d shivered at the small round hole in his forehead stark black under the dim streetlights. However distressing brutal death was, she had to focus. The reaction would come later. Today would be the first of several of long interviews and endless paperwork with the police.

She pulled herself out of bed and opened the louvred shutters. They’d opened the windows wide at two this morning but closed the shutters when the carabinieri had at last let them go back to their pensione. The small side-street hotel covered in ochre stucco and festooned in flags and geraniums was more discreet than a big hotel, but at this precise minute Mel yearned for the efficient if sterile, air-conditioned box of a four-star international.

In the bathroom, she yanked off the nightshirt she’d been wearing for decency’s sake. Andreas Holzmann was the perfect gentleman, but she didn’t want to embarrass him or herself. That was the problem working undercover as a married couple with a colleague who was a friend who’d rather be more than a friend. She could have told Director Stevenson ‘no’ when he’d outlined their assignment, but that would have been cowardly and Mélisende des Pittones was no coward. Besides, she’d always worked in mixed groups since she’d joined the French Army, often sleeping in a stuffy tent with the rest of her detail, mostly male. At least Andreas didn’t belch or fart in bed.

But Jeff McCracken, whom she was dating, had been furious.

‘Why does Holzmann have to go with you? He just wants to get into your knickers.’

‘God, Jeff, it’s just an assignment. A professional one. It’s because both of us speak some Italian. I’m perfectly aware Andreas has feelings for me, but he knows how to behave.’

‘As long as you do your ice maiden act, I suppose that’ll have to do.’

Mel had put her hand out and caught his. McCracken’s mouth had been a tight line, his grey eyes flint hard and his whole body tense. She’d known it was anxiety. Bit by bit, Mel had gleaned from him that he’d come up the tough way. His family, really his mother, had strained every nerve and bone in the body in a daily struggle to ensure they survived until the next pay day. With his father’s drinking habit and her low-wage jobs it had been a gamble, he’d said, given she had to clothe and feed four children on fresh air and handouts. There hadn’t been much space or energy for anything like emotional nurturing, although his mum always came to school open evenings with them all. Joining the London police had saved him from the life of a petty criminal that had crushed his father, but he found it hard to throw off the cynicism that had protected him all his life.

Mel’s upbringing had been more than comfortable, in a rural château in France her family had owned for centuries. Although grounding their children in the realities of life – they’d all had to learn how to milk cows and goats and muck in with harvesting – her father and mother had given them all the best education possible along with unconditional love.

But somehow, a spark of recognition and working together in the European Investigation and Regulation Service had made them friends, then lovers. For Mel, in Jeff McCracken she had found safety, a straightforward and honest man and a strong and considerate lover. Was it love? After two relationships when she’d thought she’d found her life partner had ended disastrously, she’d shut those thoughts away in a locked cupboard in the back of her mind.

 

After a breakfast of cappuccino and over-sweet cornetti served by a smiling but silent mamma hovering round them in the shaded courtyard behind the pensione, Mel and Andreas set off in the glaring sunshine.

‘I don’t know how you can bear to wear longs in this,’ Mel said and waved her hand towards the brilliant blue sky.

‘Well, I don’t want to look like a tourist when we meet our Italian colleagues this time,’ Andreas said.

Mel smoothed her hand down the skirt of her linen sleeveless sundress and prodded the bridge of her sunglasses. She’d piled her fair hair up into a pleat to keep her neck and shoulders cool.

‘Well, I’m certainly not putting a suit on for a day like this.’

‘Do you ever?’ Andreas smiled at her.

‘Ha!’ True, she was a jeans and shirt type or until recently, combats. But this morning her practical side had led her to choose thick-soled canvas shoes for Rome’s hard pavements.

The police building on the Quirinal Hill stretched up in front of them from a ground floor of grey masonry blocks to the upper three floors covered in red stucco. No window boxes of scarlet geraniums. Inside, the carabiniere radioed through their names and a few minutes later a man in a light grey suit entered the lobby.

‘Buongiorno,’ he said, his face solemn. His black, slicked-back hair and slender frame gave him a youthful look, and he radiated fitness in his stride. But Mel saw wrinkles at the outside edges of his eyes and some grey hair at his temples. A fit operative, experienced but still actively in the game, but not as an ordinary policeman.

She glanced at Andreas who gave her the briefest of nods in return.

‘I am Captain Giordano,’ the man said. ‘Your ID, please.’

He took their EIRS warrant cards, studied them, turned them over then handed them back without a comment. He gestured them to follow him and set off down a corridor, obviously confident they would follow him. At a security arch, he flashed a plastic card across a reader pad.

‘Please use your EIRS cards to pass through.’ Two peeps and a green light for both Mel and Andreas. Giordano opened the next door and they entered a meeting room complete with polished table and uncomfortable-looking chairs.

‘Now,’ he said, fixing them with a hard stare, ‘Investigator des Pittones and Kriminalkommissar Holzmann, please tell me why two officers from the European Investigation and Regulation Service are sneaking around Rome under false names and without the courtesy of at least informing us.’

———————

Read more about Double Pursuit here

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Amazon paperback from 19 October

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. Double Pursuit, the sequel is out on 19 October 2021.

Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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