The Fortieth Step Sample Chapters

Chapter One


The Mark VI .455 revolver made in 1916 by Webley and Scott is a heavy gun.  You have to pull back the trigger – cocking, it’s called – to fire the first bullet.  If you’re using it indoors it helps to wear earplugs as there’s an eardrum-shattering crack when the trigger is squeezed.  I had forgotten about the ear plugs.  I had forgotten about the recoil… 

The recoil that had knocked my arm up high enough for my second shot to miss the silhouette in the doorway altogether.  The silhouette now with a jagged, one inch hole just below the hair line on the right side of his neck.  The silhouette now executing a slow-motion, unsteady, inebriated dance.  The silhouette now with a sluggish, bright red torrent pulsing from his carotid artery.  The silhouette who’s empty, dying eyes held only half-frozen irritation, a pistol half-gripped in his half-raised hand, still coughing out slow bullets into the Persian rug.  His legs buckled – finally.  I was over him – through the door before the second man had even begun to react.  I grappled with the third, tearing at his coat, then past him too.  

Only then did the adrenalin rush drain away and the world speed back up and I was left with just the breathless ache in the base of my spine from the fight-or-flight chemical that had pumped through my nervous system.  And at that point reality bit.  I had killed a man.  I was a murderer.  So, I did what any sensible murderer should do.  I ran.


And yet… this had been a day that had started normally enough – by my standards that is: twisting and turning in the bed sheets, dripping sweat, panting, puling and, finally, curled up, shaking on the floor in the corner of the bedroom.  Just that early morning horror of the worst of my nightmares.  The one about the awful pain; the one about the day of my eighth birthday just before the end of the school term, although no one had sent me a present or even phoned; a privileged childhood you understand, sent away to boarding school from the age of seven.  

Over my childhood years I had stored up enough material for quite a collection of these nightmares, most of which dated from the time of the awful pain – oh, and a limp too, a limp I’d tried to disguise to this day – the day when I thought they had come to kill me – twenty-seven years, five months and fourteen days later. 

The house phone had rung once.  I’d watched it.  I’d watched it because I’d assumed a phone call this early was just going to be one more threat from my habitual threatening caller.  But it wasn’t.  The phone had bleeped.  It rang again.  It bleeped then bleeped again.  It rang once.  Now I know Morse code.  My father had thought my learning it might be useful for some reason.  He would play a game with me at breakfast, tapping out Morse requests to pass the toast or the tea – even the marmalade (that one didn’t really work though – I was too slow).  I’d loved that game.  It was one of the few things I can remember doing with my father before he was killed. 

I had grabbed the house phone, dialled 1471 and listened.  A mobile phone had made that call.  I entered its number into my own mobile and walked to the window tapping out the Morse code message with my thumbnail against my bottom teeth.  

G E T  O U T.   Why?  

Then the house phone had rung once more and, once more, I had watched it.  Three, four, five rings: back to normal.  I’d waited for my voice mail message to end and listened to the now familiar, soft voice with a hint of the brogue.  I had sighed.

“Ah, your outmoded answer machine is back on again.  Do you still think I am just a crank caller, John?  Is that it?  Is that why you stopped speaking to me?”

It was true.  I had spoken to him once – at the beginning.  And I had thought then that he was a crank caller. Mind you that was before he had revealed how much he knew about me, how much he knew about my family and my family’s friends and it was before he had mentioned what he called ‘the information’.  I’d been puzzled at first, then angry, and now?  Well, what do you think?   

Get Out

“Have I not told you that ignoring me just makes things worse for you, John?  Have I not told you what I will do to all your family friends if you do not co-operate?”

Get Out.  

“It has been a long time, John – far too long in fact.  For many years I had no need of the information, but now I do.”

I heard him draw in a breath, and for reasons which only now have I begun to understand…  I stayed.

“Very well.  We’re coming to see you.  It is time for an ending.”

An ending so soon and I’ve only just begun.  

Such is the contrariness of my black, depressive nature that the thought of probable and immediate death cheered me no end.  I remember I walked through into the drawing room with the suspicion of a spring in my step and opened my grandfather’s safe behind the Rex Whistler portrait of the great man himself.  I pocketed my passport and the small bag of personal papers.  The surprisingly large sum of cash I had withdrawn over the last six months went into my pouch and then I stared at the final object in the safe – my grandfather’s Webley revolver.  Eventually I picked it up, broke open the head and slotted the cartridges into the holes.  I hauled an armchair in front of the window and closed the heavy wooden shutters, allowing just the narrowest shaft of light to hit the back of the chair.  

And then I waited, crouched in the darkness, for a man I didn’t think I knew, who wanted some information I didn’t know I had, clutching a World War One gun I had never tried to use.  

Seconds passed.

I heard a click, which I guessed to be the front door, a creak that was probably the boards in the corridor and then silence and I blinked and missed the drawing room door opening and the figure that had ghosted in and tripped over the edge of the Persian rug by the hearth.  He spoke from the floor through what sounded like gritted teeth.  “Turn a bloody light on, will you!”

The voice was that of an irritated, upper class Englishman.  He didn’t sound quite so frighteningly professional as I had expected, but still I stayed where I was, crouched on the floor at the far end of the sofa in the dark.  The figure clambered to his feet, muttering.  Finally he found the windows, pushed the shutters right back into the walls and turned to look for me.  I raised the revolver and cocked the hammer.  He jumped, shied back for an instant, looked at me more closely, cleared his throat and spoke.   

“Um, could you put that down…  Aah, carefully, please.”

It was most definitely not the voice of my crank caller.  The man scrutinised me.  I returned the compliment.  He was tall, wide shouldered, very handsome in an haut monde kind of way, with that hint of a sneer permanently visible – you know the look.  You know the type too – cut back shirt collar, old school tie (Rugby, I believed), Anderson and Sheppard suit, glossy, ‘dirty’ blonde hair, expensively cut, brushed back, (gelled probably) and a little too long – a cad I imagine my grandfather would have said.  I asked the obvious question.  “Was it you who sent me the Morse code message?”

“Well, not me as such, but…”

We both heard the front door latch click at the same time.  Something that looked distinctly like panic came into his eyes for a second then he grabbed me clumsily by the shoulder and pushed me hard behind the sofa and hurried towards the door, calling out as he walked.  “That you, John?  Where have you been?  Your front door was open so I…”

His voice tailed off.  He teetered on the balls of his feet as he saw who was there.  I peered round the edge of the sofa, but could see only silhouettes in the doorway beyond him.

“Hang on, you’re not John!  Have I made a giant cock of it all again?  This is John Hannay’s flat isn’t it?  I haven’t gone and gate crashed the wrong bloody place, have I?

A soft voice – the soft voice with that hint of the brogue – answered him.  

“I too am a friend of Sir John’s.  He’s expecting me.”

“Well, thank God for that.  He’s probably gone out to get some milk.  For tea, you know.  His door was open.  Always was the most disorganised bugger when it came to milk.  I’ll see if he left the kettle on.”


“Wait for what, old boy?  Hang on, that sounds like someone outside.  Must be him coming back.  John? John?  Is that you?”

He disappeared into the hall.  I crouched behind the sofa once again as I heard him walking towards the front door, the walking turn to running and he then he was out and sprinting for the stairs.  My supposed rescuer had abandoned his supposed rescuee.  The soft voice spoke again.  “Don’t bother with him.  Look for the target.  He may still be here.”

So, there were two of them at least, and I was a target – the target.  One of the silhouettes appeared in the doorway, pistol raised in front of him, I didn’t think any more…


The Mark VI .455 revolver made in 1916 by Webley and Scott is a heavy gun.  You have to pull back the trigger – cocking, it’s called – to fire the first bullet.  If you’re using it indoors it helps to wear earplugs as there’s an eardrum-shattering crack when the trigger is squeezed.  I had forgotten about the ear plugs.  I had forgotten about the recoil… 

Chapter Two

I sprinted away from Piccadilly, across Shepherd Street, into Curzon Street, up Queen Street – three hundred yards now and my lungs were burning – right into Charles Street where there are always taxis outside the Chesterfield Hotel – my thigh muscles were cramping.  I’d had it.  There were two taxis.  I staggered into the front one.

“Where to, guv?”

I panted, found my voice and let the words tumble out.  “Paddington station.  Can you make it in fifteen minutes?  I’ve got to catch the Swansea train.”

“Fifteen minutes?  Well, I wouldn’t want to say that it’s never been done, but what with the traffic being snarled up back round Victoria all the way up to Marble Arch…”

There are three basic types of cab driver: morose, chatty, and offensively garrulous.  You may guess into which category this one fell, but for once it was OK by me.  I swallowed bile, nodded at him in the mirror and said yes at the appropriate times.  He dropped me on Praed Street and I ran down the ramp into Paddington station to make it look as though I really did need to catch a train, paused, turned left, strolled up past the statue of Paddington Bear and out at the top of Platform One.

It took me an aimless half hour to wander across Hyde Park on that pleasantly warm May morning, but by time I’d reached the bridge over the Serpentine I found I could walk no further.  The shock had hit.  I sank to my knees, shivering.  I was going to be sick.  Just so long as I didn’t throw up on the ducks swimming towards me.  They were probably royal ducks and murder was more than enough crime against me for one day – for one life.  I swallowed bile and carried on shivering.  

My grandfather, Sir Richard Hannay, the First World War hero, may have been good at this.  I wasn’t.  I was just a City trader turned restaurateur, turned nothing at all.  I was neither a man of action nor a killer.  Except I was – a killer, I mean.  I closed my eyes and there was that silhouette again and that obscene, leaking red hole in his head – a new, adult addition to my childhood collection of nightmares.  I opened my eyes, pushing back the nausea for a third time.  A Parks Police car slowed on the road above where I knelt.  I lifted my phone to my ear and pretended to talk in to it, laughing as I did.  The car drove on.  I paused, looked up across the water towards the Princess Diana memorial and started to do something I should have done an hour ago.  I thought.  It wasn’t coherent or logical, but it was thought.   

The man who had just failed to make an ending of me knew of my childhood guardians, of my father and my grandfather.  If he knew that much, who else would he know – my grandfather’s friends?  Even if he did, who were they?  And could they, would they, help?  

Lord James Artinswell!  Now there was a name I knew.  Why?  I also knew his family name was Bullivant. Why did I know that too?  I didn’t know him.  I didn’t know any member of his family.  I had never met the man.  I struggled on with the incoherent, illogical thinking.  Someone at some early stage of my childhood must have told me that my grandfather had been a close friend of his grandfather.  That must be it and I’d even checked his address once and I still didn’t know why, but I was pretty sure my surname would get me in the Artinswell/Bullivant front door.  I got to my feet and forced myself to stroll slowly to the tube station in Knightsbridge.

Queen Anne’s Gate was quiet.  I tried to summon up the courage to cross the road and take the short walk to the Artinswell front door, but in my paranoid head every van held a watcher, every loiterer a gun, every bike an aggressor.  An elderly cab turned the corner.  I stepped forward, hailed it, opened the door and before I could turn to take my seat, the ‘rescuer’ who had run away from my flat was climbing in behind me and pulling the door shut.  He sat down on the jump seat and got out his mobile, watching me all the time.  The cabbie glanced over his shoulder.  “If we’re all in, Guv, where to?”

He turned on the seat.  “The In and Out, driver.”

As we turned up into St James Street his phone rang.  He looked at the caller ID and answered it.  He looked at me.  I was being discussed.  “Yes.  Yes.  Thirty minutes.”

He rang off and spoke into the mic.  “Driver, change of plan.  Lothbury.”

Then I remembered.  I shrugged out of my suit jacket and peered at the shoulder.  There was something like a heavy pin stuck in the seam.  I looked at him.  “You grabbed me by the shoulder in the flat didn’t you?” 

He gave me a slow handclap of applause.  I turned the pin in my fingers.  “Transmitter?”

“Something like that, Johnny, boy – something like that.”

I flicked it out of the half open window before he could stop me and went to put the jacket on again, noticing a heavy weight in my left coat pocket.  I put my hand in to move whatever it was.  It was the revolver.  He smiled at me mockingly.

“They ruin the cut of a suit you know.  My tailor thoroughly disapproves of keys in a jacket pocket let alone a mobile phone, so God alone knows what he would say about one of those.”

He was enjoying himself.  

“Why did you run away?”

That amused him even more.  “Because, my dear Johnny, I didn’t want to get hurt.  Bloody silly question, unless you’re a masochist.  You’re not, are you?”

I ignored the question.  “Why are we going to the City?”

“Because it’s not the West End.”

I felt the nausea rising for a fourth time and sat forwards with my head hanging down.  He pressed the button to lower the window and pushed me towards the fresh air.  I looked at him as the nausea receded once more.  Another question seemed to be in order.  “What do you know about me?”

“You?  Nada, Johnny boy.  You keep the lowest profile – digital or otherwise – of anyone I’ve ever come across. No friends of yours that I could track down; no one who could say: ‘my best chum, John Hannay, yes I know what’s he’s been up to’.”

No ‘best chum’.  He was right about that!  I’d succeeded in being off everyone’s radar for the last two years – everyone’s, that is, except the voice on the phone – wherever I had hidden that voice had found me.  Eventually the taxi slowed to a stop beside the Bank of England.  My new (possibly) friend paid and led the way, nodding at the doorman at the discrete entrance of the Threadneedles Hotel.  We went through into the converted banking hall, leaving me to gaze at the domed glass atrium while he whispered what I presumed to be sweet nothings into the ear of the receptionist.  She didn’t object.

I walked to the back of the circular hall and seated myself in a leather armchair near to the toilets and the staff exit – I could always hide in one or escape through the other.  A young woman walked towards me and sat down.  I waited for a cue.  She was young-ish, thin – no, slender – pale, hair so blonde as to be almost white, wide set eyes which slanted upwards at their edges and high, wide-set cheekbones.  My companion from the cab seated himself beside her and effected introductions. “Anna Haraldsen, Johnny Hannay – Johnny Hannay, Anna Haraldsen.”

Anna Haraldsen nodded at him.  “Thank you, Harry.”

So now he had a name.  Anna Haraldsen turned to me.  “Years ago, my family swore to help your grandfather’s descendants and… look, John, you won’t be able to hide out here in this hotel.”


“Why which?” 

“Why did your family swear to help me?  And what do you know about my family – or me for that matter?”  I raised my hands at her in an interrogative manner.  “As a for instance, how old am I?” 

She shrugged.  “You’re 36, Sir John Richard Hannay.  You were born at Fosse Manor in Oxfordshire; your grandfather was General Sir Richard Hannay, made KCB after the First War and then created the first Baronet Hannay of Sherborne in 1940 for unspecified services to His Majesty.  You came into the baronetcy at the age of seven following the unexplained death of your father, Sir Peter John Hannay.  Your mother died a year later, possibly by suicide due to a broken heart, but more probably of something else.  Shall I go on?” 

I hoped she wouldn’t.  Harry applauded.

She turned her head to look at him, the curtain of white blonde hair swinging in front of her eyes.  I realised that she was looking at him with affection.  That didn’t surprise me.  He was irritatingly pretty.  She turned back.  “Harry,” she informed me, “is full of shit.”

“Can’t argue with that,” said Harry.  

I stared at her.  “You’re Swedish?”

Harry applauded again.  “Don’t mean to say she’s not extremely posh though.  Owns half of Norrland, does our Anna.”

She ignored him and watched me for a moment.  “We need to leave here now.  Harry?”  She nodded in my direction.

Harry steered me towards the lifts.  From the top floor we descended two floors on a service staircase.  He paused front of a fire exit, pressed the bar down and sighed with relief when there was silence.  “Wasn’t sure if La Haraldsen really had sorted the door.  Clever lady, mind.”

We went down the fire escape, past over-full rubbish bins, into a narrow yard full of kitchen waste where a pair of East European kitchen workers were sharing a cigarette.  One of them passed a comment in Russian. “будьтегрубы” said Harry.  They stared at him sullenly.  Harry answered my unasked question.

“Told em not to be rude.  Know lots of languages.  Learn ‘em easily.  Gift of God, really.”

I played along.  “Do you believe in God, Harry?”

“Ah, my name – a breakthrough.  As a reward, I shall stop calling you Johnny.  No.  Matter of fact I don’t.  Not through any deep thought, you understand, just that when you come from a family like mine and then you see the kind of things a soldier sees, you don’t tend to see the point in God.  And since we’re now chatting so happily to each other, John, old boy, what about you?


“Just no?  Funny, I saw you as a true Tory type – spinsters cycling to village churches, bells tolling, harvest home.”  He paused.  “Did you know that an oriental gentleman has been following us for the last hundred yards?  Do not look round.  It’s considered terribly bad form to do so when being followed.” 

I walked on rigid necked.  “Do you want to give me the address of where you are supposed to be taking me, Harry, as I assume you will follow your previous practice of running at the first opportunity?”

Harry turned, his face attempting to reveal hurt and reproach.  His eyes flickered past me for a second and back.  “Yes, definitely following us.  This way!  Brusquely now, Sir John, brusquely.”

He yanked me by the arm and ran me down the nearest alley – Post Office Court.  I panted out a sentence.  “Tell me where we’re going!”

“Cannon Street.”

I pointed towards Abchurch Yard: strange to think that these tiny, cigarette-strewn alleys were once City thoroughfares.  We sprinted down the narrow paths until Harry held up his hand and we paused, leaning against the wall ignoring the curious looks and waving away the cigarette smoke.  He walked back to the corner, resting his weight on his hands on the top of his knees, his breathing slowing – he was in better shape than me.  I raised my hand.  “Why would a Chinese – or Japanese? – man be following us, Harry?”

He shrugged.  “Not us, dear boy, you.  And I have no idea.  He was Chinese, by the way.”  

He held me back, glanced left and right, led me across the road between two of Mayor Johnson’s disastrous double decker red buses and into a small tower block next to Cannon Street Station.  We emerged from the lift on the fifth floor and walked through into a reception area beside a trading floor.  I glanced at it with little interest.  I had worked on floors three times this size.  This one looked like a retail outfit.  Thirty or so boys in cheap suits, flashy gold watches and tasteless socks would be pressurising little old ladies into putting their money into worthless stocks which they would then go short on for a while before abandoning – a Boiler Room in all but name.  Harry half dragged me across the floor to make an introduction.

“Keith, this is Alex Bruce from Australia.  Trader with BTD in Sydney – looking for a week or two’s work to pick up some cash before heading off to Argentina – Alex meet Keith Morgan, senior trader with Continental Atlantic.”

Keith held out a hand.  Clearly a response was required from me.  “G’day, mate.”  

Harry glared at me over Keith’s shoulder.

“Alright, Alex.  Harry’s told me about you.  I won’t stick you on the floor with these cowboys.”  He indicated the multi-coloured socks brigade on the trading floor.  “But as Harry here knows, I’ve just bought a list of Aussie clients who’d definitely like to hear a familiar voice.  Could be decent dosh.  Normal terms – two per cent bonus.  I’ll get Robbi to give you a contract.  Office over there – OK?”

He pointed at a glass walled box by the window.

“Fine, thanks.”

He peered round the office, scratched his head then yelled.  “Robbi?  Robbi?  Robbi!”

A young woman wearing a white cotton blouse and a short black, pleated skirt appeared from behind a desk divider pushing yellow strands of hair back behind one neat little ear.  The other ear was pressed to a phone.  She mouthed ‘shhhhh’ at Keith, finished her conversation with a musical laugh and looked straight at me with a cool, assessing gaze.  She was… unexpected I suppose; quite astonishingly beautiful – a twenty first century, golden Nefertiti.  And there was something else – another quality – something… innocence: that was it – the quality of innocence.  What an interesting juxtaposition.  I gazed back at her, my murderous morning for the moment quite forgotten.  

“Robbi, meet Alex.  Do us a favour, please, Robbi.  If you could just spare a minute to set Alex up with a phone and an e mail address, I’ll get the files on the punters.  Harry says you know the score, Alex.”

I nodded.  Harry was also smiling at her, well not so much smiling as leering.  She looked directly at me once more before smiling back at him.  I walked into the glass box of an office.  Harry followed me in and shut the door.  “John, can I emphasise that you need to blend in here for a few days and become invisible.”

“Streuth, mate.”

“Oh for f…!  Unless I am much mistaken, you killed a man earlier.  You may not have noticed, but we came to your help.”

I shrugged.  “And I live where?”


I looked round.  The glass walled room contained a desk, an office chair (with arms), an office chair (without arms), a four-drawer filing cabinet, and a coat stand.


“Here.  You just look as though you’re first in and last out.  You’ve got the perfect excuse if you’re calling Australia: time zone difference.  There’s a shower through there.”

He indicated a door behind the back office.

“Gee, thanks, mate.”

“John, you do realise you’re in serious trouble, don’t you?”

I stared at him in amazement.  Did he really think I was that stupid?  “It had crossed my mind, yes.  Especially as the police will have my complete description as soon as someone finds the body.”

“I doubt that will happen.”

I raised an eyebrow. 

“Let’s just say your intruders have, er… things to hide.  Now, I’ll bring in a mobile phone tomorrow.”

He glanced sideways and raised his voice.  “So you could do well here…”

Keith re-entered with some files.  “Here you go, Alex.  Harry, can I have a word?”

I nodded at him.  They left.  I sat down and shivered – that jagged red hole above his hairline.  I shivered until the young woman whom Keith had called Robbi entered.  Immediately the world looked brighter.

“You all right, Alex?”

The image of the dying gunman faded.  “Yeah, it’s just I’m not good with the jet lag, Robbi.  Robbi – is that short for Roberta?”

“That’s right.  You’re friend’s rather gorgeous isn’t he?”

Why did I have to have met someone as interesting as her in the company of such a handsome bastard and on the very day I had committed my first – and last, I hoped -murder?  “Not my type, Roberta.”

She smiled mischievously and I studied her openly: beauty, innocence and mischief.  Fascinating.  I blundered on.  “Your mum and dad liked late sixties soul music by any chance?”

The mischievous smile broadened.  “Ah, the name.  Yes.”

“The First Time Ever I saw Your Face – Roberta Flack?”

“Clever boy.”

She clapped her hands patronisingly then took pity on me.  “My dad was there when I was born and they hadn’t thought of a name and he saw me popping out into the world, so…” 

The phone rang.  She picked it up.  “Hallo, Alex Bruce’s phone.  Yep.  Yep.  Works fine.  Thanks Louise.”

She put the phone down – and to me.  “It’s Robbi, not Roberta.”

“Robbi,” I said aloud, half to myself.  

She swayed out leaving me looking at two perfect, long legs beneath the short, black, pleated skirt: a sexual thought – committing murder must be stimulating.  I picked up a file and swivelled round to look out over the roofs towards the River Thames.  Nothing much to see.  Roofs are roofs.