KOTB

Prologue

Disclaimer: See title page.



Somewhere, water was dripping. The sound echoed off the cold, rust-stained walls, deep in the bowels of Sydney's Central Criminal Courts. Down here in the holding cells and interrogation rooms, the damp was rising. Everything smelled cold and wet and rotten.

The woman sat silently, her senses pounded into submission, all her energy focused on surviving minute by minute. Pale blue eyes flittered around the room, absorbing the details, sucking them in as if each piece of minutiae could somehow be a matter of life and death at any moment.

Hypersensitive to everything, the dark-haired woman felt the hard edges of the bare wooden chair she sat on against the backs of her knees and her shoulderblades. The blue tank top she wore did little to stop the chill she felt deep in her bones. She blinked several times in the harshness of the bare bulb hanging a few feet above the scarred surface of the table, and shivered, wishing she was anywhere but here.

Like a bad movie, she thought. Like every bad gangster flick ever made. How the fuck did I get here? Wasn't it just yesterday I arrived in this city, full of piss and vinegar and big plans?

Wearily she reached up and brushed her long hair out of her face, willing the throbbing headache behind her eyes to dissipate. No such luck.

A movement just beyond the reach of the arc of light drew her attention and she watched warily as the man moved forward out of the darkness.

Detective Ken Harding was a typical specimen of Australian manhood. Bald, fiftyish, with a beer belly that looked almost painfully swollen, and a drinker's nose that spoke volumes about his off-duty hours. Harding was a sweating, cigarette-smoking, walking heart attack-in-waiting. The woman tried hard not to smell him, tried hard not to notice the perspiration rings on the cheap, polyester shirt straining across the expanse of his pot gut.

Harding was having his moment in the sun. Six months' grind had led him to this woman, who looked up at him now through half-lidded, disinterested eyes.

Those eyes. He dragged his own away from her hypnotic blue gaze with an effort, and reached for his smokes. Only one left. Fuck. He shook the last cigarette out of the packet and propped it in the corner of his mouth, searching his pockets for his lighter.

Those baby blues had seen a lot. Witnessed the last moments of many poor souls, some deserving, some not so much.

But Harding had lucked out, no doubt about it, he thought, as he flicked his thumb across the striker and lit his last cigarette. Sometime around the moment he flushed her out, Sydney's No. 1 underworld hitman had decided she'd had enough. He had no doubts he was one lucky son of a bitch. No way she would be sitting here now if that hadn't been her choice.

She was in another league, an anachronism in a country where organised crime was still in its infancy. She was almost other-worldly, a legendary figure he had half-believed didn't exist, until the moment he heard her voice on the other end of the phone line, turning herself in. He knew of at least six executions she was personally responsible for, and god knows how many more he didn't know about.

But she'd turned. One of the coldest killers ever known to the Vice Squad had become the supergrass to top all supergrasses. And just as she had been ruthless on the streets and back alleys of Sydney's underbelly, she had been equally so in the courtroom. Three of the biggest drug lords in the country were behind bars now as a result.

And now she would get her reward. Immunity from prosecution provided she kept her nose clean in the future, lifetime protection, and a new existence.

Oh yeh, Detective Ken Harding - soon to be Detective Superintendent Ken Harding - was a lucky son of a bitch.

The cop dragged deep on his cigarette and watched the woman some more.

Jo Madison was certainly worth watching. Six feet tall, with legs that went on for hours and a body well, even Harding's long-dead libido and alcohol-pickled gonads felt a twinge as he took in her long, athletic frame.

A body made for sin, but she was colder than a witch's tit, he thought. Five weeks he had spent with the woman, and he knew less about her now than when he first got the phone call from her that had begun this process. She came from nowhere and now she would disappear into thin air again. A phantom.

Jo sat across from him, silent as a rock, giving nothing away in her face or body language. Just as always.

He took another drag.

"So." She raised one eyebrow slightly. "We need to talk about the protection program we're gonna put you in," he said.

Silence and a cold blue gaze were his reply.

"It's late. Tomorrow morning you'll be given a new life. New papers, new identity, a job, we'll even buy you some new "

"No."

" clothes, and wipe off your record. What did you say?"

"No."

"Whaddaya mean, no?"

She just stared back at him.

"You don't mean no, Madison. Look, trust me, okay, we'll see you right."

"No."

"Fuck me," said Harding under his breath. "Look, Jo, I hate to remind you of this, but you just made a shitload of enemies. You need protection."

"Nobody looks out for me, but me," she said sharply. "And I know all about having enemies."

"Don't be bloody stupid, woman."

Jo slammed her hand down flat on the tabletop.

"Call me that again, fat boy, and I'll take out your voicebox with that biro of yours before you even remember you've got a gun, let alone pulled it," she snarled, her eyes perceptibly darkening in anger.

Harding raised his hands and backed up a step, cigarette smoke curling around him from the butt wedged between his fingers.

"Okay, okay, no need to get bent out of shape, jesus."

Jo sank back into the chair, content to let the cop sweat.

"Don't you realise that without the witness protection program, you're completely on your own?" Harding said, flicking his butt into the corner. "They'll come after you, Jo, and there won't be a damn thing we can do about it. Except tag your toe and slam the fridge door behind you. You can't survive out there without our protection."

"What the fuck do you think I've been doing for the past 10 years, Harding?" replied the assassin. "I haven't exactly been running for Miss Congeniality. I've survived in this business without any help from you and your cronies, or anyone else for that matter. I've dodged more bullets than you've had cold beers."

Harding snorted.

"And trust me, that's a shitload of bullets," he said.

Not even a hint of a smile touched Jo's lips.

"Cut me loose, Harding. Wipe off my record and cut me loose."

"Jesus Christ "

Chapter One




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Page updated September 29, 2001.