CRISIS FOUR [030-011-4.5]

     By: Andy McNab

     Category: fiction spies
     Andy McNab's  British  intelligence agent,  Nick Stone, is enough  of a
rebel to be denied a permanent place on the SAS  roster, but  he's dragooned
into a  freelance  assignment with  an ultimatum from his  former employers.
He's to find Sarah Greenwood, a missing agent who's thought to have defected
from the service to aid Muslim militants intent on blowing up the  world, or
go to  prison  and also lose the only other  female  he's ever loved besides
Sarah: a 9-year-old  girl  whose  dead parents, Nick's closest friends, left
her in his care.
     Nick manages  to locate Sarah  without much  difficulty,  but when he's
ordered to kill  her, he has a change of  heart.  The hunter turns  into the
hunted, as Nick and Sarah flee her hiding place in the North  Carolina woods
and  try to outwit  the police, the  intelligence  services, and  a team  of
assassins directed by Osama  bin Laden. As they make their way to Washington
to  preempt a plan to kill Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu,  Nick tries
to sort out his  conflicted feelings about Sarah. Is she part of bin Laden's
team, a so-called runner who's a threat to the  CIA and the SAS, or is she a
loyal operative trying to outwit a highly placed traitor in the White House?
     Crisis  Four is  strong on its depiction of agents  in the field; McNab
excels at describing every last detail of the hunt, the chase, the kill.


     'mi Hem

     A Ballantine Book The Ballantine Publishing Group
     Copyright 1999 by Andy McNab
     All  rights  reserved under  International  and Pan-American  Copyright
Conventions. Published  in the United States by  The  Ballantine  Publishing
Group,  a  division of Random House, Inc." New York. Originally published in
Great Britain by Bantam Press, a division of Transworld Publishers, in 1999.
     Ballantine and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
     www. random house. com/BB/ Library of Congress Card Number: 00-190285

     Manufactured in the United  States of  America  First American Edition:
July 2000 10 987654321

     TMOmV, OCTOBER 16. 1995
     The Syrians don't fuck around if they think you're  invading their  air
space.  Within minutes of crossing the border, your aircraft will be greeted
by a three-ship intercept, flying so close you can  wave at the pilots. They
won't wave back;  they've come to get a visual ID on you, and  if they don't
like what they see they'll hose you down with their air to-air missiles.
     he  same  rule  doesn't  apply,  of  course,  when friendly  commercial
aircraft blip  onto their radar screens, and that  was why our  team of four
had opted for this  particular method of infiltration. If  Damascus  had had
the slightest clue about what was about to happen aboard our British Airways
flight from  Delhi  to  London, their fighters would have been scrambled the
moment the Boeing 747 left Saudi Arabian territory.
     I was twisting and turning, trying to  get comfortable, feeling jealous
of  all the people  sitting  upstairs behind  the driver,  probably on their
fifth gin and tonic since take off,  watching their second movie and tucking
into their third helping ofboeufen croute.
     Reg  1  was  in  front of  me.  Six feet two,  and  built  like a brick
shithouse,  he was  probably  having  an  even  worse time  in  the  cramped
     His  curly  black hair, going a bit gray at the sides, was all over the
place. Like me, before I  left in '93, he had been  selected  to do work for
the  intelligence and security services, including the  sort of  job for the
     that  Congress  would never sanction. I had done  similar  jobs  myself
while in the Regiment, but this was the first I'd  been  on since becoming a
K. Given who we were going in against, none of us was giving odds on whether
we'd get to do another.
     I  glanced across at  Sarah,  to my right in the semidarkness. Her eyes
were  closed, but even in the  dim light I could  see she wasn't looking her
happiest. Maybe she just didn't like  flying without complimentary champagne
and slippers.
     It had been a while since I'd last  seen her, and the only  thing about
her  that had changed was her  hair.  It  was still  very  straight,  almost
Southeast Asian, though dark brown, not black. It had always been short, but
she'd prepared for this operation by having it cut into a bob with a fringe.
     She had strong, well-defined features, with large brown eyes above high
cheekbones, a  nose  that was slightly too large, and  a mouth  that  nearly
always  looked too  serious. Sarah would  not  be troubled in her old age by
laughter lines. When it was  genuine, her  smile was  warm and friendly, but
more often it appeared to be only going  through the motions. And  yet, just
when you  were thinking  this, she'd find  the oddest thing amusing and  her
nose would  twitch,  and her whole face would crease into a radiant,  almost
childlike,  grin. At times  like  that  she looked even more beautiful  than
usual maybe too beautiful. That was sometimes a danger  in our line of work,
as men could never resist  a second  glance, but at thirty-five years of age
she had  learned  to use  her looks  to her advantage within the service. It
made her even more of a bitch than most people thought she was.
     It  was  no good, I couldn't get comfortable. We'd been on the aircraft
for nearly  fifteen  hours and my body was starting to  ache. I  turned  and
tried the  left side.  I couldn't see Reg 2, but I knew he was to my left in
the gloom somewhere. He was easy to distinguish from Reg  1, being the  best
part  of  a foot  shorter  and with  hair  that looked  like  a  fistful  of
dark-blond wire wool. The only thing I  knew about them apart from their zap
numbers  was that, like  me, they had  both been circumcised within the last
three  weeks and that, like  mine, their  underwear came from Tel Aviv.  And
that was all I wanted  to know  about them, or  about Regs 3  to 6  who were
already in-country, waiting for us even though one of them, Glen, was an old
     I found myself facing Sarah again. She was rubbing  her eyes  with  her
fists, like  a sleepy child. I tried to doze off; thirty minutes later I was
still kidding  myself I was asleep when I got a kick on the back of my legs.
It was Sarah.
     I sat up in my sleeping bag and peered into the semidarkness. Three

     loadies (load  masters) were  moving  around  with  orienteering lights
attached  to their heads, glowing a dim red  so  as not to destroy our night
     Each  of them had an umbilical  cord trailing from  his  face mask, and
their hands  moved  instinctively  to make sure it  didn't  get  snagged  or
detached from the aircraft's oxygen supply.
     I  unzipped the  bag  and,  even  through my  all-weather  sniper suit,
immediately felt the freezing cold in the unpressurized 747 cargo hold. None
of  the  passengers or cabin  crew would have  known there were  people down
here,  tucked away in the  belly of the aircraft. Nor would our  names  have
appeared anywhere on a manifest.
     I folded  the bag in half, leaving inside  the two  "aircrew  bags" I'd
filled during the flight--plastic bags with a  one-way valve that you insert
yourself into and piss away to your  heart's content.  I wondered  how Sarah
had been getting on.  It  was bad enough  for me  because my  cock was still
extremely  sore, but it must be hard being female aircrew on a  long  flight
with  a  device  designed only  for  males--and the  female  commander of  a
deniable op.  I put  a Post-It on my mental bulletin board, reminding myself
to ask her  how  she  got  around  the problem. That was  if we survived, of
course, and were still on speaking terms.
     I  could  never  remember which  was  starboard or port; all I knew was
that, as you  looked  at  the aircraft from the front, we were in  the small
hold at the  rear  and  the door was on the left-hand  side.  I  clutched my
oxygen tube  as a lo  adie crossed over  it, and adjusted my mask as his leg
caught it, pulling it slightly from my face. The  inside was wet, clammy and
cold now the seal had been broken.
     I picked  up my Car 15, a version  of the M16  Armalite  5.56mm with  a
telescopic butt and a  shorter barrel, cocked it and applied the safety. The
Car had a length of  green para cord tied to it like a sling; I strapped  it
over my left shoulder so the barrel faced down and it ran along the  rear of
my body. The rig (parachute) would go over that.
     I pushed  my hand  under the sniper suit to get hold of the Beretta 9mm
that was  on a leg holster against my right  thigh. I cocked that,  too, and
pulled  back the top slide a few millimeters  to check the chamber.  Turning
the weapon so it caught one of the loadies' red glows, I saw  the glint of a
correctly fed round, ready to go.
     This was  my  first  "false  flag"  job  posing as a member  of Israeli
special forces, and as  I adjusted my leg  straps I wished I'd  had a little
more time to recover  from the  circumcision. It hadn't healed as quickly as
we'd  been told. I looked around me as we got our kit on, hoping  the others
were in as much pain.
     We were  about to carry  out a  "lift" to find out what  the West's new
bogeyman, Osama Bin Laden,  a Saudi  multimillionaire  turned terrorist, was
getting up to  in Syria.  Satellite  photography had shown earth  moving and
other heavy equipment  from Bin Laden's construction company near the source
of the river Jordan. Downstream lay Israel, and if its  main source of water
was about to be dammed, diverted or otherwise tampered with, the West needed
to know. They feared a repeat of  the 1967 war, and with Bin Laden around it
was  never  going to be a good  day out.  He  hadn't  been  dubbed America's
"public enemy number one" by Clinton for nothing.
     Our task  was to lift Osama's  right-hand  man  known to us only as the
"Source" for op sec (operational security) reasons from on site. His private
jet had been spotted at a nearby airfield. The  U.S. needed to know what was
happening  in  Syria, and, more to the point, maybe learn  how to  lay their
hands on Osama.  As the  briefing  guy  had  said, "Bin  Laden  represents a
completely  new  phenomenon:  non-state-supported  terrorism  backed  by  an
extremely rich  and religiously  motivated leader with  an intense hatred of
the West, mainly America, as well as Israel and the secular Arab world.
     He must be stopped."
     Once  ready and  checked  by  the loadies, it  was just a  question  of
holding on to the airframe and waiting. There was nothing to do for the next
few minutes but daydream or get  scared. Each of us  was in his  or  her own
little world now.  Before any operation some people are frightened, some are
excited. Now and  again I could see reflections  from the red flashlights in
people's eyes;  they were staring at  their  boots or  at  some  other fixed
point, maybe thinking  about their wives, or girlfriends, or  kids,  or what
they were going to do after this, or maybe even wondering what the fuck they
were doing here in the first place.
     Me,  I  didn't know what to think really. I'd  never  been able to  get
sparked up about the thought of dying and not seeing anyone else again.
     Not even  my wife, when I was married. I always  felt I  was a  gambler
with  nothing to lose. Most people who gamble do so with the things that are
important  to them; I  gambled knowing that if I  lost I wouldn't  break the
     I watched  the  glowing redheads  pack  our  kit away  into  the  large
aluminium Lacon  boxes.  Once  we'd been thrown out and  the door had closed
again, they'd  stow all  other evidence that we had  been there in the boxes
and just sit it out until they were taken care of in London.
     Two of the loadies  started a sweep with their flashlights to make sure
there was nothing loose that could be sucked out as soon as the door opened.
Nothing must compromise this job.
     We  got  the order to  turn  on  our own oxygen,  disconnect  from  the
aircraft supply and stand by.  Sarah was standing in front of Reg 1, who was
to tandem jump with  her. She had never failed to  amaze me. She was  an  IG
(Intelligence Group), the  very top of the  intelligence-service food chain,
people who usually spend their lives in embassies, posing as diplomats.
     Their  lives should be  one  long  round of  receptions and  recruiting
sources through the cocktail circuit, not running around, weapon strong.
     Then  again, Sarah  had always  made a  point  of  finishing  the  jobs
     She was  masked and goggled up,  looking  for all the world as if she'd
done  this a thousand times. She hadn't; her first  jump ever had been three
weeks before, but she took her job so seriously that she'd probably read ten
books  on  free fall and knew more facts and figures than all  of us lot put
     She  turned  and looked for me. We  got eye-to-eye  and I  gave her  an
everything-is-OK nod.  After all, that  was part of this job, to  look after
     The lo adie motioned us toward the door.  Our berg ens each  containing
forty pounds of equipment, were  hanging from our rigs and down the back  of
our legs. We waddled forward like a gaggle of geese, putting  weight on each
foot in turn. Thankfully  the  berg ens hadn't needed to be fully  laden. If
everything went to plan, we'd be on the ground for only a few hours.
     There was  a  pause  of  about  five seconds as the lo adie by the door
spoke into his  mike  to the British Airways  navigator,  then he nodded  to
himself and swung  into  action.  The  door was about half  the  size  of an
average up-and-over garage door. Pulling out all  the levers, he swung  them
counterclockwise, then pulled the  handles toward  him. Even  though I had a
helmet on, I heard the massive rush of air, and then a gale was thrashing at
my sniper suit. Where the door had been there was now just a black hole.
     The  tags  on the  aircraft's luggage containers fluttered frantically.
The freezing  cold wind whipped at the parts of my face that weren't covered
by my mask. I pulled my jockey's goggles over my  eyes, fighting against the
blast, gripping hard on to the airframe.
     Seven miles below  us  lay Syria--enemy  territory. We  did  our  final
checks. I wanted to get this jump out of the way, get the job done and be in
Cyprus for tea and toast tomorrow morning.
     We rammed up close  to each other at the exit, the roar of the wind and
the jet engines so loud I  could  hardly think. At last  came a handheld red
light from the  lo adie We  all joined in with a  loud  scream: "Red on, red
on!" I didn't know why, no one could hear anything; it was just something we
always did.
     The lo adie light changed to green and he shouted, "Green on!"
     He moved back as we all shouted to ourselves, "Ready!"
     We rocked forward, trying to scream above the roar: "Set!"
     Then we rocked back.
     Out and out  we  spilled, four people  on three  rigs,  tumbling toward
Syria.  Being the  last man, I was  pushed by the lo adie to make sure there
wasn't too much of a gap between us in the sky.
     You  can now free  fall  from an aircraft  flying at high altitude  and
miles from the target area  and land with pinpoint accuracy. The HAHO  (high
altitude, high  opening) technique calls for  extreme  weather clothing  and
oxygen equipment  to  survive temperatures as low  as minus 40 C, especially
when a fifty-mile cross-country descent can take nearly two hours.
     It has now  largely replaced the old HALO (high  altitude, low opening)
approach, for the simple reason that,  instead of hurtling toward the ground
at  warp speed, with no real idea of where you're going to land or where the
rest of the  team are once you're on the ground, you can glide  gently  onto
the target sitting in a comfortable rig. Unless, of course, a man in a white
coat has recently clipped a bit off the end of your cock.
     I felt the  jet stream pick me up and take  me with it. As the aircraft
thunders  over  you at 500 miles an hour you  think you're  going to collide
with the tailplane, but in fact you're falling and never hit it.
     Once  I  was out of  the jet stream it  was time to sort  myself out. I
could tell by the  wind force,  and the fact that I  could see the  aircraft
lights flashing three or four hundred feet above me, that I was upside down.
I spread my  arms and legs  and arched  my back, bunging myself over into  a
stable position.
     I looked around--moving your  head during free  fall  is about the only
thing that doesn't have  an effect  on your stability--trying to  see  where
everyone else was. I could just about  see a figure  over  on  my right-hand
side; I didn't know who it was,  and it didn't matter. As  I looked up I saw
the taillights of the 747 disappearing  way above us, and downstairs, on the
floor, there was nothing, I couldn't see a single light.
     All I  could hear  was the rush of air; it was  like sticking your head
out of a car traveling at 120 mph. What I had to do now was  keep stable and
wait for the AOD (automatic opening device) to do its bit. The drill is just
to assume that it's going to work, but to  get in the pull position  just in
case. I thought, Fuck that. I knew my pull height--30,000 feet, an 8,000foot
drop. I moved my left hand up, just above my head, and my right hand down to
the pull handle. There has to be symmetry with everything. If you're in free
fall  and  put just one hand out, that  will hit the air and you're going to
     I could see the needle on  my wrist alti. I was past 34,000. Instead of
waiting to feel the pull of  the AOD  on the  pin, I kept  on looking at the
alti, and bang on  30,000 feet I pulled the handle  and pushed  my  hands up
above my head, which made me backslide, which meant  the air would catch the
drogue chute to bring the main pack out. I felt it move and rock me slightly
from side to side. Then  bang--it's like running into a brick wall. You feel
like one of those cartoon characters that's just been crushed with a rock.
     I still wasn't  particularly worried  where  everybody else  was in the
sky, I just wanted to sort myself out. I  could hear another canopy cracking
open, and I knew that it was near. I looked up to make sure  I  had a canopy
rather than a big bag of washing above me. The middle three or four cells of
the big mattress  were full of air. I grabbed hold of  the brake  lines, the
two handles  attached to para cord on  each  side of the canopy,  and ripped
them from the velcro that held them  in  position on the webbing straps just
above  my shoulder and started pulling. There are seven cells to the canopy;
by pumping you expose the end cells to air to quicken the process.
     I had a look around me  now, trying to find out where I was in relation
to  the  others. Fuck, my cock  hurt!  The  leg straps had  worked their way
farther up my leg and it felt like someone was giving my dick a squeeze with
a pair of pliers.
     Above me I could see Sarah and Reg 1.1 must have had  a slow opening of
the  end cells,  as they should have been below me.  They were now spiraling
past me, his  right arm pulling the brake line down  to get into his correct
position  in the  stack.  Sarah  just hung there  like  a small child as  he
slotted in between me and Reg 2, who was below me somewhere.
     Being  the last man  in the stack, it was a piece of piss for me; I was
just bringing up the rear. As long as I was directly above and just touching
the  rear of the canopy below me,  I wasn't going to get lost, unless  Reg 1
got lost with Sarah. Reg 1 would be doing the same to Reg  2, who was at the
bottom; he'd be doing all the navigating and we'd just be checking.  And  if
the worse came to the worst, we could actually shout to each other once we'd
got off oxygen.
     Reg  2  would  be  looking  at  the  display  on  his sat  nav  (global
positioning device, via satellite). All he wanted was one bar in  the center
of the display.
     Technology is wonderful. We were traveling at about thirty-five  knots;
the canopy gives you twenty knots,  and we were running with the wind, which
was fifteen.
     I  checked my  height--just over twenty-eight  grand--good. Checked the
sat nav, good. That was it. Everything was done: the oxygen was  working, we
were stacked. Time to  get comfy. I got hold of the risers that attached the
canopy to the rig,  and pulled myself up and wiggled my legs to move the leg
straps halfway down my thighs.
     For the next thirty minutes  we minced along  the sky,  controlling the
rig,  checking  height and the sat nav.  I  started to see lights now. Small
towns and villages with streetlights following the roads out of the built-up
areas for about half a mile, then darkness, only car lights giving away  the
     I looked at my alti. I was  about 16,200 feet. I  thought, I'll just go
for  a few more minutes and  I'll take my oxygen mask off. The fucking thing
was  a pain  in  the  ass.  If  I  started feeling the  effects  of  hypoxia
dizziness, I'd bring the mask back  to  my face and take a  couple  of  deep
breaths. By now I was just under  16 grand; my mouth was full of saliva  and
it felt all clammy. I got hold of the clip with my right hand and pulled the
press  stud off, and  the thing just  fell down and dangled by the left-hand
side of my face.
     I could feel the cold around my  mouth where  all the moisture from the
mask had been. I was freezing, but it was nice; I could stretch my mouth and
chew my jaw around a bit.
     After about ten  minutes I checked  my alti  again: 6,500 feet, time to
start working.  I  put  on my NVGs  (night viewing  goggles), which had been
hanging around my neck on para cord and started looking for the flash  on an
IR Firefly (infrared detecting system). It  was the same flashing light that
you would expect to see on the top  of  a tall tower to warn  aircraft,  but
these are just little handheld things that throw out a brilliant quick flash
of light, through an IR filter. No one would see it apart from us--or anyone
else with NVG, of  course.  I kept looking in the darkness. It would be easy
to pick out. Bang--there it was to my half right.
     We were  coming in  on finals. I  was concentrating  on keeping  myself
positioned right on top and to the rear of Reg 1 's canopy, which was larger
than mine  as he  had the  extra weight to  jump with. I  heard him below me
sounding like a nursery-school teacher.
     "Right,  any minute now.  Keep your legs bent and under  your hips. Are
your legs bent?"
     She must  have acknowledged. I pulled the NVGs off my face and let them
     "OK,  put your  hands  up by me."  I imagined  her  with her hands  up,
holding Reg 1  's wrists on the brake lines to  keep them out of the way  so
she didn't damage herself if they took a bad landing.
     I couldn't see any ground yet--it was far too dark--but I heard:
     "Standby, standby. Flaring soon ... flaring ... flaring ..."
     Then the sound  of his bergen thumping into the ground, and his command
to Sarah: "Now!"
     His canopy started to  collapse below me as I  flew past. My bergen was
dangling by the straps from my  feet; I kicked it off and it fell beneath me
on a three-meter line.  As soon as  I heard it land, I flared,  too. Hitting
the deck, I ran along for three or four steps, turned  quickly and pulled my
lines to collapse the canopy.
     A body appeared  behind me. Regs 3 to 6 had been on the ground for five
days preparing the job and were manning the  DZ  (drop zone). Fuck knows how
they'd inserted in-country, and I didn't care.
     "You all right, mate?" I recognized his voice. Glen, the only one whose
name I  knew, was the ground  commander. He looked  as if you'd  hear steely
Clint Eastwood when he opened his mouth, but in fact what you got was softly
spoken David Essex.
     "Yeah. Fine, mate, fine."
     "Let's get all this shit off."
     Within minutes our rigs, sniper suits and oxygen kit had been stowed in
large bin liners and we were aboard two Toyota Previas,  the drivers wearing
NVGs, bouncing along the desert floor, heading for a light industrial estate
on the outskirts of a town less than a mile from  the Golan Heights  and the
border with Israel. All  of us  were dressed the same, in green jump  suits,
with  civilian clothes underneath as part of  the  E&E  (escape and evasion)
plan, plus belt kit and our own  choice of boots. Mine  were a pair  of Nike
hiking boots, which we'd checked were available in any Tel Aviv main street.
     Glen and  I  went way back. We had done Selection together in the early
Eighties, and had got  to  know each other  later while chatting up the same
woman, who was now his wife. He was the same  age as me-late-thirties--had a
swarthy Mediterranean look and a few moles on his face which  were sprouting
hair, and he always needed a shave. Constantly smiling, he was one of life's
good  guys--in love  with  his wife  and two  kids,  in  love with his  job,
probably even in love with his car and the cat.
     For the  last five days they'd been  preparing and placing an explosive
attack on an electricity substation, which was going to close down  the town
while we hit the target, and I  knew  that  Glen  would have  enjoyed  every
minute of it.
     "We're at the drop-off point."
     If  we  had  to talk it would be in a low  whisper from  now on. As  we
clambered from the vehicles I motioned to  Sarah for both of us to stand out
of the way. We  got underneath one  of the small stumpy trees  that made  up
this olive grove, the stars giving us  just enough light  to move in without
bumbling. The thing  I'd always loved  most  about the  Middle  East was the
stars; it felt as if you could see the whole universe, and so clearly.
     The Regs were putting their berg ens on and sorting themselves out.
     The glow  of the  town could be  seen coming from the dead ground about
five K-s beyond the  target. The night air was cold after the warmth of  the
people carrier and I couldn't wait to get moving.
     The driver came over, holding up a small magnetic box.
     "The keys," he said.
     "Both vehicles, rear near-side wheel arch."
     I glanced  at  Sarah as we both nodded. She had a  smaller bergen  than
mine, containing  her trauma  kit, with  fluid,  and anything else she would
need. Once the patrol kit was packed, what else went in was down to personal
     Glen joined us with a jolly "You OK?," as if he felt he had to  bolster
Sarah's morale.
     She looked at him blankly and said, "Let's get on with it, shall we?"
     There was  a pause as he  let the tone of her reply sink in.  He didn't
like it.
     "OK, let's go." He pointed at her.
     "You, behind me. Nick, behind her, OK?"
     On the  track  between  the olive groves  I could  see  shadowy figures
shaking out into single file. My only job was to protect  her; we hadn't let
Glen  in on this, but if there was a drama, the two of us were going to fuck
off sharpish.  We'd just  let them get on with  it and die. As we joined the
snake I  wondered about  the times I'd  done jobs while in the Regiment, not
realizing that no one really cared.
     We moved  off  into the shadows,  weapon  butt in the  shoulder,  index
finger  across the trigger  guard,  thumb  on the  safety catch.  Sarah  was
carrying  only a  Beretta for self-defense. We  were  there to do everything
else for her.
     For about forty minutes we  moved through  wide groves. When we finally
stopped I could hear only the crickets and the wind in the trees.
     Ahead of us  now was the target, a row of six or seven low-level, brick
faced light industrial units  with flat  aluminium roofs  and  windows.  The
entire  complex was  surrounded by a three-meter-high chain-link fence, with
just one  entrance, which was  gated  off for the night. The road was lit by
yellow street lamps every thirty meters, and there were floods on the fronts
of the buildings, facing down the walls and lighting up the shutters.
     There  were  also  lights on  in some of  the  units,  but no  sign  of
     Apart from the fence there  seemed  to be no  security, which  would be
about right  for units that supposedly housed nothing more serious  than JCB
     The buildings gave off enough light for  us  to see what we were doing,
but we  were still in the shadows of the grove. Glen came  alongside me  and
said quietly,  "This  is the FRV  (Final Rendezvous). The target  ... if you
look at the nearest building on the left..."
     We were looking at the long sides of three rectangles. He indicated the
closest one.
     "You see the lights on?" I nodded.
     "All right, count  three windows from the left. That's where  we reckon
he is or was last night."  The "reckon" would have been  a bit of a judgment
call:  the latest pictures we  had of  the  Source were three  years old.  I
didn't even know  his name.  Only Sarah did, and  only  she could positively
identify him.
     I could make out two small mobile satellite dishes and a wire half-wave
dipole antenna on the roof, looking like the world's longest washing line.
     You didn't need that lot for road building.
     I sat against a stubby tree  while the patrol prepared itself, bringing
out kit from their  berg ens  very slowly  to eliminate noise. There was  no
light  from the  town to the  north, which  was lost completely  in the dead
     Reg  1  and  2 checked in with  Glen, then moved  off.  Glen pulled  an
antenna  out  of a green  twelve-by-eight-inch metal box and  began to press
buttons. I didn't have a clue what the  box was  called,  but I knew what it
did. A little red light came up, which no doubt  was a  test to make sure he
had  com  ms  with  whatever  devices  were rigged  up  at  the  electricity
substation that supplied the power  to this area. I imagined they'd be using
a number of small stand-off charges, something about the size of a Coca Cola
can,  to penetrate the cast-steel casings. All they'd need to  do was make a
hole  big enough for  the coolant  to drain out of and the generators  would
quickly burn themselves out.
     Sarah wanted confirmation about the target. She pestered Glen, "Are you
sure that's the building? Are you sure he's in there?" He was already pissed
off with her, and told her politely that she might be in overall command but
he was  the commander on the ground, so shut the fuck up and let  him do his
job. Good one, Glen, I thought.
     We were  kneeling  around him at the  edge of the grove as he  made his
final checks on the target and confirmed the orders with the rest of us.
     There  were  no changes to  the  plan. It was Sarah who would  give the
final Go or No Go now. She nodded at him.
     "OK,  everybody,  here we go." Glen got his box of tricks and pulled up
the antenna the last few inches.
     "Standby, standby ..."  I  heard the  click of a button  being pressed.
There was a delay of about two seconds, then a bright flash in the distance,
beyond the glow from the industrial units.
     Then, after twenty seconds, there was total darkness as the lights went
out in the compound.
     Glen was back to enjoying life, despite Sarah's presence. He grinned.
     "OK, let's go."
     We moved off at a slow jogging pace along the edge of  the  trees. Once
level with Reg  1 and 2,  we turned left  over  the  waste ground  and  went
straight for  the fence.  They were pulling at the straight line of the  cut
they'd made, making a big upside-down V for us to get through.
     We took advantage of the darkness and sprinted  the fifty meters to the
target building. There  was  the  odd  outburst  of  hollering  and shouting
through an open window--nothing  frantic; the voices just sounded pissed off
that the power had  failed, probably halfway through  the Syrian version  of
East Enders. Now and again I saw the glint of flashlights from inside.
     We reached  the edge  of the target building and everybody  got against
the wall,  Glen looking toward  the nearest corner. Around that, to the left
and  next to the  shutters,  was  our entry  point.  Sarah  was  between us,
catching her breath and trying to keep the noise down.
     The other three in the crew were on their  knees, nearer the corner. If
the door was locked they'd have to blow it. They started to get the prepared
charges  from  their  belt  kit. I watched as  they  worked together, slowly
unwinding the det cord, which looked like white washing line, but was filled
with high explosive.
     They stood  up  with  the  charge.  Everything  was  nice and  slow and
     As they started to move, the door burst open.
     Voices were shouting in Arabic from around the corner. The  door charge
was quickly placed on the ground. I saw hands reach into belt kits.
     They would have to remove the threat, but quietly.
     The  voices got closer  and closer  and I could hear  the sound of flip
flops slapping against  feet. Two boys rounded the corner  wearing  sandals,
arm  in arm,  both  smoking and still shouting about  something, maybe  what
Grant Mitchell was up to in the Queen Vie.
     Two of the  Regs  climbed aboard them,  and  almost  at once I  heard a
distinctive buzz  and crackle. The boys were getting Tazered  good style, at
the same time as being dragged  out of sight  toward  us. Tazers are  cattle
prods for humans. As the two electrodes touch a body, you press a button and
100,000 volts zap through  the  target. They  are  a great weapon as you can
hold the  victim  at  the same time as you  fuck them  up big time,  without
getting zapped by the current yourself.
     As the blokes got them down on the floor, I could hear them moaning and
groaning  under  the hands that covered their  mouths. They were still being
dealt with as Glen put on his NVGs. We did the same.
     Glen looked back at Sarah to check we were ready. Following his cue, we
moved toward the corner with Sarah still between us. It was now one of those
situations that couldn't be stopped. We just had to get on with it.
     The fuck-it factor had taken over.
     We piled in  through the door. A Reg secured the entry point and waited
for the other two to join him, dragging the two dazed Syrians.  The corridor
was  dark and  silent. In  a loud whisper Glen said, "With me, with me, with
me." We moved  like men possessed down  the breeze-block  passage, the world
through our NVGs looking like a light-green negative film.
     We turned  right, and  through  the windows to our left I could see the
outside of the building; on the other side there were plywood internal doors
leading,  I guessed, to  rooms or offices. The smell of cigarettes, cooking,
coffee  and   the  sweat  of  not  too  much  air  conditioning  was  almost
     We came  to  a  T-junction. Glen  stopped on the  left, Sarah right  up
behind  him. I came up  level, on the right.  I wasn't too sure which way we
were  heading. Glen would tell  me. I looked over  and  he was  moving hisIR
flashlight beam, attached to his weapon, to the right.
     I cleared the  corner, moved forward three  or four meters and stood my
ground, waiting. I knew  Glen would be  clearing the  other  way. I saw  his
weapon'sIR splash against the walls as he  turned toward  me, then they both
passed  on my  left. Sarah still had  her  pistol bolstered and was  keeping
close to Glen. The floor was tiled or concrete, it was hard to tell which.
     All I knew was that there was an echo of footsteps and squeaking rubber
as we moved.
     Glen  stopped and pointed  at a  door. He  took  his  weapon out of the
shoulder, put his back against the wall to the left and reached for the door
handle. I moved to the opposite side, weapon still up in the shoulder, ready
to make entry. He nodded; I took off my safety and nodded back.
     He turned the handle and I moved inside, pushing the door with me.
     I was blinded. The NVGs were  totally whited out. It was as if  someone
had let off a flare in front of my face.
     Glen shouted, "The fucking lights are back on!"
     I fell on my knees and ripped off the NVGs, blinking hard as I tried to
get  back some normal  vision. I  made out movement in the right-hand corner
and rolled to the left,  trying to make  myself  a harder target. As my eyes
adjusted I saw a middle-aged guy, his head bald apart  from wiry  side hair.
He was curled  up against  the far  wall,  his hands  protecting  his  face,
flapping even more than I had just been as you  do  when, just as the lights
come on, a man with a weapon bursts  in  on you. Fuck it; they must have had
standby power.
     I became  aware  of  bits  of  electronic  machinery  PCs, screens  and
computer  stuff all over the place, whirring and crunching now the power had
     I lifted my weapon into  my shoulder and pointed it at him.  He got the
message. I called for Sarah.
     She came  in and confirmed, "That's him." She gob bed off in Arabic and
he immediately did  as  he was  told,  sitting down on the sofa against  the
other wall, away from the desk with all the machinery on it. He didn't move;
his eyes were like saucers, trying to work it all out and listen to Sarah at
the same time.
     From my bergen,  I pulled out  six magnesium  incendiary devices. All I
needed to do was to get them sparked up and we could be on our way.
     It was  then  that Sarah pulled a laptop and some  other gear from  her
bergen and started plugging it  in  and revving things  up, still talking to
the  Source, referring to the Arabic script displayed on two of the screens.
He replied at the speed of sound, trying his best to stay alive.
     I was confused. This wasn't in the plan. I tried to keep a calm voice.
     "Sarah, what are you doing? Come on, it's time to go."
     Glen stayed outside in the relit corridor, giving protection. I knew he
would feel exposed  soon and would want to move out. After all, we'd got who
we'd come for. I said, "Sarah, how long's this going to take?"
     She was still scrolling down the screen. I was getting pissed off. This
wasn't what we were supposed to be here for.
     "No idea--just do your job and keep everyone back."
     I needed to underline the problem we faced.
     "This is going  to  turn  into a gang-fuck soon, Sarah. Let's just grab
him and go."
     She wasn't even looking at me, just hitting one of the keyboards.
     The Source sat tight, looking as confused as I felt.
     Glen  was starting  to  get agitated. He stuck  his head back  into the
     "How much longer?"
     She said, "What's with you people? Wait."
     Sarah  seemed gripped by  the information she had before her.  I walked
toward her, trying to be the good guy.
     "Sarah, we've got  to go. If not, we're in a world of shit."  I grabbed
her arm, but she pulled away and glared at me.  I  said, "I don't understand
the problem. We have the Source, so let's grab him and go."
     We were inches apart, so close I could  feel her breath on  my face  as
she spoke.
     "There is more to do, Nick," she said, slowly and quietly.
     "You don't know the full brief."
     I felt ridiculous. Very near the bottom of the food chain as usual, I'd
obviously been shown only one piece of a much bigger jigsaw puzzle.
     They'd justify it in terms of "need to know" or "op  sec," but the real
reason was that people like me and Glen simply weren't trusted.
     Just as I took a step back the silence was broken by shouting, then the
distinctive signature ofAKs on  auto, their heavy calibre  7.62 short rounds
flying around outside the building.
     "Shit.. . don't move!" Glen shouted into the room. We had gone noisy:
     not good. He left us and ran down the corridor. I closed the door.
     I could hear  the lighter sound of Car 15s returning fire, and  lots of
shouting, from our guys  as well as the Syrians.  It  didn't matter that the
Syrians could hear us shouting in English--there was now so much gunfire and
confusion  that  it  was  irrelevant--much  more important was  to  get  the
communications right.
     I tried to sound calm.
     "Sarah, time to go."
     She turned her back on me and carried on working. Our new friend on the
sofa was  getting more worried by the minute. I knew just how he felt. There
was another exchange of fire outside.
     "Fuck this, Sarah, we've got to go. Now!"
     She spun around, her face tight with anger.
     "Not yet." She almost  spat the words. She jabbed her finger toward the
direction of the contact as more rounds were fired.
     "That's what they're paid for. Let them  get on with it. Your job is to
stay with me, so do it."
     Glen was at the end of the  corridor, screaming to me at the top of his
     "Get them out! Get them out now!"
     I moved across the room  toward the  Source. He was curled into a ball,
like  a terrified child.  I grabbed his arm  and started to drag him off the
sofa. I hadn't even put on the plasticuffs.
     "Let's go, Sarah, we're .. .
     going ... now!"
     She turned, and as she did  I realized that she was drawing down on me,
her pistol  aimed at  my center mass. She stepped back so there was too much
distance for me to react to it.
     My new friend didn't  want anything to do with this. He just stood next
to me, his arm still half  elevated by my hand, gently and calmly praying in
a low Arabic moan as he waited to die.
     Sarah had had enough.
     "Sit him down." She said something in Arabic that must have been to the
effect  of "Shut  the fuck up!" because  he  jumped back  on  the sofa.  She
levelled her eyes on me again.
     "I'm  staying  here,  what  we  are  doing  here is  important.  Do you
     It doesn't matter who it  is, if somebody's pointing a  gun at you, you
get  to  understand  very  quickly.  Whatever  her  agenda was,  it  must be
     She turned calmly, bolstered  her weapon  and went back to work  on the
     I had one last try.
     "Can't we just take him, plus the computers, and fuck off?"
     She didn't even bother looking at me.
     "No. It has to be done this way."
     I couldn't  do both take  her and the  Source. I was  still working out
what to do when  I heard Arabic voices  inside the building. The best way to
do my job and protect her was to go forward, to get out of the room and stop
the threat before it came screaming in to get us.
     "I'm going outside," I said in an urgent whisper.
     "Don't  move  until somebody comes to get you. Do you understand me?" I
checked my mag was on tight as she looked  up from the  computer and sort of
     I put the Car  15 into my shoulder, and holding the pistol grip to keep
the weapon up, opened the door with my left hand.
     The  lights were still on  in the corridor and the  sounds of  contacts
were louder to  my right, but my immediate concern was the noises to my left
in  the  corridor. I decided to move down  to  the next junction and hold it
     that way there would be a weapon at each end with Sarah in the middle.
     I closed the door behind me and started to  run.  After seven  or eight
strides I was moving past an external door when it burst inward. The thud as
it hit me full-on was as hard and sudden as if I'd walked into the path of a
moving  car.  I was hurled against  the opposite  wall,  stunned and winded.
Worse, my weapon had been forced out of my hands. I had lost control of it.
     There was yelling on both sides; me from the pain, once I got my breath
back, and the Syrian from  the surprise. He jumped on top of me on the floor
and we grappled like a couple of schoolkids. I tried to get to the pistol on
my right thigh, but he had  me in a solid bear hug around my armpits. I  was
pinioned with my arms out like the Michelin Man.
     I tried to kick and buck out of position, then to head-butt him. He was
doing exactly the same. Both of us were screaming.
     The  bloke  stank.  He  had  a week's bristle on  him and  it was rough
against my  face  and neck as  he  squeezed and squeezed,  his  eyes closed,
snorting through  his nose as  he  cried  for  help. He  was  a big old boy,
packing over two hundred pounds of solid weight.
     I  needed  help,  too, and  screamed for  Sarah.  There was no way  she
couldn't  have heard me, but she didn't respond. I wasn't entirely sure what
this boy was trying  to do, whether he wanted to kill me, or if  he was just
fighting to protect himself.
     I yelled again.
     "Sarah! Sarah!"
     He responded by lifting his head slightly to scream out even louder. It
gave  me a momentary  window.  I  head-butted him,  trying  to make  contact
wherever I could. He did  the  same. Then something  happened that moved the
situation  on.  You  don't normally feel pain during a fight, but  I felt  a
stinging in my  left ear. His  teeth were  sinking in. I could actually hear
the skin break  and  then  the sound  of him straining  to bite harder.  The
fucker had a  gristly bit  of  my  ear lobe in his mouth and was starting to
pull his head back.
     I felt the capillary bleeding at once, warm and wet, splashing the side
of my cheek as his heavy breathing spat it out. He was in a frenzy, growling
at me through clenched  teeth, snot and saliva. I was still trying to get my
hands  down  toward my leg so I could reach my  pistol, which wasn't helping
keep my ear intact.
     I  managed to get my legs around his gut. I tried to squeeze, but could
only just about get my feet together. I felt the snorting from his nose move
away from my face slightly, which wasn't good news for my ear. Then his head
jerked  back,  taking part  of the  lobe  with him.  The  pain  felt  like a
blowtorch on the side of my head, but now that he'd moved back a bit I could
start to get my hands around his head. I could see the blood on his face and
snot  running  down from  his  nose  as  he fought  to breathe  through  his
still-gritted teeth. My fingers reached his eyes and he squeezed me up  even
more, shaking his head and screaming  as I  began to get a  good hold on his
face and dig deeper with my thumbs. He tried to bite my fingers.
     I moved  my right hand so I had a flat palm underneath  his  chin, then
switched my  left  to just below the crown of his head and grabbed a fistful
of his hair.
     You can't just  whip a head around to break  someone's neck. The design
is too  good for that.  What  you have to do is screw it off, as if you were
untwisting the cap on ajar. You're trying to take the head off at the atlas,
the small joint  at the base  of the skull. It's  relatively easy if  you're
doing  it  against somebody  who's  standing,  because  if you  get them off
balance, their body is  going  down and you can twist  and turn  at the same
time, so their  momentum  works against them. But I couldn't do that; all  I
could do was keep my legs around him and try to keep him in one place.
     I managed to get my boots interlocked, and  at last I could squeeze and
push down with my legs, at the same time twisting up with my arms as hard as
I could. I  kept  on turning as we both  screamed at each other.  The fucker
didn't like it; he knew what was going on, but fortunately for me he was too
old and too fat to do much about it.
     His neck went without too much of a crack.  He slumped  down, and there
wasn't much noise coming from him; there wasn't even a body jerk.
     He just  went  very  still. My hands  were covered  in blood,  snot and
saliva. I rolled over and kicked him off.
     My weapon was only about five  feet away. I  picked  it up  and checked
that the magazine was on tight, and that I still had a round in the chamber.
     I started to  move  back  to Sarah, then stopped. I  ran  back  to  the
     I  could  hear  firing again,  and people screaming  and shouting, both
Brits and Arabs, maybe just thirty meters away. It's funny how these details
take a back seat when you're worrying about other things.
     I scrabbled around and eventually  found  the piece of my ear still  in
his mouth. I couldn't be assed trying to stop the bleeding on the side of my
head  because  I  knew it wouldn't; capillary bleeding goes on  forever.  It
would sort itself out. But I would want to get the severed bit sewn back on.
It  wouldn't be too good with a chunk missing because I'd have a VDM (visual
distinguishing mark);  but worse than  that, I knew a couple of people  with
bits of  their ear missing, and it looked fucking ugly. The only alternative
was to have a 1980s Kevin Keegan haircut to cover it up.
     I got back to the room and banged on the door.
     "Sarah, it's me. I'm coming in, I'm coming in."
     Glen  was still at the end of the corridor.  When he heard  my voice he
shouted, "Come on, for rack's sake! Drag her fucking ass out... now!"
     He was right.
     Enough was enough, we were all going to die here soon.
     I pushed the door open and Sarah was still standing over one of the PCs
with her laptop plugged into some other shit. I looked over at the Source.
     He was sitting in  the same position  I'd  left  him in, as if he  were
watching  the TV A  small amount  of blood was trickling from  a hole in his
shirt, but it was the one in  the front of his head that gave the game away.
Blood was oozing out like lava flow. The back of his head lolled against the
sofa; it had ballooned  out  slightly,  but  the skin  was  keeping all  the
fragmented  bone  in  place.  It  looked like a car windshield  that's  been
punched;  the glass goes  out  in the shape of a fist,  but it's still  held
together.  Blood  and gooey  gray  tissue were dribbling onto the sofa.  You
didn't have to  be  George Clooney to know this boy wouldn't be surfing  the
net anymore.
     Not even looking  at me as she manipulated  the keyboard, she said, "He
tried to attack me. But he is happy God would have sent him seqina."
     She knew I  wouldn't  have  a  clue what she  was on about,  and added,
     I looked at  him  again. He hadn't moved from  where he'd been when I'd
left the room  and there was no look of tranquility  on  his face. He hadn't
attacked her. So what; as  if I gave  a fuck.  It was probably  part of  the
alternative brief she'd  been  given.  AK fire  called  me back to the  real
     "Come on, let's go. Now, Sarah!"
     "No." She shook her head.
     "I'm going to be a few seconds more."
     The incendiary devices were still on the table. One of my jobs,  unless
she was going to tell me that had changed, too, was to destroy any equipment
on target.
     She hit the final key.
     "OK, we can go." She started to pack herself up.
     I went to  the sofa, pulled the  Source away and let him roll onto  the
floor.  Picking up one end of  the sofa and dragging it  across the room,  I
leaned  it  against  the bench of computers.  I got the  wastepaper  basket,
scattered the contents on the bench top and added a rug from the floor and a
couple of  chairs.  I wanted  as  much flammable  stuff as possible near the
     I said, "Are you sure you're ready now?"
     It  was the first time  she'd  looked  at me since  I'd returned to the
room.  I saw her studying the red mess on the side of  my head. I pulled the
pin of the first device and positioned it on the table between two VDUs. The
handle flew off, and by the  time the  last  one was placed two were already
burning fiercely. I could feel the heat, even through my jump suit.
     I ditched  the bergen; everything I  needed now was in my belt kit. The
air was filling with the noxious black fumes of burning  plastic. I  grabbed
hold of Sarah,  who had her repacked  bergen slung  over  her shoulders, and
headed for the door. I opened  it a  couple of  inches and  shouted to Glen,
"Coming through! Coming through!"
     He yelled back, "Shut the fuck up and run! Run!"
     I  didn't  look left or right, just ran for  the door by the same route
we'd come in. Within less than a minute I was in the cold night air, my eyes
peeled  for  the gap  in the  fence. It was pointless worrying about getting
shot; I just ran in a stoop  to make as small  a target as possible, keeping
Sarah in front of me.
     I  caught a glimpse of Glen behind me, plus another bloke still farther
back. They followed  as we sprinted  toward the fence, rounds thudding  into
the  ground around us. The  Syrians were firing far too  many  rounds in one
burst and couldn't control their aim.
     Reg 1 pulled open one half of the upside-down V Sarah slid into the gap
like a baseball player going for base. I prepared  to do the same.  I caught
up with her as her slide stopped on the other side and kicked her out of the
way so I wasn't blocking the gap for the other two.
     "Move! Move!" I expected them to do the same to me. Nothing happened.
     Reg 1 had already seen the reason why: "Man down! Man down!"
     Looking back through the gloom, I could see a shape on the ground about
twenty meters  away. Whoever was  with him already  had his hand in his loop
and  was  trying to  drag  him  toward the fence.  Each of us  was wearing a
harness,  a large loop made  of nylon strapping between our  shoulder blades
with which a downed body could be dragged or hooked up to a heli winch for a
quick extraction.
     "Stay here don't move!"  I could see  from Sarah's  expression that for
once she was going to do as she was told.
     I ran out to the dragger, and between us we pulled Glen toward the hole
in the fence line. He was moaning and groaning like a drunk.
     "Shit, I'm down, I'm down."
     Good. If he was talking, he was breathing.
     I could see that the legs of his coveralls were shining with blood, but
we'd have to look at that later. The first priority was to get him, and  us,
out of the immediate area.
     I  slid through  the  fence,  turned  on my  knees, got hold of  Glen's
harness and dragged him through the gap. Sarah said and did nothing. Her bit
was done; she was way  out of  her depth now. Reg 1 and 2 were  waiting with
her;  the  other  two  patrol  members were giving  covering  fire  from the
olive-grove side of the fence as  we  moved toward them, letting  off double
taps at anything that moved.  They needed  to conserve ammo; we  didn't have
Hollywood mags.
     Reg 1 was shouting commands.
     "Move back to the FRV, move back."
     He  had  a  sat  comm  out,  its miniature  transmission dish  pointing
skyward, telling the world that we  were in the shit. I  didn't know who  he
was talking to, but it certainly made me feel better.
     Every other  man carried a poncho stretcher a big  sheet of green nylon
with loop  handles as part of  his kit. Reg  2  laid his on  the ground as I
removed  Glen's  belt  kit and  bergen and put it on  my  back.  So much for
traveling light. As we rolled him  onto the stretcher he was still conscious
but, if he hadn't already, he'd soon go into shock.
     It was  then  that I heard an ominous slurping noise  in time  with his
breathing. He  had a sucking wound to his chest: air was being sucked inside
his  chest cavity instead  of going through his mouth. It was going  to need
sorting  out  quickly because  otherwise  the fucker was  history. But there
wasn't enough time to  do it here  that way we'd all die. We'd  have to wait
until we  reached the FRY Reg 2 heard the noise, too. Grasping Glen's  hand,
he placed it on his chest.
     "Plug it  up, mate."  He wasn't that out of it, he understood  what  he
needed to do. With a chest wound we couldn't give him morphine; he was going
to have to take the pain.
     Two of us got  hold  of him, one on either side of the  stretcher,  and
started to hobble along with him as quickly  as we could, Sarah following at
my heels. I didn't look at what was going on behind us, but I heard the rate
of covering fire from Reg 1 and 2 step up as we moved off.
     We  hit the tree line, Glen's moans distorted by the jolting as we ran.
We  got farther  into the grove, and only  then moved  to  the right,  under
     He  was  still conscious and breathing  noisily as  we laid him  on his
     The  light from the target area was just enough to see my hands  moving
as they worked on him. There was no need to worry about clearing his airway,
but his hand had fallen from his chest. I put my hand over the wound to form
a seal.  Hopefully, with  his  chest now  airtight,  normal breathing  would
return. I  could  see the anguish in  his  eyes. His throat spluttered as he
coughed and fought the pain.
     "What's it like? What's it like? Oh, shit."
     He screwed up  his face even  more as Reg 2 moved him.  It  was a  good
sign: he could still feel it, his senses hadn't given way yet.
     Reg 2 finished checking him.
     "No exit wound."
     First you've got to plug the  leaks, then you  have to put in  fluid to
replace what's been  lost.  I watched as  Reg 2 grabbed the  field dressings
from Glen's belt kit and ripped them open. You always use the casualty's own
dressings; you might need yours later. The packaging  was  Israeli, but they
looked the  same  as  ours,  like big fat sanitary  napkins with  a  bandage
attached.  Their job,  in  any language, is  to  block  up  wounds and  stop
bleeding by the application of direct pressure.
     A round from  an  AK had  also ripped through the  muscle  mass on  his
thigh,  like a butcher's knife slicing  open a  side of beef. He  was losing
blood fast. Reg 2 started to cavity-pack the wound.
     The downside of Glen still breathing was that we couldn't shut him up.
     Over and over he groaned, "What's it like? What's it like?"
     I  looked down  at him. He was covered in sweat, and the dust had caked
onto his face.
     "Shut the fuck up," I said.
     "It's nothing, we'll fix it." You should never  let a casualty  see you
looking concerned.
     Sarah  was  several  paces behind me,  watching  the route  we had just
taken, weapon out. I half whispered, half shouted, "Sarah! Come here!"
     She moved toward  me. I said, "Put the heel of your hand over this hole
when I take mine off, OK?"
     He was losing consciousness. Close  to his ear,  I said, "It's  OK, you
can speak to me now." There was no response.
     "Oi,  come  on, speak to me,  you fucker!" I  pulled on his  sideburns.
     I pulled up the left  sleeve  of his coveralls to expose  the  six-inch
band  of tubigrip on  his forearm. Underneath that was the catheter, already
inserted in a vein  before we moved on the target. You'd  have to be mad not
to;  a bit of anticoagulant in the  catheter to stop the blood from clotting
and it will last for a good twenty-four hours. You are a bit sore afterward,
but it will save your life. It's hard  to get a vein up to insert a catheter
once you've lost fluid, especially under fire and in darkness.
     Reg 2 had nearly finished packing the thigh wound.  It  would have been
no good just piling bandages on top, because the muscle underneath was still
going to bleed. You have  to really pack the cavity, keeping direct pressure
on the wound, and  that, in turn,  will stop the bleeding. That done, he now
needed fluid.
     Glen's breathing was very rapid and shallow, which wasn't a good sign.
     I felt the pulse on his neck; same problem there. His heart was working
overtime to circulate what fluid was left around his body.
     Shots were now being fired at us  from about a  hundred meters away but
all my attention was focused on Glen.
     Reg 2 shouted at Sarah.
     "Watch him  and tell  us if his breathing starts to slow down. Got it?"
She nodded and started to take notice.
     I  pulled  the  plasma  expander from  his  belt  kit, a  clear-plastic
half-liter container  shaped like  a liquid soap bottle. I ripped it out  of
its  Israeli plastic wrapper and threw that  on  the ground. I  bit  off the
little cap that kept the neck of the bottle sterile. Fuck hygiene infections
could be sorted out in  hospital.  Let's keep him alive so he can get to one
     By now I also had his IV set out of its protective plastic coating, and
was  biting  off the cap  to the spearhead connector and jabbing it into the
self-sealing neck of the bottle. I undid  the screw clamp, took off the  end
cap and watched  as the fluid  ran through the line. I heard  it splash onto
Glen's face. He didn't react. Bad sign. Rolling the  screw clamp on  to stop
the flow, I  wasn't concerned  about air bubbles in the line; a small amount
doesn't matter  certainly not  in these  circumstances. Let's  just  get the
fluid in.
     There was more gunfire from the target area, too close for comfort, and
for the  first  time since we'd been in the trees our blokes fired back. The
Syrians had found us.
     Reg 1 was still in command. He was down at the tree line waiting for us
to sort Glen out.
     "How much longer up there?"
     Reg 2 called back.
     "Two minutes, mate, two minutes. I need your fluids."
     As he jumped up with his weapon to collect the  kit I unscrewed the end
cap of the catheter and screwed the IV set into it.
     Sarah was still plugging the hole. I  could hear  her breathing quickly
in my ear as she leaned over Glen.
     "Nick, listen to me. Let's leave them to it, let's go."
     She was right, of course. The two of us would stand a far better chance
on our own.
     I  ignored her and  carried  on working  on Glen,  gently squeezing the
bottle to get the fluid into him. She whispered, a  bit more urgently, "Come
on, we need to go now, Nick. Remember, this is what they get paid for.
     And you are paid to protect me."
     Glen had to be dangerously low  on fluids, but he  was  still conscious
     "Sarah, pass me your fluid, quick."
     She used her free hand to pull the bergen straps off her back to get to
     The  first bottle was  now empty.  I turned off  the IV with the  screw
     Sarah had her fluid in her hand. I said, "Open it."
     I heard her ripping  the plastic  with her teeth as  I  pulled off  the
empty  bottle. She handed it  over. The sound of gunfire was still very much
in the background.
     Reg 2 came back, packs of fluid pushed down the front of his jump suit,
panting as he collapsed on  the ground next to  us. I jabbed the  new bottle
into the set and opened up the screw cap. Reg 2 was studying Glen.
     All  of a  sudden he  shouted,  "Fuck, fuck,  fuck!" and  leaned  over,
grabbing Sarah's hand and lifting it.
     There was a  sound  like a rush of air escaping from the valve of a car
tire and a fine geyser of  blood sprayed  in  all directions. The round must
have pierced his lung, and as he breathed  in, the oxygen was  escaping from
the lung  and going into the chest cavity. The pressure had built up so much
in  his chest  that his  lungs  hadn't been  able  to  expand  and his heart
couldn't  function properly. That  was why Sarah  had to  watch  and listen,
because  the pressure on the heart and  lungs  would make  him breathe  much
slower than he needed.
     Reg 2 went ballistic, still gripping her arm.
     "Fucking bitch! Fuck you.
     Do it right! What are you trying to do? Kill him?"
     She said  nothing  as  the air gush subsided. Then,  very  calmly,  she
reminded him who was boss.
     "Let go of my arm at once and get on with your job."
     Reg 2 placed  Sarah's  hand  back over  the wound. Glen was just  about
conscious but still losing blood internally. Reg 2 got right up to his face,
"Show you can hear me, mate ... show me ..." There was no reply.
     "We're going to move you, mate. Not long now before we're out of  here.
OK? OK?" All he got in reply was a low moan. At least there was a reply.
     Reg 2 had to turn  him to check the  leg dressing. Blood started to run
out of the  hole and down Sarah's fingers.  She looked at me, pissed off, as
another fluid set was being connected. She wanted out of here.
     The others were rolling into  the FRY out of  breath and confused about
what had happened.
     "Is  everyone  here?"  Reg 1 counted. He came over  to us and looked at
     "Is he ready to go?"
     Reg 2, still looking at  the casualty, said, "I think we're just  about
to find out." Using one of the  large safety  pins that came with  the field
dressings, he pinned Glen's tongue to his bottom lip. Glen was out of it; he
couldn't feel a thing. The danger was that, in  a state of  unconsciousness,
his tongue would roll back and block his airway.
     I turned to Sarah as  they sorted their shit out for the next phase and
whispered in her ear, "Our best chance  now is with these boys. If you don't
want to come, that's fine, but you leave the bergen. I'll take it back."
     The  look on her face said she knew she had no choice. She wasn't going
to leave; she couldn't do it without me.
     Reg 2 placed one of the ripped plastic coverings over the wound to seal
it better and instructed Sarah, "Get your hand back on that." He and another
Reg picked up  the casualty. Reg 2 kept the bottle high for the fluid to run
freely by holding the hanging loop in his mouth.
     It  wasn't a tactical move to the wagons, it was  a case of getting out
of there as fast as we could, bearing in mind the weight of the casualty and
his comfort. I didn't know what was going on behind me, back  at  the target
area, and I didn't really care.
     We reached the vehicles about thirty minutes later. I grabbed Sarah and
took her  to one side. There was  no point getting  involved  in what  these
blokes  were  doing; we were just  passengers. That wasn't  good  enough for
     "Come on," she hissed, "why aren't we moving yet?"
     I pointed at the rear Previa. They had got  the back door open and were
pulling the seats down to create a flat space for  Glen. Looking beyond them
I noticed  that the town was still dark. I  was  right, the industrial units
must have had emergency power.
     The  driver of  our  vehicle retrieved  the key, opened  the  door  and
motioned us inside. Another of the team  got in the  front. He  leaned  back
toward us.
     "As soon  as they're ready we're  going  to  move to the ERV (Emergency
     We were sitting in darkness,  the driver with  his NVGs  on. There  was
tension in the air; we needed to get going. If not, it wouldn't just be Glen
who'd be in the shit. I didn't talk to Sarah; I didn't even look at her.
     At  last, the other  vehicle  started  to  move  off  slowly  and  ours
maneuvered in  front of it and took  the lead. It  wasn't long before we hit
the metal led road. Behind us headlights came on, and Sarah took this as her
cue to get out her laptop. A few seconds later she was going shit or bust on
the  keyboard. The screen  glowed in the  darkness, lighting up her  sweaty,
dirty face. My eyes moved to  the maps,  diagrams and Arabic script in front
of  her,  none  of  which  meant  anything  to  me,  and  then  down  at her
well-manicured  fingers  that were  tapping  away furiously on the  keys and
smearing them with Glen's blood.
     We  drove like  men possessed for  twenty  minutes. Then,  after an NVG
drive into the desert with IR filters on the wagons' lights for another ten,
we stopped.
     Apart from  the  engine gently ticking over  and  the noise of  Sarah's
fingers hitting the  keys and her mumbling the Arab script she was  reading,
there was silence. A beeping noise came from the laptop. She muttered, "Fuck
it!" Her battery was running out.
     There  were shouts from the  other Previa. Somebody was working hard on
Glen, yelling at him, trying to get a response. Silence was obviously out of
the question  now. It's hard  to be quiet when you're fighting to keep a man
     The driver looked at his watch after about five minutes. He  opened the
door  and  shouted, "Lights!"  then  started  to flash  the wagon' sIR light
between dipped and full beam as he hit the Firefly  and stuck it out  of the
window. Even as this was  being said, I started to hear a throbbing noise in
the  distance, and  less  than a  minute  later  the sky was filled with the
steady,  ponderous beat  of an incoming Chinook.  The noise became deafening
and  stones clattered against  the  windshield and  body  work as the Previa
rocked  under the downwash from the rotor blades. The pilot wouldn't be able
to see the  vehicles or the ground now due  to  all the  sand  and  crap his
rotors were throwing up.
     A few seconds later a figure loomed out of the dust storm, bent double,
his flying  suit whipping around  him. He flashed a red light at us and  the
driver shouted, "That's it, let's go."
     Our  vehicle  edged  forward.  We  drove for  several  yards  into  the
maelstrom of wind and dust before things started to calm down. Red and white
Cyalume  sticks glowed around the open ramp and the interior  was bathed  in
red  light.  Three loadies wearing shoulder holsters, body armor and helmets
with  the visors down  were beckoning to us urgently with a Cyalume stick in
each hand. As if we needed any encouragement.
     Our  Previa  bumped up the  ramp  as  if  we  were driving onto a cross
Channel  ferry, and  one of the loadies  signaled  us to a stop.  The  other
vehicle lurched in behind us, and as soon as it had cleared the ramp I could
feel the aircraft start to lift off its hydraulic suspension. Moments later,
we were in a hover.
     We  swayed  to  the left and right as the pilot sorted his shit out and
the toadies  lashed down  the tires with chains. Hertz was  going  to be one
very pissed-off rental company.
     We were no more than sixty feet off the ground when  I felt the nose of
the Chinook dip as we started to move off and turn to the right.
     Chaos  erupted  inside  the  aircraft.  The  Regs  spilled  from  their
vehicles,  shouting  at  the  loadies, "White  light!  Give us white light!"
Somebody  hit  the switch,  and  all of a  sudden it  was like standing on a
floodlit football field.
     The inside of the other wagon  looked like  a scene out of ER. Glen was
still on his back, but  they'd ripped  open  the front  of  his coveralls to
expose the chest wound. Blood was everywhere, even over the windows.
     Reg 2 ran over to a lo adie who was  still at the heli ramp checking it
had closed  up  correctly. He shouted as loudly as he could against the side
of the guy's helmet and pointed to the rear wagon.
     "Trauma pack! Get the trauma pack!"
     The lo adie  took one look  at the bloodied  windows, disconnected  the
intercom lead from his helmet and sprinted toward the front of the heli.
     Everybody  had a job to do; mine was simply  to get out  of the way.  I
left Sarah sitting  in the  back  of our  Previa sorting out her laptop, and
moved to the front of the Chinook. I knew where the flasks and food would be
stowed and, if nothing else, I could be the tea lady.
     As I  moved to the front of the aircraft I met the  lo adie  on his way
back with the trauma pack, a black nylon bag the size of a small suitcase. I
stepped to one side and watched him open the bag as he ran, bouncing off the
front wagon and airframe as he momentarily lost his balance.
     At that  moment Sarah  jumped out between us with the laptop  and power
lead in her hands. She was shouting at him, "Power! I need power!"
     He went to push her aside, yelling, "Get out of the fucking way!"
     "No!" She shook her head angrily and put her hand on him.
     He shouted something back at her; I didn't know what because he was now
facing away from me, pointing toward the front of the aircraft.
     She moved quickly past me  toward the cockpit, so bound up with her own
obsession  that  she  didn't even see me. I  continued  on, heading for  the
bulkhead behind the cockpit. I picked up  one of the aluminium flasks, which
was held in place by elastic cargo netting, and started to untwist  the cup.
Coffee, not tea, and it had never smelled so good.
     As I turned and started to walk  down toward  the rear Previa, flask in
hand, I could hear them,  even above the  noise of  the heli,  shouting with
frustration.  Two drips were being held up and a circle of sweaty, dusty and
bloodstained faces was working on him. As I got closer I could see they were
rigging him up in shock  trousers. They're like thick ski pants that come up
past  your hips  and  are  pumped up to apply pressure  to the  lower limbs,
stemming blood loss  by restricting the supply  and so keeping more blood to
rev  up the  major organs. It  was a delicate procedure,  because  too  much
pressure could kill him.
     Reg 2 looked as if he was on the  case big time. He was  holding Glen's
jaw open, breathing into his mouth with the safety pin still in place. I was
close enough  to see  his chest rise.  Someone had his  hand over  the chest
wound, ready to depressurize. Once Reg 2  had finished inflating his lungs a
few times he shouted, "Go!" Another was astride  him, both arms outstretched
and open hands on top of each other on his chest.
     "One, two, three..."
     There  was  obviously  no pulse  and  Glen  wasn't  breathing.  He  was
technically dead. They were filling him up with oxygen by breathing into his
mouth, then pumping his heart for  him, while  simultaneously trying to make
sure that no more of his fluid escaped from any of the  holes he had in him.
Glen's chest was just a mess of blood-matted hair.
     The team was  going  to  be  too busy to drink  coffee, so with nothing
useful to  do  I  pulled up  my  left  sleeve and peeled back  the tubigrip.
Ripping off the  surgical  tape holding  the  catheter in place, I carefully
pulled it out, pressing down on  the  puncture wound with a finger  until it
     I looked around for Sarah.  She was in a world other own,  sitting near
where the coffee  flasks were  stowed. She'd found the  power  point and  an
adaptor that fed a two-pin plug, and her fingers were tapping frantically at
the keyboard once more.
     I looked back at Glen. There was still  lots of  shouting and hollering
going on in there; I just hoped that whatever was on that computer was worth
     I  looked out of  one of the small round windows and saw lights on  the
coastline. We had a bowser inside the Chinook, feeding extra fuel. It looked
like this was a  direct  flight  and  that we were on  for tea  and toast in
Cyprus later that morning. I took a sip of coffee.
     As we crossed the coast and  headed out to  sea,  I  stared  out of the
window, my mind starting  to focus on the  deep sound of the two  big rotors
throbbing above us.  I was cut out of the daze by a  despairing shout: "Fuck
it! Fuck it!"
     I looked up in  time to see the bloke who'd  been  astride Glen's chest
climbing down slowly onto the deck, his  body language telling me everything
I needed to know. He swung his boot and kicked the vehicle hard, denting the
     I turned my head and  stared back out of the window. We were flying low
and fast across  the  water.  There  wasn't a light  to be seen.  My ear was
hurting.  I reached into my pocket and  checked around for the  lobe.  I sat
there  toying  with  it, thinking  how strange it was, just a small  lump of
     Hopefully they'd stitch it on all right--but what did it matter how bad
I looked? I was alive.
     I stood up and went over to Sarah. It was my job to look after her, and
that included  keeping  her informed of what was going  on.  She  was  still
immersed in her laptop.
     I said, "Sarah, he's dead."
     She carried on tapping keys. She didn't even look up to see me offering
her a flask top of coffee.
     I kicked her feet.
     "Sarah ... Glen is dead." She finally turned her  eyes  and said,  "Oh,
OK," then looked straight back down and carried on with her work.
     I looked at her hands. Glen's blood  had now dried hard on them and she
didn't give a  shit. If it hadn't been for her fucking about and not telling
us that the job  wasn't as straightforward as we were first told, maybe he'd
still  be here, a big fucking grin on his face. Maybe Reg 2 was right, maybe
she  had been trying to kill Glen  at the FRY  She knew  that  I would  have
binned the patrol and gone with her if he wasn't still in with a chance.
     The  team  were  sitting against the wagon, opening flasks and lighting
up, leaving Glen exactly as he was.  We'd all been doing what we got paid to
do. Shit happens. This wasn't going to change  their lives,  and I certainly
wasn't going to let it change mine.
     As  Sarah carried on  hitting her  computer  keys  I drank  coffee  and
watched  the line of the  Cyprus coast  appear, trying to work out  what the
fuck I was doing here.
     Three gallons a day, that's your lot," the bosun barked.
     "But two gallons have  to go to  the cook,  so there's one gallon--I'll
tell ye again, just one gallon--left over for drinking, washing and anything
else ye  need  it for.  Anyone  caught taking more will be flogged.  So will
gamblers, cheats and malingerers. We don't like malingerers in Her Majesty's
     We were lined up on either side of the deck, listening to the bosun gob
bing  off about  our  water ration. I  was trying not to catch Josh's eye; I
knew I'd burst into a fit of laughter that Kelly wouldn't find amusing.
     There were  about  twenty of us "new crew," mostly kids, all dressed in
the  standard-issue  sixteenth-century sailors' kit:  a hessian  jerkin  and
shirt,  with  trousers that stopped about  a foot short of the trainers we'd
been  instructed  to  bring  with  us. We  were aboard  the  Golden  Hind, a
fullsized  reconstruction of  the  ship  in  which  Sir  Francis  Drake  had
circumnavigated the  globe  between 1577 and 1580.  This version,  too,  had
sailed around  the world,  and film  companies had used it as a  location so
often it  had  had  more make  overs than  Joan Collins.  And now it was  in
permanent dock serving, as Kelly called  it in  her very American way, as an
"edutainment" attraction.  She was standing to my right, very excited  about
her birthday treat,  even if it was a few days late. She was now nine, going
on twenty-four.
     "See, I told you this would be good!" I beamed.
     She didn't reply, but  kept her eyes fixed on the bosun. He was dressed
the same as us, but was allowed  to  wear a hat--on account of all the extra
responsibility, I supposed.
     "Ye slimey lot  have  been  hand-picked for a  voyage  with Sir Francis
Drake, aboard this, the finest ship in the fleet, the Golden Hind}" His eyes
fixed on  those of  each  child as he passed  them  on  the  other  line. He
reminded me of my very first drill sergeant when I was a boy soldier.
     I looked over at Josh  and his gang, who were on the  receiving end  of
his tirade. Joshua G. D'Souza was thirty-eightish,  five  feet  six  inches,
and, thanks to being into weights, about two hundred pounds of muscle.
     Even his head  looked like a bicep; he was 99 percent bald, and a razor
blade and moisturizer  had  taken care of  the other  1 percent. His  round,
gold-rimmed glasses made him look somehow more menacing than intellectual.
     Josh  was half  black, half  Puerto Rican, though  he'd  been  born  in
Dakota. I couldn't really work that  one out, but nor could I be bothered to
ask. Joining  up as a teenager, he'd  done a few  years in the 82nd Airborne
and then Special Forces. In his late twenties he'd joined  the U.S. Treasury
Department  as  a member of  their Secret Service, in  time  working on  the
vice-presidential protection team in Washington. He lived near Kelly's dad's
place, and he and Kev had met, not through work, but because their kids  had
gone to the same school.
     Josh had his  three standing next to him, working hard at understanding
the bosun's accent. They were  on their last leg of  a whistle stop tour  of
Europe during  their Easter vacation. Kelly and I had collected them off the
Paris  Eurostar just  the day before; they  were going  to spend a  few days
seeing the sights with  us before heading back to D.C." and Kelly was really
hyper. I was pleased about that; it was the first time she'd seen them since
"what  happened"--as we  called it--over a year ago. All things  considered,
she was doing pretty well at the moment and getting on with her life.
     The bosun had turned back and was moving up our line.
     "Ye  will be learning gun  drills, ye will be learning how  to set sail
and repel boarders.
     But best  of all, ye'll  be hunting for treasure  and  singing sailors'
     The crew was encouraged to respond with their best sailor-type cries.
     All of a sudden, competition for the loudest noise came  from the siren
of a tourist  boat  passing on the river, and  the  bark of its horn, as the
first sailing of the day "did" London Bridge.
     I glanced  down  at  Kelly. She was quivering  with excitement.  I  was
enjoying myself, too, but I felt just  a  bit weird standing  there in fancy
dress in  full public view, aboard a ship docked on the south side of London
Bridge. At this time of the morning, there were still office workers walking
along the narrow cobblestoned  road that paralleled the Thames,  dodging the
delivery  vans and  taxis on their way to work. The trains that had got them
this  far were slowly trundling along the elevated  tracks about 200  meters
away, making their way toward the river.
     The pub next to  the ship,  the  Olde Thameside  Inn, was  one of those
places that supposedly dates from Shakespeare's day but which, in  fact, was
built maybe ten years earlier on one of the converted  wharves that line the
river. The office  crowd, plastic  cups  and cigarettes in hand, were making
the  most of the  morning sun  on the terrace overlooking the  water, having
picked up their late breakfast from the coffee shop.
     I was hauled back to  the  sixteenth century. The bosun had stopped and
was glaring theatrically at Kelly.
     "Are you a malingerer?"
     "No  sir, no  sir!" She  pushed herself  into my  side  a  bit more for
     She was still a bit anxious about strangers, especially adult men.
     The bosun grinned.
     "Well, seeing as you're a special crew, and I know you're going to work
hard, I'm going to let you have your rations. You'll be getting some special
sailors' nuggets and Coke." He spun around, his hands in the air.
     "What do you say?"
     The kids went bonkers: "Aye aye, sir!"
     "That's not good enough!" he bellowed.
     "What do you say?"

     The  kids were  shepherded by the  bosun and the  rest of the permanent
crew toward the tables of food.
     "Small sailors first," he ordered.
     "The tall sailors who brought you here can wait their turn."
     Kelly ran over to Josh's three--two  girls, Dakota and  Kimberly,  aged
eleven and nine, and a boy, Tyce, who was eight. Their skin was lighter than
Josh's--their mother was white--but they  looked just like their dad, except
they still had all their hair. Which was a good thing, I thought.
     Josh and I turned and looked out over the deck toward the Thames.
     Josh waved back at  some tourists who were waving from the boat, either
at us or at the coffee morning still going strong to our left.
     "How is she coping?" he asked.
     "Getting  better,  mate, but  the shrink  says  it'll  take time.  It's
affected her  schooling big time, she's way behind.  The last lot  of grades
were shit.
     She's an intelligent girl, but she's like a big bucket with  holes, all
the information's going in, but it just drips out again."
     "You think about what she's been through,  man, for sure it's  going to
take some time."
     We  turned to  see all four  of the kids throwing  chicken nuggets down
their necks.  It was a strange choice for breakfast, but then again, I liked
choc ice  cream and fries first thing in the morning when I was a  kid.  The
elder daughter  wasn't  getting  on with Tyce today and Josh had to do a dad
     "Hey, Kimberly, chill! Let Tyce have his Coke--now!"
     Kimberly didn't  look too happy but obeyed. Josh turned back toward the
river, took off his gold-rimmed glasses and gave them a wipe.
     "She looks happy enough, that's a good sign."
     "It's  the  best  she's been for  ages. She's  slightly nervous  around
adults,  but with her friends she's OK. It means so much for her to see your
     Besides, it gives her  a rest  from me." I couldn't bring myself to say
that I found it wonderful to see him as well. I hoped he knew anyway.
     We both looked out over  the river with not a  lot to say. He broke the
     "How's the job? Are you on permanent cadre yet?"
     I shook my head.
     "I don't think it  will ever happen. They know  I was involved in a lot
more of the Washington stuff than  I let on." It  pissed  me off,  because I
needed a regular  income  these days.  I had the money I'd rescued from last
year's gang-fuck, but that wouldn't last forever. I grinned.
     "Maybe  I could  turn  to crime. Couldn't be worse  than the shit  I do
     He frowned, not sure if I was being serious or not, and tilted his head
in  the  direction of the huddle of small sailors, as if to remind  me of my
responsibilities. He put his specs back on and focused on a black  guy in an
old, shiny blue tracksuit  who had  set up shop  at the  corner  of the pub,
selling the Big Issue and chatting up the women walking past.
     "It's OK for you," I said.
     "We  don't have a training wing where I can go and put  my feet up  and
still  get paid." I thought Josh was going to give me a lecture, so I put my
hands up.
     "OK, I surrender. I will sort my shit out-one day."
     In a way,  I had sorted myself--a bit. With the money I'd diverted from
the  Washington job,  300,000  once the  dollars were  converted, I'd bought
myself a house up on the Norfolk coast in the middle of nowhere. The village
had a co-op on the corner and that was about  it; a traffic jam was when the
three fishing boats came into the harbor  and their vans arrived at the same
time to take  the catch  away.  Otherwise, the  busiest it got  was when the
postman  rang his bell as  he was  going around  the corner. I  didn't  know
anyone;  they didn't  know  me.  If  anything,  they  all had me down as  an
international drug dealer or  some weirdo. I kept myself to myself, and that
suited everybody just fine.
     I'd  bought  a  motorbike, too.  At last I  had the Ducati  I'd  always
promised myself,  and  I  even  had  a garage to  put it  in. But  what  was
left--about 150,000--wasn't enough to retire on, so I still had to work--and
I knew only one trade. Maybe that was why Josh and I got on; he was much the
same as me, running  his life like a conjuror, trying to keep all the plates
spinning on top of their poles. His plates weren't  spinning  so well at the
moment. Now that Geri  had gone,  one income  wasn't enough, and he'd had to
put the house up for sale.
     Josh had  had a tucker of a year. First his wife had got  into yoga and
all that  mind-body-spirit stuff, then she'd ended up going to Canada to hug
trees--or, more precisely, to  hug the yoga teacher. Josh and  the kids were
shattered. Something had  to give. He could no longer  travel away from home
with  the vice-presidential crew, so he became one of the training team  out
in Laurel, Maryland. It  was a very grand-sounding outfit-Special Operations
Training  Section--but  a shit job for a man  who was used to  being in  the
thick of things. Then, two months after  his wife left him, his friends Kev,
Marsha and their other child, Aida, were hosed down, and he  found he was an
executor  of  the will--along with some dickhead Brit  he'd  never heard  of
called Nick Stone.
     Between  us we looked after Kelly's  trust fund, and  we'd been  having
some problems  selling  the family  home.  When it came down to  it, who was
going  to buy a house where a whole family  had been butchered? The property
company was trying to pull a sleazy  deal so it could get the land back. The
insurance  companies had  been trying to  give Kelly a lump sum  instead  of
making  regular payments, because it was cheaper for  them. The  only people
getting any money  were the lawyers. There was something about it  all  that
reminded me of my divorce.
     I turned to him.
     "It is good to see you, mate."
     He looked back and smiled.
     "Same here, mate." His piss-taking accent sounded more Australian  than
English. Maybe they got Neighbors in his part of Virginia, too.
     There was really nothing more to  be  said.  I liked Josh and we  had a
fuck of a lot in common, but  it wasn't  as if  we were going to be  sharing
toothbrushes or anything like that. I'd decided after Euan turned me over to
bin  any idea of  friendship with anyone  else ever again, and  to  restrict
myself to acquaintances--but this did feel different.
     "Talking  of shit,"  I  said,  "how's the  quilt  shaping up?  The kids
sounded really ecstatic about it last night."
     His eyes looked up at the sky.
     "Fuck, man, it's been  a  nightmare. Two  months of hoo-ha and the kids
getting so high they might as well be on drugs."
     I had  to laugh. I'd been following  the buildup to this from Josh over
the phone, but no one was going to stop him honking about it a bit more now.
     "I've  been  to  meetings,  meetings  about  meetings,  sewing classes,
discussion groups, you name it; that's been my life for the last two fucking
     There was going to be a summit between the Israelis and Palestinians in
Washington, D.C. Clinton was out to  look the big-time  statesman, brokering
the peace  deal, and somebody had come up with the bright idea of making the
world's biggest peace quilt to commemorate the occasion.
     Kids from all over  had been sewing like  crazy in  preparation for the
world's biggest photo opportunity on the White House lawn.
     Josh said, "I mean, do you have any idea how many stitches it takes  to
sew on just one fucking little shape?"
     "Don't worry about it, mate," I said.
     "They'll turn it into a TV  commercial for Coke and then you'll  all be
     The bosun wanted us.
     "Oi,  you two! Come  down and get your rations or ye'll swing  from the
     "Aye aye, sir!"
     "I can't hear you. What did you say?"
     Josh got into 82nd Airborne mode, snapped to attention and screamed,

     The  old boy flogging the Big Issue started to cheer and clap, though I
wasn't too  sure whether the bosun liked the competition. Josh collected his
food and sat down amongst the kids, trying to pinch some of their breakfast.
     I got my ration of authentic Elizabethan nuggets, doughnuts  and pirate
cola. A train from London Bridge station rattled along  the elevated railway
line  behind  us,  the bells  of Southwark Cathedral  just fifty meters away
fired off  a salvo, telling us  it was 10:30  a.m." and here I was wondering
for the millionth time how I'd  landed myself  with  all this.  Josh told me
he'd always loved the idea of  being with  the kids, but  had never realized
the stress of  looking after  them all the  time until his wife left. Me,  I
loved it when I was with Kelly, but hated the idea of it. The responsibility
filled  me with dread.  When  it  came to  the  world  of emotions I  was  a
     My birthday girl  was holding  court, telling  Josh's  kids  about  her
boarding school.
     "I  got a  twenty pence  fine because I didn't wear my  slippers to the
shower room last week." She loved the idea  of  being the same as the  other
girls; the fact that she had been fined meant she was one of the crowd.
     "Yes, and who has to pay the fine?" I said.
     She laughed.
     "My manager."
     Her  school had  been fantastic about everything, even though they knew
only the bare bones of what had happened. I agreed with Josh that it was the
best thing to  do, taking her right  away from the U.S. and  an  environment
that would bring back memories and screw her up even more. She never brought
up the subject of what had happened the day her parents and sister died, but
she had  no problem talking about them  if  things came up in  daily life to
remind us of them. Only once had I made a  direct  reference, and she'd just
said, "Nick, that was a long time ago."
     She began telling everyone about the week's plans.
     "Nick couldn't see me  on  my  birthday and had to leave me with Granny
and Grandad the day  before. But  this  week we're  going to  see the Bloody
     "What?" Josh's mouth dropped open. He might be ex-Airborne at work, but
within earshot of his kids not even the mildest cuss would pass his lips.
     "She means the Tower of London," I said.
     "There's a place called the Bloody Tower; it's  where the Crown  Jewels
are kept,  I think. Something like  that." History  had never been my strong
     Kelly's  face lit up at the thought  of seeing all  those  jewels. As a
child, I'd never known that sort of joy. My mother and stepfather never took
me anywhere; all they ever gave me was promises. When I was about eight, HMS
Belfast  docked  by  Tower Bridge and became a  museum. All the kids  on the
estate went, but not me all I got for  weeks was lOUs.  At last I was told I
was  going with my Auntie Pauline. I spent hours  trailing around  the local
shops behind her, asking when we were going.
     "In  a minute,  son, not  long now." The bitch was lying, just  like my
parents. The whole thing had  been a  ploy to get  me  off their hands while
they went out on the piss. After that I didn't even bother to ask. Fuck 'em.
I had another  eight years  before I could  leave home; I'd treat  it like a
waiting room.
     "...  then we're going to  have a sleepover at the  place where all the
mummies are. There's a museum where you can spend the ..."
     She was interrupted by the  bosun, who'd maybe  guessed  that the  tall
sailors needed a rest.
     "It's time for some seafaring tales while  ye have your feed. So listen
in, all ye crew, small and tall!"
     It  was while we were  sitting there listening to the sea tales, and  I
was digging a chicken nugget into my red sauce, that I felt my pager go off.
I  liked  the  fact that  people needed  me  to do things they  couldn't  do
themselves, but I  always  kept  it on vibrate because  I hated the noise it
made;  it always  spelled  trouble, like an alarm clock that wakes you on  a
morning you're dreading.
     I took  it out of its little carrying case,  which was  attached to the
draw cord of my trousers,  and checked the screen. It was  displaying only a
phone number. I was aware that Josh was  looking at me. He knew exactly what
it was. The other kids were  too busy listening to stories of doom and gloom
on the high seas  to notice, but Kelly never  missed a trick. She shot me  a
concerned glance, which I ignored.
     Pager networks cover a larger  area than mobile phones,  which was  why
the Intelligence Service used them. I preferred them anyway, because it gave
me time  to adjust mentally before someone bollocked me  or even worse, gave
me  the job from hell. I'd had the pager for only about six months. I wasn't
too sure  if it was  a  promotion to  be given one, or if  it  meant  I  was
considered a sad  fuck and  always available,  locked away like  a guard dog
until needed, then once done, given a bone and sent back into the kennel.
     Josh raised an eyebrow.
     I shrugged.
     "Dunno, I'm gonna have to phone. Can you hold the fort?"
     He nodded.
     "See you in a few."
     The stories were still going on and the rest of the crew were producing
tubs of ice cream for  the spellbound kids. I slipped away and went down the
stairs  to one  of the lower decks, where we were going  to be sleeping that
night. Mattresses were  spread out on the floor, and we'd  had  to bring our
own fluffy sleeping bags, just like sixteenth-century sailors did, ho ho.
     I rummaged  in my holdall for some small change, and went upstairs  and
tried to sneak off the boat without Kelly seeing me.
     I should have known better. She must have been watching me like a hawk;
as I looked around  and saw her, I put my hand up and mouthed, "Be back in a
minute,"  pointing at the  pub. She looked puzzled,  and  more  than  a  bit
anxious. Josh  was  still  with  them,  nodding and grimacing  and generally
joining  in with the tales of seafaring derring-do. The cathedral bell  rang
out to tell me it was now eleven o'clock.
     I found a pay phone in the pub hallway.  The Olde Thameside Inn had its
first  customers of the day: traders from the  fruit  market drinking pints,
rubbing shoulders with the City dealers and  their bottled beer. As  I stood
with my finger  in my ear trying  to  listen  for the dialing code, I  found
myself  looking  at racks of tourist  flyers,  rows  and rows of the  things
telling me how great  the Tower of London was, all of them seeming to  point
the finger at the scurvy mutineer who might be jumping ship.
     I pushed a couple of coins into the slot and dialed the number, putting
my finger back into my other  ear to  cut  out  Oasis on the juke box. After
just one ring a very crisp, efficient female voice said, "Hello?"
     "It's Nick, returning the page."
     "Where are you?"
     She knew exactly where I was.  Every  call to  the Firm  is logged on a
digital  display. They put as much  effort into spying on each other as they
do against the enemy. It was pointless tapping in 141 before the number, and
saying, "I'm  in  Glasgow and  can't get back,"  because whatever I did  the
display would still tell her I was at a pay phone in Southwark.
     I said, "London."
     "Please wait."
     She pressed the cut-out button. Two minutes later she came back.
     "You need to be at Gatwick at three thirty this afternoon."
     My heart sank, but I already knew I was going to be there.
     "How long for?" Not that it mattered much,  I  was already a couple  of
jumps ahead,  thinking about how I was  going to make excuses  to a recently
turned nine-year-old.
     She said, "I don't have that information."
     Once she'd  finished  with the details  of the RV I put the phone down,
expecting  a refund of my unused coin, but I got  nothing. The  phone box in
the pub was one  of  those  private  ones  where you can charge whatever you
want. For a pound I got all of sixty seconds.
     I walked back, making  my way  around the  crowd outside that had moved
with the sun toward the ship. I was racking my brains thinking of what I was
going to say. Not to Josh that wouldn't be a problem but to Kelly.
     I saw Josh looking for me. It was only about twenty or thirty meters to
the gangplank,  and I  was  looking up at him  and slowly shaking  my  head,
getting  some of  the  message  across  in advance. He knew exactly what was
happening; he'd been there himself.
     I went up the gangplank, pretty certain I would be in  the shit, and no
doubt  starting to look  suitably guilty. This was the first  occasion Kelly
and I had had any decent time  together since she'd been in the U.K.; it was
like a newlywed leaving his honeymoon to go back to the office.
     As I got on deck she and a few other kids were helping to  clear up the
plates  under the bosun's instructions. For a horrible second or two I had a
flashback other in her house just before her family  was killed, laying  the
table for her mother in the kitchen. It made me feel even more guilty, but I
told myself we'd both get over it. She would be upset but I could make it up
to her when I came back. Besides, she'd seen Josh and the kids, and we'd had
a whale  of a  time. She'd understand. Plus,  she could see her grandparents
     Josh knew what was on the cards. He bent down to his kids.
     "Yo!" He clapped his hands together as they waited for the instruction.
     "OK, kids,  let's get  all these  plates back  to  the  bosun,"  and he
dragged them away.
     I said, "Kelly?"
     "Mmm?" She didn't look up, just  carried on being too busy  picking  up
plates. She wasn't going to make it easy for me to give her the news.
     "That was my boss on the phone. He wants me to go away."
     She still didn't look me in the eye as she put the plates in a bin. She
said, "Why?"
     "They've  got a job for me. I told them that I was going to be with you
for  the week and I  didn't  want to go in, but  they said  I  must. There's
nothing I can do."
     I was  kind of hoping she'd  buy the line  that they were to blame, not
     She  stopped what she  was  doing and spun  around.  Her  face  told me
everything I didn't need to know.
     "Nick, you promised."
     "I  know, I  can't help it. I've just been bleeped " "No," she  stopped
     "It's beeped!" She  was always  giving me  a bollocking for getting  it
     Her face  had gone bright  red. Tears were starting  to well up in  her
     "Listen, Kelly, we can always  do  this  again  some  other  time. Just
think, Josh and his children have to leave for home in a few days  and won't
have a chance to see all these places, but we can come back."
     "But you said ... you promised me, Nick ... you said you wanted to have
a holiday with  me ..." The words tumbled out, punctuated by angry gasps for
     "You said you'd make up for not seeing me on my birthday.
     You promised me then, Nick ... you promised."
     She  didn't just  have her hand on  my heartstrings, she'd braided them
into ropes for extra  purchase and was  pulling on them big time. I said, "I
know I did, but that was last time. This time it will be different, I really
mean it."
     Her bottom lip  was starting  to go  and her eyes were leaking down her
     "But, Nick, you promised ..."
     I stroked her hair.
     "I'm  sorry,  I can't help  it.  I've got to go to work. Oh,  come  on,
Kelly, cheer up."
     What the  fuck was I saying? I always hated this. I didn't know what to
do or say, and  to make things worse I reckoned I was starting to sound like
my Auntie Pauline.
     The cry had become heartrending sobs.
     "But I don't want you to go ... I want to stay here and be a sailor ...
I want you to stay here ... I don't want to sleep on this boat without you."
     "Ah," I said, and the  way I said it was sufficiently ominous  to  make
her look up.
     "You won't be sleeping on the ship. I'm going to take you to see Granny
and Grandad. Listen, I promise, I  really do  promise, I'll  make this up to
     She stared at me long and hard, then slowly shook her head from side to
side, deeply wounded. She'd been sold down the river, and she knew it.
     I wondered if she'd ever trust me again.
     There was nothing I could say, because actually she  was right. Just to
make sure I avoided the issue, I walked across to the bosun.
     "We've got to go," I said.
     "Family  problem."  He nodded; who gives a  fuck, he  just gets paid to
wear the hat and growl.
     Josh came back. His kids were halfway through a lesson  on how to hoist
the sails. I said, "We've got to go, mate."
     I tried to pat  Kelly's head,  but she flinched  away  from my hand.  I
said, "Do you want to go downstairs  and  change? You can say good-bye  in a
minute. Go on, off you go."
     As she disappeared I looked at Josh and shrugged.
     "What can I say, I've got to go  to work." And then, before  he had the
chance to come up  with  all sorts of  different ways that he could help,  I
said,  "I'm going to take her down to her grandmother's  now,  then I'm off.
I'm really sorry about this, mate."
     "Hey, chill, it doesn't matter. These things happen. It was just really
good to see you."
     He was right. It had been really good to see him, too.
     "Same here. Have  a good flight back. I'll  give you a  call as soon as
I've finished this job, and we'll come to you next time."
     "Like I told  you, the  beds  are always made up. The coffee, white and
flat, is always hot."
     It took me a moment to understand the white and flat bit.
     "Is that some kind of Airborne saying?"
     I said good-bye  to  his kids  and they  got back to  pulling ropes and
getting bollocked by the bosun. Then I went down below and changed.
     We  stopped at a pedestrian crossing to let  a blue-haired New  Age guy
saunter across. I laughed.
     "Kelly, look at that bloke there!  Isn't he weird!" He had big lumps of
metal sticking out of his nose, lips, eyebrows, all sorts. I said, "I bet he
wouldn't dare walk past a magnet factory."
     I laughed at my own joke. She didn't, possibly because it was so bad.
     "You shouldn't make personal remarks like that," she said.
     "Anyway,  I bet he s been to the Bloody Tower." Her schoolwork might be
suffering a bit but she was still as sharp as her old man.
     I  looked across at her in the passenger seat and felt yet another pang
of guilt. She was reading about how wonderful London was from a flyer we had
in our rental car; she was sulking away, probably wondering what could be so
important  in my  life that instead of taking her to see the Crown Jewels, I
was dumping her back with her dreary old grandparents whom  she already  saw
enough of during the weekends out from her boarding school.
     We  drove  through Docklands  in  the  East  End of  London,  past  the
outrageously  tall office block on Canary Wharf; then, as we followed  signs
for the  Blackwall Tunnel, the  Millennium  Dome, still  under construction,
came  into view  across the Thames. Trying anything to lighten the  mood,  I
said, "Hey, look, the world's biggest Burger King hat!"
     At last I got a reaction: a slight movement of the lips, accompanied by
a determined refusal to laugh.
     Still heading toward the tunnel that took us under the Thames and so
     south, we  came to a  gas station just past the  Burger  King  dome.  I
needed to call her grandparents.
     It  seemed that fuel was a sideline for this garage; it sold everything
from disposable barbecues to  lottery tickets and  firewood. I undid my seat
belt and tried to sound happy with life.
     "Do you want anything from the shop?"
     She shook her head as I got out to use the  pay phone on  the wall. I'd
get her something anyway. A nice bundle of kindling, maybe.
     After  pulling  various  bits of  paper  from my  jacket pocket I found
Carmen and Jimmy's phone number  on  a  yellow Post-It note, its  sticky bit
covered with blue fluff from my  jacket. Kelly was still sitting in the car,
belted up and staring daggers at me, both for what I had done and what I was
about to do.
     I knew that they'd be in at this time of day. They  always had lunch at
home;  in nearly  fifty years of marriage they'd  never  eaten  out.  Carmen
didn't like other people preparing her husband's food, and Jimmy had learned
better than  to  argue. I  also knew that Carmen would answer  the phone; it
seemed to be a house rule.
     "Hello, Carmen, it's Nick. How are you both?"
     "Oh, we're fine," she said, a little crisply.
     "Quite tired, of course,"  she added, to introduce a tone  of martyrdom
at the first available opportunity.
     I should have ignored it and got straight down to business.
     "Tired?" I asked, and as I said it I suddenly remembered something.
     "Oh,  yes, we  stayed up until  well  after News at Ten. You said Kelly
would be calling us."
     They hadn't heard from her since I'd  taken  her away for the trip, and
I'd promised she would call. Mind you, Kelly hadn't exactly  gone out of her
way to remind me.
     "I'm sorry, Carmen, she was so sleepy last night I didn't want to  wake
     She  didn't go for  that one and  I didn't blame her. She was right; at
ten o'clock last  night we were both filling our faces  with Double Whoppers
and fries.
     "Oh, well, I suppose we can talk to her now. Has she had her lunch?"
     What the question actually meant  was: Have  you remembered to feed our
granddaughter?  My thoughts  went out to  Jimmy, married to  her for  half a
century, and her son,  Kev. No wonder  he'd  headed  west just as soon as he
     I tried to laugh it off; for Kelly's sake I didn't want to rise to this
emotional blackmail.
     "Carmen, look, something has come up. I have to go away tonight.
     Would you be able to have  her and take her back to school on Monday? I
was going to take her out for the five days to 'do' London, but she might as
well go back now."
     There was  excitement in the  air, but she still had  to carve off  her
pound of flesh.
     "Of course. When will you be coming?"
     "That's the problem, I haven't enough time to get her to you. Could you
meet us at Gatwick?"
     I knew they could. In fact, chances were that Jimmy  was  already being
dispatched with  an impatient motion of her hand to get his  eleven-year-old
mint-condition Rover  out  of the garage. The  new door that  had just  been
built  gave direct access  from the  bungalow;  he was very proud of that. I
could  picture  him in  there,  wiping  any stray finger marks off the paint
     "Oh .. . can't you come here? It would mean we wouldn't get  back until
     They  lived  only  an hour from the airport,  but anything  to  fuck me
     "I can't, I'm afraid. I'm a bit strapped for time."
     "But where would we meet you?" There  was an edge of panic in her voice
at  the  thought  of  having to  do something  so  challenging,  mixed  with
annoyance that today's minute-by-minute routine was being disrupted. It must
have been a riot growing up as Mr. and Mrs. Brown's little boy.
     I'd sensed from the beginning that they or  rather, she  didn't  really
like  me.  Maybe she  blamed me for their son's  death; I certainly knew she
resented  the  fact  that  I   was   the  person  he'd  appointed  as  their
granddaughter's guardian, even though she knew very well  that they were too
old to look  after her themselves. But fuck it, they'd be dead soon. I would
just  feel  sorry for Kelly when that  day  came; she needed other people to
support her, even if they were as suffocating as the Browns.
     When  I got back to  the  car  Kelly was  pretending to be engrossed in
another  flyer,  and without  looking  up she greeted  me  with a  downright
martyr's  sigh. I'd have to sort her out soon, or she was  going to turn out
like her poisoned granny.
     I kept it upbeat.
     "They're really excited about you coming to stay today instead  of next
weekend, they can't wait to see you and hear all about your time on the ship
with everyone."
     "OK. That means that I go back to school when everybody else does?"
     "Yes, but you'll have a great time with Granny and Grandad first."
     She  didn't  share my  optimism, but she was switched on enough to know
that, even  though they  might be boring, they loved her dearly. It was  the
only reason I put up with them.
     We got  back onto the main  drag and headed for the tunnel, me thinking
about  the  RV details I'd  been  given. From Kelly  there  was nothing  but
brooding, oppressive silence and I didn't really know how to break it.
     Eventually I said, "I'll phone you at school one lunchtime next week,

     She perked up.
     "You will? You'll phone me?"
     "Sure I will. I don't know when it will be, but I will."
     She looked at me and raised an accusing eyebrow.
     "Is that going to be another one of your promises?"
     I smiled and nodded my head. I  knew I  was digging  myself a very deep
hole  here, because every time I promised I seemed to fuck up; I didn't have
a clue what I'd be doing, and I knew it was a short-term gain.  I hated this
part of my  responsibilities, I hated letting her down the way  I'd been let
     I said, "Not just a promise a double promise. We'll talk  about all the
things we'll do on our next holiday. I'll make it up to you, you'll see."
     She was studying my face,  sizing me up. Having gained an inch, she was
going to go for the full mile.
     "Do I have to go to Granny and Grandad's?"
     I could guess how she felt. She'd told me that when she  was with them,
she  spent most of her  time pulling her shirt back out of  her jeans  after
Carmen had pulled  them up to her armpits "to keep out the cold." I wouldn't
want to be going there either, but I said, "It'll be fine, don't worry about
it. You were going  to  stay  with  them  next  weekend after school anyway.
Another weekend won't hurt. I'll have a little chat and see if they'll  take
you to the aquarium to see those sharks we were talking about."
     She gave me a look to let me know the aquarium trip wouldn't happen.
     I knew she was right and ploughed on.
     "One  thing's for sure,  I  don't want  them to  take you to the Bloody
Tower; that's our special thing, OK?"
     There was a  slow acknowledgment,  even though  she probably knew there
was  more chance other grandmother metamorphosing into Zoe Ball overnight. I
indicated to get off the M23 on the last stretch toward the airport.
     Signs  welcomed  us to  the North  Terminal  and  I  headed up  to  the
shortterm parking. I kept up my goodness-me-I'm-so-excited voice.
     "Right, let's go and see if Granny  and Grandad are here yet, shall we?
Tell  you what, if they aren't, we'll  go  and have something to eat. Hungry
     That should keep Granny happy.
     She didn't  say  it, but the look she gave me as she got out of the car
said, Cut  the crap, dickhead,  I've  had it up to here. She'd been hung out
with the washing; she knew it, and she wanted me to know that she knew it. I
got  hold of her hand and bag, because there was traffic all over the place,
and followed the signs to the North Terminal.
     I'd arranged  to meet them in the Costa Coffee shop.  It  would be easy
enough to find; even they could do it.
     I looked at my G-Shock, the one I'd bought to replace the one I'd lost.
It was a  Baby-G this time--the new  one--and when you pressed the backlight
button, a  little surfer  came  up on  one of  the displays. I quite enjoyed
that, even though it was the same little man doing the  same  little surfing
thing every single time. Sad but true.
     It was just past one o'clock. They weren't there yet. Trying to ease my
guilt I took Kelly on a sightseeing tour of the shops and she landed up with
bars  of chocolate, an airline teddy bear  and an All Saints  CD. It was the
easy way out; I knew it wouldn't achieve anything, but it made me feel a bit
     We went back to the Costa Coffee shop and sat on bar stools with a view
of the terminal entrance. She  had an orange  soda, I had  a flat  white, if
that was what they called it, and we both had a  sandwich as we sat watching
a packed airport get fed, catch planes and generally spend more money in one
hour than they would in an entire day on holiday.
     Kelly said,  "Nick, do you know how long it takes before an elephant is
born ?"
     "Nope."  I wasn't  really  listening; I  was too busy  bending  over my
coffee  and  looking out  for  Wallace and  Gromit, resisting looking at  my
     "Nearly two years."
     "Oh, that's interesting," I said.
     "OK, do you know how many people were in the world in I960?"
     "Three years."
     She'd sussed me out.
     "Nick ... Three billion. But very soon the world will have a population
of six billion."
     I turned to look at her.
     "You're very  clever for a--" Then I saw what she  was  doing:  reading
facts off the back of sugar packets.
     "That's cheating!"
     At last I  got a smile from her. It turned into an actress's smile when
she said through gritted teeth, "Oh, look. Granny and Grandad."
     "Well, off you go then and say hello!"
     Muttering under her breath, she got off her stool and ran over to them.
     Their  faces   showed  a  mixture   of   relief   at   finding  us  and
self-congratulation at being brave enough to be out and about in such a big,
busy place. Kelly  gave them both a hug; she did love them, it was just that
they weren't the sort of people you'd want to  spend all day with, let alone
a bonus weekend.
     Their trouble was,  they  didn't actually do anything. They didn't take
her to the park or on outings; they just kind of sat there expecting her  to
draw pictures and drink cups of tea.
     Jimmy was  wearing  cream flannels  and  a beige  anorak;  Carmen  wore
clothes from the sort of catalog that had Judith Chalmers on the cover.
     Jimmy's  face  seemed to have no features whatsoever;  he looked as  if
he'd been  designed in a wind tunnel. Kev  must have got his  dark  skin and
eyes from  his mother, who  still looked attractive, even if she did believe
people really thought her jet-black hair was natural.
     The  pair of  them  were busy fussing all over  Kelly, asking  her what
she'd done as they walked toward me. I got in there first, flicking  my eyes
between them as I spoke.
     "Jim, Carmen, how are things?" And before they could debrief me  on the
road conditions and the exact route they'd taken I got straight down to it.
     "Look, I'm sorry about this, but I've got to go. You sure you're OK for
the rest of the weekend?"
     They  were  both very  happy. It was like Christmas  again, except that
that time it had been Heathrow  and Kelly had had to be picked  up four days
early.  They never  understood why someone so erratic had been chosen as her
guardian; they didn't even know me and I was clearly not suited to the task.
I bet they had me down  as one of Kev's wife's  friends. They never did like
Marsha.  When  they  weren't  blaming me  for their son's murder,  they were
probably blaming her, not that she was around to answer back.
     Carmen busied herself doing  up the  top  button  of Kelly's  shirt and
tucking the whole thing back into her jeans. You can't take any chances, the
drafts you get in airports.
     I made  sure they saw me take a quick look at  my watch. I had loads of
time, but it didn't mean I wanted to stay.
     "I've really got to go now. Kelly, give us a hug and a kiss."
     She  wrapped her arms  around me and  I bent  at the waist so we  could
kiss. Carmen  hated that,  because Kelly didn't show  them the same  sort of
sustained affection.  She did with them only what she knew was expected, and
I had to admit that made me feel good.
     I looked her in the eye and mimed a phone call with my hand.

     She raised an eyebrow and gave me a withering look.
     "Is  that a Nick promise?" she  said quietly, so that only I could hear
it. I suddenly saw about twenty years into the future; she was going to grow
up into the sort of woman who could light a fire just by looking at it.
     "No," I said, equally quietly, "it's an NPP."
     "What's that?"
     "Normal person's promise."
     She liked that one and nodded.
     I knew I'd dropped myself in the shit even more, just as my parents had
done  with  me. By now  it  was  almost unbearable.  Carmen  and Jimmy  were
uncomfortable  with  our private  intimacy, and I really didn't know  how to
behave  in  these situations.  I was  feeling more guilty  than ever. I just
wanted to leave.
     The look on Kelly's face made me remember my thirteenth birthday.
     My  parents didn't. They  made up for it by running to the corner  shop
and buying a board  game in the shape of a robot for seventy-five pence. The
reason I knew that was because it wasn't even wrapped up, just in a bag with
the  price tag still on. I knew how  it felt to be let down  by the ones who
are supposed to love you most.
     I whispered in her ear, "I've got to go."
     As I stood up, Carmen's nod told me I should have left ten minutes ago.
     She said, "We'll be  hearing from you,  then?" in that special  way  of
hers that suggested she wouldn't exactly be holding her breath.
     "Of course we will. Granny," Kelly said.
     "When Nick  makes a  promise he always  keeps it." She might  be  lying
through her teeth, but she knew when to back me up.
     I grinned.
     "Yeah, something like that. Bye now."
     Jimmy smiled weakly. I couldn't tell if he  was happy or just had wind.
I couldn't remember the last time I'd heard him speak.
     Carmen decided it was time for Kelly to cut from me.
     "Oh, that's nice, you've got a record, have you?" she said.
     "Who's it by?"
     "All Saints."
     "Oh, they're good, aren't  they? My favorite is the ginger one with the
Union Jack dress."
     "That's the Spice Girls."
     "Oh, is it?" Carmen glared at me as if it was my fault, then rounded on
     "Grandad  doesn't  like any  of  them;  he  doesn't  go  for  all  that
     Kelly looked at me and rolled her eyes. As the  look  changed to one of
desperation, I turned on my heel and walked away.
     made as  if  to  go  back to the car park, but instead  jumped onto the
transit  train  that would  take me to the  South  Terminal. I kept thinking
about the fuckup and how Kelly must be feeling, but I would have to cut from
that soon.  I decided to  use the two-minute  journey to  sort out my guilt,
then bung the work  cassette into the back of  my head before  I got off the
     The  shuttle was full of all  the usual airport suspects: young couples
in matching  football shirts, him  with a team  holdall, her with copies  of
Hello! magazine  and  word search  puzzle  books;  and businessmen in suits,
carrying briefcases and laptops and looking in dire need of The  Little Book
of Calm.
     I walked into the South Terminal, following the signs to the short-term
car park, and took the elevator to the top floor. I was in work mode now;
     everything else had been put to one side in another compartment.
     The exposed  roof  level  was about three-quarters  full. The deafening
sound of aircraft taking  off blanketed  all  the  other noises  of cars and
clattering luggage trolleys.  I half closed my eyes to protect them from the
glare of sunlight as I started walking down the aisles.
     In  a row of wagons, down the middle,  I spotted  what I'd been told to
look for: a Toyota Previa people carrier, dark blue with tinted windows.
     Maybe the Firm had found  a use  for the ones brought  back  from Syria
after  all; it wasn't  as if  Hertz would  have been too happy to have  them
     I went to  the rear of the row of vehicles and started  to  follow  the
line of cars toward it.
     Since the change of government  in 1997, every department seemed  to be
using  people carriers.  I didn't know if  it was policy or  just that  Tony
Blair used one,  but  they were a great improvement--much more  room  for  a
briefing,  instead of sitting  hunched up  in the back of a  sedan with your
knees around your head. Besides, they were easy to find in a hurry.
     As I got closer I spotted a driver in  the front seat,  filling up  the
right hand side  of  the cab area, reading the Evening  Standard and looking
uncomfortable in his collar and tie. None of the windows was  open. The size
of his head and his flat-top haircut made it look as if it should have  been
sticking out of the turret of a Panzer.
     I approached  casually  from  the  rear, checking the number  plate.  I
couldn't exactly remember the  full registration but I knew that it would be
a  P.  The thing I was looking for was the VDM, and sure enough,  above  the
Toyota  sign,  on the bottom left side of the  tail,  was  the  small chrome
outline of a fish, the trademark of heavy-duty Christians. This was the one;
I went up to  the  sliding  door  on the side and waited, listening  to  the
engine purr.
     The door opened out a few inches, then slid back to reveal the two rows
of passenger seats. I looked inside.
     I  hadn't seen Colonel Lynn for  nearly a year, but  he  hadn't changed
much. He hadn't lost any more hair, which I was sure he was happy about.
     His clothes were the same as always, mustard-colored corduroy trousers,
a sports jacket with well-worn leather elbows, and what looked like the same
Viyella  shirt he'd  been wearing  the last time  we'd met, just  a bit more
frayed around the collar.
     I climbed in and slid  the door closed behind me. I  could feel the air
conditioning working overtime  as  I took my seat next to  him and we  shook
hands. Lynn had that fresh-from-the-shower officer's smell about  him; maybe
he'd  taken in a quick game  of  squash at the Guards' barracks  in  Chelsea
before  coming to  the meeting. Between  his feet was a  dark blue nylon day
sack which I recognized. It was my quick-move kit.
     There was somebody else in there, in the rear row of seats, whom I also
recognized. I turned and nodded politely at her.  She returned the  gesture,
refolding her copy of the Daily Telegraph. It  was only the second time that
I'd met Elizabeth Bamber in  person. Last time hadn't gone too well; she was
on the selection board  that refused  me permanent cadre. It seemed that our
cultural differences didn't endear us to each other during the interview.
     Permanent cadre are Ks deniable  operators on  a  salaried retainer not
freelancers like me, called on  to carry  out  shit  jobs that  no  one else
wants. The pay I got was 210 a day for ops, 160 for training days. I  wasn't
too sure what the retainer was, but I knew that, like all other payments, it
would be handed over in a brown envelope  with no tax or  national insurance
to pay. It was a  bit like casual labor, which made me feel used and  fucked
over, but I liked the money  what there was of it.  In any case, it was  the
only line of work I'd  ever  known, and I was more afraid  of  what I  would
become without it.
     I didn't know exactly  what Elizabeth  did, or for whom; all I knew was
that  she  was  one  of those women who,  if  they  weren't working for  the
Intelligence Service, would  probably own a  stable full of racehorses.  She
probably  did  anyway.  She  had  that  sort of  broken-veined, no-nonsense,
out-in-the-fresh-air  look about  her. She was medium height and in her late
forties or  at least  looked  it, especially with her  shoulder-length hair,
which was 60 percent gray, with a center parting and a little fringe, though
I  doubted  she gave  much of  a  fuck about  it. In fact,  having  hair was
probably  a  bit of  an inconvenience for someone like her, because it  took
valuable time to comb the stuff.
     She was wearing a very smart, sensible, gray  two-piece that  looked as
if  it  had cost a fortune;  it  would have been economical in the long run,
however, because she probably wore it every third  day,  alternating it with
the two other equally expensive outfits she bought every year  in the Harvey
Nichols sale. Under her  jacket was a blouse with a long scarf attached that
was  tied into a  bow.  The smart but practical look was complemented by  an
almost total lack of makeup it probably took too long in the morning  to put
it on, and she couldn't be bothered with that: she had a country to protect.
     I made a half turn back toward Lynn so that I had to move only  my head
to see each of  them. There was  silence for about half a  minute, broken by
the rustling of a  newspaper  in the front. I glanced to my left and saw the
driver's huge neck sitting on a very wide back and slightly hanging over his
collar. I could see  part of his face in the rearview mirror; his  pale skin
and near-Slavic looks  gave the game away: he was a  Serb, no doubt promised
passports for his entire family  if  he spied for us during the Bosnian war.
This guy  would  now  be  more  loyal  to the  U.K. than most  Brits, myself
     Still we just  sat there. Elizabeth was looking at me; I was looking at
her. Come on, I thought, let's  get on with  it. It always felt  as  if they
were toying with me.
     It was Lynn who kicked off.
     "We haven't seen you for a long time, Nick. How's life?"
     As if he cared.
     "No complaints. How long am I going to be away?"
     "It will depend on how  quickly you  can  get the task  done. Listen to
what Elizabeth has to say."
     Elizabeth was  primed,  ready  to go; she didn't even have  notes.  She
levelled her gaze on me, and said,  "Sarah Greenwood." It was delivered more
as  a question than a statement,  and her eyes  narrowed slightly, as if she
were expecting an answer.
     My reaction when I heard the  name surprised me. I felt as if I'd  just
been told I had a fatal disease. My hard drive was  spinning.  Was she dead?
Had she fucked up? Had she got  me in trouble? Had she been lifted? I wasn't
going  to  show these people anything more than I had  to; I tried to remain
casual and unconcerned, but all I really wanted to do was ask, "Is she OK?"
     She said, "You know her, I believe?"
     "Of course I know her by that name anyway." I didn't say how I knew her
name, or what jobs I'd done with her. I didn't know how much Elizabeth knew,
so I just played it straight, which is always the best thing to do.
     In  my experience, the less  you  say, the less drama you get  yourself
     It's good having two ears, but even better to have just one mouth.
     "Well, it seems that she has disappeared and of her own accord."
     I looked at  her, waiting  for  the  follow-on, but she let it  hang. I
didn't exactly know what she was getting at, yet she was looking at me as if
I should know.
     Lynn saw the problem.
     "Let me explain, Nick."
     As  I  turned my head toward  Lynn,  I caught  him  just finishing  eye
contact with Elizabeth. He was playing the peacemaker here.
     He said, "Two years ago, Sarah Greenwood was  posted to  the Washington
desk. You are aware of that?"
     Of course I was. I always  tried  to keep tabs on where she was and how
she  was  getting  on, though I never kidded  myself that the  interest  was
     I'd  half hoped that  she'd make an  appearance  during my debrief over
last year's fuckup in the States, but she  didn't. I realized  he was  still
waiting for an answer.
     "No, not really."
     There  was a pause as Lynn glanced again  at Elizabeth. It looked as if
he needed the nod  to continue; he must have got it, because he said, "Sarah
has been  U.K. liaison with the Counterterrorism  Center, a new intelligence
cell set  up by  the  CIA  to provide  warnings  against potential terrorist
attacks.  It's  a  central clearinghouse, if you like, for  intelligence  on
terrorism  worldwide. Here  is the problem. As  Elizabeth  has already said,
Sarah has disappeared we know she's still on the U.S. mainland, but we don't
know where or  why she  has gone. We fear that her  reliability and judgment
are, how shall I say it, in doubt."
     I  couldn't help a smile. That was the standard ruck-off when what they
were really  saying was: "We don't like you anymore. You have done something
wrong and you are no longer one of us."
     Now  it was  time for Elizabeth to join in. She said, "Let's  just say,
since  her  posting  in  Washington  she  has  been  engaging  in  too  many
initiatives of her own."
     Still looking at Lynn, I smiled again.
     "Oh, I see too many initiatives."
     I gave her word the full five syllables.
     I hated it when they beat around the bush. Why didn't they just  get on
with it  and tell  me what the fuck was happening and what they wanted me to
do about it? Before I could get an answer we were interrupted by the arrival
of some punters.
     "Oil You're not on holiday now; give a hand with these sodding bags!"
     "All right, don't get out yer bleedin' pram!"
     Everything stopped as we all  looked over  to the driver's side  of the
wagon.  I couldn't see Lynn's face, but Elizabeth's registered disgust.  Two
couples were standing by a  Ford Escort XR3i.  While we'd been waffling away
they'd turned up, opened the trunk and were loading their luggage.
     One young couple, both in their  mid-twenties, had  come to pick up the
other one. The girl back from holiday was wearing white cut-down  jeans with
half her ass hanging out to show us how brown  she  was, but the effect  was
spoiled  a bit by all  the exposed skin being goose bumped,  what  with this
being  Gatwick rather than Tenerife. Just in case we didn't  get the message
that she'd been away, her bottled blond hair was in beads  where it had been
braided by a beach hustler.
     Our  man in the  driving seat was keeping an eye  on them continuously,
still with  the paper up, still on  the same page, the  skin  of his massive
neck hanging over his collar even more as he looked right in his wing mirror
checking everything out. These boys had to be jacks of all trades, offensive
and defensive  drivers, as well as bodyguards to  protect their "principals"
and great joke-tellers to entertain them. Maybe that was why the Serb worked
for  Elizabeth.  She wasn't  the sort  of  person who  understood jokes, and
judging by the Serb's expression  as he tried to follow the estuary  English
outside, he  wasn't  up  to speed on banter either. I  just hoped he  wasn't
learning his English  from these two in  the wagon  people  would think that
Prince Charles had been hitting the gym.
     The  entertainment  was  over.  We  all  turned  back  to  our original
positions and Elizabeth carried on, physically affected by what she had just
seen. Her breed found such people a terrible stain on their ordered lives.
     "We  are concerned that there  might be a conflict about the ethics  of
her employment."
     I tried not to laugh.
     "Ethics?  That's not  Sarah. She's got  ethics filed  under  "Things to
worry about when I'm dead."" I risked a chuckle, but either Elizabeth didn't
understand, or she got the joke and didn't like it.
     The atmosphere  felt so frosty I  wondered if the Serb had adjusted the
air conditioning. I was slowly welcoming myself out of this wagon.
     Elizabeth continued as if I still hadn't spoken.
     "We  feel that this could  expose current operations and put operators'
lives in very real danger."
     That stopped me smiling.
     "How do you know Sarah might be putting operations at risk?"
     "That," she said, "you don't need to know." I could  see she'd  enjoyed
saying that.
     "However, let me  give you  an  example of  the  problem  we  face. The
information that Sarah Greenwood retrieved from Syria I  understand that you
were  part of  that operation?  that  material delivered to us  was  in fact
incorrect. It would appear that she quite deliberately distorted information
she knew was important to us and the Americans."
     So they had wanted what was on the computers  after all. And, as usual,
I had been one of their mushrooms, kept in the dark and fed on shit.
     She was on a roll now.
     "It was most unfortunate that the Source  was killed--after  all,  that
was your task: to bring him  back. We still don't know what intelligence the
Syrian operation would have revealed-because  you destroyed the computers on
site, I believe."
     She made  it sound as if  I'd done all that on some kind of whim. I let
her carry on, but inwardly I was ready to punch her lights out.
     "The Americans were not pleased with our efforts, and I have to say, it
was hardly one of our finest hours."
     I wasn't going to let her rev me up even more. For years we'd done jobs
for the  U.S. that Congress would never sanction,  or that were  against the
1974 executive order prohibiting U.S. involvement in assassination.
     The job had been false-flagged as an Israeli operation because the

     could not  be  seen  to  be  screaming  into  Syria  and kidnapping  an
international financier, even  if he  did happen to be the right-hand man of
the world's most prolific terrorist. However, by making it look like a joint
operation between the Israeli military and Mossad, everyone was a winner:
     America  would get the Source, the U.K.  would have the satisfaction of
doing  a  difficult job  well and Israel would  reap all the kudos. Not that
they knew  about it when it  was happening--they  never did--but  they would
still take all the credit.
     I thought back to Syria and Sarah's frantic work on the laptop, and the
fact  that she had killed the Source. Sarah had certainly sounded convincing
during  the debrief, and after  that  I  didn't  even think about it, it was
     Whatever  had happened  since then  didn't worry me  either;  it wasn't
going to change my life. Well, maybe it was now.
     Elizabeth  continued, "She could have  caused a major change in foreign
policy, and that, I must say, would have been most detrimental to the U.K."s
and USs balance of payments and influence in the region ..."
     She  was talking crap. I bet the reason she was pissed  off was because
Clinton had recently signed a "lethal presidential order" against Bin Laden.
He had authorized, in advance, an aggressive operation to arrest him  if the
opportunity arose,  at the same time recognizing that some of those involved
might be killed.  In other  words, Clinton had found a way  around America's
strict anti  assassination  rules, and the Firm  would be done out  of  some
work. I could see that Sarah fucking about wouldn't help matters.
     I waited for the part Elizabeth had  forgotten  to emphasize. There are
three  things  they like to give you at a briefing, when they eventually get
around to saying what they really mean. One,  the aim  of the task; two, the
reason  why  the  task  has  to  happen;  and  three, the incentive for  the
     I saw her eyes move fractionally up and to the left. She was lying.
     "...  as well as putting operators at risk in the  area. Which  is,  of
course,  our  most   important  consideration."  Not  a  bad  incentive,   I
thought--even if she was talking bollocks--especially if it was me operating
     "As to her motives, well, that's not for you to worry about."
     I was starting to feel uneasy about all this. I turned to Lynn.
     "If you were worried about this back then, why didn't you just give her
a bung?"
     From behind me Elizabeth said, "A bung? A bung?"
     Lynn  looked  over my head and said, in the  voice of a queen's counsel
patiently explaining a blow job to a High  Court judge, "Money. No, Nick, we
didn't offer  her a bung. You  know  as well  as I do that the service never
bribes or pays anyone off."
     I couldn't believe he'd  said  that  and I  somehow managed to  keep  a
straight face. Amazingly,  so did  he.  They  look  after  their own  in the
Intelligence  Service. Even  if  the  IG's  been given the  sack  for  gross
misconduct,  whether it's for being a  pedophile and getting blackmailed for
it, or for just screwing up the job, he goes into a feeder  system  where he
gets work, and that does two things--it keeps tabs on him, but it also keeps
him sweet, and, more importantly, quiet. That's what a bung is all about:
     keeping the house in order.
     I wished they would give me one.  Only  a few  months earlier  I'd been
escorting an  IG  called Clive  to  a service  apartment  in  London.  These
apartments are paid for, furnished and run by the Intelligence Service.
     Nobody  lives  in  them;  they're  used  for  meetings,  briefings  and
debriefings, and as safe houses.
     Clive had had a bit  of a  drama with Gordievsky, the Russian dissident
who'd years ago defected to the West with a headful  of secrets. The  former
KGB chief  was briefing the  Intelligence Service  at  one  of the  training
establishments near  the Solent  on the south coast.  Clive  and  two others
refused  to go to  the presentation, on the  grounds that  Gordievsky  was a
traitor, and it didn't matter which side he came from. I happened to believe
they  were  right,  but  they  still got  cut away.  After all, it  was very
embarrassing for Her  Majesty's  government to have  its people  calling  an
inbound defector a scumbag. Two went quietly with a payoff and jobs supplied
by the Good Lads' Club  the City. Clive,  however,  refused to go. The  best
way, it seemed to the service, was to offer him a bigger wad  than the other
two. If that was refused, then he could have as much pain as money can buy.
     I persuaded him  into a flat in Cambridge Street, Pimlico, and listened
as they offered him  200 grand to  shut up  and fuck off to the  City. Clive
picked up the  money, ripped it out of  its plastic bank wallets, opened the
window  and scattered it like confetti.  As  the hundreds of notes fluttered
down  onto the corner pub on Cambridge Street, the punters must have thought
Christmas had been brought forward to June.
     "You want to fuck me off?" Clive said.
     "Then it's going to cost you a fucking sight more than this."
     I thought  it  was great and  wanted to join the pub crowd fighting for
fifty-pound notes. To my mind the boy had done good; nobody likes a traitor,
no  matter what side you think you're on. I  really hoped  Sarah wasn't one,
because I liked her. Actually, I liked her a lot.
     I asked Elizabeth, "And you're sure that she hasn't been lifted?"
     She looked at Lynn.
     It  was a bit  like being at Wimbledon, sitting between these two. Lynn
had to interrupt again because Elizabeth seemed about as switched on to real
life as Mickey Mouse.
     I asked, "So what do you want me to do about it?"
     Elizabeth kept it very simple.
     "Find her."
     I waited for  the rest of the sentence. There was  nothing. It  was the
most succinct aim I'd ever been given.
     "Do you know where she could be? I need a start point."
     She thought for a while.
     "You will  start in Washington. Her  apartment, I think, would be best,
don't you?"
     Yes,  I didn't disagree  with  that. But I had  another question:  "Why
don't you get the Americans to help you? They'd have  the resources to track
her down much faster."
     She sighed.
     "As I thought I  was making  clear  to you,  this  matter  needs  to be
handled with the least possible amount of fuss, and speedily." She looked at
Lynn. He cleared his throat and turned to face me.
     "We don't really want to involve any American departments yet. Not even
our embassy staff  are  aware  of the situation. As you might  imagine, it's
somewhat  embarrassing  to  have one  of  our  own IGs  missing in the  host
     Especially  with Netanyahu and Arafat in the U.S.  for the Wye summit."
He paused.
     "If you fail to find  her they will have to know, and they will have to
take action. This is a very grave situation, Nick.  It could cause us a  lot
of embarrassment."
     I had been given the shortest aim  ever, and now I'd also been told the
clearest reason why. Lynn showed the worry on his face.
     "We need to find her quickly. No one must know. I emphasize, no one."
     I hated it  when these people used the word "we." They're in the  shit,
and all of a sudden it's "we." If the job went wrong it would have no father
but me.
     I calmed down.
     "That's why you want a K it's a deniable op?"
     He nodded.
     Why me? I said, "Isn't this a job for  the  security cell? They're used
to investigations. This isn't my sort of work."
     "This isn't something that needs to go any farther within the service."
     There was irritation in Elizabeth's voice.
     "I particularly wanted you for the job, Mr. Stone, as I understand  you
know Sarah better than most."
     I looked at her, still trying not to show any emotion.  She'd  raised a
knowing eyebrow as she said it. Shit. I tried to look puzzled.
     "I know her, if  that's what  you mean,  and I've  worked with her, but
that's about it."
     She tilted her head slightly to one side. She knew I was lying.
     I was informed that the relationship between you was somewhat cozier.
     In fact I was told that the  reason for your divorce after  leaving the
military  was due entirely to your  relationship  with Sarah Greenwood. Am I
     She wasn't, and I  now understood even more. They had chosen me because
they thought  I knew  her well enough to have a chance of finding her.  They
were firefighting,  and they were using me as  Red Adair. Fuck 'em, let them
sort their own shit out. I might be pissed off, but I wasn't  stupid. It was
excuse time.
     "It's not going to work," I said.
     "The U.S.  is a  big  place,  and  what am I  going to do on my own?  I
haven't seen  her for ages and we weren't that close. What  can I do? What's
the use of even getting on a flight?"
     Lynn bent down to pick up my quick-move kit.
     "You will  be  going on the flight. You  will start an investigation to
find her. If not, I'm afraid you will find yourself in jail."
     I felt like saying, "Come off  it, that's the sort of line I use myself
when I'm threatening people. You can do better than that." But I had learned
the hard way to keep my mouth shut,  and it was just as well I did. Lynn had
my day sack on his knees now.
     "Credit us with  a  little intelligence, Nick. Do you  really think  we
don't know the full events of last year?"
     My stomach lurched and I knew my cheeks were starting to burn. I  tried
to remain calm, waiting to hear what he had to say.
     "Nick,  your version of  events leaves out a number of  details, any of
which will put you behind bars if we so  choose. We haven't investigated the
money you kept, or the unlawful killings you performed."
     That sounded rich  coming from a man who had sent me  out routinely  to
"perform"  unlawfully. But I  knew  that  they could  stitch me  up  if they
wanted.  It was  par  for  the course; I'd  even been part  of the stitch-up
     I now knew how it felt.
     There was an  outside chance  they were  bluffing.  I stared at him and
waited to see what else he had  to  say. I soon wished  I hadn't, because it
gave Elizabeth another opening.
     "Mr. Stone,  let us consider  your situation. What,  for example, would
happen  to the child in your  guardianship if  you were imprisoned? Her life
must be difficult  enough as it  is, I should have thought: new country, new
     How the fuck did they  know  all this? I thought I'd already been given
my incentive, but obviously not. They didn't come any less subtle than this.
I had to clench my fists to control myself. I felt like kicking the shit out
of  both of them. They knew it, and maybe that was  why Godzilla was in  the
driver's seat. It's always unwise  to fuck with a man who has a neck  bigger
than your own head,  especially if  he  probably has  enough weaponry in the
foot well to shoot down a jumbo jet. I took a deep breath, accepted I was in
the shit and let it out again.
     Elizabeth carried on as Lynn opened my day sack
     "Having found her, report back where she is  and what she's doing. Then
await further instructions."
     I turned back to Lynn. I knew she had finished and he would now give me
the details I  needed.  I  could hear  the newspaper being unfolded. She was
probably checking which of her horses were running tomorrow. I tried to keep
my breathing under control. I felt angry and helpless, my two least favorite
     Lynn  was  unloading  the  bag  and  handing me  the  items.  My  cover
documentation, driver's license,  passport and even an advert for books from
a local paper, showed that, as from  now, I lived in Derbyshire. There  were
three credit cards. These would have been serviced every month,  and used so
that I ended up with  a  normal  bill  like everyone  else. The  family  who
covered for me  made sure of  that; years ago we used to keep all this stuff
with us all the  time, but there  were too many fuckups, with people getting
corrupt  and using  the credit cards  to pay for new cars and silk underwear
for their mistresses. An  audit a  few  years earlier  had unearthed  two  K
operators who had never even existed, and somebody somewhere was drawing off
the money.
     Lynn said, "There's the photography kit to Mac anything down to us."
     I Xhad a quick look inside. From the way that Lynn said it, I knew he'd
just  got the  briefing on this kit, and it sounded all exciting and sexy. I
     "Great, thanks."
     "Here are  your  flight  details and  here are your tickets." As he got
them out of the  bag he checked the details and  said,  "Oh, so  you're Nick
Snell now?"
     "Yep, that's  me."  It had  been for quite  a while now, ever  since  I
became operational again after ... well, after what I'd thought I'd got away
     Then he produced two flash cards from envelopes and handed them to me.
     "Your codes. Do you want to check them?"
     "Of course." He passed the bag to me. I took out  the Psion 3C personal
organizer and turned  it on. I'd been trying to get the new 5 Series  out of
the service, but unless the funds  were  for building squash  courts, it was
like trying to get blood from a stone. All the Ks  would have to put up with
the  3Cs  they'd bought  two years ago--and the thing  I had was one  of the
early  ones,  which didn't  even  have  the backlit display.  The  service's
attitude  to kit was the  same  as that  of a  thrifty mother who buys you a
school uniform several sizes too big, only in reverse.
     I put the  cards into both of the ports. It would be no good getting on
the ground and finding  that these things didn't work.  I opened up each one
in  turn  and  checked the screen. One  had just a  series  of  five  number
     I closed that down and took it out. The other  had rows  of words  with
groups of numbers next to each word. All was in order.
     "The contact number is ..." Lynn started to reel off a London number.
     The Psion  held  the  names  and addresses  of  everyone from  the bank
manager to the local pizza shop, as you would have  as part of your cover. I
hit the data icon, and tapped the telephone number straight in, adding, as I
always  did, the address "Kay's sweet shop," I  could sense Elizabeth's eyes
burning  into  the back of  my head  and  I  turned around. She  was looking
disapprovingly  at me over the top of her paper, clearly put out that I  was
entering her contact number in the 3C. But there was  no way I'd remember it
that quickly; I'd need to go away and look  at it,  and  once I had it in my
head I'd wipe it off.  I'd never been  clever enough to  remember strings of
telephone numbers or map coordinates as they were given to me.
     Lynn carried on with the details.
     "Once in D.C." make contact with Michael Warner ." He gave me a contact
number, which I also tapped in.
     "He's  a  good  man,  used  to  work in communications, but had  a  car
accident and needed to have steel plates in his head."
     I closed down the Psion.
     "What's he do now?"
     Elizabeth had  finished with the racing section and turned to the share
prices. The driver still hadn't  turned a page.  Either he was  learning the
recipe of the day by heart or he'd gone into a trance.
     Lynn said, "He's Sarah's PA. He'll let you into her apartment."
     I nodded.
     "What's the cover story?"
     Lynn looked impatiently at his watch; maybe  he had another squash game
to get to.
     "He knows nothing, apart from the  fact that  London needs to check out
her security while she's away on business. It's time for her PV review."
     Personal vetting is carried out every few years to make sure you aren't
becoming  a  target  for  blackmail,  or sleeping with  the  Chinese defense
attache--unless you've been  asked  to by Her Majesty's government--or  that
you,  your mother, or  your great aunt haven't chucked in your lot  with the
Monster Raving Loony Party. Not that that  would have meant that much in the
past. Once  you were "in" as an IG things seemed to flow along without  much
in the way of monitoring, unless you were at the lower end of the food chain
my end where it was a completely different story.
     "He is a  bit  strange at  times;  you may  have to be  patient."  Lynn
started to smile.
     "He  had to leave  the com  ms cell  because his steel plate  picked up
certain frequencies and he used to get terrible head pain. He's good at  his
job, though." The smile faded as he  added  pointedly, "And more  important,
he's loyal."
     I shrugged.
     "Fine." Chances were that Metal  Mickey was  loyal because  he couldn't
get a job anywhere else, apart from as a relay station for Cellnet.
     I was packing everything back into the bag. I couldn't wait to get into
the fresh air; I was fed up with being scrutinized and fucked  over by these
people. But  Lynn hadn't finished. He  had one more item,  which  he  shoved
right under  my nose. It was a sheet of  white paper,  requiring a signature
for the  codes. I  used  Lynn's pen to scribble mine and handed it  back. No
matter what  happens,  you've  still got to  sign  for  every single  thing.
Everyone needs to cover their ass.
     I pushed open the door  and slid it  back, picking up the day sack When
my feet were on the concrete I turned and said, "What if I can't find her?"
     Elizabeth  lowered the  paper and gave me the sort  of look she'd given
our friends in the Ford Escort.
     Lynn glanced at Elizabeth, then back at me.
     "Get yourself a good barrister."
     I picked  up the day sack turned away and started  to  walk  toward the
elevator. I heard the door slide closed, and moments later  the Previa moved
     I  walked toward the elevator trying not to get myself  into a  rage. I
didn't know what had brought  it back on--the fact that the  Firm knew about
both  Sarah and Kelly, or the fact that I'd been stupid enough to think they
didn't. I tried to calm down by telling myself that, in their shoes, I would
have done exactly the same, would have used it as a lever to make me do  the
job. It was a fair  one, but that didn't make me any  happier about being on
the receiving end.
     I got  to the  elevator  and  jabbed the  button. I looked  at  the red
digital  display  above  the  door. Nothing  was  moving. An elderly  couple
arrived,  having an argument  about  the  way their bags were stacked on the
     We all waited.
     The elevator stopped at every floor but ours.  I stabbed at the  button
six times in  rapid succession  and the elderly couple shut up and moved  to
the other side of their trolley to keep out of my way.
     Maybe  it was Sarah I was pissed off with,  or maybe I was  just pissed
off  with myself for letting her under  my guard. Elizabeth was spot on, she
had been responsible for my divorce.
     The wait for the elevator was starting to turn into a joke. More people
had arrived with trolleys and  were  milling  about. I took the stairs.  Two
levels down, I followed the signs to departures across the skywalk, fighting
my way against a stream  of pedestrian traffic with suntans. Several charter
flights must have come in at once.
     I couldn't get the briefing out of my mind. How was  it that they  knew
everything about last year's fuckup?  I'd  kept my mouth shut all  along and
let them have just the barest of facts.
     There  was no  way I was going to let them take  the  money off me. Did
they even know about it? I had a brain wave and started to feel better. They
couldn't know everything. If so, they  would know that I had enough evidence
to put a few of the fuckers behind bars forever, and if they knew that, they
wouldn't  risk  threatening me. Then I felt pissed off  again: they could do
what  they  wanted,  because they  knew  about Kelly. I'd seen  grown  men's
emotions getting fucked over  and  used against them  when it came to  their
kids, but I'd never thought it would happen to  me. I cut all the conjecture
from my mind and started working.
     Departures was the normal mayhem people trying to  steer trolleys  that
had  other  ideas and parents  chasing runaway  two-year-olds.  A gaggle  of
pubescent schoolkids  with  tin  grins  were  on a  trip  somewhere, and  an
American  kids'  orchestra was  sitting  on its  trombone and bassoon cases,
bored with waiting to check in.
     I went to the  cash point then  to the bureau de  change. Next priority
was to find myself  some plausible hand luggage.  I bought myself  a leather
holdall, threw in  my quick-move day  sack and headed  for  the pharmacy for
washing  and shaving stuff. After that I hit a clothes  shop for  a  pair of
jeans, a couple of shirts and spare underwear.
     I checked in  at the  American Airlines  business-class  desk  and fast
tracked  air side into  the  lounge, where  I got straight  on  my mobile to
contact  my "family."  They were  good people, James and Rosemary.  They had
loved  me  like a son since I boarded with them  years ago,  or that was the
cover  story, anyway. James  always seemed  like a father should be;  he was
certainly the sort of man who would have taken his eight-year-old around HMS
Belfast. Both civil servants who had taken early retirement, they  had never
had any children because of  their careers, and  were still doing their  bit
for Queen and country. I even had a bedroom they called  it "Nick's room" in
the loft. If all your  documentation shows that's where you  live, you  must
have a room, surely?
     These were the people who would both confirm my cover story and also be
part of it.  I  visited them whenever I could, especially before an op, with
the result that  my  cover got stronger as  time  passed. They knew  nothing
about the ops and didn't want to; we would just talk about what was going on
at the social club, and what to do with greenfly on the roses.
     James wasn't  the best  gardener in the world, but  this sort of detail
gives substance to a cover. While  I was  in the area I would use  my credit
cards at one or two  local shops,  collect any mail and leave. It was a pain
to do, but details count.
     "Hello, James, it's Nick  here.  Quick  change of plan. I'm going for a
holiday in America." I might have changed names, but not James and Rosemary.
They just got used  to the change of details; after all,  I  was their third
"son" since retirement.
     "Any idea how long for?"
     "A couple of weeks probably."
     "All right, have a  good holiday then, Nick. Be careful; it's a violent
     "I'll do  my best. See  you when  I get back. Say hello to Rosemary for
     "Of course, see you soon. Oh, Nick ..."
     "Local council elections. It was a Lib Dem who got in."
     "OK, Lib Dem. Male or female?"
     "Male, Felix something. His ticket  was to stop the planning permission
for the super store."
     "Oh, OK. Will he block it?"
     "Don't be stupid. And talking of blockages, the problem with the septic
tank got sorted out yesterday."
     "OK, cheers. I tell you what, I'm  glad your shit is sorted out  there,
because I'm up to my  neck  in it here." We were both  still laughing  as  I
pressed  "end"  and  watched the  businessmen frantically  bent  over  their
     There was nothing else to do now but wait for my flight, my head slowly
filling up with Sarah. I didn't want to do this job. She'd fucked me up, but
I still missed her. I could see that if what I was being told was right, she
definitely needed  to  be stopped; it was just that  I didn't want to be the
one to do it.
     I settled into my business-class  seat,  listening first to the screams
and banter  of  the zit-faced, hormonal boys and girls from the band  twenty
rows behind me, then to a very smooth, west coast  American voice saying how
wonderful it was for the flight  crew and cabin staff to be able to serve us
     They filled us with drink  and a meal of chicken  covered in stuff, and
it was only then that I closed  my eyes and started to think seriously about
how I was going to find Sarah.
     Even in the U.K." a quarter of a million  people go  missing each year,
over  16,000  of them permanently--not, for the most part,  because  they've
been abducted,  but out of deliberate  choice. If  you go about it the right
way it's a  very simple thing to do. Sarah knew how to  do that; it was part
of her job. Finding a missing person  in the  U.K. was bad enough,  but  the
sheer size of  the U.S.A." and the fact that I couldn't  turn  to anyone for
help, meant it was going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack, in a
field full of haystacks, in a country full of fields.
     Whatever was going on in her  head, like most people in  this business,
Sarah would  have her security blanket tucked away.  Part  of that  would be
another identity. I had two backup IDs, in case one was discovered.
     Everybody  finds  their own way  to build one up and,  more especially,
hide it from the Firm. If you ever had to do a runner  from them, you'd need
that head start, and if Sarah had it in mind to disappear it would have been
well planned. She wasn't the sort of person to do anything at half cock.
     Then again,  nor was 1.1 thought about my new  mate, Nicholas Davidson,
who I'd bumped into in Australia the year before. He was a bit
     younger than  me,  and  had the  same Christian name, which is always a
good start,  as it helps  when reacting to a  new ID. But  more importantly,
both Nick and Davidson are very common names.
     I found him  in a gay bar in  Sydney.  It's usually  the best place for
what  I  had in mind, whatever country  you're in. Nicholas, I soon learned,
had been living and working  in Australia for  six years; he had a  good job
behind the bar and a partner with whom he shared a  house; most important of
all, he  had no  intention  of going back to the U.K.  Pointing out  of  the
window,  he said, "Look at  the  weather.  Look  at the people. Look  at the
lifestyle.  What do I  want  to go back for?" I got to know  him over two or
three  weeks; I'd pop in there a couple of times a week, when I  knew it was
his shift, and we'd have a chat. I met other gay men there, but they  didn't
have what Nicholas had. He was the one for me.
     When I got back to the U.K."  I  opened up an  accommodation address in
his name. Then I went to the town  hall and got  Nicholas registered  on the
electoral roll for the area of the address and applied for  a  duplicate  of
his driver's license. It arrived from the DVLC three weeks later.
     During that time  I also went to the Registry of  Births and Deaths  at
St.  Catherine's  House  in  London  and  obtained   a  copy  of  his  birth
     He  hadn't liked to talk to me about  his past, and  I  could never get
anything more out of him than his birthday and where he was born, and trying
to dig any deeper would have aroused suspicion. Besides, his partner, Brian,
was getting pissed off with me sniffing around. It took a couple of hours of
scouring the registers between 1960 and 1961 before I found him.
     I went to the police and reported that my passport had been stolen.
     They gave me a crime number,  which I put on my application  form for a
replacement.  Added to a copy of  the  birth  certificate, it  worked:  Nick
Davidson  the Second  was  soon  the  proud  owner  of a  brand-new ten-year
     I needed to go farther. To have an authentic ID you have to have credit
cards. Over the next few months  I  signed up with several book  and  record
clubs; I even bought a hideous-looking Worcester porcelain figurine out of a
Sunday supplement, paying with a postal  order. In return,  I got  bills and
receipts, all issued to the accommodation address.
     Next I wrote to two or three  of the high-street banks and asked them a
string of questions that made it sound as if I  were a big-time investor.  I
received  very  grovelling letters  in reply, on the  bank's letterhead, and
written to my address. Then all I did was walk into a building society, play
very stupid and say I  would like to open a bank account, please. As long as
you have documentation with your address on, they don't seem to care.
     I put a few quid in  the new account  and let it tick over. After a few
weeks I got some standing orders up and  running with the book clubs, and at
last  I was ready  to  apply for  a  credit  card. As  long as you're on the
electoral register, have a bank account and no  bad credit history, the card
is yours.
     And once you have one card, all the other banks and finance houses will
fall  over themselves to make sure you take theirs as well. Fortunately,  it
appeared that Nick One had left no unpaid bills behind when he'd left. If he
had it would have been back to the drawing board.
     I was  thinking about  going  one  step  farther and getting  myself  a
National Insurance number, but really there was no point. I had money and  I
had a way out,  and anyway,  you can just go down to  the local DSS  and say
you're starting work the next Monday.  They'll give you  an emergency number
on  the spot, which will last you for years.  If that doesn't work,  you can
always just make  one up;  the system's so inefficient it takes forever  for
them to find out what's going on.
     As soon as I had my passport and cards up and running, I  used them for
a trip to confirm they  worked. After that, I carried on using them to  keep
the cards active and  to get  the passport stamped  with  a  few entries and
     Just as I  would do if  I needed to disappear,  Sarah  would be leaving
behind everything  she knew. She wouldn't  be contacting family  or friends,
she would completely bin all  the little day-to-day experiences that made up
her life, all the little eccentricities that would give her away.
     I  started to think  back over what she'd told me of  her past because,
without any outside help, that was the only place I had to go. I really knew
very little, apart from the fact that she'd had a boyfriend a while ago, but
binned  him after  finding out he was also seeing another woman.  The  story
went that  he lost a finger during the row  with her;  and that  was the sum
total in that department. Maybe metal-headed Mickey Warner could help,  if I
made  it  sound  like  a  PV question.  In fact, there  would  be plenty  of
questions for him to answer.
     As  for the family and her upbringing, she'd never told me  much. All I
knew was that,  though we might have  come from different ends of the social
spectrum,  we seemed to share  the same emotional background. Neither set of
parents had given a monkey's. She was fucked off to school when she was just
nine, and me, well, I was just fucked off. Her family life was a desert, and
it would hold no clues. The more I thought about it,  the smaller the needle
became and the larger the haystack.
     What  it  boiled  down to  was  that  if she wanted  to  disappear  she
could-nobody was going to find  her. I could be on her  trail for months and
still not be  getting any  warmer. I racked  my brains,  trying to  remember
something,  anything,  that  might  help, some little clue  she  might  have
revealed at some point that would give me a lead.
     I pressed the "call" button and ordered a couple  of  beers,  partly to
help me sleep, partly because,  once I got to  D.C." there would be no  more
     For me, work and drink never mixed.
     Maybe Josh  could help. I could get hold of him  when he  returned from
the U.K." and  maybe he could  access some  databases  and run  some  covert
checks. I wondered whether I should tell him the truth, but decided against.
It could land both of us in the shit.
     The  thought suddenly struck me  that part of me was  hoping I wouldn't
find her. I felt depressed,  but  resolved  to crack on and get it over  and
done with. I would  go straight to her  flat, meet my new mate Metal Mickey,
and take it from there.
     The beer turned up and I decided to veg out for the rest of the flight.
As I watched a  film my mind drifted to Kelly.  She  was probably sitting at
the table with her grand ad drawing pictures and drinking tea  and trying to
pull her shirt out from her jeans every time her grandmother  tucked it back
in. I made a mental note to call her.
     I took another swig of beer and tried my hardest  to think of something
else, but I couldn't get Sarah out of my mind.
     In  1987,  two  years  before  the  end  of  the  Soviet  occupation of
Afghanistan, the  U.K.  and  U.S.  were sending  teams in-country  to  train
Afghani rebels, the mujahedin.
     The Soviet Union had  invaded  Afghanistan eight years earlier. Peasant
villagers got  their  first  experience of modern technology when  they were
pounded by Moscow's  jets, tanks and  helicopters. Three million were killed
or maimed; six million others fled west into Iran or east into Pakistan.
     Those that were  left  standing took on  the Russians, living on  stale
bread and tea, sleeping on rocky mountainsides.
     Eventually  the mujahedin put out an international  plea  for help. The
West responded with  $6 billion  worth of arms. Congress, however, would not
give  permission  for  the   rebels   to  be  armed  with  American  Stinger
ground-to-air missiles  to take down the Russian gunships  and ground attack
aircraft, so our job was to train them in  how to  operate the Brit Blowpipe
missiles  instead. The CIA reasoned  that  if  Congress was shown  that  the
Afghans  had  a  piss-poor  ground-to-air  missile  capability   which  they
certainly  did with Blowpipe: you needed to be a brain  surgeon or  have two
right hands to use  the thing then they would  eventually be allowed to have
Stingers instead. They were right. We stayed and generally trained  them how
to fuck the Russians over.
     Not that I knew it at the time I was more concerned about not losing  a
leg  on the hundreds  of thousands of  antipersonnel mines the  Russians had
dropped but  in Saudi Arabia, a few years before, a young  civil engineering
graduate called Osama  Bin Laden had  also responded to the rebels' plea for
help, packing himself and several of his family's bulldozers off to  central
Asia. An Islamic  radical from an influential and enormously wealthy family,
whose construction company had been involved in  rebuilding the holy mosques
in Mecca and  Medina, Bin Laden was inspired by what he saw as the plight of
Muslims in a medieval society besieged by a twentieth-century superpower.
     At first his work was political.  He was one  of the  Saudi benefactors
who spent millions supporting the Afghan guerrillas. He recruited  thousands
of Arab fighters in the Gulf, paid for their passage to  Afghanistan and set
up the main guerrilla  camp  to  train them.  Then he must have  gone a  bit
loopy. With all that money he decided to take part  in the fighting himself.
I  never  saw him,  but every other word from the mujahedin would be  on the
subject of  how  great he was. They loved  him, and so  did the West at that
time. He  sounded  like a  good  lad,  taking care of  widows and orphans by
creating  charities  to support  them and their families, all  that sort  of
     Our team had  just finished a  six-month tour in the mountains north of
Kabul and was cleaning up back  in the U.K.. before a two-week holiday  when
we  got called to  London for orders. It looked as  if we were going back to
visit  our  new  best  mates  a  bit  quicker than we  thought.  Aboard  the
helicopter, the rumor  going around was  that  we  were needed to  protect a
civil servant during meets with the  mujahedin. We groaned at the thought of
having  to nanny a sixty-year-old  Foreign Office pen-pusher while he did an
on-site audit of arms expenditure.  Colin  had been  picked to  be  with the
principal at all  times  when  on the  ground,  while the rest  of us  would
provide protection from a distance.
     "Fuck that," said Colin.
     "It'll be  like  getting stuck in  an  episode  of  Yes,  Minister." He
promptly wriggled out of it and handed the job over to me.
     Colin, Finbar, Simon and I were part of  the team. We were sitting in a
briefing room in a 1960s office block on the Borough High Street, just south
of London Bridge, drinking tea from a machine and gob bing off  as we waited
for  others to arrive. A woman we didn't recognize entered the room, and all
four of us, as well as a  few of the advisers and briefing personnel,  did a
double take. She was stunning,  her  body hardly disguised by a short  black
skirt and jacket. She  nodded to  people she  knew  and sat  down, seemingly
oblivious to the many pairs of male eyes burning into her back.
     Colin would  fuck the crack of dawn if he  had the  chance. He couldn't
keep  his eyes  off  her. She took  off  her jacket, and  the sleeveless top
beneath  showed off her shoulders. They had definition: she trained. I could
sense Colin getting even more excited.
     He leaned over and whispered to Finbar, "I need a lawyer."
     "Why's  that,  wee  mon?"  Finbar  always  called  him that, which  was
strange, as the Irishman was about a foot smaller than Colin.
     "I'm getting a divorce."
     We were all  intrigued to know what she  was bringing to the  party; it
came as  a bit of a shock  when she was introduced as  the  civil servant we
were  going to protect. I had to smile. I knew  what  was  coming  next and,
right on cue, Colin leaned toward me.
     "Nick ..."
     I ignored him, making him suffer a bit more.
     "Nick ..."
     I turned and gave him a big smile.
     "I'll take my job back now, mate."
     I slowly shook my head.
     Listening intently to  the briefing officer, she  crossed her legs, and
the rustle of the material was just about the  most wonderful sound I'd ever
heard.  I  was  sure we were  all  paying more attention to that than to the
briefing.  She was  now comfortable in her seat and her skirt had ridden  up
enough to show  the darker tops of her tights. It was impossible to tell  if
she was doing it on purpose. She didn't  turn her head or glance  around  to
check for effect.
     When she stood up  to speak,  her voice was  low and very confident. If
the Intelligence Service didn't work out  for  her,  she could always find a
job on a 1-900 number.
     Sarah explained that what she wanted to do was lay her hands on and get
back to the West an airworthy, Russian-built Hind  ground-attack helicopter,
the true capabilities of which, she said, were still not understood.
     Better still,  she added,  she'd like  a pair. She was the one  who was
going  to strike the  deal with the Afghans,  and  it was a  simple  case of
"We'll  scratch  your  back  by  carrying on  showing  you  how to fuck  the
Russians, you scratch ours with a helicopter or two."
     From day one  of  the  two  months that we  were moving  in and out  of
Pakistan to the rebels' mountain hideouts, she was a consummate professional
to work  with.  She made life so much easier for us sometimes  on  jobs like
this we could spend just as much time massaging the fear factor out  of  the
poor fucker who had to make the meet as we would preparing for it ourselves.
But  she was different. Maybe she wasn't scared because she had just as much
of  a fiery temper as  the  truculent rebels. That often  led  to delays  in
negotiations more so than the fact that she was a woman.
     But it  was  obvious to  me that she had  the  knowledge,  language and
background  to hold her  own  with these people,  for whom  we  all had  the
greatest respect; after all, they were fighting a superpower, and winning.
     I saw that Sarah had a love and understanding of this part of the world
that she couldn't have hidden, even if she'd tried. On top of  that, she was
switched on and didn't flap when the meets got heated. She knew I was there,
and that the  other three were around somewhere, watching.  If the  shit had
hit  the fan, the Afghans wouldn't have known what had hit  them unless  the
shit was Russian, in which  case  our orders were to bail out  and leave the
rebels to it.
     We were on a  shopping  trip,  but  with a difference.  Everyone had  a
weapon and everyone  was at war  not  only with the  Russians, but also with
each other as they  fought  to gain control of the country. Sarah played one
group off against  another to  get what she wanted. It went wrong only once,
when two young men discovered what was going on and confronted her. I had to
do a little  confrontation of my own at that point, and make sure the bodies
were never found.
     Another time she  lost her cool when the rebels told her they wanted to
sell the Hind to her, not simply hand it over. They had screamed and shouted
at each other and the meet had ended with her storming off the mountainside.
We drove to the border in silence, while she sat and brooded about  what had
happened. At length she said,  "Not a  good  one for me,  Nick.  What do you
think I should write in my report?"
     I thought for a moment.

     She laughed.
     "Never mind,  we'll just have  to come back and try again soon, but not
for the next five days." It was the first time I'd seen her really laugh. As
we  tried to make it back to Pakistan before one of the  helicopters she was
so keen to get hold of found us, she was giggling like a school kid
     It turned  into a ritual. After it happened  for the third time I would
just nod and say, "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."  She'd laugh, and we
would then just spin the shit until we got to the safety of Pakistan.
     Later  she had  a report  that PIRA  (the Provisional IRA) were passing
technical  information to the  mujahedin on  how to make homemade explosives
and timer units. London reckoned  the Afghans would be paying PIRA back with
buckets of their U.S.and U.K.-sourced weapons.
     She looked concerned.
     "What are  we going to do about it, Nick? London wants me to  find  out
who their contact is."
     I cracked up.
     "You already know them."
     She looked puzzled.
     "I do?"
     "Colin, Finbar, Simon and me."
     She was now totally confused.
     "Think  about it. Who has been fighting a  terrorist  war for years? We
showed the  Afghans what PIRA  use, we  showed  them how to  make  the timer
units.  PIRA's  stuff is  easy to make, reliable and it works. It's the best
improvized kit in the world. We even use it ourselves,  so  why not show our
new best mates? That's our job, right: to help fuck up the bad boys."
     The next evening in Pakistan was spent constructing a sit rep that took
the piss  out of the int collator who'd thought up this little PIRA gem, and
she found  it as funny as I  did, which was  all  rather nice, because I was
finding that I liked the way her nose twitched when something amused her and
her face creased into a big, radiant smile.
     It was strange that we got  on so well, because in many  ways  we  were
chalk and cheese.  I had  joined the  Army  because I  was  too  thick to do
anything else. I'd seen the adverts that said I could be a  helicopter pilot
serving Queen and  country, and an uncle of mine, who was an  ex  serviceman
told me that girls loved a uniform. As far  as I was concerned,  all you had
to do to  get permanently tanned and laid was saunter down to the recruiting
office. To a sixteen-year-old kid who thought that the world beyond my south
London housing estate was just hearsay, it was no wonder the posters  sucked
me  in.  I couldn't  wait  to go  to  Cyprus  wherever  that was  and fly my
helicopter  over beaches packed with girls who were just  gagging for  me to
land and let them play with my joystick.
     Strangely, however, that wasn't quite the way things turned out. I took
the entry  tests, but  the Army  seemed to take the view that  somebody  who
could only just about do up  his own boot laces without getting confused was
not  about to  take  sole  charge  of a multimillion-pound Chinook.  So, the
infantry it was, then.
     Sarah,  on the other hand, was smart. Private  Benjamin she wasn't. Not
that I knew much about her; ironically, she was just as good as I was at not
giving anything away. No, I realized later, she was better. And to be honest
that pissed me off. I wanted to know all about her strengths and weaknesses,
her  hopes  and fears, her  likes  and dislikes,  because  armed  with  that
information I could properly  plan and carry out an attack  on her expensive
designer underwear. Since part  of our cover  while in Pakistan was  that we
were a couple and  had to share  the same hotel  room much to Colin's fury I
thought I might be  in with a chance. At  least, that was  at the back of my
mind at the start. I soon surprised myself by finding that, more than to get
into her pants, I wanted to get inside her head. I realized I actually liked
her. I liked her a lot, and I'd never felt that way about anyone before.
     As  time  went by, however, I was making no progress. I could never get
any sort of  handle on who this woman  really  was.  It  was like playing  a
computer  game  and never  getting past level one. It  wasn't  that she  was
aloof; she was a great mixer. She'd go out with the  team, and even accepted
dinner with me  a couple of times. She had a  way of  making me feel  like a
puppy jumping around at her feet waiting for a doggie treat. I knew, though,
that I had the dreamer's disease, and that  nothing would happen between us.
What the fuck  would she want from someone like me, apart from my ability to
rip people apart for her if they got too scary?
     On  that point  I'd obviously acquitted myself all right, because Sarah
was the  one who suggested that  I apply for a job  with  the service once I
lefr  the  Regiment.  Even now,  after five years, I  still didn't know if I
should kiss her for  that, or  give her the good news with a  two-pound ball
     I drank more beer and tried to watch the TV screen in front of me,  but
really I couldn't be assed. I thought back again to the Afghanistan job. The
United  States and its allies  gave tens of thousands of  assault rifles and
rocket-propelled  grenades, millions of rounds of ammunition and hundreds of
Stinger missiles to the  mujahedin.  By the  time the war ended  in 1989 the
muj's stock  of  Stingers was  far from  exhausted, and the CIA  soon had  a
multimillion-dollar reward operation going, in an  attempt to get  them back
before  they were  sold to any  terrorist group who fancied a couple to play
with. As far as I knew, the offer still stood.
     I turned  onto my side, trying  to  get  comfortable, and thought  that
maybe I should be going back to try and get some of that reward for myself.
     It was about time I made some money. I didn't know where they were, but
I knew an Afghan who'd got Sarah's Hinds for her, and he just might.
     It's strange how  things change.  During  that time Bin Laden was  most
certainly in the West's Good Lads club. Now he'd  had the idea of blowing up
things on the American mainland, he was public enemy number  one. I wondered
what sort of reward the U.S. had on his head.
     The flight ended in Dulles airport,  just outside  of Washington, and I
joined  the  long snake of  people lining up for Immigration. It took  about
twenty minutes to shuffle to the desks, gradually zigzagging my way backward
and forward between  the ropes. It  reminded me of lining up  for  a ride at
Disneyland. The immigration personnel looked like policemen and behaved like
bouncers, pushing and herding us into position.
     My immigration official glared  as if he were trying to spook me, maybe
because he was bored. I just smiled like a dickhead tourist while he stamped
the visa waiver and wearily invited me to enjoy my stay in the United States
of America.
     The automatic doors parted and I walked into the frenzy of the arrivals
lounge. Drivers were holding up  name cards, families were clutching flowers
and teddy bears,  and they were all looking hopefully at each face that came
through the sliding doors. All I wanted was a big dose of caffeine.
     I wandered over to  Starbucks and got myself about a pint and a half of
cappuccino. Tucking myself  away  in the  corner,  I got out the 3C  and the
mobile and switched them both on.
     I found the  number I wanted and waited  an age for the mobile to get a
signal. The new Bosch mobiles worked on both worldwide and U.S. frequencies;
     there wasn't 100 percent  coverage here yet, but it was getting better.
They  had completely changed  the way we worked. Phones had  been around for
ages that could do the same job, but they weren't available commercially. On
covert ops you can use  only what you can buy at the Carphone Warehouse;  if
not, you'd stand out like dogs' bollocks. I hit the keys.
     "Hellooo, Michael speaking." The  voice was camp  and  highly  pitched,
more like a game-show host  than  the personal assistant of  a member of the
"other Foreign Office."
     "My name's Nick Snell," I said.
     "Oh, yes, I've  been waiting to hear from you," he said, and  it was  a
mixture of warmth, excitement and pleasure, as if I were a long-lost friend.
     "How are you?"
     I  was a bit  taken aback. We didn't know each other, and  going by the
sound of his voice  I wouldn't  even buy a secondhand washing  machine  from
him, yet he was talking to me as if I were his best mate from way back.
     "I'm fine," I said, feeling a smile spread across my face.
     "How are you?"
     He came back  with, "I'm  just Jim Dandy!" Then he tried  to switch  to
serious mode.
     "Now then, where do you want to meet me?"
     All  of a  sudden  I wondered if  I  was on a radio stitch-up show  and
started to  laugh.  I  said, "I'll leave that to you. After  all,  it's your
town, isn't it?"
     "Oh, and what a town!" He clearly couldn't wait to share it with me.
     There was a little pause, then he said, "I tell you what, I'll meet you
at the Bread and Chocolate Bakery. It's a coffee shop on the corner of M and
23rd. They  do fantastic mocha, and it's not far from the apartment. Now, do
you know where M and 23rd is?"
     I knew the area and I could read a map. I'd find it.
     "I've  got to pick a  car up first--I'll  be there in about  two hours'
time. Will that fit in with you?"
     For  reasons  best known to  himself, he came  back with  a  mock-Texan
     "Why, sure, Nick." He laughed.
     "I'll be the  beach ball with the blue shirt and the red tie; you won't
be able to miss me."
     I  said,  "I'm wearing jeans, a blue checked shirt  and  a blue  bomber
     "See  you there. By the way, parking is  an absolute bitch this time of
day, so good luck to you. See you there, M and 23rd. Byeee!"
     I hit the "end" button and shook my head. What  the  fuck was that  all
     I was only two blocks away when I got held up in slow-moving traffic.
     With its tall buildings  and narrow  roads, the area  around M and 23rd
reminded me of the more upscale areas of New York. Even the weather was  the
same as on my visits to the Big Apple: cloudy, but warm. Trust Sarah to live
around  here,  I thought, but in  fact  it  made  sense.  It wasn't far from
Massachusetts Avenue, which more or less  bisects the city from northwest to
southeast, and all the embassies, missions and  consulates are  in the area,
mainly in the northwest section.
     As I filtered forward I saw the problem.  The junction ahead was sealed
off by D.C.  police  bikers, and we were  being rerouted to the right. As  I
made the  turn,  a fleet of  black Lincolns with darkened  windows  screamed
through  the  crossroads.  At the rear  of the  convoy was  a  bunch of four
wheel-drive Chevy escorts and two ambulances, just in case the principal cut
his finger. It looked as if either Netanyahu or Arafat was already in town.
     The  grid system in D.C.  works with the lettered streets running  east
west  and  the  numbers  north-south. I found  the junction I wanted  easily
enough, but  there was no way I could stop. The one-way  circuit on M street
had a mind of its  own, and Metal Mickey was right, parking was a gang-fuck.
The  street was  lined with cars that  had a firm grip on  their meters  and
weren't letting go for anyone; another three laps of the block and I finally
found a Nissan  pulling away from  a  space  on  M, just past the junction I
     I  locked up, fed  the meter and walked. Bread and Chocolate turned out
to be a small coffee shop on the street level of an office and apartment
     building,  just fifteen  meters farther down  on the left side of 23rd.
There was another coffee  shop  opposite, attached  to a  grocery store, but
this was the better of the two. The interior looked so clean I felt I should
have scrubbed up before going in. Long glass  display cases were filled with
Danishes  and a  million different  muffins  and sandwiches, and on the wall
behind them  was a coffee  selection menu that  went on  forever. Everything
looked so perfect I wondered if people were allowed to buy anything and mess
up the displays.
     The tables were white marble,  small and round, just big enough to seat
three. I sat facing the glass shop  front and ordered a mocha  a  small  one
after the  mother lode at the airport. The place was  about a  quarter full,
mostly  with smartly  dressed  office workers  talking  shop.  I  nursed  my
caffeine for the ten minutes that  remained before our RV  Right on time, in
he walked, and  a beach ball he certainly was. He had skin that was so clear
it  was  virtually see-through, and black hair that was slightly thinning on
top, which he'd  gelled  and  combed back to  make it  look thicker. On  his
cheerful, chubby face he had fashionably round, black-rimmed glasses, behind
which a  pair  of  clear  blue  eyes were looking twice their  natural  size
because  of  the thickness of  the lenses.  He was  wearing a  shiny,  gray,
single-breasted suit, bright blue shirt and red tie, all set off nicely by a
little  burn-fluff  goatee  beard.  He  must  have been  about  forty pounds
overweight, but was tall with it,  over six  feet. His jacket had all  three
buttons done up and was straining to contain the load. He spotted me just as
easily and came over, hand outstretched.
     "Well, hellooo. You must be Nick."
     I  shook  his  hand,  noticing his  soft skin  and  immaculate,  almost
feminine,  fingernails. We  sat down and  the waiter  came over  immediately
maybe Metal  Mickey  was a regular. Pointing at  my coffee, he looked up and
     "I'll have one of those, please." The  aroma of the mocha was  no match
for his aftershave.
     The  moment  the  waiter  was   out  of  earshot,  he  leaned  forward,
unnaturally close to me.
     "Well then, all I've been told is  to help you  while  Sarah's away." I
was about to reply, but he was off again.
     "I must  say, I'm quite excited about it. I've never been involved with
someone  else's PV review before. Just my  own, of course. Anyway, so here I
am, all yours!" He finished in a grand gesture, with his hands in the air in
mock surrender.
     Grabbing my chance, I said, "Thanks, that certainly makes things a  lot
easier.  Tell  me,  when was the last time you saw her? I'm not too sure how
long she's been away."
     "Oh, about three  weeks  ago.  But what's  new?  She's  here, there and
everywhere, isn't she?"
     The coffee came and Metal Mickey's head turned as he said thanks to the
waiter. The light caught it just right and I could  see the  scarring  where
the plate had been inserted an  area about three inches  by  two of slightly
raised  skin.  I  just  hoped  that no one on a nearby table answered  their
cellular phone, because he'd probably leap up and start doing the conga.
     He picked up his coffee cup, got his podgy lips over the rim and sucked
away at the froth. He put  it down again  with a big  "Ah!" and smiled, then
was straight back into it.
     "Yes, three weeks ago was the last time. I don't  worry  much about her
comings  and goings. I just make sure things  are running smoothly here." He
hesitated, like  a child who wants something from a parent and  is trying to
pluck up  courage. I was almost  expecting  him  to  start playing  with his
fingers and shuffling his feet.
     "I've been thinking,  is her  review because she's due to return to the
U.K.? If so, it's just that I wondered ... would  I have to go  back, too? I
mean, not that I wouldn't want that, but it's just..."
     I caught his drift and cut in.
     "I don't think she, or you, will be going  home  soon,  Michael. Unless
you want to." I decided not to hit him with  any questions at the moment. He
was too  nervous, and would naturally be loyal to Sarah. Besides, I might as
well get  to grips with the apartment, then hit  him with  everything in one
     There was visible relief in his face. I went on, in a more upbeat tone,
"You have the keys for her apartment?"
     "Sure do! Shall we go up there now?"
     I nodded,  and sucked down  the rest of my coffee  while he pulled some
notes  from a  slim, tidy wallet  to pay for the coffees. At the pay desk he
carefully folded the receipt and tucked it away.
     "Expenses," he sighed.
     He carried on as we walked out onto 23rd.
     "I don't know when she's coming  back. Do you?"  He held open the glass
door for me.
     I thought, Who's supposed to be asking the questions here?
     "No, I'm afraid I don't. I'm just here to do the review." I thought I'd
leave it at that.
     I didn't know if he'd seen how a PV review was really carried out which
wasn't  like  this--but  he  nodded  as  if  he  knew it was all part of the
     "Did you manage to park near?"
     "Just around the corner, on M."
     "Well done, good boy!"
     I started to go to the right, toward the car, thinking we were about to
go for a drive.
     "No, no, silly," he said, pointing the opposite way.
     "She lives at the end of the block, on N."
     It  was  strange; the  one  thing I  didn't get from  Lynn  was Sarah's
     Mind  you, I  didn't  ask.  It must have  been shock at  the thought of
seeing her again.
     As we walked the short distance along  the narrow, tree-lined street to
the next junction, I saw what  he  was pointing at. The apartment  block was
right on the corner of 23rd and N. Its jutting balconies and  combination of
red brick and white stone made it look like a game of Jenga played with Good
& Plenty candy. I couldn't make  up my mind whether that was how it had been
designed, or if the builders had been drunk when they put it all together.
     We carried on toward the junction and I decided to chance a question. I
knew I'd resolved not to press  him just  yet, but this was one  that  I was
very curious to have an answer to.
     "Tell me about boyfriends," I said.
     He looked at me with a mixture of surprise and disapproval, and sounded
quite defensive.
     "I  don't think  that has anything to do with this PV" He  paused, then
said, "But yes, as a matter of fact, I do ..."
     "No, no, not you," I laughed.
     "Sarah. Do you know of any men that she's been seeing?"
     "Ohhh, Sarah. None at all. Well, not after what happened last time."
     His tone just begged the question.
     "Why, what happened?"
     "Well, poor Sarah was in love with a guy from the real Foreign Office.
     He was back in  London, but he came here from time to time. They  would
disappear  for  a week  or two, to the  middle of  nowhere.  Not my sort  of
stamping ground, let me tell you."
     I looked at him expecting to share a  smile, but he was thinking of the
next bit and had begun to look sad.
     "Something very unfortunate happened,  and I'm afraid it was me who was
the bringer of bad news ..."
     He was waiting for the pan to reply, and I obliged: "What bad news?"
     "Well, I get a call  from Sarah, telling  me  that Jonathan"--he took a
breath, getting really sparked up about him--"is arriving at the airport and
she wants me to pick  him up and  take  him straight to the restaurant she's
booked for a surprise dinner.  They planned to leave for  the lakes the next
     I nodded to show that I was hanging on every word.
     "I  get to the airport  to pick him  up. He's never seen me  before, of
course, but I've seen photographs of him. Anyway, so there I am, waiting.
     Out he comes, arm-in-arm  with  another woman. All  over her like a wet
dress,  I ask you!  I put  my name card  down sharpish,  I can tell you, and
followed to  see what happened  next. I even got in the taxi line  with them
and listened. She was called Anna .. . Ella .. . Antonella--that was it.
     Anyway, a stupid name if you ask me, but spot on for a Sloaney slapper,
which  was what she looked. Too many pearls around her neck; didn't suit her
..." He left a gap. Maybe he wanted me to feel part of the show.
     I said, "What happened next?"
     "Well, what was  I to do? I call Sarah at  the restaurant an hour later
to say that I couldn't find him. She says, "Not a problem, he's called me on
my cell phone." You  can imagine, Nick,  I struggled all night about what to
do.  Do  I  tell her or  do I not? Well,  it's none  of my  business, is it?
Anyway, the next day the decision  was made  for me." The smile on  his face
told me that it had been a good one. He was trying to suppress a giggle.
     "Go on."
     "Well, poor old Anna whats-her-face had been mugged downtown. In such a
mess she was, lost her money, cards, the poor girl was in hospital for days,
you know. Well,  who does she ask the police  to  contact but dear Jonathan,
care of  the  embassy?  The call comes through, I get to hear  about it, and
guess  what--it  only turns out he's her ! So, I had the contact number  and
she was in hospital. Poor girl. I suppose I feel sorry for her now."
     I  laughed, but wondered who in their right  mind  would  two-time with
another woman when they already had Sarah.
     "What happened?"
     He held his hand up, with his index finger folded down.
     "The bitch lost his finger; she slammed the car door on his hands! That
will teach him to mess  with Sarah.  If  you knew her like I do, Nick, you'd
know  that  she's  a wonderful woman. Far too good  for a  man  like  that."
Someone  must  have  powered  up a  mobile  near us--Metalhead  was off on a
     "And she wears such wonderful clothes, you wouldn't believe!"
     As we got to the junction I saw that the entrance was on  the N  Street
side. A Latino in a blue polo  shirt and green work trousers was hosing down
the street  directly  outside the main doors,  while the  greenery along the
front of the building was getting a drenching from the irrigation system.
     The  main  doors were made  of copper-colored alloy  and glass.  To the
left, a brass plate welcomed us to the building; to the right, a touchscreen
TV entry system made sure the welcome wasn't abused. Metal Mickey took out a
long plastic key, which looked as if it  should be used  to wind up a  kid's
toy. He slipped it into the keyhole and the doors parted.
     We walked into  a  world  of black marble  floors,  dark-blue walls and
ceilings you could free  fall  from. The elevators  were ahead of us,  about
twenty  meters  farther  down  the  atrium.  To  the right  of  them  was  a
semicircular desk--very Terence Conran,  with a shiny  wooden top and  black
marble wall  beneath. Behind it sat  an equally smart  and efficient-looking
porter, who would  have looked at  home on the door of a five-star hotel. It
appeared  that  Metal  Mickey  knew him  quite well. He  greeted  him with a
cheery, "Why, hello, Wayne, how are you today?"
     Wayne was fortyish, and obviously having a really good day.
     "I'm very good," he smiled.
     "How are you doing?"
     It was  obvious  that he didn't really  know Metal Mickey's name  or he
would have said it, but he recognized the face.
     "I'm just Jim  Dandy,"  Mickey grinned. Then he looked  over at  me and
said,  "This is  Nick,  a  friend of  Sarah's. He's  going to  be  using the
apartment for a few days while Sarah's away, so I'll show him what's what."
     I  smiled at Wayne  and  shook his hand,  just  to prove to him  that I
wasn't a threat. Wayne smiled back.
     "Anything  you need,  Nick, just dial  HELP  on the  in-house phone and
it'll be done."
     "Thanks a lot. I'll need Sarah's parking space, if she has one."
     "You just tell me when you want to collect the pass key." He beamed.
     There was one more thing I needed. I leaned toward Wayne, as if letting
him into a secret.
     "If Sarah comes in, please don't tell her I'm here.  I want to surprise
     Wayne gave me a knowing, between-men sort of nod.
     "No problem.
     Tell you what, I'll call you on the in-house if I see her."
     Metal  Mickey  and  I took  the elevator to the  sixth  floor. The door
opened onto a corridor that was every  bit  as  plush  as the entrance  hall
downstairs, with the same colored walls and subtle, wall-mounted lighting.
     You could see the vacuum marks on the thick blue carpet.
     Metal Mickey was quiet for a change  as  we walked  along the corridor,
his hands in his pockets as he sorted out some  keys. He stopped outside the
door to apartment  612. "Here  we  are."  He  undid  the  large,  five-lever
deadlock first, then the equivalent of a Yale lock, and pushed the door open
for me.
     I stepped in before him and blocked  the doorway, which opened straight
into the  living  room. He got the  message, dangling the keys  between  his
thumb and forefinger in front of me.
     "Do  you want  me to stay  and make you some coffee,  or  do  you  need
anything else?"
     I said,  "There will be  a few things I need to talk to you about  work
stuff, you know. Later on. But apart from  that, mate, no.  But thanks a lot
for  everything.  I just need a little time on  my own,  to sort myself out;
it's my first one, I need to do a good job."
     He nodded as if he knew what  I  was talking about,  which was  just as
well because I  didn't; it  had  just come  into  my  head. It  was  nothing
personal, I just didn't want him around.
     He gave me his card.
     "My home and pager."
     I took it from him.
     "Thanks,  I'll  try  not to  call  you out of  hours.  I can't  imagine
there'll be any need. It can all wait until Monday."
     It always pays to be nice to  people,  because you never know when  you
might  need  to use them.  And besides, Metal Mickey  was  harmless.  As  he
started  to  walk  back toward  the  elevator, I poked  my  head  around the
doorframe and called out, "Thanks a  lot, Michael." He  just waved his right
hand in the air and said, "Byeee, and remember, anything else you need, just
     I closed the  door and remained standing on the threshold while I keyed
Metal Mickey's numbers into my 3C cards always get lost. Once done, I looked
around at  nothing in particular, just  tuning  in to the place rather  than
charging in and not noticing  anything. I knew there wouldn't be any letters
under the door, because they all went via the central mailbox.  I  also knew
that  there'd be nothing tangible, like a notebook with  a  detailed plan of
what she was  up to, but if you don't take your time you can go straight for
the sixpence and miss the five-pound note.
     I  went  to  lock  myself in so no one could  enter; it was  a  natural
reaction  to  being in  someone else's  house when  I shouldn't, but on this
occasion there was no need. I wanted her to come in; it would certainly make
my job a lot easier, and if Wayne kept his eyes open I'd get a warning.
     A strange thought struck me. I'd seen Sarah so  many times in shortterm
accommodation,  when we'd stayed in  hotels or flats, but this was the first
time  I'd seen where and how she lived for real. I felt like a voyeur, as if
I were watching her undress through her bedroom keyhole.
     Basically it was just a large one-bedroom apartment, furnished, I could
see at once, by the "accommodation pack"--the standard furniture provided on
the diplomatic circuit. Very plush, very expensive, very sophisticated,  but
not much of  it, which the  FCO (Foreign  and Commonwealth Office)  probably
called minimalist because that way it sounded fashionable.
     The  rest of it you  bought yourself with  an  allowance. She obviously
hadn't got around to that yet.
     In the  main room there was a slightly lighter  blue carpet than in the
hallway outside, and a matching blue sofa  and chairs. In the  far left-hand
corner  was a long sideboard with  three drawers, facing a large window that
looked  out on to the rear of  the  building and  one of the creeks that ran
into the Potomac. Next to the window was a bookcase, its four shelves filled
with hardbacks. I  went  over and  scanned the  spines.  Quite a few  titles
seemed to be  concerned  with the Middle East and terrorism, and there was a
complete set  of the 1997 Economist world reports.  One shelf  started  with
biographies--Mandela,  Thatcher  (of  course,  she  would  have that),  JFK,
Churchill--and  ended  with  a  couple  of  Gore  Vidal's books,  plus a few
heavy-going  ones on  American  history  and  a collection of  Oscar Wilde's
plays.  The  bottom  shelf  held   what  looked  like  large-format,  coffee
table-type  books. They were lying flat because  of their  size and I had to
twist my head to see the titles. I recognized The Times  World Atlas because
it  was  the free  offer of that which had enticed me into  one  of the book
clubs I'd used when  becoming Nick  Davidson, and  then  there  were several
pictorial ones on different countries in the Middle East, and  one about the
     Both the sideboard and bookcase were made from a light wood veneer, and
the walls were emulsioned  off-white. There had been no effort whatsoever to
personalize this flat. It was as anonymous as my house in Norfolk, though at
least she had a sofa and a bookcase.
     There  were a few society,  news  and what's-on-in-Washington magazines
beside the sofa on the floor, piled on top of each  other. A phone was lying
on top of the mags, its digital display telling me there were no messages.
     The  walls were  bare apart from some bland  views  of D.C.  that  were
probably taken when JFK- was boss. There were two lamps: a normal table lamp
on  the floor just in front of  the  sofa, its wire snaking away  across the
carpet, and a  standard lamp over by the bookcase, both with matching  white
shades. That was her all over; she  might be highly professional in her job,
but when it came to her personal admin she was a bag of shit. But what did I
expect from someone who wouldn't even know her way around Tesco?
     There wasn't  a television set, which didn't  surprise me. She'd  never
watched  it. If you asked her about Seinfeld and Frasier, she'd probably say
it was  a New York law firm.  My  eyes  moved back to the bookcase.  On  the
bottom  shelf sat a large  glass vase, but  there were  no  flowers  in  it,
instead  it was filled with coins and pens and all the rest of the shit that
people  pull out of their pockets  at  the end of the  day. Near it was  her
social calendar:
     thick, gilded  invitations  for drinks  at eight  at British Embassy or
American Congress functions. I  counted seven for the last month. It must be
a terrible life, having  to scoff all those free vol-au-vents and knock back
glasses of champagne.
     On the  sideboard was a standard, all-in-one,  solid-state  CD  player,
probably quite inexpensive, but serving its purpose. About a dozen  CDs were
stacked on top of each other, and as I walked over I could see that three of
them were still in their cellophane. She hadn't had enough time to play them
yet maybe next  week. There was also a boxed set of five classical operas. I
turned the cases to read the spines. Cosi Fan Tutte was there, of course one
of the few things I did know about her was that it was her favorite.
     I  looked at the rest of  the music: a  couple of 1970s Genesis albums,
remastered on CD, and what looked like  a bootleg  cover of  a  group called
Sperm Bank. I'd have to have a listen to that one, it was so out of place.
     She and I had never really talked that much about music, but I knew she
loved opera while I'd hear things on the radio and  think. That's good, I'll
buy that, but then lose the tape before I'd even played it.
     The standby light was still on. I pressed "open," put in the Sperm Bank
CD  and hit  "play."  It  was  some  kind  of weird  Tahitian rap/jazz/funk,
whatever they call it very noisy but very rhythmic. I turned the volume up a
bit  so I could  hear it big time, and  felt very  fashionable. Fuck it, the
chances of her coming back here were ziff.
     I'd  had  my first  cursory  look  in the living room,  now I'd try the
     It was about fifteen feet square, with units completely filling up both
sides  of the wall, so that it ended up being  more like a  passageway.  The
stove, oven and sink were all built-in.
     I had  a mooch in  the cupboards above the work surfaces, trying to get
some idea of how this woman lived. It was nothing to do with the job now.
     I was just curious to see this other side of her. There  was hardly any
food,  and  probably never had been.  There were cans  of convenience items,
like rice and packet  noodles, which could just be  opened and boiled, and a
couple  of packs of gourmet coffee,  but no spices or herbs or anything else
you'd need  if you cooked at home. On the few occasions  when  she wasn't at
embassy  dos,  or being dined in  restaurants, she probably got by  with the
     I opened another cupboard and found six of everything the accommodation
pack again plain white  crockery, six cups, six  glasses. Over 60 percent of
the cupboard space was empty. In the fridge was half a carton of milk, which
wasn't looking too healthy it smelled and looked as if it held  the cure for
HIV Next to that were some bagels, still  in their plastic  bag, and half  a
jar  of peanut  butter,  and that was it.  Not  exactly Martha Stewart,  our
Sarah. At least I had some cheese and yogurt in mine.
     The  bathroom was  between the kitchen and the bedroom.  There  was  no
bath, just a shower, sink and toilet. The room had been left as if she'd got
up normally, done her stuff and dashed off to work. A dry but used towel lay
on the  floor next to a laundry bin that was half  full  of jeans, underwear
and tights. No sign of a washing machine, but I wasn't really expecting one.
Sarah's clothes would go to a dry cleaners, or to a laundry  for a fluff and
     The bedroom was about  fifteen by twenty feet, with a walk-in wardrobe,
but  no other  furniture apart from a double  bed and a single  bedside lamp
sitting  on  the floor.  The duvet was thrown to  one side  where she'd just
woken up and tossed it off. All the bedding was plain white, the same as the
walls. There were pillows for  two people, but only one of them looked slept
on. Again, there were no pictures  on the walls, and the Venetian blinds  on
both windows were closed. Either she'd just got up and gone to work, or this
was simply how it always was.
     The walk-in  closet had  mirrored sliding  doors. I  pulled them  open,
expecting the scent of a woman's wardrobe, that slight waft of stale perfume
lingering on jackets that have been worn once and  are back on their hangers
before they find  their  way to the cleaners. In fact, there  was almost  no
smell  at   all,   which   wasn't  surprising.   The   rows  and   rows   of
expensive-looking clothes  were  all in dry  cleaner's plastic wrapping, and
even her blouses and  T-shirts were on hangers. Out of curiosity I checked a
few labels, and found  Armani, Joseph  and  Donna  Karan. She was  obviously
still slumming it. On  a shelf above the dresses was  the  just as expensive
luggage to match. Nothing seemed to be missing or out of place.
     In  front of  me  was a small stand-alone  chest, just a  white Formica
thing with about five or six drawers.  One of the drawers was open; I looked
inside and found panties and bras, again all very expensive.
     All her footwear  was arranged  on the floor on the right-hand  side of
the wardrobe, and looking very orderly: formal, summer, winter and a pair of
trainers.  To the left of the  wardrobe, and also  on the  floor, was a shoe
     I  bent down and lifted the lid. A  Picasso dove greeted me, on top  of
more  old Christmas and  birthday cards. Flicking through  them, I  found  a
picture  of  her arm-in-arm  with  a  tall,  good-looking man.  They were in
woodland, looking extremely happy, both dressed the part in waterproofs  and
boots.  Maybe  this  was  Jonathan,  and presumably in happier times.  Sarah
looked a little older than when I'd seen  her on  the Syria job; the bob had
had two years to grow out and her hair was about shoulder length, still very
straight and  with a  fringe that was  just above those big eyes. She hadn't
put  on  weight,  and  still  looked fantastic  as  she smiled  that  almost
innocent, childlike grin toward me.  I realized  I was  looking  at the  man
beside  her and wishing it was me as I dropped the photo back in the box and
lay  down on the bed. There  was no smell  of her,  just that of dry cleaned
     We had been in and out of Afghanistan  those first two months, with  no
     The  rebels  had managed  to  get a major  offensive off the ground  in
between their internal feuds and were kicking the ass out of the Russians.
     No one  would be talking to  us for a while, so  we got out of the way,
taking time off and generally having fun. We could only hope that one of the
rebel groups with an  entrepreneurial flair would attack a heliport and  see
us all right with a couple of Hinds.
     Both of us could have gone back to  the  U.K.  with the other three and
done our own thing, but  she  wanted to  go trekking in Nepal and I knew the
country well. It  seemed  a simple  swap:  she showed me the  historical and
religious sites,  and  I showed her  the  bars and  dives  where, as a young
infantry soldier on an exchange with the Gurkhas, I'd been separated from my
money. It was an education for both of us.
     It was during  the first week off, staying in Katmandu before moving to
Pukara  for our week's  trek, that things changed. By now she would take the
piss out of my accent: I called Hackney 'ackney, and she called it Hackemey.
We'd just finished a  run one day, and  were both getting our key cards from
our socks, when  she leaned into my ear and said, in her bad cockney accent,
"Awright darling', you wanna fuck or what?"
     Three weeks later, and back with  the rest of the team in Pakistan, the
cover  story of being  a couple  was now  played out for real.  I  even  had
fantasies of maybe  seeing her later  on  once the job had  ended.  I'd been
married  for four years and things hadn't been going well. Now they were  in
shit  state. With Sarah  I enjoyed  the  intimate  talks  and learning about
things I'd never bothered to find out about, or  even knew existed. Up until
then, I'd thought Cosi Fan Tutte was an Italian ice cream. This was it.
     Love.  I didn't understand what was happening to me. For the first time
in  my  life I had deep, loving feelings for someone. Even better, I got the
impression  she felt the same.  I couldn't bring myself to ask her,  though;
the fear of rejection was just too great.
     When the  Afghanistan  job finished, we  were on  the flight home  from
Delhi  and well  into our  descent to  Heathrow before I  plucked up  enough
courage to  ask her the big question. I  still didn't  know that much  about
her,  but it  didn't matter,  I didn't think she  knew  that  much about  me
     I just really needed  to be with her. I felt like a child being dropped
off  by  a parent and not knowing  if they  will ever come back. Courage  or
desperation, I  wasn't  sure  which,  but  I kept my eyes on  the  in-flight
magazine and said, very throwaway,  "We're  still going  to see each  other,
aren't we?"
     The dread of rejection lifted as she said, "Of course." Then she added,
"We've got to debrief."
     I thought she'd misunderstood me.
     "No, no ... I hoped,  later on, we might be able to  see each other ...
you know, out of work."
     Sarah looked at me, and I saw her jaw drop a fraction in disbelief. She
said, "I don't think so, do you?"
     She must have seen the confusion on my face.
     "Come  on,  Nick,  it's  not as if we're in  love  with  each other  or
anything like that. We spent a lot of time together and it was great."
     I couldn't bear  to look at  her, so  I just kept my eyes fixed  on the
     Fuck, I'd  never felt so crushed. It was like going to the doctor for a
routine checkup and being told I was going to have a slow, painful death.
     "Look, Nick" there  wasn't a hint of regret in  her voice "we had a job
to do and it was a success. That means it was a success for both of us.
     You got what you wanted out of it, and so did I." She paused.
     "Look, the more intimate we were, the more you would protect me, right?
Am I right?"
     I nodded. She was right. I would probably have died for her.
     Before she could say  another word I did what had always worked in  the
past, ever since childhood: I just cut away. I looked at her as if I'd  just
been asking her out for a drink, and said, "Oh, OK, just thought I'd ask."
     I'd never been fucked off with such casual finesse. I kicked myself for
even having considered that she would want to  be with me. Just who the fuck
did I think I was? I was definitely suffering from the dreamer's disease.
     It was only a month after we'd landed at Heathrow that I left my wife.
     We were just existing together, and it didn't seem right to be sleeping
with her and thinking of Sarah.
     When the Syria job came along I didn't know she was going to be on it.
     We met for orders in  London,  this  time  in  better  offices Vauxhall
Cross,  the new home of SIS overlooking the Thames. She acted as if  nothing
had ever happened between us. Maybe it hadn't for her,  but it had for me. I
made a plan. Never again would she, or any other woman, fuck me over.
     I sat up on the bed and put the lid on the shoe box. That could wait. I
needed to tune in to this place and try to get a feel of it.
     I went back  into the kitchen, filled the coffee percolator  with water
and ground beans and got it going. Then I went back into the living room.
     Sperm Bank--or  the  Sperm, as  I now  liked to  call them--were  still
rattling along big time.
     I slumped sideways in one of the chairs, with my back against one  arm,
my legs over the other. I'd found nothing at all on the first sweep. I would
have  to  give each  room  a  thorough going over, digging  everything  out.
Somewhere, somehow, there could be a slight clue, a tiny hint.
     Maybe.  The  only thing I knew  for sure was that  if  I  rushed  it  I
wouldn't find anything.
     As I looked around me my thoughts  drifted. Sarah wasn't that different
from me really. Everything in my life was disposable, from a toothbrush to a
car. I didn't have a single possession that was  more than two years  old. I
bought  clothes for a job and threw them  away once they were dirty, leaving
hundreds of pounds'  worth of  whatever  behind me because I didn't need  it
anymore. At  least she had a photo; I didn't  have any  mementos of  family,
schooldays  or  the Army, not  even of Kelly and me. It  was something I was
always going to get around to, but hadn't.
     I went back  to the kitchen, realizing I was thinking more about myself
than her. And  I  wasn't  looking  for me.  I  was  starting  to  feel quite
     This was going to be  a long, long job, but I had to do it  by the book
if it was going to work.
     I poured myself a cup of coffee and went to the fridge, then remembered
that the  milk was only good for medical research. I couldn't find  powdered
creamer, so I'd  have to  have it black.  I  took  the pot with me,  and was
walking back  into the living room just  as the Sperm decided to sign off. I
threw  myself  back in one of the  chairs  and  put my feet up  again on the
coffee table, sipping the hot coffee and thinking, I've got to make a start;
it'll be like most things, once you get stuck in, everything's fine.
     I finished the first coffee, poured another,  got up and  wandered over
to  the sideboard. I plonked the cup next  to the CDs, then  started to take
off my Timberlands. I'd worn boots like  this for  years; they always seemed
the thing to wear with jeans, and I always wore jeans. It felt like I hadn't
taken them off for days, and it was time to let my feet and socks add to the
apartment's atmosphere.
     To work,  then. Starting from the  top, I opened the  first  drawer and
took out a sheaf  of dry-cleaning receipts, theater stubs and folded-up back
copies  of Time. I  studied each  item  in turn, opening each page  of every
magazine to check nothing had been ripped out, scored or ringed. Had I found
anything missing, I'd have had to go to a reference library and get  hold of
the issue to find out what was so interesting that it had been removed.
     But there was nothing like that.
     The second  drawer was much the same, just as full  of shit. The  other
drawers were  completely  empty,  apart from one  solitary safety pin, still
stuck into yet another dry-cleaning ticket.
     I  was becoming bored, pissed off and  very hungry. It was nearing time
for my first Mickey  D's  of  the  trip.  I'd just heard on  the  radio that
McDonald's mission  statement  for the U.S.A.  was  something  like that  no
American  was ever more than  six minutes away  from a Big Mac. In  the U.K.
that would make most heroin addicts jump for joy: scales  were  old hat  for
measuring  out  deals;  McDonald's  100-milligram   spoons  were  absolutely
     Before I  went  to  fill  my face,  however,  I  decided  to  give  the
bookshelves the  once  over. I took out each book in turn, doing exactly the
same as with the magazines. I got quite excited at one stage because  a book
on  political  terrorism had passages that had been underlined in pencil and
notes in the margin, until I looked inside the cover and discovered it was a
textbook from her university days.
     It  took  about an  hour,  but I eventually got  to the  bottom  shelf.
Turning  the pages  of a  photo-history  of  North  Carolina,  I admired the
tree-covered mountains,  lakes and  wildlife,  with  bullshit  blurb  in the
accompanying  captions, "Deer  drink  contentedly  from  the  pool,  next to
families enjoying the wonders of  the great outdoors." I could  almost  hear
Kelly groaning a "Yeah, right!"
     I took a look at her other books, about Algeria, Syria and Lebanon, but
they contained nothing but photograph upon  photograph  of  mosques, cypress
trees, sand and camels.
     I threw  them  on the floor to check through later and started flicking
through  the atlas.  Then I had second thoughts,  deciding to go back to the
chair  with  the atlas and the other  three  books  and do the lot now. As I
started a careful, page-by-page check,  I found my attention drifting to the
traffic in  the  street below, which  I could  just  about hear through  the
double-glazing.  But it wasn't just my  hearing that was wandering. For some
reason my mind kept going back to the book about North Carolina.
     It usually pays to listen to that inner voice. I stopped looking at the
books and just stared at the wall, trying to work out what it was that I was
trying  to  say to myself. When I thought I understood it, I got up and went
into her bedroom.
     I picked up the shoe box and tipped the contents out onto the bed.
     When I'd found what I was looking for it was back to the living room.
     Turning the pages  of the North  Carolina book,  I  tried to  match the
photograph  with  the terrain  the type of trees, the background  hills, the
lakeside. Nothing. The spark was soon put out. It might not necessarily have
meant anything,  but  it  might have been a start. My head  was  starting to
hurt. It was time  for that burger. I'd be back in an hour to start again. I
went  to my boots and pushed my feet in,  tucking the laces inside, too idle
to do them up.
     Two minutes later I was standing waiting  for  the elevator, staring at
my boots, when it hit me.
     I ran back to the apartment door, opened up and headed for her dressing
     Sarah must have been the Imelda Marcos of the Washington section.
     She must have had about thirty pairs of shoes in all, but there were no
hiking boots. All the times I'd been with her, she had always worn them when
out on  the ground. Like me, when it came to footwear, she was a creature of
     I was starting to get sparked up again. I turned and checked the rails.
     Where was the  Gore-Tex  jacket?  Where  was the fleece liner? She  had
always worn that sort of clothing, and she had it on in the photograph.
     It wasn't so much what I saw as what I didn't. Her outdoor clothing; it
wasn't here.
     I couldn't go to McDonald's.  I had to keep thinking about this. I went
into the kitchen  and threw some noodles into a pan, filled it up with water
and got it boiling on the stove.
     I realized that was  what had been bugging me. I'd known  it all  along
but  hadn't switched on, and the ironic thing was that  it  was  Sarah who'd
taught me.
     She was in the middle of one  of  her very heated, noisy meetings. We'd
been stuck in a cave for hours, the smoke from a large fire stinging my eyes
and casting dark shadows  in the background, just where I wanted to  see the
most. Two mujahedin  were sitting  cross-legged  on  the  floor, wrapped  in
blankets  and  cradling  their AKs. I'd  never  seen them at  other meetings
before, and  they seemed out  of  place amongst the other  three  members of
their group who were by the fire.
     Sarah was also sitting on the floor, draped in blankets beside the fire
with the other three  muj. They were all drinking  coffee as  Sarah got more
sparked  up with them. The two  men in the shadows started muttering between
themselves and  looking  agitated,  and  eventually  they pushed  off  their
blankets and grasped their weapons. In a situation like  that there are only
seconds in which  to make a decision to go for it or not. I did; I put my AK
into the aim as I stood over Sarah.
     The result was a Mexican  standoff,  like something  out of a spaghetti
western. For  two or three seconds all that could be heard was the crackling
of the fire. Sarah cut the silence.
     "Nick, sit down. You're embarrassing me."
     I was very  confused as  she talked to  all the  mujahedin. She sounded
like a parent apologizing for her toddler's behavior in the playground.
     Everyone looked  at  me and started to laugh, as if I were some sort of
schoolboy who'd  got  it all wrong. All weapons were dropped and the talking
continued. Even the two boys sitting at the  back looked on  me as some sort
of mascot.  I  was expecting them  to come over  and ruffle my hair  at  any
     It  was  only  when we were  on  our  way  back to  Pakistan  that  she
     "There was no danger, Nick. The old guy the one we saw last month?" She
smiled as she thought about the event.
     "He  is the only one with the  power  to have me killed, and he  wasn't
there. Those guys at  the  back were just showing face. Nothing was going to
happen." She sounded like a  teacher  as  she added, "It's not only what you
see, Nick. Sometimes what isn't there is just as important as what is."
     She might have been right that time, but in a similar situation I would
still  have done the same. Shame on  her that she  hadn't remembered her own
     I  sat down to work out what I wanted  to say to Mickey, and the way to
say it. I'd already forgotten where I'd  put his card,  so I got out the 3C,
tapped in his name and rang his number.
     "Hellooo." He was eating by the sound of it.
     "Hello, mate, it's Nick."
     "Oh,  so soon." He  sounded quite surprised. I could hear  soft rock in
the background and an American voice, just as camp as his, inquiring who was
on the phone. His voice became distant.
     "Gary, go and do something useful in the kitchen. It's the office."
     Gary, it seemed, took the hint.
     "Sorry about that, he  is sooo nosey."  I could hear drink being poured
and a sip being taken.
     "Michael, remember what  you were saying about Sarah and Jonathan going
to the middle of nowhere?"
     "Can you remember exactly where it was? I need it for the report."
     He took a quick swallow.
     "Yes. Falls Lake." He broke into a terrible Southern accent.
     "North Carolina, y'all."
     "Do you have an address, or the  contact number? You  did  say that you
had a number, remember? You used it to call her."
     He laughed.
     "Sarah took it off file when old Jonny boy got his comeuppance."
     I had reached another dead end.
     Then  he added, "But I  think I can remember most of the number; it was
almost the same as my mother's old one. Tell you what, give me five and I'll
ring you back, OK?"
     "Give it three  rings, put down,  then ring  again. I  wouldn't want to
pick it up and find I'm talking to her mother or anything like that.

     "Ooh, just like James Bond." He giggled.
     "No problem, Nick. Talk soon, byeee."
     I flicked through  the book again. Falls Lake did exist, but it covered
a vast area. What a dickhead! Why hadn't I asked him for more detail when he
told me the story? Just as well I wasn't in the security cell.
     Something was smelling  bad. I jumped up and  ran into the kitchen. The
water had boiled away  and  I  pulled a  pan  of  very hot and  smelly black
noodles from the stove.
     I couldn't  be assed to clean it up,  just put the pot to one side  and
turned  the  cooker  off.  The phone  rang.  I  walked back into  the  room,
counting. It  stopped  after  three. Good news, I hoped. I let the new  call
ring twice before picking it up.
     "Hellooo, Michael here." I  could hear Gary singing to himself  in  the
     "Hello, mate, any luck?"
     "The last four digits are exactly the same as my mother's old number in
Mill Hill. Isn't that freaky?"
     I really didn't have an answer for that. I contained my eagerness.
     "Oh, and what was it?"
     "Double four six eight."
     "Thanks, mate. You sure that's all you know?"

     "Fraid so, Nick. I was just given the contact number. Sorry."
     "No problem. I'll let you get on with your evening."
     "OK. I'm here if you need me. Byeee."
     I looked at my watch. It was about half-past nine--according to my body
clock, 2:30 a.m.--and  I was starting to  feel knackered. In the absence  of
any noodles, it  was soon going to be time  to RV with Ronald McDonald,  but
first I had a phone call to make.
     I rang a London number. A very clear female voice answered immediately.
     "PIN  number, please?" The  tone was  so  precise she  sounded like the
speaking clock.
     "Two four four two, Charlie Charlie
     "Please  wait." The line went  dead; five seconds  later the  voice was
     "Charlie-Charlie. Details, please."
     I gave her the same details as Metal Mickey had given me and  asked for
the address. I could hear the clinking of keys as she entered the details.
     She  checked with  me: "To  confirm.  North Carolina, address that ends
with call number 4468, perhaps in the vicinity of Falls Lake. It should take
approximately thirty minutes. Reference fifty-six, fifty-six. Goodbye."
     Charlie-Charlie stands  for "casual contact." The  people in London can
work from even the smallest amount of information, and  you can inquire  via
the  phone for speed, or ask  for a  written  report,  which would give more
detail but take longer.
     A phone  number or car license plate can lead to you finding out almost
everything there is on record about the contact, from the name of his doctor
to  the last time  and  place  he used his  credit card, and what it was  he
bought. A Charlie-Charlie was about the only perk of the  job; I'd used it a
few times when trying to find out about  women I wanted  to take out. No one
ever asks what you want the information for, and it makes life easier if you
know in advance what sort of social life they have, whether they're married,
divorced with kids, or have a monthly champagne bill the size of  an average
     All  I needed this time was an  address.  These  sorts of requests were
routine, and wouldn't mean I had gone against Lynn's need-to-know policy.
     I walked downstairs.  I  couldn't see Wayne anywhere. I got to the car,
took the parking ticket  off the windshield and threw it in the  back. I was
committed  west, toward Georgetown on the one-way system. That was fine, and
in fact McDonald's  was  right.  Within five minutes I passed the big yellow
arches; the only problem was that I couldn't park up anywhere.
     I decided to cruise on M until I found an easier place to stop.
     Dead on thirty minutes later  I called London.  The  speaking clock was
     "Reference please."
     "Reference thirty-two, fourteen."
     There was  a gap as the line went dead. She was checking  the reference
number I'd just given her. All I had to do was  subtract  my  PIN  from  her
reference number. It's  a quick  and easy confirmation system  for low-level
     She came back on line.
     "I have three addresses. One .. ."
     The  first two  locations  were  nowhere near Falls Lake.  One  was  in
Charlotte, another in Columbia. The next one sounded warmer.
     "The Lodge,  Little Lick Creek, Falls Lake. This is now a  disconnected
line. Do you want the zip codes and user names on any of these?"
     "No, no that's fine.  Thank you, that's all." I hung up.  I didn't care
who the disconnected line used to belong to. It wouldn't help me one bit.
     As I drove, I couldn't get Falls Lake out of my head. I passed a Barnes
&  Noble bookshop, its neon window  sign telling  me it was open and selling
coffee until 11 p.m. I drove on.
     A  7-Eleven came to my rescue with a sandwich  and coffee. I turned the
car  around  and passed the  Barnes & Noble again while filling  my  face. I
couldn't resist it; I  parked up, ditched the  coffee and  finished  off the
chicken sandwich as I fed another meter.
     I went straight to the reference section and  pulled out a  small-scale
atlas of  North Carolina.  I  found Falls  Lake and  Little  Lick Creek.  It
sounded like a commune for oral-sex fans.
     North Carolina was  only  a  short flight away. I could get down  there
maybe tonight, and if it turned  out to be a fuckup I'd be  back by tomorrow
night. I got out my phone and started to make some inquiries.
     I drove back to the apartment with a ticket for the 0700 from Dulles. I
would still check out her bedroom and kitchen, though, just in case.
     I  took the  exit  off  Airport  Boulevard,  following  the  signs  for
Interstate 40.
     According  to the  map, if I kept on this highway heading  east I would
hit the Cliff Benson Beltline, which would take me north through Raleigh and
on to the lake.
     The weather was a lot warmer here than in D.C. and the clouds were dark
and brooding, almost tropical. It had been raining quite heavily by the look
of the  large puddles that lined the  road, and the sandy soil was dark with
     The whole area was going through a massive rebuild. The  airport itself
had been having a makeover, and a new highway, not yet on the map, was under
construction. On each side of  me  as I drove east, yellow  bulldozers  were
going ape shit flattening  everything in  sight to  make  way for the  steel
skeletons of yet more buildings. From reading the local information magazine
on the flight, I knew that the area was fast becoming "science city U.S.A.,"
with  the largest  concentration  of  biochemical,  computer  and  technical
research  establishments,  and PhDs per  capita, in the  entire U.S.A.  It's
amazing the stuff you'll read when you're bored shitless on a plane.
     Rows  of pristine, glistening,  black or silver glass-fronted buildings
sat on  acres of manicured gardens with lakes and fountains--not at all what
I  had in  mind for the American South after all the redneck jokes I'd heard
over the years.
     It  took  about  fifteen minutes  to get onto  the  belt  line  I drove
clockwise heading north  around  the city, keeping my eyes  peeled for signs
for exit ten  toward  Falls Lake. The new money that this transformation had
     in  was  impossible  to  miss,  with  grand  houses and new  businesses
fighting  hand-to-hand  with  the  old, and demonstrably winning.  Smart new
office blocks looked down  on decrepit  trailer parks strewn  with abandoned
cars and kids, both black and white,  whose asses  hung out  of their  dirty
jeans, their parents fucked  without the skills needed  to take advantage of
the new opportunity.
     I got  to exit  ten in another ten minutes or so  and  headed  north on
Forest Road. From the map, I knew that the Falls Lake area covered about 200
square  miles. It  was a  very long and winding waterway,  with  hundreds of
inlets,  like  the  coastline of Norway, just the kind  of place  you  could
disappear into.
     After  seven miles  the road  became  a single carriage  way Tall  firs
interspersed  with smaller seasonal  trees looming on either side. Four more
miles  and I  reached the Falls ofNeuse and entered forest proper. The Falls
was a small collection of neat little homes made of natural wood  or painted
white on  the eastern side  of the lake area. Even here, the new was winning
out  over the old and  rubbing  its nose  in  it.  Tracts of land were being
carved out of the  woods to make way for "communities" of  enormous mansions
to house the middle classes who  were streaming in for the  new Gold Rush of
high-tech jobs. At  the entry point into  each  community was a small, shiny
sign announcing "Carriageways" or "Fairways," and at each junction a barrage
of real estate agents' signs  directed buyers to even more land which was up
for grabs.
     I headed west on Raven Ridge, driving  deeper into  the forest. The new
was  gradually  less and less evident, until it was the  old  that prevailed
once  more:  dilapidated  shacks  with car wrecks for garden furniture,  and
rundown stores built  of bare breeze-block,  with peeling signs  advertising
bait  and beer.  I passed trailer  homes that looked as if  they'd just been
dumped  twenty or thirty meters off  the  road, with  no  paved access, just
trampled ground, and no fences to mark their territory, just corrugated iron
leaning around the bottom of  the  trailers  to  make  them look  as if they
     Outside, washing hung on  lines getting even wetter. Inside,  probably,
were the stars  of the Ricki Lake or  Jerry Springer shows. Fuck  knows what
the future held  for  them, but one thing  was  for sure:  new carriage ways
would be scything through here within a year or two.
     The  only  buildings  that  weren't falling  down  or  apart  were  the
churches, of  which there seemed to  be  one every mile along the  roadside,
standing very clean, bright and white. Each projected a different recruiting
message on the sort of signboard that cinemas use to advertise their movies.
     "You can't  even write Christmas without Christ,"  one said, which  was
true but strange to see in April. Maybe they liked to think ahead.
     I drove for  another twenty minutes past trailers and churches, and now
and then  the occasional neatly  tended  graveyard  right on the side of the
road. I came across a  small green sign to Little Lick  Creek. It wasn't the
creek itself I was after, but  the  point at which it  entered the lake, and
where  one of the spurs had the  same name. Going  by the waterproof hunting
map I'd bought, there were two buildings in that area that weren't accounted
for by a symbol on the map legend, so they were probably private houses.
     I turned off  the tarmac and headed down  a  gravel road  that was just
wide enough for two cars to pass. There was  a steep  gradient on each side,
and the forest seemed to be closing in, the trees here even  higher and more
densely packed.
     A  sign  chiselled into a  slab  of gray-painted wood warned, "Firearms
Strictly Prohibited." Fifty meters farther  on, another said, "No  Alcoholic
Beverages." Soon more friendly signs welcomed me to Falls Lake, and directed
me to the  car  parks and recreational areas and hoped I enjoyed myself  but
only if I kept my speed to 25 mph.
     Up ahead, a motor home as big as a juggernaut was bearing down on me. I
noticed a  small  track that  obviously  took wheeled traffic, because there
were tire grooves worn down on  each side of a wet grassy central strip, but
I didn't have time to get in there. I  slowed and pulled over to the side of
the road, my car leaning drunkenly to the right. The Winnebago was a massive
vehicle, with enough canoes and mountain bikes strapped onto its exterior to
equip  the U.S. Olympic team, and the family hatchback towed along behind. A
wall of spray splashed onto my windshield as it passed. I didn't even get  a
wave of acknowledgment.
     I drove for another kilometer or so through the forest before I came to
a large  car park. Crunching and squelching across a  mixture of  gravel and
mud, I pulled up next to  a  big map in a  wooden frame. Pictures around the
edge displayed various indigenous birds, turtles, trees and plants,  as well
as the tariff for the campsite and  the inevitable:  "Enjoy  your stay  take
only  pictures, leave  only footprints." It  was  possible  that I  would be
taking pictures, but I hoped I would leave no footprints whatsoever.
     Driving on for another hundred meters or so, I caught  my first glimpse
of  Little Lick Creek. It  wasn't  quite the picture postcard scene I'd been
     Tall ranks of firs seemed to have marched right to the lake's edge.
     The  water was smooth  and as dark  as the clouds it mirrored, like the
smoked glass of a Raleigh office block. Maybe when the  sun was out the area
was  idyllic, but just  now, especially with the trees so claustrophobically
close  to the water, the atmosphere was more like  the brooding  menace of a
     Over  on the other side, 500 meters away and on higher, more undulating
ground, sat two houses. They were the ones I wanted to have a look at.
     A dozen  or so  vehicles were already in the car park, mostly clustered
around a wooden boat shed on  the lake's edge that had been designed to look
like  a  fort. Canoes and rowing  boats were lined up near it  in the water,
plus the statutory Coke machine and another selling chocolate bars.
     I'd watched a documentary once that claimed that the  Coca-Cola company
was so powerful in  the  U.S. that it had even got a president into power in
the  1960s. I  wondered  how  their  mission statement  compared with Ronald
McDonald's. It certainly seems that no matter where you are in the world you
will  always  be  able  to  get  a  Coke;  I'd even  been offered  one  by a
six-year-old  on  a mountainside in  Nepal.  Out trekking with Sarah in  the
middle of nowhere, a kid no older than eight came along the track with a tin
bucket filled with water and  about six battered cans of Coke inside, trying
to sell  them to the walkers as they made their  way up the mountain.  Sarah
gave  him  some  money but  refused  the Coke.  She  had  this hang-up about
cultures being contaminated  by the West and spent the next hour bumping her
gums about  it. Me? I was thirsty and just wished he'd had  Diet instead  of
     As  I drove past the fort I could see that it  was manned by two  young
lads  lounging in the  shadows, who didn't look  as if they  were coming out
unless they had to.
     At  the far end of the car  park was a picnic area with built-in grills
and a wooden canopy covering the seating. A family barbecue was under way; a
bit  early  in  the season,  but  they  were having  fun anyway. Granny  and
Grandad, sons, daughters and grandchildren all filling their faces.
     Beyond it I could see the tops of brightly colored, family-sized tents.
It looked as  if  each  pitch  was surrounded by  its own individual  little
     I turned the car through a 180, so I  was facing back the way I'd come,
and  drove toward the toilet block. I nosey-parked between  two other  cars,
front against the toilet block wall, back to the lake.
     Picking up the binos and bird book I'd bought at the tourist shop along
with my maps, I got out of the car  and locked up. Straightaway I was hit by
the  humidity; having  air conditioning in a car almost makes you forget the
reason you turned it on in the first place.
     Everyone seemed to be having a  giggle in the barbecue area. A boom box
was playing some Latino rap, and even Granny was dancing  rapper style  with
the kids. In the car to my  right were a  couple of senior citizens who'd no
doubt driven for hours to get here, parked up at the lake and  stayed in the
car to eat sandwiches with the air conditioning  going  full blast and their
hats still on.
     I wandered down toward the boat shed, keeping an eye on the spur at the
other side of the creek. The larger house of the two was on the left, with a
gap of maybe  100 to  120 meters between them.  There was no movement around
     I went  to the Coke machine and threw in  a handful of  coins. I didn't
really want a drink, certainly not at a dollar a go, but it gave me a chance
to look around.
     The two teenage  lads  were probably doing  a  school  vacation  job. I
didn't  know whether they were  stoned or  just bored  shitless.  Both  were
barefoot but wearing the company uniform: blue shorts and red polo shirt.
     I nodded at them through the small swing doors;  they'd obviously  been
told to be pleasant and said they hoped I had a nice day. I wasn't sure that
I would.
     I sat down on the wooden jetty and immediately felt  the dampness  soak
into my jeans. To my right were a father and son, with dad trying to get his
boy  sparked up about fishing: "We'll only catch something if you  sit  very
still  and  watch  the  float."  The kid,  in  his  Disney  poncho,  was  as
uninterested as  the  two in the boat  shed--as you  would be if  you'd much
rather be eating ice cream and playing computer games.
     I was very  overtly carrying the binoculars and bird  book; today I was
the  dickhead  tourist with  his feet dangling over the  side of  the jetty,
taking in the magnificent view over the water.
     Half a dozen boats were moored at various points around the lake.
     Through the binoculars I could see that each one held two or three very
fat, middle-aged men who were dressed for trapping bears in the Yukon, their
hunting vests festooned  with fishing flies, their pockets  bulging with all
sorts of kit, and fearsome knives hanging in sheaths from their belts.
     I panned with the  binos along the opposite side of the spur,  starting
from  the far right-hand side. I made out a track  cutting through the trees
just short of the lake on  the higher ground, the one I'd  stopped by to let
the  motor  home  past.  It  looked as  if it should  lead to the houses.  I
followed  it along  and,  sure enough, it  passed the smaller  of the two. I
couldn't see anything about the building  that  gave me any  information; it
was just a square, two-story, flat-roofed structure, built into the hill and
with  stilts  holding the forward  two thirds. There  was a  boat and a  4x4
vehicle underneath the  stilted  area, but no movement. Then two  kids  came
running around from the front  of the house followed  by  a  man.  They were
laughing and throwing  a  football at each other.  Happy  families; I'd give
that one a miss.
     I put the binos down for a while, and had a look at the book. This part
is all about third-party awareness, because you never know who is looking at
you;  they might  not be saying, "Is he doing  a  recce of those houses over
there?" but if all I  did was bino at the house  and didn't move or do other
things, it would  look pretty strange. The  trick is  to give the impression
that whatever reason you have  for being  there is so straightforward no one
gives you a second glance. I just hoped a fellow anorak didn't come up to me
and start on some serious bird talk.
     I put the  book down, much more intimately  acquainted with the  lesser
spotted something or other, and started to look at the other  target. By now
enough  humidity had condensed on my head for droplets to  run down my face,
and I was starting to feel sticky and damp all over.
     The second house was very much like the first, but about a third bigger
and  with an extra floor. It, too, was wooden  and had a  flat, felted roof,
but  its  stilted area  had been enclosed  with plywood sheeting. Two  large
doors  opened onto a concrete slipway that led down  to  the water's edge. A
boat,  a  four-seater fiberglass  job, ideal for fishing, was parked  on the
land, still on its trailer, nose facing down toward the water, the  outboard
engine toward the house.
     All  the curtains seemed to  be closed. I couldn't see any rubbish bags
outside, or towels or  anything  else that might indicate that the house was
occupied. However, the garage doors were  only three-quarters closed and the
rear of a black 4x4 was protruding, which made me think that maybe there was
another one inside.
     I heard a groan from the two boys  in red polo shirts. A man was coming
toward the fort with three kids, all highly excited about hiring a canoe and
already fighting about who was going to have the paddle.
     I  put the binos down  and had a swig of  Coke,  which was now warm and
horrible, like  the weather. I binned  it and got another one, then I took a
walk back to the car.
     The rave  at the  picnic  area  was  still going strong; the  kids were
dancing, and the adults, beer cans in hand around the  barbecue, despite the
signs forbidding  alcohol, were putting  the world to rights. Even from this
distance I  could  hear  the loud sizzle as steaks the  size of dustbin lids
were dropped onto the smoking griddles.
     The old couple were still  in  their car, her struggling to drink a can
of Dr.  Pepper through her false  teeth, him  reading the inside pages of  a
newspaper. Nice day out.
     I could read the headline,  even through the  windshield. It  looked as
though I'd been right:  the black  convoy that had  held me  up in D.C. must
have been carrying either  Netanyahu or Arafat, because both boys were being
welcomed to America.
     I  got back  to the car and slowly rolled out along  the gravel road to
the main drag, turning left, back toward the Falls ofNeuse and the belt line
I didn't  follow the signs back to  Raleigh, though. This time, I wanted the
road to Fayetteville.
     Fayette Nam, as  some people in the  States  call it,  due to its  high
casualty rate, is the home of the 82nd Airborne and U.S. Special Forces.
     They were  stationed  at  Fort  Bragg, the  only place I knew  in North
Carolina. About an hour  south of  Raleigh--or  so they told me  at  the gas
station--I'd first gone there in the mid-1980s for a joint exercise training
with Delta Force, the Regiment's American counterpart.
     "Deltex"  was designed to further  an atmosphere of cooperation between
the two units,  but all it did  for me was  induce huge amounts  of  envy. I
could still remember  being bowled over  by the sheer size of the place; you
could  have fitted the entire  town of Hereford  twice over  into what  they
called a "fort." The  quantity and quality of equipment  on show was  beyond
belief. Delta had indoor 7.62 and 5.56 shooting ranges; at Stirling Lines we
had only the 9mm equivalent. We also had only one gym, while they had dozens
of  them,  including Jacuzzis, saunas and a massive climbing wall  for their
Mountain Troop.  No  wonder we renamed the  place Fort  Brass. They had more
helicopters  in one unit than we had in the  whole of the British army; come
to that, there were more personnel in just that one base than in all  of the
British armed services put together.
     Fayetteville is effectively a garrison city, with every business geared
up for the military. The troops are  the ones with the  money and the desire
to  burn  it. Like them, in all the times I'd been there I'd never  felt the
need to venture out of the city limits.
     The 401  was a wide single  carriage way  I drove through  a few  small
towns that would have made great locations for 1950s films or, better still,
     could  have done with  a couple of thousand-pounders to put them out of
their  misery,  before  the  area  started to open  up into  cornfields  and
     Houses  and small industrial  units dotted  the  route,  alongside open
barns filled with tractors and other agricultural gear, and every few miles,
in case people needed reminding that they were in the boonies, I came across
a  road kill, a mess of blood and fur as flat as  a pancake in the middle of
the blacktop.
     I knew I was getting near when I hit the Cape Fear river. The water was
about 300 meters across at this point, getting wider as it got closer to the
sea, and sure enough I  passed the  "City of Fayetteville" sign  before long
and kept my eyes peeled for anything directing me to Fort Bragg.
     Bragg Boulevard  was a  wide  dual carriage way  with  a grass  central
reservation, but as I passed rows of  car showrooms with new 4x4s and sports
cars under miles  of red,  white  and blue  bunting, it changed back  to two
lanes.  The buildings  on  either  side were mainly one-story  cinder  block
warehouses  behind a  shop front. Korean pawnshops and  tailors jostled with
Vietnamese restaurants  and takeaways, representing a weird chronicle of all
the  conflicts the U.S.A.  had ever been  involved in.  They just  needed an
Iraqi kebab stall to complete the set.
     I was beginning to see the kind of outlet I'd come  here  to find. Neon
signs and posters announced boot-shining specialists, tattoo artists and gun
shops--"Test fire before you buy--we have our own range." On every sidewalk,
young  men and women strode  around in smartly pressed BDUs (combat uniform)
and very short  haircuts--the men  usually  had a "whitewall" with  a little
lump  on top. It felt very strange to  see uniformed soldiers on the streets
without a weapon and not on patrol; the terrorist  situation in Europe meant
that off-duty soldiers were forbidden to walk around in uniform; they'd just
be ready-made targets.
     I  drove  on base and got my bearings.  American military installations
aren't  like European  ones, which resemble World  War  Two  prisoner-of war
camps,  again  because  of  the terrorist  threat. This place  was  open and
sprawling,  with vehicle pools and groups of men and women on route marches,
singing cadence, their unit flag carried proudly at the head of the column.
     I  couldn't  remember the name of the road I wanted,  but I followed my
nose, driving along  roads with buildings on each side that looked more like
smart apartments  than barrack rooms. I found it--Yadkin, a  long road  that
came out of the base and  moved  into  the city area. There had been quite a
bit of building since my  last visit in  the late Eighties. Roads coming off
the  main drag had names  like Desert Storm Boulevard, or Just Cause Road. I
wondered if the Firm would ever get around to naming thoroughfares after its
operations--if so, they'd have to be called things like  Blackmail  Lane, or
Stitch Them Up Big Time Street.
     I carried on along  Yadkin until it took me off  base, past Kim's No. I
Sewing,  Susie J's (I wasn't  too sure what service she  was  offering)  and
whole  blocks of  military  supply shops. There was one I remembered, called
U.S. Cavalry.  It had  been  a  complete  department  store  for  the  start
your-own-war nut,  glass counters  displaying sharp, pointy things, racks of
BDUs, military  T-shirts and combat  helmets,  rows and rows of  boots,  and
shelves of  posters and books with such politically correct titles as Ragnar
s Big Book  of Homemade Weapons and The Advanced Anarchist  Arsenal: Recipes
for Improvised Incendiaries and Explosives--always good for that last-minute
Christmas present.
     I  drove past shop fronts displaying  murals of  airborne assaults. One
had a giant  poster of John  Wayne  in uniform in the  window. After another
mile I saw the store I wanted  and drove into  the car park.  Jim's  was the
same size  as  a small super store; the front had  a wooden ranch look about
it, but the rest  was whitewashed  cinder  block. The  front windows  looked
almost  cottagey from  a distance, with lots of little  square panes, but as
you got nearer  you could see  the panes were just white painted bars behind
the thick plate glass. And the anti-ram barriers one third of the way up the
windows weren't there to tie  your horse  up to either. Through  the foyer I
could see keyboards, VCRs and rows of TV screens all showing Jerry Springer.
It was to the left of all that, however, a place where there were no windows
at all, that they kept what I'd come here for.
     I walked  onto a small  verandah  where a large  red  sign  warned  me,
"Before entry weapons will be unloaded, actions opened and thank you for not
     The inside of Jim's Gunnery was L-shaped. To my right was a pawnshop;
     the  rest disappeared  around the corner  to my  left, past  a  counter
selling  magazines  and sweets.  Opposite was a small  shop  within a  shop,
selling  jewelry. The place  smelled more like a  department  store  than  a
     It was very clean, with a polished, tiled floor.
     I turned left  toward a  series of glass display cases,  all containing
pistols  hundreds  of  them and behind  them,  in  wall racks,  rifles, with
something to  suit every taste, from bolt action to assault. After I  picked
up a wire basket,  I  was greeted  by  a  very  well-fed white  guy  in  his
mid-thirties, wearing a green polo shirt with Jim's  logo on it, a Glock .45
in a pancake holster on his belt and a big smile.
     "Hi, how are you today?"
     In my bad American I replied, "I'm good, how are you?"
     I  wasn't  worried; the  transient  military population made  it a  lot
easier to  get  away with a dodgy  accent. Besides, they'd only think I  was
Australian Americans always do.
     "I'm good, sir. Is there anything I can do for you today?"
     "Just having a look around, thanks."
     He beamed.
     "If you need anything, just holler."
     Heading  toward   the   weapons  counter,   I  passed  shelves  stacked
supermarket fashion with boxes of ammunition and  everything for the hunting
man,  even down to Barbour jackets and  shooting  sticks, which surprisingly
didn't look out of place.
     Antimugging sprays hung from racks. I couldn't  decide  whether to have
the CS gas or the pepper spray, so in the end I put both in my basket.
     The footwear section  sold camouflaged Gore-Tex boots and an assortment
of Wellingtons and  leather  footgear. What I wanted, and  eventually found,
was a normal  pair of high-leg assault boots, a mixture of cross trainer and
boot.  The Gore-Tex and  go-faster boots were all well and good, but I could
never really be  bothered with trying to keep my  feet dry.  Once  they were
wet, which  they would be  tonight,  that was it, I just got on  with  it. I
didn't  bother to try the boots on; it  wasn't  as  if I  were going  to  be
tabbing for six days across the Appalachians. I  got them  in a size ten;  I
was size nine, but remembered from  a very painful few days in a pair of new
U.S. trainers that their sizes are one up from those in the U.K.
     I went over and  had a look in the weapon cabinets. There were hundreds
of revolvers and  semiautomatics  to choose from.  I could see what I wanted
and waited my turn to be served.
     Next  to  me,  a woman  in her early thirties  had a two-year-old in  a
carry-rig on her back.  She  was being helped by  one of  the assistants  to
choose a  new nylon holster  for  her Smith & Wesson  .45 CQB, and they were
also chattily discussing the  pros  and cons of various models. The  one she
was carrying was the  stainless-steel  version.  As she  was saying  to  the
assistant, the matte-black, alloy version was lighter, but the steel one was
more noticeable and therefore a better deterrent. It was a fantastic weapon,
and would always have been my weapon of choice were it not for the fact that
I  preferred 9mm because the magazines carried more rounds. Mind you, if she
needed  more than the seven in the mag plus one  in the  chamber, she was in
the shit anyway. The conversation moved back to  the new  holster as opposed
to keeping it in her handbag.
     A bit farther along,  a young black  guy  in a blue tracksuit was being
briefed on the merits of a .38 revolver over a semiautomatic.
     "With this baby y'all don't even have to aim," the sales pitch went.
     "Especially at the range y'all be using  it at. Just point it like your
finger at  the center mass and it will take them down."  The  customer liked
that; he was going to take it.
     The woman had gone and the assistant came over to me.
     "Hi, how can I help you today?"
     It was bad accent time again.
     "Can I have a look at your Tazers on the bottom shelf there?"
     "Sure, no problem."  The assistant was black, in his mid-twenties,  and
dressed in the house green shirt. He was also "carrying." It was  a Sig 9mm,
held in the same sort of nylon pancake holster the woman had been interested
in. He bent down and pulled out the tray of Tazers.
     They were  selling all  different types, from little  handheld ones, to
the sort that fire out  prongs on  a wire that you can use to attack someone
from  a  five-meter range,  right  up  to  big  ones that  resembled  police
     I was tempted by a handheld one called "Zap-Ziller  the monster of stun
guns!" mainly because of the slogan. There  was even a picture of a dinosaur
on the box that told me it packed 100,000 volts of stopping power.
     I read the packaging to make sure it suited my needs: "A short blast of
a  quarter-second  duration  will startle  an attacker, cause  minor  muscle
contractions and have a repelling effect. A moderate length blast of one  to
four seconds can cause an attacker to  fall to the ground and result in some
mental confusion. It may make an assailant unwilling  to continue an attack,
but he will be able to get up almost immediately.
     "A  full  charge  of  five seconds can  immobilize  an attacker,  cause
disorientation, loss of  balance, falling to the ground  and leave them weak
and dazed for  some  minutes afterward. Note:  Any  blast  lasting  over one
second is likely  to cause your assailant to fall. If you do not  help  them
down,  gravity  may  injure  them."  I  hoped so. They'd certainly done  the
business in Syria.
     In the clothing  area I picked  out a  set  of woodland camo  Gore-Tex,
choosing  one  two  sizes  too  big so it was  nice and  baggy. Gore-Tex had
changed  a  lot  since it  was first invented  by  God in  answer  to  every
infantryman's prayers. In the early days it had made a rustling noise as you
moved, which wasn't good if you were moving on target, and  as a result we'd
had to wear it under our combat clothing. But nowadays it was much more like
textile than plastic.
     I cruised around the aisles and filled my trolley with a few other bits
and pieces I thought I'd be needing. I didn't think  I'd need a  weapon, but
seeing them all made  me feel strange  about being  on a job without one. It
would  take  too long  to apply for a gun legally.  The U.S. laws  aren't as
crazy as  people in Europe imagine,  and I  didn't want to take the  risk of
stealing or buying  one illegally.  Normally,  if I knew I was going to need
one, I would plan  to obtain it in-country,  because that meant  I  wouldn't
have to worry when traveling on commercial flights.
     If that wasn't possible, I'd put one in the diplomatic bag, along  with
any other special  kit  I needed, and then pick it  up at the  embassy. This
wasn't happening on this job, however; the timings hadn't allowed it.
     Besides, I  was carrying out a PV review;  what  would  I need a weapon
     The hunting-bow section at the rear of the store caught  my  eye. Three
customers in  their early  fifties, baseball caps on  their  heads and  beer
bellies hanging over their belts, were trying to outdo each other with their
war stories. I  overheard, "When I was in Da Nang there was  a whole week  I
thought the good Lord was going to take me away ..."
     I saw some crossbows that took my fancy.  They  were small,  but I knew
they  were  powerful. Since the U.K.  government had  banned  handguns,  the
pistol clubs had had to find another  sport, and many now  used their ranges
to fire crossbow  bolts  instead of pistol rounds. The  club  where I'd been
shown how to use one was in Vauxhall, just across from the Firm's HQ.
     I  picked up one model and examined the  optic sight and the attachment
to keep spare bolts. The price tag said $340, which was all right,  but  the
other side  was disappointing: a label  told me  it needed  a North Carolina
weapons license.
     The only option left to me was an  ordinary bow, and I  wasn't short on
choice. There were racks of them to  choose from, with names like Beast 4x4,
Black  Max and  Conquest Pro.  Made of carbon fiber, aluminium or  composite
resin, with cams  that worked like gears at the end of the bow to  give  the
bow cable more power, these  modern versions  of the longbow would  have had
Robin Hood creaming his Lincoln green.
     I found one I liked the look of, the Spyder Synergy 4, proudly boasting
thirty-two inches  of throbbing manhood  end to end, cammed  and  cabled up,
ready to go as long as I had some arrows. I wanted the smallest ones I could
find, just like  the bow.  Looking along the  racks I worked  out it was the
two-footers I was after, and picked up a box of six. But that wasn't the end
of it.  I  then had to choose the  arrowhead.  I went for the Rocky Mountain
Assassin; it looked like Thunderbird Three with its tail fins, which were in
fact   razors.   It  also  seemed  to  be  the  only  one  that   came  with
ready-assembled fins.
     I was quite enjoying  myself at the bow mix 'n' match counter, and  the
next  item I needed was a quiver. These, too, were cammed up  and fixed onto
the bow, so that everything was secure and close to hand.
     I carried on  and got the rest of the stuff on my mental shopping list,
and with enough kit to bow-hunt until Christmas  I went to the checkout. The
woman with the baby was examining a necklace in the jewelry department.
     She obviously hadn't liked  the holster, because the stainless  steel45
CQB still gleamed from her open bag on the counter.
     Behind the checkout a woman in her early twenties sat  bored out of her
skull,  apparently  not  that interested  in the  latest style of handgun or
     Her hair was gelled to her forehead, and she didn't even  look at me as
she said, "Card or cash?" I couldn't keep my eyes off her fingernails.
     They were  two inches long and nearly  curling, like Fu  Manchu's,  and
were painted with an intricate, black and white checkerboard pattern.
     I couldn't wait to describe them to Kelly.
     I replied, "Cash,"  did  the transaction, lifted my bags, put my twenty
cents change into the "Candy for Kids" box and left. While I was loading the
trunk  of my  car,  the woman with the  baby came out and  got into a people
carrier. I couldn't  help  but smile as I saw the stickers plastered  across
the back:
     "This vehicle insured by Smith and Wesson."
     "A proud parent of a terrific kid, sponsored by Burger King."
     And, best of all: "The driver carries only $50 ... OF AMMO!"
     In amongst  all of these was a  large silver  Born-Again Christian fish
sign  with the word Jesus in the middle. It was just like old times, part of
the crazy kaleidoscope of contradictions that  made me love America so much.
It was a good job I hadn't made a mistake the  last time I was looking for a
wagon with a fish sign on it, and climbed into this woman's vehicle.
     No doubt the  vehicle's  insurers  would have given  me  a  greeting to
     There were still a few other odds  and ends I needed, so I  drove  away
from Yadkin and toward the city center--or what I thought was the center.
     After ten  minutes I had  to stop, open the trunk and get the maps out,
hoping that on one of them there might be a town plan. I worked  out where I
was and where I was going to: a shopping mall, the nearest one I could  see.
It was about a mile away.
     It turned out not to  be the single, contained area I'd been expecting.
The main mall building looked more like the Pentagon, but clad  in something
like York stone, and the remaining outside shopping areas and car parks must
have straddled  an  area of more than eight square kilometers,  with traffic
jams to match. The big blue sign for Wal-Mart was exactly what I wanted, and
the store was part of the outer  shopping  area. I  waited  at  the  lights,
peeled off right, and went into the car park.  There was the usual lineup of
stores--Hallmark  Cards, post office, shoe super stores,  a Lone Star  steak
house, then my mate, Wal-Mart.
     As I got a trolley I was  greeted  by an elderly male welcomer with his
happy face on.
     "Hi, how are you today?"
     I smiled back at him. He had a Wal-Mart baseball cap on that was a size
too big for his head, and a T-shirt over his long-sleeved shirt that told me
how happy Wal-Mart was to  see me. There was  an ATM  machine just past  the
turnstile. I took the opportunity  to get some more cash  out on my card and
off I went. The place  was  full of  Airborne soldiers,  screaming kids  and
stressed-out mothers.
     I  selected food that  was both ready,  and quiet, to  eat. No chips or
cans of fizzy drink; instead, I picked up four big tins of  Spam, four large
bottles of still mineral water and a bumper pack of Mars bars. Then a couple
of laps around the gardening section, and I was done.
     There  was a  little self-service cafe that I'd missed  as  I  entered,
maybe in  the excitement of my welcome to Wal-Mart.  After paying, I left my
trolley with my new friend--it was also his job  to keep an eye on them when
people went to the cafe. I  picked up a tray and got myself two large slices
of pizza and a Coke.
     As I ate I ran through  my mental checklist, because I didn't have that
much  time left  to  mince around.  Deciding  I had  everything I'd  need, I
finished the pizza and Coke and headed for the exit. I felt a stirring in my
bowels; I couldn't find the toilet, but no matter, I'd go to a coffee shop.
     However, the pangs made me think  about something I'd forgotten: I went
back to the pharmacy section  and picked up a couple of  party-size packs of
     Thinking about it, the pizza hadn't been too bad, so I went back in and
bought two full-sized Four Seasons.
     As always, I'd chosen the trolley with one dodgy wheel, so as soon as I
was outside on the concrete I was all over the place,  pushing it at a crazy
angle in order to go forward. When it came to supermarket trolleys, my lucky
number was zero.
     I threw everything into the trunk; I'd sort it all  out later. As I got
behind  the wheel, I got the phone out, turned it on and checked the battery
     It was  fine. All the same, I fished  out the spare battery, swapped it
for the one I'd just checked  and then plugged it  into the recharger. I was
going to need both batteries full up and ready to go.
     One last check of the map and I nosed out into the solid traffic.
     drove  out of  town and back toward the lake. It had started  to rain a
little  and  I had to put the wipers on intermittent, turning them off again
just before  Raleigh  when they  started to rub on the dry windshield.  Soon
afterward I spotted a rest area, pulled in and got sorting.
     Bending into the trunk I started to pull off the sticky-back price tags
from the Gore-Tex and  my other purchases, stuck two on my hand, then packed
all the stuff into the hunting bergen. I made a point of putting the pruning
shears in one of the little pouches on the outside, together with the string
and gardening gloves,  as I'd be needing them  first. The gloves  were a bit
embarrassing  as they were like dishwashing gloves with lots of little lumps
on  the fingers for grip, and worst of all they were yellow.  I  should have
opened  them up and checked the  color. It was  too late now to do  anything
about  it; I needed to get back to the lake. All the other items,  including
the plastic gas container, went in the main compartment of the bergen.
     All I had to do now was prepare the food.  I folded the big sections of
pizza in  on each other and wrapped them in plastic wrap. I ripped the  Mars
bars out of their wrappers and wrapped them together in pairs. Then I opened
the tins of Spam and  also  plastic wrapped the  contents, and the whole lot
went into the bergen. Peeling the labels from my hand, I stuck one on top of
the other and then both  over the  small battery light  on  my phone. Then I
went into the menu and turned off all the sound facilities.
     It was then down to a good smearing of insect repellent. I didn't  know
if  I'd need it or not, but better safe than scratching. I got back into the
car and  headed for  the lake. The rain  had  died  down, at  least  for the
     Flicking  through the  radio channels, I found  myself  listening  to a
woman who was talking about Southern females spending more time and money on
their hair than those from any other area of the U.S.A.
     "That's  why  we should  buy this magical mousse that " I  hit the seek
     There was someone else explaining the reason why  the weather  was  all
screwed up: El Nino.
     "We're lucky here in  North Carolina, unlike  the  main areas hit, like
Alabama; they had twisters." I  hit  the  switch and landed  on  a Christian
station.  This  one  was telling  me that it was  God, not El Nino,  who was
responsible  for climate changes.  Apparently  the  good Lord  was not  best
pleased with all our sinning and was sending us a warning.
     However, the  first step toward salvation might be  to buy  one of  the
channel's  leather bound Holy  Bibles, available for only $98.99.  All major
credit cards accepted.
     I was back in the woods. It was  just past  seven o'clock  and  nearing
last light, especially  under the canopy of high trees.  That was absolutely
fine  by me;  I wanted the maximum amount of  dark to get on target and sort
myself out before first light, then find out whether  or not she was  in the
house. I hoped she was, otherwise it was back to  D.C. and a great big empty
drawing board.
     I hadn't had time to think about a good drop-off point for the car, but
maybe  the  lake attracted families in the evenings,  and  the  car park had
looked a very likely lovers' lane. Either way it meant other vehicles and my
car would blend in.
     I was about half a K.  short of the car park when I finally had to turn
my lights on. I had a quick spin around; there were a few lights in the tent
area, but only one  other car, which presumably belonged to the young couple
I could see having a romantic interlude  under the  canopy. Well, they  were
until my headlights hit  them and they had to hold their hands up  to shield
their eyes.
     I parked as near as possible to the barbecue area, but  not so close to
the young couple that I was  going  to have to go  "Hi"  when I got out. Not
that  they would have noticed  me; from  what I could see he  seemed totally
engrossed in  trying to get his hand up her skirt,  though unfortunately for
him she appeared to be more interested in the food they were cooking.
     Looking across  the  lake, I could see lights on in both houses. I  was
still gagging for a shit,  so I  decided to walk over to the toilets with my
new boots and ring-lace them  while I relieved myself. The weather was still
warmish, and the crickets were really going for it, drowning the noise of my
footsteps on the mud and  wet gravel. The stars were  trying to break though
the clouds,  and the surface of the lake was as flat as a mirror. I I' hoped
it stayed that way and didn't rain.
     ^ The toilets were molded, all-in-one, stainless steel units, with just
a  handle sticking out of the wall,  so nothing  could be vandalized. It was
hot, dark and muggy in the  cubicle, the only  light coming from outside the
main door. Swarms of buzzing things had been waiting on the ceiling for some
poor unsuspecting ass to  show up on the  radar. As the  first two  or three
dived in I heard a laugh from the girl by the barbecue. Maybe he'd found his
target as well.
     I pulled out a few  sheets of toilet  paper from the container and  its
hard texture gave me a flashback  to twenty-odd years ago, and  the juvenile
detention center: "Three squares only," the staff had barked.
     "One up, one down, one shine."
     That reminded me, I  needed  to bung myself up;  I'd better  take  some
Imodium. With my Timberlands in my hand and my shiny new boots on my feet, I
trogged back to the car. The lovers were  nowhere to be  seen, but their car
was still there and the barbecue was glowing. He must have scored and they'd
moved somewhere  more secluded; it's  amazing what you can get  away with if
you make a woman laugh.
     I opened  the trunk and  got out the bergen  and bow,  checking  that I
hadn't  left  anything I'd be  needing for the job  or that would compromise
what was going on  if the car got nicked. In went  the Timberlands; I wasn't
going to fuck them up, I'd only just broken them in. I opened a foil pack of
Imodium and swallowed four capsules. The instructions said two, but that was
a problem I'd had all my life: I never listened to advice.
     Slinging the  bergen, which now had the bow strapped  onto it, over  my
right shoulder, I had a last study of  the lake and the target houses to get
my bearings, and set off.  My plan was to follow the shore, cross the creek,
then follow the shoreline again to the target that way I avoided the track.
     There was too much risk of transport going up and down it, and I didn't
know how aware  anyone in  the buildings would be. I might compromise myself
before I'd even reached the  target. Do it properly and  then you don't have
to worry about those sorts of things.
     I passed the lovers' car. The windows were very steamed up, but I could
see some strange movement going on inside.
     A few paces farther on, nailed to the barbecue canopy, was a large sign
with  "warning"  stamped  on  the  top.  I  stopped  to  read it;  the  more
information, the better.
     "Caution  Hikers,"  it  said, "Hunting activities involving the  use of
firearms and other  legal weapons  may take place on the  Wildlife Resources
Commission  Gamelands  immediately  adjacent  to  the  park  during  hunting
season." It further warned, "Please stay on  the marked trail during hunting
season to avoid the danger of  possible serious injury or  death. Wearing an
item of bright-orange clothing is strongly suggested."
     That was all well and good, but when was the hunting season?
     I  carried on  and got level with  the tented area, encountering a  two
meter-high  wooden  fence that seemed to  surround  the site. I followed  it
until I got to the grandly named Recycling Center, which, in fact, was three
galvanized  dustbins  for plastic  bottles, glass and  aluminium  cans,  and
clambered over. A  swathe about ten yards wide had been  cut into the forest
from the water's edge. Tree stumps an inch or two high jutted from the sandy
ground, and I kept stubbing the toe of my boots as I took the beach route.
     After five minutes or so, when my night vision kicked in, the going got
easier. It takes a  long time to adjust to darkness. The  cones in your eyes
enable you  to see in the daytime, giving color and perception,  but they're
no good at night. What takes over then are  the  rods on the  edge  of  your
irises.  They are angled at forty-five degrees, because of the convex  shape
of the eye,  so if you look  straight at something at night you don't really
see it, it's a haze. You have to look above  it or around it so you can line
up the rods,  which  will then give you a picture. It takes forty minutes or
so for them to become fully effective, but you can start to see better after
     Every now and then I could hear the clinking and clanking of people  in
tents doing their evening stuff; I couldn't really  make out what they  were
saying, but I was sure it would  be something along the lines of "Whose idea
was it to come camping anyway?" I also heard  a portable TV  being tuned in,
and the sound of jingles.
     I was hardly behind enemy lines here, but all the time I  was thinking,
What if? What if I bump into  someone? Answer, I'm  on holiday, I'm  hiking.
I'd play the  dickhead  Brit abroad on holiday thinking he's having fun, and
try  to turn it to my  advantage and learn  as  much as possible  about  the
houses. You've always  got  to have a reason for being somewhere, so that if
you're  challenged,  you won't  be fumbling around trying  to  come up  with
boneheaded  excuses.  It  also  gives you a  mind-set,  and you  can then do
whatever you're doing with more confidence.
     I moved off the lake shore as it petered out, and into the wood between
the water and the  fence.  It was hardly secondary jungle; the larger  trees
were five or six feet apart, with smaller saplings scattered  in between. It
was wet and muddy, but being flat it was easy enough to negotiate.
     I was just coming level with the end of the tented area when, from very
close quarters, I heard a young woman's voice.
     "Jimmy! Jimmy!" Before  I  knew it I'd stumbled  on the couple from the
barbecue, and from the  way  their clothing was  rearranged, she'd forgotten
what was on the barbecue entirely. It  confused me; I'd thought they were in
the car.
     This sort of thing can go one of two ways--either  they're embarrassed,
so  they make their  excuses  and  move  on,  or if you're  unlucky, the guy
decides he's got to demonstrate what a big man he is.
     I checked my stride and moved to the  right to go around  them. I tried
to  make it look as if I was concentrating  on my  footing as I passed,  but
without losing him from vision. He shouted, "Who the fuck are you, man?"
     and it was obvious which way this one was going to go. He stopped me in
my tracks with his hand on my shoulder and held me there. I had my head down
in order to look confused and unthreatening,  but also to protect my face in
case this kicked off.
     I stuttered, "I'm sorry to disturb you."
     He went, "What? You some kind of sicko stalker, or what?"
     "Jimmy!"  The girl  was trying to look as if she were brushing sand off
her skirt. I couldn't see her face in the darkness,  but it was obvious from
her tone that she was embarrassed  and wanted to get away. He had managed to
pull up his Levis and fasten the top button, but there was a big gaping hole
where the rest  of  his fly  was still undone.  The white of  his  underwear
glowed in the dark and I had to try hard not to laugh.
     My voice was my normal really  bad American one, but at the  same  time
trying to sound scared and submissive. I said,  "Nothing like that, I'm just
going to see some of  the turtles." Hopefully that  would  be enough to make
him satisfied that he was the tough guy  around here, so I could move on. It
would hardly  square  with  having a  bow,  but I was hoping he couldn't see
that, wedged between my back and the bergen.
     "Turtles? Who are you, Mr. Nature from the fucking Discovery Channel?"
     He  liked that  one; he  guffawed and  turned  to  his  girlfriend  for
     I  said,  "On the other  side of the lake, they're making their  nests.
This is the only time of year they do it." Unlike your good selves,  I added
to  myself. I  carried  on waffling about  turtles coming onto the beach and
digging  and laying  their eggs--something  that, ironically, I  had in fact
learned from the Discovery  Channel. Plus, my  bird guidebook told  me  they
were here.
     Lover Boy laughed; honor had been satisfied. I wasn't a weirdo, just an
anorak. Now he didn't really know what to do, so he laughed again.
     "Turtles,  man, turtles."  And with that he put his arm around the girl
and they walked off toward the beach.
     I'd got away with it, but it was annoying that it had happened, because
two people might now be able to identify  me. It didn't mean anything at the
moment, but if there was a drama  at  a  later date they might  remember the
encounter. It  could have  been worse:  at  least he  wasn't  a  nature  fan
     It  was nine  twenty-seven and  it had  taken two hours  and getting my
trousers wet up to  my ass  crossing the  creek, but  I'd eventually  got to
within  maybe sixty meters of the target.  I was right  on  the  lake shore,
which was  the  only way  I'd  been able  to get a decent view  of the house
because the  ground was so  undulating. The terrain was  different here; the
National Parks people  hadn't cleared a swathe, and the  tree  line extended
almost to the water's edge.
     Some  lights were  still on on the first floor,  but the curtains  were
drawn and I couldn't see  any movement. It was  a question now of finding  a
position that would give  me cover, but  with a  good aperture with which to
view the  target.  That  could be achieved only by carrying out  a 360degree
recce of the area around the house.
     I  took my time, picking my feet up  carefully to avoid making noise by
hitting any rocks, stones or fallen  branches, then slowly placing the  edge
of  my  boot down on the ground first, followed by the rest of the sole. The
technique puts quite a strain  on your legs, but it's  the only  way to have
any sort of control over the noise you make.
     When  I reached the water's edge, I stopped after about ten meters  and
listened, pointing my ear toward the target and slightly opening my mouth to
overcome  any body-cavity noises,  such as  jaw  movement. I  couldn't  hear
anything  apart  from  the lake lapping against the shore; certainly nothing
from  the  target  house. I had a look at where I wanted  to go  on my  next
bound, and started picking my way carefully over the rocks. There were still
lights on in  the  other house as well, but  I couldn't make out much detail
because it was too far away. At least the rain was holding off.
     I did my next move and got to within about forty meters of the house. I
realized that, because the ground was up and down like a yo-yo, it was going
to be  very difficult to  be  stood  off from the  target and watch from any
distance. Yet if I went right up on  the higher ground behind, all  I'd  see
was the roof. I couldn't site the OP (observation point) between the houses.
     Kids are very inquisitive and by mid-day tomorrow they'd probably be in
the OP  with me, sharing my  Mars bars and pizza. My options were so limited
that there was no point doing a 360; it wouldn't achieve anything.
     I went back down to the shore, took off the bergen and left it by a big
overhanging tree. That way, even if there was a major drama, I knew I'd find
it again; all I'd have to do was run down  to the lake, keeping to this side
of the house, turn right and  I couldn't miss it. What was more, the lighter
and less bulky  I  was,  the less noise I made while  I found  a  good  hide
position. For  all I knew at this  stage, although  I hadn't  seen  or heard
anything,  there  could  be dogs,  or  even worse, geese--they're  food  for
virtually everything that moves,  so they spark up at  the  slightest noise;
the ancient Egyptians used  them  as an  alarm system. I  learned  this from
living in my new house in Norfolk  because the guy who lived nearest me kept
geese,  and  the fucking  things never failed to wake me up in the middle of
the night. I'd had two in  my  oven so far. Kelly thought that I  bought her
favorite Sunday roast from the coop.
     I went  back toward the house, taking my time, moving slowly; stopping,
looking at the target,  looking  at the area, listening, working out my next
bound  and then moving  off again. With  any  OP, the closer  you are to the
target,  the  better  you'll be  able to observe  what's going on,  but  the
greater the chance of  compromise. The farther away you are, the less chance
of compromise,  but you might see fuck-all. The  ideal with this  particular
target  was probably  to be stood  off miles away, maybe placing  a  remote,
high-powered camera on the  house and viewing it from  the other side of the
lake--but  I didn't have the necessary optics. You have to make do with what
you've got.
     The sky had cleared  and a few more stars were out.  I could still hear
the  lake  lapping  on the shore, but there  was now also a splashing as the
turtles came to the surface and dived down again.
     I got to within about twenty-five  meters of  the house. The tree  line
stopped and the "garden" began, an area of rough grass with tree stumps that
hadn't been pulled out after  creating the clearing for the house. From this
position I could see the whole of one side of the target, plus  the boat and
the lake.
     There  were three  floors, and  beneath them a  garage,  with its doors
still slightly open to fit the wagon. There was a light shining on the first
floor, toward the lakeside, but only small cracks  of light from  behind the
heavy curtains.  I  couldn't see  any movement. A door  was facing me on the
ground floor that looked as if it went to the garage.
     A light came on on the second floor. No visible movement.
     A  few  seconds  later  a  toilet flushed.  At least there was movement
inside, unless the  flush was electronic and  on some sort of security timer
to operate  every hour  with the lights. I  hardly  thought  so; in  another
place, yes, but not here.
     I  started  to cast around to  find somewhere to  dig in  before  first
light.  I found one  possible site--a bush set  back a  little from the tree
line. It came up  to  about chest height  and was four feet or so wide, with
other, smaller bushes around  it. It  looked  ideal, but first  I'd have  to
check I  could see the target while I  was lying down in it.  Anyone who has
ever done OPs has horror stories of digging in under cover of darkness, only
to find at first light that  all  they  can see is mud.  I got  to the bush,
taking care not to disturb any of the foliage, then  lay down right in front
and checked. I could see only the top floor, and that was no good to me.
     I moved farther up the hill. The tree line curved right, bringing me no
more than twenty  meters from the target, which I didn't really want. I'd be
Aable  to hear snoring at that  distance, but I  also stood a good chance of
being heard myself. I moved back down the hill, toward the lake.
     There was  one other bush, about thirty meters from the house, but this
one  was only about waist height. Again it was about four feet wide, but the
foliage didn't seem as dense as the other one. I was running out of choices.
I lay  down level to where the aperture  would be, and found I could see the
whole  shebang all three floors, the garage, the side door  from  the garage
and  the lake. I  could also see the distant lights  from the campsite, so I
knew that in daylight I'd be able to see movement in the car park. It looked
like this was going to be the one.
     I got behind  the bush, out of sight  from the house. So far,  so good.
The next thing was to check that there was a mobile-phone signal. If  I  saw
her, London  would need to  know. Without the  mobile phone I'd have to  lie
concealed all day, leave at last light, and either get to a  location with a
decent  signal  or  find a  public  call  box, which would  not only  mean a
possible compromise, but also loss of eyes on target.
     I switched  on  the  Bosch, put  my  hand over  the backlit display and
waited. I gave it a  minute, keeping my  eyes on the house. The toilet light
had gone out now, but the first-floor one was still on. I made a tunnel over
the display with my hand, pressed one of the buttons and the  backlight came
on  again. The display showed that I had  three signal bars out of a maximum
four, and that was good enough for me. I turned it off again.
     I  sat there  for another  five  minutes,  tuning in.  Somebody crossed
behind the gap in the curtain. I couldn't tell if they were male or female.
     The temperature had dropped a few degrees and it was starting to feel a
little bit nippy now that I'd stopped moving. Not freezing, but it felt cold
where sweat had trickled down my spine and where the hair on my head was wet
around the edges. My jeans were still damp and felt uncomfortable, but  they
would dry. I stood up slowly, feeling wet clothing make contact with skin. I
turned and  started to  move in a  line directly away from the house, and as
soon as I found  myself  in a decent dip of dead ground, I changed direction
and headed straight down to the lake.
     I retrieved the bergen  and  bow,  checked that everything was done up,
and  carefully ran my hand around on the  ground to make  sure I hadn't left
anything. Then I retraced my route to the OP. By now it was just before f 1^
U t 1TI 1; 1^ M U
     midnight, which left me plenty  of time. First light wasn't until about
five o'clock in the morning.
     I dropped  the bergen directly behind the bush. Nothing and no one goes
forward of an OP from this point on, because that's what the enemy can see.
     I opened the side  pocket and pulled out the pruning shears and string,
hunkered down at the rear of the bush and started to cut. I felt like  James
pruning his roses. What I  was trying to  do was make a hole in the bush, as
small as  possible, but through which  I  could crawl.  It's pointless  just
pushing a bush  apart  and  charging inside; you'll distort the shape,  make
noise getting in and, once inside, make yet more noise and movement, because
the bush is  pressing on  you. If you're going to  do it, do it properly. As
the first branches were  cut,  I  tied  them  together  with one  end of the
string,  like a bunch  of  flowers. I  ran out  a spare  couple of meters of
string, cut it and put the bundle to one side.
     There was no  need  for my  nice yellow  gloves  after all,  because it
wasn't  a prickly bush. But  I was still glad I'd  brought  them. I'd  never
believed in being macho about building hides with my bare hands. Why scratch
or cut yourself when even a minor injury can slow you down? If you've got  a
pair of gloves  and you need them, use them. The  object is to  get into the
bush, not to show how hard you are.
     I was still mincing away, making progress into the bush, cutting slowly
and deliberately so as to reduce  noise and not fuck  up. I didn't  need  to
create too big a space; all I  wanted was to be able to crawl inside, get up
to the  front of the  bush, make an aperture and  observe the target.  I was
edging my way in,  pruning  it piece by  piece.  Anything that could just be
moved out of the way  and not cut, I would  leave, sometimes using string to
hold it back; it all added to the density of foliage around me.
     It Utook the best part of an hour to tunnel my way in, and I  had about
six inches of movement area around me and about a foot of bush in front.
     Now it was a matter of rigging up the rest of the OP.
     I wriggled  back out, unloaded some  stuff from  the bergen and  pushed
them into the hide. First  out was the digital camera, with its small tripod
and cable release. I crawled inside and rigged it up.
     Next was the hunter's individual camouflage net that I'd got at  Wars R
Us. I got  on my  back,  put  the camouflage over the front of my chest, and
tthen started to shuffle into  the hide.  Once  in, I  pushed the net gently
against the bush so it snagged, tying it with string where necessary. By the
time I'd finished I had created a snug little tunnel. The aim of the cam net
was to give the  bush more density; without it, if direct sunlight came into
the bush the gap would be  glaringly evident. If I hadn't found a cam net, a
dark green blanket would have done just as well.
     The most annoying thing about building an OP at night is that you can't
check it, so  it's all down  to  practice and experience. After  my check at
first light, I wouldn't be able to move from the hide, and if it hadn't been
done right, there  wouldn't be a  second chance.  I'd  been  doing this shit
since  1976 when I first joined  the infantry, so I'd got it down  to a fine
art  by  now. All you've  got to do is have patience and know the techniques
and have the  aptitude to lie there  for days, sometimes weeks, on end, just
waiting for five seconds of exposure of a target. Some  people  defined this
aptitude  as self-discipline; me,  I saw  it  as  being just too idle to  do
anything else.
     lery slowly and deliberately,  trying not to take labored breaths and i
make noise, I started  to lift the rest  of the stuff  I'd be needing out of
the  bergen.  I would normally keep  everything there, but being so close to
the target, I wanted to cut down movement. I placed the  pizzas and the rest
of the  food into the side of  the bush and covered them with the sandy soil
to  try  and  hide the smell from  animals and  insects,  and to prevent the
plastic wrap from reflecting shine--not that there was likely to be too much
of that tomorrow  if this weather continued. The phone, the 3C, the passport
and any other essentials would go in my pockets if I had to run; it was just
like  being  a soldier  again and keeping belt kit on. Finally, I pushed the
bergen inside the OP.
     I carefully put  on the Gore-Tex, then got  on my knees and felt around
on the ground with  my  hands,  both to  check there  was nothing left lying
exposed, and to  smooth out any sign I had made. The final check was that my
pockets  were done  up  and the kit was secure  inside them. Only then did I
crawl into the hide, and start pulling  in behind me the bouquet of branches
that made up the bung. I was now sealed in.
     For two or three minutes I lay still, listening and tuning in to my new
surroundings. There was  no noise  from either  of the houses, and the light
was off in the target house; all I could hear was the lapping of water.  The
turtles  seemed to have gone to bed. I waited for another couple of minutes,
and then it was time  to sort  myself out, to  make sure everything  was  in
place, and  make minor adjustments.  Moving more stones  and damp  sand from
under me, I built it up around my sides, slowly digging a shallow  grave  to
conceal  myself even more. Once past the  first  couple of  wet inches,  the
ground was quite easy to move.
     I got my wrist in front  of my  face  and had a look at  Baby-G. It was
just after 2 a.m."  which meant I had  about  three hours until first light.
Whenever there's  a lull in the battle, you should eat or sleep, because you
never know when you'll next  have a  chance for either. I  decided to get my
head down; the light would wake me up, and so would any movement. After all,
I could  hear them flush  the toilet from here; if  I was any closer I'd  be
able to wipe their asses for them.
     I  lay on my front and closed my eyes,  but it wasn't working. The only
stone  I hadn't moved seemed to be against my hip. I  shifted  it,  only for
another  one to rise to the surface and  replace  it. I  got reasonably snug
inside  the Gore-Tex, which was  acting as a kind of  sleeping  bag, but the
ground  at  this time of the  morning  feels like ice  and you find yourself
thinking, What  the fuck am I doing here? And even if  the weather isn't bad
you  still  get cold. Total  inactivity means  your  body  isn't  generating
warmth, and you become a lizard who needs sunlight. You brood about the fact
that, as well as the cold, it's bound to rain soon, otherwise it wouldn't be
an OP.
     Sometimes the  wait pays off and  you forget  about all the discomfort,
but I had  lain in hides for  days  on end, wet  and  freezing, only to find
     I started to laugh to myself, thinking about an operator called Lucas.
     We were tasked to OP a meeting point on the Polish border with Germany.
     It  was  a farm complex, where weapons-grade plutonium was being traded
for heroin by Russians. The plan was to fuck up the meet and get hold of the
plutonium. Lucas was a keen diver, and the scheme he came up with was to get
into dry bag (military slang for a waterproof diving suit)  and bury himself
in the mountain of  horse manure by the house. He lived there for four days.
The meet never  took  place and  it  took  a  week  to  get  the  smell  off
him--mainly  because,  instead of telling him to  lift  off straightaway, we
left him simmering in the heap for a bonus forty-eight hours.
     When I  woke up it must have been just  before 5 a.m."  as I could just
see first light coming up.  As soon as I could see  outside properly, it was
time for me to move out and check. Not that anyone finding anything was
     going  to  say, "Oh, look, there's  an  OP," but if it's an  attractive
item, someone could come  over  to  pick it up, then they're right on top of
you and the chance of compromise is big time.  I slowly pushed  the bung out
with my feet and, lifting myself on my elbows and toes, eased out backward.
     I could see a couple of footprints left from  my clean-up in  the dark,
so I pushed  myself out a little  bit more  and used  the bung to brush them
     While I was doing that  I looked at the bush itself. It was looking all
     I was quite proud of my handiwork.
     I started to  inch  myself very slowly  in again, feet first this time,
carefully pulling the bung into  the  entry point. I then rolled some of the
cam net around the base of  the bung and tucked it in as if I were tucking a
child in for the night. Then I got  into the center  of the little grave I'd
dug,  curled up  and turned myself  around,  being  careful  not  to  create
movement in  the bush. I didn't know what the targets were doing; they could
be up there, standing at  the  window, taking in the view  of  dawn over the
lake, only to see a bush mysteriously shaking .. .
     The next priority was  to check the camera, since the only reason I was
in this hole at all was  to see if  Sarah was here, and  then confirm  it to
London  photographically. Lynn and Elizabeth took nothing at face value, and
they certainly weren't going to trust me.
     It was now just light enough  to see through the viewfinder. I  made  a
small hole in  the cam  net facing the target. It didn't have to be the same
size as the lens;  as long as light was getting into the center  of the lens
it  could be  as small as a pencil prick. I  positioned the lens at the hole
this was  now the  aperture  and  focused it exactly  on the area around the
garage and the side door. It looked the natural way in and out. If there was
movement, I wouldn't have to fuck about positioning the camera, all I'd have
to do was press the cable release.  Not only would  it cut down on movement,
which would mean  less noise, but I could look at whoever was moving and  ID
them, instead of trying to focus a lens.
     Once done, I put sand and stones around the tripod to keep it stable. A
final check that the cam net wasn't obstructing  the lens, then I made  sure
that the cable release was on correctly.
     It was time to  have something to eat and drink before the fun started.
I opened one of the mineral-water bottles and took a few gulps even though I
wasn't really  thirsty. I wasn't  particularly hungry, either, but I munched
my way through  a slab of luncheon meat, all the time keeping my eyes on the
     Once I'd  finished with the plastic from  the Spam, I  wrapped  it in a
ball  and covered  it with soil.  The last  thing I  wanted  was a swarm  of
insects hovering  over my  OP like a  big pointing  hand.  After eating  and
drinking, there were  other  bodily functions that might need  attending to,
but hopefully the Imodium was going to do its stuff.
     I was lying on my stomach with the camera just above my head and to the
left,  staring  at the target with  the cable release  in one hand. My hands
were crossed in front of me and my chin was on my forearms, and that was it:
there  was nothing  else to do except look  and listen. I'd always  found it
mind-numbingly boring, but I knew  that sod's law dictated that any exposure
of Sarah would last for no more than five seconds, and it would  be a pisser
to miss it. I had to be switched on and fight the boredom.
     I looked at my watch. It was just after five thirty.
     I started to think about  her  again. If she were here, what was she up
     I didn't really understand what was going on, but then again, at a time
like  this I didn't want to know. Just  as I had that  thought, another took
over and said I was lying. I was dying to know.
     I could see the house  quite clearly now. It was  white weather boarded
and could have done with  a lick of paint.  Each of the three floors had two
or three windows  on  this side; no  shutters, just  two  window frames that
opened from the middle.
     I also saw security lights with motion detectors  that I had  to assume
would  be  covering all approaches. If they were powered and had  covered my
location, last night would have been  a very bright  one indeed. Building my
OP would have been piss easy.
     On the  first floor  some French windows  led out onto a small verandah
overhanging  the garage and facing the lake. Below it, the garage doors were
still ajar, with another light and motion detector covering the entrance.
     The boat,  a  dirty-cream  four-seater with  the driver's  seat in  the
middle, looked as if it hadn't been moved since I'd bino'd it yesterday. The
engine was still facing the doors and the nose of the trailer was still down
on the ground at the water's edge.
     The garage  walls were  made from white  trellis work fixed against the
stilts, with hardboard backing. Facing me and set into the wall was the side
door that seemed to go into the  garage.  A rotary washing line stood to its
left, but there  was no  washing  on it, which wasn't  particularly strange,
given the  weather.  There  was no  condensation  on the windows from people
asleep inside.
     There weren't  even any visible  rubbish  bins  I could  take a look at
later tonight to see if she was here.  A person's eyes may be the windows to
their  soul,  but their dustbins are the windows to a fuck of a lot else. It
never ceased to amaze me that even the most switched-on people seem to think
that  once  stuff they  have discarded  is out  of their  house,  it's safe.
Reporters find vast amounts of information by sifting through people's bins.
     In  some Southeast Asian countries,  all  the  rubbish from hotels with
international  guests  is  routinely  picked  through  by  the  intelligence
     Sarah  wouldn't be that  careless,  but I  knew, for example, that  she
didn't eat any  processed food unless she had to: if there were organic food
wrappers in the refuse, it might be a significant indicator.
     The birds were well into their morning chorus. There was a slight wind,
causing a bit of rustling  in  the trees,  but that  was welcome only if you
were hiding in an OP because it hid noise. The  main problem was that, where
there was wind, rain would surely follow.  In  the meantime, as long  as the
rain kept off it would be almost idyllic.
     An hour  or so later  I  heard the first man-made noise of the day, the
gentle  chug of a small outboard. The big-game  fishermen were on  the lake,
chasing the early fish. I couldn't  see anything, but I  could just hear  it
behind me somewhere near the entrance to the creek.
     In the background the putt-putt  got louder then  stopped,  and I heard
the  splash of an  anchor.  The fishermen were close by.  I could even  hear
mumbles now and again on the breeze.
     A curtain twitched on the first floor. I guessed they were checking out
the  fishermen, but if you were up and about and you could hear  it, why not
just  throw them back and have a proper look? This was significant; maybe no
trip back to D.C. after all. My finger tensed on the cable release in case a
door opened.
     There were shouts from  across the lake. Maybe someone  had had a bite.
But still no one moved the curtains to see what it was all about.
     At about eight o'clock the front door opened and two men came out.
     I had  just  four or five seconds in  which to act. I couldn't wait for
perfect  poses because they  mustn't be allowed time to  get acclimatized to
the outside environment. In the first  few  seconds after leaving the  house
they'd  still  be tuned in to whatever was going on indoors, maybe the sound
of  a  washing  machine or the television, mixed with  their own walking and
talking.  Once they'd  been  outside for  anything more  than four  or  five
seconds they would be listening to the noise  of the trees rustling  and the
movement of water on the lake. Before that happened, I had to act, then keep
very  still  again, so the  only things that were moving would be my eyes. I
squeezed the cable release, taking about five or six pictures.
     Thanks to the digital camera, I didn't have to worry about the noise of
the rewind and shutter.
     That done, I  had time to study the  two men with my own  eyes. It  was
obvious they hadn't been awake that long.  One of them had a pair of leather
boots on,  laces  undone and  a  rumpled blue sweatshirt that hung  out over
creased, faded  blue denim jeans. It looked as if they were the clothes he'd
been sleeping in. His jet-black hair was sticking up, and he had a few days'
growth  on his face. He was  in his thirties and  didn't  look too much of a
threat:  he  was  only about five feet five  inches, and very slim.  As Josh
would have said, he was too slight to fight, too thin to win.
     The most striking thing about him was that his features were distinctly
Middle Eastern.
     The other  guy  had the same skin tone, but was just over  six feet and
broader in the shoulders. He was wearing  trainers,  a Men In Black  T-shirt
under a dark-green fleece jacket and a pair of black tracksuit bottoms.
     He, too, seemed the worse for wear, with a cigarette in his mouth which
flopped down the left-hand  side  of his  face.  He  had a string  of prayer
beads, which looked very much like a Catholic rosary, looped over the middle
and  index  fingers of his right  hand.  He was  flicking  them so that they
closed around his fingers, then flicking them again to unwind them.
     They stood by the door looking  out at the lake, and there was mumbling
between them as  the  taller one put his right  hand down the front  of  his
tracksuit and started to scratch. The inflection and cadence of the mumbling
sounded Arabic to me.  They  sauntered outside, closing the door and walking
past the washing line toward me.
     I  froze, allowing  myself just short, shallow breaths. Their footsteps
sounded like Godzilla's.
     They  gazed  out  at the  lake  as  they walked,  probably watching the
fishermen.  They weren't aware, but  I had to accept that I  could be in the
shit. I was sure  the fuckers would see me; I looked to my  right, where the
bow was lying no more than four inches away from my hand. No  movement; calm
down and wait.
     My body was tensed, ready to  react.  But how would I get myself out of
this?  Fight--that was the only answer. I  could hardly just smile and claim
to be  lost. If I was quick enough, and didn't get entangled in the cam net,
I could  threaten them with the  bow. No, that  wouldn't work.  I would just
make a  run  for it  and hope they weren't carrying. I mentally checked that
all the important stuff was in my pockets.
     They stopped. They exchanged a few more words, then Men In Black took a
last  drag  on his  cigarette,  dropped it on the ground near  his feet  and
stubbed it  out with the toe of  his trainer. He  obviously hadn't read  the
signs asking him to leave only footprints.
     They turned right about ten meters short of my position,  moving uphill
toward the track. They  were taking the easy  route as the ground right next
to the house was steeper. Too Thin To Win led the way.
     They  walked up onto the track,  and I realized that they were checking
the ground. They were looking  to  see if there  was any sign left by anyone
during the night. They moved  off the track and downhill, but stopped  short
of  the  house and didn't move any closer  to it. I wondered why, and then I
realized: there must be proximity alarms.  As well as the  motion detectors,
which would trigger  the lights, there must be sensors that informed them of
movement outside. Judging by the  route  the two of them  took, I worked out
that the proximity  alarms were  probably covering an  area about twelve  to
fifteen meters out from the house.
     MIB lit up  again  as they went back  onto the track, then  disappeared
behind the house, still playing with his beads. I used the time to check the
cam, the bung behind me and that my pockets were done up.
     After four minutes I watched them emerge from the  opposite side of the
house, the lake  side,  and  walk  toward  the  boat on  the  trailer.  They
clambered aboard and started up the engine, revving it until I could see the
blue two-stroke smoke pumping out of the exhaust.  Then,  just  as suddenly,
they  killed it,  and  jumped out  with  lots of talking as they disappeared
through  the  gap between the garage doors. I heard the  wagon  start up. It
wasn't  going anywhere because the boat was in the way. It  meant these boys
were good: they were  checking  everything, including their getaways, in the
event of a drama.
     The vehicle engine cut and there was silence. They didn't reemerge.
     I  now knew there were at least two in the house, and I also  knew that
there must be access to the house from the garage.
     That was it  for another couple of hours. I  just  lay there, watching,
resting one eye at a time. Now and  again I  could  hear a  putt-putt on the
lake,  and  a couple of times  the sound of a toilet  flushing. Occasionally
there was the far-off screaming of kids, possibly in a  boat  or playing  in
the water, but otherwise nothing unusual.
     At  ten fifteen I  watched as  Mom, Dad  and kids from the other  house
started to  push another boat toward the lake; that was probably them out of
it for the day. Well, until it rained anyway.
     After that, nothing at all happened. It was pizza and Mars bar time.
     At about eleven thirty I started to get movement from the garage doors.
     Still nibbling at the last bit of  my third  Mars bar, I moved my thumb
over the cable release.
     MIB came out. I watched him and slowly swirled the camera to the right,
wishing  I  had  a wider  lens.  He walked to  the front of the  trailer and
stopped  near the hook-up point. He seemed to  be waiting; sure  enough  the
wagon sparked up.
     Sarah  walked  out. Gotcha!  She  was  wearing  blue jeans  and a  blue
sweatshirt  with the Quiksilver logo on  the  back. I knew her gait, I  even
recognized her  walking boots. She stopped to look at the sky.  Yes, it  was
going to rain. I hit the cable release and hoped I'd got her. If so, the job
was just about  over. It felt so  strange, seeing  her after so long, and in
this  way. She  still  looked just  like the  picture  in her apartment, but
without the  smile. It gave  me a strange sense of  power over her  by being
hidden, watching.
     As the boat was in the way,  the garage doors couldn't  open fully. She
and  MIB twisted the boat so that  it  was parallel to the water, then  they
opened the garage doors fully and out came a black Ford Explorer. One up. It
was  Too  Thin To Win, and  going by what I  could see of his top half, he'd
smartened himself up probably had a shit, shower and shave.
     The engine revved as he came screaming toward me then uphill toward the
track. I craned my head  in an attempt to catch the registration. I couldn't
get any detail, but it definitely had a North Carolina plate with the "First
In Flight" slogan and a picture of the Wright Brothers'  aircraft on a white
     My eyes jumped  back to Sarah. She  was helping to turn the boat around
so that it faced the water again, ready to go. This was an escape route, for
sure. Once  they had done that, they went  inside and the garage  doors were
closed fully behind them.
     Very  weird shit. It seemed that London  was right to worry  about  her
after all.
     slowly got out the 3C and  slid open one of the ports, inserted a flash
card from my jeans pocket and turned it on.
     A flash card stores information in much the same way  as  a floppy disk
does for a PC. What came up on the screen from  this one was  a selection of
about 200  words  or  phrases, each with a five-figure sequence  of  numbers
beside it.  The letters of the alphabet were also  encoded, so that uncommon
words could be  spelled out. To  compose my  message,  all I had  to  do was
scroll  through  to  the  word  or  phrase  I  wanted  and  write  down  the
corresponding five-figure  group  on my notepad with a  pencil. I  preferred
pencils to pens because you  can write with them in  the rain. I always used
one that was sharpened at both ends, so that if one lead broke I could still
use the other.
     The  first  parts of  the message I was going to send were standard and
didn't need the codes. My PIN was 2442, but  since the numbers had to be  in
groups  of five  for the code to work, I made it  02442.1 followed this with
the time/ date groups: 02604 (April 26th). I had a look  at Baby-G and wrote
down 01156 (1156 hrs; times are always local). It was then just a matter  of
scrolling through the codes to make up the message.
     The first I looked for was  "tgt loc. 6 fig grid." I gave the map sheet
details, plus the six-figure grid reference of  the  target. Just to make it
clear, I told them that it was the eastern most building of the two.
     My message continued: "echo one (Sarah) located with two bravos (males)
middle eastern. are aware. no weapons. mac down. waiting

     I ended the message with my pin again 02442 and  that was it. It worked
out that I had twenty-one groups of numbers.
     I put the second flash card into Port B,  took out A and put it back in
my jeans pocket. I could run the Psion with both cards in, but I didn't like
doing it; if there was a  drama and I was caught,  it meant the whole system
would  be accessible all at  once. At least  with  them separated I had  the
chance to hide or destroy a key part of it.
     The second card  held  a  series of  numbers, also  in groups  of five,
called the "one-time pad." Devised by the German  diplomatic  service during
the 1920s, the OTP is a simple encoding method  consisting of  a random  key
used only once. There are a few variations on the OTP theme. The Brits first
started using it in 1943. Still widely used  by the intelligence services of
all countries,  it  is the  only code system that  is  unbreakable,  both in
theory and in practice.
     I started by writing down in my notebook the first group  from the  OTP
under  the first  group of  the  message,  my  PIN. I  carried on until  all
twenty-one groups had another set  of  numbers  from  the one-time pad under
     What I had to do then was subtract 14735, the  first group of  the OTP,
from  02442, my identification code, and  came up with  98717 not because my
math  was shit, but because in spy land sums, you don't carry the ten  over,
you lose it. Bloody typical.
     At the London end,  they knew  the message would start with my PIN, and
groups are always  used in the order they are laid out  in. It would be easy
for them  to add the groups on their corresponding OTP from  the groups that
I'd transmitted, and they'd come up with the original set  of numbers again,
because they would also do spy land sums.  Referring these  back to the code
book, they'd produce my intended  word or phrase.  Once used,  those  groups
would never be issued again.
     I did my spy-type sums one more time to confirm my arithmetic,  and was
ready to send. I turned on the  phone, tapped in the PIN code and waited for
a  signal. I tapped out "Kay's" on the Psion to retrieve Elizabeth's number;
I hadn't got  around  to learning it after all. After two rings  a  recorded
message  from a synthesized but  happy-sounding female  voice  said, "Please
leave your message after the tone." Two seconds later, there was a beep.
     I tapped out the message  of twenty-one groups on the number  pad, then
pressed Pound and listened for the auto-acknowledgment.
     "Thank  you for your" there was  a pause,  then a different  electronic
voice "twenty-one group" then the original voice  "message."  It cut off and
so did  I. I  put  the flash cards back in  their separate jeans  pockets. I
wrapped the piece of paper up in a sheet of plastic wrap and tucked it under
a branch in  the  mud. I didn't want to get rid  of it yet, because I didn't
know  if  I  was going  to need it. If London  came back  and  told  me they
couldn't work out my message, it might be because I'd fucked up the encoding
or spy sums. The system can be time-consuming, but used properly it works.
     The next part of the job was  to "Mac down" the pictures. I plugged the
lead into  the phone, clipped  it  into  the receiver end  of the camera and
clicked on  its internal modem. I dialed the  same London number and got the
same  recorded message. I  pressed  Send on  the  camera; the  telephone was
taking  the  information  from  the  digital  camera  and bouncing it  off a
satellite up there somewhere.  Pictures would come up on an Apple Mac screen
at the other end and hard copies would be made. Within minutes Elizabeth and
Lynn would have my  nice holiday  snaps  of Sarah and her  two  playmates on
their desks.
     After  transmission, I switched off  the phone to  save the battery. It
was  pointless  leaving  it  on; they  weren't  going  to  get  back  to  me
     If  they  did,  the phone's message service  would  intercept  the call
anyway, so  no  problems. I was in no rush; even if  they  said, "End-ex," I
couldn't come out of here until nightfall.
     Events had moved on since my briefing. I tried to imagine what would be
going  on  in  London.  Elizabeth would probably be  at home,  as it was the
weekend.  A  car  would be  sent to her country  seat  to  bring her  to the
operations room in Northolt, North London. The opening scene of James Bond's
Tomorrow Never  Dies, with large screens and computer projections  on  VDUs,
wasn't that far from the truth. The  people receiving my int wouldn't have a
clue  what it  was  about, or whom it was from. Elizabeth would lock herself
away with Lynn somewhere  and look at it, probably complaining that  it  had
taken me so long, and then drink some more tea.
     From  what I could  remember,  it seemed  very  fashionable to drink  a
herbal blend at  the moment. But not her,  she'd be throwing  Earl Gray down
her neck. Meanwhile, I waited out in this hole.
     Elizabeth, not Lynn, would make the decision on what I was to do next.
     I wished again that I knew who she was; I hated  it when people had  so
much power over me, and I didn't know who had given it to them or why.
     I had my fingers crossed that they wouldn't want a technical device put
in to find out who  these people were and what they were up to, because that
would  entail me doing  a CTR (close target reconnaissance) to help  whoever
was being sent to do  the job. That would  mean getting into  the house  and
working  out the  best  way  to  bring the technical device  in,  as well as
describing the makeup of the general area, the  size of  the house, how many
stories,  the  kind of doors,  the kind of locks. A locks recce is a task in
itself;  it  means going right  up  to the door or window  to study them  in
detail. Sometimes  you put  a little bit of talcum powder  on the lock, then
press  Plasticine  into  the  keyway, pull  it out  and put it in  a  secure
container  so  you can take imprints later.  Then, of  course, you  have  to
remember to remove all the dust from the lock.
     A CTR has to answer every conceivable question that might be asked by a
third  party who's been  tasked with making  entry.  Are the windows locked?
What is  the area of clear glass? Of frosted glass? What are the main access
routes  to and  from  the target? Is the target overlooked by any buildings?
Are there any garages or outbuildings or car parking spaces?
     How many doors are secured, how many are loose?  Do  they make  a noise
when they open? They would need to  know  to take  in  some oil, to stop any
     Are there  any good approach  routes?  Any  major obstacles?  Is  there
lighting? What are the weather  conditions like? What are the  routes to the
target? What's the general condition of those routes? What would you need to
get to the target? What type of ground ploughed, pasture, boggy?  What  sort
of natural obstacles are there? What  is  the time and distance from the DOP
(drop  off point)?  Where is the DOP? Are  there  any animals  about?  Dogs,
horses, geese? And  that was  assuming I  could  get onto the target at all,
past the proximity lights.
     The  list of questions  can  seem  endless, especially when  you're two
hours into a CTR, first light is approaching and you seem to be only a third
of the  way down the list. Where are the best places to put  OPsin? In  this
particular  case, that was easy: I was in  it. Where would be the best place
to put long-range  technical devices in for  a  video  soak?  That  would be
somewhere  over  on the other side of the lake.  Could  we have a helicopter
trigger?  Could we have a helicopter that just flies  around maybe three  or
four Ks out?
     Once I'd gathered all that information on the exterior, I would have to
CTR inside  the house. For that I'd need to take in an  infrared camera,  or
buy commercially available infrared niters to fit my camera, so that I could
take  pictures without disturbing the  people in residence. They'd  want  to
know the full real estate agent's monty. What are the dimensions and layouts
of every  room? Where is the electrical supply?  If you're putting listening
or picture devices in, batteries last only so long, so you might have to tap
into the mains. Where is the best place to put a listening device?  And that
might entail looking  at the direction of the floorboards, because if you're
trying to hide an antenna, you'd put it in the gaps between  them;  but that
also  means  taking a  compass bearing  of the  floorboards, so the  scaleys
(communications personnel) can work out their antenna theory.
     Stuff like this takes days and days to organize, and it would be my job
to stay and wait  with eyes  on target while everything was  prepared. If my
stores  ran  out I would  have to  be resupplied  via a  dead  letterbox and
outside help and even that would be a pain in the ass to sort out.
     As far as I was concerned, my job was now finished. I'd found Sarah and
confirmed it with photography.  I didn't want to be a part of  anything that
happened next.
     I cut away from it by thinking about a job I'd done in the jungle once.
     We'd got to our report line, it  was pouring down with rain and we were
gagging for a hot  brew, which  we couldn't sort out because we were on hard
routine. We transmitted our sit rep, something to the effect of  "We  are at
the river head, what now?"
     We were told, "Wait out."
     About four hours later they came back to us and said, "OP any track."
     What  the fuck did they mean, OP any track? What good would that do us?
We asked, "What track?"
     They came back, "OP any track that runs west to east."
     They had  to be mad. We sent back:  "We can't  find one running west to
east.  However, we've found one running  east to west and we're going to  OP
that one."
     All we got back was, "East-west is good, out." Either  they were taking
the  piss,  or the world's most  useless officer was manning the  desk  that
night. We never found out which. You never do.
     Nothing was happening.  Even the fishermen had gone back to their tents
for lunch.
     I'd just decided it was pizza time,  and was about  to reach for one of
my wraps when  I heard  movement  on the ground, and soon afterward,  rapid,
heavy breathing.
     The distinctive, metallic  tinkle  of  a  name  tag on a collar  became
louder  as the dog got nearer. I hadn't seen anything around the target that
identified it as having a dog, so it probably wasn't from the house. But the
name tag meant the animal was domestic, and that meant  there would probably
be people with it.
     I began to hear aggressive sniffing;  seconds later,  a wet, dirty nose
was nudging the hide. Maybe he was a fan ofWal-Mart's Four Seasons.
     I  moved  my hand  slowly to my  pocket, easing out the  Tazer  and the
pepper spray. I didn't know if the pepper would work  on  dogs;  they can be
immune to some  of this shit. One thing I  knew for sure:  he wouldn't enjoy
the Tazer. But then again, the yelping would alert everybody and what if the
shock killed him stone dead? I would have to  drag him in with me and have a
smelly, wet and very dead dog as my new best mate.
     The sniffing seemed just  inches from  my ear. This dog was excited; it
knew it could be din-dins time.
     A young woman called, "Bob! Where are you? Here, Bob!" I recognized the
     Bob  carried on sniffing around the OP. Straightaway I  thought, I'm  a
British journalist working for a tabloid newspaper. I'm doing a story on the
famous  people hiding  in  the house, and I  want  to  get pictures of their
illicit  affair. I'll jump  straight in with questions  before  they can ask
     Do you know anything about them?  Do you  live around here?  You  could
make a lot  of money if  you tell us what  you know about them ... The brain
has two orbs. One side processes numbers and analyzes information, the other
is  the  creative  bit,  where we  visualize  things  and  if  you visualize
situations, you can usually  work out in advance how to  deal with them. The
more you visualize, the better  you will deal with them. It might sound like
something from a tree buggers' workshop, but it does the business.
     My eyes  were glued  to the target, but my ears were with the dog. It's
nearly always this  sort of third-party shit that compromises  you, and dogs
can be the worst of all. They can detect your every breath and movement from
as much as a  mile away  under  favorable conditions  which  it seemed I had
given  him. Dogs have very  poor eyesight, only  half as  good as man's, but
their hearing is  twice as good. The  wind was blowing from the lake  toward
the  dog.  He might have heard me, but I was sure it was an  odor  that  was
attracting him. It's not just food smells that provide a target;
     so  does  body  odor,  or  clothing,  especially  if  it's  wet.  Soap,
deodorant, leather, tobacco, polish, gas and many others  are all a giveaway
you name it. Who knows what it was in this case.
     The more Bob  sniffed, the more I came  to  the conclusion  that he was
after the  pizza. No matter how  much I'd wrapped  it  up,  his  nose wasn't
fooled. Cannabis smugglers wrap eucalyptus leaves around their  stuff to put
off sniffer dogs, but it doesn't work: the mutts can smell both at  the same
time and know they're going to get a nice chocolate drop as a reward.
     I heard a man's voice no more than twenty meters behind me, but I hoped
he was in one of the dips.
     "Bob! Where are you? Come ..."
     I recognized his voice as well. I'd tripped over these guys last night,
and now they were going to return the favor.
     The girl said, "Where is he. Jimmy?"
     Jimmy was angry.
     "I told you we should keep the dog on a fucking leash, man, or  back in
the car."
     She sounded as if she'd started to cry a little.
     "My parents will kill me."
     He started to backtrack.
     "It's OK, Bob will be OK. I'm sorry."
     I hoped  they  were more interested  in making up  than  they  were  in
following  Bob into my bush. But I was ready, I'd just stick with my tabloid
story; they'd  be able to see the camera.  Besides, if I  were a reporter  I
wouldn't have told him last night. I'd just have to keep the bow hidden.
     They obviously had no idea that I was there yet, but Bob did, the nosey
little fucker. The girl was still fretting.
     "I gotta go back.  My parents will freak if  I'm late with the car  and
I've lost Bob."
     He wasn't impressed.
     "OK, OK, I told you I'd get you home on time."
     He sounded pissed off;  he could see all hope of a midday knee-trembler
in the woods evaporating.
     I heard giggling; he was giving it one last try.
     "Jimbo, not here! I gotta get home. Bob, come on, boy, let's go!"
     Bob  was having none  of it. He was  sniffing big  time at the OP. Next
thing I knew,  the dog's face  was  straight in front of  me,  demanding his
share of the pizza. I gently scooped up a handful of earth  and nicked it at
his eyes. Bob now thought the pizza man was putting up a fight.
     He backed off, but not as much as I'd hoped, and started barking. I had
fucked up  but I'd had no choice.  As soon as he barked,  they knew where he
     The girl must have come over the brow. Her voice was much clearer.
     "Bob! Oh, look, Jimmy, he's found something. What have you found, Bob?"
     I got myself ready.
     "What have you found, boy?"
     The moment she saw me, I would launch into my reporter's spiel.
     "What's going on, Bob?"
     Bob's ass was in the air, his shoulders more or less on the ground with
his front legs splayed, and he was jumping back and then coming  forward and
barking.  I kept my eyes on target and now my ears on  her as she started to
walk directly toward the hide.
     I heard the guy shout from somewhere behind me, very pissed off:
     "Come on, let's go. Bob ... come!"
     I saw the first-floor curtains twitch.
     Bob  was still  leaping around with  excitement, and on top of  that  I
heard a vehicle. The tires rumbled along on the dirt track.
     As Bob's nose  once again came up to the  cam net I decided to give him
the good news  with the  pepper spray. He  jumped  back, yelped  and ran  to
     I heard the girl: "Bob, see, serves you right! Stop messing around!"
     She probably thought he'd got his nose bitten by something.
     I listened as they shuffled through the  sand.  Jimmy was still  behind
somewhere, complaining. Next  time they slipped into the woods he'd lock Bob
in the car again to steam up the windows, like last night.
     I  got my head back on the ground, watching and listening, just waiting
for shit to happen.
     The Explorer had come back. Two  up. I looked  up just before it turned
left off the track and downhill toward the garage.
     It came down the hill and headed away from me, toward the garage.
     Too Thin To Win was still in the driver's seat. I couldn't make out his
new playmate in the passenger seat.
     The  wagon stopped just  short of the  garage and  the side door of the
house opened. Sarah again. She was looking at the woods behind me, keeping a
wary  eye out  for Bob  and his friends.  I watched  her  and  tried to keep
contact with her eyes. I would know if she suspected anything.
     I watched her  scan  the  tree  line,  uphill and then back down again,
toward me.  As  her eyes approached  my OP  I moved mine  out of  contact. I
couldn't look  at her. A sixth sense can sometimes let  you know when you're
being looked at, and I didn't want to take the chance.
     I knew  I was doing the wrong thing. Even if her plan was  not to react
to anything she  saw, but  to go  back  into the house,  then return with an
automatic weapon to hose down the area, I knew her well enough to see it  in
her eyes. I could feel sweat running around the back of my legs and neck.
     I waited three or four seconds more, then moved my eyes up again.
     She  was  finishing off her scan, past me and down to  the  lake.  Once
there, she  quickly turned  her  head  to  the  wagon  and  walked up to the
passenger door.
     A  white  guy  clambered out. By  his style of dress I would say he was
American. He was  wearing  a black nylon bomber jacket, tight blue jeans and
white trainers. He was  above-average  height and  build,  about midthirties
with  black,  fairly long, curly hair, and a mustache like  the sheriff's in
the Bugs Bunny cartoons. He looked good enough to be the hunky lumberjack in
any soap.
     The meeting with Sarah was intimate:  they hugged, kissed each other on
the mouth, then held the embrace. They  spoke in low voices as Sarah ran her
hand across his back. There was something odd going on, though.
     They looked pleased to see each other, but the talking  wasn't loud and
they weren't going overboard.
     I got  two pictures of them during the thirty  or so  seconds that they
were together.
     Too Thin To Win had the tailgate down on the Explorer.  He was  looking
quite smart in jeans and a dark checkered jacket. He pulled out a brown suit
carrier with an airline tag on the handle.
     Sarah had disappeared inside the garage with the white guy, followed by
Too Thin  To  Win, who closed  the  door behind them. It  was time  to  send
another sit rep.
     had  just started  to prepare my message when Too  Thin To  Win emerged
from the side door with MIB. He, too, had had a shit, shower and  shave, and
was dressed a lot  smarter  in brown trousers and jacket. They both got into
the Explorer, Too Thin To Win in the driver's  seat. The wagon backed around
to point  uphill. They weren't talking to each other, smiling, or looking at
all happy. Something was happening.
     The 4x4 bumped  along the track  and disappeared from  sight.  I looked
back at  the house. All the windows and doors  were closed, and  so were the
curtains.  That was strange; if someone  was arriving at  such  a nice spot,
surely  you would show him the view? Maybe she  had better things to do with
him. Maybe  he was  just another  sucker that  she  was using.  But for what
     It was nearly two hours before the Explorer returned. There were bodies
in the back, but I couldn't work out how many as it turned downhill, my eyes
nicking between the wagon and the side door of the house, waiting for  it to
open. When it did, it was the American who appeared. Sarah was nowhere to be
seen. He was looking aware, checking  the lake and, as MIB had done, playing
with worry beads.  I watched him, listening to the slow rumble of tires past
my OP. His denim shirttails were hanging out of his jeans and showing  below
his bomber  jacket. I  was right, he and  Sarah did have better things to do
than look at the scenery.
     The wagon stopped and I  counted an  additional two heads  in the  rear
seats. All four got out and I pressed the cable release.
     The two  newcomers  were both dark-skinned. They hugged and  kissed the
American on both cheeks. It looked as if they knew him pretty well.
     All the  same, there  were  no  loud shouts  of welcome  or smiles, and
everyone spoke in a murmur I couldn't understand. The meeting also seemed to
have an air of relief about it.
     Too Thin To Win and  MIB had opened  the tailgate  and were pulling out
two square aluminium boxes that were plastered with what looked like old and
torn "Fragile" stickers and airline security tape. They  started to move the
boxes inside the garage  via the side door. The  luggage area of the 4x4 was
still full of sports bags, another suit carrier and a black plastic cylinder
that stretched  from the back  seat  to the gear shift at the  front. It was
about two  meters long and covered  at each end. Either  it was  the world's
biggest poster tube or they had some serious fishing rods with them I didn't
think.  One of the new guys motioned to the other  one  and the American  to
give him a hand.
     I snapped some more. This guy looked much older than the others. He was
short  and  bald,  with  a very  neat,  black  mustache, and  he was  a  bit
overweight, mostly around the stomach. He looked like he should be in a film
as the  gangster boss, the Bossman. The other newcomer was more nondescript,
of medium build and height, and looked about twenty years old. He could have
done with a few plates of what the bald guy had been eating.
     After a  couple of trips, with the boys lifting what seemed to be heavy
kit, the 4x4 was empty and everything was stowed inside the garage. The side
door closed  and the area once more looked as if  nothing  had  happened all
day. What was going on here?
     Ever  since  we'd  first  met,  it had  seemed  to  me  that  Sarah was
sympathetic  to  the  Arabs. She'd  been involved with them  in one  way  or
another for  most of her life. Come to think of it, we'd even had a row once
about Yasser Arafat. I said that I thought he'd done a good job; she thought
he was selling out to the West.
     "It's all about homeland, both spiritual and cultural, Nick," she'd say
every  time  the subject  arose,  and  nobody who'd  been within sight  of a
Palestinian refugee camp could  argue, but I wondered whether there was more
to it than that.
     A  faint drizzle  was starting. It hadn't  penetrated my hide  yet  but
could clearly be  seen falling  on the open ground in front  of  me. I could
hear outboard motors  in the distance as the intrepid  fishermen  set out in
pursuit of a six-ounce carp. Lunchtime must be over.
     There's  more to surveillance than  just the  mechanics.  A report that
says, "Four  men get out of vehicle, two men pick up bags and go inside," is
all very well, but it's the interpretation of those events that matters.
     Were they  looking aware? Did  they seem to know each  other well? Were
they,  perhaps, master and servant? These people were meeting up, in hiding,
and with kit. I had seen this before with ASUs (active service units).
     The boxes looked as if they'd seen a lot of air time during their life,
but  not on this trip. There  were no airline tags on the handles or  on the
     Maybe they'd driven to an RV point and then transferred the kit. If so,
why? Whatever was happening here, it wasn't about the turtles.
     Things were starting to spark up and Lynn and Elizabeth  needed to know
that there were now four Arabs, one  American and Sarah.  Maybe London could
make sense of  what was happening; after  all, they would know far more than
they had told me.  With any luck, Elizabeth would now be at Northolt, poring
over my previous message and images, with her tea so strong you  could stand
the spoon in it.
     It  was 15:48, time to  switch on  the phone. It  had been  a couple of
hours since my last transmission, and they should be calling me back with an
acknowledgment and maybe even a reply.
     I took it out of my pocket and  switched it on, placing it in the shell
scrape so I  could see when I had a signal while I got out the codes from my
jeans and encoded my sit rep. As I retrieved the 3C,  I started to feel like
I  needed a shit. So much for the  Imodium: it should have bunged me up, but
maybe the combination of pizza, Mars bars and Spam weren't the most  binding
of materials. I knew from  bitter  experience  that fighting  the urge never
works; if you've got the time, however inconvenient that might be, you never
wait until the last minute: if you do, sure as  anything, a drama will occur
at the target the moment you get your trousers down.
     I got the roll of plastic wrap from the bergen and  pulled off the best
part of a  meter. Leaning over to my left, still trying to keep  my  eyes on
the target, I undid the buttons of both sets of trousers with my right hand,
and pulled them down, along with my pants. I then got the plastic in my left
hand  and tucked it under,  ready to receive. I started  to want to  piss; I
wasn't going to rummage for the gas can at this stage of the proceedings, so
I just had to restrain  myself while I got the main event out of  the way. I
wrapped the first handful in the plastic and put it to one side,  pulled off
another length, put it underneath,  and carried on. Having to do this in the
field is never  an easy procedure, especially when you're lying on your side
and  in fits and starts, because it's got to be controlled. It's unpleasant,
but there's no way around it.
     The drizzle was now trying hard to become something more grownup.
     I could  hear  the  first raindrops hitting  the leaves above me. I was
about halfway  through the second  lot  of plastic wrap when the  LED on the
phone told me I had a message waiting.
     At the same  moment, I heard a voice--male and American. I switched off
the phone and thrust it  and the 3C in my pockets. I  looked out of the hide
at the movement of the trees, trying to gauge  the direction of the wind. It
was still coming in  from the  lake. The American was on his own, coming out
of the garage doors and heading toward the boat.
     Trying desperately to control my sphincter and bladder, I watched as he
moved the boat out of the way of the garage doors. I guessed he was going to
park up the  Explorer.  He climbed into  the  driver's  seat  and revved the
engine. All the  curtains  in the house  were still closed and there was  no
other sign of movement.
     There  are  quite  a  few  times  on  tasks  when  you really  have  no
alternative but  to shit yourself, especially on urban OPs where you're in a
loft  space and there  are people downstairs.  You try not to do it, because
you might have to go out into the street straight afterward and operate like
a civilian, but sometimes, if there's no room to  move, it's just got to  be
done. The only precautions you  can take are to not eat before the op, drink
as little as you  can, and pop some Imodium--then  hope for the best. It's a
bit  like the KitKat commercial, with the  photographer  outside  the  panda
house at the zoo: you could have been lying in an OP for four weeks, but the
moment  you  get  the plastic  wrap out, the panda emerges and does a  quick
impersonation of Fred Astaire.
     I'd guessed correctly. By now the  4x4 was in the  garage, the boat was
back  in position  and he'd gone back into the house. I finished off the job
with the plastic wrap and gas container and pulled up my trouser bottoms.
     I was feeling  quite  sorry  for  myself; the only consolation I  could
think of was that plastic probably did the job  better  than the shiny stuff
in the car park toilets would have done.
     I tore  off another big length of it, wrapped  up all  my offerings and
popped them straight into the bergen. It would help to hide the smell, which
in turn meant it wouldn't attract flies and animals. I then tucked  the fuel
canister back into the bergen as well, doing my bit for eco-tourism.
     I'd learned my lesson. I dug around in the day sack for the Imodium and
took another six capsules, probably enough to constipate an elephant. I  lay
down again with my hands resting under  my chin,  looking at the target, but
after a couple of sniffs I decided to rub them with soil and keep them  away
from my face for a while.
     On target, nothing else had changed. The curtains were still closed.
     In  the hide,  it was now wet and  miserable. The  rain was starting to
fall more heavily;  the noise of it hitting the trees increased and  it  was
dripping from the foliage, through the cam net, and running down my face and
neck. I brushed away a small twig that had stuck to  my cheek.  Sod's law of
OPs  was at it  again; I knew it  would  only be a  matter of time before it
percolated down onto me in a steady stream.
     I got out the phone again. Sheltering it under my  chest, I switched on
the power, tapped in my PIN and dialed Kay's sweetshop then *2442.
     They would be transmitting one-time pad number groups to me, exactly as
I'd done  to  them,  except that the groups would have  been  recorded on  a
continuous  tape,  which would keep running until I  acknowledged that I had
received it.
     I cradled the phone to my ear  and listened as I switched the  Psion to
word-processing  mode.  As  the woman's  voice recited groups  of five digit
numbers, I tapped them into the  keyboard.  It  was easier than writing them
     "Group six: 14732. Group seven: 97641. Group ..."
     I knew it had got to the end of the message when she said, "Last group:
     69821. End of  message. Press  the star key if  you require the message
     I  did. I then  had to wait  a  few moments  for  the message to repeat
itself so I could receive the first five groups. Up it came again: "You have
a"  pause, different  voice "sixteen" back to normal  voice "group  message.
Group one: 61476. Group two ..."
     When the taped  message had come full circle, I switched off the phone,
put  it away and transferred the groups onto paper.  I'd  never been  up  to
doing the math on the Psion, and by the time I'd got the hang  of it I would
have been up for retirement.
     The rain was coming down in earnest.  Keeping my  eyes on the  house, I
pulled  the  hood up around my neck to cut out what  was pouring through the
cam net. I couldn't cover  my head, however, because that  would degrade  my
     Armed with the number groups, I was now going to do the reverse of what
I'd done earlier: look for the recognition group on  the one-time  pad, then
subtract each group from the ones that I had on my OTP.
     Once  I'd done that, I put the flash  card  back in my jeans pocket and
got out the one that held the codes. They came up on the screen and I worked
out the  message. The first lot  of groups were the  introduction-date, time
groups, all that sort of stuff. Then I got to the meat of the message:

     47624 DTG (date time group, times local)

     47382 0500HRS (times local)

     "Extract  target" was  easy  enough  to understand:  they  wanted me to
remove Sarah from the house by 5 a.m. tomorrow morning. Fair enough.
     It was the next bit I couldn't believe: "T104."
     "T"  plus a  numeral is  a  code within  a code, for brevity. There are
quite  a few T  commands,  and  they have to  be learned parrot fashion,  as
nothing  about them  is ever written down by  anyone,  anywhere.  They don't
officially exist, and the reason is simple. T is a command to kill.
     They wanted me to kill Sarah.
     Not  only  that,  but 104 meant without trace: the body  must never  be
     Elizabeth  must have been more pissed off at being summoned to Northolt
on a Sunday than I'd thought. Either that, or they'd told me even less about
the operation than I suspected they had.
     The  wind gusted and  the heavens opened, as  if to  confirm my feeling
about the T104.
     The recorded voice said, "You have no new messages." There was a pause,
then she started to give out the introduction for the groups already sent. I
checked  them against  the ones I'd written down, and  went  through all the
codes again.
     As I protected the 3C from the rain I knew there was no mistake. I took
a deep breath and let it go slowly, wiping away some water that had splashed
down my cheek.
     I'd  been a young  infantryman when I'd killed my  first  man,  an  IRA
     I'd felt good about  it. I  thought  that was how you were supposed  to
feel. After all, it was  what the Army did for a living. Later, I  got  more
satisfaction from stopping death than  causing it. However, if the  task was
to kill, it didn't particularly worry me. I didn't celebrate the  fact,  but
neither did  I  complain.  I  understood  that they had sons and  daughters,
mothers and  fathers,  but  they were players like everybody else, including
me. And at its most basic level, if somebody had  to die, I'd  rather it was
them  than  me.  My  only  concern  was  to  try  to make  it  as  quick  as
possible--not so much for their benefit, but to make it safer for me.
     This  T104  was different. This  was  the second time  I'd had  to kill
someone  I'd  been  close  to.  Considering  there  was only  Josh left  who
resembled  anything like a friend, I couldn't help wondering what  the  fuck
was  going  on in my life. Euan had been my best mate for as long as I could
remember, but he'd used me--worse  than that,  he'd used Kelly. Now the only
woman I'd ever felt really involved with had got herself into a world of
     shit that I had to wipe clean. I was starting to feel sorry for myself,
and realized it. I had to cut out of this; I needed to get real.
     I deleted from the flash card the groups that had been used for the two
messages, and ate the small piece of paper I had used. No one would  ever be
using that  combination again--that was why it was called a onetime pad--and
no evidence of any T104 would ever  be seen, since all details are destroyed
once used. I  put the two flash cards back into separate pockets in my jeans
and turned off the 3C, getting it out of the rain.
     Everything that Elizabeth and Lynn had said was making sense to me here
on  the ground. They  knew  the  big  picture,  I was sure of it; maybe  the
imagery  I'd  Mac'd  down  to  them had confirmed their  fears. Was  there a
connection with what she'd got up to in Syria? I didn't even bother to think
that much  about  it. I  didn't really give a fuck. Even if, say, this group
was planning to hit Netanyahu, Arafat, Clinton or even the whole job lot--so
what? I remembered the footage  after Rabin had been assassinated, and sure,
I saw his niece, or whoever it was, speaking at his funeral.
     I understood that it must be sad, but I wasn't personally  affected. To
me, it was  just one more dead person amongst the thousands on both sides in
Israel  who'd  been  bombed and shot over the years. I didn't get worked  up
about political murders, even  when they were closer  to home, which usually
meant Northern Ireland. Fuck 'em, we  all  have to die sometime. Live by the
sword, and all that. They were all as bad as each other.
     For all I knew, there  could be massive ramifications to whatever Sarah
was  involved in. This crew  could be plotting  the murder  of thousands  of
people. Maybe the U.S.A."s fear of chemical or biological weapons being used
in their  backyard was becoming a reality here and now, in a holiday home in
North Carolina. It would be quite easy to contaminate, say, the entire water
supply  of D.C. Even  if it  were partial contamination,  the right sort  of
disease would  quickly  spread  itself around. Making one person history can
often mean saving many others; it  was simplistic,  but I always saw such Ts
in terms of putting a round into Hitler's skull in 1939.
     I knew I was trying to keep emotions out by looking at it logically.
     Maybe the Americans  had now been told what was going  on, and would be
hitting the target as soon  as they got sorted? In which  case,  it stood to
reason that Elizabeth wouldn't want Sarah to be found on target.
     So extract her, drop her, make sure she's never found. Who knows?
     I forced myself to cut away from conjecture; it had  no bearing  on the
order I'd received, and I'd probably come to the wrong conclusion anyway.
     Either way, I just didn't want the job.
     I was watching the house through the misty rain in a sort of daydream.
     I gripped myself again. Fuck it! If  I carried  on  thinking like this,
I'd end  up howling at the moon and dancing around  the  maypole or whatever
tree huggers do. Maybe I'd been reading too many books  about kids and their
emotions; maybe  all the touchy-feely crap was  getting to me. I decided  to
bin it;  get the tree-hugging  cassette out of my head  and put the work one
back in. Sarah might have lots of plans,  but as far as I was concerned long
life wasn't going to be one of them.
     The rain was bucketing down. I  pulled on  the  hood  string, trying to
stop the  water  running  down my  neck. I was getting very cold.  I  forced
myself to focus on a mission analysis, and to look at the factors that could
affect it; only then could I carry out the task and have a chance of getting
away with it. If I wanted to kill the president of the United States, nobody
could stop me, but getting away with it would be the hard bit.
     The  first thing  I  had  to do  was  understand my  mission.  What was
required of me? It  broke down into just  two parts: first, I had to get her
out of the target area by  0500 hours tomorrow morning; the second part, the
T104,  wasn't important at  the  moment. Besides, I  already knew how  I was
going to do it.
     I broke down the first part of the  job into five phases: one, approach
the house; two, make entry; three,  locate Sarah;  four, lift and exfil from
the house; five, exfil the area.
     Next I  had  to look at what  might stop  me  carrying  out  those five
phases. The first obstacle was obviously  the men with her.  There were  far
too many  of them for  comfort, and  for all I knew there could be even more
inside who hadn't poked their heads out yet. What were their intentions?
     Fuck knows. It was a  safe bet, though, that they weren't there for the
     It  looked as if  the place was  an RV point. At some stage, therefore,
they were going to leave, and maybe that was the reason she had to be lifted
before  five o'clock in the morning,  because  they  wouldn't all be staying
together in one place for long.
     The  next question:  What were their  tactics, training, leadership and
morale? I could only guess. Certainly their leadership would be good; either
Sarah would be in charge herself,  or if she wasn't, then  whoever was would
have to cut the mustard, or she  wouldn't be working with them. As for their
morale, that  looked just fine.  They seemed confident about  what they were
doing, whatever that was.  Ninety percent of  people's  confidence  can come
from total stupidity and no understanding of  what's  going on,  and only 10
percent because they are well trained and well prepared.
     Sarah would  only be in  a  group  where confidence was backed  up with
     What were their capabilities? And did they have weapons? I had no idea.
All I knew about was Sarah as  a person and an operator,  so I knew that she
was professional,  ruthless, focused and capable of killing.  If I  got into
the house and she saw me first, she'd kill me if she had to. She would fight
rather than be taken. Strangely enough, that meant  that I wasn't so worried
about her, because she was quantifiable; but the other guys I didn't know if
they would fight, and what with. I had to assume the worst;
     it  always pays to assume that  the other  players  are better than you
are, and plan accordingly.
     I  didn't  have  a lot of information to go on, but what was new  about
that? It wouldn't be the  first  time that  I'd  had  to go into a situation
blind.  It just  pissed me off that I'd positively ID'd  her. Maybe it would
have  been  better if  I  hadn't.  Maybe.  I  found myself half hoping  that
everyone in the house would clear off  in  the  next few hours.  Then  there
would be nothing I could do but start on the trail again.
     I  began to run  through everything I'd seen so far, trying to think of
something  I'd forgotten. The  subconscious  is  wonderful, because it never
forgets  what  it has seen  or heard. Every sight,  sound  and  fragment  of
perception is tucked away in there somewhere all you've got to do is drag it
out. Maybe, for example, I'd seen a weapon without actually realizing it?
     Nothing came to me.
     Now  I had to  look at the ground  where I  was going to carry  out the
mission. First  of  all  the  general terrain, and  that was  of  no concern
because I was sitting on it. I could almost spit at the target; it wasn't as
if I was heading into an area I'd never seen before.
     The one factor that did worry me  was the "vital ground," which in this
case was the fifteen meters this  side  of the  house that I reckoned  to be
within  range of  the  proximity  sensors  and lights.  How  was I going  to
approach the target, let alone penetrate it?
     I scanned all the doors and windows for any information that would help
me make entry. I had seen through the binoculars that the lock on the garage
side door was just  an ordinary pin tumbler inside a large knob handle, much
like those on motel doors very common, and not difficult to defeat. The  far
bigger problem would be whether I could get near the lock in the first place
without the detectors going ape shit
     I had a clear picture of what my mission was. I knew  all  that I could
about the enemy at  this stage,  and I knew  all that I could know about the
target or as much as I could for the  time being. Now what  I needed to work
out was "time  and space" how  much time I had to do what  I had to do. As I
lay looking  at  the target, pushing  my  hair  from  my forehead as it  was
starting to act as a channel  for the rain, I thought about the  five phases
and tried to work out plans for each one.
     I looked at the approach. I visualized all the different routes, as  if
I  were sitting  in  comfort, looking at a monitor connected to  a live-feed
camera with someone who was moving along each possible approach in turn.
     I next considered different ways of  making entry. I visualized working
on  the  locks,  and what to do if I  couldn't get in that  way. Not that it
would  necessarily  work,  but at  least I'd have an  alternative.  Deniable
operations  are not  ascience. People might  have an image  gleaned from spy
movies of precision  and perfection, and  assume it all runs like clockwork.
In reality it doesn't,  for the simple  reason that we're all human  beings,
and human beings are liable to fuck up I knew I did about 40  percent of the
     James Bond? More like James Bone. Add  to that the fact that the people
we  are  working  against are  also  fallible, and it isn't  a  formula  for
guaranteed success. The only true measure of human intelligence is the speed
and  versatility  with which people can  adapt to  new situations. Certainly
once you are on the ground, you have to be as flexible as a rubber band, and
what helps you be flexible is planning and  preparation. With luck, when the
inevitable  fuckup  did  occur,  I  wouldn't  be  a  rabbit  frozen  in  the
headlights. As Napoleon, or  somebody like that, said, "If your opponent has
only two possible options, you can be sure that he will take the third."
     Eventually  I  came up with a workable plan well, I thought  I had. I'd
soon find out. I checked my watch just gone 5:32 p.m. That gave me just over
eleven hours to get into the house and get her away. But that was merely the
physical timing;  the factors that mattered even more were light and dark. I
couldn't  move  in  daylight;  all  my movements had  to  be under cover  of
     London wanted her lifted by 5 a.m. I knew that first light was at about
five thirty, but it would  take  a little longer to  arrive in the forest. I
needed to get hold of her  and be away from here by 3  a.m.; that would give
me about two  hours of darkness  to get clear of the area. Last light was at
just after seven  o'clock, but I wouldn't get full cover of  darkness  until
about an hour later. On the face of it, that effectively gave me seven hours
of working time. But I  couldn't go in there while they were still awake, so
what  would I do  if they  were still  up and about  at two  o'clock  in the
     By now, I'd dehumanized the people I was up  against. To  me  they were
targets,  the same as the  house. From now on  I wouldn't  refer to them, or
even think of  them, as people. I couldn't, otherwise I wouldn't be  able to
do the job. Ironically,  Sarah had  once asked me  about that. I told  her I
didn't like to analyze myself too much because I wasn't sure I'd like what I
found. I knew I'd done some really terrible things, but I didn't think I was
too bad a person. The question that  always bugged me more  was, Why  was  I
doing this shit in the first place? My whole life had  been spent sitting in
wet holes.  Even  when I was in  the Army I would ask myself the same thing:
Why?  I  couldn't answer fully then,  and I couldn't now. Queen and country?
Nah. I didn't know anyone who'd even considered that.
     Pride? I was proud, not necessarily of what I did, but certainly of the
way I  did it. Being a soldier, and later a K, was the only thing I was good
     Even as  a  kid I was just odd socks  and  scabs; my  mother was always
telling me I'd never amount to anything. Maybe she was right, but I liked to
think  that, in  my own  little world, I was among the best. It made me feel
good about  myself,  and I got paid for it. The only downside was  that  I'd
have a little  bit of explaining to do  when I  was standing  at  the Pearly
Gates. But who doesn't?
     The wind had died down, and the rain wasn't falling quite so hard.
     Lights came  on in  the house, which was  natural enough; it was nearly
seven o'clock, it would be dark inside. The lights were showing on the first
floor,  the  same  as last night. I  strained to listen,  but couldn't  hear
anything, not even a radio or TV What I wouldn't have given to know what was
going on in there. I hoped they were packing their bags and fucking off.
     You can always improve on a plan,  so I kept on visualizing. What  if I
got to the door just  as they were coming out with their bags? What  would I
do? Where would I go? Would I just barge in there and kill  her, or  would I
try and get her out? Amie and Bruce go in  and take on a dozen bad guys at a
time,  but  it doesn't work like that for the rest of us:  against  a  dozen
people, you die. A job like this was going to call for speed, aggression and
surprise.  I'd  have to get  in there, and get  out quickly,  but  all  with
minimum risk to me. It wasn't going to be a good day out at all.
     Eyes and ears glued to the house, I went through the whole lot again.
     And  again, wondering if there was anything I'd missed. For  sure there
would be, but that was what I got paid for: to improvise.
     Nothing else mattered now but the task. To achieve the aim is to have a
chance  of  staying alive.  This was not  the time  to think  about skipping
through meadows or getting in  touch with  my feminine side. Sarah was now a
target. To think any other way could put me in danger, and that  wasn't  the
way I wanted it. Kelly and I still had a Bloody Tower to visit.
     The  lights on the  first  floor went off. It  was just  before  eleven
thirty, and another  forty gallons of rain had  fallen on the  OP since  I'd
last looked at Baby-G thirty minutes before. I packed the camera.
     I  pushed the bung  with  my  foot  and eased  myself  out  of the hide
backward on my arms and knees, dragging the bergen and bow with me.
     The rain  hadn't stopped,  but  at  least the wind  that brought it had
died. I stayed on my knees and retrieved the two flash cards from my  jeans,
and  with the  pliers  part of  my  Leatherman I cracked and  bent them into
unusable shapes. I  put  them in two separate pockets  of the bergen,  along
with the 3C.
     slowly got to my feet and stretched, stiff as an old man, a wet old man
at that, and then listened carefully. Nothing from the house, just the noise
of the rain hitting  Gore-Tex and leaf. Unfortunately, the next part of  the
plan entailed me taking my jacket off.
     Shivering  as the cold air got at my  skin, I  spread the jacket on the
ground, then pulled off my Gore-Tex trousers and put them to one side.
     Finally,  everything  else  I  was  wearing  came  off,  apart from  my
skivvies, and was quickly placed on top of the jacket.
     There was one  last  thing  I remembered  to  do before carrying on.  I
retrieved  my shirt  and,  with the knife  of the  Leatherman, cut off  both
sleeves at the shoulder.  I  tucked them  into a pocket  of my  jeans,  then
started to wrap up the bundle of clothes in  the  jacket, shivering big time
after being cocooned in so many layers.
     Next I cut four or five lengths of string and  used a couple of them to
secure the bottoms of the trouser legs by twisting. I shoved the jacket and
     bundle of clothes down one of the trouser legs, then tied up the waist.
Finally I twisted and folded over the trousers and tied the complete bundle.
     Once done, it went into my bergen.
     I  rwasn't concerned about  any of the kit that I'd left  in the  OP as
none of it  was traceable to  me, apart from my plastic-wrapped  shit, which
I'd removed from my bergen. If the extraction of  Sarah did turn into a gang
fuck and the hide  was discovered by the police or whoever, then by the time
anyone got a DNA analysis done I should be well out of the country.
     Besides,  unless  I got caught and the U.K.  denied me, the  Firm would
ensure that any DNA records or follow-up became history.
     My  passport, phone and  credit cards  had  been  in my jacket, plastic
wrapped,  since  the beginning.  I made the decision to  take  them with  me
instead  of going into  the house sterile. If I got caught now, chances were
I'd  be dead anyway. And besides, Sarah knew who  I was. It wouldn't exactly
take a Mastermind contestant to work out what I was there for.
     The  bow was wedged into  the  frame of  the bergen with the six arrows
inserted in the quiver.  I took  the fifth length of string and tied one end
to the bergen, attaching myself to the other by looping it around my wrist a
couple of times.  At the first  hint  of trouble, I  could  let go  and part
company with it.
     Once done, I checked that the  bergen straps were done up as tightly as
possible, then looked at the house yet again. Still no lights.
     I treplaced the bung  and smoothed away any sign.  Maybe archaeologists
in the next  millennium  would unearth  my little time capsule  and  scratch
their heads at the cache of Four Seasons pizza, a gas can full of piss and a
couple of handfuls of shit in plastic wrap.
     I moved down to the water's edge, watched,  listened, then slowly waded
in. The bottom sloped gently to start with, but by the time I'd done four or
five paces I was in  up to my  knees, and freezing.  It was just a matter of
fighting it and persuading myself that I'd be warm again soon.
     I lowered the bergen into the water in front of me, and it floated with
the bow  just above the water. Even when fully laden, there's  always enough
air trapped in a bergen to make it buoyant. It had been years since I'd done
anything like this. In the jungle, it always used to  rain heavily. It would
often take us an entire day to cross a main river, and the Regiment had lost
more people  doing this sort of  thing during training  than  by  any  other
     I kept wading farther in, until the water came up to my waist,  then my
neck. The rain was jumping off the lake's surface and hitting my face; being
so close, the splashes sounded louder than  they really were.  The  shock of
the cold took my breath away, but I knew I'd  get used to it in  a minute or
     I took one  of the mangled flash cards from a bergen pocket, dropped it
in the lake and checked that it sank. Then, pushing  the bergen in  front of
me and keeping parallel to the shore line, I walked toward the house, taking
my time so  I didn't  create a visible bow wave or make any noise. At night,
and  at that distance, even  if  they  were  looking at the lake, the bergen
would pass as a floating log. In any event, it  was the only way I could get
on target without triggering the alarms.
     After  a dozen or  so steps  I stopped,  checked  the  house again, and
dumped the  remaining flash card as the rain pelted the  taut  nylon of  the
     I kept moving slowly toward the target, at the same time wanting to get
there as quickly  as  possible. My balls were so cold  I  thought they might
make a dash for my armpits. Underfoot it  was rocky  and a couple of times I
hit an obstruction and got entangled in weed.
     It  was time to  discard the  3C.  I  wouldn't  be  needing it anymore,
because if  everything worked  to plan, the next time I  contacted Elizabeth
I'd be  back in the U.K. and if it didn't and I was in the shit, Sarah would
know how to extract information from it and the flash cards.
     I got level with  the house  and  turned to face it. The curtains  were
closed and there were still no lights on. Placing my wrist behind the bergen
to shield it from the  target, I pressed the backlit display on  Baby-G.  It
was just after midnight. I started to shiver even more now that I'd stopped.
I needed to get out of the water and back into some clothes.
     I moved forward in a direct line toward the slipway, pushing the bergen
in  front of me. The boat was  now dead ahead, and all I could see of it was
the bow tilted down toward me.
     I  inched my way, eyes glued on the target; the only sound was the rain
as it hit my bergen and the water. As  I got closer and the floor started to
rise, I  forced my  body lower by  bending my knees and hunching down. A few
meters from the end of the slipway I had to get right  down on my stomach to
keep as much of me in the water as possible to make a smaller profile. I had
to use my hands and knees to work myself forward.
     A  meter  from the edge the  bergen hit  bottom. I stopped,  looked and
     The  echoey sound  of the rain hitting the fiberglass of the  boat took
over from the splash of it hitting the water.
     Now came the wriggly bit. I had to cross open ground to get to the boat
and shelter under the hull.  Ideally I would have taken maybe as  long as an
hour to cover the five meters, but I didn't have that time to spare.
     I unraveled the string  attached to my  wrist and, lifting myself up on
my  elbows and toes, I kitten-crawled forward, four inches at a time, trying
to  hold and control  my breath and stop my  teeth from chattering.  I could
feel stones and water moss  pushing against my legs and stomach, moving with
me as my trunk touched the  bottom.  The fact that  it  was  cold  no longer
mattered; I knew I was doing it correctly from the pain in my elbows as they
took my weight on the gravel. I was more  interested  in trying to make sure
my trunk didn't scrape along the ground and  make a  noise. I was now at the
     Lifting the bergen a fraction, I edged it forward  another  few inches,
lowered it onto  the concrete and eased myself up behind it. Then I stopped,
listened and repeated the move. Inch by inch I neared the boat,  in a direct
line with the point where the tow bar touched the concrete slip.
     As long as I  moved slowly enough  and  kept  flat, the motion detector
shouldn't pick  me  up,  and once  I  was in the  lee  of the  boat  I'd  be
completely safe. Fifteen minutes later, I  was  there, where I wanted to be,
under the boat. The  rain hammered the fiberglass.  It was  like  being in a
greenhouse in a thunderstorm.
     The  garage doors were still only  semi closed I  could see the back of
the Explorer and the pitch-dark beyond.
     I was staring  into  the darkness and contemplating my next move when a
light came on to  my right, spilling  through the  gap in the doors. It came
from the rear of the garage. My heart skipped  a beat, then started  to pump
at warp speed. If I'd been discovered, there wasn't much I could do.
     I gripped myself: Stop, calm down, watch.
     Almost immediately another light  came on, this time on the  other side
of the garage. Through the gap, I  could see what was happening. Someone had
opened  the lid of a chest freezer; the glow  from the interior light showed
the face of a man, as if he were shining a  flashlight  under his chin, like
we used to at Halloween. I wasn't  sure which of the targets it belonged to,
just that it wasn't  Sarah. He  rooted around for a moment, then  pulled out
three or four  small boxes of food, stood up  and  seemed about to close the
lid  again,  but instead,  he looked  back  inside and picked  out some more
stuff. With his arms full, he walked away.  I  could make out the lower part
of his body; he was wearing trainers and checkered, knee-length shorts.
     I tried to  count how many cartons he had. There seemed to be five. Did
that mean that five people were still awake and about to have a meal, or was
it just a big snack for one very hungry man?
     I heard a door close, and the light went out.
     I waited a few minutes for everything, including me, to calm down, then
crawled  the length of  the boat until I reached the stern. I looked up.  As
I'd  hoped,  I  was well  hidden  from  the  sensor and  directly  under the
first-floor landing. The  sensor  might not  even be linked to an alarm,  it
might just have been a helpful detector to switch on lights as people neared
the garage. Whatever, I was this side of it and that was what mattered.
     The garage  doors were less than  a foot  away from me.  I moved to the
right of them, still under the landing and out of the way of the  sensor and
the rain. The  priority  was to get some  clothes  on and  get warm, but  if
you're moving, you're making noise. The more  slowly and deliberately I  did
it, the less noise  I was going  to generate. At  least the downpour gave me
some cover.
     Gently unclipping the bergen, I lifted the flap, got hold of the toggle
that held the drawstrings  together, pressed the button in and opened it up,
all the time looking and listening,  and checking  to  see  if  anything was
happening in the house next door.
     I lifted the Gore-Tex bundle from inside the bergen. It was soaking wet
on  the outside, but my  knots had worked. Wet  clothes would make noise and
leave  sign, so I took off my underpants and slowly put on  my dry stuff. It
had been worth getting so cold just to feel the sensation of dry socks.
     I checked  that  the  Tazer  was still in the  right-hand pocket of the
jacket,  and that everything else was where it should be. Then I dug out the
gardening gloves and put them on. I might get lifted when I tried to get out
of the country, and I didn't want the police to be able to make a connection
with  something  as  stupid and  basic as fingerprints  at  a crime scene. I
couldn't guard  against every shred  of forensic evidence, but I could do my
best to minimize the damage. Last of all, I ruffled my hair with my fingers,
trying to get off as much water as possible so that a stray drop didn't blur
my vision at a vital moment. I was ready to go.
     I  picked up the  bergen and weapon,  and  edged my  way around to  the
doors. I had a quick look at the gap in case they'd rigged a trip.
     It was totally dark inside.
     The  space  between the rear  of the Explorer  and the garage door  was
going to be  a bit of  a tight  squeeze. I pushed the bergen and bow through
and placed them on the floor to the right, then got myself side on, breathed
out and squirmed through.
     he sound  of the rain was immediately muffled, as if a switch  had been
thrown. I became aware of a different ambient noise, coming from above me. I
stopped by  the 4x4,  opened  my mouth, looked  up and listened; there was a
vague  mumbling, which at first I took to be  talking, then I heard a shout,
gunfire  and a  burst of music. They were watching TV I stayed where I  was,
just  past the  tailgate of the  Explorer, and  continued  to  tune in.  The
mumbling went  on, then  there  was a metallic rattling within the garage as
the freezer motor kicked in, followed by a low buzz.
     A floorboard creaked above me, over to the right. Maybe someone getting
up from their chair. The noise  didn't move anywhere; he must have sat  down
     Baby-G told me it was one thirty-one. This wasn't  good; I had just one
and a half hours left in which to do what I needed to. I got the miniMaglite
out  of my jacket, held  it in my left hand and twisted the head to  turn it
on. The beam shone through my fingers. I could now see that the Explorer was
the only vehicle in the garage; it was jutting out only because there wasn't
enough room to drive it all the way in.
     I stepped over the bergen and checked along the wagon.  All its windows
were closed  and there wasn't a  key  in  the  ignition. I slowly tried  the
driver's door; it  was locked.  No chance of using the vehicle  for a  quick
exit. In a drama, the boat would have to get me to my car.
     As well as a  washing machine and the  freezer,  the  garage was packed
with gardening tools, canoes  standing on end, bikes on racks, and rusty old
bits and pieces  that had accumulated over the years, and it had a  smell to
match. At least it was dry and quite warm.
     Moving  farther along the side of  the  4x4,1 shone the flashlight over
its hood. In the far-left corner I saw the side door  I'd been watching from
the OP. At right angles  to it was another door; the staircase behind it was
boxed in, and  the shape of it  went up to  the  next floor. There were more
piles of clutter underneath.
     I could still hear the vague mumble of the TV above me and the creaking
of floorboards as people upstairs shifted in their chairs. That  was fine by
me;  the  only  thing  I didn't want to hear was  excited  shouts  or  rapid
movement to signal they knew I was there.
     I picked up the bergen with both hands to  control the noise,  and with
the flashlight in my mouth I made my way  over to the staircase  doors.  The
beam  shone  on plastic  bags  under the staircase  containing  the  world's
largest collection of empty Kraft ready-made dinner containers. They weren't
putting  the rubbish out; they were hiding it.  They were taking no chances.
Nor was I; I  took  the  bow from the bergen  and laid it down  so that as I
picked it up with my left hand the cable would be facing me, and  the arrows
were ready to access.
     There wasn't  any light shining through the  gaps around  the staircase
door.  I put my ear  to  the wood and listened. The  voices  on the TV  were
louder, but still indistinct. There was more shooting and police sirens, and
a fairly constant murmuring, which I could distinguish from the TV;
     it  1seemed  as if the household was having  a  long  night  of  telly,
munchies and chat.
     An  inspection of the lock  told  me it was  an  ordinary lever type. I
gently pushed on the area of the door by the  lock, then  pulled it forward,
to  see if there  was any give. There was about half  an inch. Then, with my
hands down at the bottom of the door and still on the same side as the lock,
I pushed hard and slow to see if  it had  been bolted. It gave  way an inch,
then moved back  into position. I did the same to the top of  the door. That
also gave way, this  time just over half an inch, and I gently eased it back
into  position. It seemed that there  were no bolts on  the other side, just
the one lever lock to deal with.
     Holding my breath, I slowly twisted  the  handle to check that the door
was  locked. You could  spend hours picking  the lock only to find the thing
was already open; best to take your time and check the obvious.  I'd  always
found  that holding my  breath gave me more control over slow movements, and
it made it easier to hear if there was any reaction to what I was doing.
     As I'd assumed, the door was locked.
     The next move was to check  all  the likely  places where  a  spare key
might be hidden. Why spend time attacking a lock  if a  key  is hidden  only
feet away? Some people leave theirs dangling on  a string on  the other side
of the letterbox,  or on the inside of a cat flap.  Others leave  it under a
dustbin or just behind a little pile of rocks by the door. If a key is going
to be left, it will nearly always be somewhere on the normal approach to the
door. I  checked the  shelving  above the  washing  machine,  under the  old
rusting paint tins by the door, and along the top of  the door frame and all
the obvious places. Nothing. I would have to work on the lock.
     I got down  on  my knees, listening all the  time  to  the TV show, and
looked through  the keyhole. I could still see nothing but darkness. I shone
the flashlight through and  had  another look. There was a glint of metal. I
smiled; piece of piss. They'd left the key in the lock.
     The glow from Baby-G in this darkness was outrageous, but it told me it
was now nearly 2 a.m. I'd give it just another  thirty minutes, and maybe by
then these fuckers would  be in bed.  Meanwhile, if they came downstairs for
more munchies, I'd need to know,  so I sat on the floor with my  ear to  the
door listening to the rain and  the TV The police cars  were still screaming
and the  shooting  had become more intense.  A floorboard creaked above  me,
then another. I looked up and followed the sound, trying to picture where he
was. The movement continued across the floor to  more  or less directly over
my head.
     Picking up the bow, I turned  and looked through the  keyhole to see if
he was going to turn the light on and come downstairs. The key obscured most
of my vision, but I'd be able to see  light,  as the teeth were  still up in
the wards of the lock. There was a  faint glimmer, but it was ambient  light
from quite a distance  away, maybe way up at the  top of the stairs.  No one
was coming down. The light  disappeared.  There were  more creaks  above me,
then the muffled talking started again. The commercials must be coming on.
     There was nothing to do but wait while the minutes ticked away.  All  I
knew was that I had to get in there and do it at two thirty, no matter what.
     How, I didn't know; I'd just play it by  ear. I sat down again and  got
back to listening to the TV and the rain.
     I was quite thirsty after the exertions of the night. The chest freezer
started to rattle again; I tiptoed over  and lifted the lid very slowly. The
light came on. I  had a quick  look  at all the goodies. There were boxes of
Kraft  dinners, macaroni and microwave fries. It was obvious that nobody had
been giving a lot of thought to the culinary  side of this trip, which I bet
Sarah didn't like, and none of it was any good to me. Then I found something
I could munch:  a Magnum bar. I closed the freezer, took off the wrapper and
put it in my  pocket, sat back down by the  door, put my  ear against it and
started eating as I joined in the film.
     It was now two twenty. This was cutting it really close to the bone.
     I  finished  the  ice  cream,  and  the stick joined the  wrapper in my
     I looked at my watch yet again.  Two twenty-five. I couldn't afford  to
wait any longer.
     With  the  Maglite in my mouth, I opened  the screwdriver  part of  the
Leatherman  and worked  it into the keyhole.  When it  had a firm purchase I
started to turn the key along its natural  line to unlock the door,  at  the
same time pulling the door toward me to release the  pressure on the bolt as
it lay  in  the door  frame.  The key turned until it hit the lock; it would
need  a lot more  pressure  now to open  it, but  that  would make noise.  I
waited.  Whoever was pissing off the  cops  would be doing it again,  really
soon. Thirty seconds later,  it happened: shouting,  gunfire  and sirens.  I
gave the key the final necessary twists and switched off the flashlight.
     With the  door  ajar a couple of inches I  could hear the TV much  more
clearly. Going by the intensity of the shooting, screaming and shouting, the
whole state police force was out trying to get the bad guys.
     There was no distinct light shining down from above, just a faint glow.
     I picked up the bow and prepared an arrow.  Keeping it in place with my
left hand, I got my right hand on  the door handle, ready to go. I was going
to have a  rolling  start line: remain covert  for as long as possible,  and
only go noisy if they did. It  wasn't much of  a plan, but it was enough. If
you worry  too much  about these things, you never get down  to starting the
     just  get  on  with  it  and  half the battle  is won. Then  hope  that
experience, knowledge and training will get you through the rest.
     I checked that nothing was about to fall out of my pockets, then gently
pulled  the  door  open toward me,  ready to stop at  the  slightest  creak,
holding my  breath so I could hear it  happen. There wasn't a sound from the
people upstairs. It must be a good show.
     I was facing a flight of worn, bare wooden stairs that climbed directly
to the first  floor. There was a wall on either side; on the left it was the
external  wall  of  the house, and on the  right it  was plasterboard, which
sealed the stairs from the garage, then became a bannister on the right-hand
side where the first floor began. Anyone standing up there could easily look
down and see me.
     Beyond the top of the  staircase,  and facing me, was another wall, and
just off to the right-hand side was a door that was closed. Apart from that,
all I could see were flickering images, composed of different tones of light
from the  TV screen as  they flashed on  the wall and the closed door facing
me. I was happy about  that; if the TV was facing  the top of the stairs, it
meant that the fuckers would have their backs to me as I went up.
     The smell had changed. The mustiness  of the garage had given way  to a
more  domestic  odor:  spray  polish  and  cigarettes,  the  smell  of  good
housekeeping,  heavily  overlain  with  nicotine.  They  must  be  having  a
Camel-fest up there; I'd have to be quick  about  this or I'd be going  down
with lung cancer.
     Drawing the cable half back, focusing my eyes and the weapon on the top
of the stairs, I placed my left foot very carefully on the bottom step, then
my right. I stopped and listened.
     I lifted my left foot again and put it down  on the second step, easing
my weight down  gently, hoping  there wasn't going to be a creak. I had both
eyes open, cable half drawn and ready to fire. My ears had cut away from the
sound of  the rain;  they were totally focused,  on  the alert  for signs of
movement upstairs. I pulled  the  bow cable back a little bit  more and took
another step.

     The music and the police chase suddenly stopped. So did I, foot raised,
bow at the ready. I must have looked  like the statue of Cupid. A very macho
American voice boomed out, "Back soon, with  TNT's movies for guys  who like
guy movies." There  was a long  burst of machinegun fire, no doubt as bullet
holes  sprayed over the titles. Then it went into a commercial for a fitness
plan that could change all our lives in just fourteen days.
     couldn't tell how many people  were in the room,  but the  one thing  I
knew for  sure  was that Sarah was unlikely to be one of them.  She wasn't a
guy who liked guy movies.
     There  was some mumbling  coming from  the room.  I couldn't understand
what was being said, but something was agreed on. Floorboards creaked again.
I hoped he wasn't coming back down to  the freezer; if he was after the last
Magnum he wasn't going to be a happy teddy.
     The shadow of  a  moving  body hit  the wall  at the top of the stairs,
blocking  the  dancing  reflections from  the TV screen.  It got  bigger and
higher. I slowly  brought the  bow up the last two inches, into the aim. The
cams at each end of the bow  started to strain as I tensed the cable  almost
to full draw, stopping about three inches from my face. I wasn't too sure if
I needed  as much power for the arrow to do its  job at this range. But fuck
it, I wasn't  taking any chances. I could smell  the rubber gardening gloves
as I waited, motionless.
     The shadow became the body's back and I saw it was MIB. He now had  the
TV flickering on his shirt. He didn't turn and come down toward me.
     Instead he went straight ahead and through the door to the right of the
     of  the stairs. Fluorescent lights  came on to reveal kitchen  cabinets
and brightly colored mugs hanging from hooks.
     There was the  sound of crockery  and cutlery being  moved  about.  The
others were talking amongst themselves, maybe about  the film, and there was
a  little laugh as someone made  a funny.  Still no sound  of Sarah, though,
which tended to confirm what I'd thought.
     A bit more clanging  came from the kitchen. I kept the bow in the  full
draw position.  The strain on  my arms was starting  to take its toll; sweat
was pouring down  the sides of my face and I knew it wouldn't be long before
it got into my eyes.
     I  heard thejfsshhht! of  a ring-pull being opened in the TV room, then
another. Maybe this meant there were three of them in all. With any luck the
cans  they were opening held beer: if they'd  been soaking up  alcohol while
watching the film that should slow down their reaction times rather nicely.
     Mr. Macho Voiceover was with us again: "We're back with movies for guys
who like guy movies." He was greeted by ajfsshhht! from the kitchen.
     MIB emerged, can in hand, muttering away.  The others immediately  gave
him a hard  time and he stepped back a few paces and switched off the light,
left the door open and went back to join them.
     I let the cable relax, brought my arms down and wiped away the sweat.
     There  was more  gunfire. It  sounded  as if the final big shootout was
under  way. People  were  screaming  at  each  other as only  actors  in cop
thrillers do. I'd probably seen it, and was trying to work out what movie it
was,  so  I could  guess when  the noisy  bits were and  when  they'd finish
anything to help  get Sarah out of there without  us all getting involved in
our own "movie for guys who like guy movies." But no luck.
     Someone  in  TV land was being really brave and shouting  for  covering
fire as he took on the bad guys single-handed. Dickhead.
     I really couldn't delay any longer. I still didn't know where Sarah was
in the house,  and this stairway was my only entry point. I checked that the
spare arrows  were still fixed  in the quiver, and that everything on me was
secure.  I  didn't  want  the Maglite clattering to the  floor the  moment I
     Keeping the bow in my left hand,  arrow  still in place, I  took a deep
breath  and lifted my right foot. To reduce creaks, I  used the very edge of
the stair, then stopped to listen. The shooting  had finished and there were
murmurs from the audience again. I carried on.
     When  my eyes  got level with the top  stair  I lay  down with  my head
against the end  of  the  bannister.  The cloud  of tobacco  smoke was thick
enough  to make me  choke. I checked the bow to make  sure it was  out of my
way, then  eased myself up on my  toes and  the  heels of my  hands,  tilted
forward and looked around.
     I could  see at once that the TV was  in  the far-right  corner  of the
room, facing me. On the screen, someone was getting  a doctor to  patch  his
gunshot wound.
     Three men were watching; two on a sofa with  their backs to me, one  of
them swigging back on his can; the other guy,  MIB,  was in an armchair, and
at an angle,  so that he half faced the kitchen wall. He still had the beads
in his right hand, and was feeding each one individually through his fingers
as he watched. The room was  like a Turkish bath,  except with smoke instead
of steam. There was also a strong smell of pizza and beer.
     On   the  floor  beside  the  sofa  on  the   right-hand  side   was  a
twenty-four-pack of Bud, ripped open.
     I checked for access  to the next floor. This wasn't going to  be easy:
the stairs were at  the far side of the room, opposite me. I'd have to cross
over twenty feet of open floor space.
     As  I  moved my  head  back  into cover, I heard the cardboard  of  the
twenty-four-pack being ripped farther open, then the hiss of a ring-pull.
     They were going to be here a while.
     Should I wait it out? No, they could be  up all night. Besides, if they
moved  they would see  me. I lay there and thought for a while, and felt the
blood pumping in my neck.
     If I  burst into  the  room and tried  to  hold them  in  position,  it
wouldn't  take them long to work out that I could maybe take on one of them,
but  the other  two would be  climbing  all over me  before I could  reload,
restring, or whatever it's called.
     There was only  one thing I  could do, and that was to try to cross the
room  without being seen. If I got pinged,  I'd just have to "deal  with the
situation as it develops on the ground"--the last thing the Firm always said
when  giving orders; it meant they could transfer  any blame onto  you if it
went wrong, or take the credit for a success.
     I pushed  myself  away  from the stairs with  the heel  of  my hand and
slowly stood  up. I checked the arrow  position for about the hundredth time
and moved onto the final step. I edged out, and was in the room.
     With  my back pressed against the wall, I  started  to  move toward the
next  flight  of stairs, moving  one leg  in front of  the other very,  very
slowly, my eyes riveted  on the three watching the TV,  my left hand on  the
bow, my right on the arrow, holding the cable one quarter drawn.
     I  got  to  the  kitchen  door  and  could hear the  microwave  working
     I moved on. They had eyes only for Robert De  Niro. I silently  thanked
him for such a spellbinding performance.
     The light of the TV was projected  onto the faces watching it. MIB  was
totally absorbed, as were the other two on the sofa, Too Thin To Win and the
younger of  the two who'd arrived today.  I was  maybe twenty feet away from
them. MIB was squinting as he inhaled on a cigarette held between the  index
and middle fingers of his  right  hand, the  glow illuminating his face even
more as he played with his beads in the other hand.
     As he blew out the smoke,  the screen  went blank for a  second, then a
bright graphic appeared, accompanied by machine-gun fire.
     "Back soon with movies for guys who .. ."
     I had fucked up big  time.  I  hadn't taken into account the commercial
break. A pain hit me in the throat and shot down into the pit of my stomach.
     Too Thin To Win gob bed something off  to the others and moved his head
a bit to the right just a bit too much.
     He must have  seen me, but these  things take a while to  sink  in when
you're not expecting them, and especially when you've  been concentrating so
intently on something else. But he had  detected  movement in his peripheral
vision and I knew what was  coming.  It would take him maybe two seconds, no
more, to register that something was wrong. Straightaway, the body reacts to
that: fight or flight. Blood surges into your hands  to fight  and into your
legs to flee, and you can feel it. I had just two seconds up on him.  It was
all going to be over soon, one way or another.
     To me it was all happening in slow motion. As I brought up the bow, Too
Thin To Win jerked his head  farther to  the  right, did  a  double take and
stared straight at me. By the time his eyes were widening with shock the bow
was in the aim and at full draw.
     He shouted something, but I didn't know what. Everything closes down in
a situation like that. All I could hear was the voice in my own head, and as
my knees started to bend automatically to  make me a smaller  target  it was
screaming, Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!
     Too Thin To Win became a non-target as he threw himself to the left and
jumped down below the  settee.  It  was MIB  that  presented himself as  the
nearest  threat, and at the same time the  easiest target. He was  up on his
feet  and had  already turned  and was  facing  me,  trying  to  absorb  and
interpret  this new stream of information. I kept my eyes fixed  on  his and
brought the bow around. As soon as I  had what I hoped was the correct sight
picture, I released the  cable and hoped  these things were  as good  as the
salesman had said. I  was aiming at the center of the body mass, the  center
of what I could see in front of the blinding glare of the TV screen.
     He took the hit with a dull thwack and went down.
     I  didn't know  where the arrow had  got  him  because I was  too  busy
loading  the  next  one  and wishing I'd practiced  archery  as much as  I'd
practiced firing pistols over the years. I stretched out my left arm and, at
i the same time, pulled back the cable with my right, quickly trying to feed
j the head of the arrow into place  above my left hand. Then it was straight
| back up into the aim, the arrow being held in position on  the cable by my
fingers.  I still couldn't see  Too Thin To Win; I was  aiming at  the young
one,  who had  now decided to run  around  the settee and  try to get  to me
before I could release. In fact, he was so  near that  I didn't so much have
time to aim as just vaguely point it at him.
     There was a  whoosh and a twang as the cable released, then  a thud  as
the arrow punched into him. He didn't make a sound. I didn't care whether or
not he was dead; there was still one more to deal with.
     As I moved toward  the settee I  could  see  that Too Thin To  Win  had
remained  on  the other side of  it;  I didn't know what he was doing, and I
didn't care. I just had to get to him. There was no time to reload. I pulled
an arrow out of the quiver and launched myself at him.
     He was  leaning over one of the aluminium boxes  I'd  seen  them unload
from the wagon. I swapped the arrow from my left hand to right, gripping  it
firmly like  a fighting knife, making use of  that extra  blood  now pumping
through my hands.
     As I fell on  top  of  him, my weight pushed him down  onto the box. We
both grunted with the impact. While trying to cover his mouth with the crook
of my left arm, I jammed the arrow into his neck with my right.
     Only one of these actions worked. I had managed to cover his mouth, but
as I thrust  with the arrow  I felt it hit bone.  Arrowheads are designed to
zap into the target at  warp speed,  and I'd done no more than rip his skin.
He  was screaming  big time beneath my arm. I increased the pressure  to try
and get better coverage over his mouth.
     I raised  the arrow in the  air again  and  rammed it down hard. It hit
against the bone again, but  this time  slid off and lodged deeper  into his
neck. I felt  him stiffen,  his muscle tensing up to resist the penetration.
The gardening glove gave a good grip as I pushed harder,  twisting the arrow
shaft to maximize the damage. I was hoping to cut into his carotid artery or
spinal cord,  or even  find  a  gap to penetrate his cranium, but instead  I
ended  up  severing  his  windpipe.  Now  I  just  had  to  hold  him as  he
     I put all my weight on him  to press him against the  edge  of the box,
trying to stop his body-jerking from getting out of hand and becoming noisy.
Once I knew I was  in control, I looked quickly around me  to make sure that
no one else had arrived on the scene as I waited for him to die.
     Finally, he was going down. His hands started to scrabble  behind  him,
toward  my face.  I bobbed  and weaved  to  avoid them,  and  his  movements
gradually subsided  to no more than a  spasmodic twitching in his  legs. The
last reserve of strength he'd found as he saw his life slowly get darker was
now exhausted. By the flicker of the TV I could see dark blood oozing out of
the wound; it followed along  the shaft of the arrow to my glove and dripped
onto the floor. When I moved my arm away from his mouth he made no sound.
     Still on top of him, I turned around, and could  see that MIB had taken
a poor shot but I'd been  lucky: I'd been aiming at the center of body mass,
but the arrow had  entered his head above the  left eye  and there was about
four inches of arrow protruding out the back. His beads lay at his feet.
     I didn't have a clue about the young one. He was slumped with his chest
on the floor. Blood was coming out of him from somewhere and being soaked up
by the rug.
     I  started  to shake.  I'd never been so  scared  in  my life,  nor  so
relieved  that something  was  over.  Lesson  learned: always get  a pistol,
whatever it takes.
     Young One was still alive; blood was gurgling in his throat as he tried
to  breathe.  I  lifted myself  off Too Thin To Win, guiding his body as  it
slumped  from the  box onto  the floorboards. I went over  to  Young One and
checked him. His glazed eyes turned to follow mine as I moved my body around
him, feeling  him for  any hint of metal. He wasn't carrying.  His eyes were
reflecting the TV screen as they pleaded with me for help.
     As I looked away, my eyes caught the aluminium box. When I saw what was
inside,  I felt much  better about what I'd just done.  Too Thin To Win must
have been flapping big time trying to get to the contents; if he had managed
it, I might not be here now.
     The TV bad die was dying from  a gunshot wound given to him by the cop.
It must have been near to the end of the film. I went over to the box.
     Stowed  inside  were   three  collapsible-stock  Heckler  &  Koch  53s,
virtually the  same weapon as the MP5  used  by the Regiment,  but  firing a
larger  5.56mm round. With  their  thirty-round mags, Too Thin To  Win could
have taken my head off and still had change.
     I  picked up one of the  weapons and  two of the mags.  I could now see
that on the bottom of the box there were also  three silenced pistols, again
with mags.
     I took one round out of the 53 mag and pushed down  on the remainder to
check the spring worked. Young  One was  still  moaning as the film  credits
rolled. He was watching me. I thought for a while. Why take the 53? If I had
to use it,  I would alert the  people in the house next door and maybe  even
the whole  campsite. I picked up one of the pistols.  I  didn't have  a clue
what it  was,  only that, going  by  the markings, it was made  in China.  I
looked  in the mag. The rounds were  9mm.  I loaded and made ready  with one
mag, and took a few rounds out of another and looked inside. These mags held
nine rounds a piece. I didn't  know why I checked. I never counted them as I
fired, I was always too busy flapping.
     I  replaced the  rounds and  put the five spare mags in my jeans.  This
Chinese thing looked quite good. If total  silence was required, there was a
catch that would keep the working  parts in place when  you fired.  You then
had to manually  unload and then reload. If not, and you could get away with
a suppressed weapon on semiautomatic,  all you had to  do was take the catch
off and the working  parts  would move  and  feed another round to fire. The
baffling would still do its job in stopping the weapon report;
     you'd just  hear the  working parts moving. With my thumb I pulled down
on the catch, then jammed it into my jeans.
     I  got hold of Young One's arms  and pulled him up  against the settee,
and as I did so  I could see where he'd been hit. The arrow had  entered his
stomach, and  as  he'd  fallen it must  have been pushed right up  into  his
ribcage. I got him so that he was sitting on the floor with his head lolling
over to the left-hand side, resting on the seat. His eyes were still begging
me as I placed a cushion under his head, stepped back,  and gave him a round
in the head.
     There was just  a noise like someone tapping the edge of a wooden table
with their  finger. The cushion  and  settee helped to  suppress  the  round
completely as it came out of the  back  of his head. He just lay there, eyes
still open, blood shining in the TV light.
     I'd never worked out how I  felt about things like this.  He would have
killed me if he'd  had the chance, and I'd just put him out of his misery. I
took the catch off, unloaded and fed another round into the chamber, letting
the catch down to lock the working parts in place.
     I  stood, watched  and listened. There  were  a couple of plates on the
floor covered with dried sauce and stubbed-out cigarettes, two or three full
ashtrays, countless crushed cans of Bud and now these three bodies.
     TNT told me they were now going to show Road House with Patrick Swayze.
I  wiped the  blood from  my  gloves onto the  settee and changed magazines,
gently pushing a new,  full one into position, listening for the click  that
told me it was engaged.
     As  I moved away from the TV set,  a loud  ping! sent my  heart leaping
into my throat. I  spun my  head and  weapon around,  expecting  to  have to
react. The rest of  my body followed  about  half a second  later, both eyes
open  and the weapon up in the aim. I found myself pointing at the microwave
oven in the next room.
     I needed a minute to calm down and sort my shit out  and decided to put
the weapon  into semiauto mode. Time  to move on. I  was still left with two
that  I  knew of, the  American  and the Bossman,  plus Sarah and there were
still another two floors to clear.
     I didn't need the bow anymore so  I left  it on  the  floor. The TV was
still bumping its gums: "Guys who like guy movies ..."
     I started to  move slowly  but purposefully, trying to  keep  the noise
down, both eyes open, weapon up. I had the light from the  TV screen shining
behind me, projecting my shadow on the wall. I got to the stairs and checked
upward. It  was dark  up there. Eyes  and weapon  glued  to the  top of  the
stairs, I started to move.
     I knew this feeling all too well. My heart was pumping so hard  I could
feel it banging against my chest wall,  and  I had a  horrible, dry, rasping
feeling in my throat. My head was so far back that sweat was running into my
eyes and  down the folds of skin at the back of my neck. I nicked my head to
the side, attempting to get rid of it.
     It started  to  get darker and quieter  as the glow and noise of the TV
faded, and soon all I could hear was the  sound of my own  breath. I did  my
best to suppress it because  I imagined three people upstairs listening  and
following my progress.
     Moving upstairs like this is physically  demanding. Every movement  has
to be so  slow and deliberate that  all  your muscles  are tensed; your body
needs oxygen, and your lungs,  in  turn, need to work harder, but  you don't
want them  to  because that  makes noise, and  on top of  all  that,  at any
moment, somebody could be trying to kill you.
     I reached the landing of the second floor. I immediately noticed a nice
polished smell up  here, a different world from the one I'd just left behind
     There was a  wall to my left, with a  door that faced the corridor that
ran to  my right. It must be  the  bathroom where  I'd heard a toilet  being
flushed last night.
     As I looked to the right, I could see  that the corridor ran the length
of the house. Right down the middle was a single strip rug, which would help
muffle noise. In the light thrown from  a door that was slightly ajar at the
far end I could see a table about ten  feet away, on the left. The open door
showed a sink  shining  in the light. It didn't sound as  if anyone  was  in
there, and  I  didn't hear water running or a cistern filling up. Maybe they
were just scared of  the  dark and wanted a light on for when they  came out
for a piss. I looked  at the crack under each of the other doors to  see  if
there were any signs of life or light from within the rooms. Nothing.
     Across from me were the stairs to the top floor.  I stayed where  I was
and  listened. I could  just about hear the  low drone of the TV downstairs,
but the  sound of my heartbeat seemed louder. I could feel my carotid pulses
banging in my ears. I couldn't just wait here all night until she needed the
     With my knees bent, shoulders hunched  over, arms out, staring down the
thick baffled barrel of the weapon,  I  started  to move along the center of
the corridor, using the rug. I reached the first door on the right and edged
over, putting my ear to it, but kept the pistol where it was.
     I could still hear the TV and the rain. My antennae were out, trying to
take in every possible sound, but it was very distant, very indistinct. From
inside the room came the noise of snoring. Sarah never snored, but there was
always a chance she could be sleeping with someone who did.
     I carried on  along the corridor to  the next room. I  listened outside
     Nothing. As if I were going to hear her singing along to a CD.
     I went  on, passing  a fire exit  on my  left, which  I hadn't  noticed
     It  had  bolts top  and  bottom,  which  I  gently  eased  back, and  a
pin-tumbler lock in the middle, which I also undid.
     I  moved on to the next two  doors past the  table, hearing nothing.  I
stood by the lit-up bathroom. This could go  on  forever. Fuck it, there was
no time to do  anything but take  my chances with whoever  was back down the
corridor. I just knew I had to do something, and quickly.
     Holding  the pistol  in my  right hand,  I  checked with  my  left that
everything  was in place.  The Tazer was  in  my  right-hand  bomber  jacket
pocket, with the handle outward, ready to grab.
     I got out the flashlight, placed the lens against the wall, and twisted
it on to  check it  still worked. The light hit  the  wall but wasn't  going
anywhere else.  I turned it  off and kept it  in my left hand, with my thumb
and forefinger at the ready.
     I put my right  thumb on  the  weapon's  safety catch and pressed down,
checking it was off and ready  to  go. Then  I pushed the mag in  the pistol
grip to make sure it was engaged.
     With my left hand I lifted  the latch. I  wasn't going to try  to do it
     once  you've decided you're  going  in, you might  as  well get it over
with.  I pushed the door open a few inches, and at the same time  brought my
left hand up and  switched the flashlight on, using my body to open the door
     As I came into the room I  moved to the right to avoid silhouetting  my
body in the doorway. I three-quarters  closed the door with my shoulder, and
the flashlight  beam hit a pile of men's  clothes on the floor. I also saw a
watch and a glass of water on a bedside table. There was a shape in the bed.
I knew  straightaway by  its size that  it wasn't Sarah.  The body  stirred,
maybe as a reaction to the change in air pressure as the door opened, or the
fact that light was shining in his face.
     As  he  turned  I  saw  that he was  bald  and  dark-skinned and had  a
     It was Bossman.  His  eyes  opened fully as  he settled. He wouldn't be
able to see me, just the flashlight.
     I moved quickly, getting  my  left knee on one side of him and my right
on  the other so I was astride him,  pushing him down onto the  bed.  He was
pinioned by the sheet across his chest and gave a quick grunt of protest.
     I dropped the Maglite  onto the bed. I  didn't want him  to see my face
and, in any case, I didn't need light for what I was about to do.
     With  the  pistol jammed  against  his  clenched teeth he  gave a  long
drawn-out  groan as he tried to resist. I  got hold  of the back of his head
with  my  left hand  and  forced the weapon down harder.  The  metal  of the
silencer scraped against his teeth and he eventually opened up. I pushed the
muzzle in until it was nearly at the  back  of his throat and the suppressor
was filling his mouth good style.
     He struggled on for a while, not trying to escape, just wanting to work
out  what was going on and to breathe.  He was flapping and snorting  like a
horse. I moved with his chest as it went up and down. At length he lay back.
No one will fuck around once they realize they have a pistol in their mouth.
     I leaned toward his left ear.  In my bad, fluctuating American accent I
whispered, "If you speak English, nod slowly."
     He did. I could feel the pistol moving up and down.
     I heard him slurping and retching as his Adam's apple worked overtime.
     With his jaw wide open he'd lost the ability to swallow.
     "You have two choices," I said.
     "Die if you don't help me, live if you do. Do you understand?"
     It's always better to take  your  time at moments like  this. If you've
got somebody  who's flapping and you say, "OK, where's Sarah?" he can't talk
because  he's got this  thing stuck  in  his mouth, so he  gets all confused
about  what  you  expect  of  him. It's better  to  do  it as  a  process of
elimination, and then you  know you have the right information. That  is, if
he knows it in the first place.
     There  was still  a  bit  of hesitation here. He was still flapping too
much and not thinking enough. I said,  "Do  you  understand?" and underlined
the point with a  jab  of the  pistol. He finally got the message and I felt
the pistol move up and down.
     His body  smelled of  shampoo  and soap. Shame  he  hadn't  cleaned his
teeth. His breath smelled like road kill.
     Now that he understood the facts of  life, I whispered, "You've got one
woman in the house. Yes?"
     I felt his immediate sense of relief. His body relaxed; it wasn't him I
wanted. He nodded.
     "One woman?"
     He nodded again.
     "Is she on this floor?"
     The pistol shook from side to side.
     "Is she on the floor above this one?"
     Up and down.
     "Do you know which room she's in?"
     I could hear his breathing and slurping, but there was just a touch too
much  hesitation: he  was  thinking about  what  to say.  He  shook his head
     I gave a weary sigh and said, "Then you're no good to me, and I'm going
to kill you. I think you're lying."
     No response.
     I said, "Last chance. Do you know what room she's in?"
     I started to rise. He got the idea. He nodded. I came back down to  his
     "Good. Now  think  about  this. Is  she on  the left-hand side  of  the
corridor as you go along it from the stairs?" I was assuming it was the same
sort of configuration upstairs as down. I didn't know yet, but it was a good
enough place to start.
     He thought about it and nodded.
     "Good. Is it the first door on the left?"
     He shook his  head. Saliva was oozing out of his mouth and running down
his chin. I could feel  his chest rising and  falling more and more quickly;
he was fighting to get oxygen in and there were too many obstructions.
     "Is she in the second door on the left?"
     He nodded.
     "Good. If you're lying, I'll be back and I'll kill you."
     He nodded that he understood, semi choking  on the suppressor because I
pushed it a  little  more to the back of his throat, just to the point where
he  was starting to gag. At the same time, I reached down with my left hand,
closed it around the Tazer, slid off the safety catch and gave him  the good
news  right on  the pectoral  muscle. I  counted the crackle  for about five
seconds.  If I remembered correctly, that should result in the  person being
"dazed for some minutes afterward." He jerked about, and then got very dazed
     I  climbed off  him, picked up the flashlight  and put it  in my mouth,
then  turned around and started to  look for his  socks amongst the  clothes
that  were on the  floor. I found one and shoved the toe  end of it into his
mouth, pulling down on his jaw to force him to take it all. Noise comes from
the throat and  below, not the mouth; for  an effective gag, you have to ram
obstructions down there as far as they can go, so that when the person tries
to scream the sound can't amplify in the mouth. A strip of gaffer tape  over
the face  isn't enough to achieve the  desired effect. A sock stuffed in the
mouth also calms people down, because they become more worried about choking
than about raising the alarm.
     I could  hear  moans and groans from the back of his throat as he began
to  come around. I couldn't  have  him alerting  the  others, so I gave  him
another three-second burst. That settled him down again, and gave me time to
finish filling his mouth. Once that was done, I got his shirt from the floor
and wrapped the sleeve around his face to form a seal over the sock.
     I kept his nose free because he had to be able to  breathe, but wrapped
the sleeve as tightly as I could around his lips.
     I pulled  a leather belt from his trousers that was about an inch and a
half wide, with a brass  buckle, and grabbed the tiebacks from the curtains,
lengths of rope with shiny tassels. I tied his knees together with the first
tieback; if you can move your knees, you can crawl and maneuver, if not, you
haven't got much scope for movement.
     Next I tied his  ankles together. He was semiconscious,  breathing  and
moaning in the back of his throat. I turned him over on  the bed and got his
hands  behind him, tying them  tightly together with  the belt,  making sure
that I'd left the  buckle and some  of the  other end  free. It was going to
hurt him, and he was going to have  hands like balloons  by the morning, but
he'd live.
     By  now  my breathing was almost as labored as  his. This was  physical
stuff, spinning him around, trying to do it quickly, but also trying to keep
everything  quiet  to cut down  on  noise.  I  got hold of his shoulders and
pulled  him down gently, so that  his  head and his  shoulders were  on  the
floor, then I grabbed his legs and dropped them down, too.
     There was still a little bit of moaning, especially when I got hold  of
his ankles and brought  them up toward his tied hands. I put the ends of the
belt around the tieback that secured his wrists, did up the buckle, and that
was him trussed up like an oven-ready chicken.
     He was coming around again.  I held the Tazer on his thigh and gave him
the good news for another five seconds. He tried to scream, but the sock did
its stuff.  As  I  lifted the  Tazer  away from him I still had  the  button
depressed; the bolt of electricity crackled brightly as it arced between the
two  terminals. The glow that it cast added  to the flashlight's beam, and I
could see the suit carrier, now open, hanging  on the wardrobe. Inside was a
gray business  suit,  white  shirt  and  patterned tie, already knotted  and
hanging around the hanger.
     I got to  the  door, checked the  corridor  and  turned left toward the
     This  flight was  different, the  stairs turning  back on themselves to
reach the top floor. As I climbed and turned left,  up the  next flight, the
distant TV  mush disappeared, its place gradually taken by the constant bass
drum rhythm of rain bouncing off the roof. It was almost soothing.
     I  got to the top and  lay down on the stairs. I looked left  along the
corridor, but this time there was no light to help me and I couldn't see any
coming from under the doors.
     I twisted the Maglite on and headed  directly to the second door on the
left. There was no rug up here. I moved slowly. Between the first and second
door, against the wall, there was a semicircular table with a lamp on it.
     I got  to the door. It was exactly the same as the one downstairs, with
the latch on the right. I crossed over and  got against the right-hand wall.
I just  had to get in  there, be hard  and aggressive, grab  her and get out
before my new mate downstairs started trying to become Houdini.
     I listened for a few seconds,  just in case she was in  there expecting
me  and loading up her 53. Then, with the Maglite in my mouth, I put my hand
on the latch and pressed.
     There  was a small  bundle  in the bed, and I knew at once that it  was
Sarah. I could smell the familiar fragrance  of her  deodorant.  It  was the
only one that didn't leave white powder marks on her clothes.
     I started moving toward her. Her jeans were on the floor, crumpled,  as
if  they'd just been pulled down  and  stepped  out  of. There was a bedside
cabinet with some water and headache pills by the lamp.
     I was going to have to grip her so  hard that  she  thought there  were
twenty people  piling in on her. I had to confuse her, scare  her, faze her,
because I knew that, if I didn't, she was more than capable of killing me.
     moved toward her, Tazer in my left hand, pistol in my right, flashlight
in my mouth, adjusting my head to keep the beam pointing into her face.
     The sound of the rain hitting the window was louder than my footsteps.
     She  started to turn, and her eyes reacted  to the light as I moved the
final pace,  dropped the pistol on the bed, then smacked my  open hand  over
her mouth. She  gave a muffled scream and fought against me and her mouthful
of bloodstained glove. The Maglite got knocked sideways, scraping against my
teeth, as she thrashed about. I heard  the pistol fall off the bed and  onto
the floor. I hit the Tazer's "on" button and her eyes widened as she saw the
current  crackling between the metal prongs, inches from her nose. Then  she
hit her own "on" button and began struggling so violently I thought  she was
having a fit.
     She got the good news in her armpit. The 100,000 volts shot through her
body  and fucked  her up big time. With  her body jolting up and down, I was
finding it hard to keep my hand on her mouth to dampen the scream.
     The  bed springs  sounded as if she  was having sex. Five seconds later
she was a  rag doll,  just a little groan as  she fell back onto the bed. It
wouldn't last for long.
     I needed the pistol. I got the flashlight out of my mouth and retrieved
the pistol from under the bed, shoving it into the waistband of my jeans.
     Next, as weak coughing told me she was starting to regain her senses, I
got out the two  sleeves I'd  cut  from  my shirt. She  coughed again and  I
looked at  her. The bedclothes had been kicked off during the struggle,  and
she lay spread out on the mattress like a starfish, in just a  white T-shirt
     white  panties.  Outside, the wind  had  come  back. I  could  hear  it
thrashing the rain against the windows even more now.
     With the Maglite back in my mouth I was  soon  dribbling  and breathing
like the Bossman downstairs. I prized open her  jaw and started  ramming the
first sleeve  into her mouth. She  was just conscious enough to realize what
was happening, and tried her best to resist.  I  had to give her another two
or three seconds with the Tazer, getting  my hands out of her mouth just  in
time as it snapped shut in the first of another series of convulsions.
     When she  relaxed,  I stuffed in the  material until  it must have gone
halfway down her throat. I then got the second  sleeve, placed  it over  her
mouth  like a conventional gag and tied the ends tightly at the back of  her
neck with a double knot. There was going to be no noise from her now.
     I pulled the belt from her jeans and used it to tie her hands together,
front loading her. She was now ready to go and so was I nearly. All that was
left was  to  gather up as much of her ID  as I  could find.  A  T104  meant
leaving no trace, which wasn't going to be easy. I didn't know where all her
stuff was.  I hoped it wouldn't be  too much of a drama if anything was left
behind;  with any luck  she'd be using cover docs that she'd got by chatting
up some gay woman in an Australian bar.
     I found her bag on the floor near the bottom of the bed. It was a small
black nylon  affair with a shoulder  strap;  inside was a nylon  sports-type
purse, passport and a few loose dollar  bills. I quickly scanned the rest of
the  room with  my  light. A green  sports bag lay  open  on  the floor, and
clothes were strewn all around it. A glint  of metal  caught my eye. I shone
the  light  beyond  the  bag  and  saw  the  barrel  of  an HK53.  Its black
Parkerization had been worn off over the years. I also saw four mags,  taped
together to form two sets of ammo.
     She started moaning and retching, trying to expel the material from her
mouth. She still didn't know who was doing this to her; it was too dark, and
even if she could  see  straight  at the moment, all  she was getting  was a
powerful beam in her eyes as I moved toward her, putting her bag  strap over
my head.
     It  was  time to grip her  and  get the  fuck  out of there before  the
authorities screamed  in or whatever was going to happen after 5  a.m. I got
back to her,  switched off the  Maglite and put it in my jeans. With my left
hand I got hold of her at the point where the back of her head met the neck,
and banged the web of my right  hand hard up under her nose. I felt her jolt
as it  slammed into her face. Bending my legs,  I pushed up with both hands,
making sure that all the pressure of the  lift was against her nostrils. Her
hands  raised, then fell again. She couldn't resist, she had  to go with it,
her moans of pain getting louder.
     I got her sitting bolt upright, and put the crook of my left arm around
the front  of  her neck, jamming her  tight against  me. Her face was  still
tilted upward. With  the  pistol in my right hand, I  moved my right forearm
behind  her neck to complete  the head lock,  and stood up. She was fighting
for oxygen. No way was she not coming with me.
     I started  to move and she  didn't like it at all. Her back arched more
as  her legs hit the floor and she tried to take more  weight off her  neck.
She  was  recovering  quicker now  that  she was in pain,  but  I  had total
control. If she fought back too  strongly I'd just give her another bulletin
with the  Tazer, but that would be a last resort. I  wanted to move quickly,
not be dragging a dead weight.
     I made my way across the room and, checking the pistol's safety with my
right  thumb,  opened the door.  The corridor was still dark and  silent.  I
reinforced my  hold  on her by jerking  my knees  and gripping her neck more
tightly. She seemed to be concentrating on holding on to my left arm so that
she could relieve  some of the pressure  on  her neck,  probably too worried
about being asphyxiated to resist.
     I stepped  out into  the  corridor, her  head still jammed  against  my
chest, the rest  of her  body following behind me. She gave no resistance at
all, and once we got  past  the table I understood why. She  started to buck
and spark up, her legs kicking  out as she held  on to my arm for  even more
     She kicked  the table sideways, knocking the lamp onto  the floor.  Its
stained-glass lampshade shattered across the floorboards.
     It had gone noisy; no need to tiptoe around anymore. I started to motor
toward the stairs, dragging her with  me. At first she continued to buck and
kick, her feet banging on the wooden flooring, then she  must  have realized
that  if she didn't  help  herself by trying to keep her back arched and her
legs on the floor, she could break her own neck.
     We got to the staircase, and I was just about to turn right and go down
when I heard the sound of a latch lifting to my left.
     I swung around as the door opened and light burst from the room.
     Sarah swung  with me, a muffled scream coming  from her  throat  as the
movement wrenched her neck.
     It was the American. His reactions were quick. I fired into the door as
he shoved it closed.  I gripped her and started moving aggressively down the
     The American was thumping  on the floor,  screaming,  "Wake up! Attack,
attack! Wake up!"
     Sarah's  heels  and  calves were  taking  a  good  hammering;  she  was
squealing like  a stuck  pig  inside  the  gag, and trying to  tense  up her
muscles to help with the pain. We were sounding like a herd stampeding, with
my heavy footsteps and her feet bouncing off the wood.
     I didn't look behind me, I just ran for it.  I wasn't going to head for
the fire exit on the next floor as I'd thought  I might. There were too many
rooms on either side of that corridor, and I had no idea if there was anyone
else in the building that I hadn't accounted for. The way my luck was going,
there was bound to be. My new plan was to get down to  the garage, a route I
knew, then just make a run for it.
     I  turned right to  go down  the next flight of  stairs. As I took  the
first few steps I could see that the second floor corridor below  me was now
lit up like a football stadium.
     Above me the American screamed, "Sarah! One of them has Sarah!
     They have Sarah!"
     From below me a voice shouted above the babble of the TV, "Where?
     Where are they? Help me here."
     I  froze  no  more than  six feet  from  the bottom of the  stairs.  It
wouldn't be long before these two got their act together and I'd be dead.  I
just wanted five seconds in which to calm down and think.
     A shadow approached from the left on the corridor below. It turned into
Bossman, now in jeans  and carrying an  HK53. Fuck, how  did  he get free so
quickly? I kept looking down on him, weapon  in the aim, gripping Sarah even
tighter to stop her disrupting my sight picture.
     He turned  and looked up. I  blatted  three quiet rounds until  he went
down, not dead, just screaming and writhing on the ground.  The 53 clattered
down the stairs to the floor below.
     Above me the American half groaned, half yelled, "What's happening?
     Talk to me. Someone talk to me here."
     I  went  down more  stairs, stopped  short  of the corridor  and, still
holding Sarah with my left arm, put my pistol around to the left  and loosed
off the rest of the rounds blindly. Being suppressed, it wouldn't have quite
the  same effect as rounds going  off  with a loud report, but people  would
hear  them splintering  the  woodwork and get  the  general idea.  I  willed
Bossman to carry  on screaming and scare the  shit out of anyone  listening.
Maybe it worked, because there was still no firing  back at me. Either that,
or there were no more people.
     I  ran  out  of rounds and  started  to change  mags.  Pressing the mag
release catch I jerked my hand downward to help the mag fall out. It hit the
stair  and bounced  down, onto Bossman's back. I looked  at him, facedown on
the floor, his  blood spilling  across  the polished  wood. Then, turning to
look up  the stairs, waiting for the  American, I placed a new mag into  the
weapon right next to Sarah's face. As I turned back to check the chamber, we
had eye contact for the  first time. The shock of  recognition  was plain to
see; her eyes  were wide with amazement and disbelief.  I looked  away, more
concerned about the job in hand.
     I moved  straight  across the  gap without looking, just making sure  I
didn't trip over Bossman, whose screams were fading. I rammed  down the last
flight  of  stairs,  feeling  and  hearing  Sarah  bumping down  behind  me,
sometimes lifting up her feet to take the strain, sometimes stumbling.
     I carried on straight across the room toward the garage stairs, passing
Too Thin To Win and his friends.  Shouts and screams  came from the TV as we
passed the kitchen door.
     Just as I  neared the bottom of the flight  and was about to enter  the
garage, I heard shouting upstairs, and then four or five rounds went off.
     I wondered  what  the  American was firing  at,  then I  realized: he'd
probably run downstairs, seen figures by the  TV  in semidarkness  and fired
off  at  them straightaway  without looking.  The flickering  light from the
screen, and the scariness of the situation, had probably got him jumping.
     It certainly had me.
     I  closed the  door behind me  to add a  bit  more to the confusion. He
wouldn't dare barge straight through; he couldn't guarantee what  was on the
other side. We moved alongside the Explorer, and I could hear the American's
voice above me. I  couldn't make  sense of what he was saying, but he didn't
sound too happy about the way his day was shaping up.
     The rain stung as it lashed my face.  It was then that I remembered the
bergen, but it was too late now. Fuck  it. I  turned left, toward  the other
house, and had taken no more than three steps when the proximity lights came
on. With my head down I started pumping, but was restricted  by the weight I
was dragging.
     I'd covered maybe ten or fifteen meters when the  first burst from a 53
was fired from one of  the upper floors.  Its  short barrel and the power of
the round makes the muzzle emit a fearsome  flash;  it's the only weapon I'd
ever  seen that  looks  like the ones  you  see in films. It  was  great for
closeup work as it scared the shit  out of people. I kept on running; I'd be
out of the light in a few more strides.
     As soon as we hit darkness  I glanced back. All the lights in the house
were blazing. Smoke was drifting from the windows on the second floor.
     It looked  almost like that house in The Amityville Horror, shrouded in
rain and mist, except that it wasn't mist, it was cordite from the rounds.
     A couple of lights were on upstairs in the place next door. My new plan
was to get in there, point a big fat gun at them, take their pickup and fuck
off. The next thing I knew, however, the external light on the family's 4x4,
mounted   on   the   driver's   side   wing,   burst   into   life,   and  a
million-candlepower  beam  sliced through  the darkness  toward us.  A man's
voice shouted a warning: "Don't come near stay away! I'm  armed  I've called
the police!"
     For good measure he whanged down a couple of rounds at us from a rifle.
He probably  had "My  land, my country, my gun"  on his  bumpers, and a  few
other stickers that he'd bought at Jim's, but he  was protecting his family,
and that was a fair one.
     I felt a thump as  one  of  the rounds rammed  into the  ground far too
close to me. Either he was good, and he meant to aim a  warning  shot, or he
was trying  to hit us and this  time we'd been  lucky. I didn't want to find
out which. I jinked left and ran between the two houses,  uphill, toward the
dirt track. Change of plan  again: we  were going to make it on foot back to
my car, as I'd been aiming to do all along, but without all this drama.
     Another rifle shot rang out, but this time  I didn't hear the answering
thud. There was the burst of a 53; fuck knows where that went.
     I got to  the  track, crossed  it and stopped to  try  and  assess  the
     We were in darkness  and  on higher ground.  I  heard  shots and  saw a
couple of foot-long muzzle flashes  coming from  the direction of the target
house, and more from the area around the pickup. Shotgun Ned must be zapping
and shouting  at  anything that moved.  His spotlight  swept left and right,
looking for targets.
     It wasn't the only light I could see. Red and blue flashing lights were
glistening in the rain on the other side of the lake and I suddenly realized
that I stood more chance of being struck by lightning than  I did of getting
back to my car. Acting as the situation demanded, I changed plan again.
     We were  going to get out of here on foot. I  stood  still, knees bent,
waiting  to regain my breath.  It was colder than before, and  the  wind and
rain were loud against the leaves.
     I  started moving  through the forest  again.  Sarah's bare  flesh  was
getting zapped left and right by branches, and I could hear her suffering. I
put my head down and pumped  uphill, leaving everybody down there  to get on
with it. It seemed that my lucky number for house clearing  was  the same as
for shopping trolleys: zero.
     gripped Sarah  and plunged on,  slipping and skidding on  the wet mush,
stumbling over rocks and fallen branches, nailing to regain my footing.
     She  was screaming as best she could beneath the gag, partly because of
the tree  branches that whipped at her bare body and the ground  cutting her
legs, partly just trying  to keep her airway clear. At least I knew she  was
     I tripped  again and went down. The pain as my knees hit rock made them
feel as if they were on fire. She moaned loudly under  the gag  as she  took
the  brunt of my fall, and she had to arch her back to relieve the strain on
her neck. I  stayed on my knees,  screwing  my face up as  I took the  pain,
waiting for it to die down. There was  nothing I could  do but  accept it. I
just hoped I hadn't smashed a kneecap. My chest was heaving up and down as I
tried to catch my breath.  Sarah gave up the struggle to keep her  body  off
the ground. She collapsed in the mud beside and slightly below me, her head,
still in the neck hold, resting in my lap and moving  up  and down in unison
with my breathing.
     There was plenty of commotion going on behind, the odd  rifle round and
automatic burst, followed by shouts. Looking down and behind me  through the
trees and rain,  I could make out the lights of both  houses some 150 meters
away.  I wasn't in dead ground yet,  and it was going to be  light  soon.  I
needed to get distance.
     Shotgun  Ned was having a ballistic fit, screaming  and hollering, like
something out of one of the movies for guys  who like guy movies. I couldn't
tell whether he was enjoying it or hating it, but he was vocal, that
     was for sure.  I got myself to my feet,  pulling Sarah upright with me,
and started moving again.
     I could hear rotor blades in the sky behind. Moments later a blindingly
bright Night Sun  searchlight penetrated the darkness and began to sweep the
area  toward the houses as the  helicopter  hovered over the lake. It wasn't
venturing too near the scene just yet, probably for fear of someone taking a
     More  gunshots echoed  in  the background.  Almost immediately I  heard
returned bursts of fire and saw the brilliant, almost white, muzzle flash of
a 53.1 turned back and started to move off.
     My throat was  parched; God  knew what Sarah's was like. She must be in
shit state. I kept checking behind me as I moved and could see the lights in
the houses slowly fading into  the dark and rain. We would be in dead ground
soon.  As I moved,  the Night Sun briefly lit  up the area around  me  as it
realigned itself while the heli orbited the lake, making hundreds of shadows
in the trees as  the rotor  blades groaned,  trying  to keep it in  a stable
position in the wind. The campers  were no doubt outside their tents, trying
to watch the reenactment of the Waco siege from the safety of the other side
of the  lake, pleased  that  their washed-out  holiday had turned  out quite
exciting after all.
     Below me I could see only the  flat roofs  of the two houses. More blue
flashing lights cut through the trees, but this time on my side of the lake,
coming from the left  along the  track. Yet more  police  vehicles were also
arriving in the  car park across the lake. They'd all got here too  fast. My
guess must have been correct.  My  report must  have confirmed Elizabeth and
Lynn's speculation about what was going on, and they wanted Sarah out before
the  seventh  cavalry moved in. It  seemed that I'd fucked that up a bit; it
wouldn't  be  long before the area  was choked with police and FBI trying to
stop the Third World War.
     Shotgun Ned would be a national hero after this. He'd probably be given
his own  fucking  talk show. The police, however, had mortgages and kids  to
think about; while  it was dark they would do no more than contain the area.
By first  light, however,  they'd  have all their shit together, maybe  even
have the Army or National Guard on standby.
     I crested a  rise, and as I moved downhill it blocked out all the noise
behind me. My first priority was to put as much distance as possible between
us and the target before first light.
     As I  moved,  I  could feel  Sarah  shivering  and shaking  beside  me,
screaming inside her gag. If I was feeling bad, she must be in shit state.
     I crossed another small ridge, started to move  downhill, and  lost  my
footing in the  mud. As I slithered and tumbled Sarah  fought to break  free
and save herself. I had a split second in which to decide whether to hold on
to her or let go.
     The decision was made for me. We took another half tumble and slide and
came to an  abrupt stop  against a tree trunk.  I'd landed  on my back, with
Sarah on top of me, her wet hair in my face, breathing hard through her nose
like  a Grand  National winner. My pistol, which  had been pushed  into  the
front of my jeans, had gone.
     I  let  go  of  Sarah; she wasn't  going anywhere,  the weapon was  the
     I never  wanted  to  be  without  one again. Maglite in hand,  the bulb
covered by my fingers to minimize the spill of light, I crawled around on my
hands and knees sifting through the leaves and mud  like a kid searching for
a lost toy.
     My knee  caught a metal edge as I moved.  I picked up the pistol, wiped
off the worst of  the mud and shoved it back into my jeans.  Scrambling back
toward  Sarah,  I  noticed she was breathing much  more loudly. That  wasn't
right. Then I heard a loud,  hoarse  whisper, "What  the  fuck do you  think
you're doing? Get this belt off me now!"
     She had somehow untied the gag,  and was coughing and trying to relieve
the soreness in her mouth.
     "Come on!" She lifted her hands.
     "Get this fucking thing off!"
     She couldn't  see it, but  I  was  trying  to hide a laugh. People with
accents like hers  shouldn't swear,  it just  doesn't work. Besides, she was
practically naked, streaked with mud, yet trying to order me around.
     "Do it, Nick. Hurry, we must keep moving!"
     There were  no more weapon reports from behind us, and  a megaphone was
now being used, probably to give instructions  to  anyone left in the house.
The rain  prevented me from  hearing  what was being said. The  heli was out
there somewhere, the throbbing of its rotors carried in on gusts of wind.
     What  did  she  mean, we  need to keep  moving?  I  looked at her,  and
couldn't help it I started to laugh, and that pissed her off even more.
     "Don't be ridiculous, hurry up and untie me!" She held her arms out.
     "Get me out of here before this becomes even more of a nicking fiasco!"
     The  rattle of the helicopter  getting closer made us both shut  up. It
was hard to tell which direction it  was coming from. I was peering  up, but
could see jack shit.
     "Come on,  get this belt  off me and give me your coat!" She started to
use her teeth to pull the knot apart. It wasn't working. The leather was too
tight and wet, and she was shivering too much to get a good grip.
     The helicopter roared overhead. I caught a  glimpse  of its  navigation
lights through the trees. At least it wasn't hovering, or moving in a search
pattern not yet, anyway. I guessed it would be soon. I could see the glimmer
of first light beyond the canopy.
     She wanted my attention again.
     "Nick,  get  this off me and give me  your coat. Please." Her arms were
still thrust toward me. I grabbed hold of the  belt and started  to drag her
along in the mud.
     First light had started to penetrate to the forest floor, relieving the
gloom just enough to show my footprints.  The rain was starting to ease off;
the noise of it  hitting  the leaves was dying down, along  with the wind in
the trees. I was starting  to  feel depressed; I  was soaking wet, cold  and
confused. What was worse, we were leaving an unmissable trail in the mud.
     She  could  obviously see that I  was in  no mood  for discussion as we
moved  and she shut up. We came over another  rise. Down below us, about one
or two hundred meters away  at the bottom of  a steep gradient, was a river.
Maybe thirty meters wide, it was in full flood, a  maelstrom of fast flowing
water and foam.
     As we  scrambled downhill, all I could hear was the  rush of  water  in
front of us. Sarah called out, "Slower, slower," trying to get her  footing.
I wasn't listening. We had to find a way  across. With luck  it would be the
psychological boundary  of the  search;  hopefully they would start from the
house  and fan out as  far as the  bank, assuming that no  one  would be mad
enough to try and cross.
     At that moment I had to be the  only  person  in the world  with a good
thing to say about El Nino. In theory, it should have been nice and sunny at
this  time of the year in the Carolinas. Conditions like this would slow the
searchers down, and if the weather closed in any further the  heli might not
be able to fly.
     Closer to the water the tree canopy started to thin. Out in the open it
was virtually daylight, and looking  up I could see  a  really thick,  gray,
miserable sky. It had stopped  raining, but  in  dense  woodland you'd never
know that; all the moisture is held on the leaves and it still works its way
down to the floor. What the fuck, I was soaked to the skin anyway.
     Sarah's  hair was wet and flat against her head. Dried blood ringed her
nostrils; I  must have slammed my hand into her face quite hard on  the bed.
She was bleeding from several cuts on her legs, with goose bumps the size of
peanuts,  and  in   any  other  circumstances  she'd  have  needed  hospital
attention.  She  was  covered in mud, sand,  bits  of leaves and twigs,  and
shivering uncontrollably in her drenched and  now transparent  underwear and
     I let go of the belt and studied the river, trying  to look for  a safe
place to cross. It was pointless. If I'd doubted the strength of the current
I only  had  to  look  at  the  chunks of uprooted  tree  that were  surging
downstream and crashing over the rocks. Wherever I chose, it was going to be
a major drama. So what was new?
     Sarah was switched on; she knew what I was thinking. She sat in a fetal
position against  a rock on the bank with her arms wrapped around  her legs,
trying to cover her body for warmth. She looked at the river, then at me.
     "No,  Nick. Are you mad? I'm not  going, not here. Why don't we " I cut
her  off mid-sentence,  grabbing  hold  of the belt and dragging her a short
distance back into the canopy for cover. I didn't talk to her; there was too
much stuff churning around  in my head. Instead I  started to  pull  out  my
shirt from my  trousers,  then  the  bottoms  of my jeans where they'd  been
tucked  into  my  boots.  I  undid  the  cuffs  on  my  jacket sleeves until
everything was nice and loose and water could flow more freely around me. If
your shirt is tucked  in when  you  swim, the  weight of trapped  water that
collects can slow you down, then it might drown you. The gloves came off; it
was  pointless  wearing  them  at  the  moment,  and  besides,  they  looked
ridiculous.  Sarah was  all right, she had fuck-all on anyway. I stuffed the
phone and  all my  docs, plus hers, into one of the gloves, then pushed that
inside the other one and put it back in my jacket. I wondered about the bag;
fuck  it, I'd have to take it with me. I didn't want to leave any more  sign
than was necessary.
     The  wind had started to gust strongly and the  trees at the top of the
canopy on the opposite side of the  river were bending and swaying. I looked
at  Sarah hunching down behind a tree for shelter. Only feet away  the water
crashed angrily against the rocks.
     I looked along the opposite bank, following the river's current, trying
to work out where we might land up.  I could  see downstream for  about  250
meters, then the river bent around to the  right and disappeared from  view.
The opposite bank was about two or three feet above water level, with plenty
of grab provided by  foliage  and tree roots exposed by  the  current as  it
carved  into the  soil. I had to assume the  worst, that there was a massive
waterfall just after the bend, and that meant that we had just 250 meters in
which to make our way across and get out.
     The ambient temperature wasn't freezing but  it  was bitterly cold.  On
land, we  wouldn't die of exposure if we kept moving, but the river would be
another matter. Sarah  saw  me  looking at  the  water  and back at her. She
dropped  her  head  and  buried it  in  her  arms. The  gesture  was  one of
resignation, and recognition of the fact that, if she were telling the truth
about wanting to get away, I was her only means of escape.
     The heli was somewhere behind us, doing its stuff between the river and
the houses; I couldn't tell exactly where it was, but it had to be near or I
wouldn't be able to hear the rotor blades groaning as it tried to keep a low
     I went  over  to  her, grabbed  hold of the belt and pulled her  to her
     She looked into my eyes.
     "Nick, why not  take this thing off? Please. I'm not going anywhere, am
     I ignored her. Gripping the belt with my left hand, I moved down to the
water's edge, keeping my eyes lifted to the  sky. I tried to convince myself
that the only thing that mattered right now was the helicopter.
     A spit of rocks extending about five meters out  looked as if it  would
give us some sort  of platform to begin our crossing; water sluiced over the
top and there was no way of telling how deep it was  on either side. I hoped
Sarah could swim, but if she couldn't, tough, she should have said. I looked
at her eyes and suddenly  saw fear there, then I looked at  the river again.
It was a fair one. There  was no way I couldn't remove the belt. I needed to
keep her alive. Her death had to be at a time and place of my choosing.
     As I undid the knot she said very quietly, "Thank you."
     I caught her  eye, trying to read  the message there,  then  nodded and
moved  on, throwing  the  belt into the bag.  She  stepped gingerly over the
small stones at the water's edge.
     "Come on!" I snapped.
     She kept her head down, watching her footing.
     "I'm  trying, it's hurting my  feet." As  we  started to  wade  in  she
gasped, "Oh, fuck, it's so cold!"
     She was right;  the water  temperature had to be near freezing. I  told
myself just to get in  there, get it  done, and worry about warming up again
on the other side.
     I fought the current  until I was up to my waist,  with Sarah behind me
grasping the strap of her bag that was still over my shoulder. Then, with my
next step, I was  into fast-flowing water,  the current tearing at  my  leg,
threatening to throw me off  balance. I grabbed her hand, whether to support
myself or to help  her,  I didn't know, but no sooner had  I lifted my other
leg than  the weight of water  whipped it away from under me and I was being
swept downstream. I  still clung to Sarah, both of us kicking  and thrashing
to keep  afloat  and make some progress toward  the  opposite bank,  but the
current was starting to drag me under. If you're trapped  against a  rock by
water that's just half a meter high and moving at 12 mph, you'd  need to  be
able to bench press 550 pounds to lift yourself away. We were no contest for
the tons of water surging downstream.
     My head was forced under and I swallowed a  mouthful of freezing river.
I kicked back to the surface, forcing myself to breathe in through  my nose,
only to choke as I inhaled yet  more water. I let go of  her. We each had to
fight our own battle now. She looked at me, her  eyes the size of saucers as
she realized what I'd done. That wasn't my problem; it would become one only
if I  couldn't  find her  body before they  did. She still  had to disappear
without trace.
     I saw her through wet, blurred vision,  trying to  keep  her  head  up,
kicking  and swimming  and wading like a seal. Then she was  sucked under by
the current and I couldn't tell how far  across I was. The water kept taking
me under,  and I was more concerned about sucking in air than getting to the
other side. I couldn't see Sarah at all now, but there  was nothing  I could
do about that. I was in enough shit of my own.
     As I came up again and snatched a lungful of air, I heard a scream.
     "Oh, God! Oh, God!"  I looked around for her, but saw nothing above the
     I was dragged back down and inhaled more river water. Scrabbling my way
to  the surface,  I  saw that this  time I was almost  at the far side.  The
current wasn't  dying  down, though, because  the river curved around to the
right and I was on the outside of the bend, where the force of the water was
at its fiercest. An eddy caught  me and the  momentum threw  me against  the
bank.  I threw out my  hands,  trying to  grasp an exposed  tree root  or an
overhanging branch, anything I could.
     I  shouted for Sarah,  but all I got in  reply  was another mouthful of
     I coughed, trying to force my eyes open again, but they stung too much.
     Thrashing around blindly, my left hand connected  with something solid.
I I made a grab, but whatever it  was gave way.  The  next  thing I knew, my
right arm had booked into a large tree root. The current swung me around and
pressed me  against the bank,  and  my feet  connected with  solid ground. I
clung to the roots and took deep breaths to slow myself down.
     Downstream, nothing was moving in the  water but  branches and lumps of
     I  struggled against  the weight of water until I  could reach with  my
free hand and grab another root higher  up the bank. I finally hauled myself
up until only my feet were left in the water,  being  forced sideways by the
     One more  grab  and pull  and  I  was lying  on  the bank, fighting for
breath. I'd never  felt  such relief. I lay there  for  more  than a minute,
coughing up water and slowly feeling some strength return to my limbs.
     As my head cleared, I realized my  problems weren't  over. I'd now have
to  find  Sarah, and she could be anywhere  downstream.  Clearing  the banks
would expose me to view from the ground,  and the river was a natural  route
for any follow  up to be taking. As if that wasn't bad enough, the heli,  if
it came back, would ping me at once.
     There was nothing I could do about  any  of  that; I just had to get on
with  it  and retrieve what I could from this gang fuck.  Turning my head, I
could make out  the river behind me,  blurred by the water in my eyes. There
was still no sign of Sarah.
     My  soaking clothes weighed  me down as I started  to stumble along the
bank, leaning over  the  edge  from time to time  to  double  check that she
wasn't concealed behind rocks or in some kink in the ground below me.
     If I couldn't find her  and  she was discovered downstream,  or even on
the coast,  I'd just have to accept that it was a  big time fuckup. However,
not yet.
     As I moved, I kept my  eyes skinned for  somewhere to hide her  body if
she  were dead.  Hiding her  wouldn't be  the ideal solution,  but there was
fuck-all else I  could do. It would slow  me  down, carrying her out  of the
area, and I could always  come back in a month or two and finish the job. It
needed to  be a spot that I could ID at a later date, perhaps after a change
of season, and one that wasn't near a hikers' route or a water course.
     As the current reached the bend and changed direction, its noise became
almost deafening.  I followed around, the  dead ground gradually coming into
view. I couldn't  believe it. Just 300 meters farther downstream, resting on
timber supports driven into the riverbed,  was a small footbridge. The story
of my life. If I'd been looking for one, it wouldn't have existed.
     I stopped, looked and listened. The bridge would be on their maps,  and
anyone sent to follow us would use it to cross.
     As I got  to within maybe 150 meters of the structure, I could see that
it was made of three thick wooden supports rising up  from the river on each
side. The  walkway,  made of what  were probably old  railway  sleepers, was
maybe two meters above that.
     In any search pattern the police would  use this bridge as a key point,
somewhere that it  would  be natural  to  go  to.  Maybe  they  had  already
identified it and had a team hidden, waiting for us to cross.
     Should  I move into the canopy  a bit and then come  back to the  river
farther down once I'd boxed around it? No good: I needed to search the whole
bank.  The  way things were  going she was  probably  just a meter from  the
bridge, dead. I watched for  a  while longer. The wind bent the treetops and
the water crashed along at warp speed.
     At  first I  thought it was  the white water pushing itself against the
middle support, with the occasional plume of foam being thrown into the air.
     It  wasn't. It was Sarah, clinging to the post and reaching  up, trying
to  make  the two meters to  safety.  Time and  again her hand  moved up the
support, only to be ripped away again as the current  got hold of her. For a
split  second  I hoped she'd  be  washed away; then I  could  concentrate on
saving my own ass and getting away,  taking any  flak when I got back to the
U.K. Then reality kicked in. There was  still a chance  I could pull her out
and do my job properly.
     I  moved back into  the canopy and made my approach toward the  bridge,
lying down about twenty meters short for one last look.  She wasn't making a
sound.  Either she was switched on enough to know not to  scream, or she was
just too scared. I didn't care which, as long as she stayed quiet.
     There  didn't seem to be  any other activity,  but then  again,  if the
police were switched on I'd be  very  lucky  to  ping them.  It was decision
time: I  could either  get  her out and  complete  the task, or let  her get
carried away and drown. Then it  hit me that  there was a  third option. She
could be swept away and survive.
     I looked  around for a branch that was long enough to do the job. It  |
didn't  have to be strong, just long. Jumping up, I  grasped one  with  both
hands  and pulled  down with all  my weight. Water  sluiced onto me from the
leaves. The branch snapped. I twisted and pulled, and it finally parted from
the tree. I didn't  bother stripping it of its smaller branches, just headed
down toward the bank.
     I stopped to  pull off  first my boots, then my jeans.  For a  moment I
fantasized that maybe I could be doing the world a great service here. Maybe
London knew  that she was going to be the next Hitler. Then  my jacket  came
off and  the wind bit  into me. What the fuck was I doing, freezing cold  in
the back of beyond, with the police after  me, taking my  kit off  to save a
woman's life just so I could kill her somewhere else?  I gave myself another
reality check.
     "Shut the fuck up. Stone. It's pointless honking, you know it has to be
     I secured my weapon and the contents  of my jeans in the bag and put it
back over my shoulder. With my boots  back on, but my jeans and jacket in my
hands,  I left the canopy and ran out toward the bridge. I must  have looked
like  someone doing  a runner after  being  caught in bed with another man's
     As I hit the railway sleepers that made up the walkway, I could see her
still  playing the limpet, the current pushing her head against the  support
as she fought to keep it out of the river.
     She saw me.
     "Nick, Nick. I'm here ... here!"
     As if I didn't know. I leaned over the handrail.
     "Shut up!" I had to holler above the noise of the water as I started to
pass down the end of one  jeans leg, knotted to help her grip. The other was
tied to one of the sleeves of my jacket. I could never  remember the name of
the knot. If  I'd wanted to know it I would have  joined the Navy. The other
sleeve also had a knot at the end, to help me.
     "Take the jeans end only," I shouted.
     "Now listen to me, OK?"
     She looked up,  shaking the water from her face. Her eyes kept flicking
toward  the knotted  jeans leg  that was  her lifeline. They  were wide with
     I kept hold  of the knotted sleeve as I dangled the material so that it
would  be easy for her to get  hold of,  yet still keep in  contact with the
     Her teeth made contact  with  the  material first  and  she  bit  down,
turning her head to bring it closer to her  hands. Once there I could see by
the determination in her expression that she wasn't going to let go.
     "Sarah,  look  at  me."  I  wanted  her to understand exactly  what was
expected  other. When  people flap they nod and agree to everything  without
really understanding what's being said.
     "I'm going to drop the rest of this lot into the water, and retrieve it
on the other side  of the bridge. When I shout, I want  you to let go of the
support and just hold on to the jeans.
     Got it?"
     "Yes, yes. Hurry."
     "Here  goes."  I checked again to see  if anyone  was  watching, then I
threw the rest of the makeshift rope under the bridge.
     I switched  to the other side, lying on  my stomach on the sleepers and
leaning down. My jacket was snaking from side to side in the current.
     Looking back upstream under the  bridge, I  could see  her coughing and
spitting out water, only to take another mouthful.
     Moving  the branch down  into the water, I  made  contact on  the third
attempt and pulled  up the free  end of the  rope. Wrapping the  knotted end
around  my wrist, I braced myself against the wood supporting  the handrail,
ready to take the strain. I could no longer see her.
     "Now, Sarah. Now!"
     She must have let  go  and the current swept her under the  span. There
was an almighty jolt, then what felt like the world's biggest dog pulling on
its lead. I held on to the jacket sleeve like a man possessed.
     "Kick, Sarah. Kick."
     She didn't need telling  twice.  The combination of her efforts and the
pendulum effect of the current swept her  in toward the bank like  a  hooked
     I got to my feet and managed to  reel in two more twists of the jacket,
taking a  few steps toward the end of the bridge. By the time I reached  the
bank I had hands full of jeans. I  dropped to the  ground  above her and  we
linked arms. She didn't need to be told what to do next. I heaved and rolled
and she  used  my body as a climbing frame. A moment later and she was lying
beside me on solid ground.
     I thanked whichever guardian angel was looking over me that day.
     She was coughing and fighting for breath. She wasn't going to be in any
condition to help herself for a little while, and  we had  to get away  from
here.  I  hauled myself  to  my  feet, bent down and  scooped  her  up in  a
fireman's lift over my shoulder. I picked up the knotted jeans and jacket as
I moved off, staggering more  than running into the trees. I needed us to be
out of sight of the helicopter, and to find some shelter.
     Ahead of  me was a steep rise. I put  her down while I  got some breath
back. I was shivering violently, and  Sarah moaned  as she, too,  fought the
cold  and shock. I wanted to get  beyond the rise  into another lot  of dead
ground, so we couldn't be seen from the other side of the river.
     Her head lolled over my shoulder, her face close to mine. I was looking
straight ahead and focusing on the trees, but I still heard the words.
     "Thank  you.  Nick." I  tilted my head  toward  her and  did my best to
     It felt strange to be thanked like this, and for the second time.
     Safely  inside the tree line, I stopped and helped her to the ground. I
turned away and leaned against a tree, my lungs greedily sucking in air.
     "Can you manage on your own?" I asked.
     To my  surprise, the reply came from very close. I  felt her hand on my
shoulder as she said, "I can do it. Let's go."
     I moved off with her following, over the  rise and onto dead ground. We
couldn't be seen from the opposite bank anymore,  but we still needed  cover
from the air and the  biting wind. It wasn't  as strong  as last night,  but
wind chill could really slow us down after what we'd just been through.
     Normally, when  looking for shelter  from the  elements, the last place
you  want to be is in a  valley bottom  or a  deep hollow, because  hot  air
rises, but we needed the cover. We also needed to try and find a place where
we  could preserve  what little  body warmth we had  left, and away from the
noise of the river so I could listen out for pursuers.
     As I bustled her through  the canopy, needles pushed themselves sharply
into my face, and bucketfuls of water spilled off the disturbed branches.
     The best hide I could find was a massive fir about 100 meters  from the
river, whose  branches hung down to the ground. Sarah was clearly in pain as
she crawled toward the base of the trunk. The branches started about a meter
up the  trunk and met the  ground about a meter away  from us.  There was no
noise here, except for the  wind against the outer branches. It was  just as
wet inside as out,  but  it  felt  wonderful just  to be under cover. It's a
psychological thing; get  up against, or under, something  and you  begin to
imagine you're a bit warmer.
     We huddled against the trunk, both of us shivering and shuddering.
     Adrenaline had kicked in when we were on the move, but its effects were
subsiding. I  just wanted to lie there, but I knew  that if I made an effort
it would pay off. I pulled the strap of Sarah's bag over my head and dropped
it  on the  ground. Then I  took  out  the knots  with  cold,  numb and very
fumbling hands and teeth. With my foot on the collar of  the  jacket, I  got
hold of the rest of it and started to twist out the worst of the water.
     Sarah looked at me like  an abused  puppy,  huddled up and shivering. I
untwisted the jacket and threw it at her. I wanted her to stay alive for two
reasons now: I still didn't want to  have to carry a dead  weight out of the
area, and I wanted her to answer some questions.
     She put the jacket around her shoulders and hungrily wrapped herself up
in it. Then she wriggled  backward until she  was resting against  the tree,
cuddling herself, trying to tuck the jacket around her legs.
     I  took off my  shirt and  T-shirt,  and  wrung them  out, too.  I  was
shivering so badly that it felt as if my muscles were in  spasm,  but it had
to be done.
     I had to get the water out and some air into the fibers so that my body
heat what was left of it could sustain itself. Not that cotton has that many
air pockets.
     "Cotton  kills,"  the  saying  goes in outdoors circles, and  for  good
reason, but what  I was doing was better than nothing.  It made  me think of
Shirts KF, the thick woolly shirts we had to wear in the infantry.
     I'd never found out  what the letters KF stood for; all I knew was that
the material used to itch and scratch, and in summer made you feel as if you
were wearing a greatcoat, but in the field during winter they were great wet
or dry, the fibers retained heat.
     I put the shirt  and T-shirt back on, then knelt  to take off my boots,
fumbling to undo the laces with numb, trembling fingers. Finally I wrung out
my jeans, taking care to keep the pistol away from Sarah's grasp.
     When I was dressed again I tucked everything in, trying to minimize the
number of ways in which the wind could get  to  me. I pushed the pistol into
the back of my  jeans by the base of my spine, where she wouldn't be able to
get at it.
     I  sat  back against the trunk, with Sarah on my left. She was still in
the  same position as before,  sitting  in a curled up  ball and  using  the
jacket as best she could to keep herself  warm, her hands keeping the collar
pulled up around her face.
     It's always best to share body warmth, and two people of opposite sexes
huddled together generate five percent more warmth than two of the same sex.
I nudged  her with my elbow, held out my arms and motioned with  my head for
her  to move over. She  shuffled across,  sniffing, her hair soaking wet and
plastered over her face.
     High above, a strong gust of wind made the tree sway. I straightened my
legs and she arranged  herself in my lap with her left side against me, then
I lifted  my legs to press her closer to my chest,  which insulated her from
the ground, and got more  of her skin in contact with mine. Her wet hair was
over my shoulder as  her  body pushed into mine. I put  my  arms around her.
Neither of us could control our  shivering.  She snuggled into  me, her head
against my chest, and I could feel the benefit almost immediately.
     There was a silence during which we  both willed ourselves to get warm.
I looked down on  her wet, muddy hair, flecked with pine needles and bits of
     It almost took me by surprise when she spoke.
     "I  suppose  they told  you I'm  a  runner?" Her body was shaking.  She
didn't move her head  for me to see, but  I could tell  by her tone that her
period of compliance was coming to an end.
     "Something like that." I bent my head to listen for  any follow up, and
raised my knees more to pull her nearer for warmth.
     "And  I suppose  you believed  them? Christ,  I've  been  putting  this
operation together  for over four  years,  Nick.  Now it's destroyed by some
dunderhead who's sent to fuck me over."
     The dunderhead bit pissed me off.
     "Four years to do what? What operation?
     What the fuck are you talking about, Sarah?"
     Her speech was slow, the  tone  that of a schoolmistress trying to show
patience as she  explains simple things  to tiny minds.  It was only  partly
working; her shivering was making her speech disjointed.
     "Four years to infiltrate deep enough to discover  their network in the
U.S. and Europe-that's what I am talking about."
     "Infiltrate who? What? Why didn't London know?"
     "London..." She paused.
     "The reason London doesn't know is because I don't know who I can tell.
I don't know  the whole network yet, but the more I learn, the more I know I
can't trust anyone."
     There was another pause. She intended it  to give me time to think, but
I  left it for  her to fill. After pulling  the collar up farther around her
face to fight the cold, she took the hint.
     "I suppose they sent you to kill me?" Her voice was slightly muffled by
the jacket.
     "No, just to get you back to the U.K. for questioning. It seems you are
becoming an embarrassment."
     She scoffed at my answer. I could feel  her  shoulders  shaking as  she
covered her mouth to hide the noise of her coughing laugh.
     "Ah, London..." The laughter stopped and the coughing took over.
     She looked up at me.
     "Listen, Nick, London has got it wrong. This isn't about embarrassment,
for Christ's  sake. It's about assassination." I must have  had that  vacant
expression  on  my face  again,  because she  reverted  to  her kindergarten
teacher voice.
     "The team in the house; they were planning a hit on Netanyahu."
     To be  honest,  I  didn't  really  give  a  shit about Netanyahu,  so I
couldn't help a grin.
     "The hit has failed. They're all dead, apart from one."
     Her head started shaking like a mechanical toy. She was deadly serious,
or as serious as  you can be when all your extremities are purple, including
your nose.
     "No, you're wrong.  There are still two more members  of the cell. They
were going  to RV with  us at the  house today. You don't  understand, Nick;
it's not a  job to them, it's  a quest.  They will carry on." There was real
frustration in her voice.
     "Believe me, ifNetanyahu dies, you will give a shit. It will change the
way you live, Nick. That is, if you do."
     I  hated all this  beating  around the bush; it  was like being  in the
middle of a conversation with Lynn and Elizabeth again.
     "What the fuck are you on about, Sarah?"
     She thought  for a while  as she buried her  head back into  the jacket
     The sound of the rotor blades kicked in to join the wind above us, then
died as quickly as it came.
     "No, not  yet. I'm going to keep that  as  my insurance; I need to make
sure you get  me out  of here. You see, Nick, I don't believe you're here to
take me  back  to  London.  It  must be more  important than that,  or  they
wouldn't have sent you."
     She was right, of course. I would do exactly the same  if I were in her
     "Look,  Nick.  Keep me alive and get me  out of here, and I'll tell you
everything. Don't let them use you; give me time to prove it."
     I hated not having control. I  wanted  to know more, but  at the same I
wasn't so desperate  that I would lie  awake at  night with worry. I  didn't
     I had to  think. And  I was  going  to  take her  out  of there anyway,
whether she liked it or not.
     She adjusted her body on  my legs,  and looked up again and stared into
my eyes.
     "Nick,  please believe me. I've got involved in something  where nobody
can be trusted and I mean nobody."
     She  kept her eyes locked on mine. She had just  opened  her  mouth  to
speak again  when we  both heard the  sound of somebody crashing through the
     Whoever it was wasn't having much luck with their footing. They hit the
ground with a loud curse.
     "Shittt!" It was a man's voice.
     I didn't need to say anything to Sarah. She jumped  away from me and my
hand reached for the pistol.
     The man must have got up,  only  to fall down again immediately with  a
grunt as he scrambled to recover.
     "Oh, fuck, fuck ..."
     On my hands  and  knees,  I moved slowly  to the  edge of our  hide and
pushed my face against the  branches.  It was the American. He was stumbling
around in  the mud, his clothes soaking, his mustache looking like a drowned
rat.  He was heading  in our general  direction, looking as bedraggled as we
were. But  he  wasn't just  running, he was looking for ground  sign. He was
tracking us.
     I crawled back to Sarah and whispered in her ear, "It's your American.
     Go bring him in."
     She shook her head.
     "It won't work."
     "Make him."
     "He won't fall for it."
     "You're the one that needs his clothes, not me."
     She thought about  it, then  nodded  slowly and  took a  deep breath. I
watched as she turned away from me and crawled out of the hide.
     I heard her call, "Lance! Over here! Lance!"
     I  moved to the  opposite  side of the  tree,  pushing back  under  the
branches, just in case Sarah decided to become Lance's best friend again.
     I  lay down and  brought my  pistol  up  into the aim,  the barrel just
clearing the branches.
     I  could hear her talking to him as they got nearer. It was Arabic, but
spoken  rapidly. She was still gob  bing  off to  him at  warp speed as  she
shuffled  backward into the hide. I started to  feel vulnerable now. Why was
she talking to  him like this? I'd already heard him speak English. It could
only  mean trouble.  But fuck it,  whatever  she  was planning was  about to

     The  first things  to appear were his hands,  the  backs of which  were
covered in hair and  looked way  too big for  his  wrists. Then his head and
shoulders, face down to avoid  the  low branches as he pushed his way in. He
was nodding  and  agreeing with whatever it was that Sarah was saying as she
followed him in.
     e didn't look up until he was right inside the shelter. When he did, he
saw me crawling out of the branches opposite him. His eyes widened as he saw
the weapon, and he shot a glance  back at  Sarah,  looking for some  kind of
clarification  or  reassurance.  He  looked back at the weapon, then  at her
again,  trying to work it out. After a couple of seconds he gave a deep sigh
and lowered his head, rocking it slowly from side to side.
     Sarah  was level with him now, and jerked  her head to indicate for him
to  crawl  forward a bit  more;  he  did as he was told.  She  ran her hands
underneath his jacket.  I watched  her like  a  hawk, ready to react if  she
tried to grab his weapon and draw down on me.
     She looked at me and shook her head.
     I motioned him to move to the left of the  hide and he shuffled over on
his hands and knees. I stopped him before he was too close to me, in case he
fancied his chances.
     The  black bomber jacket he was  wearing had a Harley Davidson motif on
the left-hand side and looked warm. I motioned with the pistol.
     Still on his knees, bent over with  his back parallel to the ground, he
started to remove  the  jacket.  His gaze switched between me  and Sarah; he
didn't  say  a word, still  trying  to  work it all out. Sarah  was  sitting
     the tree with her hands in her jacket pockets and her knees against her
     I grabbed the American's jacket and started to put it on, making sure I
put Sarah's bag back over my shoulders.
     "Now the rest of your stuff," I said.
     "One hand."
     He put his left  hand on the ground and  fiddled with  his belt  buckle
with the other. Sarah was impatient and very cold, and she snapped at him in
Arabic. She must  have been feeling grim, covered from head to toe with mud,
leaves and pine needles, and her legs were wet, dirty and bleeding.
     Lance was  wearing Nike  trainers, and Sarah  decided to  help  him  by
pulling  them off  from behind.  His Levis were next, and when he'd finished
she stretched out on the ground, arched her  back and raised her backside to
get the big jeans on. She was doing up the belt and he was pulling  off  his
T-shirt when I heard  the  helicopter again. The two  of us looked up, which
was  pretty fruitless  considering the tree's  canopy  meant we couldn't see
anything. Lance's T-shirt was over his head but not his shoulders.
     I put my left hand on the back of his neck and rammed his face into the
mud, the barrel of my pistol pressing into his neck.
     The  throbbing  of  the  rotors  was virtually  overhead. The heli  was
     It  stayed  there for  several  seconds,  the  trees  flexing under the
     Shape,  shine, shadow, silhouette, spacing and movement: those  are the
telltales that can betray your location. But we were in good cover;
     Sarah knew that, too, and continued slowly pulling on the warm clothes.
     The heli moved away about fifty meters, hovered again, then moved on.
     The sound of its rotor blades disappeared completely. I took the muzzle
away from the American's neck and told  him to  carry on. He finished taking
off his T-shirt. Sarah took off the jacket, put on the T-shirt, and replaced
the jacket. All that was left were his socks and boxers. It was Lance's turn
to shiver, the thick hair on his back plastered flat by the rain.
     I could see in  his eyes that  he was starting  to flap. He  must  have
thought he was going to be killed,  and started mumbling some sort of prayer
to himself. But it wasn't a plea, the tone was more of acceptance.
     I said, "It's  OK, Lance, you don't need Allah yet, you're not going to
die. Just shut the fuck up."
     Sarah was  sorted, kneeling  with  her hands  in  her  jacket  pockets,
wearing size eleven trainers and jeans with the gusset hanging halfway  down
to her knees, with  turn ups so big they  looked like some  sort  of fashion
     The boy was still mumbling away to himself on his  knees, bent  forward
with his  forearms resting  on the  ground,  his hands  clasped together  in
prayer. He was trying his best to be the gray man.
     Sarah looked at me.
     "What about him?"
     I said, "Let's get moving while the  heli's  gone. I'll tie  him to the
tree with my belt. He'll be fucked off, but he'll live."
     She shook her head.
     I  said,  "No, just  leave  him. Come  on, let's  go. We  need  to make
     She gave a  sigh as I  took the belt from the bag and kicked Lance over
to the tree and began to secure him to it. An hour or  two and he would free
himself; if  not, he  deserved  to  die anyway.  He  was still  muttering to
himself, and as I tightened the knot he  blurted out some insult to Sarah in
     He was probably telling her  what a bitch she was  for fucking him over
like this,  after all they had been through together and all that shit.  She
ignored it. I felt like telling him I knew how he felt.
     I had a quick look around to check we hadn't left anything, and started
to crawl out of the shelter. Sarah followed, or at least I thought she did.
     The Arabic mumblings got fainter.
     I was  still on my  hands and  knees,  my head just  emerging from  the
branches, when the loud  report of a  weapon came from  behind  me. Instinct
flattened me to the ground. In almost  the same instant I realized it wasn't
me who'd been shot and slithered out of the way.
     My  first thought was that he'd somehow got Sarah.  I jumped to my feet
and ran around  the tree to approach him from the  other  side. I started to
crawl in, weapon at the ready. Pushing through the branches on my stomach, I
saw him.  He was still being held up by his secured hands,  but his body was
sagging  and  his legs were splayed, like  the crumpled  victim of  a firing
squad. There was no way Lance would be feeling the cold anymore.
     Sarah had head-jobbed him with a  semiautomatic. She was on  her knees,
putting the weapon into her jacket pocket.
     What  the fuck  was it with  this woman? Every time she was left  alone
with a man she landed up killing him.
     "Give me the gun, Sarah ... Give it."
     She looked up into  the  sky, as if I were being boring, pulled it from
her pocket and threw  it over to me. I  crawled  back out.  It was pointless
keeping a low voice now; half the state would know where we were. I snapped,
"What the fuck are you doing?"
     "He wouldn't stop, believe me. He would try and join up  with the other
two or carry on himself. I know these people. I know Lance very well.
     Look, the other two they know  where, how and when  to do the hit. What
you did this morning won't stop them." Her face had taken on a manic look.
     "For rack's sake, Nick, I'm beginning to wish I'd  just killed  you and
opted to carry on with him."
     There was no time for debate. We'd been compromised. We had to  be like
animals now and run as fast as we could; it didn't matter where, we just had
to get out of that immediate danger area. Only when  we were a safe distance
away could I stop and assess.
     Assuming the shot had  been heard, there  would be chaos at the  police
control center as it  was reported over  the radio net. They would just have
been  starting to work  through  all  their  post-incident  procedures when,
literally, bang!" another problem. Initially they'd  be confused, but they'd
soon  figure  out where  it had  come  from, and  direct the helicopter  and
follow-up our way.
     We legged  it. We  could  move much faster  now than before,  even with
Sarah wearing her size-eleven Nikes.  I was severely pissed off with her for
what she'd done, but  fried  to  control it. Once  you allow yourself to get
angry, you stop  concentrating on  the aim,  which  in this case was to make
distance.  Whether or not she  was  lying wasn't an issue  at the  moment, I
didn't care. The only thing that mattered right now was escape.
     The helicopter  swooped  over the canopy. We stopped  in our tracks and
took cover beneath the trees. But the aircraft wasn't hovering this time, it
was moving fast and low.  It crossed directly overhead, blasting torrents of
rain water from the trees onto our heads, then roared away at speed.
     I decided to keep going in  the  same  direction, a straight  line away
from  the house. I wanted to find a road  or some habitation. A house should
mean a vehicle.
     It was fully light now. Our faster pace had got some body warmth going,
and if anything I was starting to  overheat. Just like me, Sarah was puffing
and panting  as  we scrabbled  up the rises and stumbled headlong  downhill.
There was no need to explain  to her  what I was doing. She was  actually  a
help, because it was so much easier to have two sets of eyes and ears.
     After thirty minutes of hard running we  finally hit  a road.  It was a
single carriage  way potholed and  no more than three or four meters wide. I
paralleled it to the  right, running through the  trees about ten meters  to
its side. We hadn't gone far  when I heard a vehicle. We stopped,  got down,
and  I  rested on my elbows  and knees  to  keep myself  out  of the mud and
preserve body warmth. It was approaching fast from behind us, engine roaring
and tires splashing on wet tarmac.
     A blue and white appeared and sped past, its roof-mounted red  and blue
light bar flashing brighter than was normal in daylight because of the cloud
cover. The  police would have things squared away by now; they were probably
placing a cordon  around the  whole area. They'd  then either wait for us to
emerge, or come in and flush us out.
     The  moment  the  cruiser disappeared from  view we got up and  started
moving. The wind had  strengthened  and  I  could  see waves of heavier rain
coming  in  ahead. After twenty minutes of  running  through deeply  rutted,
puddled ground we came to a large open area, a  perfect square of about five
acres cut out of the forest, with a white cattle fence around the perimeter.
Sitting in the middle,  and approached  by a  driveway  from the road, was a
two-story ranch house built of wooden slats, with a pitched roof, tiled with
gray slates. A square extension had been added onto the far end, and I could
see  an  open garage at ground level. Inside were a  pickup truck, two other
cars and  a small powerboat on a trailer. The  building and two of the three
vehicles looked as if they'd seen better days.
     There was no approach to the garage that avoided open ground. I guessed
there  would be windows on every side of the house, to take advantage of the
views. Six  or  seven  horses  were  loose  in the field, but there  was  no
evidence of dogs and the house itself  seemed quiet  enough. Maybe everybody
was still tucked up in bed.
     "You stay here," I whispered to Sarah.
     "I'm going to go and get a wagon. When you see me drive out, move up to
the road."
     "Why aren't I coming over with you?" She sounded suspicious,  as if she
thought I'd get in a vehicle and just leave her stranded. If only she knew.
     She was in no position to question my decisions, but I answered.
     "Number one, it's quieter if I go on my own I know what  I'm doing, you
don't. Number two, I don't  want you killing anybody else. And number three,
you have no  choice. I have your documents in  here."  I half turned to show
her the bag on my back.
     "You want me to help you, you wait here."
     The  plot of land was  as flat and green as a pool table, not  a single
fold in the ground. Checking the road for  vehicles and the sky for helis, I
set off  across grass that was about three inches high and full of moisture,
running but trying to keep as low as possible. I didn't know why, because it
didn't make me any less visible, but it just seemed the natural thing to do.
I was leaving a clear track in my wake through the wet grass, but I couldn't
do anything about that.
     I kept looking at the windows for movement. As I got closer I could see
that  the upstairs curtains were  drawn. I wondered if  Mr. and Mrs. Redneck
were sitting in bed watching the  news  about  last night's events down  the
road.  For sure, there'd be more news  crews at the lake  by now than  there
were police.
     Reaching the house, I bent down below a side window with open curtains.
     In this weather  there would have been a light on if people were up and
about, and there wasn't,  but even so I didn't chance looking inside. I held
it there for a few seconds and listened. Nothing. Now that I was close up to
them  I  could see that the slats weren't wood at all, but aluminium painted
to look that way, and the roof was just felt, masquerading as tiles.
     I moved  around to the  opposite side of the  house,  toward the garage
extension, making sure that I kept low to avoid the windows.
     I shook my head to get the rain out of  my face. There were no wet tire
marks on the garage floor or rain  on the wagons. There had been no movement
since at least last night.
     The first  thing to  do  was check  whether  any  of  the vehicles were
alarmed.  I  couldn't  see  any  warning  signs,  flashing  LEDs,  or  other
     An alarm would probably have cost more than the two cars anyway.
     I tried  all the doors on the vehicles, starting with the pickup truck,
then the two  others a small, rusting red Dodge, a bit  like a bottom-of-the
range Rover, and an elderly, olive-green estate car, with fake wood paneling
along the sides that made  it look like a stagecoach. Everything was locked.
The rain was drumming on the garage  roof as I went  back to the muddy white
Nissan pickup. It  had a double  cab, with a flat bed on the back, protected
by a shaped, heavy plastic liner. I had  a quick mooch in  the boxes next to
it against the wall, then moved aside the plastic bottles  of two-stroke mix
for the boat engine, looking for something to jimmy the door open with.
     I found a toolbox  and was bending over it,  moving  the  tools  really
slowly and carefully so I didn't make any noise, when there was a shout that
made me jump.
     "Don't move! Freeze, yo' sum of a bitch!"
     Whoever  it was, he  must have  spent his  life stalking animals in the
woods, because I hadn't heard a sound. I didn't move a muscle.
     "Keep still or  I'll shoot yer so'ry ass,"  he said in  a really  cool,
calm, deep Southern drawl. He was directly behind me.
     Fucking right  I stood still. I also made sure he had a good view of my
hands. I had a pistol tucked  down the  front of my jeans, and another in my
jacket,  but they were  staying  where they were. I didn't know what he  was
pointing at  me, or even whether he had anything  at all, but I wasn't going
to take the chance. I stayed bent over the toolbox and kept my mouth shut;
     I didn't want to say anything that might antagonize  him, especially in
my bad American accent.
     I could hear his feet scraping on  the concrete floor  of the garage. I
listened intently; I wanted to estimate how far away he was.
     "Sum of a bitch, stay whar yare."  He  sounded an oldish man,  maybe in
his early sixties.
     He was  shuffling toward me. I moved  my eyes so that I could catch his
reflection in the door  window of the  pickup.  As  he moved closer  I could
clearly see an outstretched hand holding a snub-nosed revolver.
     "D'ya know whose truck this here's is, feller?"
     I shook my head very slowly.
     "Muh sum's. Muh sum's a  state  trooper.  He's out thar lookin' fer yer
ass right now. But yer in muh house. You belong time. Sums o' bitches, shit,
     Either I was right they had been  watching breakfast TV or Mr. and Mrs.
Redneck's little boy had been on the telephone to fill him in on events.
     He carried on.
     "The troopers is comin' now t'drag yer ass in, feller.
     Shit, thet's muh sum's truck, he worked dadbumed hard fer thet .. .
     mutherfucker, shit..."
     I kept watching the reflection in the window. He took another couple of
steps  toward me, but he shouldn't have  done;  you never get too  close  to
someone when you're holding a pistol what's the point, it's designed to kill
at a distance.
     Another step  and I could see the detail of  the weapon. It was a  .38,
the  same  type as  the young black guy had been  buying  at Jim's.  As  the
salesman had  told him, "Just point  it like your  finger at the center mass
and it will take them down." The hammer was back, which wasn't good for me.
     Revolvers work  on a double  action: to fire,  you have to make  a very
positive  squeeze  on  the trigger, which works  both  actions, pulling  the
hammer all the way back, and letting it then go forward.  That serves as the
safety device on a revolver, instead of having a safety catch, which you get
on most semiautomatics.  But he'd cocked it; the hammer was pulled back, the
first action  had already been taken  up all he  had  to do  now  was gently
squeeze that trigger with less than seven  pounds of  pressure and the thing
would  go off. A year-old baby can exert seven  pounds of pressure  with his
index finger, and this was a big old boy who was pissed off and sparked up.
     I remained passive. He had me; what could I say?
     The  reflection  moved and he was almost on top of me, and then I  felt
cold metal  in the back of my neck. He  jabbed the pistol,  moving it up and
down, and, knowing that he had his finger on the trigger, I started to flap.
I closed my eyes, ready to die.
     "Fuckin' sums o' fuckin' bitches," he ranted.
     "Why dim't you  fucks git a  job  like  ev'ry other  mutherfucker? .. .
Shit.. . not jest come an' take .. .
     yer not gonna take here ..."
     I opened  my  eyes and  looked  in  the  window. He  had his  arm fully
extended and  the muzzle  was still in contact  with my neck. Either  he was
going  to kill me by  accident if that second pressure was pulled, or  I was
going to get fucked  over well and truly once the son and his trooper  mates
arrived on the scene.
     If I was quick enough on the initial move, I'd be safe for a second; it
was what  I did afterward that would decide whether  or not  I lived. I  was
going to get caught or I was going to die, so anything I did before that was
a bonus.
     I didn't  want him to see me taking the three  deep breaths to fill  my
lungs with oxygen, so I just let him get on with jabbing the  muzzle into my
neck while I closed my eyes and got ready. He cackled at his own humor as he
said,  "Muh sum's gonna kick yer sorry ass, you fuck." He  was  getting more
angry as he gained confidence.
     "Why is you here doin'  yer kinin'? Git home an' do yer kinin' thar ...
shit..."  He  was  thinking  of something  to  add. He found  it:  "sums  of
     I took the final breath and opened my eyes. Fuck it, just go for it.

     Stepping forward with my right  foot, and at  the  same time  swiveling
left on the other, I raised  my  left arm, bellowing like  a  lunatic. I was
hoping for two  things: that it would confuse  him, and that  it  would also
spark me up. It didn't matter to me which part of my left arm hit his weapon
arm,  as  long as it did. My arm connected  and I could no longer feel  cold
metal against my head.
     My  left  forearm  now  had  to keep  contact with his weapon arm as  I
carried on swiveling around so that I was facing him. He was bigger than I'd
expected. His  unshaven face looked like crinkled leather and  it was topped
with a riot of uncombed gray hair. I grasped the material of whatever he was
wearing on his weapon arm, trying to keep the .38 facing anywhere but at me.
     A round went off, and the report echoed around the garage.  He probably
didn't even realize he had pulled the trigger.
     I kept turning, and  he  started  to scream  back at me  and holler for
"Ruby."  His face was  no more than six inches  from mine, and I could smell
his bad breath and see his toothless mouth, wide open.
     For the full two seconds my move  had taken, my eyes had never left the
pistol.  In theory, the rules of squash apply: never take  your eye off  the
ball. But  I'd  always  found it hard;  sometimes I reckoned it  was just as
effective to look at  the other player, because just before he hits the ball
his eyes will tell you if he's bluffing a hard  one and is in fact going  to
hit it gently. It wasn't something I'd been taught, it  was just something I
found myself doing instinctively in that situation; maybe that was why I was
such a crap squash player.
     As I  turned farther, so did he. The look on the old boy's face was not
a  happy one.  A couple of seconds ago things had been going really well for
him, and yet  now he thought  he was about to  meet his  maker. His head and
body  were turning away from me, presenting his back, and with my right hand
I  was able  to slam his  head  against the wagon. There was a thud  on  the
window as he made  contact, with  me still gripping what I could now see was
the blue  overall  sleeve  on his  left arm. I pushed  him  hard against the
pickup with  the weight of  my  whole body, knocking the air  out of  him. I
pushed with  my  right knee against  the back of one of his kneecaps  and he
buckled. I held his head to control his fall.
     I  didn't say  a  word.  I  didn't  have  to.  He  was  on  his  knees,
spreadeagled against the wagon, his face pressed against the door. I gripped
his weapon arm and shook it. The .38 clattered to the floor.
     But  that  wasn't the end  of it.  This boy wasn't giving  up. Spit and
blood flew out of his mouth as he raged, "You sum of a fuckin' bitch, thet's
all yer want t'do, come here an' take .. . shit."
     I  was worried about his wife; was Ruby on the phone to  the police, or
getting out the shotgun? I stepped back and drew my  own pistol, kicking his
left  arm to get him right down on the floor. Then I delivered  a couple  of
persuaders for him to get under the pickup. Now what? I ran.
     I sprinted out of the garage, turned left  past the front of the  house
and  legged it across the grass, following the track I'd made on the way in.
The rain was pelting down.
     I heard a woman shout behind me, but I didn't look back.  There were no
     I vaulted the fence and made my way through the woods to Sarah. She was
on her haunches, against a  tree. I collapsed  next  to  her, panting  on my
hands and knees. I  looked up  and we exchanged a glance. What could  I say?
I'd  fucked  up. You can  be so close to civilization, yet  when you're wet,
cold, hungry and don't exactly know where you are, it can seem so far.
     There was a gap that she filled.
     "What now?"
     "Let me think ..." I looked back at the house. There was no movement.
     Ruby was  probably in  the  garage, dragging her husband out from under
the pickup before heading back to the phone.
     My mind was racing through all  the options, but  the decision was made
for me. A cruiser ripped along the road from the opposite side of the house,
a blue and white blur in the driving rain. No sirens, no lights, just a foot
flat down  on the gas pedal. If it was Mr.  and  Mrs.  Redneck's  little boy
responding to the call, he wasn't going to be happy with  the way I'd abused
his father's Southern hospitality.
     I got up and  started to move. They  would be  following  up big  time,
tracking the  sign I'd  left in the grass. I  ran back the way we  had come,
then  hung a  right toward  the road. At that moment I  heard the helicopter
rattling through the sky. We got  into tree hugging again. The moment it had
flown past, and  not even bothering  to look behind me to check for Sarah, I
started motoring through the forest. She would just have to keep up.
     Reaching the edge of the wood near the road,  I  dropped onto  my hands
and knees, watched and listened. The only sounds  I could hear  were my  own
labored breathing and the rain hammering on the tarmac and leaves.
     Sarah flopped down beside me.
     I crawled to the  very edge of the tree line and  looked out. The  wet,
potholed, single-carriage way road was deserted.
     e  both  lay  there  in  the  mud, lifting  our heads  and checking for
movement like a pair  ofmeerkats. I couldn't see  anything, just solid walls
of rain.
     Finally I nodded to her. She acknowledged. I got up and sprinted across
the road, but instead of  going into the tree line,  I cut  left and started
following the edge of the tarmac.
     She  shouted, "Nick,  what  are  you  doing?  Come on,  let's get under
     I turned and waved her toward me.
     She hesitated a moment, then understood and  ran to join me. I kept  to
the roadside  for  another  thirty meters,  checking  backward, forward  and
upward for movement. I chanced about  ten meters more and knew I was tearing
the ass out of it. I ducked to the right and moved into the tree line.
     Even  if  they  followed  up  with dogs, it would take them a  while to
reestablish our trail, for the surface scent would be washed  off the tarmac
by the  heavy rain, slowing  the  dogs down severely. It would then be up to
the trackers to cast for sign in both directions and along both sides of the
road, because for all they knew I might have doubled back. Only when, or if,
they refound our trail could they get the dogs back on the scent.
     For the next half hour I picked my way through dense forest. The ground
was undulating and littered with knolls;  it was hard  going, but  excellent
cover, the sort of terrain that a light aircraft might crash into  and never
be found. I was  heading  in this direction for no  other reason than that I
wanted to; sometimes there is no absolutely correct answer.
     Every  ten minutes or so  the heli  clattered  across  the sky, casting
around for movement or visible sign.  This time  it got  a bit too near.  We
stopped and hid, using the chance to catch our breath. Both of us were still
soaked to the skin with rain and sweat. As the heli came in low over us, the
trees swayed with  the downwash and another sixty  gallons  of rain cascaded
through  the canopy. My throat was dry and rasping as  my chest  heaved, the
only  positive thing being that  all this  effort was  keeping  my body core
nicely heated.
     Still  the helicopter  didn't  move  out  of  the area.  He was  there,
     low and slow. I looked  back the way we'd come and saw the ground  sign
we'd left. It would be easy enough even for the untrained eye to follow, but
for anybody  who knew what  they were  doing, possibly with  dogs, it  was a
floodlit motorway.
     Deep down, I knew it wouldn't take them long to find where we'd crossed
the  road.  From  there  it would  be simple; we were  traveling through wet
forest, over stinking ground, in rain and fog perfect terrain and conditions
for  keeping  a  scent  glued in  position.  What  was more,  they  would be
following on fresh legs and  able to call  up reinforcements  at  will,  and
after a while they'd  be able  to predict  our direction  of  travel so that
others  could  intercept  us.  Then  again, maybe  they didn't have dogs  or
trackers on the case yet;  it wasn't as if  such things were on  twenty-four
hour  standby. Visual tracking is not the most popular skill for a person to
take  up, and exponents are in short supply; maybe  it would take them hours
to mobilize  somebody, and maybe they  lived on the other side of the state.
Maybe ...  maybe. Whatever, every man, but hopefully not his dog,  would  be
out looking.
     I had to admit to myself that I had no idea where we were going, and we
were gradually exhausting ourselves. A decision had to be made: Did we  hide
up and wait until dark to move out of the area, preferably by vehicle?
     Or did we take our chances now?
     The heli's blades chopped  the air above us. It didn't seem to be going
anywhere.  This was strange;  it wouldn't be  able to see a thing under  the
canopy, and in a backwoods area like this it was unlikely  to be fitted with
thermal-imaging equipment. It was a full ten minutes before I heard a change
in engine pitch, and the  aircraft  rattled off into the distance.  I  moved
from under the tree and continued running. Our pace was slowing perceptibly.
I  was  fucked. My footprints were getting closer and closer together  as my
strides  shortened:  to a  visual tracker  or trained dog  it  would be  the
encouraging sign of a slower-moving quarry. I glanced behind me.
     Sarah looked like death on legs.
     I tried to think of  positives. If you run at 10 mph for one hour in an
unknown direction, you could be anywhere in a circle of just over 300 square
miles. An hour later that will have become an area of 1,256 square miles.
     In The Lone Ranger, Tonto used to stop and say, "Five wagons, two hours
ago.  That way,  kemo  sabe." Luckily, real  life isn't that easy and  Tonto
lives in Arizona.
     I decided to lie up and wait until last light. With no compass or stars
to guide us, I could be going  around in circles for weeks. During darkness,
the plan would be to move to a known quantity the road and parallel it until
I could get my hands on a vehicle.
     I carried on for another ten minutes or so, with Sarah now up with me.
     About sixty or  seventy  meters  away  to  my  half  right,  there  was
something  that looked as if it could work: a  fallen tree on higher ground,
its  branches still intact but decaying. It had fallen down a sharp bank. It
would give us ideal cover from  view from the air as well as the ground and,
just as important, it  would give us cover from  the elements. If the police
didn't get  hold of  us,  I didn't  want the weather  to finish  us  off. It
wouldn't be long before exhaustion and cold would take their toll.
     "What are we doing now?" Sarah asked.
     "Why have you stopped?"
     I didn't bother replying; I was looking back at the route we'd taken.
     Then I  turned around again  and looked forward at the tree, off  to my
half right. The ground ahead was  the same  as behind, rises,  with lots  of
dead ground beyond.
     I turned half left and started kicking my feet, leaving obvious sign. I
wanted  them to see  my  direction  change away from the fallen  tree. Sarah
followed on behind, puffing and  panting, struggling to keep the size eleven
trainers on her size-five feet.
     Over a  rise, and  in the dead ground beyond,  was a stream a couple of
meters  wide.  I  headed down and waded  straight into the freezing water. I
checked behind me and couldn't see the tree.
     Sarah stood her ground on the bank.
     "What are you doing?"
     "Get in."
     The water  came  over my knees.  I  turned  left and  moved downstream,
stopping every dozen or  so paces and  looking back to make  sure I couldn't
see the tree. I had trudged  about fifty meters, with Sarah splashing  along
behind  me, before I decided this was far enough. I didn't know why, it just
felt right. I got out on the far side of the stream and stood still. I could
hear Sarah's trainers squelching  as she came up beside me, visibly thankful
for the rest.
     I gave myself a minute to collect my thoughts,  looking  at her, soaked
and bedraggled, fir needles splattered on  her face, twigs in her hair.  Not
exactly how she'd choose to  appear at one  of her  embassy parties, but she
was doing well; she'd obviously kept herself in shape.
     She nodded and took a deep breath to prepare.
     We  moved up and down  for another 300 meters or  so, in  a direct line
away from the stream. Sarah  was starting to  feel the strain, and  I  could
move only at her speed. I decided that this  was far enough; it was time for
one last bit of deception. I stopped and moved over to an outcrop of rock.
     Sarah came  up level with me, and we both  had our hands  on our knees,
panting for breath as if we'd just finished a 200-meter sprint.
     "Sarah, take off your underwear."
     She looked at me blankly. She'd heard me say that before, but not  in a
situation like this.
     "Your panties, I need them." I'd already  taken off  my jacket  and was
pulling  off my shirt.  I was  after the T-shirt underneath.  Her expression
told me that she wasn't sure about this.
     "Sarah, trust  me. They must have dogs." She didn't bother to ask, just
moaned to herself about getting undressed.
     In any other situation it would have been quite nice to watch  her drop
her jeans and  peel  off her underwear,  but that was  the story of my life:
wrong time, wrong place.
     I  got my shirt back on and shivered as it touched  my skin.  Sarah was
busy  doing up her  jeans.  I picked  up her panties and placed them with my
T-shirt between the rocks  and a bush. If we  were being tracked visually or
by  dogs they would  get to this point.  The mutt doesn't know what's really
happening and what exactly he's looking  for; to him it's just a game. A dog
can confuse an item of clothing with the quarry and assume victory  with its
find. Then the  handler has to get the dog sparked  up again before it  will
     Dogs  pick up  scent  in two  different  ways:  from the  air, and from
contact with the ground, trees, plants and buildings. Airborne scents  don't
last long; they  are quite  quickly blown  away  by the wind.  Ground scent,
however, can  be obvious to a dog for anything up to forty-eight hours,  and
can be generated not only by leaving  your smell on things you touch, but by
your  movement  itself.  If  you're  walking  on grass,  or pushing  through
vegetation, you'll crush leaves and stems with every step.
     Even  on  bare  ground  your  footprints  will  release  air  and  tiny
quantities of moisture that have been trapped in  the earth,  and they smell
quite  different from the air above ground. From  your "scent footprints," a
dog can even tell which direction you are moving in, because as you push off
each step with your toes,  the front of the scent print is more obvious than
the heel, and it doesn't  take long for a well-trained dog to work out  what
that means.
     Just as  each person's footprints look slightly different  to the human
eye, so does the mixture of  scents in  a smell footprint to  a dog. If he's
really switched on,  he might  even be  able  to track one individual  where
there are a number of people traveling together.
     A dog could  out-hear, out-smell  and out-run me. But I could  outthink
     "The strongest odor is from the sweat glands," I said to Sarah.
     "But  at the  moment I think your underwear will smell  more than  your
T-shirt." I grinned.
     "Nothing personal."
     She thought about it and nodded; she had to agree on that one.
     "OK, follow me. Step by step. Don't  touch anything,  not even to  lean
on."  I started  to  pick  my way over the outcrop, sticking  to the highest
rocks to keep out of any areas where scent could be trapped. Hopefully, they
would be washed clean by the rain.
     We moved into dead ground, carefully picking our way to prevent leaving
sign. I started to move  back down to the  river. I got seventy-five  meters
short of the water and moved left until I saw the fallen tree.
     From nowhere, the heli reappeared.
     We hurtled  under the  trees,  hugging them as  if they  were long-lost
     I heard the groan of the rotors again, moving deliberately over the top
of the canopy. It got so close  I  could  feel the downwash. I suddenly made
sense of what it  was doing it was  following the  line of the stream, maybe
patrolling any exposed  waterways because that  was all they could see  down
here. It moved off and so did we.
     The fallen tree looked quite promising. There  were enough branches  to
hide under, and we could  even get under the trunk where it lay clear of the
ground. It was going to be a squeeze, but we'd be needing to huddle together
anyway to share body heat.
     Sarah was down on her knees trying to catch her breath. She searched my
face as I motioned her in.
     "Why aren't we running?"
     "I'll explain later, just get under cover."
     She squeezed in and I followed. The underside of  the trunk was just as
wet and cold as the open air, but we were hidden and had a chance to rest.
     I  wasn't too sure anymore if this was a good decision, but it was  too
late to worry now.
     I  made  sure I could see  the first turning point before the stream by
scraping away the mud  between the  trunk and  the ground. I'd used the same
tactic  time and again in the  jungle,  where it  was standard  procedure to
"loop the track" and put in an instant ambush  on your own trail. If we were
being followed,  they would pass  no more  than sixty or seventy meters away
and move half left, away from us and into the dead ground.
     There they'd  find the stream, and start trying to  cast over the other
side to pick up  our scent or ground sign  again. That would  give us  vital
time in  which to act; if I saw dogs while lying up, I'd just have to make a
run for it.
     The heli  passed overhead yet  again, this  time  at speed, but we were
well concealed. It could stay there  all day  if  it wanted to,  it wouldn't
make any difference. Sarah was looking at me, waiting for an explanation.
     "We wait  until last light  and  go back toward  the  road." I  pointed
     "That way."
     She wasn't enjoying this outing, but she cuddled  into me. I was wedged
against the trunk, looking out; she was behind  me, her body spooned against
mine with her  arms around my chest.  I  could feel her warmth. I tried hard
not to think about how much I  liked her depending on me. Continuing to look
out, I tilted my head toward her.
     "Concealment  is  our best weapon. It's going  to  be  cold, and you'll
think you're about to die, but you won't  as long  as we keep close and keep
each other warm. Do you understand that?"
     I felt her nodding,  then  she  squeezed  herself a little more tightly
against me. Even in these circumstances, I had to admit it felt good.
     There  were three situations I'd hated all  of my life: being wet, cold
or hungry. Four, if you included having to shit in the field. All our lives,
even as children, those are the three things that most of us  try to  avoid,
but here  I was,  doing it  again,  and  I  couldn't help  feeling that,  at
thirty-eight, I should be seriously concentrating on getting a life. The one
I had seemed to be going nowhere fast.
     As  the  minutes  ticked by  my body  started to cool,  even with Sarah
snuggling in  behind  me, and the ground  itself seemed to become colder and
soggier. I could  feel her body warmth at  the  points where  she was making
contact with me, but the rest of me was freezing. Every time she fidgeted to
get comfortable, I could feel the cold attack the newly exposed area.
     She  fidgeted  again and muttered,  "Sorry, cramp,"  as  she  tried  to
stretch out her leg and tip up her feet in an effort to counter it.
     I kept stag,  listening to  the  stream, the wind  in the treetops, the
rain dropping onto the leaves and  debris  on the forest floor.  There was a
murky,  calf-high mist permeating the woods that reminded me of stage smoke.
That  could work either for  us or against us: it would give us  some visual
cover if we were forced to move, but it was also good for the dogs.
     As  time  passed without  any hint of a  follow-up, I  started  to feel
better about our situation. I  looked  at  my watch:  seven  forty-six. Only
another  twelve hours or so until last light.  Doesn't time fly  when you're
enjoying yourself? At least the Baby-G surfer was keeping cheerful.
     Sarah had settled down and wanted to talk.
     "Not now." I needed time to think. I wanted to take a long hard look at
what  she'd told me, and  to  think  about all that  had  happened. Was  she
bluffing about the Netanyahu plot?  How did they plan to  kill him? How  had
she been planning to stop them?
     My head was  full of questions,  but no answers. Now wasn't the time to
ask. Tactically, noise had to be kept to a minimum, and besides, I needed to
keep  my head clear  for the  task in  hand. I had to get out of here alive,
preferably  with Sarah still alive, too,  for there was still another job to
     n  hour  later  Sarah  and  I were chilled  to the bone  and  shivering
     I  tried to combat  the cold  by tensing up  all  my muscles  and  then
releasing  them; that  worked for  a while, but I was soon shaking again.  I
didn't have a  clue how Sarah was coping, and I didn't care now; my head was
in hyper mode trying  to work  out  my options. Was she telling  the  truth?
Should I call London if I got out of this? Should I get help from within the
U.S.? From Josh, maybe? No, he wouldn't be back from the U.K. yet.
     I heard a noise and hoped that I hadn't.
     Peering through the mud hole, I opened my jaw to improve my hearing.
     My heart sank. I turned my head to look at Sarah, who was just about to
tell  me that  she'd heard the dogs,  too.  The  sounds were coming from the
direction of our approach. I couldn't see them yet, but they would be on us.
It was only a matter of time.
     My eyes and puckered lips told her to stay quiet, then  I moved my head
back to the hole in the mud.
     Sarah put her mouth against my ear.
     "Come on, let's go." I whispered for her to shut the fuck up; they were
coming over the brow of the rise.
     There was  a  gang of them. The  first thing I noticed was the  two big
snarling dogs on long leads, steam rising off their wet coats, their handler
fighting  to  keep  control.  The  good  thing  was that  they  were  German
     they weren't  tracker dogs,  but "hard" dogs--there  to bridge the  gap
between us and  the  pursuers if we  were spotted. The other good thing  was
that they didn't look quite so big with their coats wet against their skin.
     The pursuit consisted of a six-man police team. One of them had a
     springer  spaniel on a lead,  its nose to the  ground, loving the whole
     Apart from the tracker-dog handler,  none  of  them was dressed for the
hunt; they were wearing just their  normal brown waterproof jackets, and two
of them  were even in  shoes, with mud splattered up their pressed brown and
yellow-striped trousers.
     They passed us in a haze of dog noise and steam as our tracks took them
half left, away from us  and toward the stream. The moment they were in dead
ground I turned to Sarah.
     "Now we go."
     I squeezed under the trunk and  immediately broke into  a run in a line
directly away from the river. Maybe my hide-until-dark plan hadn't been such
a good idea after all. The  only option now was to outrun  the team.  It was
unlikely the  dogs would  tire, but they  could  go only as  fast  as  their
handlers, so I would just have to get them exhausted.  The police had looked
wet and  hassled, and were breathing hard. Even  in our shit state we should
be fitter than they were.
     I pushed on, looking for  a  point where  we  could  hide a  change  in
     It  might not stop them, but it  would slow them down.  After  close to
thirty minutes of hard running through thick woodland I had to stop and wait
for Sarah to catch  up; she was panting deeply, clouds of  her breath fusing
with the  steam coming  off  her  head. When we moved off again I checked my
watch. It was ten thirty-nine.
     We  went for it for  another solid hour. Sarah was lagging  farther and
farther behind, but I pushed the pace.  I knew she would keep going. When we
used to train together in Pakistan she  would never give up, even on a silly
fun run. And then it was only her pride at stake; now it was a bit more than
     We were in low ground  and I could see sky about 200 meters in front of
us, through the tree trunks. I heard the sound  of a car, and then splashing
on tarmac.
     I crawled up to the tree line.  It wasn't a  major road, just  a single
carriage way  in each direction, and not particularly  well  kept,  probably
because it  wasn't used that much  the sort of backwoods road that looked as
if the tarmac had just  been  poured from the back of a slowly moving  truck
and left to get on with  it. It might even be the same road as the last one,
there was no way of telling. The rain wasn't firing down like a power shower
anymore, just a constant drizzle.
     I  still  didn't  have a clue where we were,  but  that didn't  matter.
You're never lost, you're only in a different place from the one you wanted,
and at a different time.  Sarah had crawled up next to  me and  was lying on
her back.  Her hair had clumped together,  so I  could see the white skin of
her skull. We looked as if we both had our personal  steam machines strapped
to us.
     I  decided to turn right it could have  been  left or right,  it didn't
really matter and just  follow the road; at some stage we'd  find a vehicle,
or at least discover where we were, then work out what we were going to do.
     She looked  up  and  gave a nod and  a  sniff, and we crawled backward,
deeper into the tree line. I got to my feet and she accepted my outstretched
hand. I  hauled her  upright and  we started running again, paralleling  the
road. After only a minute or two I heard a car; I got down and watched as it
splashed through the potholes, lights on dipped, side windows misted up  and
the wipers  on overtime. As soon as it  had disappeared from view we were up
and running.
     The next vehicle was  a truck loaded with logs; its wheels sank into an
enormous pothole and threw up a wall of water that fell just short of us.
     There seemed to be a vehicle of some  description every five minutes or
so.  Most were going in our direction, which was a good sign.  I didn't know
why, but it felt that way.
     After another two  kilometers or so I began to see lights forward of us
and  on the opposite side of the road. As we got closer, I could see that it
was a  gas station-cum-small general  store with  a tall neon  sign  saying,
"Drive Thru  Open"  in  orange letters.  It  was  a  one-story, flat-roofed,
concrete building with three pumps on the forecourt, protected by a high tin
canopy on a  pair of steel pillars. The place had probably been state of the
art  when it  was built in the Sixties or early Seventies, but now the white
paint was gray and peeling, and the whole fabric of the building was falling
apart. I knew how it felt.
     There were windows on the three sides of the shop that I could see;
     above the ones at the front were large, red,  raised letters telling me
the place was  called Happy Beverage &  Grocery.  Faded  posters  advertised
coffee and corn  dogs,  Marlboro  and Miller Lite.  They were all the  same,
these sorts of places, family-run as opposed to franchised mini-markets, and
I knew  exactly what this one would  smell like inside a  mixture  of  stale
cardboard and cona coffee, fighting with the aroma  of the corn dogs as they
rotated in their glass  oven. All rounded off, of course,  with a good layer
of  cigarette  smoke. The main  sound  effect  would be  the hum  of fridges
working overtime.
     Even the pumps outside were early Seventies. This place was in decline;
     maybe years ago, when  the  road was first  built,  it  was a major hot
spot, but  once the freeways had been laid to move the growing population of
North Carolina, the traffic  went elsewhere. Happy Beverage & Grocery looked
like it was already history.
     I stopped  just short of the Drive Thru sign on the  other  side of the
road and got down. Sarah joined me, and I told her to wait where she  was. I
crawled forward. I'd been right; now that I could see through the windows my
eyes hit  on  packets  of everything from Oreos to Cheerios,  and a  line of
glass-doored fridges which were less than a quarter full of milk cartons and
Coke cans. A large glass pot of coffee was stewing  away on a hob, alongside
a  whole  range of polystyrene cups,  from two pints  down  to half a  pint,
depending on  how awake you  wanted to be. If you wanted cream,  it would be
powdered, without a doubt.
     On her own, as far as I could see, and sitting down behind the counter,
was  a large woman in her mid-thirties. I could see  only her top half;  she
had peroxide-blond "big hair," which was  probably kept that  way with a can
of lacquer  a day; she must  have been one of those Southern women the radio
program had  been talking  about. The T-shirt  was  probably her daughter's,
going by  its  tightness. I couldn't see her bottom half, but no doubt she'd
be wearing  leggings that were about four sizes too small. She was eating  a
corn dog and reading a  magazine, and  somehow managing to smoke at the same
     I crawled back to Sarah.
     "Can we take a vehicle?" she said.
     "Not yet. It doesn't look as if she has one."
     Beyond the  shop  was  another  tarmac  road that  met this  one  at  a
T-junction. The only  thing  that interested  me was  that  where  you  have
junctions, you nearly always have signposts.
     We  headed for the  junction.  The neon  light was  reflecting  off the
rainswept road  and  the hard standing of  the  pump  area. I  had to remind
myself  that it  was still daytime. The sign said, "Drive  Thru," and I'd do
just that, given half a chance.
     I started to envy the woman with  big  hair. She was sitting  in  there
with  a TV or  radio on, and the heaters would be blasting away  to keep the
condensation off the windows; in fact, she  was probably keeping so hot that
she might need to knock back a Coke after the corn dog. I wondered how she'd
keep the cigarette in her mouth.
     We passed the shop and carried on to the junction. I motioned for Sarah
to wait, but she'd got her breath back, and with it some of her old habits.
     She'd never liked being ordered around and not being part of the show.
     She came with me.
     I moved forward  the last ten meters and spotted a signpost,  green tin
on a tin stake. To my left, the way we had come, wasn't signed;  to my right
was a place called Creedmore, which was  no good to me I didn't know it from
a hole in the ground.  But I knew where Durham was. It was  just west of the
airport; lots of people and  traffic, somewhere we  could get lost. The sign
said that the road facing me was going that way.
     It passed the gas station at the junction on  the left, went uphill for
about  half  a  mile,  with  muddy  drainage  ditches  on  each  side,  then
disappeared to the right behind a line of tall firs. That was where I wanted
to  go  once I'd lifted a  vehicle, but before I did anything I  had to make
sure the woman couldn't call for help. My eyes followed the phone lines from
the building  across the  junction. They paralleled the road running from my
left to right.
     I  moved in  the  Creedmore direction, about  twenty meters beyond  the
junction,  and  crawled back  up to the road, looked and listened.  Absolute
silence. I got to my feet, nodded at Sarah and we sprinted across. Once back
in the  trees, I followed the phone  lines  until I found  a pole about five
meters short of the junction.
     I started  taking my  belt off, and asked Sarah for hers. This time she
didn't question me. She followed the line of my gaze as I studied the top of
the pole.
     "Are you going up there?"
     "I want to cut the line to the gas station."
     "Are we going to rob it?"
     Sometimes  she had only a nodding relationship with reality.  I stopped
pulling my belt off and looked at her.
     "Are you serious?" I  wondered  about what had  happened  to  all those
expensive years of university training. She had enough brain power to move a
glass  without even touching it, but sometimes  she didn't seem to have even
an Eleven Plus in common sense.
     "We're just going to get a car and get the fuck out of here," I said.
     "We have guests arriving, remember?" I mimed a dog biting with my hand.
     I took her belt and buckled the two together to make one big loop. Hers
was  the American's heavy  biker's belt,  with a  Harley-Davidson logo  that
said, "Live to ride, ride  to live." I dropped the loop at the bottom of the
pole, hooked my feet inside either end,  gripped the pole with my hands, and
started to climb. I'd learned how to do this from a documentary on the South
Pacific,  when  I'd  seen blokes use similar devices to climb coconut trees.
You  slid your feet up as high  as you could, keeping  the strap  taut, then
pressed down until  it  gripped. It was  then  a matter  of  reaching up and
gripping the pole with both hands,  lifting your feet again, and so on. That
was  the theory; the pole was so wet and slippery,  however, that it took me
several attempts to master it.  At the end of  the day, though, I was rather
impressed with myself; if ever I  was marooned  in Polynesia,  I wouldn't go
     I heard the hiss of tires and the drone of an engine getting closer. My
heart missed a couple of beats while I wondered how I'd explain myself, then
both sounds  changed direction and  died as the car turned and headed toward
Durham. It  happened twice more.  Each time, I  stopped and waited until the
vehicle had gone. At least the treetops gave me some cover.
     I had just another couple of  feet to go when I heard a  fourth vehicle
approaching, but this time from the direction of Durham. It was going slowly
and coming close.
     I looked down for  Sarah, but she was already moving away from the pole
and into cover.
     The car drew up at what I guessed was the junction and stopped. I heard
a door open and the sound of radio traffic. It had to be a police cruiser.
     I couldn't  reach  down  for  my weapon, because  it  was taking all my
strength and grip just to stop myself sliding back down the pole. I wondered
about climbing up the last couple of  feet so I could rest on a  cross spar,
but the way my luck was going I'd probably fuck it up and come hurtling down
like Fireman Sam and land on their heads.
     I heard a burst of laughter and looked down again. Sarah was nowhere to
be seen, but a Smokey  Bear hat was, covered in clear  plastic, shaped so it
kept the felt dry. It moved into the woods, above a dark-brown raincoat that
stuck out at the sides. State troopers have zips up the sides of their coats
to enable them to draw their pistols easily, but this guy wasn't doing that,
he was undoing his front zip. I saw  his  knees jerk as he released himself,
then the sound of piss hitting the tree just a few feet below me. Steam rose
in front  of the hat. I didn't  want to  make  the slightest sound. I didn't
even  want to swallow.  My fingers were  starting to lose their grip  on the
rain-slicked pole.
     I searched frantically for the trooper's  mate. I couldn't see  him; he
must have stayed  in  the  car, as you  do  when it's  raining. I  could see
raindrops ricocheting off the garage roof, glistening in the light  from the
Drive Thru  sign.  The  stream  of  urine  against the  tree subsided as  he
finished off, then he let go a resounding fart.
     I started  sliding. I pressed down  hard on the belt with  my feet, and
gripped the pole like  a  drowning man. The sounds below  had stopped, and I
watched him jigging up and  down  to shake off  the drops. He packed himself
away, checked his coat, and strode off.
     I heard  the troopers joking to each  other. The car door slammed,  and
then  they  drove off. I  let out all the air I'd  been holding in my lungs,
inching myself farther  up  the  pole to increase my  range of  vision.  The
cruiser was finally driving into the gas station.  Why the fuck didn't he go
in  there in the first place?  Maybe he  was trying to chat up the woman and
the last  thing he wanted was for her to  hear him farting away and stinking
the place out.
     I reached the top  and hooked my left arm around the cross spar. I took
a few  deep  breaths to  calm  myself down, then looked  for Sarah. She  was
emerging from the bush she'd been hiding in, and I wondered if  she knew how
lucky she'd been: it looked a very inviting bush,  and she might easily have
got drenched by old fartypants.
     I followed the telephone line  to  make sure it was the one to the  gas
station,  reached  down and retrieved the  Leatherman from my pocket.  Where
these lines come in  to a pole,  they get hooked up to take the tension from
the line, and then there's a nice little loose bit that carries on  through.
I leaned out, squeezing hard with the mbber soles of my feet, got the pliers
part of the Leatherman  over the  line, and snipped. Then it was just a case
of sliding down the pole nice and slowly so I didn't land up with half a ton
of splinters in my arms and legs.
     Sarah was straight  in at me: "Give me a gun,  Nick. What  if he'd seen
     It made sense but I felt uneasy.  Giving Sarah a  weapon seemed to be a
lot like giving Popeye  spinach. On  the other hand, if he'd spotted me  she
could have done something  about it. I  still wasn't sure whether she  would
fuck  me over, but decided she still needed me too much. I'd let her have it
for now.
     I got Lance's semiautomatic,  9mm  Eastern-bloc thing out  of my jacket
and handed it over. She said a sincere  "Thanks" as she pushed  back the top
slide half an inch and checked to see if there was a round in the chamber.
     The cruiser was driving out of the gas  station and coming  back in our
direction. We both got down, and she used the time to put her belt  back on.
The  blue  and white  passed  us heading  toward  Creedmore; maybe they were
helping to man a roadblock or something farther up the road.
     I wanted her to stay where she was while I went back to the gas station
to hijack a vehicle. She insisted on coming with me.
     "Listen," I said, "a  man  and  a woman  turning  up  at a gas station,
stealing a vehicle don't you think there's a bit of  a chance they'd make  a
connection with the lake?"
     "Nick, I'm coming  with you. I'm not  going  to take  the chance  of us
getting split up and this all going wrong. We're going to stay together."
     She  was  right;  without realizing it,  she had reminded me what I was
here to do.  If there was a  drama with the police or whoever,  and  it  was
obvious I was about  to  lose  control, I would have to kill her before they
could get her. Not the ideal option, but at least she'd be dead. Looking  at
her with my not-happy-about-it face on, I gave in to her demand.
     "Fuck it, come on then."
     We finished  doing  up  our  belts, moved  back  up  the road for  more
distance and  crossed. We turned right and  paralleled to  a  point where  I
could get a clear view of the pumps and the shop again.
     One car, a white Nissan sedan, was already on the forecourt, but it was
four up, with two couples in their mid-twenties. The driver had just started
the engine and  out he  rolled. I heard a distinctive ding-ding as the tires
ran over  a  rubber  tube  sensor. He got to the road,  stopped, turned  his
wipers and dipped lights  on, laughing with the  rest of them probably about
the  woman  with the corn dog turned  left  and off they went. We lay there,
waiting in the rain.
     During the  next ten  minutes, two  news  vans  with  satellite  dishes
scuttled past  along the road, headlights blazing, windshield wipers working
furiously, on their way to get the story.
     Another car  rolled onto the  forecourt.  It was  a  Toyota, full of  a
family. I was half up, ready to go for it, like a big cat watching the herd.
The car  was  ideal, a normal family  sedan.  Dad got out  and, avoiding the
rain, ran straight  into the shop. I saw him give Big Hair a few bills, then
he came out again and filled up.  I  decided against. I was  looking  at the
family two kids in the back, window  half steamed up,  the kids beating each
other up, the  mother turning around  and  shouting at them. There were just
too many people in the car. It  would be a  nightmare  to drag two screaming
kids from the car.
     Ding-ding. They took the Durham road.
     Sarah looked over at me.
     "I thought we were in a hurry?"
     Big  Hair was  walking  across  to the machine  to get herself  another
bucket  of  coffee. She went  and sat back by the till, next to  the window,
looking out, wistfully stirring her bucket with a spoon. I was right, it was
packet creamer. Perhaps she dreamed that one day  Clint Eastwood would drive
onto her forecourt, come  in to pay for gas, and bang,  The Bridges of Happy
Beverage County. Until then, nice work if you can get it.
     A sign to  the left  of  the  shop  entrance  announced, "24 Hour Video
Surveillance,"  together with the fact that  they carried only fifty dollars
in  the register  and  the  rest  was  slipped into  a night  safe that  the
attendant didn't have access to. I turned to Sarah.
     "When we go to lift  the wagon, I want you to get your T-shirt and pull
it over your head, so you can only just see out of it."
     Ding-ding. Another vehicle drove in toward the pumps from our left.
     This time it was a really old van, late  Seventies, early Eighties, the
sort of thing  Mr. T and the A-Team used to run around  in, but a very tired
     The windows were half  steamed up, so  I  couldn't  see how  many  were
inside, but as soon as the driver opened the door I knew this was the one.
     He was  in his early forties, and the  important thing was that  he got
out and didn't take the ignition key with him, but just waved at the woman.
     He must  be a local, because he was trusted enough  to nil up  and  pay
     We got back into our big-cat positions, and I  studied our prey. He was
wearing a pair of  green overalls that had seen better days, with oil stains
and rips in the knees. His  baseball cap  should have  been white but needed
burning  more than bleaching now. He was skinny and  of average height, with
about three days' stubble and four years'  worth of wet or very  greasy hair
over his shoulders.
     The  tank  was fall, the  filler  cap  went  back on. I whispered, "You
     She nodded. He  turned and, with his hands working  their  way into his
overalls for money,  jogged toward the shop. I jumped to my feet and started
to run. With  my left hand I pulled my T-shirt  up  over my face, and so did
she. We  must have looked like  a  couple of  sperm.  I kept  my eyes moving
between the van and  the shop. I didn't  really bother about what  Sarah was
doing; the  plan was  for her to go to  the  near  side of the  van,  to the
passenger door; I was to go around the rear, because I wanted to hide myself
as much as possible, then get in the driver's seat and go for it.
     The  glass panels had  been smashed out of  the  back  doors  and  were
covered with cardboard, and the whole  thing was a rust bucket. I turned the
corner of the van and  moved  along the side toward the driver's door. I had
to skip over  the loop of  the pump  lines and slipped on the diesel-stained
floor. I recovered without falling and  got to the door.  Still holding  the
T-shirt over  my head with my left hand, I got hold of the door handle in my
right. It was a rickety, rusty  old thing,  hardly any chrome left  on it; I
pulled and it all but came away in my hand, hanging on by one edge.
     The window  on the  other  side was  misted  up and I couldn't see what
Sarah was  doing.  All I knew  was that she wasn't getting in. She must have
the same problem; her handle must be busted.
     The driver's window was down about three-quarters of the way. That must
be how he got in--just reach  in and open up from  the  inside.  I jumped up
slightly, got my right  hand in ... and then chaos. The furious barking from
the back of the wagon made me jump back as if I'd been given the full twenty
seconds with a Tazer.
     I glanced toward the shop. The guy was staring out, mouth wide open.
     Someone  trying  to  nick  his  van must have been the  last  thing  he
     The black thing in the back of the van was leaping  up and  down, going
ballistic. I had to put  my hand  inside again;  it had  to  be  done, I was
committed now. I reached in, yelling for Sarah to do something.
     I was jumping up and  down, trying to find and  grab the inside handle,
the dog  was reacting as  if it had had to wait three days for lunch, and to
the left of me the distraught owner was coming out of the shop shouting, "My
dawg! My dawg!"
     "Sarah, fucking do something!"
     She did. I heard a loud, quick double tap from Lance's 9mm.
     It couldn't get worse than this. I jumped away from the window, leaving
the dog  in the  van going  ape  shit and  ran  around  to the  front of the
     "Sarah, fucking stop shooting! Stop!" Then I realized she wasn't firing
at the driver,  she was  drawing down on  the two German  Shepherds that had
come out of the tree line and were now about five meters away from giving us
the good news. It had just got worse.
     She took one down; it fell over itself and kicked around on the ground,
yelping. The  other one  kept coming. Sarah  turned to fire but  it was  too
close to me now. My right hand flew down to draw  my weapon at the same time
as my  left went to pull up  my bomber jacket so  that  I  could get to  the
pistol. It was too late for both of us.
     It's pointless trying  to  evade  an attacking  dog so close; without a
weapon,  you can't  do anything  about  immobilizing  the fucker until  it's
committed  itself to an  attack. You've got to let the thing  sink its teeth
into you, and take it from there.
     I  had to get him onto me. I turned  half left, let go of the bottom of
my jacket and presented my forearm, still trying to get to my pistol with my
     He didn't want to miss this. He leapt up, his jaws opening with a  deep
growl, his  lips pulled back to bare his teeth so he got a  good  bite first
     I saw his eyes roll back as he launched himself at me.
     I stood my  ground and braced myself for the hit. I felt his saliva fly
onto my face as he opened up and his head flicked back.
     There were probably  other  things going on,  but they were  lost on me
now. I couldn't hear anything but the snarling  of my  attacker. I  felt the
weight of the dog hit me, and then him closing his jaws on my arm. His teeth
sank straight through the jacket into the skin of my  forearm and  I started
to shout.
     "Sarah! Sarah!" I wanted her to come and shoot this fucking thing.
     I staggered backward with his weight, and  he came  with  me.  I got my
hand around the pistol grip; not completely, but enough to pull it out of my
jeans. The dog was  jumping up on me,  trying  to get me to the  ground, his
hind legs scrambling against my legs and waist. His legs hit my hand and the
weapon fell.
     There was fearsome pain  as his teeth  tore into my skin.  It  was like
having multiple injections with pen-sized syringes. I had to  let it happen.
I had to make sure the dog had confidence in himself, that he sensed an easy
victory. If I went with the flow, he'd keep his teeth in one place, thinking
he had me,  he wouldn't thrash around all over  the  place.  Forget the  old
wives' tales about grabbing a foreleg in each hand and splitting them apart:
it only  works with chihuahuas--and that's assuming you can catch the little
shit in  the first place. In real  life dogs are  like monkeys, they're much
stronger than they look.
     I continued to move back under its weight as the German Shepherd jumped
up and snarled. I could smell his raw-meat-eating  breath mixed with mud and
the shit on his coat from the follow-up. He took a deeper grip on my arm and
I screamed out for Sarah  again as I felt more flesh being mangled.  She was
nowhere to be seen.
     I heard several gunshots as I staggered back  toward the  driver's side
of the van. I was trying to look and act submissive; I  didn't want to fight
this fucking thing, I just wanted Sarah to come around and hose him down.
     The dogs' handler and  the police wouldn't be far behind.  We needed to
get moving.
     The animal's growl  changed tone as he shook his head from side to side
like a mad thing, trying to get a deeper grip. His rear legs were now on the
floor, with his front pads on my  chest, walking back  with me like a circus
performer, still attempting to join his jaws together, but through my arm.
     Now the black thing inside  the van  sparked up again as I  heard  more
gunshots, but there  was  no instant, miraculous  release of the grip on  my
     It wasn't going to happen. I'd have to do it on my own.
     The dog was feeling really confident now; he knew  he'd got me. I  bent
down and,  with my right hand, grabbed hold of  his left rear  leg. The limb
twitched as if he were doing an Irish jig as he tried to kick away.
     I started to pull the back leg up toward me.  The dog was confused  and
pissed off, biting more and  moving his  head  from left  to  right.  I  was
grappling to  keep hold of his leg. It was dancing away like Michael Flatley
on speed.
     I got a firmer  grip on the  spindly bit at the bottom of the dog's leg
and, with my  right arm, pulled it up as hard as I could toward my chest, at
the same time starting  to turn. The dog yelped with surprise, and I started
to pirouette, as if I were  spinning  a child in a  game. I did three, four,
five turns, and the dog started to rise with the centrifugal force, anchored
by its teeth in my arm  and my  hand on his leg. He  had to make a decision,
and he did: he let go of my arm. I  didn't reciprocate by letting go of  the
leg; I kept hold  now  with  both  hands  and swung him around and around as
violently as I could. Still spinning, I managed to take two steps toward one
of the concrete  pillars supporting the forecourt canopy. On the third step,
the dog's head  connected  with the pillar. There was a thud and a weak yelp
and I  let go. My own  momentum carried me on around  for another one and  a
half turns. My head was spinning as I tried to get my bearings.
     I found the  van.  Sarah  was  sitting  in the cab, firing  out  of the
window.  I  screamed  at  her, "The door! The door!" She  leaned across  and
opened it up. I looked down; my pistol was by the pump line. Bending down to
pick it up,  and  keeping  bent to  avoid getting hit, I  half  jumped, half
collapsed, into the driver's seat and slammed the door closed. As I did, the
black thing in the back tried to scramble over the driver's seat.
     Sarah shouted, "Let's go. Come on, let's go!"
     1 was still  in a semi stoop over the steering wheel, trying to present
a smaller target, when the police started firing back at us.
     All the windows were steamed up, probably from the dog's panting, which
was good for us, because at least it hid us from the video. Just as well, as
the  T-shirt ploy  had gone to rat  shit the  moment the dogs arrived on the
     I hit the ignition and the engine turned over, but it failed to engage.
It sparked up on the  second  go. Sarah fired a  few  more rounds toward the
tree  line.  The mutt behind me wasn't biting, but it was making  more noise
than the weapon reports.
     The shots that hit the  van reminded me of being in  a helicopter under
fire; because  it's so loud inside the aircraft, you don't know you're being
attacked until you see holes suddenly appearing in the airframe, accompanied
by a dull ping as the rounds penetrate.
     The driver was screaming  his head off  inside the shop, jumping up and
down, but no way was he coming out until the shooting stopped. The woman was
on the phone, shouting into the useless receiver, and as  we rolled  off the
forecourt  the driver started running along inside the shop, keeping up with
us, his arms waving in the  air as  he screamed  at the top of his voice. It
was wasted  on us. He was inside the shop  and his  fucking  dog was  making
enough noise to drown the roar of a helicopter.
     Ping. Sarah was  still screaming,  "Come on, come on, come on!" And the
dog was adding his tuppence worth. He wanted out. Didn't we all.
     I  turned left onto the road. There  was  a coffee-holder on  the dash,
with a half-full poly cup of coffee in it, a cigarette butt floating  on the
top. As the van lurched, the whole lot went over my  jeans. Then, surreally,
the radio suddenly came on of its own accord. Sarah fired a  few more rounds
into the tree line. There was a return.
     I  looked in the wing  mirror. The police  were on  the  road, assuming
proper firing positions. I put my foot down.
     I  jerked my thumb  at the dog and shouted at Sarah, "Sort that nicking
thing out!"
     I turned  left again and started to drive up the hill.  I looked behind
me and saw  this big black mangy thing. Fuck knows what it was, just a  wet,
dank dog  in  the back, jumping up at the newspaper Sarah  was trying to hit
and distract it with, barking and yelping away at us both.
     We started to  take the right-hand bend in the road. The moment we were
out of sight of the junction and shop I hit  the brakes. I yelled, "Get that
fucking thing out!"
     "Just get it out!"
     She opened  the  door and  tried to  grab  hold of  the dog, but it was
already  scrabbling its  way  out, its claws  tearing  against  her seat. It
clambered over and fucked off.  It probably hadn't been trying to have a  go
at us at all, it had just been frantic to get back to its owner.
     She closed the door and I hit the gas  pedal. I'd noticed some bags and
stuff in the back.
     "Why don't you check that out?"
     She didn't need telling again. She was straight in there.
     "Is  there a  map?"  My arm  was killing  me  as I gripped the steering
     The wagon's heating system wasn't up to it, so I used my sleeve to wipe
the condensation from the  windshield. Even the  wipers only  worked on half
speed. At least now I could sort of see where  I was going, even if I wasn't
too sure where that was.
     The  bend  eventually  straightened out and trees loomed  up  on either
side. Above them, all I could see was thick gray cloud. Great; the worse the
weather, the less the chance of the heli still operating.
     "Nothing, just  crap." Sarah was back in  her  seat. She wound down the
window  and started to adjust the wing  mirror to keep a check  behind us. I
kept  my foot down, but the  vehicle was  making only about 60  mph with the
wind behind it, the threadbare tires not exactly gripping the road big time.
All the shit in the back was rattling, and  bits of paper were flying around
in the draft rushing through the open windows. I just  hoped the  brake pads
were in better shape than the bits of the wagon I could see.
     She  tried  to  pull  open  the glove compartment on  her  side,  which
probably hadn't  been  done for years. It  gave way, and out spilled bits of
fishing wire, lighters,  greasy old garage receipts, all sorts.  But no map.
She shouted,  "Shit, shit, shit!" I kept quiet, letting her frustration play
itself out.
     I drove on  for about three miles, during which we didn't say a word to
each other. We got to a T-junction with the same sort of road. There were no
signposts. I turned right.
     I  was feeling exposed.  I didn't know  if  the police back  at the gas
station had  com  ms which would depend on whether  they had relay boards in
     area  to bounce  radio  signals off.  I couldn't  help a  smile:  Metal
Mickey's head would have come in handy.
     I shouted at her so I could be heard above the noise of the wind.
     "Did you drop any of the police?"
     She was wiping the wing mirror. She seemed to have calmed down a bit.
     "I don't know, I don't think so. Maybe."
     I started to feel even more  depressed. Whatever  had  happened, if  we
didn't get out  of the  area very soon  and hide  up, we'd be  in a world of
     Less  than  two  minutes  later  the  chance came  when  I  saw  dipped
headlights in front of us.
     "I'm going to take it, Sarah. Make sure you don't say a word, OK?"
     She nodded.
     "What do I do?"
     "Just  point the gun  at whoever's in there. Do not shoot anyone.  Just
keep your finger off the trigger .. . please."
     I slowed down  to about  20 mph  and  swung the van left, blocking  the
road. The car kept coming toward us. I couldn't see how many were in it, but
it was a blue four-door sedan.
     Sarah was waiting for instructions.
     "Come out this side and follow me.
     We have broken down, OK?"
     I jumped out, trying to watch the car as well as listen for a heli. The
car slowed. It  was a Mazda, one up, and going by the big hair blocking half
the windshield she was the twin sister of the woman at the gas station.
     She  wasn't too  happy  about what was going on. I had  to be quick, in
case she reached for  a weapon; for all I  knew, she might  be one of  Jim's
best customers.
     The  car stopped. I ran over to the driver's side  with a very thankful
face on. She hit her window button  and let it down only a couple of inches,
but at least she wasn't going for her handbag or the glove compartment.
     I got to the window and drew down on her, screaming, "Look down!
     Look down!" My accent was getting worse.
     She was  maybe in her thirties. Her hair  must  have taken  all day  to
tease into  that  beehive. Her  makeup was about two millimeters  thick  and
looked like wet cement now she'd started to cry.
     I yelled, "Out, out!"
     The door  was locked. I  kicked  it  and made out like a  madman, which
wasn't far from the truth.  She finally relented;  Sarah heard  the clunk of
the central locking and started moving toward the  car as the woman got out.
I motioned with my hand for Sarah to  take the driver's seat; she passed the
woman, who was standing on the road sobbing her heart out.

     have babies. Please  don't kill me, please. Take the car, take the car.
Take my money. Please don't kill me."
     I wanted to tell her, Shut up. You're not going to die. I'm playing the
madman because  I want to scare you; that way you don't go for a weapon, and
we all stay alive.
     Sarah  was  in, door closed; I ran around to the other side and  joined
     Before  I'd  even  shut  the  door  she  was slamming  the car  into  a
three-point turn. I  looked under my legs to see what  I was sitting on.  It
was Big Hair's bag. No point in fucking her  up completely; I got the barrel
of the pistol hooked  in the bag and  threw  it  out to her,  just as  Sarah
finished  a really bad turn with lots  of braking and tires screaming in the
     "Get your foot down."
     She didn't need any prompting for that.
     The  car  interior  smelled  of  fresh  perfume  and  coffee.  A  large
polystyrene cup with a lid was  resting in the console holder;  I lifted  it
out and gave it a shake. It was half full and the contents  were still warm.
I took a couple of sips and handed it over. The  air conditioning was on;  I
turned a couple of dials and it soon changed to hot, hot, hot.
     "Where to, Nick? Where am I going?"
     I wasn't sure.
     "Just keep going until we see a sign."
     Ten  minutes  later  we hit a main drag and  were welcomed  to Route 98
Raleigh was to the left, Durham to the right.
     "Go  left, left!" It was  still a single carriage way  but  wider  than
before and with houses dotted along the way.
     Before long  we were  joining  other vehicles on  their daily migration
toward  the city, and  in no time we were in mainstream traffic and had some
     I said, "Have you got any rounds left?"
     She gave  me her weapon. I checked and refilled her mag from the spares
in my pockets, and passed it back. She placed it under her right  thigh with
a "Thanks."
     I started to  recognize our surroundings. Traffic was starting to  slow
     every time we hit  a major  intersection  there  was another  bunch  of
lights letting people out  from all the suburbs around the city. We couldn't
see any of the houses, though, because of the trees and low-level industrial
units that hemmed us in on either side.
     We had stopped at a set of lights alongside some other  people drinking
their  breakfast. Some of  them had big paper cups  from drive-ins, some had
mugs that  looked  like Apollo space capsules, really wide  at the bottom so
they didn't fall over in the car,  then narrow  at the top with a nozzle  to
drink  through. All  of a sudden I  saw people in  different cars around  us
smiling or laughing out loud to themselves. Sarah saw what was happening and
she wanted  to listen in.  She hit the  radio buttons on preset  and cruised
through the stations. Three  goes  and she  got it. A  man and a  woman were
talking about people's choices of bumper stickers. The  woman said, "One  is
OK, but hey, more than that reads a ten on my geek meter."
     The  guy replied, "Have you seen the  one that says, "A mind is like  a
parachute. It  only  works  when it's opened ..." Come on, man, that's like,
off the scale!" There was some canned laughter, then he  quickly returned to
the airwaves.
     "Hey, morning! It's Q98 comin' attchaaa ..." The ads started to roll.
     Everyone was laughing with us in the traffic. Then it got worse as they
saw the same thing we did. The van four or five vehicles ahead had that very
sticker in its rear window. I couldn't  stop laughing  as we started to move
on green. I looked over at Sarah, who was joining in the fun; it wasn't that
the  joke was that  funny. I think we were just  so  relieved to be  back in
     We hit the belt line saw signs  for the airport and swung  right at the
intersection onto the highway. About halfway around  we were on an  elevated
section,  and down below  us were low-level square buildings, mostly  motels
and burger  joints, islands  in a sea of neon. The  rain had slackened to  a
     I directed  Sarah  off the ramp and  we cruised around,  looking for  a
motel that would work for us. She drove past a Days Inn, standing in its own
lot. It was a  T-shaped building,  with  the reception at the  top and three
stories of brown doors making up the stern. It had seen better days, but was
just what was needed. I let Sarah carry  on past it so I could check out the
area. That way I knew which way to run if we got bumped once we were inside.
     "Turn left here."
     She drove into  the parking lot of an adjacent single-story  sportswear
outlet. There were  about 200 cars in the 400-capacity car park; she found a
space in the middle and parked. We wiped the car interior of our prints, got
out and did the same to the outside--not that it mattered that much, as they
would have our prints from the van; it would just slow them up a bit.
     Walking back toward the motel, we made an effort to clean ourselves up,
brushing  the  mud and pine needles off our clothes. It  didn't seem to make
much difference. We got a few strange looks in the car park, but nothing too
serious; Americans know  better  than to stare at disheveled  strangers. The
motorway roared above us with  the morning's traffic, and  a truck's  brakes
hissed loudly as it stopped to make a delivery.
     As I peeled the gloves and plastic wrap from the docs, I gave Sarah our
     "OK, we're Brits--boyfriend-girlfriend, traveling up from the Cape Fear
coast, had a puncture. We've been out in the rain trying to fix it, and  all
we want to do now is sort our shit out."
     She thought for a few seconds.
     "Got it."
     I cleaned  up the jacket  sleeve the  dog  had  ripped as best I could,
wiping the dried blood  on my hand against my  jeans.  A last quick spit and
rub on the more stubborn stains did the trick.
     We'd  put our hands through our hair in  a  last-minute effort to  sort
ourselves out as we went through the door. We still looked rough, but so did
the motel. The carpet in reception needed  replacing and a new coat of paint
wouldn't  have gone amiss. To my left, a TV blared by the coffee and vending
machines as the glass doors closed behind us.
     The receptionist went  through  the automatic company welcome: "Hi, how
are you  today?"  still  looking down  at something  more important. She was
about seventeen or eighteen,  and wore a  maroon  polyester vest and  skirt,
with a white blouse. Her name tag said  she  was Donna. She was a black girl
with relaxed hair put into a side parting, a big, round pair of glasses and,
now that she was actually pointing it at us, a great big brilliant smile. It
might not be sincere, but at least she was  the first person we'd been close
to for a while who wasn't shooting at us.
     Her smile evaporated as she took in our appearance.
     "What's happened to you folks?"
     I did my best stupid English tourist impression.
     "We had  a puncture this morning and the car  went off  the road in all
this rain. Look at us. It's been a nightmare; we  just want to  clean up and
sleep." I stopped my  waffle and  looked  sorry for myself while showing her
the state of my jeans.
     She agreed, we were in shit state.
     "Wow!" She looked down at the computer and hit the keys.
     "Let me see .. ." She didn't sound too hopeful.
     "It's  early  and I don't  know  if any rooms  will be  ready yet." She
smiled as she read the screen, and I knew we were in luck.
     "Hey, you know what?  I have a double room but  it's  smoking." The way
she said it, I  knew that when the time came for  her to have a child, she'd
sue someone lighting up even two states away. She looked up,  waiting for us
to share her distaste.
     I said, "That will be fine,  thank you." She looked at us as if we were
somewhere below subhuman.
     "We  don't  smoke,  but at the moment anything  will do." I smiled.  We
became normal again and were given a big smile back.
     She continued to hit the keys.
     "Sure. I have a special at the moment:
     thirty-nine  dollars ninety-nine, plus tax."  Her  expression  now said
that I should be jumping up and down with joy. I took the hint.
     "That's great!" I pulled out my wallet and gave her my credit card. She
could have been asking for $139.99 plus tax, I wouldn't have given a shit.
     "Thank you" she studied the card "Mr. Snell."
     She swiped  the plastic and  the machine clicked and hummed as I filled
in  the registration  form.  I put  down any shit  I could think  of for the
vehicle registration. They never look at it anyway, and if she did, I'd just
say, sorry, Hugh Grant-type character Brit abroad.
     "OK, you're room two sixteen. Where are you parked?"
     I pointed out and to the left. She started to direct with her hands.

     go  around back to the left,  up the first  flight of stairs, and  it's
there on the right-hand side."
     "Thanks a lot."
     "You're welcome. Y'all have a good one."
     We walked out of  reception and I placed  my  arm around Sarah, talking
shit about what a night it had been. We turned left to go to our non-car and
worked our way around the motel to our room. There was a  chance that anyone
putting two and two together after watching the news might  call the police,
especially if the gas station  was already news.  But this girl looked as if
she didn't even know what day it was. There had to be a point where I had to
accept I'd done all I could  for now. It was time to  clean  up, get our act
together and then move on.
     It was a typical, low-rent motel room that could have been anywhere  in
the world,  with a  queen-sized bed,  faded  flower-pattern cover and  white
melamine-veneered chip board furniture. The curtains were closed and the air
conditioner was off to save electricity.
     I took the Do Not Disturb sign from the inside handle and put it on the
outside as I fiddled around trying to  find the lights. Sarah passed me as I
closed  the  door  and  pulled  the latch  across.  I  went over  to the air
conditioner  and,  leaving the curtains  closed, switched it  to  full-blast
     Sarah was sitting on the bed, pulling her trainers off. I  walked  back
to the other side  and checked the window, a sealed, double-glazed unit that
overlooked the landing. The only  way out was by the door. I  visualized  my
escape  route. There  were two staircases; I could  either get  down to  the
ground or onto  the  roof.  Once on the ground I would head back to  the car
park  and  hijack  a vehicle.  If  push came  to  shove,  I'd kill her  here
beforehand. I picked up the remote from  the bedside cabinet it was attached
to a  curly bit of wire so I couldn't nick  it and started flicking  through
the channels trying to find some news. The faded silver plastic TV must have
been about ten years old so were most of the programs.
     Sarah  went  toward  the air  conditioner, pulling  off her  jacket and
muttering, "I need a shower."  She  started  to  take  off the  rest of  her
clothes, placing  them  item by item on the heater, then weighting them with
ashtrays  and  a telephone  directory  to keep  them in  place. The air  was
blowing them about as if they were on a clothesline in a gale.
     I watched her undress  as I  lay  on the bed. I  couldn't stop thinking
about  what she'd  said the guys in the house were  planning, and about  how
lucky we'd been to get away. I just hoped she hadn't killed any police; even
if she was telling the truth about the  assassination plot, we'd be in  deep
shit over that.
     I'd made a conscious decision to let her keep the weapon; if any police
had been  killed, she  had  the weapon that  linked her to that, and  to the
Lance killing. London would have to do a mega deal with the Americans.
     I watched her naked body walk across in  front of  me,  heading for the
bathroom. She'd always been at  ease  with nudity, almost nonchalant, in the
way models are. Her body was beautiful and still well trained. I watched her
thigh muscles flex  as she moved; her skin was usually so healthy it glowed,
but with those  cuts and bruises she  wouldn't be  showing her  legs  off in
short skirts for a while.
     As  the shower started  splashing  I lay  back against  the  headboard,
flicking  through the  channels  with the  sound  on  mute.  I couldn't  see
anything of use  yet, like the news, but if  I'd  wanted  to  buy a  diamond
necklace and  earrings or an ab-cruncher, it was  my lucky  day. My chin was
resting on my chest, my back propped up by the pillow. I could smell myself:
wet, mushy and, like her, in need of a shower. Looking in  the mirror to the
left of the TV, I saw a scarecrow who needed a shave.
     I finally hit a news channel that was showing pictures of forests, then
the lake. I didn't bother turning it up. This must be it; we were famous.
     There was film of different emergency vehicles toing and froing, police
and ambulance crews running around with waterproofs over their uniforms.
     Then a policeman gave an interview with the same sort of thing going on
in the background. I really didn't want to know what he was saying.
     If there were dead police, a picture of them would soon be onscreen.
     It wouldn't  change what  I had to do, even  though  it  might make  it
     The news was replaced by  a commercial. I was in a semi daze trying not
to nod off. My eyes  were stinging as much as my  forearm now; at least that
had  started to scab up a bit. I'd sort it out later. If I'd got tetanus I'd
be finding out very soon. I smiled at myself  in the mirror as I thought,  I
could always sue the police department. This was America, after all.
     I watched a child's toy commercial, where two  small girls were playing
with dolls.  Shit! I leaned over to the  bedside cabinet that held the phone
and a Days Inn notepad and pen combo, and wrote a  big "K" on my left wrist.
Next to the pen was a small  book  of matches; I put it in my jeans pockets,
along with the mags.
     My  body was aching all over. I forced myself up, and pulled the  phone
book off Sarah's jeans. They fell to the floor and I couldn't be bothered to
pick them up.
     I trawled through the Yellow Pages, looking for car hire, called a toll
free  number,  and  was told that, for a charge  of $43  a day, plus tax and
insurance, they'd be with me inside an hour and a half.
     Sarah came out of the shower just as I was putting down the receiver.
     She had a  large towel wrapped  around her, and a smaller, still-folded
one in her hands. As she walked across  to check her clothes  I could  smell
the soap and shampoo.
     "Who was that?"  she demanded as she threw the towel by the TV and bent
down to pick up the jeans and put them back on the heater.
     "I've hired a car."
     "Excellent. How long before we move?"
     I didn't  know why she  was so  pleased. We  weren't going anywhere she
     "We?" I said.
     "What the ruck's with  this we business?" I always seemed to regress to
South London gob by twang when pissed off.
     "All the bollocks you're on about is your problem, not mine.  The  only
we about this, Sarah, is that we we got  the North  Carolina police, FBI and
whoever  else  wants  overtime  looking  for us,  and if  you have killed  a
policeman and they catch up with us, we're in a very big world of shit. Take
my word for  it, we won't  survive any containment;  they'll hose us down on
     "We are  going to do nothing.  What I am going to do is, first, get  us
out of this shit; then I am going to  get  us both back to  the  U.K. End of
story.  I  don't care  what is happening elsewhere, or  what you want  to do
about it. I have enough shit here to deal with. Fuck Netanyahu."
     She sat on the end of the bed and looked at me. I knew she was going to
give me a sales pitch, but tough, I wasn't going to let her get to me.
     "Nick, I'm going to tell you anyway. It's important. I need your help."
     I cut in.
     "Sarah, I'm not interested in your stories. Not now, OK?"
     She wasn't going to give up.
     "Look, I am the U.K. liaison in a contact group set up by the CIA. It's
called the Counter-terrorism Center, and we're based at Langley. Our general
remit is  to disrupt terrorist--" "Sarah, I told  you, shut the  fuck--" Her
voice  got a bit louder.  "--to disrupt  terrorist operations; my particular
cell is coordinating a U.S. effort with European and African nations to roll
up Osama Bin Laden's networks."
     "Bin Laden? What the fuck .. ."
     She looked at me, waiting for me to continue. I didn't, but  she knew I
was now starting to take an interest. She drew a breath and continued.
     "Yes,  Bin  Laden. We  had  a  common cause while  he  was fighting  in
Afghanistan,  that's  true.  But the problems began  after the  'eighty-nine
Russian withdrawal and his  return to  Saudi.  As far as  he was  concerned,
Nick, Afghanistan wasn't destroyed  by  the Russians, but by Afghans who had
turned their backs on their religion  and their country for money and power.
Once he returned home,  he saw the same  corruption in all  the Arab nations
that had adopted Western  values--above all, in  Saudi, the land of the  two
most holy places, Mecca and Medina."
     I looked at  her blankly, wondering if she would be  saying all this if
she knew her life depended on it.
     "The whole  situation was  made  worse  by the  Gulf War.  To  him, the
presence of hundreds of thousands  of American  and other foreign  troops on
Saudi soil was a desecration of  Islam, the return of barbarian Crusaders to
defile Islam's holy places. He vowed to  wage war  against their presence in
Saudi and against the  Saudi leaders who had brought them into the  country.
As  far as he was concerned  it had become  an American colony. He wanted to
strike back at the West--in fact, at anyone who was non-Muslim and in Saudi.
     "The  thought that  former mujahedin would one  day  come to the United
States and conduct operations didn't enter anyone's  head at the  time." She
allowed herself a small smile.
     "The CIA has a word  for it: blowback--a poisonous  fallout, carried on
political winds, drifting back home from a distant battlefield." The corners
of her mouth went serious again as she  added, "Bin Laden has  become,  over
the last several years, the international terrorist  posing the most serious
threat  to Western interests. He  has an incredibly effective infrastructure
and, of course, he has lots of money  to fund it all himself. The ASU at the
lake was funded by him.
     That's why I was there."
     I shrugged.
     "Listen, if there's shit on, call Washington, London, whatever.
     Let them sort it out. There's the phone, call them."
     She looked  across at  the bedside cabinet, but made no movement toward
it. Her eyes stayed fixed  on mine. I wasn't  too  sure if  she was actually
listening, or just waiting for me to say more.
     I got up and went over to  the vanity unit outside the bathroom. It had
a sink, mirror, shaving plug, soap  and hand towels; it was time to clean up
my arm. If  she were telling  the truth, all she had  to do  was pick up the
     I took off  my  jacket, pulled  up  the shirtsleeve,  and  surveyed the
     two rows of  nice clean puncture wounds  that any German Shepherd would
be  proud of. If I collected any more scarring I'd  start  to look  like the
Cabbage Patch doll Kelly said I was. I turned on the taps and Sarah remained
silent for a few seconds as I rinsed the dried blood and mud off my arm. The
puncture wounds were deep, but less jagged than I'd expected.
     "Nick, don't you imagine that I've already thought of that?"
     I glanced in the mirror and saw her sitting on the bed.
     "Making  contact  with  anyone is  not an option,  because  it's not  a
     I washed the wound slowly with soap  and waited for that first horrible
stinging  to  die down, trying  to  work out if what she'd said was any more
than her  usual cocktail-party  performance.  The room  heater  was  working
overtime and making my eyes sting.
     "Nick, how do you  think the ASU was going to get close to their target
here in the U.S.? Just walk up and give him a little tap on the shoulder?"
     I  shrugged.  It didn't matter if I knew or not,  she was going to tell
     It came at me in a flood.
     "Nick, Bin Laden has a highly placed source.
     We think it's possibly as high as the National Security Council.  Think
about what that means: the group that blew up the World Trade Center ... and
Khobar Towers in Saudi,  remember? Nineteen  American servicemen  dead. They
also did the 'ninety-five bomb in Saudi. Another five Americans killed.
     "Those are the people who have someone within the administration.
     That's why  I  can't just pick  up  the  phone and get inside help: the
source would  find out, then close down for a few years and never  be found.
He is the key to stopping Bin Laden."
     I could see the passion in her eyes as she continued.
     "Nick,  the source has  access  to Intelink. Not only does that mean he
would  know before  virtually  anyone else of  any contact I made, but  just
think about what information is being passed on to Bin Laden and anyone else
he then decides to sell or give it to. Don't you think I would  love to call
this in?"
     Well, if all this was true, that was the phone call question taken care
     Intelink is a  top secret network, through which all  the U.S. and some
Allied  intelligence  agencies share information,  very  much like their own
private  Internet. Within  it, all agencies also have  their own intra  nets
separated by  fire  walls from the main system.  There are  about a  hundred
sites that need top secret security clearance to get  access to. Whoever the
source was, if he or she had access to it, then they must be big time.
     I washed,  thought  and said nothing.  If she was telling the truth and
Netanyahu was killed and the source did exist, it would  be  a drama, but it
wouldn't make  much of  a  dent in my  life. Come  to think of it, would  it
affect anyone else's very much?
     I could still see her reflection in the mirror.
     "Hey,  kill one Israeli prime minister," I said, "another  pops  up. So
     It  seemed that something I'd  said had  amused  her, because  her nose
twitched and a big smile lit up her face.
     "They're not  going to kill  just  Netanyahu, Nick.  The main target is
Arafat. Bin Laden  hates him hates him even more than Netanyahu, for reining
in  Hamas  and  other  Islamic  fundamentalists  and  supporting  the  peace
     I looked down at my arm, trying to hide my smile.
     "He's not too keen on making friends, old Bin boy, is he?"
     My  joke  wasn't appreciated;  she  just  carried  on as  if  she  were
Elizabeth giving me a brief.
     "For Bin Laden,  the important thing about this attack is what it  will
say to the world. When  CNN asked him about his plans, he said,  "You'll see
them and hear them in the media, God willing." Since then, the Islamic Jihad
group  has sent the United States a warning: that they would soon deliver  a
message to  Americans  'which we hope they read with care,  because we  will
write it, with God's help, in a language they will understand."
     "His  message is that  nowhere is safe for  United States  citizens and
their friends.  It's  the  logical  extension  of  the  bombing of  American
interests  overseas.  The one place that  should  be  safe  here in the U.S.
isn't. Think  about  it, Nick. Two world  leaders killed while guests of the
most powerful  nation  in  the  world. A  perfect demonstration that Allah's
avenger can  strike wherever  and whenever he wants. Just think what a boost
that would be for the fundamentalists. As you would say, there'd be shit on.
And the source is there, Nick, every step of the way."
     She stood up and started to walk toward  me.  I concentrated on dealing
with my arm.  I  said, "And what about the guy we were sent  in  to lift  in
Syria? Where does that fit in?" I hoped I wasn't sounding too interested.
     "And you changed the data. London told me everything."
     She was now standing next to me.
     "Ah, London again. I  killed him  because  I  had to, Nick. He knew the
real data. If he'd come back to the U.K.
     the corrupt stuff I gave them wouldn't have stood up."
     "Why change it in the first place?"
     She sighed.
     "To try to confirm if  the source really  existed, and where in the NSC
food chain he was.  Those were early days, Nick,  nothing was confirmed.  At
that point he was just a myth."
     She clearly felt more had to be said.
     "Look, I needed to do  it so that when the source if  he existed got  a
look at the data, he would have to inform Bin Laden that everything was  OK,
nothing had been compromised.
     That way, not only did it confirm he existed, but meant that perhaps he
could  be tracked down.  Whoever  sent you here  will  not  know everything,
     There was  a  lull.  I knew  she  was  waiting  for me to  ask  another
     I  patted my arm with a hand  towel, turned and leaned back against the
sink. I looked at her, two feet away.
     "We  should  have  been told there  was a change  of  plan  once on the
ground. You fucked a job up that killed Glen" She looked at me, confused.
     "Reg Three, remember?"
     There was no reaction in her face.
     "Yes, of course. I'm sorry about that." I knew she really didn't give a
shit about Glen. Come to think of it, nor did  I anymore. It was a long time
ago. Even  in the Regiment he would have been long forgotten, apart from  by
his family and a  few  close  friends on  Remembrance  Day. His  wife  would
probably have married another member of the Regiment and would be getting on
with her life.
     I got back into the present.
     "So why are you in the shit about all this, if it was part of the job?"
     She looked at me with her small-child-in-trouble face.
     "That's the problem." She hesitated.
     "They didn't know. I thought that if no one was aware there would be no
leaks." She  was starting to look depressed, as you  would if you'd severely
fucked up.
     "In  fact,  it was  a cock-up from start  to finish. The  FBI confirmed
shortly afterward that the source did exist.  They call him Yousef, but they
didn't know at what level of  the  NSC  he was.  I decided not to tell  them
about  anything I was doing.  In fact, they don't even know about what I was
doing at the lake."
     It  was all making sense now. It was so typical of Sarah to be going it
alone, hoping  to collect all  the  Brownie  points  and smooth  her way  up
another rung of the career ladder.
     "So  now  you want  me to help you get out of your fuckup."  I couldn't
help smiling. Actually, it felt good.
     "I couldn't tell anyone,  Nick. If  I had, the whole thing  might  have
been compromised. I wouldn't couldn't risk  it." But she was risking it with
me. That  also  felt  very good, which was making things even more difficult
for me.
     She turned  back toward the bed, sat down  and  hit the "off" button on
the TV remote control, knees drawn up and her arms around them, counting the
number of piles there were per square inch of carpet.
     "The problem is, Nick, I still don't know the identity of the source no
one does.
     No matter how I did it,  that has been the aim of this last four years:
to find him, and to force the whole network down."
     She had finished with the carpet and turned back to  me as I  continued
to tend my arm.
     "The two others who were arriving at the  lake  today are the only ones
here in the U.S. who know who  he is. I've met  them only once. I don't know
their names, contact details, nothing.  But my  plan was  to play along with
the hit, and get them lifted I wasn't quite sure how.
     But once we had those  two, we'd get the  source as well. It won't stop
at Netanyahu and Arafat, unless we can neutralize the top man."
     She  brushed  back her  hair with her  fingers as  it  was  drying.  My
breathing  was very slow and  heavy as I tried to think of questions to help
me feel right about what I was thinking.
     "Nick, you are the only " The phone rang.  Sarah jumped up  and started
to throw her things on, picking up her weapon and checking the chamber. With
her jeans  halfway up  her legs,  she  pulled  the curtain  slightly  to see
outside. She shook her head. I picked up the phone. She carried on dressing.
     It was reception; we exchanged a few words and I replaced the receiver.
     "It's the car. Take everything, get into the shower room and wait." She
picked up the rest of her clothes,  towels and bag and took them with her. I
put my jacket back on  to hide  the wound  and the fact that my shirtsleeves
were missing and changed channel, checking it wasn't on a news program.
     I turned up the volume to cover Sarah.
     There  was  a  knock  on the door. As I walked across the room,  even I
couldn't help noticing how dank  the room smelled. I looked  through the spy
hole It was a young black guy wearing a blue T-shirt.  He had all the  forms
on a clipboard under his left arm, and a runner for the credit card  in  his
     I  sat down  with him  on the  bed to fill  out the  forms.  Showing my
driving license was  always a  bit  of fun,  as most people outside the U.K.
don't have a  clue what they're  looking at a damp  piece of pink paper that
says nothing much at all,  and  doesn't even have a picture. He  was turning
the page over for the details he needed, trying to appear as if he knew what
he was about. I couldn't bear to see him in pain.
     "The number's there." He smiled at me in relief.
     As he got up, I could see him trying to work out the smell. I laughed.
     "We were using a friend's car for our holiday. It broke down last night
in the middle of nowhere."
     He  nodded,  not  really caring. When he left, Sarah  came  out of  the
bathroom, taking her jeans off again to dry.
     If she were telling the truth, maybe I would take her back to London.
     The problem was that  although I hardly knew  where I was with Sarah, I
did with Lynn and Elizabeth. It might be G&Ts at seven, dinner at  eight for
them, but  if I didn't carry out my  job they would  fuck me over  big time,
maybe  even  organize my own  personal T104. I needed more information  from
Sarah; the  fact that  she'd killed the American gave me a pretty clear idea
of whose side she was on,  but I  needed solid evidence. I sat on the bed as
she finished undressing and put her clothes back on the heater.
     "When are they going to do the hit?"
     She came and sat  next to me. She looked up at me with excitement, then
her face changed.
     "You still don't believe me, do you, you bastard?"
     She gripped my arm with her hand.
     "You  must help me.  I'm the only one  who can identify the two who are
left, and I  know  them, Nick. They won't  rest until  they've finished  the
job." She stared at me. I didn't answer; I knew she was going to continue.
     "What are  we here  for, Nick?  How  will you look at  yourself  in the
mirror if you don't help me to stop it?"
     Mr. Spock would have been proud of her. The emotional stuff didn't work
too much for me, but  the story did sound logical. But she'd already  fucked
me over once, and looking at  myself in the mirror had never been high on my
list of priorities.
     I got to my feet and went toward the door.
     "I'm going  for a cruise around to  see if  I can get us  some clothes.
What size are you?"
     "Eight U.S." shoes six. Why don't I just come with you?"
     "They're looking for a couple now. They may even have a video grab from
the gas station. Sit here, I'll be back."
     Out in the corridor, I closed  the door  behind me but didn't walk away
immediately. Ripping two matches from  the book I'd picked up I  wedged them
between the door and the frame, one a foot above the lock, one below.
     I heard the locks being closed from the inside as I went downstairs.
     The rain came down  in a constant drizzle as I got into the car, a  red
Saturn,  and turned  over  the  ignition. The  heater blew  at  its  highest
setting, the radio blared and  the  windshield  wipers thrashed from side to
side. The  urgent  bing bing bing  told me  to put my seat belt on.  I  did,
inhaling the new car smell, put it into drive and headed for the road.
     In case she was watching, I drove out of her line of sight before going
around the back of the motel, crossing over the main drag  and parking up in
the lot  for  Arby's,  a  hot sandwich  shop.  Looking  through  the  power,
telephone and  stop-sign lines  that hung above  the main drag I  now  had a
trigger on the motel door; I'd even be able to see where she walked to, as I
had the stairs and ground floor in  view. If she did  something  that showed
she was lying, at  least I'd know, and  then I'd have control again. Plus, I
could see if  the police turned up. What  Sarah  was going  to do once  that
happened I didn't  know, and I  wouldn't  wait to see. If  she followed  her
usual pattern, she would probably  kill a couple  of them and hopefully  get
killed  herself. It was  a  risk, not  keeping  her  with  me, but worth it.
Besides, there was something I had to do alone.
     I kept watching the motel door as I turned  on the power of the mobile,
hit the PIN and eventually keyed in three digits. An operator answered.
     "Yes, please," I said.
     "North  Carolina,  Century   Twenty-one   Realtors,  on   Skibo   Road,
     Century  21 was  a  family-owned estate agency  franchise,  letting out
apartments. I'd gone there once when I was in the Regiment, when a couple of
us were  staying in Fayetteville for  six  weeks. We spent one  week in Moon
Hall,  a military hotel on the  base, which was  fine enough,  but  with the
allowances we'd been given we decided to treat ourselves to an apartment.
     The only reason I could remember the name was that the "Ski" in "Skibo"
was pronounced "Sky" and I always got it wrong.
     I kept the engine running so the  window wouldn't fog, and  my  eyes on
the trigger. As I waited, I hit the  wiper arm to clear the windshield.  The
number was given to me and I dialed.
     The call was quickly answered by a female voice in turbo mode.
     "Century   Twenty-one,  Mary   Kirschbaum  and  Jim   Hoeland  Property
Management Inc. How may I help you?"
     I switched to my bad American.
     "Hi, I'm looking for an apartment to rent--three  bedrooms, maybe." The
bigger it  was,  the  more  chance  there  was  of the  kitchen  having  the
facilities I was going to need.
     I heard the sound of a keyboard being  tapped at warp speed, and within
a nanosecond she replied, "I have only one or two bedrooms available.
     Do you require furnished or unfurnished?"  She gave me the feeling this
wasn't her first day on the job.
     "Two bed, furnished, would be fine."
     "OK, how long do  you  require the  property for? I need a day's notice
for weekly rentals and a week's notice for monthly rentals."
     She  had obviously decided that for someone like me, who didn't seem to
have a clue what he wanted, it would be better to explain right away instead
of wasting her time.
     "Two weeks, but could I get it today?"
     There was a pause. I'd fucked  up the procedure, but she recovered with
     "Right now I  have a  two-bedroom apartment available to rent  for  one
seventy-five a week or five  fifty  a  month, plus electric  and tax. If you
decide to stay longer the monthly rental rate would start on month two."
     Once  I'd heard the first nine or ten words I didn't even listen to the
     "OK,  that  sounds  great.  What's the kitchen  like?  Does it  have  a
     I thought she was going to ask if I'd just arrived from Mars.
     "Yes, they all have a full kitchen. Freezer, dishwasher, range--" I cut
in before I got the whole list.
     "And I can definitely have it today?"
     There was another pause.
     "Sure." The computer keys were going into meltdown.
     "You need to  come into the office  today before  five  thirty so I can
book  you  in. It  will  be a  two-hundred dollar deposit in cash,  plus one
week's rental, plus tax  in advance,  cash or card  only.  Can  I  have your
     The  keyboard was  given another brief respite as I slowed  the process
down by talking at a normal speed.
     "Snell. Nick Snell."
     By the time I'd finished, it was on the hard disk.
     "OK, I'm Velvet, the  rental assistant.  I'll  see you here before five
     I came off the phone feeling dizzy. I had to  hit the wipers again as I
kept both eyes on the motel door. I looked at the half washed-out  "K" on my
wrist,  then at my watch. It wasn't too early  I dialed call number two  and
got the answer, "Hello, lower school office."
     "Hello,  Mr. Stone here. I'm sorry to call outside of social hours, but
is it  possible  to talk  to Kelly? I'm  working  and I  "  Before I'd  even
finished a very  prim and proper  voice,  straight out of a  1950s black and
white film, said, "That's perfectly all right, Mr. Stone.
     One moment."
     I was treated to an electronic version of  "Greensleeves." I'd  thought
that had been banned by the music police years ago.
     I knew it  wasn't "perfectly  all right."  The  secretary would have to
drag her out of class, or whatever  goes on in boarding schools at that time
of the evening. Him calling again, the wrong line, wrong day and always with
excuses but I paid  the bills, and on time.  It must piss her  off. I made a
mental note to find out  who  this woman was  and what  she looked like next
time  I  visited.  I imagined a cross between  Joyce Grenfell and  Miss Jean
     She came back on the line.
     "Can you ring back in a quarter of an hour?"
     "Of course."
     "Not bad news, I hope. She's been so excited today, because they sang a
belated  "Happy Birthday'  in  assembly. She's feeling a  very special young
lady indeed."
     I turned off the power with fifteen minutes to kill,  while keeping  my
eye on the motel and listening to the radio, feeling really pleased that I'd
got it together  to  call.  It  would  surprise her. I  was cut  out of  the
daydream by a news headline.
     "..  .  the  deadly  gun  battle  only minutes  away  from  vacationing
     We'll bring you more from the scene after these messages .. ."
     Once  I'd  listened  to  an  important  announcement about  this week's
sportswear specials  at Sears, a very serious voice tried to give weight  to
the popcorn-style  report he was  presenting.  They had found bodies  at the
house, and they were thought to be Middle  Eastern. However, police were not
yet  releasing  further  details.  His  voice  dropped  an octave  for extra
gravitas.  Unconfirmed  reports  suggested  that   the  dead  men  could  be
     At  least  there was  no mention of  any  dead police,  which meant  no
pissed-off cops hunting for  the Bonnie  and Clyde who'd murdered their best
mates. I sat  and  listened  to the  rest  of  the  news,  very aware of the
uncomfortable dampness of my jeans.
     It was about seventeen minutes past twelve.  I powered up the phone and
called the  U.K.  again, nicking  my eyes between the keypad and  the  motel
door. I got the ringing tone and turned off the radio.
     Our conversations  when she was at school were normally quite strained,
because she was  in the office and  people were listening in, and,  like the
grandparents,  they still didn't  understand  how someone as  erratic as  me
could be in charge of a child's welfare.
     It rang, she answered.
     "Hi,  how are you today!" I always tried to sound really happy  to  put
her at ease.
     "Fine. Where are you?"
     I could hear  phones ringing and Miss Grenfell-Brodie fussing around in
the background.
     "I'm in London, still working. How's school?"
     "And Granny and Grandad? Did you have a good time?"
     "It was OK." Her tone suddenly shifted.
     "Hey, Nick, it's really cool you called!"
     It was great to hear her voice as well.
     "See, I promised I'd ring you, and I have, haven't I? You see, a normal
person's promise. Are you impressed, or what?"
     She started to spark up.
     "Yes, and do you know  what? The whole school sang "Happy Birthday'  to
me today in assembly. Well, Louise, Catherine  and me. They had birthdays in
the holidays, too. Are you impressed, or what?"
     I imagined Miss Grenfell-Brodie giving Kelly a disapproving look.
     "We don't say 'or what," remember? Anyway, was it embarrassing?"
     "No! My class has bought a present for me. A book of amazing facts;
     it's really cool."
     "Wow!" I said, trying to work up some enthusiasm.
     "So what have you been doing today?"
     "Hmmm, mostly the Geography project, I guess."
     "That's good. I used to love that at school." I looked  skyward in case
a bolt of lightning was heading my way.
     "We had wet breaks all day today," she chatted on.
     "Is it raining in London?"
     "Pouring, I got soaked. It was raining cats and dogs. Especially dogs."
     We both  laughed. She  said, "Have you talked with Josh  yet? Are  they
back home?"
     "No, they won't be home until tomorrow."
     "Oh, OK. We need to send a card to say thank you for them coming to see
     I thought I was the  one  who  had to come up with the grown-up, parent
type stuff.
     "OK. Can you be in charge of that? It would  be a  really nice surprise
for them. Tell them a few amazing facts while you're at it."
     "I will, during Letters."
     "Great, they'll love that." Letters was an hour set aside each Saturday
after study time,  when the  kids  who were  boarders had to  write to their
parents. Or, if you were Kelly, guardian and grandparents.
     A truck parked between me and  the  motel.  She was still prattling  on
while I moved in my seat to keep the trigger, and at the same  time used the
opportunity to adjust my damp jeans.
     "I wished we could have stayed with  them, Nick. Can we go back  to the
     "Yeah, no problem." I  realized I was  still feeling  guilty. She could
have asked for  anything  at  that  moment and I'd  have agreed  to  it. The
traffic  was still screaming past  between the  target and me,  throwing  up
clouds of water.
     "Can Josh and everyone come?"
     "Of course. As soon as we  go  on the next long holiday.  Make sure you
ask Josh in the card, OK?"
     Even as I heard myself saying it, I knew it wasn't going to happen. The
chances of  Josh being able to get over to the U.K. with his kids again were
slim because of the expense. I said, "I've got to go now. You have a really,
really happy birthday time tonight."
     "OK, are you going to ring me again soon?"
     "I hope so.  I won't be able  to this  week, but  I'll definitely  call
after the weekend, promise. NPP. Are you seeing Granny and Grandad at all?"
     "Yes. There's no  Drama on Saturday, so  after Study  Time and  Letters
Granny said I can go stay with them."
     I was pleased about that, because if they weren't able to have her some
weekends she didn't get to leave the school grounds.
     "OK, listen, have a great day."
     "I will. I love you."
     It always felt weird when she did that. I liked it, but I  could  never
say it unless she did first. If I did, it made me feel like I was intruding.
     "I love you, too. Now there's another amazing fact! OK,  back to class.
I'll speak to you soon, all right?"
     She laughed and the phone went dead. I guessed she knew she had to make
the first move.
     She was happy that I'd called and I was happy that I'd remembered to.
     What was more, it was a lot easier to do now that  I knew the Firm knew
about her. I didn't have to get out of the  car and use a public call box. I
cleared both numbers from the recall menu and closed down.
     The truck had moved, so  I no longer had to sit like a contortionist to
keep the trigger. I  sat there for a minute  just looking at the  motel door
and the traffic cruising between us, feeling very pleased with myself.
     I switched back into work mode, pulled $5 out of my wallet and went and
bought  a Coke, trying  my best to "keep  dog"  on  the  target  through the
windows. Once out on the forecourt with my pint and  a  half of Coke and ice
in  my hand, I went to  the bank of four phones that stood beside the Burger
King next door.
     I  pulled out the handset to its  full extent so that I could still see
the  motel. The  roar of the traffic was almost deafening. I put my money in
to call directory assistance. Pushing my finger in my ear and pulling on the
handset  for that  last  inch of  line  to  keep  the  trigger,  I  shouted,
"Washington D.C."  British  Embassy, Massachusetts Avenue, please." I had to
say  it  again  because  of  the  traffic,  plus she  couldn't understand my
Australian accent.
     I dialed the number and finally got through to who I wanted.
     "Michael, it's Nick. I need some help,  and I've decided to take you up
on your offer."
     There was a slight pause as Metal Mickey mulled this one over.
     "Well, that depends on what exactly the offer was." I could imagine the
smile on his face.
     "It's just some  questions that need answering, nothing that'll get you
into trouble."  I could hear myself shouting down the phone to overcome  the
traffic noise.
     "Good. I would just hate to be a naughty boy."
     I bet he would.
     "No, mate, no trouble. Have you a pen?"
     He gave a slow, "0-K," as he looked for it.
     "I need anything that  you can find on a handling name Yousef. Anything
you can get."
     He sounded surprised at my plain speech on the phone.
     "Nick,  aren't  you the  naughty one! You're  supposed  to  be the  one
concerned with security."
     He giggled like a schoolboy.
     "I know, mate,  but  this  is important and I haven't any time  to mess
about. The other thing I  need to know is what exactly Sarah's been  working
on  these  last two years in the U.S."  plus, what did she do the two  years
before that? I know you don't know now, but  I just know you'll  be able  to
find out."
     "Why, Nick, you old flatterer, you."  He started to laugh as he wrote a
note to himself.
     "Aren't you supposed to be the one in the loop?"
     I let out a sigh.
     "Yeah, I know, mate, but I've fucked up and  got myself in a  muddle. I
don't really want to  call London and get it  sorted  out. First  time doing
this sort of job, and all that. It would be very embarrassing."
     He let out a squeal of delight.
     "Oh, tell me about it!"
     I didn't have a clue what he was on about and just carried on before he
had the chance to tell me.
     "Finally, I need  to know what Netanyahu and Arafat are  getting up  to
this week. You know, times, places, that sort of thing" "0-K. You are a busy
boy, aren't you?"
     "Oh,  and one last  thing.  I need to know the names and backgrounds of
the four men killed last night at a place  called Little Lick Creek in North
     There was a pause; I  could almost hear the cogs churning  as he linked
this  to  Sarah and  her  country breaks. I was expecting a reply along  the
lines of, "I don't feel comfortable with this, Nick," but instead got a very
nonchalant, "When do you need this by?"
     "Later this afternoon  would  be great. Do you think you can?" I had to
turn back toward the booth to hear him as three trucks thundered past.
     "No, but I know a man who might. I can't wait to call him."
     "Thanks for that, Michael, I really appreciate it. There is no one else
I can ask you know how it is. But I would like this  one to be just  between
you, me and the gate post, OK?"
     "You, me and the gate post, mmm, sounds interesting. Byeee!"
     I stepped  back into  the booth and hung  up. I would  rather have been
talking with Josh, but  I couldn't until  he got back  from the  U.K." Metal
Mickey would have to do.
     The rain had given me a new layer of  wet on the shoulders of my jacket
and hair. My forearm  was starting to  sting again. Walking  to  the car,  I
lifted up my jacket cuff to investigate. Not good. There were scabs forming,
but the bites  were deep and needed  cleaning and dressing  by  someone  who
really knew what they  were doing.  At least when it scarred I wouldn't have
to explain anything. The teeth marks said all there was to say.
     I did a drive-past of  the motel, checking to see if there was anything
abnormal,  such as sixteen police cars and twice  as many shotguns, ready to
pounce.  Nothing. I parked up and walked past the reception. Looking through
the  glass  doors,  I  could see that  Donna was still  at reception,  still
reading whatever  was  so  riveting  below  the desk. There was  a  tray  of
Danishes next to  the coffee machine for the guests, and  a bowl of big  red
     Everything looked absolutely normal.
     I put my relaxed face on and headed  through  the  door. Three children
were fighting over who was going to carry what bag. I smelled the coffee and
remembered I was  hungry. Leaving the family to sort out its shit,  I walked
over to the machine, picked up coffees, four  apples and  the same amount of
pastries, and then went back over to Donna.
     "We've decided  to check out  early now we have  a  replacement car," I
said, breaking the corner off one of the Danishes and taking a bite.
     "Sure, no problem, but I'm afraid I'll have to charge you full price."
     She printed  out  the bill and I  checked it  to see if there were  any
phone calls logged. There weren't. I signed the card counter foil
     I went to the room. The two telltales were still  in place. Knocking on
the door, I made sure she could see me through the spy hole as I pulled them
     The  heat was stifling, and  the moisture from the drying  clothes  and
bodies had made it as humid as a  greenhouse. She'd gone back to watching Tv
sitting on  the edge of the bed, still with a towel around her. She took her
plate and coffee without looking at me, her eyes glued to the screen.
     "It's the third bulletin I've seen."
     As I joined her on the bed, I could see that it was a rerun of what I'd
heard on the radio. A reporter was talking with a background of police  cars
and vans,  and then the woods.  He  was  wearing a  brand-new blue  Gore-Tex
jacket,  probably bought on expenses at Sears  on  the way to the lake;  the
hood was down so that you could see his very perfect, plastic hair and face,
and he  was talking in that earnest here-weareatthe-scene tone of voice. The
shootings had  happened hours ago, but  he had to make it sound like the bad
guys could reappear any minute.
     I said, "Have they mentioned any details?"
     She was sounding quite excited.
     "Yes. They've all said it was two men at the gas station, but there are
unconfirmed reports that one of  them could be a woman. The FBI are  at both
scenes, but  there's  been no official statement  yet."  She took  a bite of
Danish and spoke through a mouthful of pastry.
     "That  woman in  the  blue Mazda must  have been  really scared  if she
couldn't see I was female."
     I had  to  agree. But  then  again, maybe  they  were going on the dogs
finding Sarah's underwear.  After another mouthful she  added, "There's been
no mention of Lance."
     I wasn't  bothered by that;  I knew  they wouldn't be  giving the media
everything  they  knew. Unless they hadn't found him yet. The main thing was
that no police had been killed.
     I stood up  and walked over to the window.  Her clothes were mostly dry
     "It's time to move. Get your kit on, let's go."
     She pulled her jeans on, and I knew what they would feel like stiff and
horrible. She got them on, bent her knees and did little squats to make them
a bit more pliable, dusted off the mud  and got  her top back on. As she put
on her size-eleven trainers she looked up at me.
     "Where are our new clothes?"
     "I forgot. Let's go!"
     We got  into the car and I drove.  She didn't  seem  to notice to start
with,  because  she was busy eating her apples and drinking coffee, but when
we  got  onto  the  highway  it  was obvious we were driving  away from  the
airport, not toward it. She frowned.
     "Where are we going?"
     She picked up the map sheet of the state that the hire company had left
for us.
     "But that's even farther away from Washington. Why Fayetteville?"
     "Because that's what I  want to  do: I want to be out of here and  in a
safe area that I know. Then I'll sort my shit out." I kept my  eyes open for
signs for the 401 south.
     Her face fell.
     "You are going to help me, aren't you, Nick?"
     I didn't answer.
     Keeping to the speed limit so as not to attract any police attention, I
drove along  the same road as before toward the city. Crossing the Cape Fear
bridge, I noticed a car park on the other  side, on the riverbank below  the
bridge, to allow fishermen and boats to get to the water. As we reached land
and passed the exit down to it, I made a mental note.
     Soon afterward we hit Fayetteville city limits, which seemed to consist
entirely of fast-food joints.
     "Why Fayetteville, Nick? Why are we here?"
     It was the sort of America she'd never seen, nor wanted to, by the look
on her face.
     "This is the only place  I know in North Carolina. I plan to  stand off
here until  London decides how they're going to get you, and me, back to the
U.K.  They'll  have  to  sort  this gang-fuck out with the  State Department
before we go anywhere,  or do anything.  Until then, we need to keep out  of
the way of the police--in fact, everyone."
     I glanced across and thought I  saw her stiffen. I knew she was rattled
about all this, but she was fucked if she was going to show it.
     I  drove  down  Skibo, and  Century 21 was just  as  I remembered it, a
logcabin-style  converted home set amongst pine trees, with a small car park
in front and a large neon sign jutting  out from the side of the road. But I
wasn't ready to  go in  yet; I needed  to sort my  act out and look at least
halfway presentable.
     I drove some more and found  a shopping area set around an open square.
Beyond that, way  over  to  my left, I saw the "Pentagon," and realized that
this must be part of the shopping mall I'd been to before. A large
     banner hung from a  York stone facade the  size of a row of  houses. It
announced that Sears department store was ready and waiting to take my money
any time  with its fantastic sportswear sale. I pulled in and buried the car
amongst a whole lot of other vehicles.
     She was staring at me.
     "What now?"
     "Clothes. I'll go on my own. What size are you?"
     "I've already told you I'm an eight, and my shoe is six, both U.S."
     Then she gave me a look that said, Can't you remember? You used to know
that stuff.
     Looking at her  as  she  smiled, I closed  the door and  walked  toward
Goody's Family Clothing Store.
     Half  an hour later I came back  with two bulging nylon sports bags. We
went into the Pentagon  and changed in the public toilets. I washed my  face
and  made an  attempt to dress my arm  injuries with some of  Goody's finest
dishcloths. I  should  have found a pharmacy, but I just couldn't  be assed;
there seemed to be more  important things to do. Besides, I was the original
one-stop  shopper. Once washed  and  changed I waited outside the  washrooms
with my  bag of old clothes. Nearby was a cell  phone  shop;  I went  in and
bought two $20 call cards and stopped off at the ATM.
     Sarah and I looked quite the devoted couple in our matching suburbanite
jeans  and  sweatshirts,  with  neat nylon  bomber  jackets for the rain. It
certainly made  me  feel a  lot better to be out of my mingy old kit, but my
eyes  were  stinging with fatigue and I had trouble focusing on anything for
too long. We got back to the car and threw the old stuff in the trunk.
     I was now into a new phase of the job.
     "You drive," I said, throwing the keys at her.
     "I'll tell you where."
     We drove onto the Century 21 lot and parked up amongst the fir trees.
     The  engine was  still running, and I looked across  the  carriage  way
toward a gas station, not really concentrating, but getting myself ready for
the next few minutes. These things have to look natural, and that can happen
only if you act natural. That takes just a bit of preparation.
     She was confused.
     "What are we doing now?"
     "Like I said, we are doing nothing. / am getting us somewhere to stay.
     The fewer people that see us together, the better. Wait here."
     I left the keys with her again. It was no drama, she was going nowhere;
     she wanted me to help  her. Besides, she knew that if she drove off I'd
have to call it in, and she would then be OTR (on the run) not only from me,
but also from the police, and the Firm would  have  no option but to  stitch
her up.
     I left her counting trucks and  went inside the  office.  I  recognized
Velvet  from  her voice as she took another phone inquiry  at  the speed  of
     Her  hair was long,  past her shoulders,  and she had a dyed-blond perm
that was long overdue for a refit. It had so much spray on it that the hairs
looked like strands of nylon. The skin on her arms and hands showed that she
was in  her  twenties,  but her fingers  were  yellow  and  she already  had
crow's-feet from screwing up her face to stop the cigarette smoke getting in
her  eyes. She looked pretty enough on  the  outside, but  I  wouldn't  have
wanted  to  look  down a fiber-optic  scope  into her  lungs.  My  eyes were
stinging more than ever.
     She finished her call and looked up.
     "Hi. How may I help you?"
     "Hi,  my  name's  Nick  Snell.  I  booked an  apartment with  you  this
     Before I'd finished she was  already  going into her files, and moments
later she nourished a key.
     "I'll  need you to fill out this form. I forgot to ask if you have  any
pets. If  so, they mustn't weigh more  than twenty  pounds  each and you are
only allowed two. How are you paying?"
     "No, I don't, and cash."
     At  last, a reaction from  her that  wasn't  fully automated; maybe she
liked the way I pronounced the word "cash." Two  minutes later I was heading
back to the car.
     I opened the map and  looked  for North Reilly  Road, which  Velvet had
told me was only a few minutes' drive away. Stewart's Creek turned out to be
a private  "community" with just one road in  and out; it opened up  into an
area of  about forty acres,  on  which sat twenty  or so  blocks  of  green,
wooden-facaded apartment blocks, three  stories high. We observed the 15 mph
limit as we entered our new neighborhood.
     "It's apartment one seven one two," I said, looking from side to side.

     guess that's  building seventeen." Sarah nodded and we splashed our way
through  the puddles, looking at the numbers on the large  gray  mail  boxes
arranged outside each block. We passed the community pool and tennis courts,
beside which stood a row of call booths and Coke and newspaper machines.
     "Got it." Sarah turned into number seventeen's parking lot.
     We  climbed the  wooden  stairs and entered  the  apartment.  The first
impression was, brown. There was  a  brown  sofa and chair around a tv and a
log fire in the fake-stone fireplace,  with a chain-mail curtain  to protect
the brown  carpet.  The living area  was  open plan,  with the kitchen  area
facing us as  we went in. At the far  end of the  room was a set of  sliding
patio  doors  with insect  mesh  on  the  outer side,  which led to a  small
     The place  smelled  clean  and  looked comfortable.  In  the  bedrooms,
blankets, sheets and towels were all laid out, ready for use. In the kitchen
there  was a welcome  pack of coffee, powdered creamer and sugar. Sarah went
into  the bedrooms, closing the blinds. I slipped  into the kitchen area and
switched on the freezer, turning the dial to "rapid." The sound of the motor
powering up was too noisy, so I put the fridge on as well.
     She came back into the living room as I was putting the kettle on.
     "Now what?" she asked, closing  the patio-door blinds to cut out prying
     "Nothing. You stay  here,  I'll  go and  get  food. I'm  starving.  The
kettle's on, why not make a brew?"
     I  drove to  the  nearest store, which was part of  a gas station,  and
bought the normal  supplies a couple of subs, chips,  canned drinks, washing
and shaving kit. Then I used my call card to dial Metal  Mickey from a phone
booth on the forecourt.  There was  no  answer from  his  extension  at  the
embassy, not even voice mail and the switchboard wouldn't take messages.
     Baby-G told me it was 18:36. He must have finished for the day. I tried
to remember his home number; I couldn't, shit. It got binned with the 3C.
     I returned to  the apartment. Sarah was lying on  the sofa half asleep,
TV on and with  no coffee made. I  threw her a sub and a bag of  chips,  and
turned to  reheat the  water. The yellow freezer light  told me it was still
working overtime to achieve quick freeze.
     Sarah eventually reached  out and  started to  pull  open her  food.  I
poured water into the coffee mugs.
     The annoying thing was  that  everything  she'd  said made sense; she'd
done nothing to show  she  was  lying. Why should she  trust anyone  back in
London? I knew from firsthand experience that the Firm was as slippery as an
eel in baby oil.
     I turned around to  face  her as  I placed the  coffee on the breakfast
     She was lying back with the sub on her chest, one mouthful missing.
     She'd closed down. I knew how she felt. I was knackered and my head was
starting to spin. I desperately needed sleep. I checked  that the front door
was locked and crashed out on one of the double beds, on top of the piles of
sheets, towels and blankets.
     It was still dark when  I woke. I turned and felt another body next  to
me. I hadn't heard or felt her come into the room.
     As my eyes adjusted to the dull light from the street lamps through the
blinds, I could make out  her shape. She was facing me, curled up, her hands
together, supporting  her head. It sounded as if she was having a bad dream.
She  mumbled to  herself and started to  move  her head  against  the folded
blanket. She'd never appeared more  vulnerable. I just lay there, looking at
     Her skin glowed in the warmth of the room, but her brow was furrowed.
     For a moment, she  almost seemed to  be in pain. I reached out to touch
her, just as  she gave  a small cry,  tossed and turned  once,  then settled
again. I could still smell the scent of apple shampoo in her hair.
     I  figured I'd been pretty  good at keeping people at arm's length ever
since I was a  kid. It didn't make life completely fucking brilliant, but it
kept  me going and  it  sure  as hell helped  avoid disappointment. This was
different, though. Very different.
     She murmured again and snuggled closer to me. I didn't know how to deal
with this at all. First Kelly, now Sarah. Any minute now I'd be checking out
real estate agents' particulars for the  dream cottage with roses around the
door. The full catastrophe. It scared the shit out of me.
     I'd never  been the  world's best when it came to staying in one place,
and I  started to have this  uncomfortable feeling that keeping on the  move
suited  me so  well because  it meant I didn't have to think too much  about
what I was running away from, or what I was heading toward.
     I could hear the TV still going in the next room. A woman was trying to
sell us a  great deal on a barbecue set. I rolled over, sat up and pulled at
the corner  of  the blinds. It  wasn't raining,  but I  could  see from  the
rivulets on the windows  that we'd had another downpour during the last  few
     The back lighter of Baby-G told me it was 02:54.
     I stood up slowly, trying not to  disturb her, and made my  way  toward
the  kitchen. Rubbing  my eyes back into life as I  passed the mirror on the
living room wall,  I  saw the  face from  hell;  creases  and  blotches from
sleeping on the towels, and my hair thick with grease, sticking up as if I'd
had  a good burst from a Tazer. I shuffled to the  kitchen, scratching every
fold of skin I could reach. It was coffee time.
     Sarah must have heard me banging about. Her voice behind me matched the
way I felt and looked.
     "I'd like one of those, please."  The TV went quiet as she hit "off" on
the remote.
     She sat on the sofa, looking sheepishly at the carpet, her arms between
her legs, as if she'd  been unmasked as human after all. I was expecting her
to say,  "Please don't tell anyone," but she didn't.  Instead she said, "I'm
sorry about that. Nick, I  just  felt  so alone  and scared. I  needed to be
close  to you." She  looked up  at  me.  Her  eyes  were  full  of pain, and
something  else  I  couldn't  quite identify,  but  found myself hoping  was
     "You did mean a lot to me. Nick. I just didn't know how to deal with it
at the time.  I'm  sorry for  how I behaved then, and I'm sorry for being so
stupid now." She paused, searching my face.
     "I won't do it again, I promise."
     I turned back to the coffee and tried to sound upbeat.
     "That's OK, no drama."
     What I really wanted to do was grab  her, hold her tightly  and pretend
for  a moment  that I  could make everything  all right.  But  I  was frozen
between  my memory of what  she'd done to me in the past  and what my orders
were for the future.
     I plugged in the kettle, feeling more and  more confused. I had a crack
at dragging myself back to the present.
     "I need Michael Wamer's home number."
     It didn't register with her at first.
     "Michael Warner. I want his home number."
     I  turned  and  glanced at  her. It  dawned  on  her that  I'd  been to
     She said, "What  did you tell  them?" I  didn't think I'd ever seen her
look more miserable.
     "That I  was reviewing  your  PV Anyway,  I've  talked  only  to  Metal
     I tipped last night's mugs into the sink and started again.
     "Metal Mickey." She started to laugh.
     "Great name!" Then her mood changed again.
     "Why do you need his number?"
     I brought the coffee over to her,  placing it on the low table in front
of the sofa.
     "I  had some questions I wanted him to research. He might  think it odd
if I don't call to get the answers."
     She thought for a while as she took her first sip, and then recited the
number.  I  didn't have a pen, but scratched it onto the front  of the phone
book with my car key and ripped the piece off.
     "I'll be back in a minute."
     She put down her brew and stood up.
     "It's a bit early, isn't it?" She was right, but I wanted to know.
     "Fuck him. He's paid twenty-four hours a day, isn't he?"
     The call boxes by the pool and courts were only about fifty meters away
across the road. To the right of them  were  the newspaper vending machines,
one with USA Today and the other with the Fayetteville  Observer Times Under
the  street lighting I could  just make out a  picture of the forest  on the
front page of the  Times. I  couldn't  be assed to  find out what they  were
     It really  had been  raining while  we were  asleep, and quite heavily,
judging by the size  of the puddles. It  was warm and damp and my sweatshirt
was starting to stick to my back. I  wished this  weather  would make up its
mind. I got out my bit of phone book and the call card and dialed.
     There  was a sleepy "Hello?" from  Metal  Mickey, very drowsy, but slow
and wary.
     "It's me. Nick. Sorry it's so early but I couldn't get to a phone. Have
you had  any luck?" I heard the rustling of bedclothes as he got comfortable
with the phone in his ear.
     "Oh, mmm yes, let me get my eyes on and I'm all yours." There was a gap
as he fumbled around for his glasses.
     I didn't want to be on the phone with him all night.
     "Our two  friends we spoke about, what are they up to for  the rest  of
this  week?" I turned  around to check  if anyone  was watching. Not that it
would  be unusual to  be  out telephoning at this hour,  as these apartments
didn't come with a phone. You had to connect your own.
     "Well, they've finished their work and will  spend Wednesday and a  bit
of Thursday just pressing flesh and  having  photo opportunities to show how
nice they are and how well things  have gone during  their visit. Isn't that
     "I'm sure it is, but where? Where is all this happening?"
     "Don't really know. In and around D.C." I suppose."
     "OK, mate. Now what about our American friend?"
     "Ah now, I think we need to meet  for that  one, Nick. I  don't  really
want to  discuss him on a land line, and a lot  of paperwork has come my way
that I think  you may want to read. I also have the information  you  wanted
about your other friend."
     Had he found  something sensitive, or was he just worried that when his
PV review came up, gob bing off on the phone would reflect badly on him?
     I said,  "OK, mate, I'll tell you what.  Same place as before, at 12:30
     today. You sponsor it."
     "Lovely, I'll see you then." There was a pause.
     "But what about...  the others?"  He was sounding more like the village
gossip with every word.
     "About  your other four  friends. You know, the ones who go on holidays
to the lakes."
     "Oh, yes, those friends. I'd forgotten, I have so many."
     "I know just  what  you mean, Nick. It's soooo hard  to keep track." He
paused again. I was going to have to work for this.
     "Who are they?"
     "Can't tell you!  Well, not over the phone, Nick. I  think you  need to
read what I have for you. It all links in very nicely with Girlie. It's like
a great big  jigsaw puzzle.  Isn't it exciting! See you  tomorr " "Remember,
you sponsor." I had to cut in to make sure he knew.
     "Byeee." I didn't  know if he'd understood what I meant, but  I'd  find
out soon enough.
     I replaced the receiver and turned to walk back to the apartment. Sarah
was halfway across the car park and storming toward me. I stayed where I was
and let her come to me.
     She was shaking with anger.
     "Are you going to kill me?" She jabbed my chest with every word.
     "Is that what the phone call's all about?"
     "Don't be stupid," I said.
     "Why would I drag  you all the  way here  "  "I saw the  freezer light,
Nick. Don't lie to me."
     "What? It must have come on when I turned on the fridge."
     "Bullshit! They're on separate plugs. Do I look stupid? You're lying to
me. Nick!"
     I looked around to make  sure no  one was watching. This wasn't exactly
Times  Square, and raised voices  on the  street  in the early  hours of the
morning were sure to bring police or private security cars. I  put my finger
to my lips. She lowered her tone, but still laid into me.
     "Why don't  you believe me, for Christ's  sake? Why don't  you  believe
what I'm trying to tell  you?"  Her throat tightened and tears welled up  in
her eyes. It was the first time I'd ever seen her cry.
     "I can't believe you were going to do that. I thought I meant something
to you."
     I discovered I was feeling guilty, probably as guilty as I ever had.
     "What after  you froze me, Nick?  Was it the  wood-shredder to grind me
up, like you did with those two in Afghanistan? Bag me up,  then down to the
river and feed the fish? They ordered a T104, didn't they? Didn't they?"
     I shook my head slowly.
     "You're wrong, Sarah, you are--" She wasn't having any of it.
     "You  were going to do  the same  to  me as  you did to those two  muj,
weren't you? Weren't you. Nick?"
     I held her by the shoulders.
     "You're talking shit,  the freezer must have been on already. Listen to
me, I believe you, I really do, but it changes nothing. I  am still going to
take  you back  to London." The words were said  with  conviction;  I wasn't
lying about either of those  things now. It made it easier as  I looked into
her eyes.
     "But, Nick, if you believe me,  you've got to help me.  You're the only
one I can trust." She shook her head and turned her back on me.
     What a fucking irony!"
     "Sarah, listen, I don't care what happens in Washington. The only thing
I do care about is getting out of here with both of us alive."
     She turned back to me, tears streaming down her face, then wrapped both
arms around my waist and buried her head  in my chest.  She started  to  cry
even harder; I wanted to do something,  but just didn't  know what. I looked
up at the clouds and let her get on with it.
     The crying switched back to anger and she pushed me away.
     "You  used to  care for  me, Nick. Haven't you any fucking boundaries?"
She covered her face with her hands, wiping away the tears.
     "I can't believe you were going to kill me, or even think of it."
     "No, Sarah, no ... I wasn't..."
     The  crying  changed  to convulsive  sobs. It  sounded as  if she  were
haveing a breakdown.
     "I got it  so wrong, Nick, so fucking wrong ... I  thought I had it all
worked out... all under control... I even trusted you. How could I have been
so stupid?"
     I stroked her cheek wordlessly, then ran my fingers through her hair as
she carried on.
     "You  were right... you were right. I wanted to be the one, I wanted to
do it all  myself... I wanted it so badly, it just got  out of control. Once
it  started I couldn't  go  anywhere  for help, I had  to  go it alone." She
squeezed me hard and carried on sobbing.
     "What am I going to do. Nick?
     Or maybe you don't care?"
     It was  pointless asking  me.  I  was still trying to get over  my  own
     Fucking  hell,  I'd got  so  far  down  the line that I'd  switched the
freezer  on. How could  I  have done that to her? Maybe I  didn't have moral
boundaries like normal people.  Was I always  going to be the  freak without
     She was still in remorse  overload; it was  as  if she  was talking  to
     "I  could have  done something about  it in  the beginning,  but no,  I
wanted to be the one to get the credit. I'm so sorry, so sorry. Oohhh, shit,
what have I done, Nick?"
     She squeezed her arms around me even more, desperately wanting support.
     I put my arms around her and she sobbed her heart out. I wanted to give
her the comfort she needed, but just didn't have the tools. I'd never really
needed them.
     "I don't know what to do, Sarah," I whispered.
     "Just hold me. Nick, just hold me."
     I hugged her tighter. I felt strangely good about what I was  doing. We
stood  there for  minutes, rocking gently  in  each  other's arms,  her sobs
slowly subsiding. I doubted there were any more tears left for her to cry.
     She wiped  her face on  my shirt.  I  tried  to lift her chin,  but she
     "I'm sorry,  Nick.  I'm just so  sorry..."  She moved away from me  and
wiped  her  face  with her  palms, the  sniffles starting  to  slow  down in
frequency as she regained some of her composure.
     "Sarah, where are they going to make the hit?"
     She looked up, breathless.
     "The White House, tomorrow."
     "How? How will they do it?" I needed to know for when I called London.
     It would be my justification for returning with  her alive. She was  in
the shit, I understood that, but  so  would I be if I  helped her and hadn't
prepared my tuppence worth for the inquiry that was bound to follow.
     She sniffed loudly.
     "There's a photo call on the White House lawn with Clinton, Arafat  and
Netanyahu. They'll give a press conference, then there'll be a ceremony with
white doves and songs for peace, kids singing, all that sort of nonsense for
the cameras. I don't know  any more. The two  that  were  arriving yesterday
from Washington had all the  details. The team works in just the same way as
we do: no details until the last minute.
     All  we  knew was  that  we were already accredited  to enter the White
House as news crew."
     "So that's why the old guy had a suit?"
     She nodded.
     "We were  going to be part  of Monica Beach. Oh, shit, Nick,  how did I
ever think I could do this on my own?"
     Monica Beach was what the media called the area of the White House that
TV crews gave their reports from, because ever since the Lewinsky affair, it
had been even more crowded than Santa Monica beach.
     My  first reaction  was that it sounded  more like something out of a B
movie than a real plan.
     "It wouldn't work; they'd never get out of there."
     The tears started again.
     "Nick, these people don't care. Survival isn't an  issue. Look who they
have  for their  inspiration.  Bin Laden's devoted his  life to driving  the
Russians  out  of  Afghanistan, and  is  now doing  the  same  to drive  the
Americans  from Saudi.  He  both  finances  and  inspires  them.  Pakistani,
Palestinian, even  Americans. Dying is  not an issue with  these people, you
know that."
     I found myself nodding.
     "If  you can't attack your enemy, you  attack the friend of your enemy.
And  what  better way  to show the world that even  the mighty  U.S.A. can't
protect anyone  from Allah's  vengeance, even  in  its own  backyard." As  I
spoke, I realized what  a fucking idiot I'd been, just keeping my head down,
concentrating  on the  job, trying  not to think about where  all  this  was
     "Shit, Sarah, explain to me in detail, the kids singing and white doves
     I could see her  scrolling through her memory for the  information; she
took a breath and wiped her nose as she gathered her thoughts.
     "After a press  conference,  there's  going to  be a ceremony involving
about two hundred kids. They'll present a peace quilt made from patches sewn
in the U.S." Israel and Palestine  to the three  leaders on the  White House
lawn, in  front  of the North Portico. The kids will sing songs of peace and
white doves  will be  released  as Netanyahu, Arafat and  Clinton  hold  the
blanket for the cameras."
     Now I knew what had been troubling me. My heart started pounding and  I
thought I was going to  vomit. I sounded surprisingly calm for someone whose
mind was working at warp speed.
     "My friend's kids are going to be there ..."
     There was a look of horror on her face.
     "Oh, shit.  Nick, one of the options  was  a bombing. It  wasn't  their
first choice, but now, who knows?
     Without the assault weapons, it will  be the easiest way." She  started
to cry again.
     I  grabbed  her and  forced her to look me  in the face.  Her eyes were
puffed up, her cheeks wet and red.
     "Sarah, I've got to make a call."
     She started to beg.
     "Please  don't, Nick.  Calling won't solve it.  Your friend's  children
might be saved, but the others will still die."
     I  put my hand  up  to her mouth. I  understood what she  was saying. I
couldn't call Josh anyway: he would only get back just in time for the final
rehearsal. Did  I give a fuck  about the other kids? Yes, of  course  I did,
just not as much as I did about Josh's.
     "I have to call someone to get his number, that's all."
     I strode back to the bank of phones, got the phone card out and dialed.
     Miss Grenfell-Brodie answered. I said,  "Hello, it's Nick Stone  again.
I'm very sorry to  bother  you,  but would  it be possible to talk to Kelly?
I'll phone back in fifteen minutes if that's all right."
     She was obviously getting used to this. I could almost hear her sigh.
     "Yes, of course, but please  try not to do this too much, Mr. Stone. It
disrupts her routine. Phone calls  can be arranged through this office  at a
more convenient time for everyone concerned."
     "Thank you  for  telling  me,  I wasn't aware of  that. It won't happen
again, I promise. Could you ask her to bring her address book with her?"
     "Yes,  of  course.  She will  be  brushing  her  teeth.  She's just had
     I will fetch her."
     "Thank you." I put the phone down. I did know about booking calls.
     But then again, fuck 'em. Who was paying the bills?
     Sarah arched an eyebrow.
     "Who is Kelly?"
     "Never mind."
     We stood there waiting. I could see that she was dying to say something
more, but she knew me well enough to know I wasn't in the mood to answer.
     As I stood by the phones,  more  and  more anxious  about being seen, I
realized that I no longer had to be. I could call  Kelly from the mobile. We
walked back toward the apartment in silence, Sarah still with her arm around
my waist.
     As I closed the door behind us,  she went to wash her face. I  put  the
kettle on. I thought about what Sarah had  said.  I didn't normally remember
the deaths I'd  seen,  but I could see the  body of Kelly's little sister as
clearly as  if she'd been  slaughtered  yesterday. Whatever happened, Josh's
kids  weren't going to  go the same way. But should I tell him, and risk him
doing his job and  telling the Secret Service? I would in his shoes, but did
it even matter? Would the ceremony go on if he did? Yes, of course it would.
But what about the source? Would it affect the timing of the hit?
     As  the  kettle did its stuff I bent down to  pull the deep-freeze plug
from its  socket, then stopped myself.  Things  had changed, but  pulling it
would show her that  she'd been right about me.  I decided to leave it where
it was.
     I walked around the breakfast bar toward the  sofa. What the tuck was I
going to do about this situation? My first reaction was to tell Josh and get
him not to tell a soul, but that wasn't going to  work. Even if, like me, he
didn't give a shit about the brass  in  the White  House, he would about the
kids. Then he'd be smack in the middle of the same predicament as me.
     Some of  them must  be his  friends'  kids, and  then  friends  of  his
     Soon every fucker would know the score.
     Sarah came from the bedroom, her eyes still red, even after her wash up
     She saw the steam rising from the kettle and walked past me to make the
brews. I checked my watch.
     A different female voice answered this time.
     "Oh, yes, she's on her way, she should be here any moment."
     "Thank  you." I cradled the phone in my shoulder, expecting a wait, but
almost at once got "Hi! Why are you calling me again, what's up?"
     At first I thought I should try  not to  sound as if I was talking to a
child, then I decided not to bother.
     "Nothing, just checking you've cleaned your teeth."  It got a laugh out
of her.
     "Have you got your address book with you?"
     "Sure have."
     "All  right then,  I'm after Josh's  number, because I'm  going to  the
airport in a minute. Guess what? I'm going to  Washington and maybe I'll get
to see him."
     "I know, but I need the phone number and I've left it at home."
     "Oh, OK." I could hear  the pages  flicking in  her Spice Girls address
book. At  the bottom of each page was a  multiple-choice profile and a space
to insert the "cool factor" of the person the page was about. I'd felt quite
proud  to see  that she'd  circled  "funny and weird" as my description, and
given me a OF of 8 out of 10.  But that had all  crashed before my eyes as I
turned  to the  next page  and saw her  grandparents circled  as  "kind  and
gentle" and given  a  OF  of 10. Perhaps  I'd  have  to  start  tucking  her
pullovers into her jeans all the time if I wanted to up my cred.
     She reeled  off the number and I  scratched it on  the piece  of  phone
book, then tapped it into the phone as we talked.
     "Nick, why are you going to America?"
     "I'm going with a friend. Her name is Sarah."
     I looked  over at her. She was staring  quizzically,  trying to work it
out. I was sure she knew it was a child. Those things are hard to hide.
     I said, "My friend Sarah is going to do some work in Washington and I'm
going with her. Hey, would you like to speak to her?"
     "OK." There was a slight reluctance in her voice. Maybe she sensed that
things were about to get complicated. I didn't want to tell her they already
were. Sarah came to the settee with two full coffee mugs.
     I passed over the phone and said, "Sarah, this is Kelly. Kelly wants to
say hello."
     She fixed her eyes on me as she spoke.
     "Hello?" There was a gap, then, "Yes, that's right. Sarah."
     I  kept looking at  her and hoped  this was  the right thing  to do. It
might come in handy, later. Sarah was still talking.
     "Yes, I'm going to Washington.
     What do I do? I'm a lawyer. Yes, I'm just going over to  work, just for
a few days, and Nick is coming with me." She was obviously getting the third
     "Oh, yes, a  long time, but I hadn't seen him for years. Yes,  OK, I'll
pass him back. Nice to talk to you, Kelly, goodbye."
     "Will you still call me next week?"
     "I promise.  Don't worry, this isn't instead of next week's phone call.
I'll see you soon, no worries."  I  was just  about to carry out our  normal
routine at the end of  a call, but checked  myself. This one was  different.
Shit, this could be the last time I spoke to her.
     "Hey, Kelly."
     "I love you."
     She sounded slightly  quizzed  at me  saying it first,  but  very happy
     "I love you, too!"
     "Bye bye."  I slowly took the  phone  away from my ear and switched  it
off, not too sure how I felt about letting it all hang out.
     "How old is she?"
     "Nine last week" "You kept that quiet, didn't you?"
     "She's a friend's child."
     "Of course."
     "No,  she is." I thought  about telling  her about Kev  and Marsha, but
decided against it.
     She sat next to me on the sofa and cupped both hands around her coffee,
still puffy-eyed.
     "You OK?"
     She nodded, trying to regain some sort of composure.
     "Yes. Look, thanks for ... I don't know what came over me."
     As we drank our coffee I explained my plan. We would go to  D.C." and I
would  look at what Metal Mickey thought was so worth looking  at. Depending
on what I found, I would then decide whether to tell Josh, or just go for it
     I was  feeling uncomfortable about the  Josh situation, but cut away by
trying  to justify it to myself by the  fact that he  wouldn't be back until
early  this afternoon, and by then I'd be with Mickey. So  it wasn't as if I
was  abusing  our friendship. I  took  another  sip  and  decided  that  was
     Deep down, I knew I was.
     Everything we did  now  would be paid  for and ordered by Sarah, in the
name of Sarah  Darnley. It was  part of her security blanket. There must not
be any movement detected on my credit card or phone. We went back
     down to the call box and called the ticket line. We were going to leave
for Washington National on the 8:50 a.m. from Raleigh.
     After showering and sorting our  shit  out we drove north, back  toward
Raleigh. There was a constant flow of early morning commuter traffic. It was
cloudy,  but  no  need for  wipers  yet. First light had passed us by  as we
headed out of the  city, stopping only to buy  some coffee and a plain  blue
baseball cap for Sarah from  a gas station. I had one hand  on the wheel and
was sipping coffee through the gap in the  top of the  container when Sarah,
who'd been keeping one eye on her wing mirror, turned off the radio.
     "Nick, we have a problem."
     Behind us, and to  our  right,  was  a  Fayetteville  blue and white. I
stopped at the lights as Sarah started  to draw her pistol, placing it under
her right thigh. On the  basis of  her performance so far, the mere sight of
it got me flapping.
     "Sarah, let me do this."
     She didn't reply. The cruiser came up level.  My heart started to pound
big time. Both of the patrolmen, one black, the other Hispanic, were wearing
black, short-sleeved  shirts  and  sunglasses,  even  at this  time  of  the
morning. Their chests looked bigger than they  actually  were,  due  to  the
protection they wore under their shirts. The driver was staring  at us both,
the  Hispanic  was  facedown,  looking at a  screen  attached to  the  dash,
probably carrying out a plate check on  our car. I smiled like  an idiot  at
the driver. What was I supposed to do? He wasn't giving me any instructions.
     It  was Sarah who switched on. She opened  her window, and at the  same
time  I could see the  black  trooper  doing the same. His mustache  met his
glasses,  with acne-scarred cheeks  each side. I couldn't see his eyes, only
what he was looking at in his mirrored lenses, but his demeanor told me that
I wasn't on his Christmas card list.
     Sarah came to the rescue.
     "Hello, Officer, can  I help you? Is there something wrong?"  Her voice
was outrageous; it was the  fluffiest damselin-distress impression I'd  ever
     The  policeman  would  have heard  it many  times  before, only not  in
Cambridge English.  He  drawled, "Yes, ma'am. The driver of this  vehicle is
violating  the Federal Highway  Code  by  consuming a  beverage while at the
controls of a moving vehicle."
     She said  breathily,  "I'm so  sorry, Officer, we didn't realize. We're
just on vacation from England and ..."
     The black  policeman  got  the  OK from  his  mate. The check had  come
through. He nodded back at him, then turned toward us. He  looked  at me and
jutted his jaw.
     The lights  had  changed  to green, but  no one was going to hit  their
     I smiled like the dickhead tourist I was determined to be.
     "Sir, please don't consume beverages on the highway. It's an offense."
     "I'm sorry, Officer, it won't happen again."
     Trying hard not to let a smile reach his face he drawled, "Y'all have a
nice day," and they drove off.
     At  the  airport  I  abandoned  the  car  in the  long-term  car  park.
Formalities such as handing it back to the rental  company didn't figure  on
my list of things to do today.
     I  waited outside the terminal while Sarah went in and got the tickets.
I  needed to call Josh's number, hoping to leave a message. Getting it clear
in my head what I wanted to say, I hit the keypad.
     A heavily Hispanic female voice answered, "Heelo? Heelo?"
     "Oh hi, is this Josh's number?"
     "Yes. Can I leave a message for him?"
     "No Jish."
     "Can I leave a message?"
     "Jish no here."
     "I know that. I want to leave a message."
     "I say to Jish. Goodbye."
     The phone  went  dead. I felt as if  I'd wandered into Fawlty Towers. I
redialed as Sarah came out of the terminal. She saw me and headed over.
     She passed,  handed me my ticket and carried on  walking. We were going
to travel as two separate individuals.
     "Heelo? Heelo?"
     I could hear a vacuum cleaner in the background. I said, "Please say to
Jish, Nick is flying to Washington today."
     "OK. Ees Nick."
     We were getting warmer.
     "What... time ... is ... he ... home?"
     "He no home." Maybe not so warm.
     "Muy bien, much  as  gracias, senorita," I said, using rusty stuff  I'd
learned while garrisoned on Gibraltar as a young squaddie. Then I added  the
only other Spanish phrase I knew: "Hasta la vista, baby."
     I checked in and made my way to  the gate area. The  front pages of the
state newspapers glared at me as I  passed the  newsstand.  The main picture
seemed to be a fuzzy black-and-white still from a CCTV video of Sarah and me
lifting the van. She was  still looking like a sperm, T-shirt over her head;
I was side-on with  my head uncovered. It must have been  taken at the point
when the dog and I were about to have a major disagreement.
     I decided not to  buy the paper or hang around. The newsstand was  part
of the shop where I'd bought the  maps  of the lakes; maybe it would be  the
same woman behind the counter, and she could put two and two together.
     I walked to the gate area and waited.
     The  hour-long  flight was  late landing. The  Ronald  Reagan  National
Airport, Washington's main domestic terminal,  is a stone's  throw  from the
capital, on  the west bank of the Potomac River and  southwest of D.C." near
the Pentagon. You can see the traffic jams around Capitol Hill as you land.
     I  disembarked behind Sarah,  who  was  following the  rest of the herd
toward the baggage area. We'd both packed our weapons  in our bags;  being a
domestic flight, there wasn't much of  a risk. I collected  my holdall  from
the carousel and walked off to the phones. It was 10:27 a.m.
     My Mexican friend was quick to answer.
     "No Jish," she said.
     "Mas tarde. He home two o'clock." Then she put the phone down.
     Getting  anywhere in D.C.  by taxi  at  this time  of day is a wish. If
you're in a hurry, the best bet is the Metro. As I headed toward the airport
station, Sarah linked up with me with her head down, baseball cap on. At the
machines I checked the map and put in two one-dollar bills for my ticket.
     "RV back here, by the machines, at two o'clock?"
     She shook her head.
     "No, not here. I'll meet you somewhere in town.
     There's more chance of me being seen here." It was clear by the way she
studied the instruction panel  that, in  all the time  she'd lived  in  this
city, she'd never used  the Metro. I took the change out of  the cup with my
ticket and put in some more money for her as she looked at the map.

     need to keep out of town for now," she said.
     "No need to expose myself  too much.  I'll go south  and hold off for a
     "Do you know the Barnes and Noble on M, in Georgetown?"
     Still studying the map, she nodded.
     "Two o'clock."
     As we moved toward the barriers, I checked the signs and pointed her to
her platform.
     "See you  at  two."  The peak  of her  cap nodded  and headed down  the
     The rules of the Washington Metro are simple: the  answer to everything
is  No. No smoking, no eating,  no Walkmans, litter  or pets. If you're good
boys  and girls you can  read  the newspaper.  The station was as  stark and
clean as the set of  asci-fi film, with its streamlined, dark-gray  concrete
and moody lighting.
     The lights  set  into the platform  flooring started  to flash, warning
that a train was about to arrive. Moments  later, a string  of sleek  silver
carriages whispered alongside and the doors opened silently.
     I  was  heading  north on  the Blue  Line.  It  would  take me past the
Pentagon,  which  has  its  own  Metro  station,  and the Arlington National
Cemetery, then eastward under the Potomac to Foggy Bottom, the  nearest stop
for Georgetown and the M and 23rd Street junction.  I came out of  the Metro
and onto the busy street feeling cleaner than when I'd gone in.
     Checking the map on the  wall at the station entrance, I saw that I had
just  over a ten-minute walk  to  the RV  As  I headed north, I noticed  the
improvement  in  the weather. Only 50  percent  cloud  cover  and  no  rain.
Compared with the downpours of the last couple of days, it was heaven.
     Bread and  Chocolate on 23rd was teeming with office workers enjoying a
lunchtime sandwich and coffee. I had just crossed M, and was on the opposite
side  of the road,  walking toward Sarah's apartment. Metal  Mickey seemed a
bit  of  an airhead and I  didn't want to get fucked  over  and lifted while
tucking  into  a sticky  bun and cappuccino. I  didn't expect  the RV  to go
wrong,  but these things have  to  be  done  right; complacency is  a  tried
and-tested  shortcut  to a disability pension, or worse. Anyone  could  have
been  listening to his calls,  or he might  simply  have got  cold  feet and
decided to seek  advice. They would then use  him to get  to  me, the  K who
should have been in North Carolina dealing with Sarah.
     I bumbled on,  not looking  directly  through the window,  but checking
things out  all the same. If a  trigger  was on the shop and a weirdo walked
past staring at the place, it would be a good bet that he was the target.
     Things were  looking fine; I  couldn't  see anyone sitting  in cars  or
hanging about, but that wasn't necessarily significant. Whether or not I was
getting set up by Metal Mickey, they could just as easily have put a trigger
on him.  And if he'd said anything to  the Firm, I'd know as soon  as I  met
     I didn't have him down as the sort of  man who could tell lies with his
body language.
     I walked past the 7-Eleven-type store on my right and noticed  it had a
small coffee and Danish area, busily taking its share of the office workers'
dollars. There wasn't much going on in  there,  either, just people  filling
their faces and catching up on gossip.
     I  got  to  the junction and  turned left on  N.  Walking about another
thirty  meters, I was more or less level with the entrance to Sarah's block.
The water  system  was working overtime again  on the  flower garden. If I'd
been triggered as I did my walk-past  they would now be behind  me, thinking
that I was heading for the apartment.
     Two   attractive  black  women  were  approaching  from   the  opposite
direction,  coffee and pretzels in  their hands. I would  have no  more than
three seconds in which to check. They passed, laughing and talking loudly.
     Now was the time. I turned to give them an  admiring glance in that way
that  men  think  they  do  so  unobtrusively.  The  two  women  gave  me  a
You-should-be-so-lucky-white-boy look and got back to their laughing.
     There were three candidates  beyond them. A middle-aged couple  dressed
for the office turned the corner, coming from the same direction as me,  but
they looked more  preoccupied in staring  into each other's eyes for as long
as possible before it was time to go home to their wife or husband.
     Then again, good operators would  always make it  look  that  way.  The
other possible was coming from straight ahead, on N Street, on the same side
as  Sarah's  apartment.  He  was  wearing  blue  jeans  and a short-sleeved,
dark-green shirt with the tail hanging  out,  the way I would if I wanted to
cover my weapon and radio.
     I faced back the way I was walking. You can only do so much checking.
     If these were operators, the couple would now be overtly cooing to each
other;  but instead  of  sweet nothings they'd be  reporting on  what I  was
getting up to, on a radio net, telling control and the other operators where
I was, what I was wearing,  the color  of  my bag  and which shoulder it was
being carried on. And if they were good, they would also report that I could
be aware, because of the look back.
     I carried on the last twenty meters to the end of  the block and turned
left. I was now on  24th Street  and  paralleling 23rd. This was  the second
corner  I  had turned; if there was a technical device or trigger on our  RV
there could be people stood off around the other  side of the block, waiting
for the word to move. Nothing seemed to  look that way, just lots of traffic
and people lining up to buy lunch at the pretzel stalls.
     The couple  were still  with me.  Maybe  they wanted pretzels, or maybe
they'd told Green Shirt that they could take  the  target around the corner,
toward M Street. Stopping at  the last of the three stalls,  I bought a Coke
and watched the area  I'd just come from. The lovers were now at  the middle
stall,  doing the same. I moved off, got to  M and turned left, back  toward
23rd and the  RV  Three corners had now been turned in a circular route;  an
unnatural thing to do. I moved into an office doorway and opened my Coke. If
the lovers came past, I would bin the RV, but then  again, any good operator
wouldn't turn the third corner. I  hated clearing an  area, especially if it
was me going into the RV It was so hard to be sure.
     Nothing happened during the five minutes it took me to finish the  can,
so now seemed the  ideal time  to get my weapon out of the  bag; apart  from
anything else, fishing around  like  a tourist looking for a map  gave me an
excuse  to  be standing there  now that  I'd  finished  drinking. I  sneaked
together the Chinese  thing and its mag, which I'd split for the flight, and
tucked  it into my  jeans, ensuring that the jacket covered it and the catch
was off, so it could  be used in  the  semiauto  mode. Moving  off again,  I
eventually turned back onto 23rd and into the 7Eleven.
     I bought a Danish, a newspaper and the biggest available cup of coffee,
and  sat  at  a  table that  gave  me  a good trigger  on the RV  There were
twenty-five minutes to go.
     I watched as people  walked past from both directions, on both sides of
the street.  Were  they doing walk-pasts  to see if  we were in there?  This
wasn't paranoia, it was attention to detail; it doesn't work like it does in
the  movies,  with fat  policemen  sitting  in their car  right  outside the
target, engine running, moaning about their wives and eating doughnuts.
     No  one  went  in and came  straight  out again; no  one walked  around
muttering into their collar.  All of which  meant either they weren't there,
or they were very good indeed.
     Cars, trucks and taxis trundled  past from right to left on the one-way
system. As the traffic  stopped for  a red at  the junction with M, I pinged
Metal  Mickey sitting in the back of a  cab, well down in his seat with  his
head resting on  the back. I couldn't  see his eyes, but I hoped that he was
also taking the trouble to clear  his route.  Maybe he wasn't as  much  of a
numb nut as I'd thought. The traffic moved on and he went with it.
     If  there was  one thing  I hated more than clearing  an area  before a
meet,  it was the  meet itself. It's at simple events like this  that people
get killed, in the way that  a traffic cop stopping a car for  jumping a red
light might land up getting shot by the driver.
     I sat,  watched  and  waited. It wouldn't look abnormal to the  staffer
anyone  else for me to be spending that amount  of time there. The place was
packed and the size of the coffee signaled that I wasn't a man in a hurry. I
checked around  me again, just to be sure  that  I wasn't  sitting next to a
     It had happened to me once, outside Deny;  it was late  at night, and I
was waiting in a car  waiting to lift a player, only to discover,  as a  JCB
tried to crush the car and me with its bucket, that I was parked in front of
his  brother's  house. Maybe they'd always done that  with any dickhead they
spotted picking his nose outside.
     Mickey  appeared  right  on time, but  not  from  the  direction  I was
expecting him to. He came from the right, the same direction from which he'd
approached in the cab. He  was dressed in the same loud suit and  neon shirt
as before. Perhaps he thought I'd have problems IDing him. He was carrying a
laptop bag, with the strap over his right shoulder. Was what he wanted me to
see on hard disk, and the dickhead had  actually brought it with  him? Maybe
he wasn't so switched on.
     I knew from our last meet that he was right-handed, and noted  that his
jacket was done up; chances were, he wasn't carrying. Not that it meant that
much  at this stage, but these things  needed to  be  thought  about in case
things went tits up.
     Having cleared his route,  he showed no hesitation about going into the
cafe. Good man. He did understand  about sponsoring the meet. He knew I'd be
watching him, and covering his ass as well as mine.
     I watched for  another five minutes past the RV  time; if I didn't walk
over to meet  him he would wait another twenty-five minutes before  leaving,
then  try again tomorrow at the same time.  Nothing that I could see told me
the RV was compromised. I got off my stool and binned the rest of the coffee
and Danish, checking that my weapon wasn't  about to clatter onto the floor.
I  hated not having  an internal holster; I'd already lost  my  weapon twice
because of it. I walked outside and checked once more as I crossed the road.
Nothing. Fuck it, there's only so much checking you can do.
     As I pulled the door toward me I saw his back  in line  at the counter.
The  place was  still packed. I walked past  him  and did my surprised, "Hi!
What are you doing here?" He turned and smiled that happy  I-haven'tseen-you
for-a-while look, and we shook hands.
     "Great to see you, it's been ... ages." He beamed.
     "Join me for a coffee and something sinful?"
     I took a look around. All the seats were taken.
     "Tell you what," I said, "the  place across the street isn't  so  full,
let's  go there." His smile got even  bigger  as  he agreed. When we got out
onto the street he slapped me on the shoulder.
     "I'm sooo glad you said that. It's like that every lunchtime, you know.
I don't know why I bother going there."
     To  my surprise, he didn't  make  as if  to cross the street,  starting
instead  to walk  toward  N.  I  fell into  step beside him and  shot  him a
quizzical look.
     Mickey put his arm  around my shoulder and said, "We'll  go to Sarah's,
it's a bit more private." He patted his computer bag.
     "I've even brought some milk  to go with the  Earl Gray.  Do  you know,
there's a little  shop in  Georgetown that gets it straight from  Sir Thomas
Lipton himself!" He was very pleased with himself; maybe he was  hoping  I'd
take special note of his initiative when I filed my report. Fuck the milk; I
wanted to see what was next to it.
     As we walked along  23rd, I carried on playing the part of best mate in
nice-to-see-you mode. I couldn't decide whether he was  really good, or away
with the fairies. Either way, I was glad I could run faster than him and had
a weapon.
     "I'll leave the clearing to you now," he said.
     "You're probably much better at it than I am."
     I laughed and nodded  in response, so that anyone watching would assume
he'd just made a joke.
     "By the way," he grinned,  "the man sitting on the corner? He's  always
around here;  he works in the apartments. I know you'll be keeping an eye on
     I looked around and saw Green  Shirt,  sitting on the wall to the right
of Sarah's apartment, smoking.
     "Just in case you started to worry. You  may have seen him on your area
     I certainly did on my drive-past; in fact I always look out for him. It
makes me feel better to know he's there." He gave me a cherubic smile.
     We  reached  the entrance and  the  water system was still drowning the
flowers. Wayne was  behind the desk, leaning back in his chair and reading a
newspaper.  It  was  like watching an action  replay; they both had the same
clothes on  and  even  the dialogue was the same: "Hello, Wayne, how are you
     Wayne  put down his paper  and grinned like an idiot. He  was obviously
having a really good day again.
     "I'm very good. And how are you today?"
     "I'm  just  Jim  Dandy." The  corners  of  Mickey's mouth  were  almost
touching his  ears. As we walked toward him, Wayne turned his fall attention
to me. I really felt as if I was being welcomed to the asylum.
     "How are  you today? Do  you still need that car space? If you want it,
you got it!"
     I said, "I'll certainly bear it in mind. Thanks."
     He put his hand up.
     "Hey, no problem."
     We reached the desk and Metal Mickey switched his camp game-show host's
voice into overdrive:  "Wayne, I  bet  if you looked in the delivery  drawer
you'd find a large UPS envelope addressed to Sarah."
     Wayne had a look, rummaged around for a moment and handed it over.
     "Why, thank you, Wayne, I hope you continue to have a very nice day!"
     We said our good-byes and walked to the elevator. He saw me looking  at
the envelope; as the elevator doors closed he raised an eyebrow.
     "Why, Mr. Snell, you didn't expect me to carry the material around with
me, did you?"
     Sarah's  apartment was just as  I'd  left it. There was even the  faint
aroma of burned food hanging in the air. Metal Mickey wrinkled his nose.
     "Cooking--the other night," I explained, closing the door behind us.
     "Ooh, that's what it is." He walked toward the kitchen.
     "I'd ask for the recipe, but..." He twitched his nose again.
     "Can  I get you  some tea?" He threw the envelope  onto the settee  and
unzipped his bag.
     I  walked over and sat down beside it, checking my  watch. The envelope
looked quite thick, but I had plenty of time before my RV with Sarah.
     I heard the kettle being filled as I ripped open the UPS plastic outer.
Inside was a brown envelope, sealed with Sellotape.
     Metal Mickey came back into the room.
     "They're  printouts, and they are now your responsibility." He couldn't
help looking rather pleased with himself.
     "How did you get all this?" I asked.
     He gave an impish smile and his eyes twinkled.
     "Ask no questions, you'll be told no lies;  that's  what my dear mother
always used to say." He came over and sat down next to me.
     "However,  I  have a  friend," his fingers mimed  quote marks "who  has
access  to Intelink." He clasped his hands together between his legs and did
a pretty good impression of a Cheshire cat. It was the most pleased I'd seen
him, and he had every reason to be.
     Intelink was switched on  in 1994. The need for real-time  intelligence
had  never  been  so  acute,  as the  Gulf  War  demonstrated  when  General
Schwarzkopf  very  loudly  complained that the spooks  had failed to produce
satellite imagery fast enough. The network was soon being  used as a central
pool  by  all  thirty-seven  members  of  the  United  States   Intelligence
Community,  from  the CIA to FINCEN (Financial Crimes Enforcement  Network),
plus  other groups connected with national security and the military. I knew
that at least 50,000 people had passwords, with varying levels of access.
     We both heard the kettle boil and click off. Mickey jumped up.
     Milk, sugar?"
     "Strong. Shaken, not stirred."
     I heard him  giggle as I pulled out the wad of paper,  filed  in  three
clear-plastic sleeves. It was definitely stuff off Intelink. On the top file
I  could  see the META tagging: <"IL. CIA Executive  Order 12958: Classified
National Security Information^ META (Megadata) is a  system for pulling down
the documents needed from hundreds of thousands on call.
     The  information  available is nearly half  a million electronic pages;
just over  80 percent of  all  the National  Security Agency's output can be
accessed in two hours.
     The rest  of  the  title  went on to  give its  level of security. This
document  was  tagged Intelink-P--in other words, managed purely  by the CIA
and top secret, available only to policymakers.
     Mickey came back with the tea. I had just finished skimming through the
rest of the tags. This was  looking good. There was another IntelinkP and an
Intelink-TS--classified secret, about a third of  the intelligence community
have access at this level. I was  quite looking forward  to having a read. I
looked at Mickey as he held a sugar lump on a spoon for me.
     I shook my head.
     "How on earth did your friend get this stuff?"
     He sat down and proceeded to put four lumps in his cup.
     "Well,  the objective  is the eventual flow down, or up, of information
as various security  classifications impose  themselves. Right now, standard
COTS  tools  are  used, but they're  not specially augmented with multilevel
     These tools don't provide the right hooks, so for  now different levels
of  security  are  provided  by different physical  levels  of  security, so
there's an issue  regarding  upgrading and  downgrading  information between
security levels."
     I gave up listening to him halfway though his waffle.
     "What the fuck are you on about?"
     His spoon fought a battle with the amount of sugar in his cup.
     "If  they say something  is an 'issue," it  means they haven't got that
sorted out yet.
     Now and  again you can confuse the system. Especially when it's new and
is taking a while to sort itself out."
     He went back  into  Cheshire-cat mode and took a sip of what  must have
been very sweet tea. I was waiting for his teeth to drop out as he spoke.
     "The  only one that  can't be got into  at the  moment is a new, fourth
level. It  hasn't  even got a name  that I know of. Maybe it's only  for the
president and a few of his best buddies, who knows?"
     I didn't touch my  cup, just  kept flicking  through the pages, looking
for things I understood. I heard him slurp another mouthful of tea, and then
a loud swallow.
     "There will be a lot in there that is of no use to you whatsoever.
     He just pulled down any document containing  information that  might be
relevant. He's such a nice boy. Drink your tea, Nick, it'll get cold."
     I nodded and didn't say a  word. He  got the  hint; I  heard the cup go
down  on its saucer. Mickey stood up  and went  back into the kitchen,  then
returned with his laptop bag.
     "Nick, I hope you find it interesting reading.
     I've left the milk and tea for you."
     I looked up at him.
     "Thanks, mate."
     "Of course, you'll destroy all the files before you leave?"
     "No problem."
     He got to the door and turned, dangling  the apartment keys between his
thumb and index finger.
     "By the  way, send my love to Sarah. Tell her, if she needs these, I'll
be leaving them with Wayne."
     I looked at him, trying to look confused.
     "Er, what?"
     His eyes twinkled.
     "Oh, you are so transparent, Nick! PV? Pants, that's what it is, a load
of frilly old pants. I'm not that mad, you know. I  bet they told you I was,
didn't they? Well, let's  just let them think  it. Pension, that's what it's
all about,  my absolutely  gorgeous disability pension." Still highly amused
with the whole thing, he turned to leave.
     I said, "Michael, thank your friend for all his help."
     He looked  back with  a smile that  suggested it had already been taken
care of.
     "Been there,  done that. Now remember, say a special hello to Sarah for
me. Byeee." The door closed behind him. I got  off the settee and turned the
lock. If anybody decided to hit the place, it should at least give me enough
time to get the papers down the toilet.
     I checked out Baby-G. An hour  to go before the RV with Sarah. I pulled
out the papers that were tagged Intelink-P: Executive Order 12958.
     I  turned  the pages,  but they  meant  nothing to  me,  just  lots  of
directions on security  of documents. Maybe  Mickey's friend  had a sense of
     Next  was Executive  Order  12863 on  the  PFIAB  (President's  Foreign
Intelligence Advisory Board) and Executive Order 12968: Access to Classified
Information. I thumbed through acres of stuff that was full of abbreviations
and acronyms. I understood ziff.
     Then I saw the reason I had been given it. One of the subparagraphs was
entitled, "Yousef." I felt a jolt of adrenaline.
     I read slowly, making sure I understood every word.
     Since  1995, several senior  officials in Clinton's  administration had
been under surveillance by the FBI. At first they suspected that one of them
was spying for the Saudi  government, but more recently that information was
being leaked to Bin Laden. According to this report, the hunt for Yousef had
narrowed to include a senior official on the  National Security Council, the
1,200-strong   body   that   advises  the  president   on  intelligence  and
defense-related matters. Its office is in the White House.
     I  picked up my  lukewarm  tea. It tasted shit; I'd have to  make a new
brew. I went  to the kitchen with the files. There was plenty  of jargon and
junk,  but it was  clear  that  the  hunt  for  Yousef  had  begun after the
interception  of a message  between Washington and  Bin Laden's  farm in the
Sudan that hinted about an agent who might be able to get a copy of a secret
letter signed by Warren Christopher, then  secretary of  state, that spelled
out  American  commitments  to  the Palestinians in  the  Middle East  peace
     The handler in the Sudan had replied, "That is not  what we use  Yousef
     The report carried on to say that they believed there was little chance
of discovering  Yousef's identity after the intercept, because he would have
been one  of  the first  to learn about  it  on Intelink.  All communication
between  him and his  handlers would have ceased. I  had a  quiet  laugh  to
     Maybe  that was what the fourth level of Intelink was all about: trying
to keep people like him out of the loop.
     There  were  references  to other  documents  relating  to Yousef,  but
Mickey's friend  hadn't  included them. I  placed  the cup on the floor  and
picked up the other Intelink-P  file. Its tag told me it was a CIA document,
entitled simply,  "Counter-terrorism  Center." It wasn't the whole document,
just the  introduction, but even that  ran  to fifteen  pages.  I definitely
needed more tea.
     When the Clinton administration  endorsed the idea of specialized units
to infiltrate terrorist operations and disrupt them, the CIA established the
Counterterrorism Center  as a  central clearing  house for intelligence. Its
aim  was  to  "give the president  more options  for  action against foreign
terrorists to further preempt, disrupt and defeat international terrorism."
     These options included covert operations designed to prevent terrorism,
or  to  take  revenge for  successful  attacks on  Americans.  New cadres of
undercover  CIA officers were sent overseas,  and the  use  of CIA teams was
expanded to  assess  and  predict  threats  against United  States  military
personnel deployed abroad.
     Part  of this  strategy  was a  new level of  cooperation  between  the
intelligence agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, its traditional
     Senior FBI agents stationed overseas held long and  successful meetings
with CIA station chiefs the  first at the United States Embassy in Rome, the
second at  the  embassy in London  to  work out  ways to  cooperate  against
terrorists and other international criminals.
     The kettle boiled and cut out. I  left it for a while; this was getting
     I knew that such a  meeting would have  been unthinkable as recently as
two years ago, when the two agencies were at each other's throats over their
conduct in  the investigation and arrest of Aldrich  Ames, a spy for  Moscow
inside the CIA.
     I put  the file down,  threw a tea bag into  a cup and poured. The next
page dealt  with  Sarah's  group.  The  unit  had  scored several successes.
British police raided the  London home of an Algerian named Rachid Ramda and
found links with the Armed Islamic Group, an Algerian organization suspected
of  seven bombings in  France that killed seven and wounded 180 in 1997. The
police also discovered records of  money  transfers,  and traced them to Bin
Laden's headquarters in the Sudan.
     In Egypt,  security officials uncovered  a conspiracy  by the extremist
group Islamic Jihad to assassinate  President Hosni Mubarak. It  seemed that
Sarah's group was  investigating  evidence  that Bin Laden  helped  fund the
plot. They also had evidence that Bin Laden was the major  backer of  a camp
in Afghanistan called Kunar, which provided training for recruits of Islamic
Jihad and the Islamic Group, both Egyptian terrorist organizations.
     This was in addition to the three terrorist training  camps in northern
Sudan, which Bin  Laden helped  to fund, and where  extremists  from  Egypt,
Algeria and Tunisia received instruction.
     I threw the tea bag into  the sink, added milk and wandered back to the
settee to read some  more. Sarah's explanation of  events was  becoming more
convincing as  the minutes  passed. I sat  back  down. To track Bin  Laden's
activities,  the  National  Security Agency's eavesdropping satellites  were
used to listen in on  telephone  and  e-mail  conversations  throughout  the
world. CIA analysts  were able to determine that  in January he  had held  a
meeting  with leading  members of his network to prepare for a new  wave  of
terrorism.  Soon afterward  he publicly  announced  his intentions  when  he
issued a fat wa calling on Muslims to kill Americans.
     I had a drink and held the cup on my chest, slumped on the sofa.
     American  officials  are  barred  by executive  order from planning  an
     But after  the fat  wa  was issued.  Bin  Laden was  named in a  secret
presidential covert action order  on terrorism, signed by Bill Clinton, that
authorized intelligence  agencies to plan  and  carry out covert  operations
that  might  lead to  death.  Such  a  measure  was  necessary,  the  report
concluded, for two reasons:
     "I. We believe that Bin  Laden  is  planning new terrorist acts against
American interests.
     "2. We believe that the question is not whether Bin  Laden will  strike
again, but when."
     I bent my neck forward and drained the cup. I  checked my watch; thirty
minutes  to go  to the RV I went back  into  the kitchen and turned  on  the
electric hob, then placed my cup and the two files I'd read on the work top
     It was time for  file number three. This one came from an acronym,  DOS
FAN  which I didn't recognize.  The document discussed the investigation and
arrest of several of Bin Laden's operators worldwide.
     The hot plate was red. I saw a smoke alarm on the ceiling, and stood on
the sink  unit to pull out the  batteries. Then I touched one  of the papers
I'd read to the plate. Once it was in  flames I placed it in the sink, put a
few more on top and carried on reading.
     The first  few  pages detailed  those  responsible for the World  Trade
Center  bombing: Mohammed Salameh,  a Palestinian,  and  his roommate  in  a
Jersey City apartment, Ramzi Ahmed, an Iraqi who'd fought in Afghanistan and
arrived at  Kennedy  International Airport  on  a  flight  from Pakistan  in
September 1992.  After the bombing, he  spent  most of  the next three years
until his eventual arrest  at a guest  house called the House  of Martyrs in
Peshawar, Pakistan, which was owned by Bin Laden.
     On that same flight in 1992 had  been  Ahmad  Ajaj, a Palestinian fresh
from Afghanistan, whose  suitcase was full  of bomb-making manuals. Ajaj was
convicted in the Trade Center bombing, as was Mahmud  Abouhalima, who raised
money for the rebels. Arrested  in Egypt,  he  told  his  captors  that  the
bombing was planned in Afghanistan by veterans of the jihad.
     Meeting at a  New York mosque, Ramzi Ahmed recruited  Mohammed Salameh,
Nidal  Ayyad and  Mahmoud Abouhalima. They helped him  buy and mix explosive
chemicals in cheap  apartments and a rented storage space  in  Jersey  City.
Abdul RahmanYasin, an Iraqi, was also recruited.
     From time to time, I fed the fire in the sink.  Halfway down the  third
page I found out what DOS FAN stood for: Department of State Foreign Affairs
Network, Mid East policy group.
     The report went on to detail individuals from one particular cell  that
was under scrutiny, and their names tallied with those Sarah had given me. I
finished the last four  pages and burned them,  too.  I felt  as if I'd been
speed-reading Tolstoy's War and Peace.
     I turned the tap on and pressed the button for the waste-disposal unit.
     There was the  wailing of metal as it took the black ash. I got a  grip
on myself and decided it didn't change a thing. All I cared about was Josh's
     Another thing Sarah had been right about: there was no one to turn to.
     Josh couldn't be  trusted not to approach one of his superiors. Even if
his kids didn't go to the  ceremony, the others would still be at risk,  and
he'd want to do something about it.
     I watched the last bit of  ash swirl  down the hole, and turned off the
tap and waste disposal. Only  five minutes  left to the RV I was going to be
late, but it wasn't as if she had anywhere else to go.
     Fuck it, I'd have to get  her into the White House without Josh knowing
what we were up to. I  didn't  know quite how I  was  going to  do it.  Once
again, I felt more bonehead than Bond.
     I walked into the bookshop after clearing the area. The coffee shop was
to the rear, and I spotted Sarah at one of the tables, nursing a tall latte.
She  was dressed much smarter than when I'd last seen her.  The baseball cap
was gone, and in its place was a gray trouser suit and designer loafers that
must have sent her credit card into meltdown. Her facial appearance had been
totally changed by a pair of black, rectangular, thick-rimmed glasses.
     As I  approached  she  smiled  and  gave  me the  hello-sonicetosee-you
RV-drill look.  I looked  surprised and  delighted--not  that I  had to fake
it-and she stood up for the lovey-lovey kiss on the cheeks.
     "How are you?
     It's so  good to see  you." She voiced her pleasure for  the benefit of
the people around us.
     We sat down and  I put my nylon bag  beside  her new  leather  one  and
matching briefcase. She noticed my raised eyebrow and said, "Well,  I should
be looking the part. I am a lawyer, remember?" I smiled, and she gazed at me
for several seconds before taking a studied sip of her coffee.
     Then she gave me the smallest of smiles.
     What could I do but nod.
     "Yep, let's get on with it. But we do it the way I need it to be done,

     She nodded back, her smile slowly widening into a victory grin.
     "I was right, wasn't I?"
     We left  the bookshop and walked  along  the main  street.  I told  her
everything, from  what  Lynn  and Elizabeth  had  said to the attack  on the
house. I just left  the T104 out  of the story,  and kept  the return to the
     in its place. She never asked. I also told her about Kelly, the  events
that made me her guardian  and  where  Josh stood  in all of this. It  would
undoubtedly come into any conversation once we met up.
     "We met when we did, OK? The  dates and everything  will work. You used
to work for us  as  a secretary."  She nodded. I said,  "We didn't see  each
other because it was all too complicated. Then we met up again. How long ago
was the Syria job?"
     "Late 'ninety-five about three and a half years ago."
     "OK,  we met again  four weeks ago, in  London, in  a  pub in Cambridge
Street, and we sort of got back together, saw each other, nothing big time.
     And this  is  our first trip together. We've come  here because  you've
never been before and I like  Washington, so we thought,  Fuck it,  let's do
     She cut in, "But I told the kid I'm a lawyer and I'm working."
     I  didn't  like  her calling Kelly that,  but she was  right about  the
     "OK, you're in the States to meet a client, in New York,  and  I wanted
to show you D.C. The rest you can busk."
     "Fine. There's only one problem, Nick."
     "What's that?"
     "What's your name? Who are you?"
     "I'm Nick Stone."
     She laughed.
     "You mean that's your real name?"
     "Yeah, of course."
     And then it dawned  on  me, after  all  the  years that we'd known each
other, I didn't know her name, either. I'd only ever known her as Greenwood.
     "I've shown you mine, you show me yours."
     She was suddenly a bit sheepish.
     "Sarah JarvisCockley."
     It was my turn  to laugh. I'd  never known anyone with such a fucked-up
     "Jarvis-Cockley?" It was pure Monty Python.
     "It's a Yorkshire name," she said.
     "My father was born in York."
     Stopping at  a call booth, I tried Josh's number. It would be pointless
traveling  there if he hadn't got home yet.  He was in,  and sounded excited
about seeing us both.
     We got a  cab, crossed back over the  river and  followed the Jefferson
Davis  Highway  southwest, away from D.C."  toward the  Pentagon. We  didn't
     There was  nothing  left to  talk  about; she'd  told  me what the  two
players looked like while we waited for a cab. It was hardly worth the wait.
Neither appeared to  have any special features that were likely to make them
stick out.  From the sound of things, we'd be looking for Bill Gates and  Al
Gore, only with darker skin.
     We were both too  tired to say any more. It was easier for  us to leave
each other with our own thoughts,  and mine centered on how  the fuck I  was
going to  do this. She put her  arm in mine  and squeezed my  hand. She knew
what I was thinking. I had  a feeling she usually did, and somehow that felt
     We  approached  Arlington  National  Cemetery:  I  could  see  aircraft
emerging above the trees on the opposite side of the road, as they took  off
from the National Airport by the river.  At least the sun was trying to come
out, even if it was in patches through the cloud.
     I gazed at the row upon row of white tombstones  standing in immaculate
lines  on  the impossibly green grass to our right. Heroism  in the face  of
idiocy  was an everyday job for me, but it was difficult not  to be affected
by the sheer scale of death in this place.
     I knew  the Pentagon  was just around the corner as  the highway gently
turned right. The traffic wasn't that bad  now; it would  be much worse in a
few hours, as the staff of the world's biggest office complex headed home.
     The car parks each side of us were the size of Disneyland
     The Pentagon came into view. It looked just like the Fayetteville mall,
except  that  the stone was a more depressing  color. We  lost  sight  of it
momentarily as we went under a road bridge. One of the supports still bore a
crudely painted white swastika. Josh had seen it as a sign of democracy.
     "The day they clean it off," he once said to me, "is the day no one can
speak out." I just saw it as the halfway marker between his house and

     "About  another twenty  minutes,"  I  said. Sarah nodded  and  kept  on
staring at the massive stone building. A Chinook helicopter was lifting from
the rear of it, the tailgate just  closing. I always liked it  once the gate
closed; it kept the cold out.
     I'd been to Josh's house many  times before while we sorted out Kelly's
future.  They  lived in a suburb  called New Alexandria, which  was south of
Alexandria proper  and quite a way southwest of  D.C." but people  who lived
there called it Belle View, after the district next door. That way it didn't
sound as  if  they wanted to live in Alexandria but had been forced to buy a
little farther away. The nearer your house was to D.C." the bigger your bank
balance had to be.
     Josh's house was on the Belle View road, overlooking the golf course.
     As we turned onto it I gave the taxi driver directions.
     "Halfway down, mate, on the right."
     Sarah moved closer to me and leaned to whisper in my ear.
     "Thank you for believing me, Nick. I'm glad you're here."
     I knew how lonely she felt. I put my fingers between hers.
     The  golf  course  was  to  the  left,  and  facing  it  were  rows  of
three-story, brick-built homes that in the U.K. would be called town houses.
The whole area was  green and leafy, and probably a wonderful place for kids
to grow up in. I half expected snowflakes to start falling and James Stewart
to appear around the corner.
     "Just  behind that black pickup." The  Asian driver grunted and  pulled
in. Parked on the drive outside Josh's was a double-cab bed Dodge truck with
large chrome bumpers and kids' mountain bikes stashed on a rack at the back.
A big For Sale sign was hanging outside the house.
     A middle-aged Mexican woman in  a cream raincoat emerged from the front
door, which was about ten very  worn  stone steps above pavement  level. She
looked at us and smiled, then just carried on past. I looked at Sarah.
     "That must be my new friend."
     Josh appeared at the door, all smiles, his head and  glasses shining as
brightly as his teeth. He was wearing  a gray sweatshirt tucked  into belted
gray cargo fatigue  trousers and  a pair  of walking  boots. As he came down
toward  us he was still grinning away,  but concentrating more on getting  a
good view of Sarah through the sun bouncing off the taxi windows.
     He  opened  the door for  me,  and I stepped  out after paying off  the
driver, who took my money with another grunt. We shook hands and he reminded
me that he had the strongest grip of  anyone I knew. He said, "Great to  see
you, man. I didn't think we'd link up again so soon." He lowered his voice.
     "How did the job go?"
     "Not too  bad,  mate. It took a day, that was all." It was  good to see
     He released my hand and I pumped it, trying to get some blood back.
     Sarah  came around the front of  the taxi, between the  two vehicles. I
held my hand out toward her.
     "Josh, meet Sarah."
     "Hi, Sarah." He shook her hand and I saw her reaction to his grip.
     "Nice  to meet you, Josh. Nick has  told me a lot  about you." She must
have been reading too  many books; whoever says that in real life? Josh just
gave her his biggest smile.
     "I don't know what he's said, but when we get inside I'll  tell you the
truth." He ushered us up the steps and through his front door.
     The first  thing Sarah  asked for was the bathroom. Josh pointed up the
stairs, "First on  the left." As an afterthought he called after her, "We're
going into the living room, so you make as much noise as you want." That was
something  I'd forgotten  to warn her about; Josh didn't change his sense of
humor for anybody. I wondered if  that was one of  the reasons his  wife had
eloped with a tree-hugging yoga teacher.
     The holiday cases were still in the hallway.
     "Where are the kids?" I asked as we walked past them.
     "Jet lag is not an option with kids. It's rehearsal time in D.C." man.
     The big day is tomorrow."
     I wasn't going to pursue the  subject.  It made  me  feel too much of a
lowlife, and besides, it was too early to hit him with the real reason I was
     "Of course. I hope they have a good time."
     The  house hadn't changed  at  all. The  flowery  three-piece suite and
thick  green shag-pile carpet were still  in  place.  The  pictures were the
same, and you  couldn't move for  them: Josh  as a soldier, Josh  becoming a
member of Special  Forces,  Josh and the  kids, Josh and Geri, the kids, all
that  sort  of stuff, plus  all those horrible school  photographs,  rows of
gappy-toothed kids  in uniform, with that  really stupid grin that they only
do when there's a camera pointing at them.
     He  closed  the door and said,  "So, my friend,  how does it all square
with Sarah? What does she know?"
     I stepped closer to him.
     "All she  knows  is that  Kelly's family were  killed  and  I'm now her
guardian. She  knows what  Kev did, and  how I knew  him. You're  the  other
executor of the will. That's how we became friends. She  thinks I work for a
private security firm. We haven't got down to details yet."
     He nodded. That was more or less all he knew about me anyway.
     Now a couple of details to get out of the way, mate. Do I get Maria  to
make  up  one bed  or  two?"  It  had always sounded really funny to me when
Americans said "mate," because of the accent; the word sounds like it should
only come out of Antipodeans or Brits, but Josh had got into the Brit way of
speaking with me. Either that, or he'd been taking the piss all this time.
     It was a good question, and I had to make the answer sound convincing.
     I smiled.
     "One, of course."
     "All rightttt!" A big, conspiratorial grin lit up his face. We both sat
down, him on a chair, me on the settee.
     "Next important question, how is Kelly? She get to her grandparents

     "She's fine.  Yes,  everything  went  OK.  I spoke to her  today; she's
missing you and the  crew. I think you'll be getting a  thank-you  card from
her soon."
     The small talk was already  killing  me. Normally  I would chat happily
about  that sort of shit; it was what our relationship was all about. But at
the moment all I could think about was the fact that I was about to fuck him
over big time even though I knew it was the right thing.
     The door opened and Sarah came in. Josh stood up.
     "Anyone for a brew?"
     I  laughed. To Americans, a brew means a beer; I'd once been with  Josh
and had  said, "Do you fancy a brew?"  He'd looked at me  as if I  should be
certified. One, we were driving; two, we were looking after kids, and three,
it was nine o'clock in the  morning.  It had been a bit of  a standing  joke
ever since.
     Sarah was out of this one. She sort of smiled to look as though she got
it, but she probably wasn't used to being offered a brew at embassy cocktail
parties,  and it  certainly wasn't going  to be  a  big thing in her  social
     He turned to Sarah.
     "Coffee good for you?"
     "Thank you."
     He turned and walked toward the door, talking as he went.
     "The kids  will be back from  singing practice  soon and all  hell will
break loose. It'll be so cool for them to find you here."
     We listened to him pottering around in  the kitchen. Sarah went and sat
on  one of the chairs only a short distance from me, but significant in  the
circumstances. I said, "Sarah, we're sharing a room tonight."
     She got it immediately, stood up and came and sat next to me.
     "What now?"
     It was pointless bullshitting her.
     "I don't know, switch on and take my lead. It's far too early yet."
     She looked anxiously at the carpet.
     "I'm worried, Nick. This has got to work."
     "Trust me. Look over there," I nodded toward the books to the right  of
the fireplace.
     "Second  shelf down." What had caught my eye  was Designing Camelot the
Kennedy White House Restoration. I looked at her through her glasses.
     "That's got to be a good omen." I hoped I sounded more confident than I
     She  saw it, and her expression  gained a  new determination. Josh came
back with the coffee pot,  mugs and biscuits as she was pulling it  from the
shelf. He started to pour.
     "Flat white?" he asked. We nodded.
     He  saw Sarah  flicking the  pages, admiring the pictures  of the White
House interior.
     She looked up and caught his eye.
     "Now there's a classy lady." She turned the book around so we could see
the picture of Jackie 0.
     "Yes, ma'am, she certainly turned this town upside down.  That's her in
the State Dining Room. She was  our  Princess Diana, I guess you  could say.
Geri loved her. I bought her  that book  for her  birthday,  just before she
     He started to open the packet of biscuits.
     "I have to hide these from the kids, otherwise there'd be none left.
     "You know what?"  he said  through  a mouthful of  biscuit,  "I  didn't
realize  all the  things you  have  to do  when  you're  looking  after kids
     I've had to learn so much."
     Sarah looked surprised.
     Josh looked over at me, quite happily, "You didn't explain?"
     "I thought I'd leave it to you," I said, trying to turn it into a joke.
     "Yeah, leave it to you, then I'd tell her the truth later on."
     He looked at Sarah.
     "Geri had gotten more and  more involved in local projects and classes,
that  sorta thing,  so that she could"--he  pulled a  face to  underline the
words--"better herself." He passed a mug of coffee to her.
     "One of them  was yoga. You know, I  guess  I was  too busy working and
stuff  to  see what  was going on. I just  didn't  notice  the classes  were
lasting longer as the months passed."
     I smiled in sympathy as he passed me my mug, and we had eye-to-eye.
     "In fact, she got to like the  classes so  much she never really wanted
to come  home."  I could see  him looking at  Sarah  for her reaction.  He'd
managed to  make it sound  like a joke, but  I knew that  deep  down he  was
     I felt guilty as hell as I listened to Sarah doing a number on him, but
I knew it was the only way.
     Nodding toward the pictures above the gas log fire, Sarah continued  to
reel him in.
     "What about  the  children?  They're such  beautiful kids; whatever got
into her to make her leave them?"
     He picked up his coffee and sat back.
     "The yoga teacher, that's what got into  her." He tried a laugh, but it
was starting to really hurt him now.
     Sarah took a second or two  to get that  one, but I could see from  her
eyes that she'd picked up on Josh's sadness.
     "She calls once a week," Josh said.
     "The kids miss her real bad."
     "How long has it been?" she asked quietly.
     "Must be about nine months or so." He looked over at me. I nodded;
     the timing was about right. Not that he didn't know; I bet he'd counted
every single day. He took a sip from his mug, deep in thought.
     We  all  sat  in silence for  a  while,  until Sarah asked  a couple of
polite, ice-breaking questions  about the children, and Josh  told  her what
she  already knew. She was good;  they were bonding. He was  almost enjoying
having  a woman listen to the story and  appear to  understand his  point of
     There  came  a  sound of crashing and slamming, and shouting in heavily
accented  English. Maria was back  with the kids and  telling them  to  slow
down. She put her head through the door.
     A second or two later, the kids came surging past her to see their dad.
     At that moment they spotted me.
     "Nick! Nick! Is Kelly here?"
     Then they stopped  and  got embarrassed  because they saw somebody they
didn't know.
     "Hiya," I beamed.
     "No, Kelly's at school. Did you enjoy your time in London?"
     "Yeah, it  was cool. It's  a shame Kelly can't be here,  though."  They
were  all excited. They  went  over to  their dad, kissing and  cuddling him
until he was buried.
     "You guys, this is Sarah, Nick's friend. Say hello to Sarah."
     All together they shouted, "Hello, Sarah."
     "Hello, everybody, very nice to meet  you."  She shook each of  them by
the hand.
     Formalities over, it all changed. It was  straight into, Dad,  can I do
     Dad, can I do that?
     "Dad,  it's really  cool!  There  are  kids from  everywhere,  even New
Mexico. Some of them are going swimming. Can we go swimming?"
     Josh said, "Yes, yes, yes but later. Maria'll arrange  it. Go and  have
something to eat. Go, go, go."
     The kids went out  in a whirlwind  and headed for the kitchen. I  heard
the  radio go  on, tuned  in to  a  Latin music  station. We heard  them all
squabbling, and Maria making the most noise of all, telling them to keep the
noise down.
     I carried on looking for a time when I could hit him with my pitch. The
kids went out, came back, eventually went to bed, and Maria went home.
     By  then we'd seen the  new  garden shed, we'd talked about  Christmas,
Easter, even about  Thanksgiving and the  different ways Americans and Brits
stuff their  turkeys.  I  still preferred  Paxo  to peanuts. Josh told Sarah
about tomorrow's events and  what  the  kids were  going  to  be  doing.  He
couldn't disguise his pride that his kids  were part of it all. He was going
to be watching  it with  some  of the ERT (Emergency Response  Team) people,
whose kids were also involved.
     Sarah  was perfect all the time;  maybe it wasn't even put on,  because
something  told me she genuinely liked Josh. I  was glad, as these  were the
only two adults I had any feeling for. I wanted them to like  each other. It
mattered  to me.  Fuck the job in hand; I knew it had to be done, and  soon,
but we seemed to be moving into something more important between us. I hoped
so. Once  the job was finished, I needed  Josh to appreciate our reasons for
keeping him in the dark.
     Before we knew it we'd had pizza, nachos,  a couple of bottles of wine,
and it was  nearly ten o'clock. We seemed set to spin shit all night,  but I
knew I had to wait for the right moment. I listened to the other two as they
put the world to rights.
     I heard Josh saying, "Have you met Kelly yet?"
     Sarah was just sitting back drinking wine next to me.
     "Kelly? No, I haven't, not yet. You know Nick, he  keeps his cards very
close to  his chest." She gave me  one of those strange  looks  couples give
each  other  when  they're  talking  about  one thing,  but  thinking  about
something else.
     "I have spoken to her, though." She  was  keeping the lies close to the
     It was always the best way.
     Josh  said,  "She's a really good  kid,  you'll like her  a  lot. Maybe
ifGeri  was  here Kelly would have come to  live with us and  the kids. It's
been really hard for her."
     Sarah looked at me  to carry on the  story. I  began to think  she  was
liking this, finding out about me.
     "Yeah, but me and her, it's all right," I mumbled.
     Sarah reached out and grasped my hand.
     Josh broke the silence.
     "Ah .. . you sure you two don't want to be alone?"
     We all started laughing. I looked at Josh and remembered that  I  had a
job to do, and now was the time to do it.
     "Mate,  I've  just had  a brilliant idea.  Well, good for us, but maybe
hard for you to sort out."
     He sat back and took a sip of wine.
     "Yesss ... and what could that be?"
     He suddenly sounded like my dad.
     "Well,  if there was any chance of a trip around the White House for us
you  know,  like  the  time you took me around before?  Sarah would  love me
forever." I smiled at her.
     She picked up the ball, blushed and her eyes lit up.
     "That would be absolutely brilliant. Can you really fix that, Josh?"
     Josh wasn't looking too sure.
     "Well.. ."
     I decided to jump in and keep it all  upbeat. Looking  at  Sarah, whose
face now  resembled  that of a child at a fun fair I said, "This boy  is the
     He  took me around  the  White House  last  year.  He  was  running the
vice-presidential protection team."
     "Oh, I'd love  that. That would be fantastic!"  She  was making all the
right noises.
     I  said, "There's a  bowling alley in  the basement so  Bill can go and
have a bit of a  practice, and some of the stonework still has scorch  marks
from when the Brits tried to burn it down in eighteen  hundred and something
or other."
     She turned to Josh.
     "Is he bullshitting me?"
     He shook his head as he took another sip of wine.
     "No, the Brits came  to  Washington and  burned the lot  down.  It  was
eighteen fourteen."
     I said, "Come on then, mate, what do you say? I'll even buy a  crap tie
to make me look like Secret Service if you want. What do you say?"  I always
took  the piss out of  the  way they dressed. The White House team's uniform
seemed to  be either a  gray suit, or a  blue blazer and dark gray trousers.
The only thing they were allowed  to have  choice over, it seemed, was their
ties. I had never seen so many Daffy  Ducks and Mickey Mouses in one  place,
apart  from the window of Tie Rack.  Josh had an impressive display of sheep
jumping over gates and Bugs Bunny eating carrots.
     It was time for him to insult me in return.
     "Lard-ass,  you will  never look like an agent. No matter how  hard you
     Sarah stood up.
     "This is way over my head," she grinned.
     "So I'm  going to pop upstairs again." She knew it was time to leave us
alone. She raised an eyebrow at Josh.
     "I'll shut  the door this time, so you won't be embarrassed if I make a
     Josh rocked back  on his chair and started laughing as  the door closed
behind her. He looked at me.
     "She's cool, man, real cool." I could see his smile tighten; I was sure
he was thinking about Geri and how much he missed her. I felt sorry for him,
but I didn't want to let him off the hook.
     "What do you reckon then, mate? Any chance? It would be great  for her,
and on top of  that I'd score an  unbelievable number of  Brownie points, if
you know what I mean?"
     He sat back in his chair, holding his arms up in mock surrender.
     "Whoa, man, chill. Chill out on  trying to sell it to me. I got it." He
put his arms back down and got serious.
     "I'll try, but I can't say for sure," he said.
     "I'll phone up in the morning. What's your cutoff time?"
     "It's got to be three at the latest. We're on the six-something  flight
from Dulles to Newark."
     He held up his hands again.
     "OK, OK, I'll see what I can do. Tomorrow's a big  deal  up there,  but
maybe we can go  in  the  morning. Nothing's  going to kick off until around
midday, and the kids won't be doing their thing until one."
     He put his glass down, filled it up again and offered me some. I nodded
and passed mine over. He hadn't noticed that I was only sipping while he was
knocking it back.
     Josh held up his glass.
     "It's really good to see you, man."
     I raised mine.
     "And you, lard-ass."
     Sarah  walked back in, probably having  listened  behind  the  door the
whole time. I gave her a big smile as she sat down.
     "Josh says we might be able to get in tomorrow before we go back to New
York. He's going to see what he can do."
     She gave him the  sort of look that would have made a blind man's heart
beat faster.
     His face lit up.
     "Hey, you know what? I have a neat idea. If I can't take you in myself,
I could probably get you onto  one of the tours. You could always come  back
and go around with me another time."
     Sarah  carried on  looking excited,  but I knew that she'd be  flapping
     Josh continued.
     "I could  organize tickets for you both without much trouble. You won't
see the bowling alley  or the pool, just  the main building reception rooms,
but hey" he looked straight at Sarah "the important thing is you get to  see
the  State  Dining  Room, and  that's  the  only part  left  that  Jackie  0
furnished. It's the room in the picture you showed me."
     Sarah reached across and touched his hand. I could see she wished she'd
never mentioned the woman.
     "Thank  you, that  would be great. I just hope that we'll be able to do
it with you; it would be much more fun."
     Josh just about melted.
     "Yeah, I know what you mean, it would be kinda cool to show you around.
I promise I'll call in the morning; that's all I can do, man."
     "It's going to happen, believe me," I said to Sarah.
     "I told  him, if it didn't,  I'd  tell the White House about the rubber
     "The what?"
     Josh looked at me with an embarrassed smile.
     I said, "There's this yellow rubber  duck  that gets passed  around all
the different sections in the Secret Service and the Unit."
     She cut in.
     "The Unit?"
     She was well aware of what I was referring to, but she  knew Josh would
expect her not to be.
     "Delta Force," I explained.
     "Sort of the American  SAS. Anyway, the  big thing is to have a picture
taken with  the  duck in the  most unusual  places. Josh's task was  to  get
photos taken  in  the White  House,  so he  had  one of  it floating in  the
president's toilet in the private apartments, and he even managed one on the
desk in the Oval Office ..."
     Josh yawned politely and started rising to his feet.
     "On that happy note..."
     As we said our good nights Sarah  picked up the Kennedy book and put it
under her arm, and we all trundled up the stairs. At  the top  landing, Josh
went left to  check on his kids; through their open doors I could  see night
lights  glowing below  a  poster of a basketball hero,  and a big picture of
their mother. Duvets and toys were strewn everywhere.
     Our bedroom was farther along to the  right.  It was exactly what might
be  expected of  a  spare room in one of these  houses: very clean  and  new
looking, with  a polished-wax pine bed  with shiny nuts  and  bolts  showing
either  side.  I got the  feeling  the  design  choices had been Geri's, not
Josh's, because it was all matching flowery curtains,  pillowcases and duvet
     if anything good  was to come of Geri leaving,  it was that Josh  could
sort  out the decor in the next house. The bed was  made up, with one corner
of the  duvet pulled back invitingly. Maria had done such a professional job
that  I  half  expected  to see  a  note with tomorrow's  temperature and  a
chocolate on the pillow.
     I closed the door behind us, and right away Sarah was into her bag. She
picked up her weapon and mag,  and went into the en suite,  leaving the door
ajar. I watched as  she loaded it by  pulling back the  top slide placing  a
round in the chamber and letting the action go forward  under control to cut
out any noise, then just pushing the last two millimeters into place against
the round. She then pushed the magazine in quietly until there was a click.
     I laughed.
     "You expecting a rough night?"
     She turned and smiled, then  checked safety. I got up and joined her in
the bathroom. Sarah turned on  the tap in the basin and started to clean her
teeth. The danger with whispering is that you can make  an even louder noise
by doing it incorrectly than you would by talking. I leaned into her ear and
said,  "If he does get us in, then no matter what, we don't harm him. OK? We
don't harm him or anyone else; have you got that?"
     She nodded as she spat out toothpaste.
     I said, "We're  all  on the  same side  here. If we get caught, or even
challenged, we  don't  fight  back. Nobody  gets killed, and  we  don't take
weapons, OK? They stay in the bags."  The  security  would be so tight  we'd
never be able to get them in.
     "Anyway, we don't need them."
     She  rinsed her teeth, turned and nodded her agreement, offering me the
     "Thanks." Our eyes met, then she smiled and went into the bedroom.
     I  watched  her undress  as I  brushed my  teeth. She laid her  clothes
neatly over the chair, and when she was completely naked she  started taking
off the price tags from the new lace underwear she'd bought to wear the next
day. As ever, she wasn't shy about her body, but I sensed this was different
from her performance in the motel. That was business, while this was .. .
     well, whatever  it was, it felt  good. I watched her in the glow of the
bedside light.
     Digging into her  bag again, she took out a new shirt, unwrapped it and
put  it on the chair.  Then she looked up at  me and smiled. I  finished  my
teeth as she came back in and we swapped rooms again.
     As the bathroom door closed, I sat on  the bed  and started to  pull my
clothes off, thinking about the prospects  for  tomorrow. I could hear Josh,
opening and closing doors somewhere along the corridor, checking on the kids
again, I guessed, or locking  up, or whatever he did at this time  of night.
The toilet flushed, and after a while Sarah appeared.
     She  pulled  back  the  duvet and  climbed  in  beside  me.  I  smelled
toothpaste on her breath and soap on her skin. Her leg touched mine I wasn't
sure how accidentally. Her skin felt cool and smooth.
     We  both  lay there, thinking our own  thoughts. I wondered whether her
thoughts were anything like mine. After a while she turned to me.
     "What  are  you  going to do after  this, Nick?  After you've left  the
service, I mean?"
     It was something  I had always  tried not to  give any  thought  to.  I
     "I don't know. I never think that far ahead, never have. Tomorrow night
that's far  enough. And  I hope  I'll be  celebrating that  we're all  still
     "I don't think I'll stay in," she said.
     "I'll probably do what everybody else does get  married, have children,
all that sort  of stuff. I sometimes wish I had a child." She lifted herself
up on one elbow and looked into my eyes.
     "Does that sound crazy?"
     I shook my head.
     "Not since I've had Kelly."
     "You're very lucky." She  moved her  face closer, and  I could feel her
breath on my neck.
     "Maybe I'll write my memoirs." She brushed my face with her hand.
     "But where  could  I  possibly start the story?" She  paused, her  eyes
     "And what would I say about you?"
     "Hmm." I smiled.
     "Not easy." Fuck, if she carried on like this I'd go to pieces and tell
her I was in love with  her or some shit like that.  I couldn't handle it at
     Her lips brushed against my  forehead too lightly for it to be  a kiss,
then  moved down to  my cheek.  I turned my head  and my mouth met  hers.  I
closed  my eyes and could  feel her  body half  on  top  of  mine, her  hair
brushing my face.
     Her  kiss was long, gentle and  caring, then suddenly more  urgent. She
pressed her body hard against mine.
     I was woken  by  the screams of 200 kids--or at least that was  what it
sounded like.  I  kept my  eyes  closed and listened to  the din. Maria  had
arrived and was trying to shush and  organize them, and in doing so  she was
stirring things up even more.
     A herd of elephants  went  downstairs, followed by  Mexican commands to
"put on clean sock" as she  went past our door. I opened my eyes and  looked
at Baby-G. It was six fifty-eight.
     I yawned, turned and saw Sarah. She was sitting up, nicking through the
Jackie 0 book. I muttered, "What was  that  you were saying  about  children
last night?"
     Eyes firmly  fixed on the page, she nodded, not listening. I hoped this
wasn't  going to be  one  of  those terrible  momings-after  when both of us
desperately wished  we  were somewhere  else and  neither  of us could bring
ourselves to be the first to go for eye contact. I hoped not, because I knew
it would only be that way for me if it was for her.
     "Time  spent  on  reconnaissance is seldom  wasted.  Nick,"  she  said,
glancing at me and smiling. Things were looking up.
     I propped myself up and checked the scabs  on my arm. They were sealing
up OK; the bruising was now very dark and swollen. I moved closer and looked
at the book.  It was mostly about the decor of  each  of the main rooms that
Jackie 0 had changed in the 1960s.  The useful  stuff  was at the back in an
appendix:  floor plans  of both wings,  west  and  east, plus the  executive
mansion in between. There was no way of telling if the layout was  still the
same, but that was all we had, apart from my memory of Josh's guided tour.
     I  looked up to read her eyes, and they told me she was already walking
into the White House press room. Her work cassette was in.
     I  threw off  the duvet  and headed  for the  shower. I came  back  ten
minutes later, drying my  hair  with a towel, to find her  already  dressed,
apart from her jacket and shoes.
     "Let's go down and find out what's happening.
     I'll shower later." She waited while I threw on my clothes and followed
     Armageddon was well under way in  the dining  room. Spoons crashed into
cereal bowls, chairs scraped on the wooden floor, the toaster  popped, Maria
rutted and fussed. In amongst all this the kids were practicing their songs.
The problem was  they were all in different time.  It  sounded  like cats in
heat. I tried to remind myself that this was a celebration of peace,  rather
than a declaration of war.
     Josh had his back to  me, doing some magic act  with  lunch  boxes.  He
looked like  a TV chef cooking ten  things at once,  wrapping  sandwiches in
plastic wrap, washing apples, throwing in handfrils of cheese snacks. He was
wearing navy-blue suit trousers and a freshly  ironed white shirt;  I  could
see his white T-shirt underneath, and the  dark skin of his arms. I couldn't
wait to see his tie. The thing that worried me was that he had a light-brown
pancake holster just behind his right hip, and  a  double mag carrier on his
left.  I  just  hoped he didn't end up having to use what would be  going in
there on us two. I checked with Sarah. She'd clocked his gear, too.
     Josh  didn't  even  look  around  as I came in;  he  just  called  out,
     Coffee's  in the machine  over to the left." I could see the percolator
bubbling away.
     "Bagels  are by the toaster. Can't  stop, got to get these ready before
Puff Daddy and his backing crew here are picked up for their gig."
     I went over and  split some of the pre-cut bagels, putting  a couple in
the toaster as Sarah poured some coffee. We put on a good show, as if I knew
that  she liked nothing better than toasted bagels for breakfast  and didn't
even have to ask, and she knew exactly how I liked my coffee. She asked Josh
if he wanted some and he looked up from the lunch boxes for a second, nodded
and smiled.
     She poured.
     "So what are our chances, Josh?"
     He  had  his back  to  us again, jamming  too much food  into  a Little
Mermaid lunch box.
     "I was going to give them  a call  at the  top of  the  hour," he said,
"just after the shift change."
     He finished loading up the Little Mermaid and glanced at his watch.
     "Tell you what, let's see if I can get hold of the guy now."
     He walked over to the  wall telephone and dialed,  hooked  the receiver
with about a ten-foot lead between his shoulder and ear, then walked back to
put the lunch boxes  into the  kids' day sacks He had sold  out: his tie was
just  plain old blue. He saw me looking at it in disgust, annoyed that there
was nothing I could take the piss out of. He grinned back at me.
     The day  sacks were  made of clear  plastic the only sort  of bag  that
could be taken into some American schools now, because the kids had to  show
they held only  books and lunch  boxes  and  not guns. I imagined that White
House security would have thought them a good idea, too.
     I could hear  cartoons on the  TV next door. That  worried me; it meant
they'd  finished breakfast  and were killing time. In this house,  there was
never any TV while there were meals to be eaten or work to be done. I looked
at my watch. It was seven thirty-two.
     He got an answer.
     "Yo, it's Josh." There was a gap.
     "Yeah, absolutely fine, I'll be there today anyway to watch my kids; we
can  talk then." They spun more  work shit for a  while, and had an  in-joke
about their president.
     The toaster popped up. I picked up the bagels and  went to the  fridge,
digging out some spread. Sarah's  eyes followed me as she crossed to sit  at
the kitchen table. She looked like a student waiting for her finals results.
     I deliberately didn't  look at Josh;  if  he  turned I didn't  want any
eye-to eye
     Our unconscious bubbles away  inside, and mostly we manage never to let
people see  in; the only  place they can is our eyes. I'd spent most  of  my
life controlling it, but  Josh knew the  score. He'd been there, too. I just
concentrated hard on the bagel as I spread, and listened.
     He finished warning and got down to business.
     "Who's  the shift coordinator  today?  Ah, right.  Is  Davy Boy in?" He
sounded pleased.
     I walked across  the kitchen and sat next  to Sarah. She  had her hands
around  her mug,  just  sipping  slowly,  taking fantastic  interest in  the
coffee's molecular structure. Josh  was still gob bing off on the phone with
his back to us and zipping up the day sacks Once he'd done  that, he  walked
over to us and dumped them on the table, still waffling.
     "I've got two really good friends here, over from the U.K." and  I want
to bring them in for a  visit.  What do you say, bud?" He smiled at whatever
was being said at the other end.
     "Yeah,  today ... yeah, I know,  but  it's  their only chance,  man ...
yeah, that's OK."  He looked at his watch,  placed his thumb on the  cutout,
looked at us and said, "Call back in thirty."
     Both of us managed a genuine look  of happiness, but I was bluffing big
time. We had a problem if the kids left before we got the OK for the visit.
     I checked my watch  again. It  was now seven thirty-nine.  Josh smiled,
too, feeling good about himself as he sat down at the table with his coffee.
     Sarah sounded excited.
     "I'll go and get ready, then.  See you both soon." She gave my shoulder
a loving squeeze and disappeared.
     Josh checked  the  kitchen.  His jobs were  done.  We  drank coffee  in
     He ate a  bagel and listened to Maria still shouting at the kids in the
next room. I said, "When do the kids leave, Josh? It's a bit early for a one
o'clock start isn't it?"
     "About eight. A school bus will pick them up and take them downtown.
     Dress rehearsals, man. I'll  be glad  when this is all over; this quilt
business seems to have taken over my life."
     I nodded. I knew exactly what he meant.
     I tried to fill the silence.
     "What's the dress code?" I said.
     "I don't want to let you down."
     "Hey, no problem, man. I just gotta look good; it's my job."
     We continued  to drink our brews and gob off. I asked if I could borrow
one of his ties.
     He was about to clip me over the head when a shout came from the dining
     "Daddy! Daddy!" There  was some  whining going  on and Maria  was  just
about to go ballistic. He got up.
     "Back in five."
     He went out with a smile on his face; mine dropped. I checked again.
     Seven forty-five. Fifteen  minutes till the kids  left, but  closer  to
twenty-five before we got the go or no go for the visit.  Not good; I needed
the kids here just in case we  had a no go,  otherwise plan B wouldn't work.
Time  to get  my finger out of my ass and get in gear.  I put my coffee down
and  went upstairs. Sarah's shower was running and she was standing naked by
the  curtain, just about  to step in. I said nothing, but went to my bag and
pulled out the 9mm, then checked the chamber.
     She  came over to me,  putting her  mouth right against my ear  as  she
asked what was happening.
     I placed  the weapon  in  the waistband of  my jeans and pulled  out my
shirt to cover it.
     "The kids could be leaving before Josh gets the go or no go."
     She  leaned  over  the chair,  got  her clothes and started  to  dress,
muttering, "Shit. Shit. Shit."
     "You wait  here and  stand by. If I have to go for  it, you'll hear. If
so, get down to me and be  quick about it.  Remember, don't kill him, OK? Do
you remember what to do?"
     She nodded as she tucked her shirt into her trousers. I still wanted to
run through it with her. We couldn't afford to fuck up now.
     "If  it's a  no go, I'll hold them here, and  you will have  to go with
Josh on your own. Can you handle that?"
     She nodded again, without looking up.
     "Good. Remember, he will do whatever you say if the kids are hostages.
     Make sure you keep reminding him about his kids."
     This time she stopped dressing and looked up at me.
     "Good luck," I said quietly.
     She smiled.
     "And you."
     Checking my shirt, I went downstairs, leaving Sarah as she checked that
there was a round in the chamber, ready to go.
     The bags had gone from the kitchen, but kid-type noise was still coming
from the TV room. Josh came back in from giving them their day sacks
     "What's the score up there,  then, eh?" He jerked his  head to indicate
     "Is it serious?"
     "I think so, mate. I hope so."
     He had a big smile on his face.
     "She's magic, man. She'd make my head spin."
     "Tell me about it." I sat down to finish my coffee, with a sly check of
Baby-G.  It was  seven  fifty-seven. Three  minutes and  the  kids  could be
leaving; still over ten before the call.
     Dakota came into the kitchen, very excited about the day's program.
     "Hi, Nick. Are you and Sarah hanging  out with  Daddy today so you  can
see us sing? It's going to be so cool!"
     Josh tried to calm her down.
     "Wow, chill. We  don't know yet, we're waiting  on a call. You'd better
say good-bye to Nick now, just in case." With that he  went back into the TV
room to usher the others into the kitchen.
     Dakota came over and gave me a  hug. It  must have  felt as strange for
her as it did for me. I  was holding  back;  I  didn't want  her to feel the
     "If I don't see you this afternoon, I'll call you all soon--with Kelly,

     By  now the others were coming  through, more  interested in what  they
were missing on the TV than in saying goodbye.
     Josh was getting them organized.
     "All go upstairs and  say good-bye to Sarah. Holler through the door if
she's in the shower." Off they scrambled.
     I heard their shouts, and hers in return.
     Josh  was on the doorstep with Maria. It looked as  if she was finished
until this afternoon. Good: one less to worry about.
     It  was  eight o'clock. Things could start getting scary  soon.  I made
sure  my work cassette  was in, and  stayed there.  At  least Josh's holster
wasn't full yet; it never was with  the kids around. I heard the hiss of air
brakes outside.
     "The  bus is  here,  kids, let's  go!"  There  was  a thumping  on  the
staircase and  one in my heart as I walked into the hall to stop them,  hand
now reaching under my shirt.
     They saw me.
     "Bye, Nick, see you this afternoon!"
     The  phone  rang and Josh came past me, back into the kitchen, sounding
     "Come on, kids, get your bags. Bus is waiting!"
     Through  the  open kitchen  door,  I  saw him  answer  the phone. I was
standing in their way as  they were about to turn  left toward the door that
led from the hallway into the TV room. I put my hand around the pistol grip.
I  knew it  would work;  people don't  fuck  about  when it comes  to  their
     Sarah was  at the top of  the stairs, weapon strong, five steps behind.
The worse scenario  I could imagine couldn't be stopped now. She was walking
down the stairs, pistol behind her, in case one of the children looked back.
     I slowed the herd.
     "Hey, hey, don't go yet. I think your dad wants you all in the kitchen.
He's finding out if Sarah and I are coming to see  you all sing today." They
turned left through the door to their dad. I had eye-to eye with  Sarah. She
was  nearing  the  bottom  of  the stairs and was placing her  weapon in her
trouser band.
     "Remember what I said."
     She nodded as we both went into the kitchen with the last of the kids.
     He got to the end of his call  and the kids  were all over him, wanting
to know.
     "Right, we're on at ten!" He beamed.
     The kids cheered and we both cheered with them.
     "Well done!" I had a big smile on my face.
     "Thanks a lot, mate.
     He remembered the bus.
     "What  are you guys doing here? Go,  go!" He shooed them out toward the
front door.
     I heard  the hiss of the  bus's air brakes and the chug of diesel as it
dragged  itself down the road. Josh came back into the kitchen and collapsed
onto a chair with a loud sigh, pouring himself some more coffee as he looked
up at Sarah.
     "Come back, Geri, all is forgiven." He looked at me.
     "Great news, huh? To  tell you the truth, I'm quite looking forward  to
it myself."
     Sarah laughed, more out of relief than anything else.
     "Say, do you guys have a camera?"
     We didn't.
     "No problem, we can pick one up from a store. I'm quite looking forward
to going downtown. I  miss working the team, man."  He took another  slug of
     "This  job is  driving me crazy,  know what I'm saying? I've got to get
back on ops." Tilting his head back, he killed the coffee.
     "I'm going to  make  a call to  arrange  parking. It's a  nightmare  up
     Sarah stood up.
     "I'll finish getting ready and pack."
     I followed her out to the stairs and passed over my weapon.
     "In the bags."
     I  was back  at the  coffee  percolator as  Josh finished his  call.  I
motioned to see if he wanted more, and he nodded. The phone went back on the
wall and he came to the table.
     I took a seat beside him.
     "We'll just have to wait now while she puts her face on."
     He  smiled  as he unfolded  the newspaper. I  started  to  flap as  the
Washington Post was laid out  on the table top, but the chances of the story
still being in there after three days were pretty slim, especially given the
amount of column inches devoted to events at the White House.
     "Anything interesting?"
     "Hell no, just the normal shit."
     He turned  the  paper  around to show me  the  front  page: pictures of
Netanyahu and Arafat  in town yesterday.  The subject was a bit too close to
home for me at the moment.
     He turned the paper back  as I  asked,  "What do think, mate?  Think it
will work? You know, the peace deal?"
     He started to  give his views on  the summit. Not that I was listening,
but I wanted  him to talk, which was why I'd asked the question in the first
place. The more he was gob bing off, the more I could just sit there and nod
and  agree or  throw in the odd  question, but  at the same time  get myself
revved up for the job. I  was in my own little world, so  relieved  the call
had brought good news.
     I heard  Sarah coming down the stairs. It  brought me back  to the real
world. He  was now honking about  all the roadworks and the D.C.  traffic as
Sarah came into the room with our  bags and my  jacket. She may not have had
time for a shower but she'd made up for it with eyeliner and lip gloss.
     Josh stood up, looking at his watch.
     "OK, let's saddle up!"
     I picked up our two  bags  while Josh  ran upstairs. He didn't say why,
but we both knew that it was to fetch his weapon.
     A bleep came from  the pickup and the lights  flashed. Josh jumped into
the cab, and Sarah and I  went around to the passenger side. As I opened the
door  a  toy racing car  fell out. Crayons, a coloring sheet from McDonald's
and other kids' crap littered the foot well I put our  bags in the back; our
weapons were inside now, and would stay there.
     Sarah picked up the toy from the sidewalk and climbed in. I followed;
     there was room enough for three in the front seat.
     The morning  sky was  still overcast,  but bright when the sun came out
between the clouds. I had to  squint  as I looked through the  windshield. A
pair of mirrored  sunglasses were  hanging  by their cord from  the rearview
mirror. Josh put them  on over his shiny head and fired up the ignition. The
engine  gave  a  big  four-liter  growl,  and out  we  backed,  the  antenna
automatically starting to rise.
     The radio came on, and to my surprise it  was a woman talking about the
place of  Jesus in today's world. Josh looked at  me, obviously feeling that
my unasked question needed an answer.
     "Christian channel," he said, not at all defensively.
     "A couple of guys got  me into listening. It's been  a help.  I've even
started going to a few meetings with them."
     I said, "That's good, Josh," and wondered if his bible studies had  got
as far as Judas yet.
     We headed north, back along the route by which the taxi had brought us.
Josh chatted about how long  it had been since he'd been to the White House,
and what he missed about working there. The thing he didn't miss, he said as
we gradually crawled our way to D.C." was the traffic. He hated it. As if we
didn't know by now.
     Sarah saw a  filling station coming up and reminded Josh to stop for  a
one-shot  camera. Twenty-five minutes after leaving the  house, we were back
on  the Jefferson Davis Highway approaching the Pentagon. Instead of passing
it, however, we took a  right onto a bridge that took us across the Potomac.
Josh became the tourist guide.
     "Left, that's  the  Jefferson Memorial, and farther over is the Lincoln
Memorial. Sarah, you've gotta get Nick to take you to the Reflecting Pool at
sunset; it's real romantic, just like the movies."
     We had plenty of time to admire the view, as the traffic was backed  up
from  halfway  over the  bridge. Eventually we started heading north on 14th
Street,  bisecting the  vast  stretch of grass that is  the  National  Mall,
running from the Capitol building  all  the way down to the Lincoln Memorial
by the Potomac.
     Once over the Mall  we made a few turns. Josh said, "Here we are, where
all the  dirty deeds are done!" We drove past the target, leaving it to  our
     "We  have to go around because of the  one-way system. But that's cool,
you get to see it from all sides."
     Once we'd done a circuit counterclockwise, we landed up on 17th Street.
     The front of  the  White  House  faced north,  sandwiched  between  two
gardens, Lafayette Park, which was part of the pedestrian area in the front,
now that Pennsylvania Ave was closed to traffic,  and,  at the rear, backing
onto the National Mall, the Ellipse, a large area of green that looked as if
it had become a giant car park for government permit holders.
     The White House was flanked to the west by the old Executive Office and
to the east by the  Treasury Department. Each of  the two buildings  had  an
access road between it and the White House, but both were closed to traffic.
West  Executive  Avenue was  closed  off  to pedestrians  as well,  but East
Executive Avenue wasn't, to allow the public entry through  the east wing of
the White House.
     We  turned left and slowed down. Rows of cars were  parked on the grass
of  the  Ellipse, and  in amongst them was a line  of  about a dozen  yellow
school buses.
     Josh indicated again. The road  had originally  bent around,  away from
the White House, but had  since been blocked  off to create yet another  car
park. We passed the gates to West Executive Avenue and stopped on the corner
of State Place. Josh opened the window and put his hand out.
     He got a nod from a man dressed in a gray single-breasted suit and what
looked like a reddish tie.  He'd been standing by  the gates  and started to
amble toward us.
     "Davy Boy! Long time!"
     "Yo, Josh, good to see you!"
     Sarah  and I looked at each other as they exchanged greetings.  She had
the same concern as I did: Was this guy going to stay with us?
     "How goes it, Davy, get a place for me?"
     Davy continued toward the wagon. I could see his tie now lots  of small
Dalmatians on a red background.
     "Hey, you know what, just park in the West Exec duty pool."
     As we got out of the vehicle Josh clapped Davy  enthusiastically across
the shoulders.
     "Come here, let me introduce you  to  my friends  from the U.K. This is
Sarah." They shook hands.
     "And this is Nick." We pressed the flesh.
     "Hey. Good to see you. Welcome." Davy was in his mid-thirties, and very
open and friendly.  He was also tall, fit, good-looking and had  all his own
teeth white  and perfect.  If he hadn't been in the Secret Service,  a great
career would have beckoned as the Diet Coke man.
     Davy had everything arranged.
     "I'll take you guys to the gate house, get you an ID pass each and take
you in.  As you know, it's kinda  busy  today, but we'll do what we  can for
     Sarah and I gushed our  thanks as we started to walk off with him. Josh
cut in from behind us, "See you folks in a few."  I heard his door close and
the wagon start to move.
     Davy did all the small talk.
     "Take long to get here?"
     I looked at my watch. It was ten sixteen.
     "No, not really, just over an hour."
     "That's good. Was he complaining about the traffic?"
     "He did nothing but moan."
     Davy Boy liked that one.  It seemed that nothing had changed  with  his
old work mate
     Josh's black Dodge passed us on the way to the gates that would let him
into  West Executive  Avenue.  We were  going  there  as well,  but  via the
security gatehouse. Josh stopped at the big, black iron  gates, which opened
automatically for him. The gatehouse  was to the left, with a  turnstile and
airport-style metal  detector.  From a distance it  had  looked as if it was
made of white  PVC and glass, like a conservatory. As we got nearer, I could
see  that it wasn't;  the white  paint  covered steel, and  the glass was so
thick I could only just make out movement inside.
     As the gates closed behind him, I could see  Josh parking in line, nose
in to the pavement, about fifty meters up on the left-hand side.
     There was a big  round of applause to my right and  the roar of excited
children's voices coming from a  huge  marquee that had been erected in  the
rear White House gardens. Davy grinned.
     "There  are  about  two hundred of them  in  there. Been practicing all
morning." He screwed up his face as the applause continued.
     "At least they think they're good."
     I could see more  clearly into the gatehouse now that we'd gone through
the fence, turned right and were standing by the metal detector. Just beyond
that  was the  turnstile.  Two  bodies were inside  the  gatehouse. The door
opened and one of them came out. An electric buzz came from the turnstile as
Josh came through to join  us.  The guard was white and in  his forties. His
Secret Service  uniform was a very sharply pressed white shirt, a black tie,
black  trousers  with  a yellow  stripe  and  black patent-leather belt kit,
holding a semiautomatic pistol and spare mags. He couldn't wait to have a go
at Josh.
     "Things must be  getting  desperate around here if they're bringing you
     Josh laughed; he'd  obviously had this for years from this guy, because
he gave him the finger as he replied.
     "I've been sent to get rid of all the dead wood, so  you'd better watch
out, lard-ass."
     Everybody contributed to the banter as the fat one slapped his stomach.
     Sarah  and I were the  gooseberries in this, so we just kept our mouths
shut and concentrated  on  looking awestruck  at  standing  so  close to the
official residence of the most powerful man on earth.
     I could see  that Lard-ass and a younger black guy who was still inside
the gatehouse were  also responsible  for manning a  bank of TV monitors and
radios.  Davy  got  hold  of  a clipboard  and  went through  the signing-in
     "Nick, surname please?"
     "Stone." Being with Josh, there was no option but to reply truthfully.
     "OK, S-to-n-e." There was a few seconds' pause as he finished writing.
     "And Sarah?"
     He  frowned, and she spelled it  for him as she wiped  her new  glasses
with a tissue from her pocket.
     "OK, if you can just sign here and here for me, please."
     The first signature was for the ID card, the second for the entry log.
     Josh  then signed himself  in as  well. Davy gave the clipboard back to
the guard, who handed Sarah and me each an ID card. Lard-ass smiled at Sarah
as he passed her card over.
     "You're not going to let these two losers show you around, are you?"
     "I guess I'm stuck with them for now."
     He smiled and shook his head.
     "The only place these  two know  is the  canteen. You'll just be eating
doughnuts and drinking coffee all  day, and look  what that  did for me!" He
looked down at his belly.
     We joined in the laughter. Mine was out of sheer relief at getting even
this far. It appeared that we weren't quite in the Good Lads Club because we
didn't  have  our cards on nylon straps we had clips, with  a black V  on  a
white background, not for visitor, but  volunteer. It must have been part of
the deal, today being busy: no visitors. It seemed Davy and Josh  had made a
real effort for us. I hated that. It made me feel even more guilty,  but I'd
live. At least, I hoped I would.
     Our  IDs looked quite  different  from the  ones  Davy  and  Josh  were
     Theirs  had  a  blue edge surrounding  their  pictures,  and  some  red
markings underneath. We clipped ours onto  our jackets and Davy clapped  and
rubbed his hands together.
     "OK, people, let's do this thing."  He  walked around the  detector and
waited with Josh as we walked through it.
     As we all went through the turnstile I didn't know which feeling inside
me was stronger, elation at getting past the first hurdle, or concern that I
was now fenced in and the clock was ticking.
     We walked north  along West Exec  Ave.  We weren't  inside  the  actual
grounds yet, as the iron fencing that stretched away  from the gate  divided
the  White House from the road. We seemed to be aiming for an entrance about
fifty meters  farther up,  which  opened onto the  front  White House  lawn.
Looking through into the gardens, I could see the rear of the  main building
and the marquee.  A member of the Emergency Response Team was standing under
a tree, talking into  his  radio as he watched the road, and us.  He  really
looked  the  business.  He  was  dressed  from  head to foot in black: black
coveralls, black belt kit, body armor and boots. He had a  baseball cap with
ERT  on the  front and a pager that was hooked onto the  leg  strapping that
went around his thigh  to keep his pistol and holster in place. It looked as
if his main weapon, probably an MP5,  was covered by a  black  nylon support
across his chest.
     Josh took  a  back seat as  Davy  started to give us the brief while we
continued toward the gate.
     "Regardless  of  what people  think, this  place is  basically  just an
office complex. Over to the  left-hand side"  we looked over at the old Exec
Building  in perfect unison, like a group of Japanese tourists "that's where
the VP's office is, and that's also the Indian Treaty Room. It's a fantastic
sight, I'll try and get you in there later on, especially if our little tour
the other side of the fence is cut short."
     We  carried  on  up the road between  the two buildings, basically just
listening to Davy Boy. The more you listen, the less you have to say and the
less you can fuck up and the more time you can spend looking  for anyone who
looks remotely like a dark-skinned Al Gore or Bill Gates.
     Walking purposefully between the two buildings, via the gate,  were men
in  conservative  suits and women in identical two pieces,  each with  an ID
card dangling on a nylon cord. Television and power cables snaked across the
tarmac, and  at  the top  of  the  road, where  it met Pennsylvania  Avenue,
satellite trucks were jammed onto every available square inch of space.
     As we got to within ten meters or so  of the gate I saw Monica Beach in
front of  me, on the White House side of the fence. I looked at Sarah. She'd
seen it, too. Multicolored umbrellas were pitched high to keep the light out
of the camera lenses. Spotlights  were rigged  up for  the reporters to look
good in front of the cameras, and there were yet more power cables.
     They seemed to have a  life of their own. The whole place looked like a
Hollywood location.
     Beyond Monica  Beach I could see another gatehouse, which I guessed was
the  press  entrance point from Pennsylvania Avenue. Throngs  of people with
videos and cameras jostled against  the railings to  get a good shot  of the
building. They seemed to  be photographing everything that moved,  maybe  in
the hope  of capturing some celebrity to show the folks  back home.  If this
all  went  to  rat shit in a few  hours' time, I guessed the police would be
appealing for them to hand in their footage.
     Davy continued to give us the general picture as we stood at the gate.
     There was a bit  of a  bottleneck as ERT and  uniformed Secret  Service
security scrutinized the IDs of everybody who was waiting to go through.
     "The  White House  can be broken down into  three main parts. The  east
wing"--he  pointed to the far side of the main  house; we looked, but I  was
more intent on scanning the faces of  the news crews  that were walking from
the  building up to  the beach--"then, in the middle, the executive mansion.
That's the part you always see in newsreels. As you can  see,  just outside,
on  the lawn, is  where the ceremony will take place. The kids will be doing
their thing in front of the stage."
     Arranged on the stage were a couple of rows of chairs, and two lecterns
emblazoned with  the presidential seal. The flags  of  Israel, Palestine and
the  United  States  were  being unfurled  on  flagpoles.  The  scene looked
     Sarah was watching the  hordes  of tourists poking their video  cameras
through the fence.
     "Isn't it dangerous to be so exposed to the road?"
     Davy shook his head.
     "No,  they'll close  off Perm Ave soon." He pointed  to our side of the
executive mansion.
     "This here is the west wing, used  mainly  for administration and press
briefings, as you can see." He nodded over to the TV crews behind us.
     We turned, and it gave both of us an opportunity to have a good look at
the personnel. I couldn't see anyone who looked remotely like our targets.
     In  any case, these guys were technicians  sorting out camera gear, not
     We just had to get back to playing the tourist.
     "The Oval Office is in the west wing and not in the executive mansion,"
Davy went on.
     "That's why these guys"--he  pointed at the crowd by  the fence--"never
get to see him. They're always looking at the wrong place and from the wrong
side. The Oval Office overlooks where all the kids are at the moment."
     Still we  waited, shuffling forward  toward the security. Now and again
Josh and Davy waved at somebody they  recognized. We moved out of the way so
that a  group of sharply  dressed men and women could come through  the gate
onto the road. One of the women recognized Josh.
     "Well, Mr. D'Souza! What brings you to town?"
     Josh stepped to one side with a larger than normal smile on his face.

     thought I'd just  drop in and say heyyy." We stood and waited for a few
seconds so that  he could  finish his conversation. I could hear him talking
about his  kids  being part  of  the  ceremony.  Sarah  suddenly  remembered
     "Oh, no, the camera. I've left it in the car."
     Josh heard and turned his head.
     "Hey, no problem, I'll open the truck."
     Sarah didn't want to mess up the conversation.
     "That's OK, I'll do it."
     She held out her hand for the keys and Josh presented them.
     I'd forgotten it, too. We were going to need it, as we were tourists on
a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Josh looked at me as if I was a mop head
     "We now know who's the one with the smarts!" Then he turned back to his
     We waited until Sarah ran back to us  with the camera in her  hand, and
Davy continued the tour.
     "Come on, I'll show  you something that you see on the news every day."
Following yet more power cables, we  were walking along the pathway that led
from the gate to the front of the  east wing. We  went down a  few steps and
past a door  with  a  small  white semicircular canopy  over  it. More power
cables spewed  over the ground and a portable generator was chugging away to
my  left.  Every  time we  passed  groups  of people, I watched Sarah for  a
reaction. She was the only one who could give a positive ID on these people.
I could make only possibles.
     "Here we are." We'd arrived at a large glass-paneled  door. I looked to
the  left and saw a satellite truck  backed  up against the side of the main
stone staircase, which was the North Portico of the executive mansion. Under
the staircase were open doors leading into the  ground floor. A flight above
it led to the first floor and the main entrance. Davy ushered us through and
we were immediately  confronted by a very familiar sight,  the  lectern with
the presidential seal from which  I'd seen  so many  White House  statements
delivered. The room  looked very  purposeful  and businesslike, but was much
smaller than  I'd imagined. Facing the lectern were plastic chairs, arranged
in rows with a center aisle.  It looked more like the  setup for a community
meeting in the local village  hall,  except that there were wires everywhere
on the  floor, with camera crews sorting out TV equipment  and mikes. I  was
busily scanning the room,  looking at the  dozen or so people who were  in a
frenzy preparing for the afternoon's events.
     Josh looked at us both.
     "You got your camera?"
     I played dumb.
     "Your camera?"
     There was a big laugh. He said, "Go on, get up there!"
     Sarah and I looked  at each  other and I thought, Fuck it, we've got to
do it, it would be unusual not to. Josh took pictures of each of  us  at the
lectern, and one of us together; we put  our arms around  each other for  it
and smiled. He threw the camera at me as we walked toward him.
     "Something to show your  grandchildren!" On  cue, Sarah and I exchanged
the expected coy smile.
     We came out of the press conference area and back onto the pathway.
     Davy was looking at the satellite truck. Josh was still saying hello to
everyone he  knew and  explaining  to them why he was here. Davy had made up
his mind.
     "Hey, you  know what? I think  we will go  around the other side.  It's
kinda  busy in there." Shading  our  eyes  from a sudden  burst of brilliant
sunshine, we started to walk up  the  small flight of stairs that would take
us to the same level as the main entrance staircase.
     Still no Al or Bill, but we were a bit early. What we were going to  do
when we pinged them, I hadn't actually worked out yet.  It  all depended  on
the situation. I  hoped  we  could get Josh  to  take action, alert him that
something  was  wrong,  or  maybe I'd  say  that  I'd  seen people  I  could
positively  ID as  terrorists. Whatever, it didn't matter, as long as  these
people stopped them. All we had to do was find them first.
     I asked, "Davy, when do the rest of the media arrive,  mate? Do they go
anywhere to get instructions and stuff like that?"
     He pointed back to the press room.
     "The media  get a briefing in there at noon. The  TV  presentation guys
won't  pitch up  until then.  They just have their sound and lighting people
rig up first."
     I looked excited.
     "Would it be possible to see the briefing? I'm a bit of a media junkie,
I really like that sort of thing."
     Davy looked  at me as if I  was  mad. How could something like  that be
     "Sure, no problem."
     I looked over at Sarah as we walked. She knew what I was doing.  All we
had to do was keep this up until midday.  If the players were going to show,
they'd be at the media brief.
     We'd reached the bottom of the stairs of the North Portico leading into
the  mansion. Davy  pointed to  the  stage  on  the  grass  opposite,  still
receiving its finishing touches. He nodded toward Pennsylvania Avenue.
     "The cameras will be on  that side  of the  stage, with  the TV reports
made from  the  media  area  we passed earlier."  We both nodded  and looked
extremely interested, which wasn't difficult. Josh wasn't  so enthralled. He
asked Davy, "Where to now?"
     "You wanna see the alley?"
     We continued to walk past the executive mansion toward the east wing.
     The drive  we  were walking on went from the white  gatehouse the press
used and swept in a semicircle to the far right of the lawn, where there was
a  similar  security post. An ERT guy was walking toward it from a  line  of
black Chevy pickups parked in line on the driveway. Their red and blue light
racks,  darkened  windows  and antennae  made  me  remember  that there were
probably more  guns within a 200-meter radius of where we were standing than
Jim's had  sold in its  lifetime. We  would have  to be  careful not  to get
zapped ourselves when they took on the players.
     We now  had an uninterrupted view down into the lower area on the other
side of the staircase. I couldn't help noticing the paint. It was more cream
than white, and it  was peeling. We  moved a bit farther along and went down
some steps that  took us  below the level of the  grass. At the bottom, Davy
turned and walked backward so he could face us as he explained, "This is the
part the public don't get to see." We bent down to get past some large steel
ventilation pipes. He pointed at the executive mansion.
     "This is really  the ground floor.  Behind  this wall  are some  of the
state rooms, like the  Diplomatic Reception Room, the China Room, that kinda
thing." He indicated the area below us.
     "But this is more interesting... the basement, that's where it's at. In
fact, there are two  basements. Bowling, rest areas, paint shop and repairs.
There's even a bomb shelter down there."
     Looking  to the  right, I  saw windows that opened onto rooms under the
White House driveway and lawn.
     We  came to a  white, glass-paneled double door. Actually,  it was more
gray than white, now. You could tell this  was the admin area. Davy kept the
door open for me and Sarah. Josh followed.
     We were now under the main staircase. Across the way the satellite crew
were working under the eagle eye of an ERT escort. Davy gave him a wave.
     "Hi, Jeff, good to see you, man."
     Davy  steered  us toward  the door that was nearest the other entrance,
into  which all  the  cables  seemed to  lead. Once  through  it, I was  hit
straightaway  by the smell: the heavy  odor of  school  dinners and cleaning
products that  I'd known  as a child and  that,  as I  got older, I  came to
associate with  army cook houses or stairways  of low-rent accommodation. We
were in a hall about four meters  wide, with polished floor tiles. The walls
were stone,  with a plaster skim and many years' worth of cream gloss paint.
Grooves and concave shapes  had been  gouged into the plaster by  carelessly
pushed food trolleys, an empty one of which was parked up in the corridor.
     Following the cables, we passed an elevator and staircase  on our left,
then went through another door. It was like walking into a different world.
     We  emerged into  the  opulent  splendor  of  marble  walls  and  glass
chandeliers,  hanging  from  high  cross-vaulted  ceilings.  The  smell  had
     Blocking the view  to our left were two  tall brown screens, positioned
like a roadblock. Davy and Josh muttered greetings to the ERT and two Secret
Service agents who were in the area. One of them had a blue tie with golfers
in various poses, the other had a yellow one covered with little biplanes.
     Davy  said,  "This  is  the ground floor hallway. We can't  see down it
today as the  president will be here later on. He won't want to see all this
stuff trailing around." He was pointing to the cabling.
     Sarah wanted to know more.
     "Why,  what's happening  in here?  I thought  everything  was  going on
     Two television technicians walked past from left  to right, escorted by
their ERT minder. Josh  was still talking quietly to  the two Secret Service
     Davy  whispered,  "At about eleven, Arafat, Netanyahu and the president
will  be in the Diplomatic Reception Room for  coffee." He  nodded his  head
toward the TV crew, who were now walking back toward us.
     "These  guys are rigging up a remote for CNN that's going  to  put  out
live coverage.
     The leaders stay there for twenty to thirty minutes,  then move out for
an early lunch."
     Sarah was  trying to  work out where the Diplomatic Reception Room was,
pointing past the screens.
     "That's the oval-shaped room down there on the right, isn't it?"
     Davy nodded.
     "Yeah, after lunch they then move to the Blue Room.
     That's the same shape and  directly above on the first floor. Then,  at
one o'clock, they walk out onto the  lawn and get blasted  by  the  heavenly
choir." He screwed up his face again at the thought of 200 kids out of tune.
     Josh came over and joined us.
     "Hey, guys, I think we'd better move on."
     We got the hint. The Secret Service  guys didn't want us around so near
coffee time.
     We started down the corridor  to the right,  following the cables. Davy
sparked  up,  pointing  at  a large  white  double  door at the  end of  the
     "That  leads to the  west  wing, where the briefing area is." The cable
went through a door on the left of the corridor. We turned right and entered
one  of the admin areas. The smell came back to  me. To the left was another
     "That's the service elevator for the State Dining Room."
     Davy was clearly enjoying his role as tour guide.
     "It's directly  above  us  on  the first floor."  To the right  of  the
elevator was a spiral staircase.
     We stopped by the elevator. Davy had a huge grin on his face.
     "I gotta show you  folks the burn  marks you Brits  made last time  you
made an unannounced visit!"
     A trolley headed toward us, pushed by an efficient-looking, mid-fifties
black guy  in  black trousers, waistcoat,  tie and a very  crisply laundered
white shirt.  It  was  laden with coffee pots, cups and saucers, biscuits of
all sorts. The guy said,  "Excuse me, gentlemen," then saw Sarah and  added,
"and lady," in a very courteous manner as he cruised past, the cups rattling
on  the metal trolley. Basically, of course, he was just telling  us  to get
the fuck out of the way. He was a man with a mission.
     We  climbed  down  the  spiral staircase as Davy continued his  running
     "We have two  other  elevators, one hundred  and thirty-two  rooms  and
thirty-three bathrooms."
     Josh chipped in.
     "And seven staircases."
     I tried  to raise a  smile  of acknowledgment. At any  other  time this
would be interesting, but not now.
     At the bottom we stopped by  a pair  of  fire doors  with  thick wooden
panels inset with two rectangular strips  of wired, fire-resistant glass and
covered with dirty hand marks where they got continuously pushed. Above them
sat a  large slab of stone  supporting the  archway. Black scorch marks were
clearly visible.
     "We've  kept them there just as  a little reminder of the sort of thing
that happens when you guys come to town. Not that you stayed that long; we'd
had more than enough of you by then."
     There was more laughter. I saw Sarah check her watch.
     Davy  said, "You know, people think that it was called  the White House
after you Brits burned it down. Not so, it only  got its name in 1901, under
..." He turned to Josh for the answer.
     "Roosevelt." Josh looked at us sheepishly.
     "Hey, if you work here you have to know these things."
     There wasn't much we could say, and there was only so much burned stone
we could look  at. After a  minute  or so,  Davy said, "OK, let's go bowl  a
     As  we  pushed  our  way  through the  fire  doors, I  could see  maybe
twenty-five or thirty meters of white painted corridor in front  of me, each
side  of which had white wooden  doors slightly inset into  the  walls.  The
whole  area  had a functional  feel.  It  was lit  by  strip  lighting, with
secondary lighting boxes positioned at key  points in  case of power failure
or fire. The same cook house-and-polish smell hung in the air. There was  no
activity down here at all. Our  footsteps  squeaked on the tiles and  echoed
along the corridor.
     We came to  a  pile of cardboard  boxes  and bulging bin liners stacked
against the wall.
     "It's just like any other house," Davy said.
     "All the junk goes into the basement."
     We passed several of the  white doors and came to a gray metal one with
a slowly flashing red bulb above it. Davy pointed up.
     "Let's see who's in."
     He  swiped  his ID card through  a security lock and said,  "Welcome to
Crisis Four."
     He opened the door and gestured us in. I followed Sarah into a darkened
room that contained a bank of at least twenty CCTV screens set into the wall
in banks of three. Each carried a different picture, with a time code bar at
the bottom ticking  away the milliseconds. The colored views  were of large,
richly decorated rooms, and hundreds of meters of corridors  and colonnades.
On a desktop that  ran the whole length of the console, illuminated by small
down lighters were banks of telephones, microphones and clipboards.
     I went in  and  moved  to  one  side so  that Josh  could  follow.  The
temperature  was cooler in here;  I could hear the air conditioning  humming
     above me. Lined  up in front of  the bank of  screens were four  office
chairs on castors. The sole occupant of the room was sitting on one of them,
dressed inERT  black,  his  baseball  cap  illuminated  by the screens as he
mumbled into one of the phones.
     I looked at Sarah. Her eyes were glued to the screens;  I could see the
light from them reflecting off her face.
     The phone went down and Josh called out, "Yo, Top Cat! How goes it?"
     TO spun around in his chair and raised both arms.
     "Heyyya,  fella! I'm good. It's been a while." He was white  and looked
in his mid-thirties, with a very smart, well-trimmed mustache.
     They shook hands and Josh introduced us.
     "This is  Nick,  and  this is Sarah, they're  from the  U.K. Friends of
mine.  This is  TO." We  both walked  over to him, and he  stood up to shake
hands. His chin already had shadow and he looked as if he needed five or six
shaves a day;  either  that, or he'd  been on duty all  night. He  was maybe
about five foot six, with short dark brown hair under his black cap.
     TC's firm grip contrasted with his very soft Southern  accent, but both
oozed confidence.
     "What have you seen so far?"
     "Josh has been showing us  what happened the last time  the  Brits were
down here."
     Sarah had a question to ask Davy.
     "Do you think  it would be possible  to see the State Dining Room? It's
just that I'm a big fan of Jackie 0 and..."
     Davy looked at TO, who shrugged apologetically.
     "I'm sorry  to have  to  tell you folks  that no one  can  go  upstairs
     Josh felt that he had to explain.
     "Access depends on what is going on.
     Just about any other day would have been fine. Hey, thousands of people
visit most days; it's one of Washington's biggest attractions."
     Sarah and I both started waffling variations on the theme of,  "It's no
problem, it's great just being here. We're really enjoying it."
     Davy sounded like he had a good idea.
     "I tell you what, from here you can  see it all anyway." He pointed  at
the screens, and then proceeded to give us a quick rundown.
     "As I said, this room is  Crisis Four.  It's one of the control centers
from where any  incident in the White House or grounds can be monitored  and
controlled.  Which control center  is  used  depends on  where  the incident
     Sarah and  I were all eyes  and  ears  as  we  looked  at the  screens,
especially the one that showed the press briefing room. Not much had changed
in there. I kept my eye on it, though.
     TO took over the brief as he went back to his chair.
     "Crisis  Four could be  used, say, if  anything happened  upstairs--the
president  and  first lady would be  moved down here to the  secure area. It
also doubles as the bomb shelter. There's a kinda neat  room beyond this for
the VIPs." He pointed at a screen.
     "There's the State Dining Room. That's kinda neat, too."
     It didn't look as if lunch was going to be served there today. The long
dark wood  table had just silver  candelabras placed along its center. Apart
from that it was bare. Sarah studied the  picture for a while, as if  taking
in  all  the detail of the  decor. My eyes  were focused on  the shot of the
briefing room.
     "Is that the  Diplomatic Reception Room?" Sarah  put her  finger  on  a
screen to my  left, pointing  to a doorway.  Looking  over,  I could see the
brown screens  blocking  off the ground  floor corridor, and  the ERT escort
standing over the CNN guys, who were still fiddling about with cables.
     TO confirmed it.
     "That's  right. Any minute now you'll see the big three appear and walk
in there. At the moment they're across the hall, in the library."
     As I watched the picture  he was indicating, flicking back to check the
briefing  room  every few  seconds, our  friendly waiter  came  out  of  the
reception  room  and  walked  back toward the brown screens.  This  time his
trolley was empty. I heard com ms mush coming from TC's earpiece.
     "The  coffee's there,  all we need now  are  the drinkers." The ERT guy
began to move the CNN people out of the corridor, back toward their wagon. I
flicked my eyes over at  one  of the screens again. Shit! Bill  Gates was in
the briefing room. At least, the hair and glasses  matched what I thought he
looked like. He had walked in and was just looking around. I needed Sarah to
confirm, but she was the other side of Davy as we all stood around TO in his
chair.  I  kept looking at  her,  trying  to  catch her eye.  I couldn't say
anything  yet; I  could be wrong. Why wasn't she  also checking that screen?
They  were focused on the other one with the  four Secret Service men at the
far end of the corridor.
     More mush was coming from TC's earpiece.
     "Here they come ..."
     A  few  seconds later  the three  world  leaders  walked out  into  the
corridor and turned toward the camera. They were moving quite slowly so that
Arafat could keep up.  I checked Bill Gates. He  was  now  sitting down  and
writing. I looked back at  the other screen, then at Sarah. Come on, look at
me,  check the screen, do something!  She was oblivious  to anything but the
three leaders  as a group of  advisers  followed them, clutching folders and
nodding with each other as they walked.
     "Hey, let's give  you  folks a listen." TO leaned  over the desktop and
hit a  button on the console.  A speaker  in front of us burst into  life. A
very quick but calm New York voice was  giving commands over the net. People
were acknowledging  him  in  just the same  tones. It sounded  like  mission
control  at  Houston.  Small red  buttons  were  now lit  on  three  of  the
microphones on the desk. I checked Bill Gates. He hadn't moved.
     They walked along the corridor for a short way, Clinton between the two
others as they  moved in line abreast. A few paces more and they turned left
into the Reception Room.
     I looked  across  at Sarah. She was  checking the  large green  digital
display clock on the wall. It was 10:57; they were right on time.
     "Hey,  Sarah,  isn't that  Gatesy?  You  know, that reporter friend  of
yours?"  I couldn't think of anything  else to  say. I  pointed and everyone
turned to look.
     Sarah took  a  step forward  and looked at  the  figure  sitting  down,
reading his notes. Standing back, she looked at me.
     "No, it's not. His hair is much darker. But they do look similar."
     TO stood up  "That's  it,  folks, I've gotta go."  He hit  the  console
     The sound and red microphone lights died.
     We all shook hands again.
     "I hope you  people have  a good trip.  Ask these  two  nicely,  see if
they'll take you over to the Treaty Room."
     Davy said, "It's on the itinerary, after the alley."
     TO nodded as he headed for the door.
     "See you  guys. Hey,  Davy, don't forget, four thirty  this  afternoon,
we've got that meeting." They ran through a few details  of their work admin
while  Sarah and I,  the gooseberries, just stood by, keeping  an eye on the
briefing-room screen.
     We followed TO out of Crisis Four. When we were all out in the corridor
he made sure the door was secure,  then turned  right and walked off  toward
the fire doors with a cheery wave of the hand.
     A couple  of Hispanic women came squeaking along in white overalls  and
white  patent-leather shoes, looking  like  a  cross  between  cleaners  and
nurses, and talking at 100 mph  in their own  language. They stopped as they
passed   us,  nodded  and  smiled,   then   returned   to  their  warp-speed
     We turned left and moved farther down the corridor.
     Josh had an idea.
     "Hey, you  know what? I'll  go over and see if  I can get us  into  the
Treaty Room, and maybe even the VP's office."
     "That would be great," I said.
     "Would we still be able to watch the press brief?"
     Sarah joined in.
     "Yes, I'd love to see that as well. I have--" Josh smiled as he put his
hands up defensively, like a parent fending off an overenthusiastic child.
     "Hey, no problem.  In a few."  He  turned  and  walked toward the  fire
doors.  Sarah  and I  exchanged  a  relieved glance  as Davy led the way. We
stopped two doors down.
     Davy grinned.
     "This is the best room in the house." He opened the door. Inside was an
open space, maybe fifteen feet by fifteen, with  stack  able  plastic chairs
arranged around the walls, the same as in the briefing room. Beyond that, in
shadow, was a single-lane bowling alley.
     The  floor was highly  polished lino. The walls were painted white  and
covered with a couple of posters of bowling teams, and pushed against it was
a large wooden  box, also painted white, with compartments that looked as if
they were holding about eight or nine pairs of bowling shoes.
     There was  whirring and clicking  as all the bits and  pieces of  alley
machinery came to life and the strip lighting along the alley flickered on.
     Davy smiled back at us as he walked toward the shoes.
     "I've got a great story for you guys."
     By now the bowling balls were rolling  up onto  the stand and the  pins
were being positioned by the machine at the bottom of the lane.
     Davy had  his  back to us, his shoulders rolling  as he anticipated his
own story. His head moved to look at us both again and he pointed at the top
pair of shoes.
     "You  see these?" We  both nodded. He  looked back to pull them out.  I
took the opportunity for  a quick look  at Baby-G.  Fifty-five minutes to go
until the press brief.
     Davy turned around to walk back to us.
     "These are Bill's personal bowling shoes," he said.
     "Look at the size of the things."
     They must have been something like size sixteen, at least.
     "He's a big man all right." Hefting them in his hand, he chuckled.
     "You know the old saying, big feet, big..." He suddenly checked himself
in case Sarah didn't approve. She was smiling.
     The  shoes were white with  red stripes. As  Davy reached us, he turned
them around and showed us something.
     "See this?" All smiles, he pointed to the back of the shoes. I saw that
each had a little mark in black felt tip.
     "One  day Bill came down  with some of  his bowling buddies. He went to
get his shoes, and a couple of the advisers saw this written on the back."
     He  pointed again. On one  was  the letter L, and  on the  other an  R.
"There  they were, supposed to be discussing world  affairs,  and his  aides
were suddenly more worried about  how he'd  react to  people  writing on his
shoes  ... "Well, Bill picked them up, and for  a moment there  was  silence
..." I could tell old Davy Boy had told this story many, many times, because
the pauses  were in  just  the right  places.  "... yep,  there  he was, the
President of the  United  States, the most  powerful man in the  world,  and
someone had gotten a pen and done that to him!
     "Nobody  was too sure  how he was  going to take it. Anyways, he looked
down at the shoes, and then Bill started to laugh.
     "I'll  tell  you what, boys, this  is just what I need ... they  are so
darned confusing, not being proper shoes and all."
     " Davy  started to laugh. I  wasn't sure if the story was funny or not,
and nor  was Sarah.  I just  took  Davy's lead and joined  in. I  could hear
Sarah, standing slightly behind me, doing the same.
     The laughter died down and Davy carried on, pleased with our reaction.
     "And that's why it's still there. Apparently Bill says it cuts his prep
time by a half, so there's more time to play."
     He was going to put the shoes back.  He turned away and took two steps,
and there was a thud.
     Bill's shoes  fell out of Davy's hands. There was no blood until he hit
the  floor, face  forward, and then it started to  spurt from his head, dark
and thick. I swung around.
     Sarah was in a perfect firing position, standing at  forty-five degrees
to Davy, with her right  pistol  hand  out  straight, pushing the suppressed
weapon at the target,  her left  hand cupped around both the pistol grip and
the other hand, pulling back. She looked  so relaxed she  could have been on
the range.
     "What the fuck are you doing?" I shouted. What a bone question; I could
see precisely what she was doing.
     I  didn't  know why,  but I was  half whispering,  half shouting as she
lowered the pistol.
     "For  tuck's sake, we  agreed, no killing. What are you  doing bringing
that thing in? We don't need it."
     She just  stood  there, in a different world, calmly putting the pistol
back into her waistband.
     This  was out of  control. No matter what  happened now,  we were in  a
world of shit and I had no idea by whose rules we were playing.
     I started to move toward the door.
     She looked at me quizzically.
     "Where are you going?"
     "I'm locking the door what do you think I'm doing, letting everyone in?
We're in deep shit, Sarah. Do you have any idea what you've done?
     This won't stop anything; it makes it worse."
     I reached  the door  and  turned the  lock  inside the tumbler. It  was
pointless going  over to  Davy. There  wasn't a  sound from  him,  and dark,
deoxygenated blood seeped from his mouth.
     I stayed where I was, shaking my head in disbelief.
     "It was under control, Sarah, for flick's sake. Midday the press brief,
remember? What the fuck are you doing?"
     She started toward the door. I moved across her, putting  my arms up to
stop her.
     "Whoa, this is way out of control. It's time to stop this, now, and get
help. Just get thinking of a fucking good story."
     I pointed  at Davy  as I turned toward the  door once more. Why had she
done it?  It took two  seconds before it  became  obvious to  me why.  She'd
stitched me up.
     "You flicking bitch!" I started to turn back toward her.
     At the same instant I  felt pain  explode in  my stomach.  The wind was
knocked out  of  my  lungs as I fell to  my knees.  I felt a  fierce burning
sensation on the left side of my gut.
     The left side of  my forehead hit  the floor, then my nose.  There were
sparks flashing in  my head. I tasted blood in my throat. I'd  never taken a
round before.
     I couldn't see Sarah. I was too busy curling into a fetal position as I
tried to control the pain.
     I started  a low moaning noise that I couldn't  stop.  I slowly, slowly
rolled my  head  to find her. She was crouched  over Davy.  His  ID was  now
around her neck; at a casual glance she would look part of the environment.
     Her  loafers tiptoed around  him, avoiding  the  blood,  then took  the
pistol from his belt and the two mags from their carrier.
     I didn't  want her to  know that I was still alive. I lay as motionless
as I could, eyes closed, trying to stifle my own moaning. It wasn't working.
     I sensed her standing over me.  I opened my  eyes. She was just too far
away for me to reach her, even if I'd been able to.
     She looked at her watch and then at me. The weapon came  up and stopped
in line with her eyes. For the first time in my life I  thought of someone I
would miss,  and I  decided that my  last thought would  be  about  Kelly. I
looked  at Sarah  and  waited.  There  was  a  delay,  but  no  emotion,  no
explanation. Then  she  said,  "You have a child now. I  hope  you live long
enough to see her."  She lowered the weapon, checking her watch again as she
walked away.
     The tumbler was turned and the  door opened.  I tried  to shout, but it
didn't happen. The only sound that came out was a weak rasp.
     "Fuck you!" Blood sprayed out of  my mouth.  She glanced down at me, no
reaction in her eyes.
     There was a pause as she checked outside, then the door closed quietly.
     She was gone.
     The  pain  was intensifying. I looked around frantically  for  a  panic
button  or a phone, but I couldn't see too  well, things were getting  hazy.
Two others left  to kill Arafat? My ass;  it had been her all along. How the
fuck did I not see it?
     Being curled up in a ball on the floor  wasn't going  to do  me  or the
VIPs any good. I needed to do  something, even if it didn't work. As I died,
I would at least know that I'd tried to right my fuckup.
     My vision  was starting to blur. I was taking short, sharp breaths, and
my stomach muscles were tensing of  their own accord. I moved my hand over a
hole  in my belly the  size  of  a  five-pence piece and plugged it with  my
thumb. At least  I  didn't have to  worry about an exit wound; I knew it was
subsonic ammunition for the silenced Chinese thing. The round would still be
kicking around inside me somewhere.
     I dragged myself toward the door, through a pool of Davy's blood, which
had started to ooze across the lino, and I was  just about to pull myself up
to open it when it swung inward and connected with my skull.
     Curled up again in  pain as more sparks flashed  up  in my head, I  was
just about  switched on enough to  know that I  was  stopping  the door from
opening fully.
     Encountering resistance, whoever it was  got  their body weight  behind
the door and pushed hard. I was shunted along the floor until they could get
     It was Sarah again. She didn't talk, just closed the door behind her.
     Then, grabbing hold of my feet and  avoiding  the blood, she started to
drag me facedown across the room, grunting with the effort.
     I felt as if I  had a  magnesium incendiary  burning in  my  stomach. I
tried to keep tensed up, and all I could see was a dark trail of blood where
my body had just been.
     After four or five paces she dropped my feet on the floor. I moaned  as
I curled up, trying to reduce the pain as she aimed her pistol at the door.
     It opened. Josh had good news.
     "Hey, guys, it looks like we're going to " I tried to  shout a warning,
but  nothing  came.  The  expression on  his face  was of  utter  shock  and
disbelief, his eyes looking even wider behind his lenses. Sarah was in front
of him in  a perfect  firing position, calmly  pointing at his  center mass.
People  take a while for this kind of information to  sink in, especially if
they're not expecting it, but Josh was catching on fast.
     Sarah maintained her very cool, controlled voice.
     "Close the door, Josh."
     His eyes flicked between the two of us, took in Davy's prostrate  body,
then mine,  and finally settled on the pistol, no doubt trying  to work  out
how the fuck she'd brought it in.
     "Close the door, Josh."
     If Josh  was scared,  he wasn't  showing it. He was  taking  in all the
     without saying  a word, he did as  he  was  told  and then  stood stock
still, showing Sarah his hands.
     She said, "You will now turn around and put your hands on your head."
     He  knew the  routine. If you've  got your  back to  the  person  who's
pointing the pistol at you, you can't assess what's going on.
     "Move out of the blood, then down onto your knees."
     Once you're on your knees, you're very vulnerable.
     She had more instructions.
     "With your left hand, using your thumb and forefinger, take your weapon
out. Do it now."
     I was helpless, just a curled-up bundle  of shit. I heard voices in the
     I  recognized the loud Hispanic accents of  the two white-shoed  women,
walking from the  direction of  the  fire  doors.  Sarah quickly checked her
watch again.
     Should I call out? I didn't have the strength. They wouldn't hear me. I
looked over at Josh,  who I could  see side-on. He  was considering the same
     He wasn't flapping as he obeyed her, his finger and thumb on the pistol
     "I'm taking it out now, Sarah."
     "Good, Josh. Now put it on the floor behind you."
     Keeping his right hand  on his head, he flicked the  weapon  behind him
onto the lino. I could see the sweat coming down from his bald head onto his
face  and the wet patches in the armpits of his jacket  as he raised his arm
again. Fear is a good thing, there's nothing wrong with that, it's a natural
reaction; you've just got to be  able to control it.  He'd been  here before
and knew what to do.
     For a  moment  I  had  the strange  feeling that  I was in an audience,
looking  at actors on a stage.  I knew exactly what would  be going  through
Josh's mind. He'd be wondering how he was going to get out of this, and just
waiting for the chance to do something about it anything.
     Blood is the same as  milk. Drop a carton on the floor and it looks  as
if three have been emptied.  Davy's blood had  spread outward and was mixing
with mine around my face. I didn't have the energy or inclination to move, I
just spat from time to time to try and keep it from going in my mouth.
     Sarah  threw Josh's  weapon  the length  of  the bowling  alley and the
clatter echoed around the walls. She checked her watch once more.
     "OK, Josh, this is what you will do. Are you listening?"
     He nodded.
     "You will  take me to  the  Diplomatic Reception Room. You  will  be my
escort. Do you understand?"
     He was very calm as he answered, "I can't do that."
     Americans have  this  wonderful total conviction  about themselves  and
their country. Even when they're up to their necks in ten types of shit they
have this unshakeable belief that everything will be all right, that America
is  behind them  and  the Seventh  Cavalry will come over  the  hill  at any
     After being  captured during the Gulf  War,  as opposed  to  asking for
things, American prisoners would  demand them--they just  knew  they were on
the winning side. In  the  Regiment, you always knew that if you were in the
shit you would never be left behind,  and that was sometimes  the only thing
that helped you through, but the Americans believe that at a national level.
I wished I had their confidence.
     Sarah couldn't quite believe what she'd heard.
     Josh said simply, "I will not do that."
     There was a pause, and I watched Sarah's face for a reaction. It wasn't
long coming.
     "Josh, you've got some thinking to do, and not a long time to do it in.
Think about your  children. This is no time to  mess about with your family,
Josh.  Take  me  to that room or you will die. I've got nothing to lose, I'm
going to be dead soon anyway." She had certainly listened to my brief on how
to get  Josh to do want  she wanted. She checked her watch. If she needed to
get  to  the Diplomatic  Reception Room before the end of  the coffee break,
there wasn't much time left.
     "They're great  kids.  Josh,  and they need you. You're  all  they have
     Besides," she  smiled her curious little smile, "you  could even try to
stop me. You can't do that if you're dead. I'm either going  with you, or on
my own, with you dead--in ten, Josh."
     I  saw  his chest rise and  fall as his  body  took in more  oxygen  to
suppress the  shock  it  was  experiencing.  I could  only guess what he was
     Do I die now? Or do I accept what she's saying,  and try to prevent  it
on the way? At least then I'm going to be alive for a little longer.
     I had blood in my throat  and my voice was hoarse as I said, "Take her,
Josh. Just do it."
     He looked at me and  our eyes locked. I could  see for sure what he was
thinking now: You  fucking  asshole. No matter if I  had  known what she was
going to do or not, to him I was now the world's biggest bastard.
     Fair one.
     I looked up at Sarah as she gave the final warning.
     "It's make-your  mind-up time."  She didn't have long until  the coffee
break ended.
     He  looked  at the wall,  thought for a few seconds  more, and  quietly

     "If you  try to fuck with me,  Josh, know this: I  will kill you before
anyone has time to react. I don't want your president. I just want the other
two. But if you fuck with me ... do you understand me?"
     He  closed his eyes and nodded. When he opened them again he fixed them
on mine. I hoped my  eyes  were saying:  I  didn't know  this was  going  to
happen, mate, and I'm sorry, so sorry.
     But his expression told me it was a bit late for that.
     Now that she was going to have an escort, Sarah took off Davy's ID card
and put her own one back on. That was detail, and detail counts.
     She said, "Let's go."
     She stepped back from the door as Josh walked toward it.
     "My weapon might be hidden, Josh, but at the slightest sign that you're
fucking with me I'll ensure that I get you first."
     He nodded, looked back at me and walked out.
     She followed without giving me a second glance.
     Everything  was out  of  focus; my head was spinning.  I was losing too
much blood. Between us, Davy and I had the lino pretty much covered.
     But now wasn't the time to worry about that;  I had to accept that  I'd
been shot, and get on with it.
     struggled  onto my hands and knees, sucked in a  couple of deep breaths
and started to crawl over toward  the abandoned ID card.  Every movement was
agony. With each bend of a knee or stretch of an arm I felt as if a  red-hot
saw was working on  my stomach.  It  took me what felt like forever to cover
the ten or so feet.  My head was swimming as I tried to  pull the nylon loop
over my head without disturbing the injury in my guts.
     When I'd finally finished, I couldn't even remember why I'd done it.
     I  began  crawling  to the  door, coughing, spitting  lumps  of  blood,
moaning to myself  like  a drunk in the  gutter, my clothes,  face and  hair
soaked with my blood and Davy's.
     On my knees, I fumbled with the handle like a panicking child. It was a
normal  knob, with  the tumbler lock  in the  middle, but I couldn't make my
hands work. My fingers weren't listening to my brain,  or maybe  it was just
that they were too slippery with warm red fluid.
     I  knew what  I was trying to do, but  I  couldn't accomplish it. Maybe
it's true  that your life can flash before  you  as you  die. I was suddenly
looking  down a  long tunnel, to when I was  about  six years old  and  fell
through  a glass roof into a  garage. I'd been with  a  gang  of older boys,
running across  the roof as  an initiation test. I  hit  the ground, cut and
bruised, and had to fight with the door bolt to escape. I was so scared that
I couldn't make any
     sense  out of  how to pull the fucking thing across, and once I'd  gone
through all that,  there was no way  I was  going to  show them how  much it
hurt. They let me join their gang.
     My  hands started to  shake as they slithered around the door handle. I
was losing it. I knew I  was going to die soon. I didn't care; I just didn't
want it to happen until I'd at least tried to stop Sarah.
     I forced myself to calm  down, take deep breaths and tell myself what I
needed to do, just as I'd done back in that garage. It worked.
     "Help  ... help me ..." I  tried to shout, but could only manage a weak
splutter. Not surprisingly, nothing happened.
     I  couldn't  just  lie there  in the doorway  and wait. Pressing myself
against the frame I scrabbled and pushed myself upright and, head reeling, I
half turned, half fell into the corridor.  I  bent over, leaning against the
wall for support, my left hand clutching my stomach. Blood smeared along the
white plaster as I stumbled toward Crisis Four.
     She didn't have far to go. If Josh fucked up and got zapped, she'd just
have to follow those TV cables and she'd be there.
     My only hope was to find TO. Anyone would be a start. I focused hard.
     There was no  red light on outside Crisis Four. Shit. I started to look
for a fire alarm, though at that moment I  didn't think I'd recognize one if
it hit me in the face.
     I felt my reserves of strength ebbing by the  second as I swiped the ID
card through the machine and tumbled through the door.
     There was  a picture on every screen, but they were  moving  in  a slow
spin, like a kaleidoscope. I started crawling again.
     I didn't know how I got to TC's chair, let alone off the floor and into
     All I knew was that, as I tried with every ounce of whatever strength I
had left to focus on the screens, I could see her.
     Sarah  and  Josh had just  come out  of the kitchen area.  The ERT  guy
hadn't moved from the area  of the brown screens and just turned toward them
as they appeared.
     Spitting out the blood and mucus that was gathering in my throat, I hit
the microphone switch.
     "Mayday, mayday.  Black  man, white  woman  on the first floor. Mayday,
mayday ..." I  didn't  know if it would mean  anything to them, but  I hoped
they'd get the idea.
     There was no reaction  from the ERT guy. Then  all three slipped out of
focus  and became  a  blur. I  screwed my eyes shut and  opened them  again,
spitting out another mouthful of crap onto the desk.
     Refocusing, I could see the  ERT  guy motioning to them  to either move
out toward the staircase or go back into  the kitchen. I  lifted  my head to
look at the picture above, which was showing what was happening on the other
side of  the brown screens. There were a  few people in plain clothes at the
far end, but no reaction from them either.
     Fuck it! I tried again.
     "All stations, all stations ..." then stopped,  my head resting next to
the base of the microphone. The red light wasn't on.
     I started leaving bloodstains  over as many  buttons  as I could reach,
wishing  I'd  taken notice  of which ones TO had hit when he  turned off the
     I got a light.
     "Mayday, mayday .. . first floor, first floor. Mayday, mayd--" The  ERT
guy was switched on and responded immediately, moving toward them.
     Sarah was quicker.  She must  have  seen his face react to the  message
from  his  earpiece.  She  drew her  weapon, instinctively  aiming  from the
stomach as soon as it was free of  her waistband. Josh dived on her, but too
late. She fired.
     The ERT  guy  dropped like a bag of  shit. Then, within a second of the
struggle, so did Josh. Fuck, what had I done?
     Sarah  turned and  ran as the corridor  filled with blurred  figures in
plain clothes and black uniforms.
     The  cameras were now  cutting  from  location to location  as the main
control  room tried to get a fix on her as she disappeared off the screen. I
knew where she was going.
     I swiveled around on the chair, and with my left hand on my gut, forced
myself  to my feet.  The  door shimmered in front  of my  eyes  as if I were
looking through a heat haze. I staggered into the  corridor. I  didn't  look
around, just turned right and faced the fire doors.
     There  couldn't  have been much of the stuff left  to be pumped around,
but adrenaline was getting me up and moving.
     She'd be here soon.  The Secret Service would bring the principals down
to the shelter until everything was clear, and she'd aim to cut them off.
     I crashed through the two doors and looked up just  as Sarah was taking
her last  steps  down the spiral stairs. She was  going  shit or bust,  head
down, pistol in hand.
     I couldn't think of anything else to do but throw myself at her in some
sort of rugby tackle. Perhaps it would have helped if I'd ever played a game
of rugby.
     I collapsed against her, throwing my arms  around her waist and linking
them together behind her back as her momentum propelled me backward into the
swing doors.
     She  was still moving, taking me with her, cracking me on the head with
her pistol. By now I really couldn't feel that much. My arms slipped down to
her legs and she started to fall with me.
     The fire  doors flew open again as we  burst through.  We both hit  the
ground and the doors swung back, trapping my lower legs.
     She was  stretched out, her  back  on the floor, and I was wrapped in a
mess around her feet. I could make out the pistol was still in her hand.
     My guts wrenched and screamed as I kicked my legs free from  the  doors
and scrambled up her  body, slapping my hand down heavily  on her forearm to
hold the weapon down. She kicked and  bucked to try and get me  off her. She
was like an insect on its back, frantic to get upright.
     I  became aware  of  screaming,  shouting and  heavy  footsteps echoing
around the area, but it was as if a mute button had been hit, and everything
was happening a long way away.
     I didn't care  where  the noise  was coming from. All that mattered was
her left hand, which was  going for Davy's  pistol now that she couldn't use
hers. I could feel it in her waistband as I moved farther up her body.
     Her resistance got stronger; it  was as if she were having some sort of
fit, her head and body thrashing from side to side.
     I put all my weight on her. It wasn't that difficult, I was fucked. Her
hand struggled to work its way between us toward the weapon.  Our heads were
so  close  together  that I  could  feel her  breath  on my face. I  had  to
head-butt her, there was  no other way. She reacted noisily. The three times
I made contact, I heard the back of her head bounce  off  the floor.  It was
messy, but it slowed her up.
     My head now hurt almost as much as my stomach. I was in shit state.
     Keeping  my forehead pushed against hers, blood dripping  from my mouth
and nose,  I prized the gun out  of her grip as she tried to  clear her nose
and mouth.
     I  rammed  the  barrel into her windpipe and looked at her, my forehead
still  putting pressure on  hers.  She  didn't return my stare as I tried to
focus, just closed her eyes and tensed her body as she waited for death. Our
bodies rose  and fell with her labored breathing as  the  doors were  kicked
open and I began to make sense of the shouting from behind me.
     The mute button had been deactivated.
     "Release the weapon! Release the weapon now! Do it!"
     I thought about it for the two seconds I  would have before they pulled
or shot me off her.
     Her  body relaxed  and  she  opened her eyes and  looked at  me. It was
almost an order.
     "Do it... please."
     Fuck it. I tilted the gun upward and it slid two inches until it jammed
under her  chin. Pointing it toward her skull, I let my head move aside. Her
eyes followed mine as I pulled the trigger.
     Blood and splintered bone splashed onto the side of my face.
     I'd  finished the job  I'd been ordered  to  do;  that was  what I made
myself think. A  moment later I felt  the  pain  shoot  up my arm as someone
kicked the pistol out of my hand.
     I  was manhandled onto  my back. I looked  up  and there was  ERT black
everywhere,  then Josh  loomed over  me, blocking out everything else, blood
dripping onto me from the mess on his face. They tried to pull him off me as
he started to give me a good kicking. It wasn't working.
     I turned on my side and curled up to protect  myself,  and through  the
haze I could hear orders being shouted and the general confusion around me.
     I was losing it. Josh  was still screaming  above me, and managed a few
more  kicks. It didn't  matter, I could no  longer feel them. What I  really
wanted to happen, did. I became unconscious.

     I came out of the flat on Cambridge Street, checked I'd put the  key on
the ring of my Leatherman and  closed the door  behind me. It was a  strange
feeling, being  a virtual  prisoner  here in Pimlico. I'd brought  plenty of
worried-looking people here in the past, but  never imagined that  some  day
I'd be one of the victims myself.
     The debrief was taking forever. The  Firm  was trying to  strike a deal
with the Americans. Both sides wanted this to go away, and they weren't  the
only ones.  It had been four weeks since I'd  come  out of hospital, and I'd
been confined to the area ever since, under what amounted to house arrest.
     I was getting paid, and at operational rate, but it still wasn't a good
day out.
     None of my injuries hurt much anymore, but  I still needed bucket loads
of antibiotics. The entry wound had sealed up quite  well. All that was left
was a dent in my stomach, colored the same vivid pink as the puncture wounds
in my arm.
     Walking down the last couple of  stone  steps to the pavement, I looked
to my  left at the crowd  enjoying an  end-of-the-week drink  at  the picnic
tables  outside the pub. Friday evening's  rush hour had  turned  the  whole
street into  a car park. The  traffic fumes  were cooking up  nicely  in the
early evening sun. The heat was unusual for this time of  year. It felt more
     Los Angeles than London.
     I crossed between  the stationary vehicles, heading for  the all-in-one
shop on the corner. The Asian father and son combo were used to me now;
     dad started folding a copy of the Evening Standard as soon as he saw me
come in. I felt like a local. Weaving back over the road, I headed for the
     pub. There were just  as many  people inside, and  above the din Robbie
Williams was giving it full volume on  the sound system. The smell of smoke,
stale  beer  and  body odor reminded me not to  come here again. It did that
every night.
     I worked my way toward the rear, where I knew it wouldn't be so packed,
and, besides, that was where the food was. I'd  started to recognize some of
the  regulars sad fucks like me, with nowhere else to go, or  office workers
big-timing it,  or  old men smoking their  roll-ups  and  spending  an  hour
nursing a warm pint.
     I asked for  my usual bottle ofPils and, helping myself to a handful of
peanuts from one of the  bowls, headed  for a booth. The one with  the  most
room was occupied by an old man  who looked  as if  he'd  just  come  from a
British Legion outing, all tie and association badges. He couldn't have been
there long; his bottle of  light ale hadn't yet been poured into his half of
     "Anyone sitting here, mate?"
     He looked up and  shook his head. I eased myself  into the seat slowly,
taking care that my jeans didn't ride up and expose the tag around my  right
ankle. Taking a swig ofPils, I opened the newspaper.
     It was all  the usual doom and gloom. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces had
stopped bombing  the shit out  of each  other with  their MIG  23s  to  give
foreign nationals time to be  airlifred from the war zone. That was the sort
of work  I liked,  just plain and  simple war. You knew where you stood with
that shit.
     I  scanned the  rest of the news sections, but  there was still nothing
about what  had happened in  Washington. Still no mention of the injuries to
the  ERT guy and  Josh, and I knew now that there never  would  be. Lynn had
given me the  American party  line  during  one  of our little evening rides
around  town.  The press  release  was short: a stressed-out member  of  the
domestic staff had become temporarily deranged in the White  House basement.
It  was  a minor  incident, dealt  with in minutes. The  three world leaders
hadn't  been made aware until well  after the event. The most the story ever
got was a column inch in the following day's Washington Post.
     I was glad the ERT guy hadn't died. He'd just been wounded in the thigh
something  to  tell the grandchildren about. Josh had got it big time in the
face. Lynn said the round had split the flesh on the right side and made his
mouth  look as if it  ended  by  his ear. I'd  been told  the  surgery was a
success, but I doubted he'd ever be modeling for Calvin Klein.
     My  one hope  was  that his  Christian thing  would  work  in my favor.
Sitting in the flat a few days  earlier, waiting for  the debriefing team to
arrive, I'd been listening to Thought for the Day on the radio.
     "If  you can't forgive the sin,"  the voice  had said, "at least try to
forgive the sinner."
     Sounded  good  to me.  I just  hoped Josh  could get Radio Four in  his
     I hadn't spoken  to him yet; I'd  wait  a while, give him time to  calm
down and me time to work out what the fuck I was going to say.
     I hadn't seen Kelly  since the Americans released  me  into the  Firm's
custody. We'd spoken on the phone, and she thought I was still away working.
     She said  that  Josh had called. He'd told her nothing  about what  had
happened, just that Sarah and I had visited.
     I still had no regrets about killing  Sarah. The only thing that pissed
me off was that every time in my life I'd let someone  get close to me, they
fucked me over. Everybody, that is, apart from Kelly. It seemed to be my job
to do that to her.
     I'd blown it again by making promises I couldn't keep. She still wanted
to go to the Bloody Tower, and she wanted to go with me. Three times now I'd
arranged  it, only to cancel at the last minute  because the debrief dragged
on.  At  least  she was going to  her grandparents this  weekend. Carmen and
Jimmy would spoil her rotten.
     I took another long swig of Pils fuck the antibiotics, I usually forgot
to take them  anyway and  checked Baby-G.  They  started serving  in  twenty
     The  debrief was going OK,  I  thought, but you never  knew  with these
people. I wasn't getting as  hard a  time of  it as I  might, mainly because
Lynn and Elizabeth were potentially in just  as much shit  as I was and were
taking measures to  cover  their asses.  Even so, every event of  those five
days was  being  dissected  in great detail. Not  documented, of course. How
could it be; it hadn't happened.
     Not that any of it meant much. I was lying to the team, using  a script
supplied  by  the good colonel. I'd RV with  him each evening, and the  Serb
would  give us a few laps of London.  As Lynn had said,  "You  need guiding,
Nick, on some of the more, shall we say, delicate areas of the operation."
     And, of course, to avoid the slight problem of the T104, since not even
the investigation  crew would be aware that  such  things existed.  The only
ones  in  the  know  were  lowlife  like  me,  Elizabeth and  Lynn.  To  the
investigators, I  didn't even have  a name; I was just  referred to  as  the
"paid asset." That suited me just fine.
     Lynn  had already  told  me that I'd been sent on the  job  because, if
anyone  could find  her, I could. But I knew there was more to it than that.
It had become blindingly  obvious that those two fuckers had known all along
what she was up  to, and thought  I'd be so pissed off with her I'd feed her
through the grinder without a second thought.
     They'd even known where she was hiding, but wanted me to go through the
process of finding her. They reckoned that if I thought I'd tracked her down
through my  own efforts,  and if what I saw  on  the ground confirmed  their
story, that would put me even more in the mood.
     There were still loose  ends,  of  course. I still couldn't work out if
Metal Mickey  was part of Lynn's game or not. After all, Lynn did say he was
loyal. But to whom? Fuck it, who cared? It just annoyed me that these people
could never just tell it straight. Why bother to tell me all that bullshit?
     I  would  still  have done the job if I'd  known the truth. The fucking
games they played pissed me off, and worse, they put me in danger.
     Naturally,  nothing  in  the  big picture had  been  changed by Sarah's
death.  Bin Laden  was still out  there doing  his stuff. Yousef had  closed
down, but he'd probably resurface in a year or two. And I still wasn't going
to  be getting permanent cadre:  they said I'd be a disruptive influence  on
the team.  I'd  tried  to get a bung instead, claiming that what happened in
the White House might have been my fuckup, but I did stop the president from
being shot. Well... you have to elaborate a bit. It didn't work.
     Even the deafest old duffer  in the pub must have heard their laughter.
All I  got was the promise that if a  single word came from my lips that was
off message I was history.
     My major concern now was, what did I  get up to after this? I needed to
get  some real money together so I didn't  have  to carry on  getting fucked
over by these people. Maybe I'd take a look at the American rewards program.
     Bounty  hunting terrorists,  white supremacists and South American drug
dealers wouldn't be so bad. Maybe I could  try and  recover  those  Stingers
from the muj. Who knows?
     The bottle  was empty. People  were three deep at the  bar and it  took
ages  to get myself another. As I rejoined my mate in the booth, I was again
careful not  to  expose the  light-gray band  of  plastic around  my  ankle,
housing  its two inch  by two  inch  box of  electronics. I checked my watch
again; just over ten minutes till the peanuts disappeared and the menus were
put on the bar. Not that I needed one. I knew it all by heart.
     I  thought about  Sarah again. I'd learned more about her in my  stints
with Lynn than I had in all the time I'd known her. I'd always felt that she
was  holding something back from me, and in my stupid way I'd decided it was
because she was scared of intimacy.
     Sitting back on the cigarette-burned red velour, I  started to pick  at
the label on the Pils bottle.  The old man bent his neck as he tried to read
the headlines on my paper. I passed it across the table.
     The  night before last  had  been another hot and  humid one. Lynn  had
picked me up as usual for our daily debrief on the debrief, but this time in
his new  Voyager. It looked like the  Firm's budget had got a bit of a boost
this new fiscal year. The air conditioner was going full blast. The Serb, as
ever, kept his eyes fixed on the road.
     "How was all this allowed to happen?" I said.
     "How come you didn't suspect her earlier?"
     Lynn kept his gaze on the real world beyond the darkened window.
     "Elizabeth voiced concerns." He shrugged.
     "We took a few people  aside for a word, but there was nothing we could
put  our  finger  on.  The false flag operation in Syria  seemed like a good
moment to put her to the test."
     Lynn obviously held a lot more pieces of the puzzle in his hand than he
was letting me see,  but he did tell me this  much. The Syrian operation had
been taken on by the Brits only as a means of checking whether Sarah was Bin
Laden's  best mate. It was Elizabeth's idea. Sarah changed the  data, killed
the Source  and  covered  her tracks. She was good  at doing that. I thought
back to her giving the American a round in the head after taking his clothes
in the forest.  But  she wasn't  good  enough in Syria. Without  knowing it,
Sarah confirmed that  she  didn't exactly go  to sleep every  night  humming
"Rule Britannia." It was then just a question of letting her lead the way to
Bin Laden. The  only problem for Elizabeth was that she  had omitted to fill
in the Americans when Sarah was posted to Washington.
     Lynn  had  turned  and  looked  at  me as  if  to  underline  his  next
     "Things  got slightly out of hand when Sarah took an active part in the
ASU," he said.
     "Once that had happened, how could we tell our  friends across the sea?
That was where you came in."
     I let that  one sink  in in amongst all the other crap I was trying  to
make sense of.
     The investigating  team had been clutching at straws to explain Sarah's
behavior, and I wasn't doing much better.  I asked  him, "Do  you  know what
turned her?" He seemed to know everything else.
     "We'll  never completely  know,  will  we? People  are still  trying to
fathom out T. E. Lawrence ... and who really knows what made Philby  and the
rest do what they did?" There was a pause.
     "A team  went  to Sarah's mother, to pass on  the tragic  news. She was
saddened, of course, but very proud of her daughter's most untimely death in
the service of her country."
     "I thought her parents were dead."
     "No, just her father. He died when she was seventeen.  A team have been
weaseling with the  mother  for a few weeks  now.  You  know, trying for any
links or information that may be useful."
     Sarah's father, George,  they had learned, was a big-time oil executive
who was a stern disciplinarian and a major-league hypocrite. He'd spent  his
whole working life in the Middle East without ever getting to like the Arabs
unless, that is, they were either royal or wealthy  preferably both and took
to all things  Western in  much  the  same way that flies take to  shit. The
right sort of Arab  certainly didn't include  his lower-class domestic staff
and their nine-year-old son.
     The friendship between Sarah and Abed had been perfectly  innocent, the
mother had said. The fact was, her daughter was just desperately lonely. But
as far as George was concerned, inside every Arab was a rapist  just waiting
to get out.
     The two kids were  inseparable. Sarah was an  only child,  pushed  from
pillar to  post all her life, with  a remote, domineering  father, a placid,
ineffectual mother, and  no opportunity to make lasting  relationships.  You
wouldn't need to be an  agony aunt to understand her joy in finding a friend
at last.
     George,  however, was  not amused.  One  day, Abed's mum and dad didn't
turn  up  for work. Nor did  the  boy come around  in  the afternoon,  as he
usually did. The whole family seemed to have vanished. Then, just a few days
later, Sarah's  father pulled the plug on her  education in Saudi and packed
her off to a U.K. boarding school.
     It was only after  her  father had  died  that Sarah  learned what  had
really happened. She was helping her mother go  through  her father's things
when she came across a gold Rolex Navigator.
     Sarah said, "I never knew Daddy had one of these."
     Her mother looked at the watch and burst into tears.
     The Rolex had been given to him by a grateful business acquaintance.
     It  was George's prize possession.  He had accused Abed of stealing it,
and thrown  the  whole family out onto  the streets.  With  a reputation  as
thieves hanging over them, their  chances  of ever  working again would have
been ziff. They would have seen  out their days as "dust people," the lowest
of  the  low,  outcasts  from  Saudi  society and  living  on  the  edge  of
     Sarah waited until her mother had finished, then left the house without
another word. She never saw her again.
     "Of  course, I don't  go  along  with all this  nonsense  about blaming
everything in your life on the traumas of childhood," Lynn said.
     "My parents dragged me around Southeast Asia  until I was seven, then I
went to Eton. Never did me any harm."
     The menus were being  plonked unceremoniously on the bar counter by the
girl  who'd served me before.  The thought of dishing  out  another  hundred
stuff and chips obviously didn't fill her with too much excitement.
     I  decided on the pie and another beer. The same as  last night and the
night before. A  quick look at Baby-G told me it was seven forty-eight, just
over half an hour until my RV Traffic  was still clogging the  street by the
time I left, but at least it was moving. I turned left, checked my watch yet
again and headed toward Victoria Station. Thirteen minutes till  the pickup.
I turned two corners  and stopped, waiting to see if anyone  was  following.
They weren't.
     Crossing the road, I cut through a housing  estate that was packed with
K reg Vauxhall Astras and Sierras, sat on  a wall by the  rubbish chute  and
waited.  Half  a dozen kids  were skateboarding up and down the  only bit of
clear tarmac they could find--the exit in front of me that led onto the main
drag toward the station. I listened to their  banter, thinking about when  I
was where they were.
     I thought of Kelly--the girl who'd had her whole family killed, and now
had a stand-in father who constantly let her down. And worse than that, much
worse, I was probably the closest thing she had to a best friend.
     Sarah's words came back to me.
     "You have a child now. I hope you live long enough to see her."
     I cut away from all that and got back to real life by  reminding myself
of the two big  lessons I'd learned in Washington. The first was never again
to be  so  soft  with someone who  showed emotion  toward me. I had  to stop
kidding myself that I  knew, or even  understood, that  sort  of  stuff. The
second was easier: always carry a pistol. I never wanted to play Robin  Hood
     It  was last light as I  sat, watched and listened. Sarah's words still
bugged me.
     "You have a child now ..."
     The  Voyager  would  be arriving  any  minute.  I looked  at Baby-G and
thought about  George's Rolex.  And then I knew what  I had to do.  I wasn't
exactly a  top-of-the-range example for Kelly, but the very least I could do
was be dependable. Maybe, just  maybe, the one thing that Sarah had given me
by sparing my life was the chance to do the right thing.
     Moving swiftly away from the RV point, I jumped  a fence that secured a
communal garden.
     Crouching  in  the shadows, I  pulled the  Leatherman from  my  pocket,
opened the knife blade, and cut away at the plastic encircling my ankle.
     The  pliers  made  short work  of  the  half-inch steel band  that  ran
     I knew  that  the  instant the circuit was  broken  the alarm would  be
raised. Even  as the tag was being binned  in the  bushes,  the standby team
would be running for their  cars,  getting  briefed via their  body  com  ms
(personal radios).
     Jumping back over the fence, I  headed toward Victoria at a controlled,
fast pace. Fuck 'em. What were they going to do? Well, quite  a bit, but I'd
worry about that when  it happened. It wasn't  as if I  was doing an out and
out runner. I'd be back in the  flat on Sunday,  talking to the morons about
Afghanistan.  The only difference  would  be  that I'd have acquired two new
friends with necks  as big as the Serb's, assigned to guard me 24/7, just in
case I was overcome again by the desire to take a weekend off.
     There were  sirens behind me now on the other side  of the estate. They
must be flapping big time to call in the police.
     As I neared the station I just hoped the investigating team had kids of
their own, and would understand when I  explained to them on Sunday that all
I wanted to do was take my child to the Bloody Tower for a day out.
     After all, I'd made her a promise. A normal person's promise.

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