Энди МакНаб. Последний свет(engl)

     Last Light [181-142-181-4.2]
     By: Andy McNab.
     Category: fiction spies


     Synopsis:
     When Secret Intelligence Service deniable operator Nick Stone aborts an
officially  sanctioned  assassination attempt  at the  Houses of Parliament,
having realized who the target is, he is given  a  chilling ultimatum by his
bosses:  fly to  Panama and  finish  the job, or Kelly, the  eleven-year-old
orphan in his guardianship, will be killed.
     At any other stage of his life the task would have been run of the mill
for  a  man of  Stone's skills and experience.  But Stone  is on  the  edge,
struggling to pick up the pieces  of  his shattered life,  trying to come to
terms with a  heartrending decision he has had to make about Kelly's future.
By the time he arrives in Panama, he is close to breaking point.
     In the  sweltering jungle of Central  America, Stone prepares to  carry
out  his orders,  aided by Aaron and Carrie, two American  eco-scientists in
the pay of the CIA. But as  he soon discovers, nothing in  Panama  is  quite
what it  seems,  and it's not long before he  finds himself the centre  of a
lethal  conspiracy involving  Colombian guerrillas,  the US  government  and
Chinese big business.
     At stake are hundreds of innocent lives .. .
     Only Stone can  stop the killing and retrieve the West's interests, but
first there is  a  critically  injured  friend to rescue, and miles of dense
rain  forest to navigate. In the explosive  denouement at  the Panama  Canal
with everyone's true colours ultimately  revealed,  Nick Stone  is forced to
make the toughest decision of his life. 
     Last printing: 03/12/02 `<49' Also by Andy McNab
     Non-fiction
     BRAVO TWO ZERO
     IMMEDIATE ACTION
     Fiction
     REMOTE CONTROL
     CRISIS FOUR
     FIREWALL
     LAST LIGHT
     ANDY McNAB
     BANTAM PRESS
     LONDON NEW YORK TORONTO SYDNEY AUCKLAND
     TRANS WORLD PUBLISHERS
     61-63 Uxbridge Road, London W5 5SA a division of The Random House Group
Ltd
     RANDOM HOUSE AUSTRALIA (PTY) LTD
     20  Alfred  Street,  Milsons  Point,  Sydney,  New  South  Wales  2061,
Australia
     RANDOM HOUSE NEW ZEALAND LTD
     18 Poland Road, Glenfield, Auckland 10, New Zealand
     RANDOM HOUSE SOUTH AFRICA (PTY) LTD
     Endulini, 5a Jubilee Road, Parktown 2193, South  Africa  Published 2001
by Bantam Press a division of Transworld Publishers  McNab 2001 The right of
Andy McNab to be identified as the author of  this work has been asserted in
accordance with  sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act
1988.
     All of the characters  in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance
to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
     A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
     ISBN: 0-386-593 04617X (cased)  All  rights reserved.  No part  of this
publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or  transmitted
in  any  form   or  by  any  means,  electronic,  mechanical,  photocopying,
recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.
     Typeset in 11/13pt Palatine by  Falcon Oast  Graphic Art Ltd Printed in
Great Britain by Mackays of Chatham plc, Chatham, Kent
     LAST LIGHT
     Sunday, 3 September  2000 I didn't  know who we were going to kill just
that  he or she  would  be  amongst  the crowd munching  canapes and sipping
champagne on the terrace of the Houses of Parliament at 3 p.m." and that the
Yes Man would identify the target by placing his hand on their left shoulder
when he greeted them.
     I'd done some weird  stuff over the years, but this job was scaring me.
In less than ninety minutes, I was going to  be shitting on my own  doorstep
big-time. I only hoped the Firm knew what it was doing, because I wasn't too
sure that I did.
     As I looked down yet again at the  clear  plastic lunch-box on the desk
in front of me, three torch bulbs sticking out of holes I'd burnt in the lid
stared back up. None of them was illuminated;
     the three snipers were still not in position.
     Everything about this job was wrong. We'd been given the wrong weapons.
We were in the wrong place. And there just hadn't been  enough time  to plan
and prepare.
     I  stared  through  the net  curtains across the boat-filled river. The
Houses of Parliament were some 350 metres away to my half left.
     The office  I'd  broken  into was  on the top floor of County Hall, the
former Greater London Council building. Now redeveloped into offices, hotels
and tourist attractions, it overlooked the Thames from the south side. I was
feeling rather  grand sitting behind a highly polished, dark wood desk, as I
looked out at the killing ground.
     Parliament's  terrace spanned  the whole  of  its river  frontage.  Two
prefabricated pavilions with candy-striped roofs had been erected at the far
left end, for  use throughout the summer months.  Part of  the terrace,  I'd
learnt from their  website, was for Members  of the House of Lords, and part
for the House of Commons. The public were not admitted unless they were with
an MP or peer, so this was probably the nearest I was ever going to get.
     The Department of  Trade  and Industry's guests today  were  a group of
about thirty businessmen, plus staff and some family, from Central and South
America. Maybe the DTI was trying to curry a bit of  favour and sell  them a
power  station or two. Who cared?  All I knew was that  one of them would be
getting dropped somewhere between the vol-au-vents and the profiteroles.
     Directly  below  me,  and  five  storeys down,  Albert  Embankment  was
thronged with hot-dog vendors and stalls selling plastic policeman's helmets
and postcards of  Big Ben to  people  queuing for the  London  Eye, or  just
enjoying  a lazy  Sunday  afternoon. A sightseeing boat packed with tourists
passed under  Westminster  Bridge.  I could hear a  bored voice  telling the
story of Guy Fawkes over a crackly PA system.
     It was holiday season and another news-starved week, so Mr. Murdoch and
his mates were going to  be ever so pleased with what I was about to do: the
biggest  explosion  in   London  this  year,  and  right  in  the  heart  of
Westminster.  With the added bonus  of a major  shooting incident,  it would
probably  take their  ratings right  off the scale. Unfortunately, good news
for them was bad for me. SB (Special  Branch) were going to be working their
arses  off to find out who'd pressed the button, and they were  the best  in
the world at this sort of thing.
     They'd  been formed  to stop the  IRA carrying out exactly  the kind of
stunt I was about to pull.
     Three torch bulbs were still unlit. I wasn't flapping, just concerned.
     At  either  end of the row of lights was a white, rectangular bell-push
from  a  door  chime set, glued in position with Evostik,  the wires curling
into the box. The  one  on  the left was covered with the top  from a can of
shaving cream. It was the detonation press el for the device that I'd set up
as a diversion.  The device was basically a black powder charge, designed to
give  off  a  big enough  bang to  grab London's attention  but not  to kill
anyone.
     There would be some damage, there'd be the odd cut or bruise, but there
shouldn't be  any fatalities. The  shaving  cream top  was  there  because I
didn't want  to detonate  it by  accident.  The  press el on the  right  was
exposed. This was the one that would initiate the shoot.
     Next  to the box  I  had a set of binos mounted  on  a mini-tripod  and
trained on the killing ground. I was going to need them  to if watch the Yes
Man as he moved about the crowd and ID'd the target.
     The lunch-box  contained a big, green, square  lithium  battery,  and a
mess of wires and circuit boards.  I'd never tried to make things look neat;
I just wanted them  to work.  Two purple  plastic coated wire antennas stuck
out of the rear of the box, trailed along the desk, over the window-sill I'd
pushed it up against,  then dangled down the outside wall. I had the  window
closed down on them to cut out as much noise as possible.
     The loudest  sound  in  the  room was  my  breathing, which started  to
quicken as  the  witching  hour got  closer.  It  was  only  outdone  by the
occasional   scream  of  delight  from  a  tourist  at  ground  level  or  a
particularly loud PA system from the river.
     All I could do was wait. I crossed my arms  on the desk, rested my head
on them, and stared at the  bulbs that were now level with my  eyes, willing
them to start flashing.
     I was shaken out of my trance as Big Ben struck two. I knew the snipers
wouldn't move into their fire  positions until  the last moment so that they
didn't expose themselves longer than necessary, but  I really  wanted  those
lights to start flashing at me.
     For about the millionth time in the past  twenty minutes I pushed  down
on the uncovered press el resting the side of my head  on my forearm to look
inside the box, like a kid wondering what  his mum had made him for lunch. A
small  bulb,  nestled amongst  the  mass of wires,  lit up with  the current
generated by my send press  el I wished now that I'd burnt another  hole  in
the lid for the bulb inside to join the others but at the time I couldn't be
arsed. I released it and pressed again. The same thing happened.  The device
was working. But what about the other three that I'd built  for the snipers?
I'd just have to wait and see.
     The other thing I did for the millionth time  was wonder why I couldn't
just say no to  this stuff. Apart from the fact that I was soft in the head,
the answer was the  same as always: it was the only thing I knew. I knew it,
the Firm knew it. They also knew that, as always, I was  desperate for  cash
again.
     If I was truthful  with  myself,  which I found pretty  hard, there was
another, much  deeper reason. I got my  eyes  level with the bulbs once more
and  took a deep breath. I'd learnt a few  things since attending the clinic
with Kelly.
     Even  at school there  was desperation in me  to  be  part of something
whether  it was joining  a woodwork  group, or  a gang  that used to rob the
Jewish kids of the dinner  money they'd wrapped in  hankies so  we  couldn't
hear  it rattle in  their pockets as they walked past.  But it never worked.
That feeling  of belonging only happened once I joined the  army. And now? I
just couldn't seem to shake it off.
     At  last.  The  middle  bulb,  Sniper   Two's,  gave  five  deliberate,
one-second pulses.
     I put my thumb on the send press el and,  after a nanosecond to check I
wasn't about to blow up  London in my excitement, I depressed it three times
in exactly the same rhythm,  to say that I had received the signal, checking
each time that the white circuit-test bulb inside the box lit up.
     I got three flashes back  immediately from the middle  bulb. Good news.
Sniper Two  was  in position, ready to fire, and we  had com ms All I needed
now was One and Three, and I'd be cooking with gas.
     I'd put everything these snipers needed to know where to be, how to get
there, what to do  once in position,  and, more importantly for them, how to
get away afterwards with the weapons and equipment  in their individual DLBs
(dead letter boxes). All they  had to do was read the orders, check the kit,
and get on with  the  shoot.  The  three  had different fire positions, each
unknown  to  the others.  None of them had met or even seen each  other, and
they hadn't met me.  That's how  these things are  done: OP SEC (operational
security). You only know what you need to.
     I'd had an  extremely busy ten  nights of CTRs (close target recces) to
find suitable  fire positions in the hospital grounds this side of the river
and directly opposite the killing ground. Then, by  day, I'd made  the  keys
for the  snipers to  gain access to their  positions, prepared the equipment
they would need, then loaded the DLBs. Tandy, B&Q and a remote-control model
shop in Camden Town had made a fortune out  of me once I'd hit ATMs  with my
new  Royal Bank of Scotland  Visa card under my new cover for this job, Nick
Somerhurst.
     The only aspect of the business I was totally happy about was OP SEC It
was so tight that the Yes Man had briefed me personally.
     Tucked in a very smart  leather attache case, he had a buff folder with
black boxes stamped  on  the outside for  people  to  sign and  date as they
authorized its  contents. No one had  signed any  of them, and there was  no
yellow card attached to  signify it was an accountable document. Things like
that always worried me: I knew it meant a shitload of trouble.
     As we drove along Chelsea Embankment towards Parliament  in the back of
a  Previa MPV with  darkened windows,  the Yes  Man had  pulled two pages of
printed A4  from the  folder and started to brief me. Annoyingly, I couldn't
quite read his notes from where I was sitting.
     I  didn't like the condescending wanker one  bit  as he put on his best
I-have been-to-university-but-F m-still-working-class voice to tell me I was
'special' and 'the only one capable'. Things didn't improve when he stressed
that no one in  government knew of this job, and only two  in the Firm: "C',
the  boss  of  SIS,  and  the  Director  of  Security  and  Public  Affairs,
effectively his number two.
     "And, of course," he said, with a smile, 'the three of us."
     The driver,  whose  thick blond  side-parted  hair  made  him look like
Robert Redford when he was young enough to be the
     Sundance Kid, glanced in the rearview mirror and I caught his eye for a
second  before he  concentrated  once  more  on the  traffic,  fighting  for
position around Parliament Square. Both  of them  must have  sensed I wasn't
the happiest teddy in town. The nicer people were to me, the more suspicious
of their motives became.
     But,  the  Yes  Man said,  I  wasn't to  worry.  SIS  could  carry  out
assassinations at the express request of the Foreign Secretary.
     "But you just said only five of us know about this. And this is the UK.
It's not a Foreign Office matter."
     His smile confirmed what I already knew.
     "Ah, Nick, we don't want  to  bother  anyone with minor details.  After
all, they may not really want to know."
     With  an  even bigger smile  he added  that  should  any  part  of  the
operation go wrong, no one would be held ultimately responsible. The Service
would, as  always, hide  behind the Official Secrets Act  or,  if things got
difficult, a  Public  Interest Immunity Certificate. So everything was quite
all right, and I'd be protected. I mustn't forget, he said, that I  was part
of the team. And that was when I really started to worry.
     It was blindingly obvious to  me that the reason no one knew about this
operation  was  because no one in their right mind would sanction it, and no
one in their right mind  would take the job on. Maybe that was why  I'd been
picked. Then, as now, I comforted myself with the thought  that at least the
money was good. Well, sort of. But  I was desperate for the  eighty grand on
offer,  forty  now  in  two  very  large  brown  Jiffy-bags,  and  the  rest
afterwards. That was how I justified saying yes to something I just knew was
going to be a nightmare.
     We were now on the approach road to Westminster Bridge with Big Ben and
Parliament  to my right. On the other side  of the river  I  could  see  the
County Hall building  and to  the left of  that,  the  London Eye, the wheel
turning so slowly it looked as if it wasn't moving at all.
     "You should get out here, Stone. Have a look around."
     With that, the  Sundance Kid kerbed  the Previa,  and  irate  motorists
behind hit their horns as they tried to manoeuvre around us. I slid the door
back  and stepped out  to the deafening  sounds of road  drills and  revving
engines. The Yes Man leant forward in his seat and took the door handle.
     "Call in for what you  need,  and where  you  want the other  three  to
collect their furnishings."
     With that, the door slid shut and Sundance cut up a bus to get  back in
the  traffic stream heading south across the river. A van driver gave me the
finger as  he put his  foot  down to make  up that  forty seconds he'd  been
delayed.
     As I sat at  the desk waiting for the other two bulbs to  illuminate, I
concentrated hard on that eighty grand. I didn't think I'd ever needed it so
badly. The snipers were probably getting at least  three times as  much as I
was but, then, I wasn't as  good as they were at what they did. These people
were as committed to their craft as Olympic  athletes. I'd met one or two in
the past when I, too, thought  of going that route, but decided  against it;
professional  snipers  struck  me as  weird. They  lived  on  a planet where
everything was taken  seriously,  from politics  to buying ice  cream.  They
worshipped at the church of one round, one kill. No, sniping might pay well,
but  I  didn't think  I  belonged there.  And,  besides,  I now found bullet
trajectory and  the  finer  points of wind  adjustment  pretty boring  after
talking about them for half an hour, let alone my entire life.
     From the moment the Yes Man dropped me off with my two  Jiffy-bags, I'd
started protecting myself  far more than I normally would. I knew that  if I
got caught by Special Branch  the Firm would deny me, and that was  part and
parcel of  being  a K. But there was more  to it this time. The stuff  I did
normally  didn't  happen in the UK, and no  way would anyone  in their right
mind  give  this the go. Everything felt wrong, and  the Yes Man would never
want  to be on the losing side. He'd knife  his own grandmother  if it meant
promotion; in fact, since he took over the Ks Desk from Colonel Lynn, he was
so far up C's arse he  could have flossed  his teeth. If things didn't go to
plan, and even if I did evade SB, he wouldn't hesitate to fuck me over if it
meant he could take any credit and pass on any blame.
     I needed  a  safety  blanket,  so I started by  noting  down the serial
numbers of  all three snipers' weapons before grinding them out. Then I took
Polaroids of  all  the equipment, plus the three firing positions during the
CTRs. I'd given the snipers  photographs  in their  orders, and I kept a set
myself. I had a full pictorial story  of the job, together  with photocopies
of each  set of sniper's orders.  It all went into a bag in Left  Luggage at
Waterloo  station,  along  with  everything else  I  owned: a pair of jeans,
socks, pants, washing kit and two fleece jackets.
     After loading the  three snipers'  DLBs, I should have  left them alone
but I didn't. Instead I put in an OP (observation post) on Sniper Two's dead
letter  box, which was just outside  the market town of Thetford in Norfolk.
There was  no particular reason  for picking Sniper Two's to OP, except that
it was the nearest of the three to London.
     The other two were in  the Peak District and on  Bodmin Moor. All three
had been  chosen in  uninhabited areas  so that once they'd got the weapons,
they could zero them to make sure that the optic sight was correctly aligned
to the barrel so that a round hit  the target precisely at a given distance.
The  rest -judging the wind, taking leads (aiming  ahead of  moving targets)
and working out distance is part  of the  sniper's art, but first the weapon
sight and rounds  need to be as one. How they did  that,  and where they did
that within the area, was up to them.
     They  were  getting  more  than  enough  cash to make  those  decisions
themselves.
     Inside the DLB, a 45-gallon oil drum, was a large black Puma tennis bag
that held everything needed for the shoot and was totally  sterile of me: no
fingerprints,  certainly no  DNA. Nothing from my body had made contact with
this  kit.  Dressed  like  a technician in  a chemical  warfare lab,  I  had
prepared, cleaned and wiped everything down  so many  times it was  a wonder
there was any Parkerization (protective paint) left on the barrels.
     Jammed  into  a Gore-Tex  bivi  bag  and dug in  amongst  the ferns  in
miserable drizzling rain, I waited for Sniper Two to arrive. I knew that all
three would be  extremely cautious when they made their approach to lift the
DLBs, carrying  out their  tradecraft to the letter  to ensure they  weren't
followed  or walking into a trap. That  was why I  had to keep my  distance:
sixty-nine metres to be exact, which in turn had meant  choosing a telephoto
lens on my  Nikon for  more photographic evidence of this  job, wrapped in a
sweatshirt to dampen  the rewind noise, and shoved into a bin  liner so that
just the lens and viewfinder were exposed to the drizzle.
     I  waited,  throwing Mars  bars and water down my  neck and just hoping
Sniper Two didn't choose to unload it at night.
     In the end it was  just over  thirty boring  and very wet hours  before
Sniper  Two  started  to move in  on  the DLB. At least  it was daylight.  I
watched the hooded figure  check  the immediate area around  a collection of
old, rusty farm machinery and oil drums.
     It edged  forward  like  a wet and  cautious  cat.  I  brought  up  the
telephoto lens.
     Tapered blue  jeans,  brown cross-trainers, three-quarter-length  beige
waterproof jacket. The hood had a sewn-in peak, and I could see the label on
the left  breast pocket:  LL Bean I'd never seen one of their shops  outside
the US.
     What  I'd also  never  seen  outside the US was a woman sniper. She was
maybe early  thirties, slim, average  height, with brown hair  poking out of
the sides  of the  hood.  She was  neither attractive nor unattractive, just
normal-looking,  more like  a  young  mother than a professional killer. She
reached the oil drums,  and carefully  checked inside  hers to make  sure it
wasn't  booby-trapped. I couldn't help wondering why a  woman would  take up
this line of work. What did her kids think she did for a living? Work at the
cosmetics counter in  Sears, and get dragged  away a couple of  times a year
for week-long eyeliner seminars?
     She'd been happy with what  she  saw inside  the  drum. Her  arms  went
inside very quickly and lifted  out the bag.  She  turned  in my  direction,
taking the weight of it in both hands, and threw it over her right shoulder.
I hit  the  shutter release and  the  camera whirred. Within  seconds  she'd
melted  once more into the trees and  tall ferns; like a cat, she'd probably
find a place to hide now and check out the spoils.
     Sniping  does  not simply  mean  being  a  fantastic marksman.  Just as
important  are   the   field  craft   skills  stalking,  judging   distance,
observation, camouflage and  concealment and judging by the  way  she lifted
the DLB and got back into cover, I bet she'd won gold  stars in all of those
disciplines.
     While in the Army I had spent two years as a sniper, in a Royal
     Green Jacket rifle company. I was as keen as anything: it had something
to do with being left alone just to get on with it with your sniper partner.
I  learnt a lot and was a good shot, but I didn't  have the passion required
to make it a life's vocation.
     I was  still staring  at the three bulbs, waiting for One  and Three to
sign in. A helicopter  clattered overhead,  following the  river-bank on the
north side, and I had to look  up to satisfy myself  that  it wasn't looking
for me. My paranoia was working overtime. For a moment I thought that it had
found the explosive device I'd placed on  the  roof of the Royal Horseguards
Hotel in Whitehall the night before. The hotel was just out of sight, behind
the  MoD  (Ministry of Defence) main  building  across the river to my  half
right. Seeing  the three service flags fluttering on the roof of the massive
light-coloured  stone  cube prompted me  to check  something  else  for  the
millionth time.
     Keeping the  row  of torch bulbs in my peripheral vision, I looked down
at the river to check the wind indicators.
     In urban areas the wind can move in different  directions, at different
levels, and in different strengths, depending on the buildings it has to get
around.
     Sometimes  streets  become wind  tunnels, redirecting  and  momentarily
strengthening  the  gusts. Indicators  were  therefore  needed  at different
levels round the killing area, so the snipers could  compensate by adjusting
their sights. The wind can make an immense  difference to where a round hits
because it simply blows it off course.
     Flags are really useful, and there were more around  here than at  a UN
summit. On the  water there were plenty of boats moored with pennants at the
stern. Higher up, on both ends of Westminster Bridge, there were the tourist
stalls, selling plastic Union  Jacks  and Man United streamers.  The snipers
would use all of these, and they would know where to  look because I'd keyed
them on to the maps supplied  in the DLB. The wind condition at  river level
was good, just a hint of a breeze.
     My eyes caught movement in the killing ground. I felt my face flush and
my heart rate quicken. Shit, this shouldn't be kicking off yet.
     I  had  a  grandstand  view  of  the  terrace,  and  the   times-twelve
magnification of the binos made me feel as if I was almost standing on it. I
checked it out with  one eye  on the binos,  the other ready to pick up  any
flashes from the torch bulbs.
     A  feeling  of relief flooded through  me.  Catering  staff. They  were
streaming in and  out  of the covered  pavilions to  the left of the killing
ground,  busy  in their black and  white uniforms, laying  out ashtrays  and
placing   bowls  of   nuts  and   nibbles  on  square   wooden   tables.   A
stressed-looking older  guy in a  grey, double-breasted suit stalked  around
behind  them,  waving  his arms like  a conductor at the Last  Night  of the
Proms.
     I followed the line of the terrace and spotted a photographer on one of
the wooden benches. He had two cameras by his side and smoked contentedly as
he watched the commotion, a big smile on his face.
     I  went back to  the conductor.  He looked up at Big  Ben, checked  his
watch,  then clapped his hands. He  was  as worried about the deadline as  I
was. At  least the  weather was on our side.  Taking the shot through one of
the  pavilion windows would have made  things even more difficult than  they
already were.
     The three  sniper  positions were all on my side  of the  river;  three
Portakabins in the grounds of St. Thomas's Hospital,  directly opposite  the
killing ground.
     Three  different  positions gave  three  different angles  of fire, and
therefore three different chances of getting a round into the target.
     The  distance  between  the  first  and third sniper  was  about ninety
metres, and  they'd  be shooting over  a  distance  of  between 330  and 380
metres, depending on their position in the  line-up. Being one floor up, the
killing ground was below  them, at  an angle of about forty-five degrees. It
would  be just good enough to see  the  target from the stomach up if it was
sitting  down,  and from about thigh  up when  standing, since a stone  wall
about a  metre  high ran  the length of  the  terrace to stop MPs and  peers
falling into the Thames when they'd had a drink or two.
     The riverbank  in  front  of  their  positions  was  tree-lined,  which
provided  some  cover,  but also  obstructed their  line  of  sight into the
killing ground. These things are nearly always a matter of compromise; there
is rarely a perfect option.
     This would  be the  first time  the  snipers had ever been to the  fire
position,  and  it would also be the last. Soon  after the  shoot  they'd be
heading for  Paris, Lille or Brussels on  Eurostar trains,  which left  from
Waterloo  Station  just ten  minutes' walk away. They'd be  knocking back  a
celebratory glass of wine in the Channel tunnel  well before the full extent
of what they'd done had dawned on Special Branch and the news networks.
     TWO
     Once I'd satisfied myself that the only activity in  the killing ground
came from harassed catering staff, I got back to  watching the three  bulbs.
Snipers  One  and  Three  should have signed  on  by  now. I  was well  past
concerned, and not too far short of worried.
     I  thought about Sniper  Two. She would  have moved cautiously into the
fire position after clearing her route, employing the same tradecraft as  at
the DLB, and probably  in  a simple disguise. A wig, coat and  sunglasses do
more than people think, even if SB  racked up  hundreds of  man hours poring
over footage from hospital security, traffic and urban CCTV cameras.
     Having first put  on her surgical gloves, she  would have made entry to
her Portakabin with the key provided, closed the door, locked up, and shoved
two  grey rubber  wedges a third of the way down and a third up the frame to
prevent  anyone entering,  even with  a key.  Then,  before moving anywhere,
she'd have opened the sports bag and begun to put on her work clothes, a set
of light blue,  hooded and footed  coveralls for paint spraying from B&Q. It
was  imperative that she  didn't  contaminate  the area  or  the  weapon and
equipment that were going to be  left behind with fibres of her clothing  or
other personal sign. Her mouth would now be covered by a  protective mask to
prevent leaving even a pinprick of saliva  on the weapon as  she took aim. I
was pleased with the masks: they'd been on special offer.
     The coveralls and gloves were also there to  protect clothes  and skin.
If she was apprehended immediately after the shoot,  residue  from the round
that  she'd fired  would be  detectable on her skin and clothes. That's  why
suspects' hands are  bagged in plastic. I was also wearing  surgical gloves,
but  just as a normal precaution.  I was determined  to  leave nothing,  and
disturb nothing too.
     Once she'd got covered up, with just her eyes exposed, she'd be looking
like a forensic scientist  at a crime scene. It would then have been time to
prepare the fire position. Unlike me, she needed to be away from the window,
so she'd have  dragged  the desk about  three metres  clear. Then she'd have
pinned a net curtain into the plasterboard ceiling, letting it fall in front
of the desk before pinning it tight to the legs.
     Next,  she'd  have  pinned up the sheet of opaque black material behind
her, letting it hang to the floor. As with the netting, I had cut it to size
for  each fire position after the CTR. The  combination  of a net curtain in
front and a  dark backdrop behind creates the illusion of a room in  shadow.
It meant that  anyone  looking through the  window wouldn't see a fat  rifle
muzzle being pointed at them by a scarily dressed woman. Both sets of optics
that she'd be using,  the binos and the weapon sight, could easily penetrate
the netting, so it wouldn't affect her ability to make the shot.
     Some fifteen minutes  after  arriving, she'd  be sitting in the  green,
nylon-padded swivel  chair  behind the  desk. Her takedown  weapon  would be
assembled and  supported on the  desk by  the bipod attached to  the forward
stock. Her binos, mounted  on a mini-tripod, would also  be on the desk, and
in front of her would be her plastic lunch-box. With the weapon butt in  her
shoulder, she would have confirmed the arcs of  fire, making sure she  could
move the  weapon on its  bipod  to cover all  of the killing ground  without
being obstructed by the window-frame or trees. She'd  generally sort herself
out  and tune into her  environment, maybe even dry practise  on one  of the
catering staff as they rushed around the terrace.
     One of the  most important things she would have done before signing on
with me was check her muzzle clearance. A sniper's optic sight is mounted on
top of the  weapon.  At  very short ranges the muzzle may  be three  or four
inches below the image  the sniper  can actually see  through the sight.  It
would be  a  total fuck-up if she  fired a round after getting a good  sight
picture and it didn't even clear the room, hitting the wall or the bottom of
the window-frame instead.
     To  deaden  the  sound  of  the shot, each weapon  was  fitted  with  a
suppressor. This had the drawback of making  the  front third of  the barrel
nearly  twice the size of the  rest of it, altering its natural  balance  by
making it  top heavy. The suppressor wouldn't stop the  bullet's  supersonic
crack, but that didn't matter because the noise would be down-range and well
away from the  fire  position, and covered anyway by  the  device going off;
what it would stop was the weapon's signature being  heard by hospital staff
or Italian tourists eating their overpriced ice cream on the embankment just
a few feet below.
     The  Portakabin's  windows  had to  be slid open. Firing  through glass
would  not only  alert  the tourists,  but would  also  affect  the bullet's
accuracy.  There was  a  risk  that someone  might think  it unusual for the
window  to be  open  on  a  Sunday,  but  we had no  choice. As  it was, the
suppressor alone would degrade the round's accuracy and power, which was why
we needed supersonic rounds to make the distance. Subsonic ammunition, which
would eliminate the crack, just wouldn't make it.
     It would only be once she  was happy  with her  fire  position, and had
checked  that her commercial hearing-aid was still in place under her  hood,
that  she would sign on. Her box of tricks didn't  have lights, just a green
wire antenna that would probably be  laid along the desk then  run along the
floor. A copper coil inside the  box  emitted three low touch  tones; when I
hit my send press el they picked that up through the hearing-aid.
     There  was one other wire  coming  out of the box, leading to  a  flat,
black plastic button;  this would now be taped on to the weapon wherever she
had her support hand in position to fire.
     Hitting the press el five times, once she was ready to go, was what lit
up my number-two bulb five times.
     There was nothing left for her to do now but sit perfectly still,
     weapon rested, naturally  aligned  towards the  killing  area, observe,
wait, and maybe listen to the comings and  goings just below  her. With luck
the  other two  were going to be doing the  same  very soon. If  anyone from
hospital security attempted to be the good guy and close her window, a woman
dressed like an extra from the X-Files would be the last thing they ever saw
as she dragged them inside.
     It was  only  now that  she was in  position that her  problems  really
began. Once she'd zeroed the weapon in Thetford Forest,  it would  have been
carried as if it was fine china.  The slightest knock  could upset the optic
sight and wreck the weapon's zero. Even a tiny misalignment could affect the
round by nearly an inch, and that would be bad news.
     And it wasn't just  the possibility of the optic being knocked,  or the
suppressor affecting the round's trajectory. The weapon itself, issued to me
by the Yes Man, was 'take  down'. So, once  she had zeroed it  for that one,
all-important shot, it had to be taken apart  for concealment, before  being
reassembled at the firing point.
     Thankfully this bolt-action model  only had  to be split in  two at the
barrel, and  because they were brand new, they  wouldn't have  suffered that
much wear and  tear on  the bearing surfaces.  But there only  had  to be  a
slight difference in the assembly from  when it  was  zeroed, a knock to the
optic sight  in  transit,  for the weapon to  be inches  off  where she  was
aiming.
     This isn't a problem when an ordinary rifleman is firing at a body mass
at close range, but these boys and girls were going for a catastrophic brain
shot, one  single round  into  the brain stem or neural  motor  strips.  The
target drops like  liquid and there is no chance of survival. And that meant
they had to aim at either of  two specific  spots the tip  of an earlobe, or
the skin between the nostrils.
     She  and the other two  would need to be the most  boring and religious
snipers on earth to do that with these weapons. The Yes Man hadn't listened.
It annoyed me severely that he knew jack shit about how things worked on the
ground, and yet had been the one who decided which kit to use.
     I tried to calm  down by making myself  remember it wasn't entirely his
fault.
     There had to be  a trade-off between concealment and  accuracy, because
you  can't just wander  the streets with a  fishing-rod case or the  world's
longest flowerbox. But  fuck it, I'd  despised him  when he  was running the
support cell, and now it was worse.
     I  looked through  the window  at the distant  black and white  figures
moving around  the killing ground, and wondered  if  the  Brit  who'd  first
played about with a telescopic sight on a musket in the seventeenth  century
ever realized what drama he was bringing to the world.
     I checked  out the area  with my binos,  using just one eye so I didn't
miss  One or Three signing in. The binos were tripodded because twelve-times
magnification at this distance was so strong that the slightest judder would
make it seem like I was watching The Blair Witch Project.
     Things  had  moved on.  The  staff  were  still  being  hassled  by the
grey-suited catering bully. As guests came  through the grand arched door on
to the terrace, they'd now be greeted by trestle tables covered by brilliant
white tablecloths.
     Silver trays of fluted glasses waited to be filled as corks were pulled
from bottles of champagne.
     Things would be  kicking off soon, and all  I  had was one sniper.  Not
good; not good at all.
     I refocused the binos on the arched doorway, then went back to watching
the lights, willing them to spark up. There was nothing else I could do.
     I tried and failed to reassure  myself that the co-ordination  plan for
the shoot was so beautifully simple, it would work with only one sniper.
     The snipers had the same binos as mine and would also have them focused
on the door. They'd  want to ID the  Yes Man the moment he  walked  into the
killing area, and they'd use binos first because they give  a  field of view
of about ten metres, which would make it  easier to follow him  through  the
crowd until he  made the target ID. Once that was done, they would switch to
their weapon's optic sight, and I would concentrate on the lights.
     The method I was going to use to control the snipers and tell them when
to fire had  been inspired by a wildlife  documentary I'd  seen on  TV. Four
Indian game wardens,  working  as  a team  in  total silence, had managed to
stalk and fire sedative darts into an albino tiger from very close range.
     Whenever any of the snipers had a sight  picture of the target and felt
confident  about  taking the  shot, they'd hit their  press el  and  keep it
pressed. The corresponding bulb in front of me would stay lit for as long as
they could take the shot. If they lost  their  sight picture,  they released
their press el and the bulb would go out until they acquired it again.
     Once  I'd made the decision when to  fire,  I'd push my  send press  el
three times in a one-second rhythm.
     The  first  press would  tell the firer or firers to  stop breathing so
their body movement didn't affect the aim.
     The  second would tell  them to  take  up  the  first  pressure  on the
trigger, so as not to jerk the weapon when they fired.
     As I hit the press el the second time, I'd also trigger the detonation.
The third time, the snipers would fire as the device exploded on the roof of
the hotel. If all three were up  and the  target was  sitting, that would be
perfect but it rarely happens that way.
     The  device  would not only disguise the sonic  cracks,  but  create  a
diversion on the north side  of the river while we extracted.  I just wished
the MoD building wasn't closed for the weekend: I'd have  loved to see their
faces as the blast took out a few of their windows. Never mind, with luck it
would make the Life Guards' horses on Whitehall throw off their mounts.
     None of the  snipers would know if the others had the target. The first
time they'd know the option was going  ahead was when they  heard the  three
tones  in  their ear. If  they didn't have a sight  picture themselves, they
wouldn't take a shot.
     After the  explosion,  whether they'd fired a round or not,  they would
all exit from their positions, stripping off their outer  layer of coveralls
and  leaving  the  area  casually  and  professionally  with  the protective
clothing in their bag.
     The rest of the kit, and the weapons, would be discovered at some point
by the police, but that wouldn't matter to me as I'd handed it over sterile.
It shouldn't matter to these people either, as they ought to be professional
enough  to  leave it  in the same  condition as they'd received it.  If they
didn't, that was their problem.
     I rubbed my eyes.
     Another light flashed.
     Sniper One was in position, ready to go.
     I  hit  the send press el three times, and after  a short  pause Sniper
One's bulb flashed three times in return.
     I was  feeling a little better now, with  two snipers sitting perfectly
still,  watching and  waiting as they  continued  to  tune  into the killing
ground. I could only hope that Sniper Three was close behind.
     THREE
     Big Ben struck half past the hour. Thirty minutes to go.
     I continued to stare at  the box, trying to transmit positive thoughts.
The job was going to happen with or without Sniper Three,  but what with the
weapon problems, three chances of a hit were better than two.
     My positive transmissions weren't working at all, and after ten minutes
or so my eyes were drawn to the killing ground again. Things were happening.
Different colours of clothing were moving amongst the black and white of the
catering staff like fragments in a kaleidoscope. Shit, they were early.
     I put one eye to the  binos  and checked them out,  just as One and Two
would be doing. The new arrivals  seemed to be the  advance party, maybe ten
suited  men,  all of them white. I checked that the  Yes Man wasn't  amongst
them and had fucked  up  his own  plan. He wasn't. He  would  have fitted in
nicely, though: they  didn't really seem to know what to do with themselves,
so  decided  to  mill around  the door like  sheep,  drinking champagne  and
mumbling to  each  other,  probably  about how pissed  off they were  to  be
working on a Sunday. Dark, double-breasted suits with a polyester mix seemed
to be  the order of the day.  I could see  the well worn shine and lard-arse
creases  up the backs of the jackets even from here. The jackets were mostly
undone  because of the weather or  pot  bellies,  revealing ties  that  hung
either too high or too low.
     They had to be Brit politicians and civil servants.
     The only exception  was a woman in her early thirties  with blonde hair
and rectangular glasses, who came  into view  alongside  the catering bully.
Dressed  in an immaculate black trouser suit, she seemed  to be the only one
of the new arrivals who knew what was what. With  a mobile phone in her left
hand and  a pen in her  right, she seemed to be pointing out that everything
his staff had done needed redoing.
     The  cameraman  also wandered  into my  field  of  view,  taking  light
readings, and clearly enjoying the last-minute flap. There was a flash as he
took a test shot.
     Then there was another in my peripheral vision, and I looked down.
     The third bulb. I nearly cheered.
     I left the blonde-haired PR guru to get on with it, and concentrated on
the box as I replied to the flashes. Sniper Three duly acknowledged.
     Big Ben chimed three times.
     Relief washed over me. I'd known all along that these people would only
get into position at the very  last moment, but that didn't stop me worrying
about it  while  I was waiting. Now  I just  wanted this thing over and done
with, and to slip  away on Eurostar to the Gare  du Nord, then on to Charles
de Gaulle. I should make the check-in nicely for my 9 p.m. American Airlines
flight to Baltimore, to see Kelly and finish my business with Josh.
     I got back on the binos and watched the PR guru tell the Brits, ever so
nicely and  with a great big smile, to get  the fuck away from the  door and
prepare  to mingle. They cradled  their champagne glasses and headed for the
nibbles, drifting from my field of view. I kept my focus on the doorway.
     Now  that it was clear of  bodies, I could  just  about  penetrate  the
shadows inside. It looked like a  canteen, the sort where you drag your tray
along  the counter and pay at the  end.  What a let-down: I'd been expecting
something a bit more regal.
     The door-frame was  soon filled again, by another woman  with  a mobile
phone  stuck to her  ear. This  one had a  clipboard  in her free  hand; she
stepped on to the terrace, closed down her mobile, and looked around.
     The blonde PR guru came  into view. There was lots of nodding, talking,
and pointing  around the killing area, then they both went back where they'd
come from. I felt a wave of apprehension. I wanted to get on with it and get
aboard that Eurostar.
     "One of the team," the Yes Man had said.
     One of the team, my arse.  The only  things that would help  me if this
went wrong were my security blanket and a quick exit to the States.
     Seconds later, human shapes began filling the area behind the door, and
were  soon pouring out into the killing area.  The woman  with the clipboard
appeared behind them, shepherding them with a fixed, professional smile. She
guided  them  to the glasses on the table by the door as  if they could have
missed them.
     Then  the catering staff were on  top of them like flies on  shit, with
nibbles on trays, and a whole lot more champagne.
     The South American  contingent was  easy  to  identify, not by brown or
black  skin but because they were far better dressed,  in well-cut suits and
expertly knotted ties.  Even their body language had more  style. The  group
was  predominantly male, but none  of the women with them  would have looked
out of place in a fashion magazine.
     Obligingly, Clipboard coaxed the guests away from the doorway and  into
the killing  area. They spread out  and mingled with the  advance  party. It
became clear  that everybody was going to  continue  standing up rather than
move over to the benches. I'd have preferred them to sit down like a line of
ducks at a fairground, but it wasn't going to happen. We were  going to have
to settle for a moving target.
     The Yes  Man  was due to arrive  ten minutes  after the main party. The
plan was that he'd  spend  five  minutes  by the door,  making a call, which
would give all four of us time to ping him. From there he would move off and
ID the target.
     All three  would now be  taking slow,  deep breaths  so they were fully
oxygenated.
     They  would also be constantly checking  the  wind indicators until the
last minute, in case they had to readjust their optics.
     My heart pumped  harder now.  The  snipers' hearts, however,  would  be
unaffected.
     In fact, if they'd been linked to an ECG
     machine they'd probably have registered  as clinically dead. When  they
were in  their zone, all they  could  think  about was  taking that  single,
telling shot.
     More people cut  across my field of view, then the Yes Man  appeared in
the doorway. He was five foot six tall, and not  letting me  down by wearing
the same sort of dark, badly fitting business suit as the rest of the Brits.
Under it he  had a white shirt and a scarlet tie that made  him look like  a
candidate for Old Labour.  The tie was important because it was his main VDM
(visual  distinguishing  mark).  The  rest  of  his  kit  and  his  physical
description had also been  given  to the  snipers, but he was easy enough to
identify from his  permanently blushing complexion, and  a neck that  always
seemed  to have a big  boil on the go.  On any other forty-year-old it would
have  been  unfortunate, but  as far as  I was  concerned  it  couldn't have
happened to a nicer guy.
     On his left  hand he wore a wedding ring. I'd  never  seen a picture of
his wife in  his office,  and I didn't  know if he had  children. In fact, I
really hoped he didn't or if he did, that they looked like their mother.
     Producing his mobile,  the Yes Man came off the threshold  and moved to
the  right of the doorway as he  finished dialling.  He looked up and nodded
hello  to somebody  out of  my field of  view,  then gave a wave to them and
pointed at the mobile to show his intentions.
     I watched him listen to the ringing tone,  keeping his back against the
wall so that we  could check the tie. His hair was greying, or it would have
been  if  he'd left it alone but  he'd  been at the  Grecian 2000, and I was
catching  more  than  a hint of copper. It complemented his  complexion very
well indeed. I felt myself grinning.
     A young waiter  came  up  to him with a tray of  full glasses, but  was
waved away as he continued with his call. The Yes Man didn't drink or smoke.
He was a bornagain Christian, Scientologist,  something like that, or one of
the happy-clappy  bands.  I'd never really bothered to  find out, in case he
tried to  recruit me and  I found myself saying yes. And  I didn't set  much
store by it. If the Yes Man discovered C was a Sikh, he'd turn up at work in
a turban.
     His conversation over,  the phone got shut down, and he  walked towards
the river.
     As he wove and sidestepped through the crowd he bounced slightly on the
balls  of his feet, as if trying to give himself extra height. Watching  his
progress, I gently  undid the tripod restraining clips so I could swivel the
binos and continue to follow him if I needed to.
     He passed the  two PR women, who looked pretty pleased with themselves.
Each  had   a  phone  and  a  cigarette  in   one  hand  and  a   glass   of
self-congratulatory champagne in the other. He passed the cameraman, who was
now busy taking  group shots with Big Ben in the  background  for the  Latin
folks back home. Little did he  know that he was a couple of chimes short of
a world exclusive.
     The Yes Man side-stepped the photo  session and  continued  to go left,
still towards the river. He stopped eventually by a group of maybe ten  men,
gathered in a  wide, informal circle. I  could see some of  their faces, but
not all, as they talked, drank or waited for refills from the staff  buzzing
around  them. Two were white-eyes, and I could see four or five Latino faces
turned towards the river.
     The older of the  two white-eyes  smiled  at  the Yes Man and shook his
hand warmly.
     He then began to introduce his new Latin friends.
     This had to be  it.  One  of these  was the target. I  looked at  their
well-fed faces as they smiled politely and shook the Yes Man's hand.
     I  could feel my forehead leaking sweat as I concentrated on who he was
shaking  hands with, knowing  that  I couldn't afford to miss the target ID,
and at the same time not too sure if the Yes Man was up to the job.
     I'd assumed they  were all South Americans, but  as one of their number
turned I saw, in profile, that he was Chinese.  He was  talk-show-host neat,
in his fifties, taller than the Yes Man, and with more hair. Why he was part
of a South American  delegation  was  a mystery to me, but I wasn't going to
lose  any sleep over it.  I  concentrated on how  he was  greeted. It was  a
non-event,  just  a  normal handshake. The  Chinaman,  who  obviously  spoke
English, then introduced a smaller guy to his right, who had his back to me.
The Yes Man moved towards  him, and then, as they shook, he placed  his left
hand on the small guy's shoulder.
     I hated to admit it, but he was doing an excellent job. He even started
to swing the target round so he faced the river, pointing out the London Eye
and the bridges either side of Parliament.
     The  target was also  part  Chinese and I had to double-take because he
couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen years  old. He was wearing
a smart blazer with a white shirt and  blue tie,  the sort of boy any parent
would want their daughter to date. He looked happy, exuberant even, grinning
at  everyone  and joining in the conversation as  he turned  back  into  the
circle with the Yes Man.
     I got a feeling that I was in worse trouble than I'd thought.
     FOUR
     I forced myself to cut away. Fuck it, I'd  worry about all that on  the
flight to the States.
     The  conversation on  the  terrace carried  on  as the Yes Man said his
goodbyes  to the group, waved at another, and moved out of my field of view.
He wouldn't be  leaving yet that  would be suspicious he just didn't want to
be near the boy when we dropped him.
     Seconds  later,  I  had three bulbs burning below me. The snipers  were
waiting for those three command tones to buzz gently in their ear.
     It didn't feel  right  but  reflexes  took  over. I flicked the shaving
cream top from the box and positioned my thumbs over the two press els
     I  was about  to press  when all  three  lights went out within a split
second of each other.
     I got back on to the binos, just with my  right eye, thumbs ready  over
the  press els The group was moving en masse from left  to right.  I  should
have been concentrating on the bulbs but I wanted to see. The Chinaman's arm
was around the boy's  shoulders it must have been his son as they approached
a smaller group of Latinos who were attacking a table laden with food.
     A bulb lit up: Sniper Three was confident of taking the shot,
     aiming slightly ahead of his point of aim so that when he fired the boy
would walk into the path of the round.
     The bulb stayed lit  as they stopped at the table with  the other group
of Latinos, getting stuck  into the vol-au-vents. The boy was at the rear of
the  group  and I could just  ping glimpses of  his  navy blazer through the
crowd.
     Bulb three died.
     I was having doubts, I  didn't know why, and tried  to get a grip. What
did I care? If it was a straight choice between his life and mine there'd be
no question. What was happening in my head  was totally unprofessional,  and
totally ridiculous.
     I gave myself a good mental slapping. Any more of this shit and I'd end
up hugging trees and doing voluntary work for Oxfam.
     The only  thing I  should be doing was focusing  on  the  box. What was
happening on the terrace shouldn't matter to me any more but I couldn't seem
to stop myself looking at the boy through the binos.
     Number Two's bulb came up. She must have found his earlobe to aim at.
     Then the  boy  moved towards the table, breaking through  the crowd. He
started to help himself to some food, looking back at his dad to check if he
wanted anything.
     All three lights now burned. How could they not?
     I  watched  him pick at  the  stuff on the  silver trays,  sniffing one
canape and deciding to give it a  miss. I studied his shiny young face as he
wondered what would best complement his half-drunk glass of Coke.
     All bulbs were still lit as I looked through the binos. He was exposed,
bunging peanuts down his neck.
     Come on! Get on with the fucking thing!
     I couldn't believe it. My thumbs just wouldn't move.
     In that instant, my plan switched to screwing up the  shoot and finding
something to blame it on. I couldn't stop myself.
     The snipers wouldn't  know who else had a sight picture,  and it wasn't
as if we were all going to get together and have  a debrief over  coffee the
next morning.
     I'd take my chances with the Yes Man.
     The boy moved back into the crowd, towards his dad. I could  just about
make out his shoulder through the crowd.
     The three lights went out simultaneously. Then Two's came back on. This
woman  wasn't giving  up on her target. I guessed she wasn't a mother  after
all.
     Three seconds later it went  out.  Wrong or right,  now was my time  to
act.
     I pushed the send press el once with my thumb, keeping my eyes glued on
the boy.
     Then  I pressed  it  again, and  at  the  same  time hit the detonation
button. The third time, I pushed just on the send press el
     The explosion the  other  side  of  the  Thames  was  like  a  massive,
prolonged clap of thunder. I watched the boy and everyone  around him  react
to the detonation instead of doing what I'd planned for him.
     The shock-wave crossed the  river and rattled my window. As  I listened
to  its  last  rumblings  reverberate  around the streets of Whitehall,  the
screams of the tourists below me took over. I concentrated on the boy as his
father bustled him towards the door.
     As panic broke out on the terrace, the photographer was in  a frenzy to
get the shots that would  pay off  his mortgage. Then the Yes Man came  into
view and stood beside the PR  women, who were helping people back inside. He
had a concerned look on his face, which had nothing to do with the explosion
and everything  to do with  seeing the  target  alive  and being  dragged to
safety. The boy disappeared though the door and others followed, but the Yes
Man still didn't help. Instead he  looked up  and across the river at me. It
was weird. He didn't know exactly where I was in the building, but I felt as
if he was looking straight into my eyes.
     I was going to be in a world of shit about this, and knew I had to have
a  really  good story  for  him.  But  not  today: it was time  to  head for
Waterloo. My  Eurostar left in an  hour  and five. The snipers  would now be
standing at  their crossover point their exit door  from a contaminated area
to  a decontaminated  area  peeling  off  their outer  layers  of  clothing,
throwing them into their sports  bags,  but  leaving  their gloves  on until
totally clear of the Portakabin. The weapons, binos and lunch-boxes remained
in place, as did the hide.
     With speed but  not haste, I leant over to the  window and  opened it a
fraction  to retrieve the antennas. The clamour from  people outside was now
much  louder  than  the  explosion had  been. There were shouts  of fear and
confusion from  men, women and children at embankment level. Vehicles on the
bridge had braked to a halt and pedestrians were rooted to the  spot  as the
cloud of black smoke billowed over the rooftop of the MoD building.
     I closed the window and left them to it, taking down the tripod for the
binos and packing  away all my  gear as quickly as I could. I needed  to get
that train.
     Once all the kit was back in the bag, including the shaving-foam cap, I
put  the dirty coffee mug, Wayne's World coaster and telephone back  exactly
where they'd been  before I'd cleared the desktop to make room for the binos
and lunch-box,  using the Polaroid I'd  taken as a reference. I checked  the
general area pictures I'd taken as soon as I broke in. Maybe the net curtain
wasn't  exactly as it should have been, or a chair  had been moved a foot or
so to the right. It  wasn't superstition.  Details like  that are important.
I'd known something as  simple as a  mouse mat out  of  place  leading to an
operator being compromised.
     My brain  started to bang against my skull. There was something strange
about what I had seen outside. I hadn't been clever enough to notice, but my
unconscious had. I had learnt the hard way  that these feelings should never
be ignored.
     I looked back out of the window and it hit me in an instant. Instead of
looking at the column of smoke to my right, the crowd's attention was on the
hospital  to  my  left.  They were  looking  towards  the sniper  positions,
listening to the dull  thud of six  or seven short, sharp, single  shots ...
There were more  screams  below the  window,  mixed  with the  wail of  fast
approaching police sirens.
     I opened my window as far as it would go  and  pushed  the  net curtain
aside, sticking out  my head and looking left, towards the hospital. A fleet
of police  cars and vans  with flashing lights had been abandoned along  the
embankment,  just short  of  the sniper positions, their doors left open. At
the same time I saw uniforms hastily organizing a cordon.
     This was wrong. This  was very, very wrong. The event I  was witnessing
had been planned and  prepared for. The frenzy of police activity down there
was far too organized  to be a spur-of-the-moment reaction to an explosion a
few minutes earlier.
     We had been stitched up.
     Three more  shots were fired, followed  by a short pause, then  another
two.  Then, from further  along the riverbank, I  heard the heavy thuds of a
flash bang going  off inside  a  building. They were hitting Number  Three's
position.
     Adrenaline jolted through my body. It'd be my turn soon.
     I  slammed the  window  down.  My  mind raced. Apart from me, the  only
person who knew  the  exact  sniper  positions was the Yes  Man, because  he
needed to position the target  well enough for  it to be identified.  But he
didn't  know precisely  where I was going  to  be,  because  I  hadn't known
myself. Technically,  I  didn't  even  have to  have eyes on  target, I just
needed to have com ms with the snipers.
     But he knew enough.  Messing up  the shoot was the least  of my worries
now.
     FIVE
     Helicopters were now rattling overhead and police sirens were going ape
shit in the street as I closed the door gently  behind me and moved out into
the wide, brightly lit corridor.
     My Timberlands squeaked on the highly polished  stone floor as I headed
towards the fire-exit door at the far end, maybe sixty metres away,  forcing
myself not  to quicken my pace. I  had to stay in control. I couldn't afford
to make any more mistakes. There might be a time to run, but it wasn't yet.
     There  was  a turning  to  the  right about twenty metres further down,
which led to the stairwell that would take me to the ground floor. I reached
it,  turned  and  froze.  Between  me  and  the  stairwell  was  a  wall  of
two-metre-high black  ballistic  shields. Behind  them  were maybe  a  dozen
police in full black assault gear, weapon barrels pointing out at me through
the gaps  in the shields,  blue assault helmets and visors glinting  in  the
strip-lighting.
     "STAND STILL! STAND STILL!"
     It was time to run like the wind. I squeaked on my heels and lunged the
couple of paces back into the main corridor, heading for the fire exit, just
willing myself to hit that crossbar to freedom.
     As I zeroed  in on the exit door,  the corridor ahead filled with  more
black shields and the noise of boots on stone. They held the line like Roman
centurions.  The last couple  emerged from the offices on either side, their
weapons pointing at me at far too close a range for my liking.
     "STAND STILL! STAND STILL NOW!"
     Coming  to  a halt, I dropped the  bag to the floor and put my hands in
the air.
     "Not armed!" I yelled. 'I'm weapons free! Weapons free!"
     There are  times when it's  an advantage just to admit to yourself that
you're in the  shit, and  this was one of them. I just hoped these were real
police. If I wasn't a threat, then in theory they shouldn't drop me.
     I hoped, too, that my black cotton  bomber  jacket had ridden up enough
to show  them  there wasn't a  pistol attached  to my belt or tucked into my
jeans.
     "Not armed," I yelled.
     "Weapons free!"
     Orders were screamed at me. I wasn't too sure what it was all too  loud
and too close, a confusion of echoes along the hallway.
     I pivoted  slowly  so they could see my  back and check  for themselves
that I  wasn't lying.  As I faced the  corridor junction, I heard more boots
thundering towards me from the stairwell corridor, closing the trap.
     A shield moved out  of  the  corner then slammed  into position  on the
floor at the  corridor  junction. A muzzle of an MP5 came round the  side of
it, and I could see a sliver of the user's face as he took aim on me.
     "Weapons free!" My voice was almost a scream.
     "I'm weapons free!"
     Keeping  my hands  in the air I  stared  at the single, unblinking  eye
behind the weapon. He was a left-handed firer,  taking advantage of the left
side of the shield for cover, and the eye didn't move from my chest.
     I looked down as a red  laser  spot the size of a shirt button splashed
on it dead centre.  It wasn't  moving either.  Fuck knew how  many  splashes
there were on my back from the fire-exit crew.
     Frenzied   shouts   finished  bouncing  off  the  walls   as   a  loud,
estuary-English  voice took  command  and shouted orders  that  I  could now
understand.
     "Stand still! Stand still! Keep your -hands up ... keep them up!"
     No more turning, I did what he wanted.
     "Down on your knees! Get down on your knees. Now!"
     Keeping my hands up, I  lowered myself slowly, no longer trying for any
eye  contact,  just looking  down.  The  left-handed firer  in front  of  me
followed my every move with the laser splash.
     The voice shouted more orders from behind.
     "Lie down, with your arms spread out to your side. Do it now."
     I  did as I  was told. There was total, scary silence. The cold of  the
stone floor seeped through my clothes. Minute pinpricks of grit pressed into
my right cheek as I snorted up a lungful of freshly laid wax.
     I found myself staring  at  the bottom of one of the  stairwell group's
ballistic shields. It was dirty with age and chipped on the corners, so that
the layers of Kevlar that gave protection from even heavy-calibre ammunition
were peeling back like the pages of a well-thumbed book.
     The silence was broken by  the shuffle and squeak of rubber-soled boots
approaching  me  from  behind. My only thought  was how lucky  I  was to  be
arrested.
     The boots arrived at  their destination, and heavy breathing from their
owners filled  the air around me.  One  old  black  creased-leather size ten
landed by my face and my hands  were gripped and pulled up in front of me. I
felt the  cold,  hard  metal bite  into  my  wrists  as the  handcuffs  were
ratcheted tight. I  just let them get  on  with it; the more I struggled the
more pain I would have to put  up with. The handcuffs were the  newer style,
police issue: instead of a chain between them they had a solid metal spacer.
Once these things are  on,  just one tap against the spacer  with a baton is
enough to have  you screaming in agony as the metal gives  the  good news to
your wrist bones.
     I was in enough pain already as one  man pulled at the cuffs to keep my
arms straight, and someone else's  knee was forced  down between my shoulder
blades. My nose got banged against the floor, making my eyes  water, and all
the oxygen was forced out of my lungs.
     A  pair of hands,  their  owner's boots each side of  me now that  he'd
removed his knee  from  my  back, were  making their way  over  my body.  My
wallet, containing my Eurostar ticket and my
     Nick Somerhurst passport, was taken from the inside pocket of my bomber
jacket.
     I felt suddenly naked.
     I turned my head, trying  to  get as comfortable as possible during the
once-over, and rested my  face on  the cold stone. Through blurred  vision I
made out  three  pairs  of jeans emerging  from  behind  the  shield at  the
junction and heading  my way.  One pair of jeans moved out of vision as they
passed me by, but the other two moved in close: a set of trainers and a pair
of light tan boots, their Caterpillar label now just inches from my nose.
     I started  to  feel  more depressed than worried about what  was coming
next. Men in jeans just don't ponce about during an armed arrest.
     Behind  me  I heard  the  zip of  my holdall being  pulled back and the
contents given  a  quick once-over. At the same time  I felt  my  Leatherman
being pulled out from its pouch.
     There  was still  no talking as hands ran down  my  legs  to check  for
concealed  weapons. My face acted like  a cushion  for my cheekbone as I was
hauled around like a sack of spuds.
     Hands  forced themselves  around  the front of my stomach  and into  my
waistband, then  extracted  the three or  four pounds' worth of change in my
jeans.
     The same set  of hands went under each armpit and hauled me up on to my
knees, to the accompaniment of laboured  grunts  and the  squeak  of leather
belt-kit. My cuff-holder let go and my hands  dropped down by my knees as if
I was begging.
     The cold  stone  floor was hurting  my knees,  but I  forgot about them
instantly when I saw the face of the man wearing the Cats.
     His hair  wasn't  looking so  neat  today:  the  Sundance Kid had  been
running about  a bit.  Above his jeans he was wearing a  green bomber jacket
and heavy blue body armour with a protective  ceramic plate tucked into  the
pouch over his chest. He was taking no chances with me today.
     There wasn't  the slightest trace of  emotion in his  face as he stared
down at me, probably trying to hide from the others that his part of the job
hadn't gone too well.  I was still alive;  he hadn't been able to make entry
into the  office with the help of his new mates here  and claim self-defence
as he shot me.
     My documents were handed to him and they went into his back  pocket. He
played with the  coins in his cupped palms, chinking as they poured from one
to the other. Sundance and his mate, Trainers, were joined by the third pair
of jeans, who  had my  bag  over his right shoulder. I kept  my eyes down at
calf level  now, not wishing to provoke him. It  was  pointless appealing to
the uniforms for help.  They'd have heard it all before from drunks claiming
to be Jesus and people like me ranting that they'd been stitched.
     Sundance spoke for the first time.
     "Good result, Sarge."  His thick Glasgow accent was directed to someone
behind  me, before he  turned away with the other  two. I watched them  walk
towards the  stairwell,  to the  sound  of Velcro being ripped apart as they
started to peel off their body armour.
     As  they disappeared past the corridor junction I was dragged up  on to
my feet by two policemen. With their strong grip under each of my armpits, I
followed them  towards  the  stairs. We  passed  the shields at the corridor
junction, as the armed teams started  to break ranks, and made  our way down
the stone stairs. Sundance and the  boys were about two floors below. I kept
catching  glimpses of  them  as  they turned  on  the stone  and iron-railed
landings, and wondered why  I hadn't been  blindfolded. Maybe it was to make
sure I didn't trip on the stairs.  No,  it would be because they didn't care
if I saw their faces. I wasn't going to live long enough to see them again.
     We exited the  building via the glass and metal-framed doors  I'd  made
entry  through  earlier.  At once the noise of  boots on the stairs and  the
policemen's  laboured breathing from  the  effort of  hauling me  about  was
drowned out  by the confusion  on the street.  Sweat-stained,  white-shirted
police  officers  were  running  about, their  radios crackling,  yelling at
pedestrians to follow their  directions and clear the area. Sirens blared. A
helicopter chopped the air loudly overhead.
     We were  on  the private entry road to the  Marriott Hotel, part of the
County Hall building. To my left was its turning circle, bordered by a smart
decorative  hedge. Police were preventing guests from coming out of the main
entrance as they tried to see  what was happening or to run  away, I  wasn't
sure which.
     In front of me, at the kerb side was a white Mercedes estate,
     engine running, all  doors open. One of the pairs of  jeans was in  the
driver's seat ready to go. As a hand pushed down on top of my head and I was
quickly bundled into the back, my feet connected with something in the  foot
well It was my holdall, still unzipped.
     The guy with the trainers sat on my left and attached one end of a pair
of handcuffs to the D ring of the centre set of seat-belts. He then  flicked
the free end around the pair that gripped my wrists. I wasn't going anywhere
until these boys were good and ready.
     Sundance  appeared  on  the  pavement and  said  his  goodbyes  to  the
uniforms. Thanks again, lads."
     I kept trying to make eye contact with the guys who had dragged me down
here, who were now standing by the entrance  to  the office block.  Sundance
got into the  front  passenger seat and closed his  door, obviously aware of
what I was doing.
     He  bent down into his  foot  well That isn't going to help you,  boy."
Retrieving a blue light from the floor and slapping  it on to the dashboard,
he plugged  the lead into  the  cigarette-lighter  socket. The light started
flashing as the car moved off.
     We came out of the hotel's approach road and on to the main drag at the
south end of the bridge, directly  opposite the hospital buildings. The road
was cordoned  off  and surrounded  by  every police vehicle  in  the Greater
London area.
     The  windows  of  the  hospital were crammed with  patients and  nurses
trying to get a grandstand view of the commotion.
     We wove around the obstacles in  the road and through the cordon.  Once
over the large  roundabout,  we passed  under the  Eurostar track a  hundred
metres  further down.  I could  see the slick, aerodynamic trains waiting in
the glass terminal above  me,  and  felt  sick that one of  them  should  be
leaving soon without me on it.
     Sundance removed the flashing light from the dashboard. We were heading
south towards the Elephant and Castle and, no doubt, into a world of shit.
     I  looked at Sundance's face  in the wing mirror.  He didn't return eye
contact or acknowledge me in any way. Behind  the stony face he was probably
working out what he had to do next.
     So was I, and started to work on him straight away. This isn't going to
work.
     I've  got  on  tape the orders  you  drove  for  and I-'  There  was an
explosion of pain as Trainers put all his  force behind his elbow and rammed
it into my thigh, dead legging me.
     Sundance turned in his seat.
     "Don't wind me up, boy."
     I took a deep, deep breath and kept going for it.
     "I've got proof of everything that's happened. Everything."
     He didn't even bother to look round this time.
     "Shut it."
     Trainers' hand chopped  down on the spacer bar  between  the cuffs. The
metal  jarred agonizingly on my wrists, but  I knew it  was nothing compared
with what would happen if I didn't buy myself some time.
     "Look!" I gasped, 'it's me stitched today, it could be you lot next. No
one gives a fuck about people like us. That's why I keep records. For my own
security."
     We were  approaching the Elephant  and Castle roundabout,  passing  the
pink shopping centre. I nodded to give Trainers the message that I was going
to shut up. I  wasn't  a fool, I knew when  to shut up  or talk. I wanted to
make the little I  knew go a long way. I wanted them to feel I was confident
and secure, and that they would  be making a big mistake if  they didn't pay
attention. I just hoped it wasn't me making the mistake.
     I  looked  in the mirror again. It was  impossible to tell whether this
was  having any effect on  Sundance. I was  just feeling that maybe I should
get in another instalment when he sparked up.
     "What do you know, then, boy?"
     I shrugged.
     "Everything, including those three hits just now." Fuck it,  I might as
well go right to the top of the bullshit stakes.
     Trainers'  brown, bloodshot  eyes  and broken  nose  faced  me  without
emotion. It was impossible to tell whether he was going to hurt me or not. I
decided to try to save my skin big-time before he made up his mind.
     "I taped the briefing that you drove for." Which was a lie.
     "I've got pictures of the locations." Which was true.
     "And pictures and serial  numbers  of  the weapons.  I've  got all  the
dates, all diaried, even pictures of the snipers."
     We  turned  down  towards the Old Kent Road, and as I shifted  position
slightly I glimpsed Sundance's face in the wing mirror.
     He was looking dead ahead, his expression giving nothing away.
     "Show me."
     That was easy enough.
     "Sniper Two  is a woman,  she's in her early thirties and she has brown
hair." I resisted the temptation to say  more. I needed to show him I knew a
lot, but without running out of information too early.
     There  was silence. I got the impression that  Sundance had started  to
listen carefully, which I took as my chance  to carry on. 'You  need to tell
him," I said.
     "Just think about the shit you'll be in if you don't. Frampton won't be
first in  the queue for taking the blame. It'll be you lot who get  that for
sure." The  message had  at least got through  to Trainers.  He was swapping
glances with Sundance in the mirror: my cue not even to look up now, but let
them get on with it.
     We stopped at a set of lights, level with carloads of families swigging
from cans of Coke and doing the bored-in-the-back-seat stuff. The four of us
just sat there as if we were on  our  way to a funeral.  It was pointless me
trying to raise the alarm with any of these  people as they smoked or picked
their noses waiting for the green. I  just had to depend on Sundance to make
a  decision soon.  If  he  didn't, I'd  try again, and  keep  on until  they
silenced me. I'd been trying hard not to think about that too much.
     We approached a large  retail  park, with signs for  B&Q, Halford's and
McDonald's.
     Sundance pointed at the entrance sign.
     "In there for five." The  indicator immediately started clicking and we
cut across the traffic.
     I tried not to show my elation, and let my eyes concentrate hard on the
lunchbox of  tricks at the top of  the sports bag as I felt  the Merc  lurch
over a speed bump.
     We  stopped  near  a  bacon  roll  and  stewy  tea  van,  and  Sundance
immediately got out. Trolleys filled with  pot plants, paint and  planks  of
wood trundled past on the  tarmac as he walked out of sight somewhere behind
us, dialling into a StarT ac that he'd pulled from his jacket.
     The rest of us sat in silence. The driver just looked ahead through his
sunglasses and Trainers turned round in his seat to try to see what Sundance
was up to, taking care to cover my handcuffs so the DIYers couldn't see that
we weren't there for the kitchen sale.
     I wasn't really thinking or worrying about anything, just idly watching
a young  shell-suited  couple load up their ancient XRi  with boxes  of wall
tiles  and grout. Maybe I was trying to avoid the fact that the call he  was
making meant life or death for me.
     Sundance shook me out of my dreamlike state as he slumped back into the
Merc and slammed the  door. The other two looked at him expectantly probably
hoping to be told to drive me down to Beachy Head and give me a helping hand
in my tragic suicide.
     There was nothing from him  for twenty  seconds or so while he put  his
seat-belt on. It was like waiting for the doctor to tell me if  I had cancer
or not. He sat for a while and looked disturbed; I didn't know what to think
but took it as a good sign, without really knowing why.
     Eventually, after putting the StarT ac away, he looked at the driver.
     "Kennington."
     I knew where Kennington was, but didn't know what it meant to them. Not
that it  really mattered: I just felt a surge of relief about the change  of
plan.
     Whatever had been going to happen to me had been postponed.
     At  length Sundance muttered,  "If you're fucking with me, things  will
get hurtful."
     I nodded  into  the rear-view mirror as he  gave me  the thousand-metre
stare.  There was no need for further conversation as we drove  back up  the
Old Kent Road.  I was going to save  all  that for  later, for the Yes  Man.
Leaning  against  the window to rest my  arms and ease  the tension  of  the
handcuffs  on my wrists, I gazed  like a child at the world passing by,  the
glass steaming around my face.
     Somebody turned on the radio and  the  soothing sound of violins filled
the Merc.
     It struck me as strange; I wouldn't have expected these boys to be into
classical music any more than I was.
     I knew the area we were driving through like the back of my  hand. As a
ten-year old  I  had played  there  while  bunking school. In those days the
place  was  one  big mass  of minging council estates,  dodgy secondhand-car
dealers and old men in pubs drinking bottles of light ale. But now it looked
as if  every available  square  metre was  being  gentrified. The  place was
crawling with  luxury developments and 911  Caireras, and all  the  pubs had
been converted into wine bars. I wondered where all the  old men went now to
keep out of the cold.
     We were approaching Elephant and Castle again. The music finished and a
female voice came on with an update  on the incident that had shaken London.
There were  unconfirmed reports, she said, that three people had been killed
in  a  gun  battle with  police,  and that the  bomb  blast in Whitehall had
produced between ten and sixteen minor casualties, who were being treated in
hospital. Tony Blair had expressed  his  absolute outrage from his  villa in
Italy, and the emergency  services were  on full alert as further explosions
could  not be  ruled out. No one as yet  had claimed responsibility  for the
blast.
     We  rounded  the  Elephant  and  Castle and headed towards  Kennington,
pulling over as two police vans sirened their way past.
     Sundance  turned  to  me  and  shook  his  head  in  mock  disapproval.
Tut-tut-rut. See you you're a menace to society, you are."
     As the  news finished and the music returned I continued to look out of
the window.  I was  a  menace to  myself, not society. Why couldn't  I steer
clear of  shit for  a change, instead of  heading  straight  for  it like  a
light-drunk moth?
     We  passed Kennington tube station,  then  took a right  into  a  quiet
residential street. The street name had been ripped  from  its post and  the
wooden  backing was covered in graffiti. We  turned again and the driver had
to  brake as he came  across six or  seven kids  in the  middle of the road,
kicking a ball  against the gable end of a turn-of-the-century terrace. They
stopped and let  us through, then immediately got back to trying to demolish
the wall.
     We drove about forty metres further, then stopped. Sundance hit his key
fob and a graffiti-covered  double garage shutter  started to roll up.  Left
and right of it was a pitted brown brick wall; above was a rusty metal frame
that had  probably  once held a  neon  sign.  Empty drinks cans littered the
ground.  Inside was completely empty. As we  drove in, I saw that all around
the old brick walls were  tool boards with faded, red-painted shapes of what
was  supposed to  be hanging there. Years ago it had probably been a one-man
garage set-up.  A faded Chelsea FC team poster was pinned to a door. Judging
by  the long haircuts, sideburns  and very tight  shorts,  it  was seventies
vintage.
     The shutter door rattled and squeaked its way down behind me, gradually
cutting  off the noise of the kids kicking the ball.  The engine was cut and
the three of them started to get out.
     Sundance disappeared through the football poster door,  leaving it open
behind him, with luck for me to get dragged through. Anything to be  out  of
the car  and have the pressure  off my wrists.  Maybe I'd even  get  given a
brew.  I hadn't eaten or drunk anything since the night before: there'd been
too much to  do and I'd simply forgotten. Just placing the bomb on the hotel
roof had taken the best part of four hours, and an Egg McMuffin had been the
last thing on my mind.
     While  I was watching the door swing  back slowly to reveal the Chelsea
mop  heads again, Trainers leant down and undid the cuffs  pinning me to the
seat. Then he and the  driver got  hold  of me and dragged me out. We headed
towards  the door; I was beginning to feel that maybe I'd get away with this
after all.  Then I gave myself a good mental slapping: every time I had this
feeling I came unstuck.
     What was happening here meant nothing until I saw the Yes Man and  told
him my piece. I  decided to do my best  not  to  annoy  these boys while  we
waited. They were doing their  best to intimidate me; things are always more
worrying  when  there  is no verbal contact  and  no information, and it was
working a little, that was for sure. Not a lot, but enough.
     They  dragged me  through the  door and  into a windowless, rectangular
space with pitted,  dirty whitewashed brick walls. The room was airless, hot
and  humid,  and  to add to  the  mix somebody had been  smoking roll-ups. A
harsh, double fluorescent unit in the ceiling gave the impression  there was
nowhere to hide.
     On  the floor in  the left-hand corner was  a steam-powered  TV  with a
shiny new swordfish aerial hanging  from a nail on the wall. It was the only
thing  in the room that looked  as  if it hadn't been purchased from a  junk
shop. Facing it was a worn-out brown velour three-piece suite. The arms were
threadbare,  and  the  seats sagged and  were dotted  with  cigarette burns.
Plugged  into adaptors in the same socket  as  the  TV were a  green upright
plastic kettle, a toaster, and battery chargers for three mobiles. The place
reminded me of a minicab office, with  old newspapers and Burger King drinks
cups providing the finishing touches.
     Sundance was standing by the TV, finishing another call  on his mobile.
He looked at me and gestured towards the corner.
     "Keep it shut, boy."
     The other two gave me a shove to help me  on my way. As I slid down the
wall I  tried my hardest not to  push  against the cuffs and ratchet them up
even tighter than they already were.  I  finally slumped on to the floor and
ended up facing the TV.
     SIX
     I guessed this place had been just a  temporary set-up for the duration
of the job and the job, of course, was planning and preparing to kill me. No
doubt there was a similar set-up somewhere else in London where a whole  lot
of the boys and girls had prepared themselves for the hit on the snipers.
     Trainers went  over to the  TV  as  the  other two headed back into the
garage. I watched as he crouched down by the brew kit, opening the kettle to
check for water. His light brown nylon jacket  had ridden up  to expose part
of a black leather pancake holster  sitting  on a  leather belt, just behind
his  right  hip, and a green T-shirt dark with  sweat. Even  the back of his
belt was soaking, and had turned a much darker brown than the rest.
     I could still hear the kids in the  background, kicking their  ball and
yelling at each other. The  pitch of their  voices  changed as one  probably
mis-kicked and was treated to squeals of derision. My hands, still  stuck in
the surgical gloves, were pruning up in the heat.
     Trainers lined  up three  not-too-healthy-looking Simpsons mugs,  Bart,
Marge  and Homer,  which pissed me off. Maggie  was missing. There obviously
wasn't going to be  any brew for me. He threw a  tea bag into each, splashed
milk on  top,  then dug a spoon into  a  crumpled, half-empty  bag of sugar,
tipping heaps of it into two of the mugs.
     A  toilet flushed  in  the garage area,  and  the sound got louder then
softer as a  door opened  and closed. I could hear  Sundance and the  driver
mumbling to each other but couldn't make out what was said.
     The Merc door  slammed,  the engine  turned over,  and there  was  more
squeaking and grinding as  the shutter lifted. Thirty seconds  later the car
backed out  into the road and drove away. Maybe one K of the mugs was for me
after all.
     | Sundance appeared at  the office door, his back to us, checking |that
the  shutter had fully  closed. As the  steel banged on to  the I  floor, he
walked  to the  settee  and threw  his green cotton  bomber jacket on to the
armrest of the nearest chair, revealing a wet maroon polo shirt and a chunky
Sig 9mm,  holstered just behind his right hip. On  his left  hip sat a light
brown  leather mag-carrier, with  three  thick pieces  of  elastic holding a
magazine apiece.  The  first brass  round of each glinted  in  the ceiling's
white light. I almost laughed: three full mags, and just for little  old me.
I'd heard of overkill but this was something out of the last five minutes of
Butch Cassidy. It was obvious where this boy had got his best ideas.
     He stripped off  his polo shirt and used  it to wipe the sweat from his
face, exposing  a badly scarred back. Two indentations were  clearly gunshot
wounds: I recognized them because I had one myself.  Someone  had also given
him the good news with a knife, some of the slashes running the whole length
of his back,  with stitch marks either  side. All in  all, it looked quite a
lot  like  an aerial  photo  of  Clapham  Junction.  I  Trainers, who'd just
finished  squeezing  and  fishing  out the  tea  bags lifted  up a  brew for
Sundance.
     "Still want one?" His  accent was 100 per  cent Belfast.  If the driver
turned out to be Welsh we'd be able to put together a joke book.
     "Right enough." Wiping his neck and shoulders, Sundance sat down in the
chair nearest the TV, avoiding resting his wet, bare back against the velour
by  sitting upright on the edge. He took a tentative sip from Bart, the  mug
without sugar.
     He had been hitting the weights,  but didn't have the chiselled look of
a bodybuilder.  He had the physique  of  a con who'd  been pumping iron: the
diet in prisons is so bad that when the lads take to the weights they end up
barrel-chested and bulked up, rather than well honed.
     He glanced at me for the first time and caught me studying his back.
     "Belfast when you was just a wee soldier-boy." He treated himself  to a
little giggle, then nodded at  the third Simpsons mug still on  the floor by
Trainers.
     "D'you want a tea, then, boy?"
     Trainers held up Marge.
     I nodded. Teah, I would, thanks."
     There was a pause for a couple of seconds  while they exchanged a look,
then both roared with laughter as Trainers did a bad Cockney accent.
     "Gor blimey, guy, I would, fan ks
     Trainers  sat himself down on the settee with Homer, still laughing  as
he took the piss.
     "Strike  a light, guvnor, yeah,  I would, cheers. Luv a duck." At least
someone was having fun.
     Trainers put his own brew  on the cracked tiled floor and took  off his
jacket.
     He'd obviously had a tattoo removed  by  laser recently; there  was the
faintest red scar just visible on his forearm, but the outstretched Red Hand
of Ulster was still plain to see. He  had been, maybe still was, a member of
the UDA (Ulster Defence Association). Maybe they'd both pumped their iron in
one of the H blocks.
     Trainers' triceps rippled under his  tanned,  freckled skin as  he felt
behind the  cushions  and pulled out  a  packet of  Drum.  Resting it on his
knees, he took out some Rizlas and started to make himself a roll-up.
     Sundance didn't like what he saw.
     "You know he hates that -just wait."
     "Right enough."  The Drum packet was folded  and  returned beneath  the
cushions.
     It made me very happy indeed to hear that:  the Yes  Man must be on his
way.  Even though  I'd  never  smoked I'd  never  been  a tobacco  Nazi, but
Frampton certainly was.
     My  arse was getting numb  on the hard  floor so I  shifted very slowly
into another position,  trying not to draw attention to myself. Sundance got
up, mug in hand, walked the three paces to the TV, and hit the  power button
then each of the station buttons till he got a decent picture.
     Trainers sparked up, 'I like this one. It's a laugh." Sundance shuffled
backwards to his chair,  eyes glued to the box. Both were now ignoring me as
they watched a woman, whose voice was straight off the Radio Four news, talk
to the show's china expert about her collection of Pekinese dog teacups.
     I couldn't hear  the kids any more over the TV as I waited for the Merc
to return. On the screen, the woman tried not to show how pissed off she was
when the expert told her the china was only worth fifty quid.
     Whoever had christened  Frampton the  Yes  Man was a genius: it was the
only  word  he said  to any of  his  superiors. In  the  past this had never
worried me  because I had nothing  to  do  with  him directly,  but all that
changed  when  he  was  promoted  to run  the  UK  Ks  Desk  in SIS  (Secret
Intelligence  Service). The  Firm  used some ex-SAS people like  me, in fact
anyone, probably  even my new  friends here, as  deniable operators. The  Ks
Desk had traditionally  been  run by an IB  (member of Intelligence Branch),
the senior  branch of the service.  In fact the whole  service is run by IBs
for IBs; these are the boys and girls we read about in the papers, recruited
from university, working from embassies  and  using  mundane Foreign  Office
appointments  as  cover. Their real  work,  however, starts  at  six  in the
evening  when the  conventional  diplomats  begin  their  round  of cocktail
parties, and the IBs start gathering intelligence, spreading  disinformation
and recruiting sources.
     That's  when the low-life like me come into the picture, carrying  out,
or in some cases cleaning up, the dirty work that they create while throwing
the odd crab paste sandwich and After Eight down their necks. I  envied them
that, at times like this.
     The Yes  Man did, too.  He  had been to university, but not one of  the
right two.
     He  had never  been one of  the elite, an IB, yet  had probably  always
wanted to be.
     But  he  just wasn't  made  of the right stuff. His background was  the
Directorate of Special  Support,  a  branch of  wild-haired technicians  and
scientists working  on  electronics,  signals,  electronic surveillance  and
explosive devices. He'd run the signals  department of  the UK  Ks, but  had
never been in the field.
     I didn't know  why the Firm had suddenly  changed the system and let  a
non-IB  take command.  Maybe with the change of government they thought they
should look a bit more meritocratic, give  a tweak or two to the  system  to
make them look good and keep  the politicians happy as they skipped back  to
Whitehall, instead of interfering too much with what really goes on. So, who
better to  run the Desk than someone  who wasn't an IB,  arse licked his way
from breakfast to dinnertime, and would do whatever he was told?
     Whatever, I  didn't like him and never would. He certainly wasn't on my
speed  dial,  that  was for  sure. On the one  occasion that I'd had  direct
contact with him, the job had fouled up  because he'd  supplied insufficient
com ms kit.
     He'd  only  been in  the  job  since  Colonel  Lynn  had  'taken  early
retirement' about seven months ago, but he'd already proved his incompetence
more than  once.  The only  thing he was good at was issuing threats; he had
neither  the personality nor the management skills to do it any  other  way.
Lynn  might have been just  as  much of an  arse hole  but at least you knew
where you stood with him.
     I was  adjusting my position some  more when the shutter  rattled and I
heard an engine rev outside.
     They both  stood up and put their wet shirts  back  on. Sundance walked
over to turn off the  TV.  Neither of  them bothered to look  at me. It  was
still as if I wasn't there.
     The engine  noise got  louder. Doors slammed and the  shutter came down
again.
     The Yes Man  appeared at  the  door,  still in  his  suit  and  looking
severely  pissed off.  Trainers slipped  dutifully out of the room, like the
family Labrador.
     I wouldn't have thought it possible but the Yes  Man's face was an even
brighter  red than usual. He was under  pressure. Yet again, C and his mates
weren't too pleased with their non-IB experiment.
     He stopped just three or four feet away from me, looking like  an irate
schoolteacher, legs apart, hands on hips.
     "What happened, Stone?" he shouted.
     "Can't you get anything right?"
     What was he on about? Only two hours ago he'd wanted me killed, and now
he was telling me off like a naughty schoolboy. But it wasn't  the moment to
point this out. It was the moment to creep big-time.
     "I  just don't know, Mr. Frampton. As soon as I  had three  lights up I
sent  the fire commands.  I  don't know what happened after that. It  should
have worked, all four of us had com ms up until then but-' "But nothing!" he
exploded.
     "The task was a complete failure." His voice jumped an octave.
     "I'm holding you personally responsible, you do know that, don't you?"
     I did now. But what was new?
     He took a deep breath.
     "You don't  understand the importance of this operation that  you  have
completely scuppered, do you?"
     Scuppered? I tried not to smile but couldn't help it.
     "Fucked up' was how Lynn would have put it.
     The Yes  Man  was still playing  the school-teacher. There's nothing to
smile about, Stone. Who, in heaven's name, do you think you are?"
     It was time for a bit of damage limitation.
     "Just someone trying to  keep alive," I said.  That's  why I taped  our
conversation, Mr. Frampton."
     He was silent for a few seconds  while that sank in, breathing heavily,
eyes bulging. Ah, yes, the  tape and pictures. He must  have just remembered
why I  was  still alive and he was here. But not for  long; his brain switch
was set to  Transmit rather  than Receive.  'You've  no  idea of the  damage
you've done. The Americans were adamant that  this had to be  done today.  I
gave  my word  to them, and  others, that it would." He was starting to feel
sorry for himself.
     "I can't believe I had so much confidence in you."
     So it was an American job. No wonder  he was flapping. The senior Brits
had been trying to heal a number of rifts in their relationship with the USA
for quite a while now especially as some of the US agencies just saw the  UK
as a route to extend its reach into Europe,  and not as any sort of partner.
The 'special relationship' was, in effect, history.
     But the big picture wasn't exactly top of my agenda right now. I didn't
care  what had been  scuppered. I didn't even care who had sponsored the job
and why it  had had to happen. I just wanted  to get out of this room in one
piece.
     "As I said,  Mr. Frampton, the lights were up and I  ordered the shoot.
Maybe if the three snipers were debriefed they could ..."
     He looked at my lips but my words seemed not to register.
     "You  have let a serious problem develop  in Central America, Stone. Do
you not realize the implications?"
     "No, sir' he always liked that.
     "I don't, sir."
     His right hand came off his hip and he stared at the face of his watch.
     "No, sir,  that's  right,  you  don't, sir.  Because  of you,  we,  the
Service, are not influencing events in a direction favourable to Britain."
     He  was starting  to sound like a party political broadcast. I couldn't
have cared  less what was happening in Central America.  All I  was  worried
about was now, here.
     The  Yes Man  sighed as  he loosened his  scarlet tie  and  opened  his
collar. Some beads  of sweat dribbled down the side of his  flushed face. He
thumbed behind him in the direction of Sundance.
     "Now, go with  this man to collect the tape and all  the other material
that you claim to have on this operation,  and I'll see about trying to save
your backside."
     "I can't do that, sir!"
     He stiffened. He was starting to lose it.
     "Can't do that, sir?"
     I'd have thought it  was perfectly  obvious, but I didn't want to sound
disrespectful.
     "I'm sorry,  Mr.  Frampton,  but  I need to make sure  you don't have a
change of heart about me." I chanced a smile.
     "I  like  being  alive. I understand the  reasons why the  snipers were
killed. I just don't want to join them."
     The Yes Man crouched down so that his eyes were level with mine. He was
struggling to control a rage that was threatening to burst out of his face.
     "Let  me  tell  you  something,   Stone.  Things  are  changing  in  my
department. A new permanent cadre is being  installed, and very soon all the
dead wood will be cleared away. People like you will cease to exist." He was
nearly shaking  with  anger. He knew I had  him  by  the bollocks, for  now.
Fighting his rage, he kept his voice very low.
     "You've always been nothing but trouble, haven't you?"
     I was averting my gaze, trying to  look frightened and I was a bit. But
unfortunately I  caught sight  of a  large,  freshly squeezed zit below  his
collar line. He didn't like that. He stood up abruptly, and stormed from the
room.
     Sundance shot me a threatening glare and followed him.
     I  tried to listen to the mumbling going on between the four of them in
the  garage, but with no luck.  A few seconds later  car  doors slammed, the
shutter  went up,  and the car reversed out.  The shutter hit the floor once
more, and then everything went quiet.
     Except in my head.  One half was  telling me  everything was OK. No way
would  he chance the job being exposed. The other was telling  me that maybe
he really  didn't care what I was saying. I tried to make myself feel better
by running through what had happened, convincing myself  that  I'd said  the
right things in the right way at the right time. Then I threw my hand in. It
was too late now to worry about it. I'd just have to wait and see.
     Trainers and  Sundance reappeared. I  looked up,  trying to read  their
expressions.
     They didn't look good.
     The first kick was aimed at my chest. My body re flexed into a ball but
Sundance's  boot connected  hard with my thigh. By now my chin was down,  my
teeth  were clenched, and I'd closed my eyes.  There was nothing  I could do
but accept the inevitable, curled up like a hedgehog, my hands still cuffed,
trying  to protect my face.  I  started  to take it and  just hoped that  it
wouldn't carry on for long.
     They grabbed my feet and dragged me towards the centre of the room. One
of the mugs rattled  over on the  tiles. I kept  my legs as bent as I could,
fighting against them being stretched out to expose my stomach and bollocks.
I opened one eye just  in time  to watch  a Caterpillar boot connect with my
ribs. I brought my || head down further, in an attempt to cover my chest. It
must  have worked, because another boot swung right into my arse  this time,
and it felt as if the inside  of my sphincter had exploded. The pain was off
the scale and to counteract it I tried to clench  my cheek  muscles together
but to do that I had to straighten my legs a little.
     The inevitable boot flew into the pit of my stomach. Bile exploded from
me. The acid taste in my mouth and nose was almost worse than the kicking.
     It was past midnight and  I was curled up back in my corner.  At  least
they'd taken the cuffs off now. The lights were off and the
     TV flickered away  with a Channel 5 soft-porn film. They'd had pie  and
chips earlier and made me crawl over to wipe up my bile from  the floor with
the used paper as they drank more tea.
     There  was no more filling in, not  even an acknowledgement of me being
there.  I had just  been left to  stew  as  Sundance lay half asleep  on the
settee. Trainers  was wide awake and on  stag, smoking  his  roll-up, draped
across the two armchairs, making sure I didn't have any stupid ideas.
     I slowly stretched out flat on  my stomach to  lessen the pain from the
kicking,  and rested my face on my hands, closing my eyes to try to get some
sleep. It was never going to work: I could feel the blood pumping in my neck
and couldn't  stop thinking  about what  might happen  to me next. My Beachy
Head trip  could still  be on the cards with these two; it  all  depended on
what the Yes Man had to say yes to, I supposed.
     In  the past, I'd  always managed to  get out of even  the deepest shit
with  just the thinnest  layer still stuck  to me.  I thought  of my gunshot
wound, sewn-back on earlobe, and dog-bite scars, and knew how lucky I'd been
on  those  jobs in  the last  few years. I thought  of  other jobs, of being
blindfolded and lined up against the  wall of an  aircraft hangar, listening
to the noise of weapons being cocked. I remembered hearing the men each side
of me, either quietly  praying  or openly crying and begging. I  hadn't seen
any reason  to do  either.  It  wasn't that I wanted  to  die; just that I'd
always known that death was part of the deal.
     But this did feel different. I thought of Kelly. I hadn't spoken to her
since  this job  started. Not  because  there  had been no opportunity1  had
agreed timings  with Josh last  month it  was just that I was  too busy with
preparations, or sometimes I just forgot.
     Josh was right to fuck me off when I  did get through: she  did need  a
routine and stability. I could see his half-Mexican, half-black shaved head,
scowling at me on the phone like a divorced  wife.  The skin on his  jaw and
cheekbone was a patchwork of  pink, like a  torn  sponge that had been badly
sewn back together.
     The scarring was  down to me, which didn't help the situation  much. He
wouldn't be getting too  many  modelling offers from Old Spice, that was for
sure.  I tried to  break  the ice  with him once by telling him.  He  didn't
exactly fall about with laughter.
     I turned  my  head and rested my cheek on  my  hands, watching Trainers
suck on the last of his roll-up. I supposed  I'd always known the  day would
come, sooner or  later, but  I  didn't  want this to  be  it.  Stuff flashed
through my mind as if I was  a split second  away from a  massive car crash,
all the sorts of  things that  must hit any  parent  when they know  they're
about to die. The stupid argument with the kids before leaving for work. Not
building that  tree-house.  Not getting  round  to filling  out a  will. The
holidays not taken, the promises broken.
     Josh was the only person apart from Kelly I cared for and who was still
alive.
     Would  he  miss  me?  He'd just be pissed  off that  we  had unfinished
business. And what  about  Kelly herself? She had a new start  now would she
just forget all about her useless, incompetent guardian in a few years?
     SEVEN
     Monday  4 September Sundance's StarT  ac short, sharp tones cut the air
after a long, painful night.
     It  was just after  eight.  I  didn't bother  to  move  from  the prone
position because of my  kicking, but tried instead to  convince  myself that
the pain was just weakness leaving the body, something like that.
     Trainers  jumped  up to turn off the BBC  breakfast  news,  showing the
embankment,  as Sundance  opened up his phone. He knew who it was. There was
no preliminary waffle, just nods and grunts.
     Trainers hit  the  kettle button as the  StarT  ac was closed down  and
Sundance rolled himself off the settee. He gave me a big grin  as he brushed
back his hair with spread fingers.
     "You have a visitor, and dye know what? He doesn't sound too pleased."
     It was the witching hour.
     I sat up and leant into the  corner of  the brick walls as they  pulled
the armchairs apart and put their shirts on while waiting  for the kettle to
boil.
     It  wasn't long before I heard  a vehicle and Trainers went out to open
the shutter. Sundance just stood  there  staring  at  me,  trying to  get me
flapping.
     The kettle  cut out  with a click just  before  the  shutter opened; it
looked like their brew was on hold  for a while. I pulled myself up  against
the wall.
     The slamming of car doors drowned out the sound of Kennington's morning
commute.
     Before  the shutter had  come down, the  Yes Man was striding  into the
room.
     Throwing a glance at Sundance, he  walked towards  me, screwing up  his
nose at the smell of roll-ups, chips and early-morning farts.
     He was dressed today in a light grey suit, and still in enraged-teacher
mode. He stopped a couple of paces short of me, put  his hands  on his hips,
and looked down at me in disgust.
     "You,  Stone, are going to be  given one chance,  just  one, to rectify
matters. You don't know how very  lucky you are." He  checked his watch. The
target has just left the UK. You will follow him tonight, to Panama, and you
will kill this target by last light Friday."
     I kept my head down and let my legs flop out straight, just inches from
his highly polished black brogues, and raised my eyes to him.
     Sundance made a move towards me. Should  I be saying something? The Yes
Man held up a hand to stop him, without taking his eyes off me.
     "PARC are waiting for the delivery of a missile launch control system a
computer guidance console to you."
     I looked down again, concentrating on the pattern of his shoes.
     "Are you listening?"
     Nodding slowly, I rubbed my sore eyes.
     "One anti-aircraft missile is already in their possession.  It  will be
the  first  of many. The  launch  system has to be stopped  if PARC  have  a
complete weapons  system in  their hands  the implications for Plan Colombia
will be catastrophic.
     There are six  hundred million  dollars'  worth  of  US  helicopters in
Colombia,  along  with  their  crews  and  support. PARC  must  not get  the
capability to shoot them down. They must not get that launch control system.
You  don't  need  to know  why,  but the young  man's death  will  stop that
happening. Period."
     He  hunched  down  and thrust his face so  close to  mine I could smell
menthol  aftershave,  probably  for  sensitive  skin.  There  was a whiff of
halitosis,  too, as  we  had eye-to-eye  just  inches  apart. He breathed in
slowly,  to  help me understand  that  what he was about to say was more  in
sorrow than in anger.
     "You  will  carry  out  this task  in  the  time  specified,  with  due
diligence. If not? No matter when next week,  next month, or  even next year
when the time  is right, we will kill  her. You know who  I'm talking about,
that  Little Orphan Annie  of  yours. She will simply  cease to exist and it
will be your doing. Only you can stop that happening."
     He burned with the kind of evangelical zeal I supposed he'd copied from
whoever he'd heard in the pulpit last week, while Sundance smirked and moved
back towards the settee.
     The Yes Man hadn't finished with me yet. His tone shifted.
     "She must be about eleven now, eh? I've been told that she's settled in
very well  back in the States. It  seems that Joshua is doing an  absolutely
sterling  job. It must be hard for you now she lives  there, eh? Missing her
growing up, turning into a fine young woman..."
     I kept my  eyes  down, concentrating  on a  minute crack in one of  the
tiles as he carried on with his sermon.
     That's the same age as my daughter. They're so funny at that age, don't
you think? One minute wanting to be all grown up, the next needing to cuddle
their teddies. I read her a  story last night when  I'd  tucked her in. They
look  so wonderful, yet so vulnerable  like that...  Did you read  to Kelly,
isn't it?"
     I  wouldn't  give him  the  satisfaction  of  an acknowledgement,  just
concentrated hard on my  tile,  trying to  show  no reaction.  He was really
making a meal of this. He took another deep breath, his knees cracking as he
straightened up and hovered above me once more.
     "This is about power, Stone, who has it and who does not. You do not.
     Personally, I am not in favour of you being given a second  chance, but
there is the broader matter of policy to consider."
     I  didn't  exactly  understand what that meant, but it was a fair guess
he'd been told to sort out this situation or he'd be severely in the shit.
     "Why kill the boy?" I said.
     "Why not the father? I presume he's the one moving this system."
     He kicked my  thigh with his shiny toecap. It  was  pure frustration. I
was sure he'd meant it to be harder, but just didn't have it in him.
     "Clean yourself up look  at the  state of you. Now go. These  gentlemen
will collect you from your residence at three."
     He gave  'residence'  the  full  three  syllables,  enjoying every one.
Sundance  smiled like the village idiot as I hauled  myself to my  feet, the
muscles in my stomach protesting badly.
     "I  need  money."  I  looked down like a  scolded schoolboy  as I leant
against the wall, and that was exactly how I felt.
     The Yes Man sighed with impatience and nodded at Sundance. The Jock dug
out  his wallet from  the back of  his jeans,  and  counted  out eighty-five
pounds.
     'You owe me, boy."
     I just  took it,  not bothering  to mention the  six hundred US dollars
he'd liberated from my pocket, and which had already been split  between the
two of them.
     Jamming it into my jeans, I started to walk, not  looking  at either of
them as I  reached the  door. Trainers saw  me in the doorframe and  hit the
shutter, but not before the  Yes  Man had the last word: "You'd better  make
good use of  that money, Stone. There is no  more.  In fact,  think yourself
lucky you're  keeping  what  you already have. After all, Orphan Annie  will
need new shoes from time to time, and  her treatment in the States will cost
a great deal more than it did at the Moorings."
     Fifteen minutes  later I was on the tube from Kennington, heading north
towards Camden Town. The dilapidated old train was packed tight with morning
commuters, nearly every one radiating soap, toothpaste and  designer smells.
I was  the exception,  which was bad luck  for  the people I was  sandwiched
between:   a  massive  black  guy  who'd  turned   his  crisply   laundered,
white-shirted back on me, and  a young white  woman who  didn't dare look up
from the floor in case our eyes met and  she sparked  off the madman reeking
of bile and roll-ups.
     The front pages of the morning papers were covered with dramatic colour
pictures of the  police attacking  the sniper positions and the promise of a
lot more to come  inside.  I just held  on to the handrail and stared at the
dot-com holiday adverts, not wanting to  read  them, instead letting my head
jolt from side to side as we trundled north. I was in a  daze, trying to get
my head round what had happened, and getting nowhere.
     What could I do with Kelly? Nip over to Maryland, pick her up, run away
and hide in  the woods? Taking her away from Josh was pure fantasy: it would
only  screw  her  up  even more  than  she  was already.  It  would only  be
short-term, in any event: if the Firm wanted her dead, they'd make it happen
eventually. What about telling Josh? No need: the Firm  wouldn't do anything
unless I failed. Besides, why stir him up any more than I had already?
     I let my head drop and stared at  my  feet as  we got  to a station and
people  fought each other  to get  on and  off all at the  same time. I  got
shoved and jostled and gave an involuntary gasp of pain.
     As  the carriage repacked itself for  the journey under  the Thames,  a
pissed-off voice on the PA  system told everybody to  move right down inside
the cars, and the doors eventually closed.
     I didn't  know if the  Yes Man was bluffing any more, probably, than he
knew if I was. But it made no difference. Even if I did expose the job, that
wouldn't  stop Sundance  and Trainers  taking their trip to Maryland.  There
were  enough  Serb  families short of a kid or two because  Dad  hadn't gone
along with the Firm's demands during the latest Balkan wars, and  I  knew it
hadn't stopped there.
     Try as I  might, I couldn't  stop myself  picturing  Kelly tucked up in
bed, her hair  spread in a mess over the pillow as she dreamt of being a pop
star. The  Yes Man was  right, they did look  both wonderful and  vulnerable
like that. My blood ran cold as I realized that the end of this job wouldn't
put an end to the threats. She would be used against me time and again.
     We stopped at another station and the crowd ebbed and flowed once more.
I  took  a  deep  breath and exhaled slowly. I  was starting to get pins and
needles  in my legs. No matter which way I looked at it, my only option  was
to kill the boy.
     No, not a boy, let's get this right, just as the Yes Man said, he was a
young  man  some  of  those weapons being cocked in the aircraft hangar  all
those years ago had been held by people younger than him.
     I had fucked up big-time. I should have killed him yesterday when I had
the chance. If I  didn't do  this job Kelly would die, simple as that and  I
couldn't let that happen. I wouldn't fuck up again. I'd do what the Yes  Man
wanted, and I'd do it by last light Friday.
     The train  stopped again and most of the passengers left for their jobs
in the  City. I was knackered and fell into a  seat before my legs gave out.
As I wiped the beads of sweat off my brow, my mind kept going back to Kelly,
and the thought that I was going to Panama to kill someone just so that Josh
could have her to look after. It was madness, but what was new about that?
     Josh might  not exactly be my mate, these  days,  but he was  still the
closest thing I had to  one.  He'd talk through gritted teeth, but at  least
he'd talk to me about Kelly. She'd been living with Josh and  his kids since
mid-August, just a  couple of weeks after  her  therapy  sessions  had ended
prematurely in London when the Yes Man handed me the sniper job.
     She  hadn't  fully  recovered  from  her  PTSD  (post-traumatic  stress
disorder),  and  I  didn't know whether she  ever  would.  Seeing your whole
family head-jobbed took some recovering  from. She was a fighter, just  like
her dad  had been, and  had made dramatic strides this  summer.  She'd moved
from being a curled-up bundle of nothing to  being able to  function outside
the private care home in Hampstead where  she'd spent  the  best part of the
last  ten months. She  wasn't in mainstream schooling yet  with Josh's kids,
but that would happen soon. Or at least I hoped it would: she needed private
tuition and that didn't come cheap -and now the Yes  Man  had cancelled  the
second half of the  money... Since  March I'd had to commit myself  to being
with her during the therapy  sessions three times  a week in Chelsea, and on
all the other days had visited her at the  place in Hampstead where  she was
being looked after. Kelly and I would tube it down to the plush clinic,  the
Moorings.  Sometimes  we'd  talk  on  the  journey,  mostly about  kids' TV;
sometimes we'd sit in silence.  On  occasion,  she'd just cuddle into me and
sleep.
     Dr. Hughes was in her mid-fifties and looked more like an American news
reader than a shrink in her leather armchair. I didn't  particularly like it
when Kelly said something that Hughes considered meaningful. She would  tilt
her elegant head and look at me over the top of her gold half-moons.
     "How do you feel about that, Nick?"
     My answer was always the same: "We're here for Kelly, not me." That was
because I was an emotional dwarf. I must be Josh told me so.
     The train shuddered and squeaked to a  halt at Camden  Town. I joined a
green haired punk, a bunch of suits and some early-start tourists as  we all
rode the up  escalator. Camden  High  Street  was teeming  with  traffic and
pedestrians.  We were  greeted  by  a  white Rastafarian guy juggling  three
bean-bags for spare change and an old drunk with his can of Tennants waiting
for Pizza Express to open so that he could go and shout at its windows.  The
din of pneumatic drills  on the building site opposite echoed all around us,
making even people passing in their cars wince.
     I diced with death as I crossed the road to get into Superdrug and pick
up some washing and shaving  kit, then walked along  the  high street to get
something to eat, hands in my pockets  and eyes down at the pavement like  a
dejected teenager.
     I waded through  KFC boxes, kebab wrappers and  smashed Bacardi Breezer
bottles that hadn't been cleaned up from the night before. As I'd discovered
when  I  moved in,  there  was a disproportionate  number  of pubs and clubs
around here.
     Camden High Street and its markets  seemed  quite a tourist attraction.
It was  just before ten o'clock but most of the clothes shops already had an
amazing array of  gear hanging outside  their  shop fronts, from psychedelic
flares  to  leather  bondage trousers  and  multicoloured Doc  Martens. Shop
workers tried ceaselessly to lure Norwegians or Americans, with day sacks on
their backs and maps in their hands, inside with loud music and a smile.
     I passed under  the scaffold that covered the pavement on the corner of
Inverness  Street  and got a nod from the Bosnian  refugee who sold smuggled
cigarettes out of a sports bag.  He was holding  out a  couple of cartons to
passers-by and  in his leather-look PVC bomber jacket and tracksuit  bottoms
he looked just like I felt, tired of life. We knew each other by sight and I
nodded back before turning left into the market. My stomach  was so empty it
ached, adding to the pain from the kicking. I was  really looking forward to
breakfast.
     The caff  was full of construction workers taking a break from building
the new Gap and Starbucks. Their dirty yellow hardhats were lined up against
the wall like helmets at a fire station, whilst they filled their faces with
the three quid all-day breakfast. The room was  a  noisy haze  of fried food
and cigarette smoke, probably courtesy of the Bosnian. I put in my order and
listened to the radio behind the counter while I picked up my mug of instant
coffee.  The  news  on  Capital  gave  only  bullet-point  headlines   about
yesterday's terrorist incident.
     It was already taking second place to Posh Spice's new hairdo.
     I settled  down at a  four-seater wrought-iron-and-marble-effect garden
table, moved the overflowing ashtray out of the way, and stared at the sugar
bowl. The pins and needles  had  returned and I found that my elbows were on
the table and  my  face was  stuck  in  my  hands.  For  some reason  I  was
remembering being  seven  years old, tears running down  my face, trying  to
explain  to my  stepfather  that I  was  scared of  the  dark. Instead  of a
comforting cuddle and  the bedroom light left  on, I got a slapped  face and
told not to be  such  a wimp or the night monster  would come out from under
the bed and  eat  me. He used to make  me flap big-time,  and I'd  spend the
whole night curled up under the blanket, petrified, thinking that as long as
I didn't look out the night monster wouldn't get me.
     The same feeling of terror and helplessness was with me again after all
these years.
     I was jolted from my trance.
     "Set breakfast, extra egg?"
     That7 s me!"
     I  sat back down  and threw bacon, sausage and  egg  down  my  neck and
started to  think about  my  shopping  list.  At  least I wouldn't need much
clothing for my  Central American trip. There now, maybe things weren't that
bad: at least I was going somewhere warm.
     I'd never been to Panama, but had operated on  its border with Colombia
against PARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) while in the Regiment.
We  were  part  of  the  UK's  first-strike  policy   in  the  eighties,  an
American-funded  operation to hit  drug manufacture at source,  which  meant
getting   into   the   jungle   for   weeks  on   end,   finding   the  DMPs
(drug-manufacturing plants) and destroying them  to slow the trafficking  to
the UK  and US. We might  as well not have bothered. Over 70 per cent of the
cocaine entering the States still originated from Colombia, and up to 75 per
cent of the heroin seized on the east coast of the US was Colombian.
     PARC  had their fingers in a substantial amount  of that pie, and those
kinds of numbers were also heading this way, to the UK.
     Having operated in the region for over a year, I still took an interest
especially as  most of  the  Colombians I'd  cared  anything about  had been
killed in the war. To keep the peace with PARC, the Colombian government had
given them control  of  an area  the size  of Switzerland,  and they ran all
their operations from there. It was hoped that  things would change now that
Plan Colombia was getting into full swing. Clinton had  given the  Colombian
government a $1.3 billion military  aid package  to combat drug trafficking,
including  over  sixty  of the  Yes  Man's  precious  Huey  and  Black  Hawk
helicopters, along with other  military assistance.  But I wasn't holding my
breath. It was going to be a long and dirty war.
     I also knew  that, for most of  the twentieth century, the USA had paid
for, run  and protected  the Panama  Canal and stationed SOUTH  COM  (the US
Army's Southern Command) in-country. It was  SOUTH COM that had directed all
military  and intelligence operations from Mexico's  southern border to Cape
Horn  during  my  time  in  Colombia. Thousands  of US  troops  and aircraft
stationed in Panama had been responsible for all the anti-drug operations in
Central and South America, but that  had stopped at midnight  on 31 December
1999 when the US handed back control  of the canal to the locals,  and SOUTH
COM  and all American presence  was withdrawn. It was now fragmented, spread
around bases all over Central America and the Caribbean, and nowhere near as
effective at fighting any kind of war as it once had been.
     From what I'd read, the  hand-over of the canal had  sort of sneaked up
on the American public. And when they discovered that a Chinese company, not
American, had been awarded the contract to operate  the ports at each end of
the canal and take over some  of  the old  US military facilities, the right
wing went ape shit I couldn't see the problem myself:
     Chinese-owned companies ran ports all around the world, including Dover
and others  in this country.  I hadn't  thought of it at the time, but maybe
that was  why the Chinaman  had  been in  the delegation, as part of the new
order in Central America.
     I felt  a little better after some death-by-cholesterol, and  left  the
caff wiping egg yolk  off my fingers and on to my jeans, where a fair amount
of it had dribbled anyway.
     A fifteen-minute shopping frenzy in the market bought me a new pair  of
rip-off  Levi's for sixteen  quid, a  blue sweatshirt  for seven, a pair  of
boxers and a pack of three pairs of socks for another five.
     I carried  on  walking  past  fruit and  veg  stalls until  I  came  to
Arlington Road, and turned right by the Good Mixer pub, a  1960s monstrosity
in need of a lick of paint. The usual suspects were sitting  against the pub
wall, three old men, unshaven and unwashed, throwing cans of Strongbow Super
down their necks obviously  this week's  special offer at Oddbins. All three
held  out their grime ingrained palms for money without even  looking up  at
the people they were begging from.
     I was just a few minutes away from a hot shower. Maybe a hundred metres
ahead,  outside  my  impressive Victorian redbrick  residence, I  could  see
someone being troll eyed  into the back of an  | ambulance. This was nothing
unusual around here, and no one r passing gave it a second look.
     (   Walking   past   the   graffiti-filled   walls  of   the  decaying,
pollution-stained  buildings,  I  approached  the  front  entrance  as   the
ambulance moved off. There was a white Transit behind it.
     Gathered around its open rear doors  were a group of Eastern Europeans,
all carrying sports bags or day sacks Of course it was Monday: the boys from
Manchester were dishing out smuggled cigarettes and rolling tobacco for them
to sell in the market and pubs.
     Two worn stone steps took me to a  set  of large, glazed  wooden  doors
which I pushed my way through. I buzzed  to be let through the second lot of
security doors, and pressed my head against the glass so whoever was on duty
could check me out.
     The  door  buzzed  and I pushed through. I got a  smile off  Maureen at
reception,  a  huge, fifty-year-old  woman  who had  a liking for tent-sized
flowery  dresses, and a face like a bulldog with  constipation.  She took no
nonsense from anybody. She looked me up and down with an arched eyebrow.
     "Hello, darling, what you doing here?"
     I put on my happy face.
     "I missed you."
     She rolled her eyes and gave her usual loud bass laugh.
     "Yeah, right."
     "Is  there any chance of using a shower? It's just that the plumbing in
my new place has gone on the blink." I held up my bag of washing kit for her
to see.
     She rolled her eyes at my  story and sucked  her teeth, not believing a
word of it.
     "Ten minutes, don't tell."
     "Maureen, you're the best."
     Tell me something I don't know, darling.  Remember, ten minutes, that's
your lot."
     I'd  only said  about a dozen words to her all the time I'd lived here.
This was the closest we'd been to a conversation for months.
     I  walked up  the  steps  to  the second floor,  where  the  decor  was
easy-clean, thick-gloss  walls and a light  grey industrial-lino  staircase,
then walked along the narrow corridor, heading  for the showers at the  end.
To my left were rows of doors to bedrooms, and  I could hear their occupants
mumbling to  themselves, coughing, snoring.  The corridor smelt of  beer and
cigarettes, with stale bread slices and dog-ends trodden into the threadbare
carpet.
     There was a bit of a racket on the floor above as some old  guy gob bed
off, having an argument with himself, and profanities bounced off the walls.
It was sometimes difficult to work out if it was alcohol, drugs or  a mental
condition with these guys. Either way, Care in the Community seemed to  mean
leaving them to look after themselves.
     The showers were three stained cubicles and I got  into the centre one,
slowly peeling off my clothes as men wandered around the corridor and noises
echoed.
     Once undressed, I turned  on the  water. I was in a  daze  again,  just
wanting my day to  end, i;?, forcing myself to check the bruising on my legs
and chest, even though I didn't care if it hurt. I  Somebody in the corridor
called out  my  name, and I  re cog- lr nized the voice.  I didn't  know his
name, just that he was always s drunk. As with  the rest of them, it was the
only way that he  could escape his  miserable  life.  In a slurred  northern
accent he shouted the same old thing, over and over again, about how God had
fucked him  over. He used to have a  wife,  kids, a house, a job. It had all
gone wrong, he'd lost everything, and it was all God's fault.
     I got under the water, trying my hardest to block out  the noise as the
others started to join in, telling him to shut the fuck up.
     The council-run 'hostel'  was what we used to call a doss-house when we
were kids.  Nowadays it  was filled not only with home less men of every age
with  uniformly  sad lives, but also  Bosnian, Serbian and Kosovan refugees,
who seemed  to have brought  their  ' war to London as they  fought  amongst
themselves in the corridors and washrooms.
     The noises outside  the shower  started  to merge  and magnify side  my
head. My heartbeat went into  overdrive and my legs  felt numb with pins and
needles again. I slumped down in the shower tray and covered my ears with my
hands.
     I  just sat there covering my  ears, squeezing my eyes shut,  trying to
block  out  the noise,  plagued  by  the  same  childlike  terror  that  had
overwhelmed me in the cafe.
     The  image  that the  Yes Man had planted  in my head, of Kelly in  bed
asleep, in the dark,  was still with me. She'd be there now, this minute, in
Maryland. She would be in her bunk bed, below Josh's eldest daughter. I knew
exactly how she  would look. I had woken  up and tucked her back in so  many
times when it was cold, or when a memory of her murdered family had returned
to haunt her. She would be half in, half out of her duvet, stretched out  on
her back,  arms and legs out like a starfish, sucking  her bottom  lip,  her
eyes flickering under their lids as she dreamed.
     Then  I thought  of  her dead. No sucking of the  lip,  no REM,  just a
stiff,  dead starfish. I tried to imagine how I would feel if that happened,
knowing that I had the responsibility to make sure that it didn't. It didn't
bear thinking about. I wasn't sure if it was in my head, or I was yelling it
out loud, but  I heard my own voice shout, "How the fuck did you end up like
this?"
     EIGHT
     I was turning into one of those nutters out there in  the corridor. I'd
never  had much difficulty understanding why they turned to drink  and drugs
to escape the shit of the real world.
     I sat there for  a few minutes longer,  just feeling  sorry for myself,
looking at the only things I had to  show for my progress  through the  real
world:  a pink dent  in  my stomach from  a 9mm  round, and the  neat row of
puncture holes on my right forearm from a North Carolina police dog.
     I lifted my head out of my hands and gave myself a strict talking-to.
     "Sort yourself out, dickhead! Get a grip. Get yourself out of this ..."
     I  had to  cut away, just like  I'd learnt to  do as a  kid. No one was
coming to help me deal with the night monster; I had to get on with it on my
own.
     I cleared my nostrils of mucus, and it  was only then that I realized I
must have been crying.
     Hauling myself to my feet I pulled  out the washing and shaving kit and
got to work. After I'd cleaned myself up I stayed in the cubicle for another
ten minutes, using my old clothes to dry myself. I threw on my new jeans and
sweatshirt; the  only old things I put  back on were  my Timberlands, bomber
jacket and belt.
     I left everything else in the shower they could have that as my leaving
present   and  walked  back  along  the  corridor.  Through  his  open  door
whatever-his-name-was had finished gob bing off about God and collapsed face
down on his urine-stained bed. A bit further on, I passed the closed door to
my old cell-like room. I'd only  left the  previous Saturday  but it already
had  a new occupant; I could hear a radio being tuned in. He,  too, probably
had his  carton of  milk out  on  the sill of the narrow window. We all  did
well, the ones who had a kettle.
     I made my  way down the stairs, brushing my  hair back with  my fingers
and regaining some composure.
     Down  in the reception area, I picked up the wall-mounted phone, shoved
in  six and a half quid's worth of coins, and started dialling  Josh, trying
desperately to think of an excuse  for calling  him so early. The east coast
of the US was five hours behind.
     The distinctive tone rang  just twice before  I heard a sleepy American
grunt.
     "Yeah?"
     "Josh, it's me,  Nick." I  hoped  he  wouldn't notice the tremor in  my
voice.
     "What do you want, Nick? It's just after six."
     I covered the other ear to  cut  out some young guy who  needed help up
the  stairs  from  an old  drunk  as  he staggered  about  with  glazed  and
drugged-out eyes. I'd seen them both before: the old guy was his father, who
also lived in.
     "I  know, I'm sorry, mate.  It's just that  I can't make  it until next
Tuesday and
     I-'
     There  was a loud  sigh. He'd heard my I-can't-make-it routine  so many
times  before. He knew nothing of my situation, he knew nothing of what  had
been going on this last few  months. All he'd seen of me  was  the  money  I
sent.
     "Look, I know, mate, I'm sorry, I really can't make it."
     The  earpiece barked: "Why can't  you  get  your life in good order? We
arranged this  Tuesday  that's tomorrow, man. She's got her heart set on it.
She loves you so much, man, so much -don't you get it? You can't just breeze
in and-' I knew what  he was  going to say  and  cut in,  almost begging, "I
know, I know. I'm sorry .. ." I  knew  where the conversation was going  and
also knew that he was right in taking it there.
     "Please, Josh can I talk with her?"
     If He lost his cool for once and went ballistic.
     "No!"
     "I-.."
     It was too late; he'd hung up.
     I  slumped down on a plastic  stack able chair, staring at  one of  the
notice boards telling people what and what not to do, and how to do it.
     "You OK, darling?"
     I looked across at Maureen,  the other side of the reception. She waved
me over, sounding like an older sister, I supposed.
     "You look fed up. Come and have a chat, come on, darling."
     My mind was elsewhere as I  approached the hole in  the wall  that gave
access  of a kind to her desk. It was  at head height.  Anything bigger  and
lower  and she  wouldn't  have  had  any protection from the  drunks and the
drugged-up who had a problem with the house rules.
     "Been a bad call to that little girl of yours?"
     "What?"
     "You keep  yourself  to  yourself, but  I see things  from this  little
cubbyhole, you know. I've heard you on the phone,  coming off more depressed
than when you went  on. I don't just buzz the door open, you know!" She gave
a loud roar as I smiled and acknowledged her attempt to cheer me up.
     "Was it a bad one, darling? You
     OK?"
     It was all right."
     "That's  good,  I'm glad. You know, I've watched you come in and out of
here,  looking so  sad. I reckoned  it was a divorce1 can normally  tell. It
must  be hard  not  seeing your little 'un.  I  was just  worried about you,
that's all, darling."
     "No need, Maureen, things are OK, really."
     She tutted in agreement.
     "Good ...  good,  but,  you  know, things normally-' Her  attention was
drawn momentarily to the staircase. Kosovans or whoever had started shouting
angrily at each other on one  of the upper landings. She shrugged  at me and
grinned.
     "Well, let's just say things have a way of sorting themselves out. I've
seen that look of  yours  in  here before. And I tell them all the same, and
I'm always right. Things can only get better, you'll see."
     At that moment a fight erupted above us somewhere and a
     Nike  sports  bag  tumbled  down  the  stairs,  soon  followed  by  its
tobacco-selling owner  in  a  brown V-neck  jumper and  white socks. Maureen
reached for her two-way radio as a couple of  guys jumped down after him and
started giving  the boy a good kicking. Maureen talked into her radio with a
calm assurance that only comes from years of experience.
     I leant  against the wall as a couple more tobacco-sellers appeared and
tried to stop the fight.
     Within  minutes,  sirens  were  wailing  in the  distance,  and getting
louder. Maureen hit the door buzzer and tobacco-sellers bomb-burst back into
the  hostel,  bags in hand, thinking  they were  getting raided,  running to
their  rooms  to  hide  their stashes and leaving  the  boys from Manchester
outside to fend for themselves.
     Close behind them, four police officers pushed their way in to sort out
the fracas.
     I checked  Baby-G, a new black one with purple illumination. Over three
hours to go  before pick-up, and there was nothing I wanted to  do. I didn't
want to eat, didn't want to  drink, didn't even want to just sit around, and
I certainly didn't want Maureen gazing into my soul,  no  matter how helpful
she was trying to be.  She  knew too much already.  So I started heading out
towards the street, nodding my thanks. Even in a time of crisis  she gave me
a second of her time.
     "You need to  stop worrying,  Nick. Worrying too much affects this, you
know." She tapped the side of her forehead with her index finger.
     "I've seen enough of that in here to know, darling."
     One  of the phones rang  behind her  as the scuffle  continued  at  the
bottom of the stairs.
     "Got to go, luv. I hope things work out  for you they normally  do, you
know. Good luck, darling."
     Once outside,  the  noise  of  the  construction site  drowned  out the
shouting.  I slouched  on  the  steps, staring at  the  paving slabs as  the
fighters were dragged  away, their angry  voices lost  amongst  the  roar of
pneumatic drills.
     On  the dot of 3 p.m. the Merc cruised past and found  a  space further
down the road. Trainers was at the wheel and Sundance next to him. They left
the engine running.
     I unstuck my very numb arse  from the steps and  dragged myself towards
them. They were dressed in the  same  clothes as this morning,  and drinking
coffee out of paper cups. I took my  time not to make them wait, but because
my body couldn't move any quicker, just like my mind.
     They gave  me no acknowledgement as I got into the  back  and they  put
their seatbelts back on.
     Sundance  threw a  brown envelope over his shoulder  at me  as we drove
off.
     "I've  already taken five hundred out of  the  account, so don't bother
trying again today. That covers the eighty-five sub plus interest."
     They grinned at each other. The job had its compensations.
     My new  passport and  credit  card were  hot off the press but  looking
suitably aged, along with my  new  PIN  number and  open-return air  ticket,
leaving Miami to Panama City, 7.05 a.m. tomorrow. How I got to Miami by then
didn't bother me I'd be told soon enough.
     I flicked through my visas  so I knew that I'd been on holiday  for two
weeks  in Morocco in July.  The stamps were all related to the truth  I  had
been there, just not as recently. But at least it meant I could bluff my way
through  a routine check at  Immigration and  Customs. The rest  of my cover
story would be the same as ever, just travelling after a boring life selling
insurance; I had done most  of Europe, now I  wanted to  see the rest of the
world.
     I  still wasn't impressed by my cover name, though.  Hoff why  Hoff? It
didn't sound right. Nick Hoff, Nick Hoff. It didn't even start with the same
letter  as  my real  surname,  so  it was difficult not to  get confused and
hesitant  when signing  a  signature.  Hoff sounded unnatural: if  you  were
called Hoff,  you wouldn't christen your son  Nicholas unless you  wanted to
give him  a tough time at school: it  sounded  like  someone with  a  speech
impediment saying 'knickers off.
     Sundance didn't ask for a signature, and that bothered me. I got pissed
off with bullshit when it was official, but even more so when it wasn't.
     "What about my CA?" I asked.
     "Can I call them?"
     Sundance didn't bother to look round as we bumped along in the traffic.
     "It's already done." He  dipped  into his jeans and brought out a scrap
of paper.
     "The new mini  roundabout has been built at last, but everyone is still
waiting  on the decision about the bypass. That comes through some time next
month."
     I nodded; it  was an update on the local news from what the Yes Man had
renamed the Cover Address. James  and Rosemary had loved me like a son since
I  boarded  with  them years  ago, or so the cover story went. I even had  a
bedroom there, and some clothes in the wardrobe.
     These were the people who would both confirm my cover story and be part
of it.
     They'd never take  any action on my  behalf, but would back me up if  I
needed them to.
     "That's where I live," I could tell whoever was questioning me.
     "Phone them, ask them."
     I visited  James  and Rosemary  whenever I could,  so my cover  had 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 a bit of
other local  and personal stuff. I  needed to know  these things  because  I
would do if I lived there all the time. I hadn't wanted to use them for  the
sniper job, because that would  have meant the Firm knowing  the name  I was
travelling under, and where to.
     As things had turned out, it looked as if I'd been right.
     Sundance started to tell me how I was going to make it to Miami in time
for my flight to  Panama. The Yes Man hadn't hung about. Within four hours I
was going to be lying  in a sleeping  bag on top of  some crates of military
kit stuffed into an R.A.F  Tristar, leaving R.A.F Brize Norton, near Oxford,
for Fort Campbell in Kentucky, where a  Jock infantry battalion was having a
joint exercise with the 101st Airborne Division "Screaming Eagles'. They had
given  up their  parachutes  years  ago  and  now  screamed around  in  more
helicopters than nearly all of the European armies put  together. There were
no commercial flights  this time of day that would get  me where I needed to
be by tomorrow morning;  this was the only way. I  was getting kicked off in
Florida, and a US visa waiver would be  stamped in my passport at the Marine
base. I then had three hours in which to transfer  to Miami airport and make
the flight to Panama.
     Sundance growled as he looked out at two women waiting for a bus.
     "Once you get there you are being sponsored by two doctors." He glanced
at his notes again.
     "Carrie and Aaron Yanklewitz. Fucking stupid name."
     He looked at Trainers, who nodded  in agreement before getting  back to
the scrap of paper.
     There will be no contact with  Mr. Frampton  or anyone here. Everything
to, or from, is via their handler."
     I  wondered  if  there  was just a  faint chance  the Yanklewitzes were
Polish Americans. My head was pressed against  the window as I gazed  out at
real life passing me by.
     "Are you listening, fuckhead?"
     I looked  in the  rear-view  mirror  and  could  see him, waiting for a
reply. I nodded.
     They'll  be  at  the airport  with a  name card  and a  pass number  of
thirteen. You got that? Thirteen."
     I nodded once more, this time not bothering to look at him.
     They'll show you the  wee boy's house, and should have all the  imagery
and stuff by the time you  get there. They don't know what your job is.  But
we do, don't we, boy?" He swivelled round to face me  as I continued to gaze
at nothing in particular, not feeling anything, just numb.
     "And that's  to finish the job, isn't it?" He jabbed the air between us
with his forefinger as he spoke.
     "You're going to finish what you were paid to do. And it's going  to be
done by Friday, last light. Do you understand, Stone? Finish it."
     I felt more depressed and pissed off each time the job was mentioned.
     "I'd be lost without you."
     Sundance's  finger and thumb jabbed  the air again  as he made  not too
good a job of containing his rage.
     "Kill the fucking boy." He spat the words and flecks of saliva showered
on to my face.
     I  got the feeling  everyone  was under pressure in this car, and I bet
that  was because the  Yes Man was himself.  I wondered if C  had been  told
about  my security blanket  or had  the Yes Man  decided to claim  that  the
'scuppering' was down to bad com ms After  all, that  was what I'd told him,
wasn't it? I couldn't remember now.
     The Yes Man  had probably told C that  good old  Stone whom  C wouldn't
know if I fell out of  the  sky and landed on his head -was on the case, and
everything was going to be just fine. But I had the sneaking suspicion I was
only going to  Panama instead of Beachy  Head  because I was the only one on
the books soft enough in the head to try to pull it off.
     As we joined the A40 out of London and  headed for  Brize, I  tried  to
focus  on  the  job. I needed to fill  my head  with work instead of woe. At
least  that  was  the  theory.  But it  was easier said  than  done.  I  was
penniless.  I'd sold the  Ducati, the house in  Norfolk, even the furniture,
everything apart  from what I  could  shove  into  a sports  bag, to pay for
Kelly's  treatment. Twenty-four-hour  private care in  leafy  Hampstead  and
regular trips to the Moorings had cleaned me out.
     Walking  away from the Norfolk house  for  the last  time, I'd felt the
same trepidation I  had as a  sixteen-year-old walking away from the housing
estate to join the Army. Back then, I hadn't had a sports bag, but a pair of
holed socks, a still-wrapped bar of Wright's Coal Tar soap, and one very old
toothbrush in a Co-op plastic carrier. I planned to buy the toothpaste on my
first pay day, not knowing when exactly that was, or how much I was going to
get.  I hadn't  really cared, because however bad the Army might be, it  was
getting  me out  of a life  of correction  centres and  a stepfather who had
graduated from slaps to punches.
     Since March,  the start of Kelly's therapy, I hadn't been able to work.
And  with no national insurance number, no record of employment  not so much
as a postcard  to prove my existence  after  leaving the Regiment I couldn't
even claim the dole or income support. The Firm wasn't  going to help: I was
deniable.
     And no one  at  Vauxhall Cross wants to know you if you  aren't able to
work, or if there isn't any to give you.
     For the  first month or so of her sessions I'd done the bed sit shuffle
around  London if I  was lucky,  being able  to do  a  runner  whenever  the
landlord  was  stupid enough not to  ask for money up front. Then, with  the
help of  Nick Somerhurst's national  insurance  number  bought  in  the Good
Mixer,  I was able to get a place  in  the hostel, lining up at mealtimes by
the Hari Krishna van, just outside the Mecca bingo hall.  It had also got me
the Somerhurst passport and  supporting documents. I didn't want to have the
Yes Man tracking me with docs from the Firm.
     I couldn't help smiling as I remembered one of the Krishna gang, Peter,
a young guy who always had a grin on his face. He had a shaved head and skin
so pale he looked as if he  should have been dead, but I  soon discovered he
was  very much  alive. Dressed  in  his  rusty red robes, hand  knitted blue
cardigan,  and  a multicoloured woolly hat, he used to  run about inside the
rusty white Mercedes van, pouring tea, dishing out great  curries and bread,
doing the Krishna rap.
     "Yo, Nick! Krishnaaa, Krishnaaaa, Krishnaaaa. Yo!
     Hari rammaaaaa." I never felt  quite up to joining  in, though  some of
the others did, especially the drunks. As he danced about inside the van the
tea would  spill  and the odd slice of bread would fall off the paper plate,
but it was still much appreciated.
     I  went on staring out of the  window,  cocooned in my own little rusty
world while the other one passed me by on the street.
     The A40 opened  up into motorway and Sundance decided it was time for a
bit of a performance.
     "You know what?" He looked over at Trainers, making sure I could hear.
     Trainers swung into the outside  lane  at the same time as passing  his
tobacco to Sundance.
     "What's that, then?"
     "I wouldn't mind a trip to Maryland ... We  could go  to Washington and
do the sights first..."
     I  knew  what they  were trying to do to me and I continued to stare at
the hard shoulder.
     Trainers was sounding enthusiastic.
     "It'd be good craze, I'm telling yer."
     Sundance finished licking the Rizla before answering.
     "Aye, it would. I hear Laurel..." He turned to face me.
     "That's where she lives now, isn't it?"
     I didn't answer. He knew very well it was. Sundance turned back to face
the road.
     "Well, I hear  it's very picturesque there -you  know,  trees and grass
and all that shite. Anyway,  after we finished up there in Laurel, you could
take me to see that half-sister of yours in New York .. ."
     "No fucking way you're getting near her!"
     I had a terrible feeling in the pit of  my stomach  and had to  breathe
out  quickly as I  thought  about what might happen if I  didn't get the job
done.  But  I was fucked if I was going to play their game.  Besides, I  was
just too tired to react.
     Just over an hour later  the  Merc  pulled up outside the  air movement
centre at Brize, and Trainers got out to organize the next stage of my life.
     Nothing  was  said  in the  car  as  I  listened to the roar  of  R.A.F
transport  jets  taking  off  and  watched  soldiers  from  the  Argyll  and
Sutherland  Highlanders wander past in  DPM camouflage,  berg ens  on  their
backs and Walkmans clamped to their ears. It was  like going back in time. I
felt I'd spent half  my military life at this airfield,  because  as well as
loading up for flights on a regular basis, just like the Highlanders,  I had
learnt to parachute here. I'd loved it:
     after being  stationed in a  garrison town with only  three pubs one of
which was out of bounds to low-life  like me and a chip shop, this place had
been Butlins. They even had a bowling alley.
     I watched as a captain herded the trogs through the doors, ticking them
off on a clipboard as they passed into the large 1960s glass building.
     Trainers  came  back with  a nervous-looking Crab Air (R.A.F) movements
corporal. He probably didn't have a clue what was going on, just that he had
to escort  some pissed-off looking civilian on  to one of his nice aircraft.
He was  told to wait  short of the car as  Trainers came and opened the rear
kerb  side  door. I could only  see him  from the  chest  down as  his  hand
beckoned me out.
     As I shuffled my arse across the seat, Sundance called out, "Oil"
     I waited, looking at the foot well
     "Don't fuck up, boy."
     I nodded:  after  our  little  talk on the way here, and the  Yes Man's
lecture earlier, I'd got the message. I climbed out and nodded a greeting to
the Crab corporal.
     We'd only gone a few paces when Sundance called to me yet again. I went
back and poked my head through the rear door, which Trainers had kept  open.
The roar of a transport jet made him shout and me move back into the car, my
knees on the seat. 'I forgot to ask, how  is that  wain of yours? I hear you
two were going to the fruit farm before she left. Little soft in the head as
well, is she?"
     I couldn't hold it any longer: my body started to tremble.
     He grinned,  having got from me at last what  he'd been gunning for all
trip.
     "Maybe  if you fuck up  it'd be a good thing for the wee one you  know,
we'd be doing her a favour."
     He was  enjoying every moment of this. I tried to remain calm,  but  it
wasn't working. He could see me boiling underneath.
     "Hurts, eh?"
     I did my best not to react.
     "So, boy, just fuck off out of my face, and get it right this time."
     Fuck it.
     I  launched myself forward off my knees and gripped his head with  both
hands. In one  movement I put my head down and pulled  his face hard towards
the top of my crown. I made contact and it hurt, making me dizzy.
     Once outside I threw both my arms up in surrender.
     "It's OK, it's OK..."
     I opened my  eyes fully and looked in at Sundance. He was sunk into the
seat, hands covering his nose, blood  running between his fingers. I started
towards the  Crab,  feeling  a lot  better as  another  bunch of Highlanders
walked past, trying not to take too much notice of what was going on.
     Trainers looked as if  he was  trying to decide  whether to  drop me or
not. He still hadn't made up  his mind as I virtually pushed the  frightened
Crab into the building with me.
     Fuck 'em, what did I have to lose?
     NINE
     Tuesday  5 September I ease  the pistol into my waistband, my wet palms
sliding over the pistol grip.
     If  she's here I  don't want her  to see the weapon. Maybe she  already
knows what's  happened ... I put my mouth against  a little gap  between the
boxes.
     "Kelly, you there?  It's me, Nick. Don't be scared,  I'm going to crawl
towards you. You'll  see my head in  a minute and I want to see a  big smile
..."
     I  move boxes and  squeeze through  the  gap, inching towards the  back
wall.
     "I'm going to put my head around the corner now, Kelly."
     I  take  a deep breath and  move my head around  the  back  of the box,
smiling away but ready for the worst as sweat pours down my face.
     She is there, facing me, eyes wide with terror, sitting, curled up in a
foetal position, rocking her body backwards and forwards, holding  her hands
over her ears, looking so vulnerable and helpless.
     "Hello."
     She  recognizes  me,  but just carries on rocking, staring at  me  with
wide, wet, scared eyes.
     "Mummy and Daddy can't come and get you just now, but you can come with
me.
     Daddy told me it would be OK. Are you going to come with me, Kelly? Are
you?"
     "Sir, sir?" I opened my eyes to see a very concerned flight attendant.
     "You
     OK, sir? Can I get you some water or something?"
     My sweaty palms slid on the  armrests as I pushed myself upright  in my
seat. She poured from a litre bottle into a plastic glass.
     "Could I take the bottle, please?"
     It was handed to  me with an anxious smile and I thanked her, taking it
in a shaking, wet  hand before getting it rapidly down  my neck. I wiped  my
sweaty face with my spare hand. It had been part of the same  bad  dream I'd
had  on  the  Tristar.  Shit,  I must  be  really  knackered.  I peeled  the
sweatshirt from my skin and sorted myself out.
     We had just hit  cruising  altitude on  the  four-and-a-bit-hour flight
from Miami to  Panama  City,  scheduled to land at about 11.40  a.m.  local,
which was the same time zone  as the US east coast and five hours behind the
UK. My window seat was next to Central America's most  antisocial citizen, a
mid-thirties Latino woman with big hair and lots of stiff lacquer to keep it
that way. I doubted her skull could even  touch the headrest, the stuff  was
on so  thick. She was dressed  in PVC,  leather-look, spray-on jeans  and  a
denim-style jacket patterned with black and silver tiger stripes, and stared
at me in disgust, sucking her teeth, as I sorted myself out and  downed  the
last of the water.
     It was  her turn to get her head down now  as  I read the tourist-guide
pages in the  inflight magazine. I always found them invaluable for  getting
an idea of wherever I was going on fast-balls like this.  Besides, it got me
away from the other stuff  in my  head, and into thinking about the job, the
mission, what I was here for. I'd tried to buy a proper guide book to Panama
in Miami  airport, but  it seemed  there wasn't much  call for that  sort of
thing.
     The magazine  showed  wonderful pictures of  exotic  birds and  smiling
Indian  children in canoes, and  stuff I already knew but wouldn't have been
able to put so eloquently.
     "Panama  is the most southern of the Central American countries, making
the  long, narrow country  the  umbilical cord  joining  South  and  Central
America. It is in the shape  of an S bordered on  the west by Costa Rica, on
the east by Colombia, and has roughly the same land mass as Ireland."
     It went on to say  that  most people, and that included myself until my
days  in  Colombia, thought  that  Panama's  land  boundaries were north and
south.  That was wrong: the country runs west to  east. Facts like that were
important to me if I had to leave in a hurry. I wouldn't want to find myself
heading  for Colombia by mistake;  out of the frying pan  and into the fire.
The  only  way  to go was  west, to  Costa Rica, the  land of  cheap plastic
surgery and diving holidays. I knew that, because I'd read it in the waiting
room of the Moorings.
     Tiger Lil had  fallen asleep and  was snoring big-time, twisting in her
seat,  and farting every minute or so. I unscrewed both the air-conditioning
tubes above us and aimed them in her direction to try to divert the smell.
     The three pages of bumf and pictures went on to tell me that Panama was
best  known internationally for  its canal,  joining  the Caribbean  and the
Pacific,  and its 'vibrant banking services'. Then just  a few more pictures
of colourful flowers, with captions  reminding us what  a wonderful place it
was  and how lucky we all were to  be flying  there today. Not surprisingly,
they didn't  say anything about Operation Just Cause the US invasion in  '89
to oust  General  Noriega,  or the drug trafficking that  makes  the banking
system so vibrant.
     All  the wonderful  places  listed  to visit were exclusively  west  of
Panama City, which was called in here 'the  interior'. There was no  mention
at all  about what lay to  the east, especially the Darien Gap,  the  jungle
area bordering Colombia. I knew that Darien Province is like a low-intensity
war zone. Narco traffickers and  guerrillas usually  one and the same  thing
move in big groups between  the two countries, armed to the teeth. There are
even a few DMPs as the locals try to cash in on the industry, and Panamanian
border  police  buzz around  the  sky in  helicopter gunships,  locked in  a
conflict they will never win.
     Some adventurous types travel down there to bird-watch or hunt for rare
orchids,  and  become  hostages or dead after stumbling  across  things  the
traffickers would have preferred they hadn't.
     I  also knew that the narcos,  especially PARC, had been  getting  more
adventurous now that  the  US had stood  down from  Panama. They were making
incursions  further  west into  the country, and  with  only about 150 miles
between the  Colombian border and  Panama City, I  bet everyone was flapping
big-time.
     After flicking though the  rest of the mag and  not finding anything of
interest, just glossy ads, I used it to fan my face as Tiger Lil farted  and
grunted once more.
     Looking down at the endless blue of the Caribbean sea, I thought  about
yesterday's call to Josh. He'd been right to fuck me off;  it was  maybe the
eighth or ninth time I'd done it to him. Kelly did need stability and  an as
normal-as-possible  upbringing. That was  precisely  why  she was there with
him,   and  the  not-calling-when-I-should,  calling-when-I-shouldn't  thing
wasn't helping her at all.
     I should  have been there today to sign  over my guardianship of  Kelly
completely  to  him,   to   change   the  present   arrangement   of   joint
responsibility. In  her  father's will,  Josh  and I had both  been named as
guardians,  but  I was the  one  who'd landed up with  her. I  couldn't even
remember how that had come about, it just sort of had.
     Food was being served and I  tried to extract my tray from the armrest.
It was proving difficult as Tiger  Lil had overflowed her own space. I shook
her  gently and she opened one blurry eye before turning over as if I was to
blame.
     My food  turned up in its  prepacked  tray and made me think of  Peter,
getting all the doss-house boys rapping, "Krishna, yo! Krishna, yo! Krishna,
yo! Hari rama."
     I peeled back the foil to see a breakfast of pasta. Wielding a fork and
moving my arms very carefully so as not to stir up my new friend, I  decided
to make  a donation  to  those Krishna boys  if  ever I got  back alive. The
thought about Peter surprised me; it had popped up out of nowhere like a lot
of other stuff lately. I wanted to get  back in the comfort  zone of work as
quickly  as possible,  and  cut away from  that  stuff before I found myself
joining the Caravan Club.
     As I threw pasta down  my neck, I  got  thinking about  the job and the
little information Sundance had given me.  The pass number for the meet with
Aaron and Carrie Yanklewitz was thirteen. The system is easy and works well.
Numbers are far better than confirmation  statements because  they're easier
to remember.  I once had a  confirmation statement that went,  The  count is
having kippers with  your mother tonight and I was supposed to  reply,  "The
kippers are restless." Who the fuck made that one up?
     Pass numbers are  also especially good for people who aren't trained in
tradecraft or, like me, are crap at remembering confirmation statements. For
all I knew  these  people  could be  either.  I didn't  know  if  they  were
experienced operators who knew how to conduct themselves on the ground, just
contacts who were going to help me out with bed and breakfast, or big-timers
who couldn't keep their mouths shut.
     I didn't like  anyone else being involved in  anything I did,  but this
time I had no  choice. I didn't know where the  target lived or the target's
routine, and I didn't have a whole lot of time to find out.
     After eating I sat back and pushed myself against  the seat to relax my
sore  stomach  muscles. Pain  shot  across  my  ribcage  to give me  further
reminders of the strength and endurance of Caterpillar boots.
     Trying to relieve the pain in my chest as  I moved, I faced slowly away
from Tiger  Lil  and lowered the  window  blind. Below me  green jungle  now
stretched as far as the horizon, looking from this altitude like the world's
biggest broccoli patch.
     I pulled the blanket over my head to cut out the smell.
     TEN
     The flight touched down ten minutes early, at eleven thirty local time.
One of the first off, I followed the signs  for baggage reclaim and Customs,
past banks of chrome and brown leatherette seating.
     After  three hours of air-conditioning, the heat hit me like a wall. In
my hand were the two forms we'd been given  to fill in on the aircraft,  one
for Immigration, one for Customs. Mine said  that  Nick Hoff was  staying at
the Marriott there is always a Marriott.
     Apart from the clothes I  stood  up  in  jeans,  sweatshirt  and bomber
jacket the only items I  had with me were my passport and  wallet containing
five  hundred US  dollars. It  had  come from an  ATM  in Miami  departures,
courtesy of my new Royal Bank of Scotland Visa card in my crap cover name.
     Feeling like one  of the Camden  lot, I'd looked at myself in  a toilet
mirror:
     sleep  creases all over  my face and hair  sticking  up like  the  lead
singer in an in die band.
     I needn't have worried. Passing through Immigration turned out to be  a
breeze, even without any luggage. I just handed over my  declaration form to
a bored, middle-aged man and he waved me through: I guessed they'd hardly be
on the lookout for anyone trying to smuggle drugs into Central America.
     I also shot through Customs, because  all I had was  nothing.  I should
really have bought a piece  of hand luggage in Miami  to look normal, but my
head must have been elsewhere. Not that it mattered; the Panamanian  Customs
boys were obviously in the same place.
     I headed towards the exit, fitting my new Leatherman on to my belt. I'd
bought it  in Miami to replace  the  one  Sundance  had nicked from  me, and
airport security had taken  it off me and packed it into a Jiffy-bag in case
I tried to  use  it to hijack the plane.  I'd had  to  collect it  from  the
luggage service desk when we landed.
     The  small arrivals  area  was  hosting the  noise-and-crush  Olympics.
Spanish  voices hollered,  Tannoys  barked,  babies cried, mobiles rang with
every tune known to man. Steel barriers funnelled me deeper into the hall. I
walked  on, scanning the faces of waiting families and  taxi  drivers,  some
holding up  name  cards.  Women outnumbered men,  either very skinny or very
overweight but not much in between.
     Many held bunches of flowers, and screaming two-year-olds mountaineered
all  over  them. Three  or four deep against the barriers, they  looked like
fans at a Ricky Martin concert.
     At last, amongst the surge of people, I spotted a  square foot of white
card with  the name Tanklewitz' in capitals in marker  pen.  The long-haired
man holding  it looked  different  from  the clean-cut CIA operator I'd been
expecting. He was slim, about my height, maybe five ten, and probably in his
mid- to late fifties.
     He  was dressed in khaki shorts and a matching photographer's waistcoat
that  looked  as if  it doubled  as a  han drag  at the  local  garage.  His
salt-and-pepper hair was tied back in a  ponytail,  away from a  tanned face
that had a few days' silver growth. His face looked worn: life had obviously
been chewing on it.
     I walked straight past  him to the end of the barrier,  wanting to tune
in to the place first, and watch this  man for a while before  I gave myself
over to  him. I carried on  towards the  glass wall and  sliding  exit doors
about ten metres ahead.
     Beyond them was a car park, where blinding sunlight  bounced off scores
of windscreens. The Flying  Dogs hot dog and nacho stall to the left of  the
doors seemed  as good a  place as any to stop; I leant against the glass and
watched my contact getting pushed and shoved in the melee.
     Aaron1 presumed  it was him  was trying to check every new male arrival
who  emerged  from Customs, whilst also checking every few seconds  that the
name card  was the right  way up before trying to thrust it above  the crowd
once more. The  taxi drivers were old hands at this  game  and  were able to
stand their ground, but Aaron kept being buffeted by the surge of bodies. If
this had been the January sales, he'd  have  come  away  with  a pair of odd
socks.
     Now and again  I  caught sight of his  tanned, hairless legs. They were
muscular  and scratched around  the calves, and the soles  of his  feet were
covered by old  leather  Jesus sandals, not the more usual sports ones. This
wasn't holiday attire, that was for sure. He looked more  like a farmhand or
hippie throwback than any kind of doctor.
     As I watched  and tuned in, Tiger Lil burst into the  hall, heaving  an
enormous squeaky-wheeled  suitcase  behind her. She screamed in unison  with
two  equally large black  women as they jumped all over each  other, kissing
and cuddling.
     The arrivals area was packed with food and drink  stalls, all producing
their own smells that bounced  off the low ceiling and had nowhere to escape
to. Brightly  dressed Latinos, blacks, whites and  Chinese all clamoured  to
outdo each other  in the loudest shout competition. My guess was that  Aaron
would lose  that as well as the keep-your-place-in-the-crowd contest. He was
still bobbing around like a cork on a stormy sea.
     The air-conditioning  might  have been working, but not well  enough to
handle  the  heat  of  so  many  bodies.  The  stone  floor  was   wet  with
condensation,  as if it had just been mopped, and  the  bottom foot or so of
the glass wall was fogged with moisture. The heat was already getting to me.
I felt sweat leak from my greasy skin and my  eyes were stinging. Taking off
my jacket, I leant against the glass once more, my clammy arm sticking to my
sweatshirt.
     A group of five stony-faced policemen hovered about in severely pressed
khaki trousers and badge-festooned,  short-sleeved shirts. They  looked very
macho with their hands resting  on their holstered pistols  and feet tapping
in black patent leather shoes.  Apart from that, the only things moving were
their  peaked hats as they checked out  three tight-jeaned  and  high heeled
Latino women passing by
     Sitting on a  bench to  the left of the  policemen was the only  person
here who wasn't sweating and out of control. A thirty something white woman,
she looked like GI Jane, with short  hair, green fatigue  cargos and a baggy
grey vest  that came high up her neck.  She  still had her sunglasses on and
her hands were wrapped around a can of Pepsi.
     Two things struck  me  as I looked around the  hall. The first was that
virtually everybody seemed to have a  mobile on their belt or in their hand.
The  other  was  the  men's  shirts.  Like  the  police uniforms,  they were
dramatically pressed and  the arm crease went all the  way over the shoulder
and up to the collar. Maybe there was only one laundry in town.
     After about  a quarter of an hour the crowd was thinning as the last of
the  loved  ones trickled through  and  the taxi fares got  picked  up. Calm
descended, but probably only until the next flight arrived.
     Aaron was now  in my direct line of  sight, standing with the remaining
few still waiting at the barrier.  Under his dirty waistcoat he  had a faded
blue T-shirt with some barely readable Spanish on the front. I watched as he
held up his card  to the last few passengers, even leaning over the barrier,
straining to read the flight numbers on their luggage tags.
     It  was now time to cut  away from everything else going  on in my head
except work, the mission. I hated  that word, it sounded far too Army, but I
was going to use it to keep my head where it should be.
     I  had one  last  check around  the  hall  for  anything  unusual, then
realized that  everything  I saw fell into that category: the whole arrivals
area looked like a dodgy-characters convention. I started my approach.
     I must have been about three steps away from his  back as he thrust his
card  under the nose of an American business suit pulling his  bag on wheels
behind him.
     "Mr. Yanklewitz?"
     He spun  round, holding the  card against his chest like a schoolboy in
show-and tell  He had bloodshot but very blue eyes,  sunk  into deep  crow's
feet.
     I was supposed  to  let him  initiate conversation  with  a story  that
involved a number,  something like, "Oh, I hear you have ten bags with you?"
to which I would say,  "No, I have three', that sort  of thing. But I really
couldn't be bothered: I was hot, tired, and I wanted to get on.
     "Seven."
     "Oh, that  would make  me  six  then,  I  guess."  He sounded  a little
disappointed. He'd probably  been  working on his  story  all morning. |l  I
smiled. There was an  expectant pause: I was waiting for him to tell me what
to do next.
     "Er, OK, shall we go, then?" His accent was soft, educated American.
     "Unless of course you want to-' I don't want to do anything, apart from
go with you."
     "OK. Please, this way."
     We started towards the exit and I fell into step on his left. He folded
the card as he went, moving  faster than  I'd have  liked.  I didn't want us
looking unnatural but, then, what was I worrying about in this madhouse?
     On the other side of the automatic exit  doors was the service road for
drop-offs  and pick-ups. Beyond that was the car park, and in the  distance,
under a brilliant blue sky, were lush green rugged  mountains. Out there was
virgin ground to me, and unless  I had no choice, I never liked entering the
unknown with out having a look first.
     "Where are we going?"
     I  was still checking out the car park. I didn't know if he was looking
at me or not as he answered, in a very low voice, "That kinda depends on, er
... my wife is-' That's Carrie, right?"
     'Yes, Carrie."
     I'd forgotten to introduce myself.
     "Do you know my name?"
     Out  of  the  corner of my eye,  I saw his  head turn towards me, so  I
turned as well. His blue eyes seemed jumpy, and focused slightly to one side
of mine.
     "No, but if  you don't want to tell me, that's fine.  Whatever you feel
safe with, whatever is best for you."
     He didn't look scared, but  was definitely ill-at-ease. Maybe  he could
smell the fuck-up value on me.
     I stopped and held out my hand.
     "Nick." Better to be friendly  to the help  rather than  alienate them:
you get better  results that way. It  was a  small lesson the  Yes Man could
have done with taking on board.
     There was an embarrassed smile from  him, displaying a not-too-good set
of teeth, discoloured by too much coffee or tobacco. He held out his hand.
     "Aaron. Pleased to meet you, Nick."
     It was a very large hand  with hard skin, but the handshake was gentle.
Small scars covered  its surface; he was no pen-pusher. His nails were dirty
and jagged, and there was a dull gold wedding band and a multicoloured kids'
Swatch on his left.
     "Well, Aaron, as  you can see,  I haven't  packed for a long stay. I'll
just get  my job done and be out of the way by Friday. I'll  try not to be a
pain in the arse while I'm here. How does that sound?"
     His embarrassed grin gave me the feeling that  it sounded good  on both
counts.
     Still, he was generous in his reply.
     "Hey, no problem.  You did kinda throw me, you know. I wasn't expecting
an English guy."
     I smiled and leant forward to tell him a secret.
     "Actually I'm American, it's a disguise."
     There was a pause as he searched my eyes.
     "Joke, right?"
     I nodded, hoping it would break the ice a bit.
     "I was expecting to see Carrie as well."
     He pointed behind me.
     "She's right here."
     I turned to see GI Jane approaching us. She greeted me with a smile and
an out thrust hand.
     "Hi, I'm Carrie."
     Her hair was dark, cut into the nape of her neck. She was maybe mid- to
late  thirties  just a few years younger than me.  There  were  a few  lines
coming from behind the lenses of her dark glasses, and small  creases in the
side of her mouth as she spoke.
     I shook her firm hand.
     "I'm Nick. Finished your Pepsi, then?"  I didn't know  if she'd seen me
waiting, not that it really mattered.
     "Sure,  it  was  good." Her manner  was brisk, sort of  aggressive, and
wouldn't have been out of place on Wall Street. Like Aaron's,  her voice was
educated  but then, anyone who  pronounced their aitches sounded educated to
me.
     She stood by Aaron and  they certainly made an unusual  pair. Maybe I'd
got this wrong.  Maybe they were father  and  daughter. He had a  slight pot
belly  and showed his age; she had  a body that was  well toned  and  looked
after.
     People poured  in  and  out. The sound of  aircraft and a  gust of heat
enveloped us each time the doors slid open.
     Carrie shrugged.
     "What happens now?"
     They were waiting for instructions.
     "You haven't done this before, have you?"
     Aaron shook his head.
     "First  time. All we know  is  that we pick you up and  you tell us the
rest."
     "OK do you have any imagery yet?"
     She nodded.
     "It's  satellite,  I  pulled  it  off the  web last night.  It's at the
house."
     "How far away is that?"
     "If the rain holds off, four hours maybe.  If not, anything over  five.
We're talking boondocks."
     "How far to the other guy's house?"
     "An  hour  thirty from here, maybe two. It's the other side of the city
it's in the boonies, too."
     I'd like to see his  place first, then back to yours. Will I be able to
get close enough to have a good look?"
     There wasn't  enough time to spend maybe ten hours on the road, or even
prepare myself for a day under the canopy. I'd have to get on and do the CTR
of  the house first, since it was  so close, and  then, on the  way  back to
their place, get planning what I was going to do next, and how.
     She nodded, confirming with Aaron at the same time.
     "Sure, but like I said, it's in the forest." She turned to Aaron.
     "You know what?  I'll go pick up Luce from the dentist and meet you two
at home."
     There was a pause as if there was more to say, as if she expected me to
pick  up on what she'd said. But I didn't  care that much  who  Luce was. It
wasn't important at the moment, and I was sure to be told soon anyway.
     "Ready when you are."
     We headed  outside and into the  oppressive heat. I screwed up my  eyes
against  the  sun, which burned straight through the  cheap  acrylic  of  my
sweatshirt on my shoulders and the back of my neck.
     She walked the other side of Aaron. There was no wedding ring, no watch
or any other jewellery on either of her hands. Her hair was beyond dark,  it
was jet black,  and her skin was  only lightly tanned, not dark and leathery
like Aaron's.
     Her armpits were shaved and, for some reason,  I wouldn't have expected
that.
     Maybe I'd been harbouring images  of New Age travellers from the moment
I saw Aaron.
     The service  road was jammed  with mini-buses, taxis and cars  dropping
off passengers, with porters hustling the  drop-offs for business. The noise
was just  as loud out  here as it had been in the hall,  with  vehicle horns
sounding off and taxi drivers arguing over parking spaces.
     The dazzling sunshine felt  as if I had  a searchlight pointed straight
into my eyes. I squinted like a mole and looked down as they started to feel
gritty.
     Aaron pulled  a pair of  John Lennon sunglasses  from a pocket  of  his
waistcoat and put them on as he pointed to our half right.
     "We're over here."
     We crossed  the  road to  what  might have been a parking lot in any US
shopping mall. Japanese and American  SUVs were  lined up alongside  saloons
and people carriers and none  of them looked more than one or two years old.
It surprised me: I'd been expecting worse.
     Carrie broke away from us and headed towards the  other side of the car
park.
     "See you both later."
     I nodded goodbye. Aaron didn't say a word, just nodded with me.
     The ground  was wet  with rain and sunlight glinted off  the tarmac. My
eyes were still half closed when we reached a blue, rusty, mud-covered Mazda
pickup.
     This is us."
     This was more what  I'd  been expecting. It had a  double cab, with  an
equally  old fibreglass Bac Pac cover  over the rear  that turned it  into a
van.  The  sheen  of the paintwork had been burned off long  ago by tropical
heat. Aaron was already inside, leaning over to open my door.
     It was like climbing into an oven. The sun had been beating down on the
windscreen and it  was  so  hot inside  it  was hard to  breathe. I was just
pleased that there was an old blanket draped  over  the  seats to protect us
from the almost molten  PVC upholstery, though the  heat was still doing the
business.
     A floating ball  compass was stuck to the windscreen, and  fixed to the
dash was a  small  open can half filled  with  green liquid. Judging  by the
picture  of flowers  on  the label  it had been  air-freshener in a previous
life.
     "Will you excuse me, Nick? I need a moment. Won't be long."
     I kept my door  open, trying  to let some air  in as he closed  his and
disappeared behind the Mazda.
     It  had only been a hundred metres from the terminal building but I was
already sweating.  My jeans stuck  to my thighs and a  bead of sweat  rolled
down  the  bridge  of  my  nose  and  added to  the  misery.  At  least  the
air-conditioning would kick in when he started the engine.
     I caught  four  Aarons  and  Carries  in the  broken  wing  mirror, and
standing next to her, four wagons. It  was also a  pickup,  but a much older
style than the Mazda, maybe an old  Chevy, with a rounded bonnet  and  wings
and a  flatbed that had wooden slats up  the sides, the  sort of thing you'd
transport  livestock in.  They were  arguing as  they  stood  by  the opened
driver's door.  She waved  her  hands in the air and  Aaron kept shaking his
head at her.
     I  changed view  and looked out at the green mountains in  the distance
and thought  of  the months I'd spent living in  that stuff,  and waited for
them to finish as a jet-lagged headache started to brew.
     A minute  or  two later  he  jumped  into  the cab  as if  nothing  had
happened.
     "Sorry about that, Nick, just some things I needed from the store."
     By the way she'd reacted they must have been pretty expensive. I nodded
as if I hadn't seen a thing, we closed our doors and he started up.
     Having  kept my window closed to  help  the air-conditioner spark up, I
saw Aaron frantically winding his down as he  manoeuvred out  of the parking
space, using just  his fingertips  to steer as the  wheel must have been hot
enough to peel skin. He sounded almost apologetic.
     "You need to belt up. They're pretty tough on that round here."
     Glancing at my closed window he added, "Sorry, no air."
     I wound it down and both of us gingerly fastened belt buckles as hot as
a tumble-dried coin. There was no sign of Carrie as we drove out  of the car
park;
     she must have driven away straight after being given her shopping list.
     I  lowered the sun visor  as we passed  a  group  of  young  black guys
dressed  in  football shorts  armed with large yellow  buckets,  sponges and
bottles of washing up liquid. They seemed to be doing a roaring trade; their
pools of  soapy water  on the tarmac just lay there, not evaporating in  the
high humidity. The Mazda could have done with their services, inside as well
as out.  Its worn rubber mats were covered in dried mud; sweet wrappers were
scattered all over, some stuffed into my door pocket along with used tissues
and a half-eaten tube of mints. On the back seat lay yellowing copies of the
Miami  Herald.  Everything looked and smelt  tired;  even the PVC  under the
blanket was ripped.
     He was still looking nervous as we drove out of the airport and along a
dual carriage way The exhaust rattled under the wagon as we picked up speed,
and the open windows made no difference to the heat. Billboards  advertising
everything from expensive  perfumes to machined ball  bearings  and  textile
factories were banged into the  ground at random,  fighting to be seen above
pampas grass nearly three metres tall each side of the road.
     Less than two minutes  later we  had to stop at  a toll booth and Aaron
handed over a US dollar bill to the operator.
     "It's the currency here," he told me.
     "It's called a Balboa."
     I nodded as  if I cared and watched the  road become a newly  laid dual
carriage way The sunlight  rebounded off  the light-grey  concrete big time,
making my headache get a happy on.
     Aaron could see my problem and rummaged in his door pocket.
     "Here, Nick, want these?"
     The  sunglasses must  have been  Carrie's, with  large oval lenses that
Jackie  Onassis would  have  been  proud  of. They  covered half my face.  I
probably looked a right nugget, but they worked.
     The  jungle was soon trying to reclaim  the land  back from the  pampas
grass either side of  the  carriage  way at least on  the areas that weren't
covered with breeze block and tin shacks. King-size leaves and  vines spread
up telegraph poles and over fences like a green disease.
     I decided to warm him up before I asked the important ones.
     "How long have you lived here?"
     "Always have. I'm a Zonian."
     It must  have  been obvious that I didn't have a clue  what  he was  on
about.
     "I was born  here in the Zone, the  US Canal Zone. It's a ten-mile-wide
strip about sixteen  K that used to bracket the whole  length  of the canal.
The  US controlled  the Zone  from the  early  nineteen hundreds, you know."
There was pride in his voice.
     "I didn't know that."  I thought the US just  used to have bases there,
not jurisdiction  over a whole chunk of the  country "My father was  a canal
pilot. Before him, my grandfather  started  as a tug  captain and made it to
tonnage surveyor you know, assessing the ships' weights  to  determine their
tolls. The Zone is home."
     Now that we were moving  at speed, the wind was  hitting the right side
of my face. It wasn't that  cool, but at least it was a breeze. The downside
was  that we had to  shout at each other over the wind rush and the flapping
of newspaper and blanket corners against the PVC.
     "But you're an American, right?"
     He gave a  small,  gentle laugh  at  my ignorance. Ivly grandfather was
born  in Minneapolis, but my father  was also born here, in the Zone. The US
have always  been here, working  for the canal authority or in the military.
This  used to be  the  headquarters  of  Southern  Command  we've had  up to
sixty-five thousand troops stationed here. But now, of course,  everything's
gone."
     The  scenery  was still very green,  but now  mostly grass. Much of the
land had been cleared and the odd flea-bitten cow was grazing away. When the
trees did come,  they  were the same size as European ones, not  at all like
the  massive  hundred-foot-tall  buttress trees  I'd  seen in primary jungle
further  south in Colombia or South East Asia. This low  canopy  of leaf and
palm created secondary jungle conditions because sunlight could penetrate so
vegetation could  grow between the tree-trunks. Tall  grass, large palms and
creeping vines of all descriptions were trying their best to catch the rays.
     "I read about that. It must be quite a shock after all those years."
     Aaron nodded slowly as he watched the road.
     "Yes, sir, growing up here was just  like small-town USA," he enthused,
'apart  from no air  in the house there  wasn't enough  juice on the grid in
those days. But  what the hell? It didn't matter. I'd come home  from school
and  wham! I'm right  into the forest.  Building forts, fishing  for tarpon.
We'd play basketball, football, baseball, just like up north. It was Utopia,
everything we needed was  in the  Zone. You know what? I didn't even venture
into Panama City until I was fourteen, can you believe that?
     For the Boy Scout jamboree." A smile of fondness for the good old  days
played across his face as his grey ponytail fluttered in the wind.
     "Of course I went north, to California, for my university  years,  came
back  with my degree to  lecture at the university. I still lecture, but not
so much now. That's where I met Carrie."
     So she was his wife. I was pleased to have  my curiosity satisfied, and
got a sudden burst of hope for the future if I ever reached old age.
     What do you teach?"
     As soon as he started to answer, I wished I hadn't bothered asking.
     "Protecting  the  bio  diversity  of  plants   and  wildlife.  Forestry
conservation  and management,  that  sort  of thing. We have a  cathedral of
nature  here." He looked to  his  right, past me  and  up  at the canopy and
grass-covered mountains in the far distance.
     "You know what? Panama is still one of  the richest  ecological regions
on earth, a mother lode of bio diversity ..."
     He gazed out again at the mountains and had a tree-hugging moment.
     I  could  only see red  and white communication  masts the size of  the
Eiffel Tower that seemed to have been positioned on every fourth peak.
     "But you know what, Nick, we're losing it..."
     Buildings started to come into view on both sides of the road.
     They ranged from  tin shacks with rotting rubbish  piled up outside and
the odd mangy dog picking at the waste, to neat  lines of not-quite-finished
brand new houses. Each was about the size of a small garage, with a flat red
tin roof  over  whitewashed  breeze blocks. The  construction  workers  were
stretched out in the shade, hiding from the midday sun.
     Ahead, in the  far distance, I began to  make out  a high-rise  skyline
that looked like a mini Manhattan something else I hadn't been expecting.
     I tried to get off the subject in case he turned into the Green version
of Billy Graham. I didn't like the  idea  of losing  trees  to concrete,  or
anything else for  that matter, but  I didn't have enough commitment even to
listen,  let alone do anything about it. That  was  why people like him were
needed, I supposed.
     "Does Carrie lecture too?"
     He shook his head slowly as he  changed lanes to let a truck laden with
bottled water scream past.
     "No, we  have a small research deal from the university.  That's why  I
still have to lecture. We're not the Smithsonian Institute, you know. I wish
we were, sure do wish we were."
     He wanted to get off the subject.
     "You heard of PARC? The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas?"
     I  nodded and didn't mind  talking about anything that let him feel  at
ease, apart from tree-hugging.
     "I hear they're crossing  into Panama quite  a lot  now, with SOUTH COM
gone."
     "Sure  are. These are worrying  times.  It's  not  just the  ecological
problems.
     Panama couldn't  handle PARC  if  they came in force. They're just  too
strong."
     He  told me  that  the bombings,  murders,  kidnappings,  extortion and
hijackings had always gone on. But lately, now  that the  US had  withdrawn,
they'd been getting  more adventurous. A month before  the last  US military
left Panama completely, they'd even struck in the  city. They'd hijacked two
helicopters from  an air base in the Zone, and  flown  them back home. Three
weeks later, six or seven hundred  PARC attacked a Colombian naval base near
the Panamanian border, using the helicopters as fire support platforms.
     There was a pause and I could see his  face  screw up as he  worked out
what he wanted to say.
     "Nick ..." He paused again. Something was bugging him.
     "Nick, I want you to know, I'm not  a spy, I'm not a revolutionary. I'm
just a guy who  wants to carry out his work and live here peacefully. That's
all."
     ELEVEN
     I nodded.
     "Like I said, I'll be out of here by Friday and try not  to be  a major
pain in the arse." It was somehow good to know that someone else was unhappy
with the situation.
     He sort of smiled with me  as we hit a causeway that cut across towards
the city, about 150 metres from the land.  It reminded me of one of the road
links connecting the Florida Keys.
     We passed a few rusty wriggly-tin  shanty  shacks built around concrete
sewage outlets  discharging into  the sea. Directly ahead,  the  tall,  slim
tower blocks reared into the sky, their mirrored and coloured glass glinting
confidently in the sun.
     Paying another Balboa to exit  the  causeway,  we  hit a wide boulevard
with  a tree lined  and manicured-grass meridian.  Set  into the  kerbs were
large storm drains  to take  the tropical weather. The  road was packed with
manic cars, trucks, buses and taxis. Everyone  was driving  as if  they  had
just stolen the  things. The air was filled with the smell of exhaust  fumes
and the sound of revving traffic and horns being leant on. A helicopter flew
low and fast  somewhere  above  us. Aaron still had to shout to make himself
heard, even at this lower speed. He jerked his head at mini Manhattan.
     "Where the money is."
     It  looked like it. A lot of well-known banks from Europe and  the USA,
as well  as quite a few  dodgy-sounding ones, had gleaming glass towers with
their name stuck all over  them.  It  was a  dressy  area: men  walking  the
pavements were dressed  smartly in trousers, pressed shirts  with creases up
to the collar, and ties. The women wore businesslike skirts and blouses.
     Aaron  waved his hand  out of the window as he avoided a beer  delivery
truck who wanted to be exactly where we were.
     "Panama  is trying to be the new Singapore,"  he said,  taking his eyes
off the traffic, which worried me a bit.
     "You know, offshore banking, that kind of stuff."
     As we passed trendy bars, Japanese restaurants, designer  clothes shops
and a Porsche showroom, I smiled.
     "I've read it's already pretty vibrant."
     He tried to avoid a horn-blowing pickup full of swaying rubber plants.
     "You could say that there's a lot of drug money being rinsed here. They
say the whole  drug thing is worth more than ninety billion US a year that's
like twenty  billion  more  than  the  revenues of Microsoft,  Kellogg's and
McDonald's put together."
     He braked sharply as a scooter cut in front of us. I put out my arms to
break the jolt  and felt the hot plastic of the dashboard on my hands, as  a
woman with  a small  child on the pillion  diced with death.  They were both
protected only by cycle helmets and swimming goggles as she squeezed between
us  and  a black  Merc  so she could turn  off the main  drag. Obviously  an
everyday thing: Aaron just carried on talking.
     "There's a big slice of that  coming through here. Some of these banks,
hey, they just say, "Bring it  on."  Real crooks  wear pinstripe, right?" He
smiled ruefully.
     "Those traffickers are now the most influential special-interest  group
in the world. Did you know that?"
     I  shook  my head. No,  I didn't know  that.  When I was in the  jungle
fighting them, it was the last thing I needed to know. I also didn't know if
I  was  going to get out of  this  Mazda  alive.  If there  were any driving
instructors in Panama, they obviously went hungry.
     The traffic slowed a little then stopped completely, but the horns kept
going.
     Green-fatigued policemen  stood outside a department  store in high-leg
boots  and black body armour. The  mirrored sunglasses  under  the peaks  of
their  baseball caps made them look  like Israeli soldiers, and all the more
menacing for it.
     Hanging round  their necks  were  HK MP5s, and they wore  low-slung leg
holsters.
     The Parkerization on  the  9mm machine-guns had  worn  away  with  age,
exposing the glinting steel underneath.
     The traffic un choked and we started to move. The faces sticking out of
the bus ahead of us got a grandstand view of my Jackie Os  and a few started
to smile at the dickhead in the Mazda.
     "At least I've cheered some people up today."
     "Especially as you're a rabiblanco," Aaron replied.
     "That's what they call the ruling elite white asses."
     The boulevard  emerged  from little  Manhattan and  hit the  coastline,
following  the sweep of a  few Ks of bay. On  our left was a marina, its sea
protection built from rocks the size of  Ford Fiestas. Million-dollar  motor
boats were parked amongst million-dollar yachts,  all being lovingly cleaned
and polished by  uniformed crews. In the  bay, a fleet of old wooden fishing
boats  was anchored round a sunken cargo ship,  its two rusty masts and  bow
jutting  from the calm of the Pacific. Further out  to  sea,  maybe three or
four  Ks,  a dozen or so large ships  stood  in line, pointing towards land,
their decks loaded with containers.
     Aaron followed my gaze.
     "They're waiting to enter the canal."
     We swerved sharply to avoid a battered old  Nissan saloon as it decided
to change lanes  without telling anyone. I instinctively pushed down with my
braking foot.
     This wasn't driving, this was a series of near-death experiences. There
were a lot of brakes being hit in front of us and we followed suit, skidding
slightly but coming to a halt without rear-ending the Nissan unlike  someone
a few vehicles  behind us.  There was the tinkle of breaking glass  and  the
sound of buckling metal, followed by some irate Spanish.
     Aaron looked like a small child.
     "Sorry 'bout that."
     The  reason why we'd  all stopped  was  now plain  to  see.  A  line of
pre-teen schoolkids  in pairs  and  holding  hands  was  crossing  the road,
towards the promenade and the bay. The girls were all in  white dresses, the
boys in blue shorts and white shirts. One of the teachers  was shouting at a
taxi driver who complained at the delay, an old shaggy arm waving out of the
window back at her.
     Now  everyone seemed to be hitting their horns, as if that would change
anything.
     The  kids' faces  were two  distinct shapes, the  same as  in Colombia.
Those  of Spanish descent  had wild, curly black hair  and olive skin, while
the  straight  black-haired  Indians had  more  delicate  features, slightly
flatter faces, smaller eyes  and a  browner complexion. Aaron grinned  as he
watched  the  children  cross, chattering to each other as  if  nothing  was
happening around them.
     "You have kids, Nick?"
     "No." I shook my head. I didn't want to start getting into that sort of
conversation. The  less  he  knew about  me  the better.  A  proper operator
wouldn't have asked, and it was strange being with someone  who didn't  know
the score.
     Besides, after next week I wouldn't have my child anyway Josh would.
     "Oh."
     The kids were now  being corralled  by the teachers on the bay  side of
the road.
     Two girls, still holding hands, were  staring at him, or my sunglasses,
I  couldn't make out  which. Aaron  stuck  his  thumb to his nose and made a
face. They  cross-eyed  and  thumbed back, giggling together  because they'd
done it without the teachers seeing.
     Aaron looked round at me.
     "We have a girl, Luce. She'll be fifteen this November."
     "Oh, nice." I just hoped he wasn't going to start getting photos out of
his wallet then I'd have  to say how pretty she was and all that stuff, even
if she looked like she'd been given the good news with the flat of a shovel.
     The  traffic started  moving  once  more. He  waved at the kids as they
stuck their thumbs in their ears and flapped their fingers.
     We fought our way through the traffic along the boulevard. To the right
was a  run of  large, Spanish  colonial-type  buildings that just  had to be
government property. Fronted by tall,  decorative wrought-iron fencing, they
were all immaculately painted, set  back in  acres of  grass, waterfalls and
flagpoles,  all  flying  the  red, white and blue  squares and stars of  the
Panamanian  flag. Laid  out between the buildings were well-manicured public
parks  with   neat  bushes  and  paths,  and   larger-than-life  statues  of
sixteenth-century Spanish  guys in  oval tin hats  and pantaloons,  pointing
their swords heroically towards the sea.
     Soon we were passing the equally impressive American and
     British embassies.  Inside  each  compound, the  Stars and  Stripes and
Union  Jack  fluttered  above  the  trees and high  perimeter railings.  The
thickness of the window glass indicated it wasn't just for show.
     As well as knowing what direction you needed to  head out  of a country
when in the shit, it's also good to check on where your embassy is. I always
liked  to know there  was  somewhere  to  run  to  if the  wheels fell  off.
Ambassadors don't take  too kindly to deniable  operators begging  for help.
I'd have to jump  the fence; they didn't let people like me in  through  the
front door. But once I was inside, it would  take more  than the security to
get me back on to the street.
     We  reached the end of the  bay and what was obviously the rougher side
of town.
     The buildings  here had flaking, faded paint and  some  were  derelict.
None the less, there was still a touch of civic pride. A metre-high wall ran
the length of the bay, more to stop people falling on to the beach than as a
sea defence.
     It was decorated with blue mosaic tiles, and a gang of about  ten women
in jeans and yellow T-shirts  with "Municipad' stamped on the back were busy
scrubbing  it with broom  heads dipped in large buckets of soapy water. They
were also pulling up all the  green stuff that was fighting its  way between
the  paving  slabs.  A couple of  them seemed to be on their  break, leaning
against the  wall drinking the milk  from a  coconut and pink liquid  from a
plastic bag with a straw.
     Sticking out to sea for about  a K in  front of me was the peninsula on
which perched the  old Spanish  colonial town, a  mishmash  of ancient terra
cotta roofs huddled around the pristine white towers of a church. Aaron hung
a right  that took us away from the bay and into an even more run-down area.
The  road was  bumpier  and my headache  worsened as the  Mazda's suspension
creaked and groaned.
     The  buildings were low-level,  flat-roofed, decaying tenement  blocks.
Their once multicoloured facades  had been bleached out by the  sun, and the
high humidity had  given them dark stains. Big cracks in the plaster exposed
the breeze blocks beneath.
     The street  narrowed  and the traffic  slowed. Pedestrians and scooters
threaded their  way between the vehicles, and  Aaron seemed to need all  his
concentration to avoid hitting anyone. At least it shut him up for a while.
     The sun was  directly overhead now and seemed to push down on this part
of  town, keeping a lid on  the heat and the exhaust fumes, which  were much
worse here than on  the boulevard.  Without circulating  air  I  was leaking
big-time and the  back of  my hair  was soaking. The two  of us were turning
into the sweat-hog brothers.
     I heard the roar  of a bulldozer, and saw rusty  metal grilles covering
every  conceivable entry  point  into the ramshackle buildings. Washing hung
from  the  windows  and  balconies,  kids shouted at  each  other across the
street.
     The road  became so  narrow that vehicles  were forced  right up to the
kerb, their wing mirrors occasionally scraping pedestrians. Nobody seemed to
care;  the crowds were too busy gossiping and snacking on  fried bananas  or
drinking beer.
     It  wasn't  long  before the  traffic flow  congealed  and every driver
immediately leant on  his horn. I  could  smell  strong, flowery perfume  as
women pushed past, and wafts of frying food from  an open doorway. The whole
place walls, doors, even adverts was a riot of red and yellow.
     We nudged our way forward a bit, then stopped by two old women flicking
their hips  to  blaring Caribbean music. Beyond them  was a dimly lit  shop,
selling gas cookers, washing machines, canned food, aluminium pots and pans,
from which  a  Latin  samba  spilled on to  the street.  I  liked  it:  mini
Manhattan did nothing for me; this was more my kind of town.
     We passed through  a  street market  and the traffic started to  move a
little more smoothly. This is  El  Chorrillo. Do you remember Just Cause you
know, the invasion?"
     I nodded.
     "Well, this was ground zero when they we attacked the city. Noriega had
his command centre here. It's an open space now. Bombed flat."
     "Oh,  right." I looked out at  a  row of  old women sitting behind flat
card  tables,  with what  looked like  lottery tickets  laid  out neatly  on
display. A muscle-bound bodybuilder,  a black  guy in a very tight Golds Gym
vest and jeans, was buying some tickets from one of  the  tables, looking an
absolute nugget with a City gent-style umbrella in his hand to  keep the sun
off.
     We eventually  squeezed out  of the  market  area, hit a T-junction and
stopped.  The road in  front of us was a busy main drag. From the little I'd
seen, the law here seemed to be that if you were bigger than the vehicle you
were heading towards, you didn't have to stop: you just hit the horn and put
your foot down.  The Mazda wasn't  exactly the biggest toy in  the shop, but
Aaron didn't seem to realize it was still big enough to get out there.
     To my right was a wooden drink shack. Pepsi had won the cola wars hands
down  in  Panama: every other hoarding was covered with their ads, alongside
stubble chinned cowboys welcoming us to Marlboro Country. Next to the shack,
in the shade of a tree and leaning against the tailgate of a highly polished
Ford  Explorer, with  sparkling chrome wheels and a Madonna hanging off  the
rear-view  mirror, were  five Latino  guys, young  men  in  their  twenties.
Shoehorned into the rear of the Explorer was a massive pair of loudspeakers,
banging out Latin rap.
     All  the  guys looked sharp,  with their  shaved heads  and  wraparound
mirror shades.
     They wouldn't  have  looked out of place in LA. There was  enough  gold
hanging round their necks and wrists to keep  the old woman  begging  at the
other side  of  the road  in three-course dinners for the  rest of her life.
Lying all around them  on the ground were mounds of cigarette ends and Pepsi
bottle tops.
     One of the boys caught a glimpse  of my  Jackie O  specials. Aaron  was
still rocking the wagon back and forth at the junction. The sun beat down on
the static cab and  turned  up the  oven temperature. A tailback of vehicles
had developed behind us waiting to get  out of the main. Horns were hit, and
we were starting to attract some attention.
     By now the news had spread about my fashion accessory. The Latino  guys
were getting  to their feet to have a better look. One of them leant against
the tailgate again  and I could clearly see the shape of a pistol grip under
his  shirt. Aaron was still tensed  over the wheel.  He saw it too,  and got
even  more flustered, cocking up getting  out of the junction  to  the point
where there were now more cars hooting on the main  for us  to get  back  in
than behind us telling us to get the fuck out.
     no
     The boys were laughing  big-time at my  eye  wear and  obviously making
some very  funny Spanish  jokes  as  they  high-fived and pointed. Aaron was
staring  straight ahead.  Sweat poured down  his  head and beard,  gathering
under  his chin and dripping.  The steering-wheel  was slippery with  it. He
didn't like  one  bit what was  happening  with these guys  only about  five
metres away.
     I was sweating too. The sun was toasting the right side of my face.
     All of  a sudden we  were in a scene  from Baywatch. Two uniformed  men
with  hip  holstered pistols  had arrived  on mountain  bikes, clad in  dark
shorts and  black trainers,  with Tolicia' printed  across the back of their
beige polo shirts.
     Dismounting, they parked their bikes against  a tree and calmly started
sorting out  the  chaos. With  their  bike helmets  and sunglasses still  in
place,  they blew  whistles hard and pointed  at traffic. Miraculously, they
managed to  open up  a space on  the main drag, then pointed and whistled at
Aaron, waving him on.
     As we drew away from the  junction and turned  left, the air was  thick
with angry shouts, mainly at the policemen.
     "Sorry about that. Crazoids  like those shoot at the  drop of a hat. It
creeps me out."
     Very soon  we were out of the slums and moved into upscale residential.
One  house we passed was  still under construction and the drills were going
for it  bigtime. Men were digging, pipes were being laid.  All the power was
coming  from a generator  that belonged to the US Army. I knew that  because
the camouflage pattern and the "US Army' stencilling told me so.
     Aaron obviously felt a lot better now.
     "See that?" He pointed at the generator.
     "What  would  you  say?  Four  thousand dollars?"  I nodded, not really
having a clue.
     "Well,"  there  was  undisguised  outrage  in his  voice,  'those  guys
probably laid out less than five hundred."
     "Oh, interesting." Was it fuck. But I was obviously going to get more.
     "When  SOUTH COM couldn't clear out all the five remaining bases by the
December  deadline, they decided  to abandon or simply  give away any  items
valued at less  than  a  thousand dollars. So  what happened,  to  make life
easier, nearly everything ill was  valued  at nine  hundred  and ninety-nine
bucks. Technically it was supposed to have  been  given away to good causes,
but everything was just marked up and sold on, vehicles, furniture, you name
it."
     As  I looked around  I  realized it  wasn't  just  that  that  had been
offloaded.  I spotted another gang  of street cleaners  in yellow  T-shirts.
They  were  digging up  anything  green that stuck out of  the  pavement and
everybody seemed to be wearing brand new US Army desert-camouflage fatigues.
     He started to sound like the village gossip.
     "I  heard a story that a two  hundred-and-thirty-thousand-dollar  Xerox
machine got the nine ninety-nine tag because the paperwork  to  ship it back
up north was just too much hassle."
     I was looking around at a quiet residential area, nice  bungalows  with
rubber  plants  outside, estate cars and lots of big  fences and grilles. He
pointed out nothing in particular as he continued.
     "Out  there  somewhere,  there  are guys  repairing their vehicles with
fifteen-thousand-dollar  jet  aircraft  torque  sets that  cost  them  sixty
bucks." He sighed. 'I wish I could have laid my hands on some of that stuff.
We just got odds and ends."
     The houses  were being replaced by parades of shops and  neon signs for
Blockbuster and Burger King. Rising into the sky about a couple of Ks ahead,
and looking  like three  towering  metal  Hs,  were the stacks  of container
cranes.
     "Balboa docks," he said. They're at the entrance to the canal. We'll be
in the Zone," he corrected himself, 'the old Canal Zone, real soon."
     That was pretty evident just by looking at the road signs. There didn't
seem to  be  many in this country, but I  saw the odd US  military one  now,
hanging precariously from its  post, telling us that USAF Albrook wasn't far
away. A large blue  and  white  faded metal sign on  the  main  drag gave us
directions for the  Servicemen's Christian Association, and soon  afterwards
we hit a good  quality grey concrete road that bent right round  an airfield
full  of  light  aircraft  and  private  and  commercial helicopters.  As we
followed the airfield's perimeter road, Balboa  docks were  behind us and to
our left.
     "That  used to  be Air  Force  Albrook.  It's  where  PARC stole  those
choppers I told you about."
     We passed a series of boarded-up barrack blocks, four floors high, with
air-conditioners poking out of  virtually every  window. Their  immaculately
clean cream walls and  red-tiled roofs  made them  look  very American, very
military.
     Skyscraping  fifty-metre  steel  flagpoles that no doubt  used  to  fly
enormous Stars and Stripes were now flying the Panamanian flag.
     Aaron sighed.
     "You know the saddest thing about it?"
     I was looking  at part of the air base  that seemed  to have become the
bus terminal.  A big sign saying "United States Air Force Albrook'  was half
pasted over with details of the bus  routes, and  lines of buses were  being
cleaned and swept out.
     "What's that?"
     "Because of this nine  ninety-nine giveaway, the Air  Force was in such
dire need of forklifts they actually had  to start renting some of their old
ones back to get the final equipment loaded to the States."
     As soon as we cleared the air base the road was flanked again on either
side by pampas grass at least three metres high. We  hit another row of toll
booths, paid our few cents and moved through.
     "Welcome to the Zone. This  road  parallels the canal, which is about a
quarter of a mile that way." He pointed over to  our left  and  it was as if
we'd  just driven  into a  South  Florida  subdivision, with  American-style
bungalows and houses, rows  of telephone  booths, traffic  lights  and  road
signs  in  English. Even the  street  lighting was different. A  golf course
further up the road was advertised in English and Spanish. Aaron pointed.
     "Used to be the officers' club."
     A deserted high school on the right looked  like something straight out
of  an American  TV  show. Beside  it  squatted a  massive  white  dome  for
all-weather sports.
     We were most definitely where the other half lived.
     "How long till we get to the house?"
     Aaron  was  looking from side to side of the  virtually  deserted road,
taking in the detail of the Zone close down
     "Maybe another forty, fifty minutes. It was kinda busy downtown."
     It was time to talk shop now.
     "Do you have any idea why I'm here, Aaron?"
     Not much, I hoped.
     He shrugged evasively  and used his  gentle voice that was hard to hear
above the wind.
     "We only got told last night you were coming. We're to  help you in any
way we can and show you where Charlie lives."
     "Charlie?"
     "Charlie  Chan you  know, the guy from  that old black and white movie.
That's  not his real name, of course, just what people call him here. Not to
his face, God forbid. His real name is Oscar Choi."
     "I like Charlie Chan a lot better," I said.
     "Suits him."
     Aaron nodded.
     "For sure, he doesn't look an Oscar to me neither."
     What do you know about him?"
     "He's really well known  here.  He's a  very  generous  guy, plays  the
all-round good  citizen thing  patron of the arts,  that  kind of  stuff. In
fact, he funds the degree course I get to lecture on."
     This wasn't sounding much like a teenager.
     "How old is he?"
     "Maybe a bit younger than me. Say early fifties."
     I started to get a little worried.
     "Does he have a family?"
     "Oh, yeah, he's a big family man. Four sons and a daughter, I think."
     "How old are the kids?"
     "I don't know  about  the  older ones, but I know  the youngest son has
just started university.  Chose  a  good course environmental stuff is  cool
right now. I think the others work for him downtown."
     My head was thumping big-time. I was finding it hard to  concentrate. I
got my fingers under the glasses and tried to get my eyes working.
     Aaron obviously had views on the Chinaman.
     "It's  strange  that  men  like  him  spend all  their  lives slashing,
burning,  pillaging to get  what  they  want. Then, once they've amassed all
their wealth, they try to preserve everything they  used  to try to destroy,
but underneath never change. Very Viking, don't you think, Nick?"
     What is he, a politician?"
     "Nope, doesn't need to be, he owns  most of them. His family  has  been
here since the labourers started digging the canal in 1904, selling opium to
keep the workers  happy. He has his fingers in every pie,  in every province
and in everything from construction to "import  and export"." Aaron gave the
quote sign with his right forefinger.
     "You  know,  keeping  up  the  family tradition  -cocaine, heroin, even
supplying arms to PARC or anyone else down south who has the money.
     He's  one  of  the very  few  who are  happy  about the  US stand-down.
Business is so much easier to conduct now we've gone."
     He  lifted  his  left  hand  from  the  steering-wheel  and rubbed  his
forefinger and thumb together.  This has many friends,  and he has plenty of
it."
     Drugs, guns, and legal business, it made sense: they usually go hand in
hand.
     "He's what my mother would  have  called "someone's  wicked  son"  he's
smart,  real  smart. It's a well-known  story  round here that he  crucified
sixteen men in Colombia. They were local-government people,  policemen, that
kind of thing, trying to  cut  him  out of  a deal  he'd made with them  for
moving coke. He had  them nailed up in the town square for everyone  to  see
and let them die someone's wicked son for sure."
     A chain-link fence line started to appear on the right.
     This is," he corrected himself once more, 'was Fort Clayton."
     The place was  deserted.  Through the fence  was a line  of  impressive
military buildings. The white flagpoles were empty, but still standing guard
in front of them were perfect rows of tall,  slim palm trees, the first four
feet or so in need of another coat of whitewash.
     As we drove  further on, I could see the same accommodation blocks that
were  at  Albrook, all  positioned  in  a  neat  line  with  concrete  paths
crisscrossing the uncut grass. Road  signs were still visible telling troops
not  to drink and drive,  and  to  remember  they were ambassadors for their
country.
     We lapsed into silence for a few minutes, surveying the emptiness.
     "Nick, do you mind if we stop for a Coke? I'm feeling pretty dry."
     "How long  is it going to  take?  How  far  until  we get to  Charlie's
place?"
     Maybe another six,  seven miles  after  the Coke stop.  It's only a few
minutes off the route."
     Sounded good to me: I was going to be having a long day.
     We  passed the  main  gate of the camp and Aaron sighed. The bold brass
letters that  were secured to the entrance  wall now just  read "Layton'. "I
think they're going to turn it into a technology park, something like that."
     "Oh,  right." Who cared? Now he'd talked about  it, all  I wanted was a
drink, and  maybe an opportunity to find out more  from him about the target
house.
     TWELVE
     We  stayed on the  main drag for maybe another half-mile before turning
left on to  a much narrower road. Ahead of us in  the distance,  on the high
ground, I  could  just  make  out  the superstructure and  high  load  of  a
container ship, looking bizarre as it cut the green skyline.
     That's where we're heading, the Miraflores locks," Aaron said.
     "It's the  only place round  here to  get a  drink  now everyone moving
along this road comes here, it's like a desert watering-hole."
     As we  started to reach the  higher ground of the lock a scene unfolded
that made me wonder if Clinton was about to visit. The place was packed with
vehicles  and people.  A  line  of brightly  coloured buses  had brought  an
American-style  marching  band  and  eighteen-year-old  baton twisters.  Red
tunics, white  trousers and  stupid  hats with  feathers  sticking  out were
blowing  into  white enamelled trombones and  all sorts as the  baton girls,
squeezed into  red  leotards and white knee-high boots, whirled their chrome
sticks and streamers. It was  a  zoo  up here:  teams  putting  up  bunting,
unloading  fold-up  wooden   chairs  from   trucks,  lumbering  around  with
scaffolding poles over their shoulders.
     "Uh-oh," Aaron sighed, "I thought it was going to be on Saturday."
     "What?"
     The Ocaso."
     We  drove  into  the  large  wired compound,  jam-packed  with  private
vehicles and  tour  company MPVs, around which  were  dotted  some smart and
well-maintained  colonial-style buildings.  The sounds of brass  instruments
tuning up and fast, excited Spanish poured into the cab.
     "Not with you, mate. What's the Ocaso?"
     It's a  cruise liner, one of the biggest. It  means sunset  in English.
Two thousand passengers plus. It's been coming through here  for years, runs
out of San Diego to the Caribbean."
     While trying to find a parking space, he checked out some posters stuck
up along a chain-link fence.
     "Yeah, it's this  Saturday, the four hundredth and final transit.  It's
going to  be a  big deal. TV stations, politicians, some of  the cast of The
Bold and the Beautiful will be on board that show's a big deal here.
     This must be the dress rehearsal."
     Just a  few metres past  the buses and  chain-link, I  caught my  first
glimpse of the enormous concrete  locks, flanked by  immaculately cut grass.
None  of it looked as  breathtaking  as I'd been  expecting, more  a  hugely
scaled-up version about  three  hundred metres long and  thirty  wide of any
normal-sized set of canal locks.
     Manoeuvring  into  the first  lock was the rust-streaked blue and white
ship, five  storeys  high and maybe two hundred metres  long, powered by its
own  engines but being  guided by six stubby-looking but  obviously powerful
aluminium electric locomotives on  rails, three each side.  Six cables slung
between the hull and the lo  cos  four at  the rear, the other two up front,
helped guide it between the concrete walls without touching.
     Aaron sounded off with  the tour-guide  bit as he squeezed between  two
cars.
     "You're looking at maybe six thousand automobiles in there, heading for
the  west  coast of  the  States. Four  per  cent of the  world's trade  and
fourteen  of  the  US's  passes  through here.  It's  an awesome  amount  of
traffic." He gave a sweep of his hand to emphasize the scale of the waterway
in front of us.
     "From the Bay  of Panama  here on the Pacific side up to the Caribbean,
it  only  takes maybe eight to ten hours. Without the canal you could  spend
two weeks sailing round Cape Horn."
     I was nodding with what I hoped was the  required amount of awe  when I
saw where we'd  be  getting our Coke. A truck-trailer had grown roots in the
middle of  the  car park  and become  a cafe-cum-tourist-shop. White plastic
garden chairs were scattered around matching tables shaded  by multicoloured
sun umbrellas. Hanging  up for  sale were enough souvenir T-shirts to clothe
an  army. We found a space and got  out. It was  sweltering, but  at least I
could peel my sweatshirt off my back.
     Aaron headed towards the side  window to  join the line of tourists and
two red tunics, each with a lump of brass under their arm, as they leered at
a group of athletic-looking baton girls paying for their drinks.  'I'll  get
us a couple of cold ones."
     I stood under one of  the parasols and watched the ship  inch into  the
lock. I took off my Jackie Os and cleaned them: the  glare made me regret it
immediately.
     The sun  was  merciless, but the lock workers seemed  impervious to it,
neatly dressed in  overalls and  hard  hats as they went  about  their jobs.
There was an air of brisk efficiency about the proceedings as a  loudspeaker
system sounded off  quick,  businesslike  radio  traffic  in  Spanish,  just
managing to make itself heard above  the  nightmare around the buses and the
clatter of scaffolding poles.
     A four-tier grandstand was being  erected on the grass facing the lock,
supplementing the permanent one to the left of it, by  the visitors' centre,
which  was also  covered in  bunting.  Saturday was  going to be  very  busy
indeed.
     The ship was nearly into  the lock, with just a couple of feet to spare
each side. Tourists watched from  the  permanent viewing platform,  clicking
away  with their  Nikons, as the band drifted on to  the grass.  Some of the
girls practised  their  splits,  professional  smiles,  and top  and  bottom
wiggles as they got into ranks.
     The only person at ground level who  seemed  not to be  looking  at the
girls was a white man in a fluorescent pink, flowery  Hawaiian shirt. He was
leaning  against  a large, dark blue GMC  Suburban, watching the ship as  he
smoked with  deep, long drags. The guy was using  his free  hand to wave the
bottom  of his shirt  to  circulate some  air.  His stomach  had  been badly
burned, leaving a large  scar the  size of a  pizza that looked  like melted
plastic. Shit, that must have been painful. I  was glad my stomach pain  was
just from a session with Sundance's Caterpillars.
     Apart from the windscreen, all the  windows had been blackened out with
film. I could see  it was a DIY job by a snag  mark in  one of the rear door
windows. It  made a clear  triangle where  the plastic had  been ripped down
three or four inches.
     Then, as if he'd just  realized he'd forgotten to lock his  front door,
he jumped into the wagon and drove out. Maybe the real reason was because he
had  a false  plate  on the CMC and he  didn't want  any  of  the  police to
scrutinize  it. The wagon had been cleaned, but not well enough to match the
even cleaner plate. I'd always hit the  carwash  immediately before changing
plates,  then took a drive  in the country  to mess  both the  plate and the
body-work before  using  the vehicle for work.  I  bet  there  were a lot of
people with false plates down here, keeping the banking sector vibrant.
     A fragile-looking Jacob's ladder  of wooden slats and knotted  rope was
dropped over the side  of the  ship and two men in pristine white shirts and
trousers  climbed aboard from the grass  below, just as Aaron came back with
four cans of Minute Maid.
     "No Coke they've been overrun today."
     We  sat in the shade  and  watched the hydraulic  rams  slowly push the
gates shut,  and the  water twenty-seven million gallons of it, according to
Aaron  flooded into the  lock. The ship rose into the  sky before us as  the
scaffolders downed  tools  and took  a  seat in  preparation  for the girls'
rehearsal.
     Quiet  contemplation  obviously  wasn't  Aaron's thing and he  was soon
waffling on.
     "You  see, the  canal isn't as most people  think, just a big ditch cut
through  the country,  like the Suez. No, no,  no. It's  a  very complicated
piece of engineering quite amazing to think it's more or less Victorian."
     I  had  no doubt it was completely fascinating,  but I  had other, more
depressing, things on my mind.
     The Miraflores, and the other two  sets further up, lift  or drop these
ships eighty feet. Once up there, they just  sail on over the  lake and then
get lowered again to  sea level the other side. It's kind of  like a  bridge
over the isthmus.
     Pure genius the eighth wonder of the world."
     I pulled the ring on my second orange and nodded towards the lock.
     "Bit of a tight fit, isn't it?" That'd keep him waffling for a while.
     He responded as if he'd designed the thing himself.
     "No problem they're all built to Panamax specifications. Shipyards have
been keeping the size of the locks in mind for decades now."
     The vessel  continued to rise like a skyscraper  in front  of me.  Just
then, the  trumpets, drums and whistles  started up as the band broke into a
quick-tempo samba  and the  girls  did their stuff  to  the  delight  of the
scaffolders.
     Ten minutes later, when the water levels were equal, the front gate was
opened and the process began all over again. It was like a giant  staircase.
The batons were still getting thrown into the air and the band were marching
up and down the  grass. Everyone  seemed to be getting very Latin as some of
the brass section chanced a few dance moves of  their own  as they  strutted
their stuff.
     A black Lexus  4x4 with gold-mirrored  side windows pulled up  opposite
the shop.
     The  windows slid down  to reveal  two  shirt-and-tied white-eyes.  The
front-seat passenger, a muscular,  well-tanned twenty something got  out and
went straight  to  the  trailer window,  ignoring the queue. One of the  new
small,  chrome-effect Nokias  glinted  from  his belt  along  with a  weapon
holstered on his right hip.
     Just as with the CMC, however, I thought nothing of it  after all, this
was Central America. I just tilted my head back to get the last of the drink
down my neck, thinking of getting another couple for the journey.
     A  young  American  voice  called  out  from the  Lexus  as  the twenty
something went back with the drinks.
     "Hey, Mr. Y! What's happening, man?"
     Aaron's head jerked round, his face breaking into a smile. He waved.
     "Hey, Michael, and how are you? How was your break?"
     I turned as well. My head was still back but I instantly recognized the
grinning face leaning out of the rear passenger window.
     Finishing the drink, I brought my head down as Aaron moved  over to the
car. My tiredness disappeared as adrenaline pumped. This  was not good,  not
good at all.
     I  looked at the floor, pretending to relax, and tried  to listen above
the music.
     The  boy  held out a hand for Aaron to shake, but his eyes  were on the
girls.
     "I'm sorry, I can't get out of the car my father says I have to stay in
with  Robert and Ross. I heard they'd  be here today, thought I'd get a look
on the way home, know what I mean, Mr.  Y? Didn't  you check out the  pompom
girls? I mean, before you got married ..."
     I could see that the two BG (bodyguards) weren't remotely distracted by
the girls or  the infectious Latin tempo,  they were doing their job.  Their
faces were impassive behind tinted sunglasses as they drank from their cans.
The  engine  was  running  and  I  could  see  the moisture  drip  from  the
air-conditioning reservoir on to the tarmac.
     The band stopped playing and now marched to the command of a bass drum.
Michael jabbered on  with excitement, and something he  said made Aaron arch
an eyebrow.
     "England?"
     "Yes, I returned  yesterday. There was  a bomb and some terrorists were
killed. My father and I were very close by, in the Houses of Parliament."
     Aaron showed his surprise as Michael pulled back the ring on his can.
     "Hey, Nick, did you hear that?" He pointed me out  to the target with a
cock of his head.
     "Nick he's British."
     Shit, shit, Aaron no!
     Michael's eyes  turned to me  and  he smiled, displaying perfect  white
teeth. The BG also moved their heads casually to give me the once-over. This
wasn't good.
     I smiled and studied the target. He had  short black shining hair, side
parted,  and  his  eyes  and  nose  looked  slightly  European.  His  smooth
unblemished  skin  was  darker  than  most  Chinese.  Maybe  his mother  was
Panamanian, and he spent a lot of time in the sun.
     Aaron had realized he had fucked  up and stammered, "He kind of hitched
a lift from me in the city to take a look at the  locks -you know, and check
out the chicks ..."
     Michael nodded, not really that fussed. I turned back to the ship as it
left the  dock,  wanting very  much  to walk  right over and ram  my can  in
Aaron's mouth.
     After a minute or so of university stuff Michael got a nod from the  BG
and started to wind down the conversation. As he held out his hand again for
a  farewell he glanced over  one more time at the  leotards  and pompoms.  A
whistle sounded out commands and the drums sparked up once more.
     "I have to go now. Will I see you next week, Mr. Y?"
     "Sure thing." Aaron gave him a high five.
     "You get that project done?"
     "I think you'll like it. Anyway, catch you later." Out of politeness he
nodded to me over Aaron's shoulder, then the window powered up and the Lexus
moved   off,   leaving   behind   a   poodle-size  piss   puddle   from  the
air-conditioning.
     Aaron waved  until they were  out  of sight,  then spun towards me, his
face abject as the brass section and girls joined in the fast drum rhythm.
     "Nick, I'm really sorry." He shook his head.
     "I just didn't think. I'm  not  really  cut out for this kind of thing.
That's Charlie's son did I tell you he's on the course I teach?
     I'm sorry, I just didn't think."
     "It's OK, mate. No damage done." I was lying. The last  thing I  needed
was to be introduced to the target and, even worse, have the BG knowing what
I  looked like. There was also  the connection  with  Aaron.  My  heart  was
pounding. All in all, not a good day out.
     Those guys with him Robert and Ross? They're the ones who hung up those
Colombians.  They're  Charlie's  special  guys, I've heard  stories  about-'
Aaron's expression suddenly changed.
     "Did you have something to do with that bomb in London? I mean, is this
all about-' I shook my head as I swallowed the last  of  the  juice. I could
feel the blood rushing around my head.
     I'm sorry, it's not any of my business. I don't really want to know."
     I wasn't too sure if he'd believed me, but it didn't matter.
     "How far have we got left to Michael's house?"
     "Like I said, five, maybe six miles. If  the picture back  at our place
is anything to go by, it's some kind of palace."
     I started to get my cash out as I walked towards the trailer window.
     "I think I'd  better  have a look at it, then,  don't  you?  What about
another drink while we wait for Michael to get home and settle down?"
     The expression on his face still said guilty.
     "Tell you what," I said, 'you buy and then we're even."
     At least that  got a fleeting  smile  out of him as  he delved into his
grubby pockets for coins.
     "And see if they have anything for a headache, could you?"
     Over the other side of the  car  park was an ATM with  the HSBC logo. I
knew  I wouldn't be able to withdraw any  more money today, but within hours
of me attempting to, the Yes Man would at least know I was in-country.
     We  spent the next forty minutes killing time at the plastic table with
just the sound of the lo cos humming along their tracks as the entertainment
took a break for  lunch. I had the Jackie Os back on, trying to rest my eyes
and head. It seemed no one ever got a headache round here.
     Aaron took the  opportunity to  explain  about  the  US stand-down  the
previous December. The fact that he could reel off all the dates and numbers
so precisely emphasized his bitterness about what had happened.
     In  total, more  than four  hundred thousand  acres  of Canal  Zone and
bases, worth  more  than $10 billion,  had been handed over -along with  the
canal itself, which had been built  and paid for by the US to the tune  of a
further  $30 billion.  And the only way they could  come back was  under the
terms of the DeConcini Reservation, which allowed for  military intervention
if the canal was endangered.
     It was all  interesting  stuff, but what  was more  important to me was
confirming that Michael would be at university this week.
     "For sure." Aaron nodded.
     "They'll all be headed back.  The semester started  for most folks last
week."
     We headed for the house, driving into Clayton. Aaron explained that now
the US  had gone Charlie had got his hands on some of the Zone  and built on
it.
     The only security these days at the guard house was an old guy sleeping
on the veranda of the guard room with half a jam-jar of something resembling
black  tea by his side,  looking quite  annoyed to be woken  up to  lift the
barrier.
     Clayton might become a technology park one  day, but not yet. We passed
deserted  barrack blocks with tall grass growing between them. The US Army's
legacy  was still very much in evidence. I  could  see  stencilling on steel
plates above  every  barrack door: Building 127, HQ Theater Support Brigade,
Fort  Clayton, Panama, US Army  South.  I wondered if  our SOUTH COM  bosses
during my time in Colombia  had sent us our satellite photography and orders
from these very buildings.
     The  neighbourhood  looked  as  if  it  had  been  evacuated  before  a
hurricane.  The  children's  swings  between   the  deserted  bungalows  and
palm-fringed,  two-floor apartment blocks  were showing  the first signs  of
rust through their blue paintwork, and the baseball ground,  which needed  a
good  mow,  still  had the  results  of  the  last  game  displayed  on  the
scoreboard. US road  signs told us to travel at 15  mph. because of children
playing.
     We  reached the other side  of the massive fort complex and headed into
the mountains. The jungle closed  in on  both sides  of the narrow,  winding
tarmac road.  I  could  only see about  five metres;  after that  everything
blurred into a  wall  of green.  I'd heard  about  a patrol in Borneo in the
Sixties who had a man down with a gunshot wound. It wasn't fatal, but he did
need evacuation. Leaving  him comfortable at  the  bottom of a high feature,
all hands moved uphill to cut a winch  point out of the jungle so the rescue
helicopter could pull him out and cas-evac him to hospital. This was no  big
deal,  and the wounded man would have  been  airborne by last  light if only
they hadn't  made the fatal error  of not leaving anyone with him or marking
where he was lying. It took them over  a week to find where they'd left him,
even though it was less  than a hundred  metres away  at the  bottom  of the
hill. By then he was dead.
     The sun beat down on the windscreen, showing  up all the  bugs that had
smashed  against it and been smeared  by  the wipers. It  couldn't have been
easy for Aaron to see through.
     This  was secondary  jungle;  movement through it would  be very,  very
difficult. I much preferred primary, where the canopy is much higher and the
sun  finds  it difficult  to penetrate  to  ground  level  so  there's  less
vegetation. It's still a pain in the arse to travel through, because there's
still all kinds of stuff on the ground.
     Grey clouds were starting to cover the sky and make everything darker I
thought  again about  all the months I'd spent living in jungles  whilst  on
operations.  You'd  come out  two stone lighter, and because of the lack  of
sunlight  your skin becomes  as white and clammy as an uncooked chip, but  I
really  liked it.  I always had a  fantastic  sense of  anticipation when  I
entered  jungle, because it's  the  most wonderful place  to be; tactically,
compared with any  other  terrain, it's a  great environment to operate  in.
Everything you need is there:
     shelter, food and, more importantly, water. All you really have  to get
used to is  the  rain, bites by mozzies (anything  small that flies), and 95
per cent humidity.
     Aaron leant forward and peered up through the windscreen.
     "Here they are, look right on time."
     The  grey clouds had disappeared,  pushed out  by blacker ones. I  knew
what that  meant and,  sure enough,  the sky  suddenly emptied on us. It was
like sitting  under an upturned bath. We hurriedly wound up our windows, but
only  about three quarters of the way, because  humidity was already misting
up  the inside of the windscreen. Aaron hit the de mister and its noise  was
drowned as the roof took a pounding.
     Lightning cracked and sizzled, splashing the jungle with brilliant blue
light.
     An almighty clap of thunder boomed above us. It must have set off a few
car alarms back at the locks.
     Aaron slowed the  car  to walking pace as  the wipers  went into  hyper
drive slapping each side of the windscreen and  having no effect at  all  as
rain  stair rodded into  the  tarmac  and  bounced  back into the air. Water
splattered  through the  top of  the side window,  spraying  my shoulder and
face.
     I shouted at him, above the drumming on the roof.
     "Does this road go straight to Charlie's house?"
     Aaron  was leaning  over  the  wheel, busy wiping  the  inside  of  the
windscreen.
     "No, no this is a loop, just access to  an electricity sub-station. The
new private  road to the house  leads off  from it.  I thought maybe I could
drop you off where the two join, otherwise I'd have nowhere to go."
     That seemed perfectly reasonable to me.
     "How far to the house from the junction?"
     "If the scale  on the imagery is  right, maybe a mile, a mile and  then
some. All you've got to do is follow the road."
     The deluge continued as we crawled uphill.  I leant down and felt under
my seat, trying to find something to protect my documents. I wasn't going to
leave  them  with  Aaron:   they   were  going  everywhere   with  me,  like
communication codes, to be kept on the body at all times.
     Aaron looked at  me. What do you  need?" He was still  strained forward
against the wheel, as if that was going to help  him see  any better through
the solid sheet of rain as we crawled along at about 10 mph.
     I explained.
     "You'll find something in  the back, for sure. Won't be long now, maybe
two or three miles."
     That  was  fine by me. I sat back and  let myself be  mesmerized by the
rain bouncing around us.
     We followed the road as it  curved to the right, then  Aaron moved over
to the edge of the road and stopped. He pointed just ahead of us. That's the
road that goes to the  house. Like I said, maybe a mile, a mile and a  half.
They say from up there Chan can see the sun rise  over the Caribbean and set
in the Pacific.
     What do you want me to do now?"
     "First, just stay here and let me get into the back."
     I got out  and  put  my jacket  back on. Visibility  was down to  maybe
twenty metres.
     Rain hammered on the top of my head and shoulders.
     I went to the rear of the wagon  and opened  the tailgate. I was soaked
to the skin before I got half-way. I was just pleased not to be in a country
where being wet also meant freezing my bollocks off.
     I rummaged around in the back. Four five-gallon US Army jerry-cans were
fixed with bun  gees to the far end of the flatbed, adjacent to the cab.  At
least we  wouldn't be running out of fuel. Scattered around  them  were more
yellowing newspapers, a jack, a nylon  tow-rope and  all the associated crap
that would  be needed for a wreck like this. Amongst  it, I found what I was
looking  for,  two  plastic carrier bags. One contained a pair of greasy old
jump-leads, the other was  empty, apart from a few  bits  of  dried mud  and
vegetable leaves.  I shook them both out, tucked my passport, air ticket and
wallet into the first and wrapped them up. I put  that into the second, gave
it a twist, and placed it in an inside pocket of my jacket.
     I had  another look round, but found nothing else that could be  of any
use to me on  the recce. Slamming the tailgate, I went round to Aaron's door
and put my face up against the gap in the window.
     "Can you give me that compass, mate?" I had to shout to be heard.
     He leant across, unstuck it from the windscreen, and passed it through.
     "Sorry,  I didn't think  about it. I should have brought a proper  one,
and a map."
     I couldn't be  arsed  to say it wasn't  a problem. My  head was banging
big-time and I wanted to get on. Water cascaded down my face and off my nose
and chin as I pressed the illumination button on Baby-G.
     "When's last light?"
     "Six thirty, or thereabouts."
     "It's  just gone  three thirty. Drive  well away from here, all the way
back to the city, whatever. Then come back to this exact spot at three a.m."
     He nodded without even thinking about it.
     "OK, park here, and wait ten minutes. Keep the  passenger door unlocked
and just sit in the  car with the engine running." On a job, the engine must
always be kept running: if you  switch it off,  sod's law dictates that it's
not going to start up again.
     "You also need to  think of a story in case you're stopped.  Say you're
looking for some rare plant or something."
     He stared vacantly through the windscreen.
     "Yes,  that's  a  good  idea. In  fact the barrigon  tree is  common in
disturbed areas  and  along roads and-' "That's good,  mate,  good, whatever
works, but make sure the story's in your head by the time you pick me up, so
it sounds convincing."
     "OK." He nodded sharply, still looking  out of the window  and thinking
trees.
     "If I'm not here by ten past three, drive  off.  Then  come back  round
again and do exactly the same every hour until it gets light, OK?"
     His eyes were still fixed on the windscreen as he nodded sharply.
     "OK."
     Then, at  first light,  I want you to  bin it. Stop doing the  circuit.
Come back for me at midday, but not here wait at  the locks, by the trailer.
Wait for an hour, OK?"
     He nodded some more.
     "Got any questions?"
     He  hadn't. I figured I'd given  myself enough time, but if there was a
cock-up and I didn't make this RV, all was not lost. I could get to a river,
clean  all the jungle shit off and, with luck, dry myself off if the sun was
shining tomorrow  morning. Then I wouldn't  stand  out too  much once I  got
amongst the real people at the locks.
     "Now,  worst-case scenario, Aaron  and this is very, very important." I
was still shouting above the noise of the rain.  Rivulets of water ran  down
my face  and  into  my  mouth.  If  I  don't  appear at the locks by  midday
tomorrow,  then  you'd better call your  handler  and explain exactly what I
wanted you to do, all right?"
     "Why's that?"
     "Because I'll probably be dead."
     There  was a pause.  He was obviously shaken: maybe he  hadn't realized
what game  we were playing  here; maybe he'd thought we really were here for
the tree hugging.
     "Have you got that?"
     "Sure. I'll  just  tell  them,  word for  word."  He was  still looking
through the windscreen, frowning and nodding.
     I tapped on his window and he turned his head.
     "Hey, don't worry about it, mate.
     I'm just planning for the worst. I'll see you here at three."
     He smiled quite nervously. 'I'll tank up beforehand, yeah?"
     I tapped once more on the glass.
     "Good idea. See you later, mate."
     Aaron drove off. The engine noise was drowned by the rain. I walked off
the road into the murky, twilight world of the jungle. At once I was pushing
against  palm leaves and  bushes. Rainwater  that had been trapped  on  them
sluiced all over me.
     I moved in about five metres to  get  out of sight while  I  waited for
Aaron to get well  away from the area, and plonked down in the mud and  leaf
litter,  resting my  back  against a tree-trunk as yet  more thunder erupted
across the sky. Water still found me as it cascaded from the canopy.
     Pushing back my soaked  hair with my  hands I brought up my  knees  and
rested my forehead against  them as the rain found its way from the  back of
my neck and dripped away over my chin. Underneath my jacket, my left arm was
being  chewed.  I gave the material  a good  rub and attempted to squeeze to
death  whatever  had  got  up  there,  quietly welcoming  myself  to Aaron's
'cathedral of nature'. I should have looked out for some mozzie repellent in
the Miami departures lounge instead of a guidebook.
     My jeans were wet and  heavy, hugging my legs  as I stood up.  I wasn't
exactly dressed for crawling around in the  jungle, but tough, I'd just have
to get  on  with it. If I was going to hunt,  I had to  get my  arse over to
where the ducks were, so I headed back  to the loop. For all I knew it might
have stopped raining  out there  by now. Inside the canopy you'd  never know
because  the water still falls for ages as it  makes its way  down  leaf  by
leaf.
     I turned right on  to the  single-track  metal  road: it  was pointless
moving  through the  jungle from  this distance.  The  downpour had eased  a
little, now only bouncing  an inch or two off the tarmac, but  it was  still
enough to mean that a vehicle wouldn't  see me  until it was right on top of
me.
     As I started  to walk up the  road I  checked the ball  compass.  I was
heading  uphill and  west, as  we had been all the  way from Clayton in  the
Mazda. I  kept to one  side so I  could make a quick entry  into  cover, and
didn't move too fast so  I'd be able  to hear any approaching vehicles above
the rasping of my soaked jeans.
     I still had no  idea how I was going to do this job, but at least I was
in an environment I understood. I  wished Dr. Hughes could see  me now: then
she'd know there was something I was good at.
     I stopped and scratched the skin at the base of my  spine to discourage
whatever was munching at it, then moved on up the road.
     THIRTEEN
     For the best part of a mile of uphill slog I  was deluged with rain and
drenched in my own sweat, hair plastered to  my face and clothes clinging to
my body like long-lost friends.
     At last, the rain subsided, and the sun emerged between the gaps in the
clouds, burning on to my face and making  me  squint as it reflected off the
mirror of wet  tarmac. The Jackie Os went back on. I looked at the compass I
was heading  west with  a  touch of north in it and  also checked my plastic
bags. They'd done their job well: at least I had dry documents.
     Humidity oozed from the jungle. Birds began to call once more from high
up in  the  canopy. One in particular stood out, sounding like a slowed-down
heart-rate monitor.  Other forms of wildlife rustled  in  the  foliage  as I
walked past and, as  ever, there was the blanket noise of crickets, cicadas,
whatever they were  called. They seemed to be  everywhere, in every  jungle,
though I'd never seen one.
     I wasn't fooled by the sunshine or the animals rustling in the foliage.
I  knew  there was  more  rain to  come.  The  dark clouds hadn't completely
dispersed, and thunder still rumbled in the distance.
     I  rounded  a  gentle bend and a  pair of iron  gates  came  into view,
blocking  the  road about  four  hundred metres ahead. They were  set into a
high, whitewashed  wall that disappeared into the jungle on  each side. Once
I'd confirmed that I was still heading westish, it was time to get back into
cover. I eased my way in, moving branches  and fronds aside carefully rather
than  just crashing through. I didn't  want  to mark my entry point with top
sign sign that is made above  ground  level  and which in this case might be
seen from the  road. A large  rubber  leaf or a  fern, for example,  doesn't
naturally expose its  lighter underside; that only happens if it's disturbed
by someone or something brushing past. The leaf will eventually turn back to
its  darker side  so it  can gather  light, but to  the  trained eye in  the
meantime it's as good as dropping your business card. I had no idea if these
people would be switched-on enough to notice such things as they drove past,
but I wasn't going to leave that to chance.
     Once under  the canopy, I felt  like  I was  in a  pressure cooker; the
humidity has nowhere to go,  and  it  gives  your lungs a serious  work-out.
Rainwater still fell in bursts as unseen birds took flight from the branches
above.
     Having moved maybe thirty metres in a direct line away from the road, I
stopped to check the compass. My aim now was to head west again and see if I
hit the perimeter wall.  If I  encountered nothing after an  hour I'd  stop,
move  back, and try again. It  would be very  easy to become 'geographically
embarrassed', as officers call it: in the jungle the golden rule is to trust
your compass,  no matter what  your instincts are telling you.  The wall  of
green was maybe seven  metres  away, and that was  where  I  would focus  my
attention as I moved, to detect any hostiles and find the house.
     As I moved off, I felt a tug on my sleeve  and realized I'd encountered
my first batch of wait-a-while. It's a thin,  twine-like vine, studded  with
tiny barbs  that dig  into  clothing and skin,  much  like a bramble.  Every
jungle  I'd been in  was infested with the stuff. Once it's caught you,  the
only way  to get clear  is  to tear  yourself free. If you try  to extricate
yourself barb by barb, you'll be there for ever.
     I  pushed on. I had to get to the house before  last light  so  I could
carry  out a decent recce with some degree of  visibility. Besides, I didn't
want  to be stuck in here once it  was dark: I'd never make the morning RVs,
and would then waste  time  waiting for midday, instead of preparing for the
job I was here to do.
     For the  next half an hour or so  I headed  uphill and west, frequently
untangling myself  from batches of wait-a-while. At last I stopped and leant
against a tree to catch my breath and check the compass. I  didn't know what
sort  of tree it was; for some strange reason I could  recognize a mahogany,
and this wasn't one.
     My hands were covered with  small cuts  and  scratches now, which  hurt
like wasp stings.
     I moved off once more, thinking about the CTR. Under ideal  conditions,
I'd take time to find out the target's routine, so that I could take  him on
in a killing ground of my choosing;  that way, I had  the  advantage.  But I
didn't  have time, and the only thing I'd  learnt from Aaron about Michael's
movements was that he would be going in to college at some point this week.
     It's easy enough to kill someone; the hard bit is getting away with it.
I needed to find the easiest way of dropping him so there was as little risk
to me as  possible. I could get all Rambo'd up and storm the place, but that
wasn't part of my plan, not yet anyway.
     I saw open space  about six or seven metres ahead, just beyond the wall
of green, flooded with brilliant sunlight and awash with mud. I moved slowly
back into  the jungle until  it disappeared from sight, and  stood against a
tree.
     Standing  still  and doing nothing but take deep breaths and  wipe  the
sweat from my face, I started to hear the world above me once more.
     I was hot, sticky, out of breath,  and gagging for a drink, but I found
myself  captivated  by the amazing sound of a howler monkey in the treetops,
busy living up to its name. Then I slapped my face yet again to zap whatever
it was that had landed to say hello.
     Moisture seeped out of my leather belt as I squeezed it open, tucked in
my sweatshirt and  generally sorted myself out.  I knew that  my jeans would
soon be hanging off my arse again,  but it didn't matter, this just made  me
feel better.
     I felt the first of what I knew was going to be a whole colony of itchy
bumps on my neck, and quite a big one coming up on my left eyelid.
     My basic plan for the recce was to simulate  one of those electric toys
that motor  around the floor until they bump into a wall, then rebound, turn
round, move off, turn round again and bounce back on  to the  wall somewhere
else.
     A lot of questions  needed answering. Was  there physical security, and
if  so, were they young or old? Did they  look  switched on and/or armed? If
so, what with? If there was technical security,  where were the devices, and
were they powered up?
     The best  way of finding answers was just  to observe the target for as
long as possible.  Some questions can be answered on site, but many only pop
up once you're  tucked up  with a cup of cocoa and trying to come up with  a
plan. The longer I stayed  there, the  more  information  would sink into my
unconscious for me to drag out later if I needed it.
     The big question would I have to  do a  Rambo? remained, but I'd answer
that on target. My mind drifted back to the Yes Man and Sundance, and I knew
I might have to if there was no  other way. But then  I cut  away  from that
stuff; what I needed to do now  was get my arse up to that mud a  few metres
away and have a look at what was out there before I got lost inside my head.
     Concentrating on the green wall, I moved carefully forward.
     I saw the sunlight reflecting off the puddles maybe six metres in front
of me and  dropped  slowly on to my  stomach  in the mud and rotting leaves.
Stretching  out  my  arms,  I  put pressure on my  elbows  and pushed myself
forward on the  tips of  my toes, lifting my body  just  clear of the jungle
floor, sliding about six  inches  at a time, trying to avoid crushing  dead,
pale  yellow  palm leaves as I moved.  They always make a brittle, crunching
noise, even when they're wet.
     It felt like I was back in Colombia, closing in on the DMP to carry out
a CTR so an  attack could be planned with the information we brought back. I
never thought that I'd still be doing this shit nearly ten years later.
     I stopped every  couple of bounds, lifted my head from the dirt, looked
and  listened, while slowly pulling out thorns from my hands and neck as the
mozzies got busy  again. I  was  starting to have  second  thoughts about my
little  love affair with the jungle. I  realized  I only liked it when I was
standing up.
     My  alligator  impression was  hard work  in  this humidity, and I  was
starting to pant, with every sound magnified tenfold so close to the ground;
even the leaves seemed  to crackle more than they normally  would. The sharp
pain in  my  ribs didn't help  much, but I  knew  all  the discomfort  would
disappear once I was on top of the target house.
     I inched closer to the  wall of sunlight as  leaf litter and other shit
from the jungle floor worked  its  way inside my jacket sleeves and down the
front of my sweatshirt. The plastic bag rustled gently inside my jacket. Now
that my jeans had worked  their  way  back down  my  arse, bits of  twig and
broken leaf were also finding their way on to my stomach. I was not having a
good day out.
     Another  bound, then I stopped, looked and listened. Slowly wiping away
the  sweat  that was running into my eyes and wishing that  they  weren't so
tired, I squashed some airborne monster that was munching away  at my cheek.
I still  couldn't see anything in front  of me apart from sunlight  and mud,
and knew I was so low down that I'd have to wait until I was right up on the
canopy's edge to get a good view of whatever was out there.
     The first thing  I spotted  of any significance  was wire fencing along
the  edge of the  treeline. I moved  carefully towards the most prickly  and
uninviting  bush at  the edge of  the clearing  and wormed my way  into  it,
cutting my hands on the barbs that covered its branches.  They were so sharp
that the pain of being cut wasn't instant; it came a few seconds later, like
getting sliced with a Stanley knife.
     Lying on my  stomach, I  rested my chin  on  my  hands, looked  up  and
listened, trying to take in every detail. As soon as I'd stopped moving, the
mozzies formed into stacks above me, like 747s waiting to land at Heathrow.
     I found myself  looking  through a four-inch chain-link fence, designed
more to keep out wildlife than humans. The house was obviously very new, and
by the look of things Charlie Chan had  been so  keen to move  in he  hadn't
waited for proper security.
     The open space in front  of me was a gently undulating plateau covering
maybe twenty acres. Tree stumps stuck out here and there like rotten  teeth,
waiting to be dragged out or blasted before a lawn was laid.  I couldn't see
any oceans from where I lay,  just trees and  sky. Caterpillar-tracked plant
was scattered  about the area, lying idle, but business at Choi and  Co. was
obviously  booming in every  other respect,  now that  the US had gone.  The
house  looked  more  like a luxury  hotel than  a  family hideaway. The main
building was  sited no more than three hundred metres  to my left.  I wasn't
face-on to the target, along the line of the gate and wall;
     I must have clipped a  corner because I'd  come  on  to  the right-hand
perimeter. I  had a clear view of the front and right-hand elevation. It was
a massive, three floor Spanish-style villa with brilliant whitewashed walls,
wrought-iron  balconies and a pristine terra cotta  roof. Standing  proud of
this was  a belvedere tower, constructed completely of glass. That was where
you'd see the oceans from.
     Other pitched roofs at different heights radiated out in all directions
from  the main  building,  covering a network  of  verandas  and archways. A
swimming  pool  sparkled  to  the right of  the main house, surrounded by  a
raised patio;
     distressed, Roman-style stone  pillars  were dotted  about,  to give it
that  Gladiator  look.  The  only  things  missing  were  a  few statues  of
sixteenth-century Spaniards with swords and baggy trousers.
     A set of four tennis courts  stood behind  a line of  fencing.  Nearby,
three large satellite dishes  were set into the ground. Maybe  Charlie liked
to   watch   American  football,  or  check  the  Nasdaq  to  see   how  his
money-laundering activities were shaping up.
     Including  the Lexus,  there  were  six shiny SUVs  and  pickups parked
outside a large turning circle that  bordered  a very ornate stone fountain,
then led down to  the front gates,  maybe three hundred metres to my left. I
looked back at the  vehicles. One in  particular  had caught my eye. A  dark
blue CMC with blacked-out windows.
     Most impressively,  there was a white and yellow  Jet Ranger helicopter
using some of the driveway in front of the house as a pad. Just the thing to
beat the morning commute.
     I lay still and watched, but there was no movement, nothing going on. I
opened my jaw a little to close  off my swallowing sounds, trying to pick up
any noise from  the house,  but  I.  was  too far  away  and  they  were too
sensible: they kept indoors in the conditioned air.
     My head was getting covered with  lumps as I watched thousands of large
dark  red  ants  start  to trundle  past just inches from  my nose, carrying
scraps of leaf sometimes twice their own size. The  leading few hundred were
blazing the  path maybe thirty abreast,  the rest behind so closely packed I
could hear them rustling.
     I  got back  to  looking at  the  target and  became aware of  a pretty
unpleasant smell. It didn't take long to work out that it was me. I was wet,
covered in mud, bits of twig  and  brush, itching  all over and desperate to
rub at the mozzie bites. I was sure I could  feel  something new munching at
the small of my exposed back. I just had to let it munch:  the only things I
could risk  moving  were  my eyes. Maybe I'd get  back to  loving the jungle
tomorrow, but at the moment I wanted a divorce. After nearly twenty years of
this stuff I really did need to get a life.
     There  was  certainly  no  need  to  become an electric  toy and  do  a
360-degree tour  of  the target: I could see everything  I needed from here.
Getting close to the house in daylight would be impossible there was far too
much open ground to cover. It might be just  as difficult at night; I didn't
yet know if they  had  any night-viewing facility, or closed-circuit TV with
white light or an IR capability covering  the area,  so I had to assume they
did.
     My problems didn't  end  there. Even if  I did  get to the house, where
would  I find Michael? Only Errol Flynn can walk into the front hall and pop
behind a big curtain while squads of armed guards march past.
     Swapping my hands over and adjusting the position of my chin, I started
to take  in the scene in front  of me. I had to squeeze my  gritty eyes shut
constantly,  then refocus.  The  ant  columns were  doing  just fine  as  an
enormous black butterfly landed an  inch or two  from  my  nose. Again I was
back in Colombia.
     Anything that was  colourful  and flew, we caught for  Bernard.  He was
over six foot four, weighed nineteen  stone, and looked as if  he ate babies
for breakfast.
     He sort of let everyone down  by  collecting butterflies and moths  for
his mother instead. We would come back  into base camp from a patrol and the
fridge would be filled with sealed jars full of things with wings instead of
cold drinks  and Marmite. But  no one  was ever going to say anything to his
face in case he decided to pin us to the wall instead.
     In  the distance  there was the slow, low rumble of thunder as the heat
haze shimmered over the  open  ground in front of me,  and steam rose gently
from the mud.
     It would  have been  wonderful to get out there and  stretch out in the
sun, away  from this  world of gloom and mozzies. The shrill buzzing as they
attacked the side of my head  sounded like a demonic dentist's drill  and  I
had definitely been bitten by something psychopathic on my lower back.
     There was movement from the house.
     Two white, short-sleeved shirts and ties came out of the main door with
a man in a shocking pink Hawaiian shirt who  climbed into the CMC. My friend
the  Pizza  Man.  The other two got into  one  of the pickups  and a fourth,
running  from the  main door, jumped  on to the  back. Standing up,  leaning
forward against the  cab, he looked like he was leading a wagon train as the
pickup rounded the fountain and headed for the gates with the CMC following.
He wasn't  dressed  as smartly as the other two: he was in black wellies and
carried a  wide-brimmed straw hat and  a bundle of  something or other under
his arm.
     Both wagons stopped for maybe thirty seconds  as the  gates swung open,
then drove out of sight as they closed again behind them.
     A  gust of wind made  the  trees sway  at the edge of  the  canopy.  It
wouldn't  be long before  the next  batch of rain  was heading this way. I'd
have  to  get going if  I wanted to be out  of the jungle  by last light.  I
started to  shift  backwards  on my elbows and toes, got  on to my hands and
knees for a while, and finally to my  feet once I was safely behind the wall
of green. I gave myself a frenzied scratch and shake, tucked everything back
in, ran my fingers through my hair and rubbed my back against a tree. A rash
of  some  sort was developing at the base of my spine  and the temptation to
scratch it more was unbearable. My face probably looked like Darth Maul's by
now. My left eyelid had swollen up big-time, and was starting to close.
     Baby-G told me it was just after five: maybe an hour and a  bit  before
last light,  as it gets dark under the canopy before it does  outside. I was
gagging for a drink but I'd have to wait until it rained again.
     My plan now was to move south towards the road, turn right and parallel
it under the canopy until I hit  the edge of the cleared area  again  nearer
the gate, then sit and watch the  target  under cover of darkness. That way,
as soon as I'd finished, I could jump on to the tarmac to meet Aaron down at
the loop at three a.m. instead of being stuck in here for the night.
     I headed off through the thick wall of humidity. Wet tarmac and a dark,
moody  sky soon  came into sight through the foliage, just as  the BUBs  has
ha-up  beetles)  started to go for it all around me  with their high-pitched
screams.
     They sounded like crickets with megaphones.  They were telling  me that
God was about to switch off the light in here and go to bed.
     A  distant  rumble  of thunder resonated across the treetops, and  then
there was silence, as  if the jungle was holding its breath. Thirty  seconds
later, I felt the first splashes of rain. The noise of it hitting the leaves
even  drowned out the  BUBs,  then  the  thunder roared  directly  overhead.
Another thirty seconds and the water had worked its way down from the canopy
and back on to my head and shoulders.
     I turned right and picked my way towards  the fence  line,  paralleling
the road about seven or eight metres in. Mentally I was preparing myself for
a  miserable few  hours in the  dark.  However,  it was better to  kill time
watching the target while I waited for Aaron than  doing nothing down at the
loop. Time in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. And at least I knew there was
no need to crawl into position: the house  was too far away for them to spot
me.
     I  moved forward,  trying to make a record in my head of everything I'd
seen so far at the target. Every twenty  paces or so I stopped  to check the
compass as thunder detonated high above the canopy and rain beat a tattoo on
the leaves and the top of my head.  I was displaying a builder's crack where
my jeans  should  have been, but it didn't matter, I'd sort myself out again
later on. I started to slip and slide on the mud  beneath the leaf litter. I
just wanted to get up to the fence before it got dark.
     I fell on to my knees at  one stage and discovered some rocks concealed
beneath the  mud. I sat there for a while in the  dirt, rain running into my
eyes  and  ears and down my neck, waiting for the pain to  ease. At least it
was warm.
     I got up, still  resisting  the temptation  to scratch my back rash  to
death. A  few more metres and  a large rotted  tree trunk blocked my way.  I
couldn't be bothered working  around it then  back on to my compass bearing,
so I just lay across it on my stomach and twisted myself over. The bark came
away from the rotting wood like the  skin on a blister and my chest throbbed
from the beasting Sundance and his mate had treated me to in the garage.
     As I  got to my feet,  looking down, brushing  off  bark,  I  caught  a
glimpse to  my  right of something  unnatural, something that shouldn't have
been there.
     In  the jungle  there are no straight lines and  nothing  is  perfectly
flat;
     everything's random. Everything except this.
     The man  was looking straight at me,  rooted to  the spot five  or  six
metres away.
     FOURTEEN
     He was wearing a green US Army poncho with the hood over his head. Rain
dripped from the wide-brimmed straw hat perched on top of that.
     He was a small guy, about five five, his body perfectly still, and if I
could  have seen his  eyes they would  probably have  been wide and  dancing
around, full of  indecision. Fight or  flight? He must have been flapping. I
knew I was.
     My eyes shot towards the first six inches or so  of a gollock (machete)
that his right hand was resting on  and which protruded from the green nylon
of his poncho. I could hear the rain pounding on the taut nylon, like a drum
roll, before it dripped down to his black wellies.
     I kept my eyes fixed on the exposed part of  what was probably two feet
of gollock blade. When he moved, so would that thing.
     Nothing was happening, no talking, no movement, but I knew that  one of
us was going to get hurt.
     We stood there. Fifteen  seconds  felt like fifteen minutes.  Something
had to be done to break the stand-off. I didn't know what he was going to do
I didn't think he did yet but I certainly wasn't going to be this close to a
gollock and not do  something to protect myself, even if  it was with just a
pair of pointed pliers.  The  knife on my Leatherman would take too long  to
find and pull out.
     I  reached round  with my right hand,  and felt for the  soaking, slimy
leather pouch. My  fingers fumbled to  undo the retaining stud  then  closed
around the hard steel of  the  Leatherman. And all the time,  my  eyes never
left that still static gollock.
     He made his  decision, screaming at the top  of his voice as  he ran at
me.
     I made  mine, turning  and bolting in  the direction of  the  road.  He
probably thought my hand was going for a pistol. I wished it had been.
     I was still  fumbling to get the Leatherman out  of its pouch as I ran,
folding  the  two  handles  back on  themselves, exposing the  pliers as  he
followed in my wake.
     He was shouting  stuff. What? Shouting for help? Telling me to stop? It
didn't matter, the jungle swallowed it.
     I got caught on wait-a-while, but it might have been tissue paper to me
right  then. I  could  hear  the  nylon  poncho  flapping behind me and  the
adrenaline pumped big-time.
     I could see tarmac ... once on that  he wouldn't be able to catch me in
those  wellies. I lost  my  footing,  falling on to my arse but gripping the
Leatherman as if my life depended on it. It did.
     I looked up at him. He dinked left and stopped, eyes wide as saucers as
the gollock rose into the air. My hands went down into the mud and I slipped
and  slithered, moving  backwards, trying to get back  on  to my  feet.  His
screams got higher in pitch as the blade flashed through the air.
     It must have  been a cheap buy: the blade hit a sapling and made a thin
tinny sound.  He spun round, exposing his  back to  me in his  frenzy, still
screaming and shouting as he, too, slipped on the mud and on to his arse.
     As he fell, the rear of the  poncho caught on some wait-a-while and was
yanked vertically.  With the Leatherman still in my right hand I grabbed the
flailing material with my left and pulled back on it as hard as I could, not
knowing what I was going to do next. All  I knew was that the gollock had to
be stopped. This was one of Chan's men, those boys who  crucified and killed
their victims. I wasn't going to join the queue.
     I  pulled  again  as he  landed  on  his knees, yanking him  completely
backwards  on to the  ground. I grabbed another handful of cape and  pulled,
constricting his neck by bunching the nylon of the hood as I got up. I could
hear the rain hitting the tarmac outside as he kicked out  and I dragged him
and our noise back into the jungle, still not too sure what I was doing.
     He  had his left hand around the hood  of his poncho, trying to protect
his neck as the nylon squeezed against it. The  gollock was in his right. He
couldn't see  me  behind  him, but  still he  hit  out, swirling  around  in
desperation. The blade slashed the poncho.
     Still  screaming at  the top of his lungs in fear and anger,  he kicked
out as if he was having an epileptic fit.
     I bobbed and  weaved  like a boxer, not knowing  why it  just  seemed a
natural reaction to having sharp steel waved in my face. His  arse bulldozed
through leaves and palm branches.  The struggle must have looked like a park
ranger trying to drag a pissed-off crocodile out of the water by its tail. I
was just  concentrating on getting him  back into the jungle and making sure
the whirling blade didn't connect with me.
     But then it did big-time sinking into my right calf.
     I screamed with pain  as I held on, still dragging him backwards. I had
no choice: if I stopped moving he'd be able to get up.  Fuck if anyone heard
us, I was fighting for my life.
     The crocodile thrashed and twisted around  on the floor as there || was
another almighty clap of thunder, a deep resonant rumbling that seemed to go
on  for ever. Forked  lightning crackled high above, its noise drowning  out
his shouts and the clatter of rain.
     The sharp  pain of  the cut spread out  from  my leg,  but  there was I
nothing I could do but go on dragging him into the jungle.
     I  didn't see the log. My legs hit it and buckled and I fell backwards,
keeping my grip on the poncho as  I crashed into a palm. Rainwater came down
in a torrent.
     The  pain in my leg was gone  in an instant.  It was more  important to
fill my head with other things, like living.
     The  guy felt the material round his neck relax,  and instantly  turned
round. As he  scrambled on  to  his knees,  the gollock  was up.  I  crabbed
backwards  on my hands and feet, trying to get myself upright again,  trying
to keep clear of his reach.
     Cursing and screaming in Spanish, he lunged forward in a wild frenzy. I
saw  two  wild  dark eyes  as  the gollock blade  swung  at  me.  I thrashed
backwards and managed to get myself on to my feet. It was time to run again.
     I felt the gollock whoosh through  the air behind  me. This was getting
Outrageous. 1 was going to die.
     Fuck it, I had to take a chance.
     I  turned and charged  straight at him, face  down,  bending forward so
that only my back  was exposed. My whole focus was on the area of the poncho
where his stomach should have been.
     I screamed at the top of my voice, more for my own benefit than his. If
I wasn't quick enough,  I'd soon know because I'd feel the blade slice  down
between my shoulders.
     The Leatherman pliers were still  in my right  hand. I got into him and
felt his body buckle with the impact as I wrapped my left arm around him and
tried to pinion his gollock arm.
     Then I rammed the pointed tips against his stomach.
     Both of us moved backwards. The pliers hadn't  penetrated his skin yet:
they were held by the poncho and whatever was underneath. He screamed,  too,
probably feeling the steel trying to pierce him.
     We hit a tree. His back  was against it and I lifted  my head and body,
using my weight to force the pliers to penetrate his clothing and flesh.
     He gave an agonized howl,  and I felt his stomach tighten. It must have
looked as  if I was  trying  to have sex with  him as  I kept on pushing and
bucking  my body  against him, using my weight against him  with  the pliers
between us. At  last I felt his stomach give way. It was like pushing into a
sheet of rubber; and once they were  in, there was no  way  they were coming
out again.
     I churned my hand  up  and  down and round in circles,  any way that  I
could to maximize  the damage. My head was over  his left shoulder and I was
breathing through clenched teeth as he screamed just inches from the side of
my face. I saw his bared teeth as they tried to bite me, and head butted him
to keep  him away. Then he screamed so  loudly into my face I could feel the
force of his breath.
     By now I wasn't even sure if the gollock was still in his hands or not.
I smelt cologne and felt his smooth skin against my neck  as he thrashed his
face around, his body bucking and writhing.
     The stab wound must have enlarged, as he was leaking over me. Blood had
got past the hole  in the  poncho and I could feel  the warmth  of it on  my
hands. I continued to push in, keeping my body up against his, using my legs
to keep him trapped between me and the tree.
     His noises were getting softer and I  could feel his warm slobber on my
neck. My hand was virtually inside  his stomach now, taking  the poncho with
it. I could smell the contents of his intestinal tract.
     He collapsed forward on to me and took me down with him on to my knees.
Only then did I withdraw my hand. As the Leatherman emerged and I kicked him
off, he fell into the foetal position. He might have been crying; I couldn't
really tell.
     I moved away quickly, picked up the gollock from where he'd dropped it,
and went  and sat against a tree, fighting for breath, unbelievably relieved
it was  all over. As my  body calmed down, the pain  came back to my leg and
chest.  I  pulled  up my  slashed  jeans on my  right  leg and inspected the
damage. It  was to the rear of the calf; the gash was only about four inches
long and not very deep, but bad enough to be leaking quite badly.
     My  hand, clenched around the Leatherman, looked much worse than it was
as the  rain diluted his blood. I tried to fold out the knife blade  but  it
was difficult; my hand was shaking, now that I'd released my tight grip, and
probably through shock as well. In  the end I  had to use my teeth, and when
the blade was finally open I used it to cut  my sweatshirt sleeves into  wet
strips.
     With these I  improvised a  bandage, wrapping it around my leg to apply
pressure on the wound.
     I  sat  there in the mud for a good five minutes,  rainwater  streaming
down my face and into my eyes and mouth,  dripping off  my nose. I stared at
the man, still lying in a foetal position, covered in mud and leaf litter.
     The poncho was up around his chest like a pulled-up dress, and the rain
still beat on it like  a  drums king  Both  his hands clutched his  stomach;
blood glistened as it seeped through the gaps between his fingers. His  legs
made small circular movements as if he was trying to run.
     I felt  sorry  for him, but I'd  had no  choice.  Once that  length  of
razor-sharp steel started flying around it was either him or me.
     I wasn't  feeling  too proud of myself, but  placed that feeling in  my
mental bin with the lid back on when I began to see that this wasn't exactly
the  local  woodcutter I'd stumbled  across.  His nails were  clean and well
manicured, and though  his hair was a mess of mud and leaves, I could see it
was well cut, with a square neck and neatly trimmed  sideburns. He was maybe
early  thirties, Spanish, good-looking and clean-shaven. He had one  unusual
feature: instead of two distinct eyebrows, he had just one big one.
     This  guy  wasn't a farmhand, he was  a  city boy,  the  one who'd been
standing in the back  of the pickup.  As Aaron had said, these people didn't
fuck about and he would have sliced me up without a second thought. But what
had he been doing in here?
     I sat and stared at  him as it got darker  and the rain and thunder did
its thing above  the canopy. This episode  spelt the end of  the  recce, and
both of  us  were going to  have to disappear.  For  sure he was going to be
missed. Maybe he had been already. They would  come looking for him,  and if
they  knew where  he had been, it wouldn't take them long to find him  if  I
left him here.
     I  folded down my bloodstained Leatherman and put it back in its pouch,
wondering if Jim Leatherman  had ever imagined his  invention would  be used
like this.
     I guessed that the fence must be closer than the road now:  if I headed
for that, at least I'd have something  to guide me out of the  jungle in the
darkness.
     Unibrow's breathing  was shallow and quick, and he  was  still gripping
his  stomach  with both  hands,  his face  screwed up in pain as  he mumbled
weakly to  himself. I forced his eyes open.  Even in this  low  light  there
should have been a better reaction in his pupils;  they should have closed a
lot quicker. He was definitely on his way out.
     I  went  in  search  of  his   hat,   gollock   in   hand.  It   was  a
bottom-of-the-range thing, with  a  plastic handle riveted each side of very
thin, rust-spotted steel.
     What  to do with him once we were out of here? If he was still alive  I
couldn't take  him to a  hospital  because  he'd talk  about me, which would
alert Charlie and compromise the job.  I certainly couldn't take him back to
Aaron and Carrie's place because that would compromise them. All  I knew was
that  I had  to  get  him  away from  the immediate vicinity.  I'd think  of
something later.
     Hat retrieved, I went back to Unibrow,  got hold  of his right arm, and
hoisted him in a fireman's lift over my back and  shoulder. There were moans
and groans from him and he tried in a pathetic way to kick out at me.
     I grabbed his right  arm and leg and held them together, jumping gently
up and down to get him comfy round my shoulders. The small amounts of oxygen
that his injuries allowed him  to take in were knocked out of him  again, no
doubt  making him feel  even worse, but I couldn't  help  that.  The  poncho
flapped over my face and I had to push it away. I grabbed his hat, and then,
gollock back in hand, I checked the compass and headed for the fence line
     It was  getting much darker; I  could only  just make out where my feet
were going.
     I felt  something warm  and wet on my neck,  warmer than the rain,  and
guessed it was his blood.
     Pushing  myself hard  I limped  on, stopping occasionally to  check the
compass.
     Nothing else mattered but getting to the road and making the RV. Within
minutes I  came  on to the fence line The BUBs were reaching a crescendo. In
another quarter of an hour it was going to be pitch black.
     Ahead of  me, in the open,  semi-dark space,  was a solid wall of rain,
thumping into the  mud with such force  it was creating mini craters. Lights
were already  on  in the  house, and  in one area,  probably  a hallway,  an
enormous  chandelier  shone  through   a  high  window.  The   fountain  was
illuminated but I couldn't  see the  statue. That was good, because it meant
they couldn't see me.
     I followed the  fence for a few minutes, my passenger's head and poncho
constantly  snagging on branches  of wait-a-while so that  I had to stop and
backtrack  to  free  him.  All the time I kept my eyes glued on the house. I
came across what looked like a small mammal track, paralleling the fence and
about two  feet in. I followed it, past  caring  about leaving  sign  in the
churned-up mud. The rain would sort that out.
     I'd  gone  no  more than  a dozen  steps  when my limping right leg was
whipped  away  from  under  me  and  both  of  us  went  crashing  into  the
undergrowth.
     I  lashed out in a frenzy: it was as  if an invisible  hand had grabbed
hold of my ankle and thrown me to one side. I tried to kick out but my right
foot was stuck fast. I tried  to crawl away  but couldn't. Next to me on the
ground, Unibrow gave a loud groan of pain.
     I looked down and  saw a faint glimmer  of  metal.  It  was wire: I was
caught in a snare; the more I struggled, the more it was gripping me.
     I turned round to make sure where Unibrow was. He was  rolled up in his
own little world,  oblivious to the thunder  and  forked lightning  rattling
across the night sky.
     It was simple enough to  ease open the loop. I  got to my feet and went
over  and heaved  him back  up on to my shoulders,  then set  off along  the
track.
     Just another  five minutes of stumbling brought  us to the start of the
whitewashed  rough-stone wall and,  ten  metres or so later,  the  tall iron
gates.
     It was  good to feel tarmac under my feet.  I turned left and moved  as
quickly as I could  to get away from the area. If a  vehicle  came I'd  just
have to plunge back into the undergrowth and hope for the best.
     As I shuffled  forward with the weight of the man  over  my shoulder, I
became much more aware of  the pain in my right  calf. It hurt  too much  to
raise my foot, so  I kept my  legs  as straight as possible, pumping forward
with my free arm. Rain ricocheted a good six inches off the tarmac, making a
horrendous racket. I realized I'd  never be able to hear a vehicle coming up
behind  us,  so  I  had  to  keep  stopping and turning  round. Thunder  and
lightning roared and crackled behind me  and I kept moving as though  I  was
running away from it.
     It took over an hour but I  finally got us both into the canopy  at the
loop.  The rain  had  eased off but Unibrow's pain  hadn't, and neither  had
mine. The jungle was so dark now I couldn't see my hand in front of my face,
only the  small luminous specks on  the jungle  floor,  maybe phosphorescent
spores or night-time beasties on the move.
     For an hour or so I sat, rubbed my leg, and waited for Aaron, listening
to  Unibrow's whimpers,  and  the sound of his legs moving about in the leaf
litter.
     His groans faded,  and eventually disappeared. I crawled over to him on
my hands and knees, feeling for his body.
     Then,  following  his legs up to his face, all  I could hear  was weak,
wheezy breath trying  to force itself through  his mucus-filled nostrils and
mouth.  I pulled out  the Leatherman and jabbed  his  tongue with the blade.
There was no reaction, it was just a matter of time.
     Rolling him on to his back,  I lay on  top of  him and jammed my  right
forearm into his throat, pushing down with all my weight, my left hand on my
right wrist.
     There was little resistance.  His legs  kicked  out  weakly, moving  us
about  a bit, a hand floundered  about my arm and another came up  weakly to
scratch at my face.
     I simply moved  my  head out of the way and listened to the insects and
his  low  whimpers as I  cut off the blood supply to his head, and oxygen to
his lungs.
     FIFTEEN
     Wednesday  6 September  It's  Kev,  Kelly's  dad.  He's  lying  on  the
living-room floor,  eyes  glazed and vacant, his head battered, an aluminium
baseball bat lying beside him.
     There's blood on the glass coffee table and the thick shag-pile carpet,
some even splattered on the patio windows.
     I put my foot on the bottom stair. The shag pile  helps  keep the noise
down,  but  still  it's like treading  on ice, testing  each step gently for
creaks,  always placing my feet  to the inside edge, slowly  and  precisely.
Sweat  pours off my face, I worry if  anyone  is hiding  up  there, ready to
attack.
     I get level with the landing, I point my pistol up above my head, using
the wall  as support, move up  the  stairs backwards, step by step  ...  The
washing machine is on  its final thundering spin  downstairs, still the soft
rock plays on the radio.
     As I  get nearer to Kev and Marsha's room  I can  see  that the door is
slightly ajar, there's a faint, metallic tang ... I  can also  smell shit, I
feel sick, I know I have to go in.
     Marsha:  she's  kneeling by the bed,  her top half  spreadeagled on the
mattress, the bedspread covered with blood.
     Forcing myself to  ignore her I move to the bathroom.  Aida is lying on
the  floor, her  five-year-old head nearly severed from her shoulders; I can
see the vertebrae just holding on.
     Bang, I go back  against  the wall and slump on to the floor,  blood is
everywhere, I get it all over my shirt, my hands, I sit in a pool of it,
     soaking the seat of  my  trousers.  There  is  a  loud  creak  of  wood
splitting above me ...  I  drop my weapon, curl up and cover my head with my
hands. Where's Kelly?
     Where the fuck is Kelly?
     "Shit! shit! shit!"
     There was the  crash of  branches, followed swiftly by the  thud on the
jungle floor,  close enough that I felt  the  vibration in the ground as  it
does when  two tonnes of  dead  tree have just given  up  the  will  to stay
upright.
     The crash  spooked not only me but  also  the birds lazing on  branches
high above.
     There  was screeching and the heavy, slow  flap of  large wings getting
their owners the hell out of there.
     A few  gallons  of canopy-held rain had followed  the deadfall. I wiped
the water from my face and stood up.  Shit, it's getting bad. I've never had
them on  a job and never had them about Kev and his gang. It must be because
I'm so  knackered,  I  just feel totally  drained  ... I pushed  hair off my
forehead and got a grip of myself.  Knackered? So what? Just get on with it.
Work is work; cut away  from that shit. You  know where she is,  she's safe,
just do the job and try to keep her that way.
     Deadfall was a constant problem in the jungle, and  checking  to see if
there were any dead trees or branches  nearby  or overhead when basha'ing up
for the night  was  an  SOP (Standard  Operating  Procedure)  that was taken
seriously. I marked time, trying to  do something with my legs. I could feel
pins and needles.
     Please, not here, not now.
     According to Baby-G it was 2.23, not long to pick-up.
     The  rain  had held  off  while  I'd been here,  but now  and  again  a
bucketful still fell after being dislodged, bouncing off  the foliage on its
way  down with  the  sound of  a  finger  tapping on a side drum,  as  if to
accompany my static marching.
     I'd been here amongst the leaf litter for nearly six hours. It was like
having  a  night out on belt-kit  not  having the comfort of  being off  the
ground in a hammock and under a poncho, instead having to rough it with just
the equipment  that you  have on your belt: ammunition, twenty-four hours of
food, water and  medical  kit. Only I didn't even have that. Just guaranteed
misery as I became part of the jungle floor.
     I finished with  marking time:  the sensation had gone away. I'd fought
off  jet lag, but my body still wanted desperately to  curl into a ball  and
sink into a deep sleep. I felt my way back down against the  hard rough bark
of a tree and was surrounded by invisible crickets. As  I  stretched  out my
legs  to ease the  cramp in  the good one and the pain in  the other, I felt
around  to  make  sure the  sweatshirt dressing was  still  tight around the
wound; it  didn't feel as if it  was  bleeding any more, but it was  painful
and, I imagined,  messy down there. I could feel the pulse throbbing against
the edge of the wound.
     As I moved to relieve the  numbness  in my arse once more, the soles of
my Timber lands pushed against Unibrow. I'd searched him before we went into
the treeline, and found a  wallet and several metre  lengths of  copper wire
tucked  into a  canvas pouch  on his belt. He'd been setting traps. Maybe he
was into that sort of stuff for fun: it wasn't as if the lot up at the house
would be in need of the odd wild turkey.
     I thought  back over some  of the stuff I'd  done  over the  years, and
right now I hated all the jobs I'd  ever been on. I hated Unibrow for making
me kill  him.  I  hated  me. I  was  sitting  in shit,  getting  attacked by
everything that moved, and  I'd still had to  kill someone  else. One way or
another that was the way it had always been.
     Until midnight I'd heard only three vehicles moving along the road, and
it was hard to tell if they were heading towards the house  or away from it.
After that, the only new  sounds were the buzzing of insects. At one point a
troop of howler  monkeys passed us by, using the  top of  the canopy so they
had  some starlight  to  help them see what they were  doing. Their  booming
barks  and groans reverberated  through the jungle,  so loud  they seemed to
shake  the trees. As they  swung  screeching and bellowing from tree to tree
they  disturbed the water caught in the  giant leaves, and we were rained on
again.
     I sat gently rubbing around the cut on my leg as more buzzes circled my
head, stopping just before I felt something bite  into my skin. I slapped my
face just  as I heard movement high above me in the  canopy, sending another
downpour.
     Whatever it was up  there  sounded like  it was  moving on rather  than
coming down to investigate, which was fine by me.
     At 2.58 I heard the low rumble of a vehicle. This time the noise didn't
fade.
     The engine note took over  gradually from the chirping of the crickets,
passing  my position  until I  could  clearly  hear the  tyres splashing  in
puddled-up potholes.  It stopped just  past  me,  with  a  gentle squeak  of
not-too-good  brakes. The engine ticked over erratically. It had  to  be the
Mazda.
     Leaning on the gollock to  help me get  to my feet, I stretched my legs
and tried to get them warmed  up as I checked to make  sure I still  had  my
docs.  The  wound  felt  even more tender now I  was standing again,  and my
clothing was  sodden and  heavy. Having given in to temptation hours ago,  I
scratched my lumpy back.
     I felt around for Unibrow, got hold of an arm and a leg, and heaved him
over my shoulder. His body was slightly stiff, but far  from rigid. The heat
and  humidity probably  had something to do with that. His free arm and foot
flopped around as I jiggled him into position.
     With the gollock and hat in my right hand I made my  way slowly towards
the edge of  the treeline, my head and eyes at  an angle of about forty-five
degrees to the  ground  and  half  closed to  protect them from  the  unseen
wait-a-while. I  might as well have closed them completely: I couldn't see a
thing.
     The moment  I  emerged from the  forest, I  saw the  silhouette  of the
Mazda, bathed in a glow of white and red  reflecting off  the wet tarmac.  I
laid  Unibrow down with his  hat in the  mud and  tall grass at the jungle's
edge, and squelched towards the passenger side, gollock in hand, checking to
make sure there was only one body shape in the cab.
     Aaron was sitting with both  hands gripping  the wheel, and in the dull
glow of the instruments I could see him staring rigidly ahead like some sort
of robot.
     Even with the window down, he didn't seem to register I was there.
     I said quietly, "Seen any of those barry-whatever trees yet?"
     He jumped forward in his seat as if he'd just seen a ghost.
     Is the back unlocked, mate?"
     'Yes." He nodded frantically, his voice shaking.
     "Good, won't be long."
     I  walked  to the rear,  opened the  tailgate, then  went back to fetch
Unibrow. Lifting  him in  my arms  and leaning back to take f| the weight, I
carried  him across to the vehicle,  not knowing || whether Aaron  could see
what was happening. The suspension || sank a  little as I dumped the body on
the crap-strewn floor. His ;
     | hat followed, and in the dim glow from  the tail-lights  I  covered "
him with his own poncho, then lowered the tailgate before gently ;
     clicking  it shut.  The back window was a small oval, covered in grime.
Nobody would be able to see through.
     ;' I went round to the passenger door and jumped in. Water | oozed from
my jeans and soaked into the blanket covering the ' seat. Aaron was still in
the same position.
     "Let's go then, mate.
     Not too fast, just drive normally."
     He pushed the selector into Drive and we moved  off. A cool draught  of
air from the open window hit my lumpy face, and as ;
     we  splashed  through pot-holes I leaned  down  and placed  the gollock
under my feet.
     ;
     Aaron at last found the courage to speak.
     "What's in the back?" L There was no point beating about the bush.
     "A body."
     "God forbid." His hands ran through his hair as he stared v through the
windscreen, before attacking his beard once more. !
     "God forbid ... What happened?" i I didn't answer, but listened  to the
rasping of stubble as his left ( hand wiped imaginary demons from his face.
     What are we going to do, Nick?"
     "I'll explain  later it's OK, it  isn't a drama."  I tried  to  keep my
voice slow and calm.
     "All  we need to worry about  is getting  away from the  area, and then
I'll sort the problem out, OK?"
     Switching on the cab  light, I fumbled for Unibrow's wallet in my jeans
and pulled it apart. He had a few dollars, and a picture ID that called  him
Diego Paredes and said he had been born in November '76 two months after I'd
joined the Army. There  was a cropped photograph of him and what looked like
his parents and maybe some brothers and  sisters, all dressed up, sitting at
a table, glasses raised at the camera.
     Aaron had obviously seen it.
     "Someone's son," he said.
     Weren't they all? I put everything back in the leather compartments.
     His  head was obviously  full of a million and  one things he wanted to
say.
     "Can't we take him to hospital? We can't just keep him in the back, for
God's sake."
     I tried to sound relaxed.
     "Basically, we  have to but only for now." I looked across at  him.  He
didn't return my glance, just stared  at the headlights hitting the road. He
was in a world of his own, and a frightening one it was.
     I kept my gaze on the side of his face, but he couldn't  bring  himself
to make eye contact.
     "He belongs to Charlie. If  they find his body, it  could put all of us
in danger all of us. Why take that risk?" I let that  sink in for a bit.  He
knew what I was talking about. When  a threat's extended to a man's wife and
children, it invariably focuses his way of thinking.
     I needed to inst il confidence in this character, not anxiety.
     "I know  what I'm doing and he's just got to come with us for now. Once
we're out of the area we'll make sure we dump him so he's never found."
     Or at least, as far as I was concerned, not before Saturday morning.
     There was  a  long, awkward  silence as we drove along the jungle-lined
tarmac and eventually hit  the ghost  town of Clayton. The headlights picked
out  the  shadows  of  empty houses,  barracks,  and  deserted  streets  and
children's play areas. It looked even more deserted at night, as if the last
American soldier had turned off the lights before he went home for good.
     We turned a  corner and I could see the high-mounted floodlights of the
locks a  few  kilometres in the distance,  shimmering like a  big island  of
white light. The superstructure of a heavily laden container ship was facing
to the right, half hidden as it waited in the lock for the water to surge in
and raise its massive bulk.
     SIXTEEN
     I was just too  fucked to worry  about anything, but Aaron was  in deep
flap mode.
     His left hand couldn't stop touching or rubbing his face. His eyes kept
checking through the rear window, trying to see the body in  the  back, even
though it was in pitch darkness.
     We were driving alongside  a  very wide, deep, U-shaped concrete  storm
trench. I got Aaron to stop and turn off his lights, and he faced me for the
first  time,  probably  hoping  that we  were  going to do  something  about
Unibrow.
     I nodded towards the lights.
     "I've got to clean myself up  before we hit all that." I wanted to look
at least  a bit normal, in  case we were seen  or stopped as we went through
the city. Being wet wasn't unusual here, it rained a lot. I  could have told
him it was time for my daily prayers and he would probably  have replied the
same way.
     "Oh, OK."
     Once  I  forced  my  aching body out of the Mazda  I could see what was
going on under  the floodlights. The  stumpy electric lo cos were  moving up
and down the  tracks  beside the ship,  looking like little toys  from  this
distance and too  far away to be heard  properly. Only a  muffled version of
the radio traffic from the  speakers reached us. The  glow from the powerful
arc-lights got to us, though, giving just enough light to see what was going
on about us, and cast a very weak shadow on the Mazda as I went to the  rear
and lifted the tailgate  to  check Unibrow. He had been sliding about and he
was pushed hard against the side body work his nose and lips compressed, his
arms thrown behind him as if they couldn't catch up. The stench of blood and
guts was so strong I had to move my head away. It smelt like a freezer after
a power-cut.
     Leaving the tailgate  up, I scrambled two or three metres down the side
of the concrete  ditch and  into  the surging storm water. Bits of tree  and
vegetation  raced  past my  legs as I  pulled the plastic  bag from under my
jacket  and wedged it  above  the water-line in the gap  between  two of the
concrete sections.  Even if I  had to run naked from this spot I would still
be armed with my documents.
     I  squatted in  the edge  of the flow and washed off all the mud, blood
and leaf litter that  covered me, as if I was having a bath with  my clothes
on.  I didn't  bother to check the wound; I'd sort it  out later, and in the
meantime  all I'd do  was keep the cut-up sweatshirt  wrapped around it  and
just sit in the water and rest for a second.
     I hadn't really noticed it up till  now, but the sky was very clear and
full of stars, sparkling like the phosphorescence on  the jungle floor as  I
slowly took off my jacket.
     I  heard Aaron's door creak open and looked  up to see  him silhouetted
against the glow from the canal. By now I was nearly naked, rinsing my jeans
in the trench before wringing them out and throwing them up on to the grass,
then checking out my back rash and face.
     I watched as  he stuck his head slowly into the back  of the wagon.  He
recoiled and turned away, vomit already exploding from his mouth. I heard it
splatter against the side  of the  vehicle and tarmac  above  me,  then  the
sounds of him retching up those last bits that stay in your throat and nose.
     I scrambled up on to the grass and hurriedly dressed in my wet clothes.
Aaron had his last cough and  snort and walked back  to the cab, wiping  his
beard  with a handkerchief. Sidestepping the  pool of vomit on the tarmac, I
covered Unibrow again with  the poncho, lowered the tailgate, and climbed in
next to Aaron, ignoring what  had just happened even though I could smell it
on  his breath.  That's  better, wet  but clean-ish." I grinned,  trying  to
lighten the tone.
     Aaron didn't respond.  He looked terrible,  even in this low light. His
eyes were glistening with tears and his breathing was sharp  and quick as he
swallowed hard,  maybe to  stop himself  throwing up again. His  large hairy
Adam's apple bobbed up and  down  like a fishing  float  with a bite. He was
having  a  moment with his  thoughts, not  even realizing I'd  spoken as  he
rubbed his stubble with shaking hands.
     "Back to your place, then how far is it again, mate?"
     I patted him  on the shoulder and he nodded, turning  the ignition with
another little cough. He gave a quiet, resigned,  "Sure." His voice trembled
as he added,  "It's about  four hours, maybe more. We've had some very heavy
rain."
     I  made the effort and kept my  happy voice on, not really knowing what
else to do or say "We'd better get a move on, then, hadn't we?"
     We got through Fort Clayton and hit the main  drag; the Barrier was up,
it  seemed the  old security guy  didn't play  at night. I'd been wrong, the
street lighting  wasn't used now that there wasn't  much traffic  on  it any
more.
     We turned left, leaving the  lock and Clayton  behind us, travelling in
silence. A distant arc of light in the  night sky  indicated the city, along
with  flashing red  lights from  the  top of  a  profusion of  communication
towers. Aaron just stared straight ahead, swallowing hard.
     Before long  we approached the  floodlit toll booths by the old Albrook
air-force  base. The  noise of the bus  terminal blasted all | around  us as
power hoses washed the  buses.  A surprisingly large  number of workers were
waiting for transport, most holding small iceboxes and smoking.
     Aaron spent the best  part  of a minute fumbling in his pockets and the
glove compartment at the toll booth. A bored,  middle-aged woman just stared
into space with her hand  out, no doubt  dreaming about getting on to one of
those buses at the end of her shift.
     I let my head bob about as we bounced along the pot-holed road and into
the sleeping  city via  El Chorrillo. A few lights were on here and there in
the  apartment blocks,  and the odd scabby mongrel skulked along a sidewalk,
then  a  black BMW  screamed past us at warp  speed. Five  or six heads with
cigarettes glowing in their mouths jutted backwards and forwards to the beat
of  some  loud  Latin  music  as  it  roared down  the  street.  The BM  had
violet-coloured headlights, and a powerful fluorescent glow beneath the body
work  made  it look  like  it  was hovering. My  eyes  followed it into  the
distance  as it hung a right, tyres squealing  like  something  out  of NYPD
Blue.
     I looked over at  Aaron. He probably wouldn't even have reacted if we'd
been  overtaken by the USS Enterprise. He screwed up his face and deep lines
cut into his  skin. He looked  as if he  was  going to be  sick again as  we
bounced along, turning right at the junction the BM had taken. Once more  we
drove past  the Pepsi  stand, barred up  for the night, and into the  market
area.
     I thought I needed  to  say something to fill the silence, but I didn't
know what.
     I just looked out  at the rubbish  overflowing from the piles of soaked
cardboard boxes that fringed the square, and cats fighting over the scraps.
     In the end it  was Aaron who broke the  deadlock, wiping  his nose into
his hand before he spoke.
     "Nick ... ?"
     "What's that, mate?" I was almost too tired to speak.
     "Is that what you do kill people? I mean, I  know it happens, it's just
that-' I pointed down at the gollock in the foot well
     "I nearly  lost my leg  with  that thing, and if  he'd had  his way, it
would have been my head. I'm sorry, mate, there was no other way. Once we're
the other side of the city, I'll bin him."
     He  didn't reply, just stared intently through the  windscreen, nodding
slowly to himself.
     We hit the bay once more, and  I saw a line of ships' navigation lights
flickering  out at  sea. Then I  realized  Aaron had  started to shake. He'd
spotted a police car  at the roadside ahead,  with  two rather bored-looking
officers smoking and reading  the papers. I gave myself  a mental  slapping,
but not enough for him to see.
     I kept my voice calm.
     "Don't worry, just drive normally, everything's OK."
     It wasn't, of course: they might stop a beaten-up Mazda just to relieve
the boredom.
     As we  passed, the driver glanced up from  his newspaper, and turned to
say something  to  his  mate.  I kept  my eyes  on the cracked  wing mirror,
watching the four police cars as I spoke.
     "It's OK, mate, there's no movement from behind.
     They're still static. Just keep to the limit and smile."
     I  didn't know if  he responded. My eyes were glued to  the vehicles in
the mirror until they dropped out  of sight. I  caught sight of my  face for
the first time.
     It  was a  pleasant  surprise.  My  left eye was half closed but not as
swollen as it felt.
     I looked over again to see how Aaron was doing and  the answer was, not
good.
     He wasn't enjoying his  visit to my  planet  one little bit. I wondered
why and how  he'd got involved in this shit. Maybe he'd had no choice. Maybe
he was just like me and Diego, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
     We  splashed  our way through  mini-Manhattan, where  large  neon signs
flashed down from the top of buildings on to the wet tarmac below. It  was a
completely different world  from El Chorrillo, and a whole galaxy  away from
what had just been happening in the old Zone.
     Aaron gave a  small cough.  'You know what you're going to do with that
guy yet, Nick?"
     "We need to hide him somewhere on the way to your place, once we're out
of the city. Any ideas?"
     Aaron shook his  head slowly from side to side. I couldn't tell whether
he was answering or if it had just come loose.
     "We can't leave him to rot... God forbid. He's a human being, for God's
sake."
     There was resignation in his voice.
     "Look, I'll bury  him for you.  There's  an old tribal  site  near  the
house. No one will find him there. It's the right thing to do he's someone's
son, Nick.  Maybe  even someone's father. The  family  in the  picture, they
don't deserve this."
     "No one goes there?"
     He shook his head.
     "Not in a few hundred years."
     I wasn't going to argue with that. If he wanted to dig a hole, that was
fine by me.
     I got back to looking at the neon as he drove,  and  hoped that someone
like him found my body one day.
     We came to the airport road toll booth the other side of the  financial
district, and this time I got out a dollar of my own money. I didn't want us
standing still any  longer than we  had to.  Diego would take quite a bit of
explaining.
     He paid the woman with  a  sad "Gracias' and a thanks to me  for giving
him the money. This wasn't a good night out for him at all.
     The lights faded behind us as  we hit the  road out  of town. I dug out
the wallet again, hit the cab  light and looked at Diego's family picture. I
thought of Kelly,  and the way her life would  be if I died without  sorting
out the mess I'd created. I thought of  all the things I'd wanted to say  to
her, and hadn't ever managed to.
     I wondered if his mum  had wanted to  say  those things to her  son, to
tell him how much she loved  him, or  to say sorry about the stupid argument
they'd had.  Maybe that had been  the stuff that had flashed through Diego's
head in the moments before he died, things he wanted to say to these  people
raising their glasses at the camera as I killed him.
     The  wind through my window  got stronger as we gathered speed. I wound
it up only half-way to keep me awake, and I tried to concentrate on what I'd
seen on the  CTR and get back to work. Instead, I  found  myself wanting  to
curl up like a seven-year-old, desperate to keep the night monster at bay.
     "Nick! The police! Nick, what do we do? Wake up! Please!"
     Before I'd even fully  opened  my eyes  I was trying to calm him  down.
It's  all right,  don't worry, it'll be OK."  I managed to  focus on the VCP
(vehicle  checkpoint) ahead, set up in  the middle  of  nowhere: two  police
vehicles,  side  on,  blocking  the  road,  both facing  left. I  could  see
silhouettes moving across  the two sets of  headlights  that cut through the
darkness. It felt as though we were heading straight into the Twilight Zone.
Aaron's foot had frozen on the accelerator pedal.
     "Slow down, for fuck's sake. Calm down."
     He came out of his trance and hit the brakes.
     We'd got close  enough to the checkpoint for me to see the side windows
of the four-wheel-drives reflecting our headlights back  at us. Aaron dabbed
at  the brakes  to bring us  to a stop. There  was a  torrent  of shouts  in
Spanish, and the muzzles of half a dozen M-16s came up. I placed my hands on
the dash so they were in clear view.
     Aaron killed the lights and turned off the engine as three  torch-beams
headed our way. The shouting had stopped, and all I could  hear now was  the
thump of boots on tarmac.
     SEVENTEEN
     The three men who approached  with  M-16s at the ready were dressed  in
olive  green fatigues. They split  up, two going left,  to Aaron, the  other
towards me. Aaron started to wind down the remaining half of his window. His
breathing was becoming increasingly rapid.
     There was an  abrupt command in Spanish  as the nearest  man shouldered
his assault rifle. Aaron lifted  his arse from the seat and  searched around
in  his back  pocket.  I saw  the  red glow  of cigarettes  beyond the 4x4's
headlights as figures moved about in the shadows.
     A green baseball cap  and bushy  black moustache shoved its way through
Aaron's window  and demanded something from me.  I didn't  respond. I didn't
have a clue  what  he  was asking and just couldn't dig deep enough  for the
energy  to look interested. His M-16  swung  round from  his back and banged
against the  door. I  saw sergeant's  stripes  and Tolicia'  badges  on  his
sleeve.
     "He wants your ID, Nick."
     Aaron presented his  own. It  was snatched  away by the  sergeant,  who
stopped shouting  and stood back  from the window, using his mini-Maglite to
inspect the docs.
     "Nick? Your ID, please don't vex these people."
     I  pulled out my plastic  bag  lethargically  from under  my jacket and
rummaged in it like a schoolboy in his sandwich box, just wanting this to go
away.
     The  other  policeman  on Aaron's  side had  been  standing behind  the
sergeant, his assault rifle shouldered.  I heard boots behind the wagon, but
couldn't see anything in the mirror.
     I gripped myself: What the fuck am I doing? Switch on! Switch on!
     My heart-rate pumped up  a few  more  revs  per minute, and at the same
time as I  looked in  my bag I made  a mental  note of where the door handle
was, and  checked  that  the door-lock knob was up. Lethargic or  not, if  I
heard the squeak of rusty hinges from the tailgate I'd be  out  and running.
Handing  my passport over to Aaron  for  the sergeant, I knew I was reacting
too slowly to all of this.
     There's a body in the back, for fuck's sake!
     The sergeant was gob bing off about me as he looked at my passport with
his Maglite. I only understood the odd word of Aaron's replies.
     "Britanico ... amigo  vacaciones ..." He nodded away like a lunatic, as
if he had some sort of nervous disease.
     The  sergeant  now had  both  our  IDs in his hands, which would  be  a
problem if I needed to  do a runner. Without  a passport, my only option was
west, or the embassy.
     Straining my ears, I waited for  the tailgate to  open.  I ran my hands
through my hair,  keeping  my eyes on  the  door handle and  visualizing  my
escape route, which wasn't exactly difficult: three steps into  the darkness
to my right. From there, I'd just have to take my chances.
     I was brought back to the real world by  the sergeant bending down once
more and pointing at my  clothes  as he rattled off something to  Aaron.  He
replied with a funny, and forced a laugh, as he turned to me.
     "You're a  friend and I  picked you up from the airport. You wanted  so
much to see the rain forest so I  took you in at  the edge of  the city. Now
you never want to go in again. It was so funny, please just smile."
     The sergeant had joined in the  laughter and told  the other guy behind
him about the dickhead britanico  as he handed back the IDs. Then  he banged
the  roof of the Mazda and followed the others towards the blocking  wagons.
There was  a lot of  pointing  and shouting, followed by the roar  of wagons
being revved and manoeuvred clear of the road.
     Aaron was shaking like a leaf as he turned the ignition, but managed to
appear  relaxed and confident from the neck up for the  police's benefit. He
even waved as we passed. Our headlights  caught four or five bodies lined up
on their backs on  the side of the road. Their clothes glistened with blood.
One  of the kids  was still open-mouthed, arms  flung  out  and  eyes  wide,
staring  up at the  sky.  I looked  away  and tried to focus on the darkness
beyond the headlights.
     Aaron  said nothing  for the next ten minutes as we bounced  along  the
pot-holed  road, headlights lurching.  Then he  braked suddenly,  pushed the
selector into Park, and jumped out as if a bomb was about to go off. I could
hear him retching and straining as he leant against the Bac Pac, but not the
sound of anything coming up. He'd left it all at Clayton.
     I just let him get on with it. I'd done the  same  myself, when I first
started:
     sheer  terror engulfs you and  there's nothing you can do but  fight it
until the drama is over. It's  later,  when there's  time to think, not only
about  what's happened but, worse, what the consequences might have  been if
things had gone wrong that's when you part company with your last meal. What
he was doing was normal. The way I had  behaved back  there wasn't,  not for
me.
     The  suspension creaked as  he closed the door, wiping  his waterlogged
eyes.  He was plainly embarrassed, and couldn't bring himself to look at me.
I'm sorry, Nick, you must  think I'm a real pussy. Guys like you can  handle
this stuff, but me, I'm just not made for it."
     I  knew  that  wasn't exactly true,  but I didn't know how to say so. I
never did at times like this.
     "I saw a couple of guys blown  away a few years  ago. I  had nightmares
about it.
     Then, seeing Diego's body and those kids back there hacked to death, it
just..."
     "Did he tell you what had happened?"
     "It  was  a  robbery.  PARC. They  cut them  up with  those things." He
pointed down at the gollock.
     "It doesn't really  make sense  -they normally don't bother folks here.
No money." He sighed, both hands on the steering-wheel,  and leant forward a
bit.
     "You see what they'd done to those kids? Oh, God, how can people behave
like that?"
     I wanted to change the subject.
     "Look, mate, I think we'd better get rid of Diego. As soon as there's a
bit of light we'll find somewhere to hide him. We can't go through that shit
again."
     He lowered his head on to the wheel and nodded slowly.
     "Sure, sure, you're right."
     "It'll be OK, he'll be found sooner or later and buried properly..."
     We  drove on. Neither of  us  wanted to  talk about Diego or bodies any
more.
     "What road are we on?"
     "The Pan-American Highway."
     It didn't feel like one. We were bouncing around in ruts and pot-holes.
     "Runs all the way from Alaska to Chile, apart  from a ninety-three-mile
break in the Darien Gap. There's been talk about joining it up, but with all
the trouble in Colombia and the destruction of the forest, I guess we prefer
it how it is."
     I knew about the southern  part  of the  highway; I'd been on it enough
times. But  I  wanted us to keep talking.  It  stopped me having to think. I
leant down and rubbed the sweatshirt wrapped round my now very painful leg.
     "Oh, why's that?"
     It's one  of  the most important stretches of rain forest still left in
the Americas. If there  are no roads, that means no loggers and farmers, and
it's kind  of  like  a  buffer zone with Colombia. Folks call it Bosnia West
down there"
     The headlights were sweeping across each side of the road, illuminating
nothing.
     "Is that where we're going, to the Gap?"
     He shook his head.
     "Even if  we were,  this eventually becomes not much more than a track,
and with this rain it's  just darned impassable. We're heading off  the road
at Chepo, maybe another ten minutes or so."
     First light was starring to  edge its way  past the corners of the sky.
We  bounced along for a while in  silence.  My headache  was killing me. The
headlights  exposed nothing  but tufts of grass  and pools of mud and water.
This place was as barren as a moonscape. Not much good for hiding a body.
     "There's not a whole lot of forest here, mate, is there?"
     "Hey, what can I say? Where there's a road, there's loggers.
     They keep on going until everything's levelled. And it's not just about
money:
     the folk round here believe it's manly to cut down trees. I reckon less
than  twenty per cent of Panama's  forest  will survive the next five years.
That's including the Zone."
     I thought of Charlie and his new estate. It wasn't just the loggers who
were tearing chunks out of Aaron's jungle.
     We  drove on  as  daylight  spread its  way gloomily across  the sky. A
primeval  mist blanketed the ground. A flock of  maybe  a hundred big  black
birds with long  necks took off ahead  of us; they  looked suspiciously like
pterodactyls.
     Ahead and to our left I could see the  dark  shadows  of  trees,  and I
pointed.
     "What about there?"
     Aaron  thought for a few  seconds as we got  closer,  clearly disturbed
again, as if he'd managed for a moment to forget what we had in the boot.
     "I guess so, but it's not that far to where I could do it properly."
     "No, mate, no. Let's do it now." I tried to keep my voice level.
     We pulled into  the side of the road and under the trees. There  wasn't
going to be time for ceremony.
     "Want to help?" I asked, as I retrieved the gollock from under my feet.
     He thought hard.
     "I just  don't want the picture of him in there, you know, in my  head.
Can you understand that?"
     I could: there were a whole lot of pictures in  my  own head  I  wished
weren't there. The most recent was a blood-soaked child staring open-mouthed
at the sky.
     As I climbed out the birds were in full song: daylight was nearly here.
I held my breath,  opened the  back, and  pulled  Diego out  by his armpits,
dragging him  into the treeline. I concentrated on not looking  at his  face
and keeping his blood off me.
     About ten metres inside the  gloom of the canopy I rolled  both him and
the  wiped  clean  gollock under a rotted  deadfall, covering the gaps  with
leaves and debris.
     I only  needed to hide  him until Saturday. When I'd gone,  maybe Aaron
would come back and do  what he'd wanted to in the first place. It shouldn't
be hard to find  him;  by then there'd be so many flies they'd sound  like a
radio signal.
     Having closed down the tailgate I got back into the cab and slammed the
door. I waited for him to move off, but instead he turned.
     "You know  what? I think maybe  Carrie shouldn't know about this, Nick.
Don't you think? I mean-' "Mate," I said, 'you took the  words right out  of
my mouth." I tried to give him a smile, but the muscles  in my cheek weren't
working.
     He nodded and steered back on to  the road as  I tried  to curl up once
more, closing my eyes, trying to kill the headache, but not daring to sleep.
     Maybe fifteen minutes later we hit a cluster of huts. An oil lamp swung
in  one of  them,  splashing light across a roomful  of faded, multicoloured
clothes  hung  up to dry. The  huts were made of breeze block with  doors of
rough planks nailed to a frame and wriggly tin thrown  over  the  top. There
was no glass in the windows, nothing to hold back the smoke from small fires
that smouldered  near the entrances.  Scrawny chickens ran for  cover as the
Mazda approached. It wasn't at all  the sort of thing  I'd been shown in the
inflight magazine.
     Aaron jerked his thumb over his shoulder as we drove past.
     "When  the loggers  leave,  these  guys turn  up  subsistence  farmers,
thousands of  them, just  poor people trying to grow themselves something to
eat. The only problem is, with the trees gone, the topsoil gets washed away,
and inside  two  years  they can't grow anything  except grass. So guess who
comes in next -the ranchers."
     I could see a few minging-looking cows with their heads  down, grazing.
He jerked his thumb again.
     "Next week's burger."
     Without  warning, Aaron spun  the wheel to the right, and  that  was us
quitting the  Pan-American  Highway.  There  were  no  signs  on  the gravel
slip-road, just like in the city. Maybe  they liked  to  keep the population
confused.
     I saw a huddle of corrugated roofs.
     "Chepo?"
     "Yep, the bad and sad side."
     The  compacted-gravel  road  took us  past  a  scattering of more basic
farmers'  huts on stilts.  Beneath them, chickens and a few old cats mooched
around rusty  lumps of  metal  and piles of old tin cans. Some of the shacks
had smoke spilling from a clay or rusty metal  chimney-pot. One was made out
of six or seven catering-size  cans, opened both ends  and knocked together.
Apart from that  there was no  sign  of human life.  The bad and sad side of
Chepo was in no hurry to greet the dawn. I couldn't say I blamed them.
     The  odd rooster did its early-morning bit as  the huts gradually  gave
way to larger one-storey buildings, which also  seemed to have  been plonked
randomly on any available patch of ground. Duckboards, instead of pavements,
led here  and there,  supported on rocks  that were half  submerged  in mud.
Rubbish  had  been  collected in piles that had then collapsed, the contents
strewn. A terrible stink wafted through the Mazda's cab. This place made the
doss house in Camden look like Claridge's.
     Eventually we  passed  a gas station, which was  closed. The pumps were
old  and rusty, 1970s vintage,  with an oval top. So  much  diesel had  been
spilled on the ground over the years that it looked like a layer of slippery
tar. Water lay in  dark, oil-stained  puddles. The Pepsi logo and some faded
bunting hung from  the roof  of  the gas station itself, along  with  a sign
advertising Firestones.
     We passed  a  rectangular building  made  from  more  unpainted  breeze
blocks. The  mortar that oozed between the  blocks hadn't been  pointed, and
the  builder  certainly hadn't believed in  plumb-lines. A sinewy old Indian
guy wearing green  football shorts, a string vest and rubber flip-flops  was
crouched down  by  the door,  with  a roll-up the  size of a Rastafarian Old
Holborn hanging  from his mouth. Through the windows I  could see shelves of
tinned food.
     Further up the road was a large wooden shack, up on stilts like some of
the huts. It had been painted blue at one stage in its life, and a sign said
that  it  was  a  restaurant.  As  we drew  level I  saw four leopard  skins
stretched out and nailed to the wall  of the veranda. Below them, chained up
in a cage, was the scrawniest big  cat I'd ever seen. There was  only enough
space for it to turn round, and it just stood, looking incredibly pissed off
as  I would be, if I had  to stare  at my best mates pinned  to the wall all
day. I'd never felt so sorry for an animal in all my life.
     Aaron shook his head. There was obviously some history to this.
     "Shit,  they're  still  got  her  in  there!" For the  first time I was
hearing anger in his voice.
     "I know for a  fact that they sell turtle too, and  r?s protected. They
can't do that. You're not even allowed to have a parrot in a cage, man, it's
the law ... But the police? Shit, they just spend their whole time  worrying
about narcos."
     He  pointed a little ahead  of us and up  to  the left. We were driving
towards what reminded me of an army security base in Northern Ireland. High,
corrugated-iron fencing protected whatever buildings were  inside.  Sandbags
were piled  on  top  of each  other  to make bunkers,  and  the  barrel  and
high-profile  sight of an  American  M-60 machine-gun jutted  from  the  one
covering the large  double gates. A  big sign with a military motif declared
this was the police station.
     Four enormous trucks were  parked up on the  other  side of the station
with equally  massive  trailers filled with  stripped  tree  trunks. Aaron's
voice was now thick with anger.
     "Just look at  that first they cut down  every tree  they can get their
hands on. Then, before they float the logs downstream for these guys to pick
up,  they saturate them in chemicals. It  kills the aquatic life. There's no
subsistence farming, no fishing, nothing, just cattle."
     We left  the  depression  of Chepo  behind us and drove  through  rough
grassland cratered with pools of rusty-coloured water. My clothes were still
damp in places, quite wet in others  where my body heat wasn't doing a  good
enough job.
     My leg  had started  to feel OK until I stretched it out and broke  the
delicate  scabbing.  At  least  Aaron  getting  sparked up  about  what  was
happening in Chepo had diverted his mind from Diego.
     The road got  progressively worse, until  finally we turned  off it and
hit  a rutted  track that worked its way  to some high ground about three or
four kilometres away. No wonder the Mazda was in a shit state.
     Aaron pointed ahead  as  the wagon bucked  and yawed and the suspension
groaned.
     "We're just over that hill."
     All I wanted to do was get to the house  and  sort myself  out  -though
from the  way Aaron had rattled on in his  eco-warrior Billy Graham voice, I
half expected them to live in a wigwam.
     EIGHTEEN
     The Mazda rolled from side to side, the suspension creaking like an old
brigantine  as the  engine  revs rose and fell.  To  my  surprise, Aaron was
actually  driving the thing with considerable skill.  It seemed  we  had  at
least  another hour and  a half  of this  still to go so much for 'just over
that hill'.
     We ploughed on through  the mist, finally  cresting  the  steep, rugged
hill. The scene confronting  us was a total contrast to the  rough grassland
we'd been  travelling through. A valley  lay below  us,  with high,  rolling
hills  left  and right,  and as far  as  the eye could see the landscape was
strewn with felled,  decaying  wood. The  trunks nearest us were almost grey
with age.  It was as if somebody  had tipped an enormous  box of matchsticks
all  over a desert of rust coloured mud. The low mist within the valley made
it  eerier still.  Then, at  the far  end  of the  valley, where  the ground
flattened out,  maybe five or six Ks away, was lush green jungle. I couldn't
work it out.
     We started our descent and Aaron must have sensed my confusion.
     "They just got fed  up with this side  of the hills!" he shouted  above
the wagon's creaks and groans.
     "There wasn't enough hardwood to  take, and  it wasn't macho enough for
the hombres to take these little things away. But hey, at least there are no
farmers, they can't clear all this on their own. Besides, there's not enough
water down here not that they could drink it if there was."
     We  reached the valley  floor,  following the track through  the downed
trees.  It looked as  if a tornado had torn through the valley then  left it
for dead. The morning sun was, trying its hardest  to penetrate a thin layer
of cloud.  Somehow it seemed  much worse than if  the sun had  been properly
out;  at least then it would have  come  from one  direction. As it was, the
sun's rays had hit the clouds and scattered. It was definitely  time for the
Jackie O look again. Aaron followed my lead and threw his on too.
     We carried on through the tree  graveyard until we were  rescued by the
lush canopy at the far end of the valley.
     "Won't be long now," Aaron declared.
     "Maybe forty-five, fifty minutes."
     Twenty would have been better; I didn't think the wagon could take much
more, and neither could my head. I thought it was going to explode.
     We were  back in  secondary  jungle. The  trees  were engulfed in vines
reaching up into the canopy. All sorts of stuff was growing between them and
above the  track. It felt like we were driving through a long grey tunnel. I
took off my Jackie Os and everything became a dazzling green.
     Baby-G told me it was  7.37, which meant we'd been on the road for over
four  hours.  My eyes were stinging and  my  head still  pounding, but there
wouldn't be any time for relaxing just yet. I could do  all  that on  Sunday
maybe,  or  whenever it was  that I finally got to the  safety of  Maryland.
First, I needed to  concentrate on how I  was going to carry out the hit.  I
needed to grip myself and get on with the job. But try as  I might  to think
about what I'd seen during the CTR, I just couldn't concentrate.
     Aaron  had  been spot  on. Forty-five minutes  later we emerged into  a
large clearing, most of  it lying  behind a  building  that  was side on and
directly in front of us, maybe two hundred metres  away. It looked  like the
house that Jack built.
     The clouds had evaporated, to reveal sun and blue sky.
     "This is us." Aaron didn't sound  too enthusiastic. He put  his glasses
back on, but there was no way I was wearing the Jackie Os again not if I was
about to see their owner.
     To my left, and facing the  front of the house, was a hill with a steep
gradient covered with more fallen trees  and rotten stumps, with tufty grass
growing between them. The rest of the clearing was rough, but fairly flat.
     We followed  the track  towards  the large  building, which was more or
less  on one  level.  The main section was a one-storey,  terra cotta-roofed
villa, with  dirty green plastered walls. There  was a covered  veranda  out
front, facing the high ground. Behind the main building, and attached to it,
was a corrugated-iron extension maybe twice as big  as the  house itself and
with a much higher roof.
     On my  right  were  row  upon row of  white  plastic five-gallon  tubs,
hundreds of them, about two  feet high and the same  in diameter. Their lids
were sealed, but sprays of different coloured plants of all shapes and sizes
shot from  a circular hole  cut out  of the middle of  each. It  looked like
Aaron and Carrie were running the area's first garden-centre mega store  I'd
stepped on to the set of The Good Life, Panama-style.
     Dotted  around us were corrugated-iron  outhouses, with piles of wooden
barrels  and boxes,  and the  occasional rotting wooden wheelbarrow.  To  my
right, past the tubs, was  a generator under a corrugated-iron roof with  no
side walls, and at least ten forty-five-gallon oil drums.
     As we  got closer I could make out down pipes  leading from the gutters
into green  plastic  water  butts  that ran at intervals  the length  of the
building. Above the roof, supported on scaffolding, was a large blue plastic
water  tank; beneath  it was an  old metallic  one, with all sorts of  pipes
coming  out of  it.  A  pair of satellite dishes were  mounted  nearby,  one
pointing  west,  one  east. Maybe  they  liked to  watch both Colombian  and
Panamanian TV.  Despite the technology, this was definitely Planet Tree-hug;
all I needed to complete the picture was a couple of milking cows named  Yin
and Yang.
     Now that we were nearer the house, I  could see the other pickup truck,
parked the far side of the  veranda. Aaron hit the Mazda's horn a few times,
and looked  worried  as  Carrie  emerged from  the veranda, putting  on  her
wraparounds.  She was dressed the same as when I'd  met  her, but had gelled
her hair.
     "Please, Nick not a word."
     The  wagon stopped and he jumped  out  as  she  stepped  down from  the
veranda.
     "Hi."
     I  got out,  ready  to greet,  squinting to fight both the glare and my
headache.
     I took a few steps towards  them, then stopped to give them some space.
But  there  weren't  any  greetings,  kisses or  touches,  just  a  strained
exchange.
     Not thinking much, just feeling hot and bothered, I moved towards them.
     I put on my nice-and-cheery-to-the-host voice.
     "Hello."
     It wasn't gel that was holding back her hair; she'd just had a shower.
     She noticed my hobble and ripped jeans.
     "What happened? You OK?"
     I didn't look at Aaron. Eyes give so much away.
     "I walked into some  sort  of animal trap or  something.  I'm-'  "You'd
better come and get cleaned up. I've some porridge fixed."
     That sounds wonderful." It sounded shit.
     She turned to walk back to the house, but Aaron had other ideas.
     "You know what?
     I'm going to clean the  truck out there's  been a fuel spillage in  the
back and, well, you know, I'd better clean it out."
     Carrie turned.
     "Oh, OK."
     I followed her towards the house as Aaron's sun  glassed  eyes gave  me
one last look and nod before going back to the wagon.
     We  were  just  short of  the veranda  when she stopped and turned once
more. As Aaron moved the Mazda over towards the tubs, I could see my bitten,
lumpy face and scary sticking-up hair reflecting back at me  in her slightly
mirrored  glasses. The lenses were too opaque for me to see anything of  her
eyes.
     "Luce, our daughter, thinks  you're part of aUK study group, and you're
here for a few days to see how we work. OK?"
     "Sure, that's not a problem." I was going to have to do my best to look
like a tree-hugging academic. I wished I could see her eyes. I hated talking
to mirrored glass.
     "She knows nothing about why you're  really here. Nor  do  we, come  to
that.  She's asleep,  you'll see her  soon."  She tapped  her left lens  and
pointed at my swollen eye.
     "Don't worry about that. It'll be fine in a few days."
     NINETEEN
     I was  so tired I could hardly keep my  eyes open as we stepped  across
cracked,   faded   terra  cotta  tiles,  past  two   dark   wood   Victorian
rocking-chairs   and   an  old  rope  hammock  scattered  with  coffee-  and
dribble-stained pillows. The  front door was open, and  Carrie pulled open a
mesh mozzie door with a creak of hinges. To the left, and set above a meshed
window, was a wall light, its bowl full of dried insects,  fatally attracted
to  its  glow. I caught the screen before  it sprang  back, and followed her
inside.
     We  were in near  darkness after the blinding  brilliance outside,  and
there  was a strong smell of wood. It  was  like being in  a  garden shed. I
stifled a  yawn; my eyes were trying to close, but I had to fight them. This
was virgin territory and I had to take note of every detail.
     The room  was large, with a high ceiling. Hefty tree trunks  supporting
the building  were  set  into plastered walls, which  had  once been painted
cream but were now  scuffed and discoloured. It was furnished like a holiday
let, basic stuff, a bit rough, and not a lot of it.
     Carrie was heading  straight  to  another door, painted a faded yellow,
about ten metres dead ahead. I followed as she took off  her glasses and let
them fall  around her  neck. To our left  were four  armchairs built out  of
logs, covered with dirty cushions with flowery patterns  that didn't  match.
The chairs were evenly arranged around a  circular  coffee  table, which was
made from a slice of dark wood more  than a metre  in diameter. Trained over
the coffee table  and chairs  were two  1950s-style,  free-standing electric
fans with protective wire covers.
     The chrome had seen better days, and it was a shame there was no ribbon
hanging from the mesh to given them that authentic look.
     The wall to the left  had two more doors, also painted  yellow  and set
into  flaking  brown frames. The furthest  one was partly open and  led into
what I presumed was their bedroom. A  large natural wood headboard  held one
end of a once-white mosquito net;  the other was suspended from the ceiling.
The bed was  unmade and I saw purple sheets. Men's  and women's clothes were
thrown over a chair. The wooden  butt of  a rifle hung on  the wall  to  the
right of the bed. I thought I'd keep it a little closer, living out here.
     Further  along, in the corner, was the kitchen area, with a small table
and chairs.  An  array  of different-patterned  mugs  hung from hooks in the
wall.
     On my  right,  the whole wall, as far as the door we  were heading for,
was covered by bookshelves. The only break was  another window, also covered
with protective mesh, which seemed  to be the  only other source of  natural
light.
     I began to smell porridge. Steam rose from a large  pot  sitting on one
of  the kitchen units to the side of the cooker. Next  to it lay a big bunch
of bananas and a bowl of oranges.
     Carrie disappeared  through  the door,  and  I followed  her  into  the
larger, corrugated-iron extension. The walls  were lined with  plyboard, and
there was a rough concrete floor. Hanging down from  the high ceiling on the
end of steel rods were two old and very dirty days-of-the-Raj overhead fans,
both stationary.
     The room was a lot hotter than the  one we'd  just  left, but  lighter,
with large sheets of clear  corrugated plastic high up in  the walls serving
as windows.
     The extension might be cheap  and low-tech, but what it housed  wasn't.
Running the length  of the wall in  front of me and continuing after a right
angle  down the left-hand side was one continuous  desk  unit, formed out of
trestle tables.
     On it, and facing me, were two PCs with webcams  attached to the top of
the  monitors;  in front of each  was a canvas director's  chair,  the green
backrests  well sagged  with  use. The screen  of the  PC  on  the right was
displaying an  image  of the Miraflores  lock. It  must  have been  a webcam
online, because  the  screen  was just  at the point of refreshing itself to
show a  cargo ship half-way  out of one of the  locks.  Going  by the bright
reflection in  the puddles on the grass, we  weren't the only part of Panama
with sun.
     The PC to the left was closed down, and  had a set  of  headphones with
the  mike attached hanging over the camera. Both machines were surrounded by
paper and general  office clutter, as was the underneath, with wires running
everywhere and packs  of office supplies.  The  desk against the wall to the
left, facing me,  housed  a  third  PC, also with a  webcam with  headphones
hanging, and was surrounded by schoolbooks. This had to be Luce's Land.
     Carrie turned immediately to the right through the  only other door and
I  followed.  We entered  what looked  like a quartermaster's store,  a  lot
smaller than the  other two areas and a  lot hotter. It smelt like the local
deli. Rows of grey angle-iron shelving lined the walls left and right of me,
turning the middle into a corridor. Stacked each side of us were  all sorts,
cartons of tinned food,  hurricane  lamps,  torches, packs of  batteries. On
pallets on the  floor were bags of rice, porridge oats  and milk  powder the
size of coal sacks.
     Enough supplies, in fact, to keep the Good Life going for  a year. Laid
out  in the corridor was  a US Army cot bed  and a blanket, a  dark green US
Army lightweight still in its thin, clear plastic wrapping. That's for you."
     She nodded  towards  a corrugated-iron door facing  us as  she  quickly
closed the one to the computer room  behind us, plunging this area into near
darkness.
     "That'll take you outside. You'll be able to see better out there. I'll
bring out the first-aid kit."
     I walked past her, dropped my  jacket on the  cot, then turned back  to
see her climbing up the shelves.
     "Could I see the imagery, please?"
     She didn't look down at me.
     "Sure."
     I  went  outside. The  sun was casting  a shadow  on this  side  of the
building,  which was good as my head was thumping big-time and  being in the
full glare wouldn't help at  all. The  crickets were still  out  doing their
stuff; they're not great for headaches, either.
     In front of me, two  hundred metres away, lay the massed ranks of white
tubs with  their greenery sticking  out of the top and the sunlight bouncing
off puddles around  them as the generator chugged rhythmically. Aaron was in
the  distance, where the  tubs met  the track, a hose in his hands, flushing
out  the back of the wagon. A flock of large  black and  white birds  lifted
from the tree-line  beyond the  tubs and  whooshed  overhead  just above the
rooftop.
     I slumped  down on the concrete  foundation  that protruded  along  the
wall, my back against one of the green water butts, and closed my eyes for a
second, trying to relieve the pain. It wasn't happening so I opened the hole
in my jeans to inspect  the wound. The sweatshirt was still wet and muddy in
the creases and knots, even after the clean-up in the drainage ditch. It had
done the job of stopping the blood flow pretty well,  though  I  couldn't be
sure about infection.
     I'd had  tetanus  boosters, but probably only  Aaron  knew what kind of
weird and wonderful microbes lurked in the Panama jungle.
     I checked out the clotting between the  material and flesh: the two had
been trying their hardest  to dry together and  become  one, and the swollen
bruising around the wound felt kind  of  numb.  I  knew from experience that
this  sort of  injury would  be  a major drama if  you were stuck out in the
jungle for  any length of time, becoming a pus-filled mound within days, but
at least here I could sort it out.
     Carrie appeared from the  storeroom with an old-fashioned, brown-cheque
red suitcase and a sheet of  A4 paper. She placed  both  on the concrete and
lifted the  suitcase lid to  reveal what  looked like  quite  a  good  basic
medical pack. She came close in to look at the sweatshirt around my leg, and
for the first time  I caught a glimpse of her eyes. They were big, and  very
green. Her wet hair had fallen from behind her ears, and I was  close enough
to smell apple shampoo.
     She didn't  look up at me, just carried on digging around  in the case.
Her voice was clear, concise.
     "So, what is it you're here for?"
     She  started to pull stuff  out; I wasn't too  sure if she was going to
dress the wound herself or just show me what was available.
     She didn't look up at me as she continued.
     "I was told nothing except that you'd be coming and we were to help."
     By now there  were rolls of bandages in  crunchy  Cellophane, packs  of
pills and half-used bottles of medicine on the concrete  as she continued to
rummage.
     There's  something we  need  Charlie  to do. I'm  here  to  give him  a
reminder."
     She didn't  look up or otherwise acknowledge my answer. I looked at her
hands as she bent over the suitcase and laid out different-coloured tubes of
cream. They were working hands, not those of a lady who lunched. There  were
a few  little scars  here and there,  but  her fingernails weren't ingrained
with dirt like  Aaron's. They were short and functional, no  hint of polish,
but all the same they looked cared for.
     "Don't  you know what you're here to  remind  him  about? I mean, don't
they tell you these things when you're sent out, or whatever the word is?"
     I shrugged.
     "I thought maybe you might know."
     "No, I know nothing." She sounded almost sad about it.
     There was another pause. I  certainly didn't know what  else to say, so
pointed to the bits and pieces spread about on the concrete.
     "I need to clean myself up before I dress the wound. I'm afraid I don't
have any other clothes."
     She stood up slowly, looking over at the wagon.
     "You can use some of Aaron's.
     The shower is out in back." She pointed behind her. I'll get a towel."
     Before reaching the door she half turned  to  me, "We have a two-minute
rule here.
     First minute for soaking,  then turn  off the  hose  and  soap yourself
down. The  second  minute is to rinse. We get a lot of rain but seem to have
trouble capturing it." She gripped on the handle.
     "Oh, and  in  case you're tempted, don't  drink from  the shower.  Only
drink from the  hoses marked with a D that's the only  treated water." There
was a smile as she disappeared.
     "Otherwise it'll be giving you a pretty big reminder of why it needs to
be treated."
     I  took  a look at  the  printout of the  satellite imagery. Its grainy
reproduction covered the  whole page  and  was zoomed right into the target,
giving me a  plan view  of the house, the more or less  rectangular treeline
and the  broccoli  patch  surrounding  it. I tried to  get  to  work,  but I
couldn't do it  even knowing how important this  was  to me, I just couldn't
get my head to work.
     Instead, my  eye  caught one of the dark  brown bottles of  pills.  The
label  said dihydrocodeine, an  excellent  painkiller, especially when taken
with aspirin,  which boosts  its effect  big-time.  I shook  one out and dry
swallowed  as I  sorted in the  case for an aspirin. Eventually, pushing one
out of its foil, I got that down my neck as well.
     I placed one of the crepe bandages on top of the paper to hold it down,
got up and started limping round the  back  in the  direction of the shower.
Maybe it was the light, or just that I was knackered, but I was feeling very
woozy.
     Hobbling  past the  storeroom entrance, I  looked in  and saw that  the
computer-room door was still closed. I stopped and looked at the cot. It was
old-style, canvas rather  than nylon,  on a  collapsible alloy frame. I  had
good memories of these  things: they were easy  to  put up, comfortable, and
kept you  about two  feet off the ground  not  like the Brit ones, where you
needed a physics degree to assemble them, and ended up only about six inches
off the ground. If you got a saggy one, you  could spend your night lying on
cold concrete or with your arse in the mud.
     Some bird or other warbled and chirped  in the distance, and  the humid
air  was heavy with pungent aromas. I sat down on  the cot, dragged  Diego's
wallet from my jeans and looked at the picture  once more. Another nightmare
for later, I supposed. It'd just have to join the queue.
     Aaron had  finished and was  driving  back to  the  house. I got up and
closed out  the daylight,  then  stumbled back to the  cot, still in my damp
clothes, and lay down on my back, my heart pumping faster  as my head filled
with Kelly, bodies, Diego, more bodies, the Yes Man, even Josh. And fuck it,
why had I told Carrie I was here  to give Charlie a reminder? Why had I told
her anything about the job at all?
     Shit, shit, shit... The pins and  needles returned. I had no control as
they moved up my legs and my skin tingled.  I turned over  and curled up, my
arms holding my shins, not wanting to think any more, not wanting to see any
more.
     TWENTY
     Thursday  7  September  I walk  into  the  bedroom,  Buffy  and Britney
posters, bunk  beds and the smell of sleep. The top bunk is empty as I  move
towards them in the dark, kicking into shoes and teen-girl magazines. She is
asleep, half in, half out of her duvet, stretched out on her back, stretched
out like a  starfish, her  hair spread in  a mess over the pillow. I put her
dangling leg and arm gently back under the duvet.
     Something is  wrong ... my hands are wet  ... she is limp ... she isn't
sucking her  bottom lip, she isn't dreaming of being a pop star. The  lights
go on  and I see the blood dripping from my hands on to  her mutilated face.
Her mouth is wide open, her eyes staring at the ceiling.
     Sundance is lying on the top bunk, the bloodstained baseball bat in his
hands, his eyes  black and  nose  broken, looking  down  at me, smiling.  'I
wouldn't mind  a  trip to Maryland ... we could go  to Washington and do the
sights  first... I  wouldn't mind a trip  to  Maryland  ... we  could  go to
Washington and do the sights first..."
     I cry, fall to my knees, pins and needles.
     I pull her from the bed, trying to take her with me.
     "It's OK, Nick, it's OK. It's just a dream ..."
     I  opened my eyes. I  was  kneeling  on the  concrete,  pulling  Carrie
towards me.
     "It's OK," she said again.
     "Relax, you're in my house, relax."
     I focused on what  was happening, and quickly released my grip, jumping
back on to the cot.
     She stayed down on  the  floor.  The half-light  from  the living  room
illuminated a concerned face.
     "Here, have some."
     I took the  half-empty bottle of water from her  and started to unscrew
the top, feeling embarrassed, my legs stinging with pins and needles.
     I cleared my throat.
     "Thanks, thank you."
     "Maybe you  have a fever picked  up something in the  forest yesterday.
See  what  it's like  in the  morning and  we'll  take you to  the clinic in
Chepo."
     I nodded as I  drank,  pushing  back my soaked hair before stopping  to
take breath.
     There's some medication in the kit if you need it."
     "No, that's fine, thanks. How long have you been here?"
     "You just woke us,  we were worried." She reached out and put the  back
of her hand to my forehead.
     "These fevers out here can make you maniacal."
     T was having a nightmare? I can't even remember what it was about."
     She started to get up as I pulled the wet sweatshirt away from my skin.
     "It happens. You OK now?"
     I shook my head to try to clear it.
     "I'm fine, thanks."
     "I'll see you in the morning, then. Goodnight."
     "Yeah, um ... thanks for the drink."
     She walked  back into  the  dark computer room, closing the door behind
her.
     "You're welcome."
     I checked my watch.  12.46 a.m. I had been out for over fourteen hours.
Getting slowly to  my  feet, I squatted up and down, trying to  get my  legs
back to normal while I had some more  water.  Then I ripped the plastic from
the blanket, lay down  and covered myself, blaming the drug cocktail for  my
doziness.
     Dihydrocodeine does that to you.
     I tossed and turned,  eventually rolling up  my jacket as a replacement
pillow, but it didn't work. My body was telling me I still needed sleep, but
I really didn't want to close my eyes again.
     Half an  hour  later I checked Baby-G and it was 03.18 a.m. So much for
not closing my  eyes. I lay there, rubbing my legs. The pain had gone, and I
didn't feel as  groggy as  before.  I felt  around  below  the  cot for  the
water-bottle.
     Blinking my eyes open, I drank to the noise of the crickets.
     I didn't want to lie and think too much, so decided to have a walkabout
to keep my head busy. Besides, I was nosy.
     Pushing myself  upright,  I sat on the  edge  of  the cot  for a while,
rubbing  my face back to life before standing up and  reaching for the light
switch. I couldn't find it, so felt for  the door handle instead and bumbled
into the computer room, water in hand. The switch in here was  easy to find.
As the strip lighting  flickered I saw that the living-room door was closed.
I checked the darkness on the other side.
     The plyboard behind the two  blank  screens nearest me was covered with
pinned-up  printouts  in  Spanish, and  handwritten  messages on  university
letterhead,  alongside Post-its  with  everyday stuff like 'need more glue'.
This was how modern tree-hugging must be:  out shovelling shit all day, then
back to the PC to work out leaf tonnages or whatever.
     To the left of that was a cork board with a montage of photographs. All
of them  seemed to be of  the extension being  built,  and of  the  clearing
behind. A few showed  Aaron up  a ladder  hammering  nails  into  sheets  of
wriggly tin, some of him with what looked  like a  local,  standing  next to
craters in the ground with half blown-up trees around them.
     Taking a  swig  of the water I walked over to what I assumed was Luce's
PC.  The school textbooks were American, with titles like Math Is Cool,  and
there was a Tower of Pisa  of music CDs ready  to  play  in  the  drive. The
plyboard behind was  covered with  world  maps,  best-effort  drawings,  and
pictures of Ricky Martin torn from  magazines, along  with a Latin band with
permed hair and frilly shirts. I looked down  at  the desk  and noticed  her
name scribbled on exercise books as kids do when  they are  bored -mine were
always covered. Her name  was spelt Luz. I remembered from  my Colombia days
that their Z is pronounced as S. So her name was the Spanish for  'light' it
wasn't short for Lucy at all.
     I  could  feel the layer of greasy  sweat  over me as I headed for  the
living room, checking their bedroom once more before hitting the brass light
switch the other side of the door.
     The room was lit by  three bare bulbs, hanging on  thin white flex that
was taped to the supports. The cooker was a chipped white  enamel thing with
an eye-level  grill and  gas-ring hob.  There was  an old-style steel coffee
percolator on the cooker,  and various family-hug photos fixed to the fridge
with  magnets. Near it  was a white veneer  chip board dining-room set, with
four  chairs, that  could have  come straight out of a  1960s household  and
looked out of place in a world of dark hardwoods.
     I  pulled two or three bananas from a  bunch lying next to the oranges,
and looked idly at the photographs while my back reminded me I'd been bitten
big-time. The pictures were  of  the family having fun about the house,  and
some of an  older guy  in a white polo shirt, holding hands  with Luz on the
veranda.
     I peeled the  skin off the second as my eye fell on a faded  black  and
white picture of five men. One of them was most certainly the older guy with
Luz. All  five were in  trunks on the  beach, holding  up  babies  in  saggy
nappies  and  sunhats for  the  camera. The one on the far left had  a badly
scarred stomach.
     I leant  forward to get a closer look.  His hair had been darker  then,
but there was no doubt about it. The long features and wiry body belonged to
Pizza Man.
     Taking another  couple of bananas off the bunch, I wandered over to the
coffee table and sat  down,  resisting the temptation to give my back a good
hard scratch, and trying not to make a noise.
     I put down the water  and  munched away. The slab of dark wood looked a
good six inches thick, and though the  top was polished, the bark around the
edge had been left untouched. Strewn across it were tired-looking  copies of
Time magazine and  the  Miami Herald amongst glossy  Spanish titles I didn't
recognize, and a teen mag with some boy band posing on the cover.
     I sat, finishing off the bananas, while I ran my eye along the shelves.
There was a selection of hardbacks, paperbacks, large coffee-table books and
carefully  folded maps. The well-worn spines covered everything from natural
history to Mark Twain, quite a lot of American political history, and even a
Harry Potter.
     But most  seemed to be stern-looking  textbooks  on rainforests, global
warming, and flora and fauna. I looked closer. Two were by Aaron.
     One of the shelves was given over to four hurricane lamps with  already
blackened wicks, and as  many  boxes  of matches, lined up like soldiers  on
standby  for the  next power cut. Below  that, two silver candlesticks and a
silver goblet sat alongside a selection of  leather  bound books with Hebrew
script on the spine.
     Finishing off the water, I got  up and  dumped the banana skins in  the
plastic bag under the sink and headed for the cot. I'd had a long rest but I
still felt like more.
     I opened my eyes to the sound of the generator and  a vehicle engine. I
stumbled over the medical case as I made my way to the outside door.
     Blinding sunlight hit  me, and  I was just  in  time to  see  the Mazda
heading into  the treeline. As I held up my  hand  to shield my  eyes, I saw
Carrie at the front of the house. She turned to me, and I couldn't tell from
her expression if she was smiling, embarrassed or what.
     "Morning."
     I nodded a reply as I watched the wagon disappear.
     "Aaron's  gone to Chepo. There's  a  jaguar  that's been caged  up  for
months. I'll get you those clothes and a towel. You OK?"
     "Yes, thanks.  I don't think I need to go to Chepo. The fever's gone, I
think."
     "I'm fixing breakfast. You want some?"
     "Thanks, I'll have a shower first if that's OK.
     She moved back towards the veranda.
     "Sure."
     The hard  standing at  the  rear  of the  extension was covered  by  an
open-walled lean-to. It was obviously the washing  area.  In front of me was
the shower,  three  sides  formed out of wriggly  tin,  and  an  old plastic
curtain across the front. A black rubber hose snaked down from a hole in the
roof. Beyond it  was an old  stainless-steel  double sink  unit supported by
angle-iron, fed by two  other hoses, with the waste pipes  disappearing into
the ground. Further back was the toilet cubicle.
     Above  the sinks  were three toothbrushes, each in a  glass, with paste
and  hairbrushes alongside a huge box of  soap powder. An empty rope washing
line was also suspended  under the corrugated-iron awning, with  wooden pegs
clamped  all  along  it, ready and  waiting. A few  of  the  white tubs were
stacked up in the corner, one of them full of soaking clothes.
     The ground to the rear of the  house sloped gently away so that I could
just see the treetops maybe three hundred metres in the distance. Birds flew
over the trees and a few puffy white clouds were scattered across the bright
blue sky.
     I pulled  back  the  plastic  shower curtain, took  off all my kit  and
dropped it on the  hard standing, but  left the sweatshirt bandage  in place
around my leg. I stepped into  the cubicle, a rough concrete platform with a
drainage hole in the middle,  and a shelf holding  a  bottle  of shampoo,  a
half-worn bar of  soap streaked with hairs, and a  blue disposable razor not
Aaron's,  that was for  sure. Soap suds  were still dripping  down  the  tin
walls.
     I  twisted myself to  inspect the rash on my lower back, which was  now
incredibly sore. It was livid and lumpy, and about the  size of my outspread
hand. I'd probably got  the  good news from a family of chiggers while lying
in the leaf litter. The tiny mites would have burrowed into my skin as I lay
there  watching  the house, and there  wasn't a thing  I  could  do about it
except  play host for the next  few  days until  they got  bored with me and
died.  I scratched gently around  the edge of the rash, knowing  I shouldn't
but I couldn't stop myself.
     The bruising on the  left  side  of my chest  had  come on nicely since
Sunday  afternoon, and my  ribs  burned even when I reached out  to undo the
hose sprinkler.
     I soaked the sweatshirt material  with  lukewarm water to try to soften
up the clotting, then, holding the hose over my head, I counted off my sixty
seconds.
     Closing off  the flow, I lathered myself down with the flowery-smelling
soap and rubbed shampoo  into my hair. When the water had had enough time to
do its stuff  with  the dressing,  I  bent  down and  untied the sweatshirt,
trying to peel it away gently.
     My  vision  blurred.  I was feeling  dizzy  again.  What  the fuck  was
happening to me?
     I  sat down on the rough  concrete and rested my back against the  cool
metal.  I'd  been making  excuses by telling myself that  all this shit  was
because I was knackered. But I had been  knackered all my life. No, this was
going  on in  my head. I'd  been  so busy feeling sorry for myself, I hadn't
even given serious thought to how  I was going to get the job  done yet, and
had lost a whole day of preparation. I could have been on the ground by now.
     I  gave myself  a good  talking to:  Get  a grip ... The  mission,  the
mission, nothing matters except the mission, I  must get mission-orientated,
nothing else matters.
     TWENTY-ONE
     The flesh  refused  point blank to unstick  itself from  the  material.
They'd been mates for too many hours now and just  didn't want to be parted.
I  ripped it  away like  a sticking plaster,  and  immediately wished that I
hadn't:  the  pain  was  outrageous,  and that was  before the soapy  lather
started running into the raw, red, messy wound.
     "Fuck, fuck, fuck!" I couldn't help myself.
     As  I gritted my teeth and  rubbed  soap into the gash to clear out the
crap, there was a noise from the sink  area.  I  poked my  newly switched-on
head out to say thanks `<49' to  Carrie for the clothes  and  towel,  but it
wasn't her,  it was Luz at least, I  presumed it was. She was  dressed in  a
blue, rather worn-looking long  Tshirt style nightgown, and  had the wildest
black curly hair I'd  ever seen,  like  Scary Spice  plugged into the mains.
Near  her  on the  drainer was a pile  of khaki coloured clothes  and a blue
striped towel. She stood there, staring at me with big dark eyes above high,
pronounced Latin cheekbones and not a teenage zit in sight. She was going to
be a very beautiful woman one day, but not just yet.
     Sticking  out  of her nightgown was  a pair  of  lanky  legs, skinny as
shaved pencils, the shins covered with tomboy bruises.
     She looked at  me,  not scared  or embarrassed, just  interested at the
sight of a soapy version of Darth Maul sticking out  from behind the  shower
curtain.
     "Hold."
     That sort of Spanish I understood.
     "Oh, hola. You're Luz?"
     She  nodded, trying to work me out, or maybe she just found the  accent
strange.
     "My mom  told me to bring you these." She spoke American, tinged with a
hint of Spanish.
     Thank you very much. I'm Nick nice to meet you, Luz."
     She nodded "See you' and  left, going the long way round  so as not  to
pass the shower.
     I got back to business. The wound was about four inches long  and maybe
an inch deep, but at least it was a clean cut.
     The soap and shampoo were starting to cake on me now as I stood and got
to grips with the mission, and myself. Letting loose with the hose, I rinsed
off  for my allotted sixty  seconds, having a piss at the same time, and the
smell was bad.
     My urine was a horrible dark yellow, which meant I was very dehydrated.
I supposed that might account for the dizziness.
     I  towelled  myself  dry in  the open air, then got  dressed in Aaron's
clothes, khaki cotton  trousers with two map pockets either side, and a very
old, full sleeved faded  grey T-shirt, telling the world, "Just  do it." The
trousers were a few inches too big around  the waist, but a couple of twists
of  the waistband  tightened them up.  The  trouser pockets had good  Velcro
seals, so I put my  wallet, passport and air ticket, still  in their plastic
bags, in the right-hand one.
     After  slicking  back  my  hair  I attacked the D hose, sucking  at the
bitter-tasting water, then stopped for a while to  catch my breath as I felt
my stomach swell with the much-needed warm fluid.
     The next thing I did was take my Leatherman out of its case to wash off
Diego's  blood, then put it into my pocket. After another  big water-sucking
session, I  hung the wet  towel on the line  like  a good boy. With  my  old
clothes rolled in a ball in my left hand and my Timberlands in the  right, I
walked back round to the storeroom, picked up the medical  kit and satellite
picture,  then, after crawling about  under the cot, Diego's wallet, and sat
outside on the foundations again.
     Looking  at the sat image  I could clearly  see the road from Charlie's
house down to  the  gate, wagons parked, diesel fumes belching from a JCB as
it dragged a tree stump out of the  ground, bodies  lazing by the pool. This
was good stuff, but told me  nothing I didn't already  know. I'd been hoping
for maybe a  covered approach route from  the  rear  or something that would
spark off an idea.
     I found antibiotic powder in a little puff bottle and  gave  my wound a
good dousing, then applied a gauze  dressing and secured  it  with  a  crepe
bandage,  realizing, as I  saw the dihy-drocodeine bottle, that my  headache
had gone.
     Carrie hadn't provided any socks or underpants, so I just had to let my
boys  hang free and put my  own socks back on. They  were the consistency of
cardboard, but at least  they  were  dry now. I  pulled on my  boots, rubbed
antihistamine cream over the small of my back and the lumps on my face, then
packed everything back into the  case. I found two safety-pins to secure the
map pocket, and took the suitcase back to the storeroom. I dumped all my old
kit  under the cot and rummaged about for matches, then gouged a hole in the
earth with  the heel of my Timberland, and emptied  the  contents of Diego's
wallet into  it, less the $38.1 watched his picture ID and family photo curl
and turn black as I thought about what I was going to do with Michael.
     I didn't have that many options to consider. It was going to have to be
a shoot.
     Nothing else would work with such little time, information and kit:  at
three  hundred-ish  metres, and with even a  half-decent weapon, I should be
able to  drop him. No  fancy tip-of-an-ear  stuff, just going for the centre
mass of his trunk.
     Once he was down and static I could get  another few rounds into him to
make sure. If my only chance at dropping him presented itself as he got into
a vehicle leaving for or returning from college, then I was going to have to
take the shot pretty sharpish.
     Afterwards, I'd stay in the jungle until Sunday, keeping out of the way
before popping out and getting myself to the airport. Even  if I didn't find
an opportunity  until last  light tomorrow,  I could still  be at Josh's  by
Tuesday. As for  the possibility  of not seeing the target  at all, I didn't
want to go there.
     After  pushing mud over  the little  pile of  ash,  I  headed  for  the
kitchen,  keeping the antihistamine with  me. I threw the wallet on  to  the
back of a shelf as I passed through the storeroom.
     The fans in the living  area were turning noisily, whipping up a bit of
a breeze.
     Carrie was at the  cooker with her back  turned; Luz was sitting at the
table, eating  porridge and peeling an  orange. She  was  dressed  like  her
mother now, in green cargos and T-shirt.
     I put on my cheerful voice again and gave a general, "Hello, hello."
     Carrie turned and smiled.
     "Oh, hello." She didn't look at all embarrassed about last night as she
pointed at me with a porridge-covered spoon, but said to Luz, This is Nick."
     Luz's voice was confident and polite: "Hi, Nick."
     Thanks again  for bringing me the clothes' was answered with  a routine
'You're welcome."
     Carrie ladled porridge into a white bowl and I hoped it was for me.
     "Sit down.
     Coffee?"
     I did as I was told.
     "Please." By the time I'd pulled up my  chair, the porridge and a spoon
were on  the table in front of me. A bunch of four bananas was next, and she
tapped the top of a green jug in the centre of the table. Milk.
     Powdered, but you get used to it."
     Carrie turned her back to me and made coffee. Luz and I sat facing each
other, eating.
     "Luz, why don't you tell Nick how we do things? After all, that's  what
he's here to find out. Tell him about the new power system."
     Her face lit up with a smile that revealed a row of crooked white teeth
in a brace.
     "We have a generator, of course," she said earnestly, looking me in the
one and a half eyes she could see.
     "It  gives power  to  the  house, and also  charges  two  new banks  of
batteries  linked together  in parallel.  That's for emergencies and to keep
the generator noise down at night." She giggled.
     "Mom goes totally postal if the generator is left on late."
     I laughed,  though not as much  as Luz as she tried to drink some milk.
Carrie joined us with two steaming mugs of coffee.
     "It's not that funny."
     "Then why has milk come through my nose?"
     "Luz! We have a guest!" As she poured milk into her mug and  passed the
jug over to me, her eyes were fixed on Luz  with  a  look of  such love  and
indulgence that it made me feel uncomfortable.
     I nodded at the cooker.
     "So you have gas as well?"
     "For sure." Luz carried on with her lecture.
     "It's bottled. It comes by helicopter with the other stuff, every fifth
Thursday." She looked at her mother for confirmation. Carrie nodded.
     "The university hires a  helicopter for  deliveries to the six research
stations in-country."
     I looked as interested as I could, given that  what I really wanted  to
discuss was  how to get my hands on the  rifle I'd seen on the  wall, and to
see if it was any  good for what I  had in mind.  I peeled a banana, wishing
that I'd had a resupply every fifth week  during my stays in the jungle over
the years.
     Luz  was  just  finishing her food  as Carrie checked the clock by  the
sink.
     "You  know what? Just  leave your  plate on the side and go and log on.
You don't want  to keep  Grandpa  waiting." Luz nodded with delight, got  up
with her plate,  and put it down next to  the sink before  disappearing into
the computer room.
     Carrie took another sip  of coffee, then called out, Tell  Grandpa I'll
say hello in a minute."
     A voice drifted back from inside the computer room.
     "Sure."
     Carrie pointed at  the  hug  pictures on  the fridge  door  and one  in
particular,  the guy  in a polo  shirt  with grey-sided black hair,  holding
hands with Luz on the veranda.
     "My father, George he teaches her math."
     "Who are the ones holding the babies?"
     She turned back and looked at the fading picture.
     "Oh, that's  also my  father, he's holding  me  we're on the far right.
It's my favourite."
     "Who are the ones with you?"
     Luz stuck her head round the corner, looking and sounding worried.
     "Mom, the locks picture has closed down."
     That's OK, darling, I know."
     "But, Mom, you said it must always be-' Carrie was sharp with her.
     "I know, baby, I've just changed my mind, OK?"
     "Oh, OK." Luz retreated, looking confused.
     "We home-school everything else  here.  This  keeps her in contact with
her grandfather, they're real close."
     I shrugged.
     "Sounds good," I said,  really not that fussed  she hadn't answered  my
question. There were more important things on my mind. It was time to cut to
the last page. Is that rifle in the bedroom in working order?"
     'You don't miss much, do you, fever man? Of course ... why?"
     "For protection. We can  call your handler for one, it's not a problem.
It's just that I haven't got much time and I want to get  going as soon as I
can."
     She rested her arms on the table.
     "Do you people never feel secure without a weapon?"
     Those intense green eyes burnt  into me,  demanding an  answer. Problem
was, I reckoned her question was more complicated than it seemed.
     "It's always better to be safe than sorry that's why you have it, isn't
it?
     Besides, Charlie's no Mr. Nice."
     She stood up and walked towards her  bedroom, "For sure, like death but
if he catches you  doing whatever it is you're going to do, you'll need more
than an old rifle."
     She disappeared behind the door. From this side of the room I could see
the foot of the bed and the opposite wall.  It was covered with photographs,
both  old and  new, smiling adults and children doing  more family love-fest
stuff. I could hear  working parts moving back and  forth, and the chink  of
brass rounds as they fell on to each other. I supposed you'd have  it loaded
and ready to go, otherwise why have it on the bedroom wall?
     She reappeared with a bolt-action rifle in one hand, and a tin box with
webbing  handles  in the other.  It  didn't  have  a  lid, and  I  could see
cardboard boxes of ammunition.
     My eyes were drawn  to the weapon. It was a very old-style piece of kit
indeed, with the wooden furniture stretching from the butt all the way along
the quite lengthy barrel to just short of the muzzle.
     She put it down on the table. It's  a  Mosin Nagant. My father took  it
from the body of a North Vietnamese sniper during the war."
     I knew about this weapon: it was a classic.
     Before passing it across, she turned it  to present the opened bolt and
show  me  that the  chamber and magazine were clear. I  was impressed, which
must have been plain to see.
     "My father -what's the use of having one if you don't know  how  to use
it?"
     I checked chamber clear and took the weapon from her.
     "What service was he in?"
     She sat down and picked up her coffee cup.
     "Army. He made  general before retiring." She nodded over at the fridge
pictures. The beach? Those are his Army buddies."
     "What did he do?"
     Technical stuff, intelligence. At least there's one good thing that can
be  said  about  George he's  got smarts.  He's at the  Defense Intelligence
Agency now."
     She allowed  herself  a smile of  pride  as she gazed  at  the picture.
There's a  senior  White House  adviser and  two  other generals, one  still
serving, in that photograph."
     That's some bad-looking scar on the end. Is he one of the generals?"
     "No, he left the service in the  eighties,  just before the Iran-Contra
hearings.
     They were all involved in one way or the other, though Ollie North took
all the heat. I never did know what happened to him."
     If he was part of the Iran-Contra affair,  George would know  all about
jobs  like this  one. Black-ops jobs that no  one wanted to  know about, and
people like him wouldn't tell anyway.
     The  connection  between these  two,  George  and  the  Pizza Man,  was
starting to make me feel uncomfortable. But I was a small  player and didn't
want to get myself involved with whatever was going on down here. I just had
to be careful not to bump into it, that was all. I needed to get to Maryland
next week.
     Luz called from the other room, "Mom, Grandpa needs to talk with you."
     Carrie  got up with a polite "Won't  be long," and disappeared into the
next room.
     I took the opportunity to have a double-take at the tall, square-jawed,
muscular  George  smiling with Luz on the veranda.  It was easy to see where
she got her  big green eyes from. I  checked out the digital  display on the
bottom right of the picture. It  was taken  in 04-99,  only  eighteen months
ago. He still looked like the all-American boy with his short hair and  side
parting, and,  what was weird, he looked  younger than Aaron. The Pizza Man,
on  the  other  hand,  looked  like  death  warmed   up  compared  with  his
black-and-white former life. He was skinnier, greyer and probably had  lungs
like an oil slick, going by the way I'd seen him take down that nicotine.
     TWENTY-TWO
     I  got back  to the real world  and examined  the weapon,  which looked
basic and unsophisticated  compared with the sort of thing around  nowadays.
Not that the basics  had changed for centuries: trigger,  on and off switch,
sights and barrel.
     I wasn't a weapons anorak, but I  was  familiar enough with the Russian
weapon's history to know that, regardless of how it looked, these things had
sent thousands of Germans  to  their graves  on  the  eastern  front  in the
forties. The arsenal marks  stamped into the steel of the  chamber showed it
had been made  in 1938. Maybe this was one of  them. It had probably quite a
history, including zapping American targets in Vietnam.
     The one I had in  my hands had been beautifully maintained. The  wooden
furniture was varnished, and the bolt action  had been lightly oiled and was
rust-free. I got it into the aim and looked through the quite unconventional
optic sight, unsure if it was the original. It was a straight black and worn
tube about eight inches long and about an inch in diameter mounted on top of
the weapon.
     It had to be a fixed power sight as  there was no zoom ring  to  adjust
the  magnification, just two  dials half-way along  the sight the top one to
adjust for elevation (up and down), and the  one on the right-hand side  for
windage (left and right). The dials had no graduation marks any more the top
discs were missing just some scratch marks where it had been zeroed.
     Looking  into the sight and aiming at  a fuzzy book spine at this short
distance, I could see I had a post sight to aim with. A thick black bar came
up from the bottom of the sight and finished in a point in the centre of the
sight picture.
     Just below the point was a horizontal line that crossed the whole width
of the sight.
     I'd  never liked post  sights: the post itself  blocked  out the target
below the point of aim, and the further away  the target was, the smaller it
became and the more the post  blocked it out. But beggars can't be choosers,
and  as  long as  it went bang when I  pulled the trigger, I'd  be  half-way
happy. There were also conventional iron sights on  the weapon a  rear sight
that was set just forward of  the bolt, about where my left hand would go on
the stock. The sight could be set between 400 and 1200 metres. It was set at
the all-round 'battle sight' setting of 400. The foresight was  protected by
a cylindrical guard on the muzzle.
     I placed the weapon on the  table and went and helped  myself  to  more
coffee  from  the  cooker.  Thinking  about  this  rifle's  possible history
reminded  me that,  years earlier, in the  early  eighties,  when  I  was an
infantry squaddie  in BAOR (British Army of  the Rhine),  I'd owned a Second
World  War  bayonet that an old  German had given me. He told me he'd killed
over thirty Russians with it on the eastern front, and I wondered whether he
was bullshitting me, since most Germans of  that generation said they fought
the Russians during the war, not the Allies.  I'd put  it away in a cupboard
at the house  in Norfolk and forgotten about it; then, along with everything
else, it  had been sold  to  pay for Kelly7  s treatment. A  skinhead with a
stall in Camden Market gave me twenty quid for it.
     I'd nearly finished pouring when Carrie returned.
     "Do you know how to adjust the sights?"
     "No." It would save me a lot of time if I didn't have to experiment.
     "It's got a PBZ at three hundred and fifty yards," she said, walking to
the table.
     "Do you  know what  that is?" I nodded as she picked up  the weapon and
turned the dials.
     "Stupid, I'm sure you do."
     I could  hear  the clicks even above  the noise of the  fans before she
handed it  to me. There, the  notches  are in line." She showed me the score
marks levelled off against  the sight on  both dials to indicate the correct
position for the sight to be zeroed.
     I put down my coffee, took  it  off her  and checked out the dull score
marks.
     "Anywhere I can go to check zero?"
     She  waved her  arms.  Take your pick. There's  nothing  but  space out
there."
     I picked up the ammunition tin.
     "Can I have some of your printer paper and a marker pen?"
     She knew exactly what I needed it for.  Tell you what,"  she said, I'll
even throw in some tacks for free. See you outside."
     She went into  the computer  room  and I went out through the squeaking
mozzie screen  and on to the veranda. The sky was still brilliant  blue. The
crickets  were  going  for it like  there was no tomorrow, and  a monkey  or
something was  making  a happy  noise somewhere in the  canopy. But I wasn't
fooled. No matter:
     after a  shower and  some cream on my  back, the love affair  with  the
jungle was back on.
     Even in the shade of the veranda, it was  already much hotter out here.
I was  glad I  was beginning  to feel  better, because it  was an oppressive
heat.
     My dizziness had all but disappeared,  and it was time  to stop feeling
sorry  for myself and  get to grips with what  I was here to  do. The mozzie
screen squeaked open and  chopped off my train of thought as Carrie came out
carrying a crunched up paper bag. She handed it over.
     "I've told Luz you might go hunting  later, so you want to try out  the
rifle."
     I'll be over there." I indicated the  treeline about two hundred metres
away, to the right of the house. It was on the opposite side  to the  track,
so if Aaron came back early from rescuing jaguars he wouldn't get a 7.62  in
his ear.
     "See you in a bit."
     As soon as I left the shelter  of  the veranda, the sun's  fierce glare
blinded me.
     I  screwed  up  my  eyes and looked  down.  Most  of the  moisture  had
evaporated  off  the grass, but the heavy  humidity  meant  the puddles were
still intact apart from a muddy crust around the edges.
     I could feel my shoulders and the back of my neck burning as I  kept my
eyes on the rough, thick-bladed grass. I knew that once
     I got to the treeline things would improve. It would be just as hot and
sticky, but at least this rabiblanco wouldn't be getting blow-torched.
     I had a quick check of Baby-G. Unbelievably, it was only 10.56. The sun
could only get hotter.
     Carrie called out from behind me, still on the veranda.
     "Look after it." She pointed to the weapon.
     "It's very precious to  me." I had to squint to see her, but I was sure
there was a smile.
     "By  the way,  only load  up  four  rounds. You can  place five  in the
magazine OK, but can't close the bolt without stripping off the second round
got it?"
     I  lifted the weapon as  I walked. I'd keep the PBZ (point blank zero),
if it still  existed. Why mess with something that might already be right? I
might cock it up by trying to improve it.
     I let my hand drop with the weapon and carried on towards the treeline,
thinking of how the  three snipers in  London would have reacted to the idea
of using a  PBZ to drop a target, on  top of ammunition that could have been
made  by the local blacksmith.  To  ensure  consistency, they'd have  pulled
apart  every one  of  the  rounds I supplied  them  with  to check there was
exactly the same amount of propellant in each cartridge case.
     PBZ is just  a way of averaging out the averages to ensure the round at
least hits the target somewhere in the vital area. Hunters use it; for them,
the  vital area is an area about seven inches centred on the animal's heart.
The way it works is quite  simple.  As a  round leaves the barrel, it rises,
then begins to fall because of gravity.  The trajectory  is relatively  flat
with a large 7.62mm round like  these: over a range of 350 metres  the round
won't  rise or fall more than  seven  inches. As long as  the  hunter  isn't
further away than 350  metres,  he just aims at the  centre of  the  killing
area, and  the  round should  drop  the  bear or whatever else  is  charging
towards him. My shoot should be  from a maximum of 300 metres, so if I aimed
at the  centre of the target's sternum,  he should take a round somewhere in
the chest cavity what is known in sniper world as a target-rich environment:
heart,  kidneys,  arteries, anything that will make him suffer immediate and
catastrophic loss  of blood.  It  was not  as  sophisticated  as  the London
snipers'  catastrophic brain shot,  because  the weapon  and rounds  weren't
exactly state-of-the-art, and I hadn't had enough practice.
     A heart  shot would probably make the target unconscious, and  kill him
in ten or  fifteen seconds. The same  went for the liver, because the tissue
is so soft;
     even a near miss  can sometimes  have  the  same effect.  As the  round
travels through the body, crushing, compressing, and tearing away the flesh,
a  shock-wave  comes  with  it,  causing a massive  temporary  inflation  of
neighbouring tissues that messes them up big-time.
     A  hit  to the lungs would incapacitate,  but  it  might not  kill him,
especially  if he was treated  quickly  enough.  The ideal  would be for the
round to hit the target's  spine high up,  above his shoulder-blades, as  it
exited,  or entered  if I took him back  on. This would have very  much  the
effect the three snipers had been trying to achieve: instant death, dropping
him like liquid.
     This was all very fine in theory, but there was a host of other factors
to contend with. I might be trying to hit a moving target, there  might be a
wind.  I might only have  one part of a body  to aim at,  or only  one weird
angle to take the shot from.
     Trying not to think about the boy smiling out of the  Lexus, I wandered
the  two hundred or so metres  to the treeline, put down the ammunition box,
and  stood for a while in  the shade, looking  towards the  hill, the target
area. Then I set off towards the rising ground.
     I found a suitable tree and pinned a sheet of paper to the bottom third
of the trunk with one of the drawing pins. With a marker pen I drew a circle
about  the size of a two-pound coin and inked it in. It was a bit of a lumpy
circle with uneven edges because I was  pushing it against  the bark, but it
would do.
     I then pinned a sheet above and another below the  first,  then, making
the best of  the shade,  turned and walked back with the weapon  and rounds,
counting out a hundred one-yard paces. At  that range, even if the sight was
wildly inaccurate, with luck I would cut paper to see how bad it was. If the
zero  was out by,  say, two inches at  a hundred yards, then at two  hundred
yards  it would  be four inches,  and  so on. So if I  lay down initially at
three hundred, I could be six inches out, either up, down, left or right,
     possibly missing  the  paper altogether.  Trying to see my strike as  I
fired would waste time, of which I didn't have much.
     A  hundred  paces later and  "still  in  the  shade  of the treeline, I
checked for beasties, sat against a tree, and slowly closed the bolt action.
It  was  extremely  well made:  the action  was soft, almost buttery, as the
oil-bearing surfaces moved over each other  without resistance. I pushed the
bolt  handle  down  towards the furniture (the wood that shapes the weapon),
and there was a gentle click as it fell into its locked position.
     Before I  fired this  weapon  I  needed to  find out  what  the trigger
pressures were.
     Correct  trigger control will release the firing pin without moving the
weapon.
     All trigger pressures are  different, and nearly all sniper weapons can
be adjusted  for the  individual firer. I wasn't  going to do that because I
didn't  know how to on a Mosin Nagant, and I wasn't that particular anyway I
usually adjusted myself to whatever the pressures were.
     I  placed  the  centre  of  the top pad of my right index finger gently
against the trigger. There was just a few millimetres of give as  I squeezed
backwards  until  I  felt  resistance.  This  was  the  first  pressure. The
resistance was  the  second pressure; I gently squeezed again, and instantly
heard the click as the firing pin pushed itself out of the head of the bolt.
That was fine for me: some snipers  prefer no first  pressure at all, but  I
quite liked having that looseness before firing.
     Pulling the  bolt back once more, I took one of the  twenty-round boxes
of large brass 7.62  rounds  out of the ammunition box, and fed in four, one
at a time, from  the top of the breech, into what should have  been a  fixed
five-round mag.
     Then I slid home the bolt once  more,  watching  as it  pushed the  top
round into the chamber. There was a  slight  resistance only as I pushed the
cocking  handle down  towards the  furniture and the bolt locked into place,
securing the  round so it could be fired.  The on off switch was at the back
of the cocking piece, a flat circle of metal at the rear  of  the bolt about
the size of a fifty-pence piece, and turning it to the left I applied  Safe.
It was a pain  in the arse to do, but I  supposed there wasn't much call for
them when this thing was made it was too busy killing Germans.
     I looked for  a small mound in the rough ground to double as a sandbag,
and after a  beastie check, lay  down behind it in  the prone  position. The
steel plate of the weapon butt was in the soft tissue of  my right  shoulder
and my  trigger finger  ran over the  trigger  guard.  My left  forearm  was
resting against the mound and I let my hand find its natural position  along
the stock of the weapon, just forward of  the rear sight. There were grooves
cut into the furniture each side to give a better grip.
     Your bones  are the foundation for holding a  weapon; your muscles  are
the cushioning that holds it tightly in position. I had to make  a tripod of
my elbows  and  the  left  side of my  ribcage. I had the  added benefit  of
resting my forearm against the mound. I  needed to  ensure that the position
and  hold  were firm enough  to support  the  weapon,  and  that  I was also
comfortable.
     I looked  through the sight, making sure there was no shadowing  around
the edges of the optic. There was no problem about closing my left eye: half
the job  had already been done for me yesterday. The biggest mistake made by
novice firers using a  post  sight is that they think the point to aim at is
where the horizontal line  crosses the post. It's not,  it's  the top of the
post, right where  the  point  is. The horizontal  line is so you can  check
there's no canting (weapon tilting).
     I took aim  at the  centre of  the  not-too-circular  black circle then
closed my eyes  and stopped breathing.  I relaxed  my muscles slightly  as I
emptied my lungs.
     Three seconds later, I opened my eyes, started to breathe normally, and
looked through the sight once more. I found that my point of aim had shifted
to the left-hand edge of the sheet of paper, so I swivelled my body round to
the right, then did the same thing twice more until I was  naturally aligned
to the target.
     It was pointless trying to force my body into a position that it didn't
want to be in: that would affect the round  when I fired. I was now ready to
take the first shot.
     I  took  three  deep  breaths  to  oxygenate my  body.  If  you're  not
oxygenated you  can't  see correctly; even if you're not firing a weapon, if
you just stand and gaze at something in the far distance and stop breathing,
you will see it go blurry very quickly.
     The weapon sight moved up and down with my body as I
     sucked  in air, and  settled to  a  gentler  movement  as I  started to
breathe normally. It was  only then that I  took off the safety,  by pulling
back and turning it to the right. Acquiring a good sight  picture once more,
I  aimed before taking  up the first pressure.  At  the same time  I stopped
breathing, in order to steady the weapon.
     One second, two seconds ... I gently squeezed the second pressure.
     I  didn't even  hear the crack, I was so busy maintaining concentration
and non reaction while the weapon jumped up and back  into my  shoulder. All
the time I kept my right eye open and followed through the shot, watching as
the  point of aim came back  to settle on the centre of the target. That was
good: it meant my body was correctly aligned. If not, the point of aim would
have moved to where my body was naturally pointing.
     The round needed  to be followed  through because although there  might
only be less  than a second between me taking the  second  pressure, sending
the firing pin forward and striking the round, and the bullet heading up the
barrel as the gases forced it out towards the target, the slightest movement
would mean the point of  aim  not being the  same at  the instant the bullet
exited the muzzle  as when  I fired. Not good news if you're  trying to kill
somebody with a single round.
     That  was the  end  of  the  firing sequence.  I became  aware  of  the
different colours  and  sizes of the flocks of birds lifting from the trees.
The  canopy  rustled  as they screamed and flapped their wings to make their
getaway.
     In real time there are many occasions when these drills can't be  used.
But as  long as  you understand them, and have used them to zero the weapon,
there's a good chance you can take on an opportunity target and drop it.
     I looked  through the sight to check where my round had fallen. I'd hit
the top of the  main sheet of paper: about five inches high. That was OK, it
should be high at this close range: the optic was set at 350. The main thing
was that it wasn't higher than seven inches.
     The  problem  was that,  although  the round  was  at more or less  the
correct height for the range, it had gone to the left of the centre line  by
maybe as much as three inches. At 300 yards that would become nine inches. I
would have missed the chest, and maybe hit an arm if he was static and I was
lucky. That wasn't good enough.
     I lay back and  watched the birds  coming back to their nests. I waited
maybe three minutes before reloading  because  I needed this  to be  a  cold
barrel zero:
     when I took the next shot, the  barrel  had to be  as cold as the last.
Variations in the  barrel's temperature  will  warp  the  metal. Taking into
account the inconsistency in the ammunition, it would be stupid to zero with
a hot, or even warm barrel, since it would be cold when I took the shot.
     That got the little sniper in my head ticking away. It reminded me that
damp, humid  air is thicker than dry, causing the bullet to drop faster. Hot
air has the reverse effect because it is thinner, so offers less  resistance
and sends the bullet higher. What was I supposed to do  on a very hot day in
a very humid jungle?  Fuck it, I'd leave it alone, I'd only  just got rid of
my  headache, I didn't  want  it back. Five  inches  should  be  OK.  I'd be
confirming back at 300 anyway.
     I  took another shot and followed through, my point of  aim staying  on
the circle.
     My round still cut paper to the left, less than a quarter of an inch in
from the first. The shots were well grouped, so I knew that the first  round
wasn't just a wild crazy one; the sight did need adjusting.
     The  birds were well pissed-off at being disturbed a second time, and I
sat up and watched them as I waited for the barrel to cool. It was then that
I saw Carrie making her way towards me from the rear of the house.
     TWENTY-THREE
     She  was about 150 metres away, swinging a two-litre bottle of water in
her right hand. I waved. As she looked at me and waved back, I  got  a flare
of sunlight from her wraparounds. I sat  back against the  tree and  watched
her get nearer.
     She looked as if she was floating above the heat haze.
     When she got closer I could see her hair flick back and forth with each
stride.
     "How's the zero going?"
     Tine, just off a bit to the left."
     She held out the bottle with a smile. The condensation glistened on the
plastic:
     it had come  straight out of the fridge.  I nodded  my thanks and stood
up, catching my own reflection again in those fly's eye glasses of hers.
     I sat back down against the tree, unscrewing the top.
     She looked down, fingering her hair behind her ears.
     "It's a real hot one today."
     "Sure is." It was routine, the bullshit stuff that people exchange when
they don't know each other, plus I was trying to keep her well away from any
mention of last night. I got the bottle  to my lips and took some long, hard
swallows.
     The plastic started to collapse in my fingers; I wasn't letting any air
past the tight seal of my lips.
     She stayed above me, hands on hips, in the same position as the Yes Man
had taken a few days earlier, but without the attitude.
     The  sight might've  taken some knocks over the months. I use  the iron
sights, they're  never  off  anyone out  here  in the  open is  within their
range."
     I stopped drinking. There was a pop and a gurgle as air rushed into the
vacuum and the plastic resumed its normal shape.
     "Ever had to?"
     Her glasses hid any clues her eyes might be giving away.
     "Once,  a few years back.  These things can happen out here, you know."
She put out her hand for the water.
     I watched as  she  threw her head back and took five or six gulps above
me, her throat moving  with each swallow. I could hear the fluid going down,
and see the muscles in her right arm  tauten  as she  tilted the bottle. Her
skin  had a light  sheen of moisture;  on me it would just  have looked like
sweat.
     She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
     "Question.  If it's just for protection, how  come you're  checking the
scope?" She pointed into the jungle.
     "No good in there, is it?"
     I gave her my most disarming smile.
     "As I said, I just like to be prepared, that's all."
     "And is that down to your training, or  down to you?" She hesitated.  I
wished I could see her eyes.
     "How do you get to do this sort of thing?"
     I wasn't sure I could explain.
     "Want to help me?"
     She caught my tone and went with it.
     "Sure."
     We took the few paces over to the grassy mound.
     "Is silence  your way of  dealing with it, Nick? I mean, is silence the
way you protect yourself from the things you need to do for your work?"
     I saw my reflection as  I tried to look through  her  lenses:  she  was
smiling, almost taunting me.
     "All I want you to do is aim dead centre into the black circle. I  just
want to adjust the sights."
     "One shot zero, right?"
     "Right."
     "OK, tell you what you aim, you're stronger. I'll adjust."
     I opened the bolt,  ejecting the empty case, reloaded and  applied Safe
as we reached the mound.
     "I want the same elevation."
     She raised her eyebrow.
     "Sure." I was  telling her how  to suck eggs  Instead of supporting  it
with my  left  hand, I started to push  the  stock into the mud. Her sandals
were inches from my face.
     "Tell me when."
     I looked up. Her sunglasses were  now on the  back of her neck with the
arms facing forward and the black nylon retaining necklace dangling  down on
to her vest. Her huge green eyes were blinking to adjust to the light.
     I started to pack mud  around the stock: the weapon needed to be locked
tight into position for this to work. Once that was done, I checked that the
score marks were  still in line on  the  sight, and aimed dead centre of the
black circle.
     "OK."
     There was  an  "Affirmative' from above as she pushed down on the mound
with her sandal led foot, compacting the earth around the stock as I held it
firmly in position. My arms strained as I  tried to keep  the  weapon  in  a
vice-like grip to ensure the  post sight stayed  dead centre.  I  could have
done this on my own but it would have taken a whole lot longer.
     She had finished packing  the  soil over the weapon and  I still  had a
good sight picture, so I told her this "On' and moved my head to the left so
she could lean over and  see the target through the sight. Our heads touched
as her  right hand  moved on to  the windage dial on  the  left  side of the
optic, and started  to turn it. I heard a  series of  metallic clicks as she
moved the post left until the point of aim was directly below the two rounds
that I  had  fired,  whilst remaining in line with  the  centre of the black
circle.
     It only took  her fifteen seconds,  but  it  was time enough  for me to
smell  the soap  on her  skin, and  feel the gentle  movement of air as  she
controlled her breathing.
     My  breath stank after not brushing since Saturday, so I moved  my lips
to  divert the smell away  from us both as  she clicked  away. She moved her
head back more quickly than I wanted her to and squatted on her knees.
     "OK, done." I could feel the warmth of her leg against me.
     I had to move my arm out of the  way  to drag  my Leatherman  out of my
pocket and passed it up to her, glad that I'd cleaned it.
     "Score it for me, will you?"
     She opened out the knife blade and leant over to scrape a line from the
dial on to  the metal housing  of the optic, so  I'd be able to tell  if the
dial had been inadvertently moved, knocking the zero off.
     Her vest was gaping in  front of me as she worked  and  I couldn't stop
myself looking. She must have seen me: I couldn't move  the focus of my gaze
quickly enough as she returned to her kneeling position.
     "Who sprinkled you with horny  dust?"  There was a smile to go with her
question,  and she  kept  her  big  green  eyes on  mine, but her expression
couldn't have given me a bigger no.
     "Are you going to confirm?"
     Pulling the weapon from the mud, I cleared my throat.
     "Yeah, I suppose I'll annoy the birds again."
     She stood up to get out of the way.
     "Ooookay ..."
     I recocked and went  through the firing sequence, aiming at  the centre
of the circle and, sure enough, I pissed off the birds again big-time.
     The zero was good; the round  went in directly above  the point of aim,
roughly in  line  with the other two rounds to  the left. At  300 the  round
should cut paper slightly above the circle, but I'd soon find out.
     I was  still looking  through  the sight  when  I felt  Carrie's  knees
against my arm again.
     "Is it OK?" I kept my eye on my shot, still checking. Teah, it's fine.
     Dead on."
     I ejected the round and moved my head away from the sight as  she leant
over to pick up the empty cases.
     We stood  up together and she  walked back into  the shade as I cleaned
the mud off the rifle's furniture.
     "If that wasn't a window to your mind, I don't know what is."
     Maybe I should have worn her Jackie Os.
     Tour eyes aren't as silent as your mouth, are they?"
     I heard the metallic clink  of  the empty cases  as she threw them into
the ammo box. She sat down under a tree, crossing her legs.
     I worked hard to think of something to say as I walked over to her.
     "How did the  house come to  be here? I mean, it's a bit off the beaten
track, isn't it?"
     She  picked up the bottle and took a swig as I settled down  a few feet
away. We faced each other and I took the water when she offered it to me.
     "A rich hippie guy built it in the sixties. He came down here to escape
the draft." The fly's eyes looked at me, and the smile stayed on her face as
she fished out a tobacco tin and Zippo from her cargos.
     "He  swapped  the  forests  of  Vietnam  for  the  forests  of  Panama.
Apparently he was a  real character,  kept the  dealers and bars in Chepo in
business for over twenty years. He died maybe eight or nine years ago."
     There was a pop as the tin opened,  and she picked out one of the three
or  four ready-prepared roll-ups. She giggled to herself, showing  a  set of
brilliant  white teeth  as she checked  the cigarette was still intact.  The
lenses turned  on  me again  and my reflection moved  up and down  with  her
shoulders as she started to laugh.
     "Got killed by  a  logger's truck after a  night  hitting  the bars. He
staggered out into the road, trying to stop the truck from leaving, claiming
that  the wood belonged to the forest and it had spirit.  Strangely  enough,
the truck seemed not to hear him, and that was that. Sawdust."
     I laughed  with her, seeing in my  mind's eye the absurd contest of man
versus truck. She  flicked the  Zippo deftly and lit up. The twisted  end of
the  roll-up flared as she took a deep breath, held it, then slowly exhaled.
An unmistakable  smell filled  the air between  us. She chuckled to  herself
before finishing off the story.
     "He was the one who had spirit, but unfortunately for him that night it
was all in his bloodstream."
     I  took in more water as she turned her gaze once more to the building,
picking bits of Rastafarian Old Holborn from her lips.
     "He'd left  the house  and  the land  to the  university, for research.
We've been  here  nearly six years now. Cleared  the land out back  for  the
helicopter. Even put up the extension ourselves."
     She turned back and offered me the joint.
     I shook my head. If other people wanted to, that was up to them, but it
was something I'd never even thought of trying.
     She shrugged and took another  drag. We can only do it out of the house
so Luz doesn't catch us.  She'd freak if she knew what Mommy was doing right
now. Talk  about role reversal." She inhaled deeply, her face screwing up as
the smoke blew from her mouth.
     "I suppose someone like  you wouldn't do this, would  you? Maybe you're
worried you'll drop that guard of yours. What do you think?"
     "Aaron told me you met at the university ..."
     She nodded as I started to fill the magazine with more rounds.
     "Eighty-six.
     Without him I'd never have had the stamina to get my Ph.D. I was one of
his students."
     She  looked  at me  and smiled expectantly,  obviously well used to the
reaction  to  her  announcement.  I  probably  fell  in  with  the  one  she
anticipated.
     Her tone challenged me.
     "Oh, come on, Nick, have you never been attracted to an older woman?"
     Teah, Wonder Woman, but that was when I was the same age as Luz."
     I'd made her laugh, though maybe  the  giggle weed  had a little  to do
with it.
     "Half the university staff ended  up marrying a student. Sometimes they
had  to divorce one student to set up with another but, hey, why should  the
course of  true love  run smoother in  a  faculty building  than  any  other
place?"
     I sensed it was a well-rehearsed explanation of their relationship.
     "Staying  here  to study while the  folks  went  back up  north and got
divorced was great," she went on.
     "You  know,  straitlaced  Catholic  family  gone  wrong the  rebellious
teenage  years, father not  understanding that  sort of stuff."  Her glasses
pointed my way  and she smiled, maybe thinking about those good times as she
took  another drag. There's  even  a kind of convention about  sleeping with
your teacher, you know. Not exactly as a rite of passage, more a visa stamp,
proof you've been there. Someone like you would understand that, no?"
     I shrugged,  never having  known anything about  what went on at  those
places, but now wishing I did.
     She picked up the fully loaded rifle that lay between  us. The bolt was
back and she checked chamber before laying the weapon across her knees, then
slowly moved the bolt forward to pick the  top round  out  of the  magazine,
feeding it  into the chamber. But instead  of  locking down the bolt  as you
would  to fire, she  pulled  it back so the brass round was ejected from the
chamber with a clink and into the grass. Then she pushed the bolt home again
to repeat the action.
     "How does Luz  fit  in  here?"  Even as I  started to speak  I knew I'd
fucked up, but it was too late to stop the flow.
     "She isn't your natural child, is she?"
     She might have been: she could have had her with  somebody  else. I was
crashing and burning  here. I tried to recover. I  didn't mean that,  what I
mean is, she isn't-' She laughed and cut in to save me.
     "No, no, you're right, she isn't. She's kind of fostered."
     She took a long, reflective drag and  looked down, concentrating on the
slow ejection of another round as it flew out of the chamber on to the rough
grass. I couldn't help but think of Kelly  and what my  version of fostering
had added up to these past three or four years.
     "She  was  my dearest and only  friend  really,  Lulu ...  Luz  is  her
daughter ... Just Cause." She looked up sharply.
     "You know what that is?"
     I nodded.  Not  that  she  could see me:  she was  already looking down
again. The invasion. December 'eighty-nine. Were you both here?"
     She pulled back  the bolt on the third round and shook  her head slowly
and sadly from side to side.
     "No one can imagine what a war is like  unless they  witness one. But I
guess I don't need to tell you that."
     "Mostly  in places I can't  even  pronounce,  but they're all the  same
wherever they are shit and confusion, a nightmare."
     The fourth round tumbled out of the weapon.
     "Yep, you're right there. Shit and confusion ..." She picked one up and
played  with  it between her fingers, then took another puff of the  spliff,
making it glow gently.
     Her head was up now but I couldn't tell if she was looking at me or not
as she blew out smoke.
     "Months before the invasion things were getting really tense.
     There were  riots,  curfews, people getting killed. It  was  a bad, bad
situation only a matter of  time  before the US  intervened, but nobody knew
when.
     "My father kept  wanting us to move north, but Aaron wouldn't have  any
of  it this is  his home.  Besides, the  Zone was only a few miles away, and
whatever happened out here, in there we'd be safe. So we stayed."
     She dropped the round on to  the ground, picked up the water and took a
long swig, as if she was trying to wash away a bad taste.
     "On the morning of the nineteenth, I got called by my father telling us
to get  into the Zone  because it was going down that night. He was still in
the military then, working out of
     DC."
     She had a moment to herself and gave a fleeting smile.
     "Knowing George, he was probably planning it. God knows what he gets up
to.  Anyways, he'd  arranged  accommodation for us  in  Clayton."  She  took
another swig, and I waited for the rest of the story.
     She  put down  the bottle and  got the last out of her  herbal  roll-up
before  stubbing  it out into the ground, then picking up  another  round to
fiddle with.
     "So we  moved into the  Zone and,  sure enough, we saw  enough  troops,
tanks, helicopters, you name it, to take on Washington state." She shook her
head slowly.
     "That night we lay in bed, we couldn't sleep you know what it's like.
     Then just past midnight the first bombs hit the city. We ran out on  to
the deck  and saw bright sheets of light filling the sky, then the sound  of
the  explosions  just  seconds  behind.   They  were  taking  out  Noriega's
headquarters, just a few miles from where we were standing. It  was terrible
they were bombing El Chorrillo, where Lulu and Luz lived."
     TWENTY-FOUR
     Her voice was devoid of emotion now, her body suddenly still.
     "We went back inside and turned on the radio for news. Pan National had
music, and about a minute later there was an announcement saying that Panama
was being invaded, and alerting the Dingbats."
     "Dingbats?"
     The Dignity Battalions Noriega's private army. The  station was calling
them to arms, calling for everybody else to  go on  the streets  and  defend
their  country against the invaders,  all that kind of crap.  It was a  joke
nearly everybody wanted this to happen, you know, get Noriega out.
     "We  left  the radio on,  and  turned on the TV to the Southern Command
station. I  couldn't believe it,  they hadn't  even  interrupted the  movie!
Aaron got totally freaked out. We could still hear the bombing outside."
     I was listening intently, taking the occasional sip of water.
     "The Defense Department  seal  soon filled  the  screen on  all the Pan
channels, and a voice came on telling everybody in  Spanish to  stay indoors
and keep tuned in.
     And that's exactly  what we did. Not that they told us much  apart from
"Everything's fine, just stay calm." Soooo, eventually we  went back out  on
the deck, and watched  more explosions. They were  coming from all parts  of
the city  now. There were jets zooming around  in the dark, sometimes coming
so low we could see their afterburners.
     "This carried  on until  maybe about four, and then it  all went quiet,
apart  from  the  jets and  helicopters. We really didn't know what to do or
think1 was worried for Lulu and Luz.
     "At  dawn, the sky just seemed to be filled with helicopters, and smoke
coming  out  from  the  city.  And there  was  this  huge  plane, constantly
circling. In the end, it was there for weeks."
     The way she  described it,  it was  probably  a Spectre gunship:  those
things can  operate day or night, it doesn't matter; it's always a clear day
for  them. They would be up there, in  support  of the ground troops, acting
like airborne artillery. They have infrared and thermal imaging cameras that
can  pick  out  a  running man or  a  square inch  of  reflective tape  from
thousands of  feet up.  They have onboard computers, controlled by operators
who are protected inside a titanium cell, to help them decide whether to use
their  40mm  and  20mm cannons  or  machine-guns, or if the  shit was really
hitting the fan  below, a 105mm howitzer  artillery piece  sticking out  the
side.
     Carrie  continued  talking,  telling  me  about  the  Dingbats looting,
raping,  destroying everything in  their path  as they  tried to escape  the
Americans.  For her and Aaron it  wasn't until  the day after Christmas that
they went back to their house near the university.
     "It was fine ..." She smiled fleetingly again.
     "It  wasn't even  looted, though some of the locals had been out making
the most of the opportunities elsewhere. Somebody had stolen  a whole lot of
Stetsons  from  a  store  suddenly  there  were  about  thirty  guys in  the
neighbourhood thinking they were John Wayne."
     I smiled at the image, but her face was soon serious again.
     "The place  was  an  occupation  zone, checkpoints,  troops,  they were
everywhere. We were  so worried  about Lulu and Luz, we went to El Chorrillo
to check them out.
     It looked like  a newsreel of  Bosnia. There were bombed-out buildings,
troops  with   machine-guns  cruising   round   in  armoured  vehicles  with
loudspeakers."  She  mimicked their  words: "Merry Christmas, we're soldiers
from the United  States of America. We're going  to be searching your houses
very  soon, please leave your doors open and  sit in the  front part of your
home. You will not be harmed.
     Merry Christmas." It was so surreal, like a movie or something.
     Her face was suddenly drained.
     "We got  to  Lulu's  walk-up  and it  was  just a  heap  of rubble. Her
neighbours told us she'd  been inside. Luz had been sleeping  over at Lulu's
sister's place in the next block. That  was bombed, too,  and the sister had
been killed, but there was no trace of Luz. It was terrible, looking for Luz
after that. I had that feeling, you know, that frantic feeling like when you
think you've maybe lost a  child in a crowd. The idea of  her walking around
the streets without anyone to  protect her, you know, look after her. Do you
know that feeling?"
     I thought of last night's dream. I knew that feeling all right.
     We found her eventually in one of the reception camps, in a creche area
with all the  other parent less kids. The rest is kind of history. From that
day till this, we've looked after her." She sighed. We loved Lulu so much."
     I'd  been  slowly  nodding  ever  since  her  question, listening,  but
troubled by my own thoughts.
     "I have lost friends," I said.
     "All of them, really. I miss them too."
     "Lonely without them, isn't  it?" She picked up the  last of the  water
and offered me a share, waiting for me to continue. I shook my head and  let
her finish it. I wasn't going to let that happen.
     "Do you think the US did the right thing?" I asked.
     The bottle was back in her mouth for a couple of sips.
     "It should have  come earlier. How could we just sit and watch  Noriega
the deaths, torture, corruption? We should  have done something sooner. When
the word was out that he had turned himself over to the US, there were horns
sounding all over the city.
     There  was a lot of  partying that night."  An edge of bitterness crept
into her voice.
     "Not that it's done any  good. With the stand-down from the Zone, we've
given everything  away." She retreated into her own thoughts for a second or
two and I just watched her face get sadder. At length she looked up.
     "You know what,  Nick? Back  then, something  happened that I'll  never
forget. It changed my life."
     I carried on looking at her and waiting as she finished the water.
     We were back  in our house and it  was New Year's Day, nearly two weeks
after the invasion. I was watching TV with Luz in my  arms. Barbara Bush was
in the audience of some show and a group on stage started to sing "God Bless
America". The whole audience stood up and joined in. Just at  that moment, a
helicopter flew low over us, right over  the house,  and I could  still hear
the giant plane circling  overhead and I  started to cry. For the first time
it made me feel so proud to be American."
     A  tear ran  down her cheek from  behind  her sunglasses.  She  made no
attempt to wipe it away as another followed.
     "But you know  what? I  feel so sad for us now that we  could just give
away everything down here that people died for back then. Can you understand
that, Nick?"
     Yes, I understood, but I never went there. If I did, I wasn't sure that
I could navigate my way out again.
     "I  met  a guy  called  Johnny  Applejack,  a Delta  Force  captain, in
'ninety-three.
     Well, that's what we called him ..." I told  her about his patrol going
into  a Panamanian  government office during  the  first  night, and finding
three million  dollars there, in cash.  The only reason  all six of the team
weren't now driving Porsches was  that Johnny radioed it in without thinking
about what he was doing.
     "It was only after he got off the air that he realized he'd just kissed
goodbye to the patrol retirement fund. I don't know what he's like  now, but
back in 'ninety-three he looked as if his  lottery numbers  had come up  and
he'd just realized he'd forgotten to buy a ticket."
     She smiled.
     There was a pause I was aching to fill as I watched her place her index
fingers under her glasses and give  each eye a wipe. But I'd done the damage
I'd wanted to: I'd broken the spell.
     I pointed at the weapon still across her lap as I got to my feet.
     "Coming back to three hundred?"
     "Why not?"
     I waited as she got up. Her dark lenses zeroed in on me again.
     "The other stuff getting too close for you, Nick?"
     I turned and started counting off another two hundred paces in my head,
with her at my side. Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight.
     I filled the space with business.
     "I've been thinking. I  need to be back at  Charlie's by four  tomorrow
morning,  so I'll have to leave here at ten tonight and we're  going to need
to work out how I can return this." I held up the weapon.
     "I presume you'll want it back?"
     Thirty-nine, forty, forty-one.
     "Sure do,  it's  the  only  present my father ever gave me that had any
use. We'll work it out."
     I  realized I'd lost the  count. I started at  forty-five as Carrie's f
sunglasses turned to me.
     "Do you  know how  you're  going to  do it  yet  you know,  give him  a
reminder?" Fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four.
     "I've had one or two thoughts ..."
     Fifty-six, fifty-seven, fifty-eight. I looked out at the clearing, then
had another.
     "You got any explosive left?
     I saw  the pictures,  on the  cork board." Seventy-three, seventy-four,
seventy-five.
     'You are nosy, aren't you?"
     She pointed towards the far treeline that faced the rear of the  house.
There's a stash of the stuff down there in the shack."
     I was amazed.
     "You mean you've just left it there? In a shed?"
     "Hey, come  on.  Where are we? There's  more to worry about round  here
than a few cans of explosives. What do you want it ' for, anyway?"
     "I need to make a lot of noise to remind him."
     I couldn't see any outbuildings, just greenery: because of the downhill
slope the bottom third of the treeline was in dead ground.
     "Do you know how to use it? Oh, of course stupid."
     "What kind is it?"
     She pulled a face.
     "It  goes bang  and blows up trees, that  kind. George  and some of the
local guys played with it."
     I'd lost  count again. I was guessing  eighty-nine, ninety, ninety-one,
then Carrie stopped to announce: "First one hundred."
     She pointed towards the dead ground.
     "I'll  take you  down there  after we've-' "Mom! Mom!  Grandpa wants to
talk!" Luz was yelling for her from the rear of the house.
     Carrie put her hands to her mouth.
     "OK, baby." She sounded quite concerned as she put down  the bottle and
ammo box.
     "I've got to go."
     She emptied her  pockets of the tobacco  tin  and Zippo then threw them
into the ammo box. She turned to me and smiled.
     "She'd ground me."
     Jogging out into the sun to cover  the two  hundred metres or so to the
house, she pointed once more towards the invisible hut in the treeline.
     "You can't miss it.
     Later."
     I  left everything where it was and headed for the trees  at the bottom
of the cleared  patch, keeping  in the shade of the lot I was under. The hut
didn't come into  view for  a while, and even when  it  did I  couldn't face
walking  out into the sun  to  cut the corner. The heat  haze that shimmered
above the ground wasn't exactly inviting: I was a sweaty mess already.
     I scratched away at  my  back and  followed the shade  of the tree-line
round  two  sides of the square, eventually getting  to what  looked  like a
wooden outdoor privy. The door  hung  precariously on the lower  rusty hinge
and grass grew high right up against  the door. Spiders' webs  were spun all
over the hut as if forming  a protective screen. I looked through the gap in
the  broken  door, but didn't see  a toilet. Instead I saw two  square, dull
metal boxes with red and black stencilling.
     This was a  gift from  heaven: four tin boxes, eight  kilos in each.  I
couldn't  understand  the  Spanish,  but  made out  what  was important:  it
contained  55  per  cent nitroglycerine, a high proportion.  The higher  the
amount  of  nitro, the more  sensitive  it  is; a  high-velocity round would
easily detonate this stuff  as it passed  through, which  wouldn't have been
the case with military standard high explosive, which is shockproof.
     I  wrenched open the door and  stepped inside. Pulling off the  opening
key from the side of the top  box, I saw  the date  on  the pasted-on label,
01/99,  which I presumed  was its Best Blown-up-by  date. This stuff must be
old enough to have been used when Noriega was in nappies.
     I got to work, peeling the sealing strip of  metal just  below  the lid
exactly as if I was opening a giant can of corned beef.
     A plan was already forming  in my  mind  to leave a device by Charlie's
gates. If I couldn't drop the target as he moved outside the house, I  could
take him  out while his vehicle waited for the gates to  open by  getting  a
round into this shit, instead of him. My fire  position  would have to be in
the same  area I'd been in yesterday to ensure  a good view of  the pool and
the front of the house, as well as the road going down towards the gate. I'd
have to rig the device so  it was in line of sight of the fire position, but
I couldn't see that as a problem.
     Sweat was gathering on my eyebrows. I wiped it as it  was about to drip
into my  eyes and pulled back  the  lid of the  tin container to  reveal the
inner  wooden box  liner. I cut  the string banding  with my  Leatherman and
lifted that too. I found five sticks of commercial dynamite, wrapped in dark
yellow  grease  proof  paper,  some  stained by the  nitro, which  had  been
sweating in this heat  for years. A heavy  smell of marzipan filled  the air
and I was glad I was going to work with this  stuff outdoors. Nitroglycerine
can damage your health, and not just when it's detonated.  It won't kill you
when  you  handle  it, but  you're  guaranteed  the  mother of  all fearsome
headaches if  you work with it in a confined space, or if you get it into  a
cut or it's otherwise absorbed into the bloodstream.
     I took three of the eight-inch sticks  and wandered back  to the firing
point,  following the shade of  the  treeline  once  more, pulling  back the
grease  proof  paper  as  I   walked   to  reveal  sticks  of   light  green
Plasticine-type material.
     Minute grey crystals of dried-out nitro coated the surface. Passing the
weapon and ammo box, I continued the other two hundred  paces  to the target
area, where I placed them side by side at  the trunk  of the thickest tree I
could find near my paper targets. Then, back at the two-hundred point, I got
into  my  firing position and  took a  slow,  deliberate shot  at the  black
circle.
     The zero was good:  it went  in directly above  the one-shot zero round
I'd fired just as it should.
     Now came the  acid test,  both for  the zero  and  HE (high explosive).
Picking up the ammo, weapon and bottle,  I  took  another  hundred  paces to
roughly  the 300yard mark, lay down, checked the area to make sure Carrie or
Luz hadn't decided  to take a wander from the house towards the target area,
then aimed at the sternum-sized target of green dynamite.
     When I was sure my position and hold were correct, I had one last check
around the area.
     "Firing, firing!" The warning shout wasn't necessary, since no one else
was about, but it had become a deeply  ingrained habit from years of playing
with this kit.
     Aiming centre of the sternum, I took a slow, controlled shot.
     The crack of the  round and the  roar of the explosion seemed  to be as
one. The earth surrounding it was dried instantly  by the incredible heat of
rapid  combustion,  turned  into dust  by  the  shock-wave, and sent up in a
thirty-foot plume. Slivers of wood were falling all  around the high  ground
like rain. The tree was still  standing, and so it should be considering the
size  of  it,  but it was badly  damaged. Lighter-coloured  wood showed like
flesh beneath the bark.
     "NIIICK! NIIICK!"
     I jumped up and waved at Carrie as she ran from the back of the house.
     "It's OK ! OK! Just testing."
     She stopped at the sight of  me and  screamed at the top  of her voice,
easily covering the ground between us.
     "YOU IDIOT! I THOUGHT1 THOUGHT-'
     Cutting abruptly from her screams, she turned and stormed back inside.
     Luckily there was no need to do anything  more: the zero was on for all
ranges, and  the dynamite  worked. All  I  had  to do now  was make a charge
that'd take out a vehicle.
     Clearing  the weapon,  I picked up  all  the other bits and pieces  and
headed back to the house.
     TWENTY-FIVE
     The mozzie screen  slammed shut behind me and I felt the sweat start to
cool on my skin in the breeze from the two fans by the coffee table.
     I headed  straight for the fridge, dumping the  weapon and  ammo box on
the way.
     The   light  didn't  come  on  when  I  opened  the  door,  maybe  some
tree-hugging measure to save power, but I could still see what I was looking
for  another  couple  of  two-litre  plastic water-bottles like the one we'd
emptied. The long gulps of chilled water tugged at my  throat and gave me an
instant headache but was worth it. I refilled the bottle I'd brought in from
the garden-hose tap marked D and put it back in the fridge.
     My T-shirt and trousers were still sticking to  me, and  the rash on my
back  was itching big-time. I got  the cream out of my  pocket and gave it a
good smear  all over.  There  was no point  to  welling  myself off in  this
humidity.
     After washing my gooey hands and face and throwing  a couple of bananas
down my neck, it was time to start  thinking about the device I was going to
make with the HE. With the  half-empty water-bottle in my hand, and Carrie's
giggle weed and Zippo in my pockets, I  knocked on the door  of the computer
room as I entered.
     Carrie was sitting in the director's chair on the left with her back to
me, bent over some papers. The sound of  the two  overhead  fans filled  the
room,  a  loud,  methodical  thud-thud-thud  as they spun  on  their ceiling
mounts. The room was much cooler than the living area.
     The PC with the  webcam  was switched off; the other in front of Carrie
showed a spreadsheet full of numbers, and she was comparing the  data on her
papers with what was on the screen.
     It was Luz who saw me first, seated at her desk further down the room.
     Swivelling in her  chair to face  me, she gave  a "Booom!"  with  a big
smile spread over her face and an apple in her hand. At least she thought it
was funny. I shrugged sheepishly, as I  had so many times  to Kelly when I'd
messed up.
     "Yeah, sorry about that."
     Carrie turned in her  seat  to face me.  I gave her an apologetic shrug
too. She nodded  in return  and  raised an eyebrow at Luz, who just couldn't
stop smiling. I pointed at the storeroom. I'm going to need some help."
     "Gimme a minute."
     She raised her voice to primary-school level and wagged a finger.
     "As for you, young lady, back to work."
     Luz got  back down  to  it, using her  thumb and forefinger to  tap the
pencil on the table in four-four. She reminded me so much of Kelly.
     Carrie hit a  final few keys on the PC and stood up, instructing Luz as
she  did so,  still in schoolmistress mode, "I want to see  that math  sheet
completed by lunchtime, young lady, or no food for you again!"
     There was a smile  and a resigned "Oh, Mooom, pleeeease ..." in return,
and she took a bite from her apple as we headed for the storeroom.
     Carrie closed the door behind her. The outside entrance was open, and I
could see the light fading on the rows of white tubs. The sky  was no longer
an unrelenting blue;  clouds  were gathering, casting  shadows as they moved
across the sun.
     I passed over the tin and the Zippo and received a smile and a "Thanks'
as she placed a  foot  on  a bottom  shelf and climbed up to hide them under
some battery packs.
     I'd already spotted  something I needed  and was picking up a cardboard
box that told me it  should be holding twenty-four cans of Campbell's tomato
soup, but  in fact  had only two. Wanting just the  box, I took out the cans
and stacked them on the shelf.
     It was Little America up on these shelves, everything from blankets and
shovels to eco-friendly washing-up liquid, via  catering packs of Oreos  and
decaf coffee.
     "This is like WalMart," I said.
     "I was expecting more of a wigwam and incense sticks."
     I got a laugh from  her as she jumped  off the shelf and walked towards
the outside door.
     I looked at her framed in the doorway as she gazed out at the  lines of
white tubs, then walked over  to  join her, carrying the water and soup box.
We stood together  in the doorway for a few moments,  in silence but for the
generator humming gently in the background.
     "What exactly do you do here?"
     She pointed to the tubs and ran her hand along their regimented lines.
     "We're  searching  for new species  of endemic  flora  ferns, flowering
trees, that  sort  of  thing.  We  catalogue and propagate  them before they
disappear for ever." She stared at nowhere in  particular, just into the far
treeline, as if she was expecting to find some more.
     That's very interesting."
     She faced me and smiled, her voice heavy with sarcasm.
     "Yeah, right."
     I actually was interested. Well, a bit.
     "I  don't  believe  you,  but it's  very  kind  of you  to pretend. And
actually, it is very interesting..." She waved her arms towards the tubs and
the sky above them, now dark with clouds.
     "Believe it or not,  you're standing at the front line of the battle to
save bio diversity
     I gave her a grin.
     "Us against the world, eh?"
     "Better believe it," she said.
     We looked at each other for less than a second, but for me it  was half
a second longer than  it should have been. Our  eyes might have been locked,
but there was no way of telling behind her glasses.
     "A hundred  years  from now,  half the world's  flora and fauna will be
extinct. And that, my friend, will affect everything: fish,
     birds, insects, plants, mammals, you name  it,  simply because the food
chain will be disrupted. It's not  just the  big charismatic mammals that we
seem to  fixate  on," she  rolled her  eyes and held  her  hands up  in mock
horror, 'save the whales, save the tiger ... It's  not just those guys, it's
everything." Her earnest expression suddenly relaxed and her face lit up.
     "Including  the sandfly your  eye  has already gotten acquainted with."
The smile didn't last.
     "Without the habitat, we're going to lose this for ever, you know."
     I  moved outside and  sat on the concrete, putting  the  soup  box down
beside me and untwisting the bottle  top. As  I took a swig she came and sat
beside me, putting her glasses back on.  As  we  both stared  at the rows of
tubs, her  knee just touched mine as she spoke. This rate of  extinction has
only  happened five  times since  complex  life began. And all  caused by  a
natural disaster." She held out  a hand for the bottle. Take dinosaurs. They
became  history  because of  a  meteorite crashing  into  the  planet  about
sixty-five million years ago, right?"
     I nodded as  if I knew. The Natural  History Museum hadn't been where I
spent my days as a kid.
     "Right,  but this sixth extinction is  not  happening  because of  some
external force, it's happening because  of us the exterminator species.  And
there  ain't no  Jurassic  Park, we can't just  magic them back once they've
gone. We've got to save them now."
     I didn't say anything, just looked into the distance as she drank and a
million crickets did their bit.
     T know, you're thinking we're some kind of crazy  save-the-world gee ks
or whatever,  but-' I turned  my head.  'I don't think anything like  that-'
"Whatever," she cut in, her free  hand up, a smile on her face as she passed
the bottle.
     "Anyway, here's  the news: all the plant life on the planet hasn't been
identified yet, right?"
     "If you say so."
     We grinned at each other.
     T do  say so. And we're losing them faster than we can catalogue  them,
right?"
     "If you say so."
     "I  do. And that's why we're here, to  find the  species that we  don't
know  of yet. We go into the forest  for specimens, cultivate them, and send
samples  to the university. So many of our medicines  come from those things
out there in the tubs. Every time we lose  a species, we lose an  option for
the future, we lose  a potential cure for  HIV,  Alzheimer's, ME,  whatever.
Now, here's the cool part. You ready?"
     I rubbed the bandage on my calf, knowing it was coming regardless.
     The drug companies provide grants for the university to  find and  test
new  species for them. So,  hey, go  figure,  we have a form of conservation
that makes  business  sense."  She  nodded in  self-approval  and  got  busy
cleaning her nails.
     "But  despite all that, they're closing us down next year. Like I said,
we're doing great work, but they want quick results for their buck. So maybe
we're not the crazy ones, eh?"
     She turned once more to  gaze out towards the tubs, her face  no longer
happy or serious, just sad. I was quite enjoying the silence with her.
     I'd never had the tree-hugging case put to me like  that  before. Maybe
it was because it came  from her, maybe it was because she wasn't wearing an
anorak and trying to ram it down my throat.
     "How do you reconcile what you do here with what you're doing for me? I
mean, the two don't exactly stand together, do they?"
     She didn't turn to face me, just kept looking out at the tubs.
     "Oh, I wouldn't say that. Apart from anything else, it's helped me with
Luz."
     "How's that?"
     "Aaron's too old to adopt, and it's so complicated trying to get things
done here." I thought for a moment that she was going to blush.
     "Soooo, my father  came up with  the offer of a US passport for her, in
exchange for  our help  that's the deal. Sometimes  we do  wrong things  for
right reasons isn't that true, Nick whatever-your-name-is?" She turned to me
and took a deep breath.
     Whatever was about to be said, it changed,  and she gazed back out over
at the treeline as a swarm of sparrow-sized birds took flight and chirped in
frantic unison.
     "Aaron doesn't approve of us doing this.  We  fight. He  wanted to keep
hassling  for an  adoption. But there's  no  time,  we  need to head back to
Boston. My mother went to live there again after the  divorce. George stayed
on in DC, doing  what he's always done." She  paused, before going off at  a
tangent.
     "You know, it was only after the divorce that I discovered how powerful
my father is. You know, even the Clintons call  him George. Shame  he didn't
use some of it to save  his personal life. It's ironic, really. Aaron's like
him in so many ways ..."
     "Why go after so long because you're being closed down?"
     "Not  only that. The  situation  is  getting worse down here. And  then
there's Luz to think about. Soon if 11 be high  school, then college.  She's
got to start having a normal life. Boyfriends who  double-date,  girlfriends
who talk about you behind your back, that kind of stuff..." She smiled.
     "Hey, she wants to go, like yesterday."
     The smile soon died but her voice wasn't sorrowful, just practical.
     "But Aaron Aaron hates change just like my father. He's just hoping all
the  troubles  will go  away." Her  head tilted up and back as the flock  of
birds screeched by, inches above the house. I looked up as well, and tracked
them across the sky.
     She sighed.
     "I'll miss this place."
     I knew I was supposed to  say something, but I didn't know what. I felt
that the mess I'd made of my own life didn't exactly qualify me to help sort
out hers.
     "I love him very much," she said.
     "It's just that I've gradually realized I'm not in love with the man, I
guess  ...  Oldest  cliche  in the book, I  know.  But  it's so difficult to
explain. I can't talk to him about it. It's ... I don't know, it's just time
to go ..." She  paused for  a moment. I could feel the blood pumping through
my head.
     "There are times when I feel so terribly lonely."
     She used both hands to put her hair behind her ears then turned towards
me.
     There was a silence between us again as the pulse in my neck quickened,
and I found it difficult to breathe.
     "What about you, Nick?" she said.
     "Do you ever get lonely?"
     She already knew the answer, but I couldn't help myself...  I  told her
that  I lived in sheltered housing in London,  that  I  had no money, had to
line up to get free food from a Hari Krishna soup wagon. I told her that all
my friends were dead  apart  from one, and  he despised  me.  Apart from the
clothes  I was  wearing when  I  arrived  at  their  house,  my  only  other
possessions  were  in  a bag stuck  in Left Luggage  at a railway station in
London.
     I told her all this and it felt good. I also told her the only reason I
was  in  Panama  was that it would stop a  child being killed  by my boss. I
wanted to tell her more,  but managed to force the lid back on before it all
came flooding out.
     When  I'd finished, I sat, arms folded,  feeling uncertain, not wanting
to look at her, so just stared out at the tubs again.
     She cleared her throat. The child ... is that Marsha or Kelly?"
     I spun my head round and she mistook my shock for anger.
     "I'm sorry, sorry ... I shouldn't  have  asked, I know. It's just I was
there, I was with you all night, I hadn't just  appeared ... I was going  to
tell you this morning, but we both got embarrassed, I guess ..."
     Fuck, what had I said?
     She tried to soften the blow.
     "I had to stay, otherwise you would have been half-way to Chepo by now.
Don't you remember? You kept on waking up shouting, trying to get outside to
look for Kelly. And then you were calling out for Marsha. Somebody had to be
there  for  you. Aaron had been  up all  night and he  was out of  it. I was
worried about you."
     The pulse was stronger now and I felt very hot. What else did I say?"
     "Well Kev. I thought  it was your real name  until just now and-' "Nick
Stone."
     It  must have sounded like a quiz-show quick fire answer. She looked at
me a moment, a smile returning to her face.
     "That's your real name?"
     I nodded.
     Why did you do that?"
     I shrugged, not too sure. It had just felt right.
     When  I spoke next, it was as if I  was in a trance. As if someone else
was doing the talking, and I was just hearing them from a distance.
     "The girl's name is Kelly. Her mother was Marsha, married to my friend,
Kev.  Aida  was  her  little sister. They were all murdered, in their house.
Kelly's the  only one left. I was just minutes too late  to save them. She's
why I'm here she's all I have left."
     She nodded slowly, taking it all in. I was vaguely aware that the sweat
was now leaking more heavily down my face, and I tried to wipe it away.
     "Why don't you tell me about her?" she said quietly.
     "I'd love to hear about her."
     I felt  the pins and  needles return to  my legs, felt the lid  forcing
itself open, and I had nothing left to control it.
     "It's OK it's OK, Nick. Let it out." Her voice was cool, soothing.
     And  then I  knew  I  couldn't  stop it.  The lid burst open and  words
crashed out of my mouth, hardly giving me time to breathe. I told  her about
being Kelly's guardian, being totally inconsistent, going to Maryland to see
Josh,  the only sort of friend I had left, people I liked always fucking  me
over, signing Kelly  over  permanently to Josh's care, Kelly's therapy,  the
loneliness... everything.
     By the  end, I felt exhausted and just sat there with my hands covering
my face.
     I felt a hand gently touch my shoulder.
     "You've never told anybody that before, have you?"
     I shook my head, letting my hands fall, and tried to smile.
     "I've never sat still long enough," I said.
     "I had to give the therapist a few details about the way Kev and Marsha
died, but I did my best to keep the rest of it pretty well hidden."
     She  could have been  looking right through me. It  certainly felt that
way.
     "She might have helped, you know."
     "Hughes? She just made me feel like a like a like  an emotional dwarf."
I felt my jaw clench. 'You know, my world may look  like a pile of shit, but
at least I sometimes get to sit on top of it."
     She gave me a sad smile.
     "But what's the view like from your pile of shit?"
     "Not a patch on yours but, then, I like jungles."
     "Mmm." Her smile widened.
     "Great for hiding in."
     I nodded, and managed a real smile this time.
     "Are you going to keep hiding for the rest of your life, Nick Stone?"
     Good question. What the fuck was the answer?
     I  stared at  the  tubs for  a  long  while as  the  pins  and  needles
disappeared, and eventually she gave a theatrical sigh.
     "What are we going to do with you?"
     We looked at  each other before she  got  to  her  feet. I  joined her,
feeling awkward  as  I  tried  to think of  something, anything, to say that
would prolong the moment.
     She smiled again, then clipped me playfully across the ear.
     "Well, then, recess over, back to work. I have some math to check."
     "Yes, right. I need one of your tubs1 think I saw some empties near the
sinks."
     "Sure, we're maxed  out. They won't be  needed soon, anyway." The smile
was still there, but it had become rueful.
     I held up the box.
     "I'm going to play with that explosive down in the shack  for a  while,
and I promise, no more bangs."
     She nodded. That's a relief," she said.
     "I think  we've both had  quite  enough  excitement  for one day."  She
turned towards the storeroom but then paused.
     "Don't worry, Nick Stone, no one will know about this. No one."
     I nodded a thank-you, not just for keeping quiet, as she headed for the
storeroom.
     "Carrie?"
     She stopped and half turned once more.
     "OK if I have a mooch around in the stores and take some stuff with me?
You know, food and equipment for tonight."
     "For sure, but just tell  me what you've got so we can replace  it, OK?
And, of course, nothing that can identify us like that." She pointed  at the
soup box,  which  had a  white  sticky  label saying  "Yanklewitz 08/14/00',
probably the heli delivery date.
     "No worries."
     She gave that rueful smile again.
     "As if, Nick Stone."
     I watched her disappear into the  store before heading round the corner
towards  the  sinks,  then got  to  work. I peeled off  the label  in  three
stubborn  bits,  which went  into  one of the glasses. Then, after getting a
drink from  the D hose  and refilling my bottle, I wandered across  the open
ground to  the shack" swinging the  tub I'd just collected in one hand,  the
box and  water-bottle in the other, trying to think about nothing except the
job. It was  hard. She was right, I did have worries, but at least  I hadn't
gob bed off about who the real target was.
     The clouds were gathering big-time. I'd been right not to be fooled  by
the sun  this morning.  Just as I reached the gentle incline  and started to
see the  roof  of  the  hut,  I  heard  a succession of short  bursts from a
vehicle's horn and  looked back. The Mazda  was bumping along the track, and
Luz was running out to  greet her dad. I stood watching  for a  while  as he
jumped out  of the wagon to be hugged and talked to as they walked on to the
veranda.
     Sitting in the  still  humid shade of the hut,  I tore  off the top and
bottom  flaps of the Campbell's box, scrunched  them up in the bottom of the
tub, and was left with the  main carcass,  a four-sided cube, which I ripped
apart  at a seam and opened out so that I  had  one  long,  flat section  of
cardboard.  I  started fitting it  into the tub, running it round the  edges
then twisting it until I'd made  a cone with its apex about  a  third of the
way up from the bottom, with all the scrunched-up flaps beneath. If I let it
go now the cone  shape would spring apart, so I started to pack HE, still in
its wrappers, around the base to keep it in place. Then,  with the cone held
fast, I peeled  open the other  boxes, unwrapped more HE and played with the
putty-like substance, packing it into the tub and around the cone.
     I was trying to make a copy of the French off-route mine. These are the
same shape as the tub,  but a little smaller, and designed so that, unlike a
conventional mine, they don't have to be  directly  beneath the target  when
detonated to destroy it. It can be concealed off to one side of  a  road  or
track, hidden in the  bushes or, as I  was planning, up a tree. It's a handy
device if  you're  trying  to  mine a  metal road, say,  without having your
goodies laid out for everyone to see.
     One version of the mine is initiated by a cable  as thin as a strand of
silk  that's  laid  over the tarmac and crushed. I was  going to detonate it
with a round from the Mosin Nagant.
     Once triggered, the manufactured  ones instantly turn a cone  of copper
into a hot, molten slug, the shaped charge, propelling it at such speed  and
power  that  it penetrates the target's armour and rips its insides apart. I
didn't have any copper; in its place,
     and shaped very  much the same way, was the cardboard  cone, but  there
should be enough force in the HE alone to do the job required of it.
     I continued  squashing down  the HE, trying to make it  one solid  mass
over  the cone.  My  hands  stung as the glycerine got into my  cuts, and my
headache was back, really giving me the good news.
     Thinking  about the old German guy  who'd given me the  bayonet gave me
the  idea  of using  the explosive this way. He'd told me a story  about the
Second World War.
     German Paras had taken a bridge, stopping the Brits from demolishing it
as  they withdrew.  The  charges were still  in  position, but  the  Germans
disconnected the detonators so that a Panzer column could cross and kick the
shit out of the Brits.  A young British squaddie took  one shot with his bog
standard Lee  Enfield  3O3 rifle  at the  placed  charges.  Because  it  was
old-style explosive, just like this stuff, it detonated, and set off all the
other charges that  were connected by  the  det (detonation) cord. The whole
bridge dropped, stopping the Panzers ever getting through.
     As  I packed the last of the HE,  I was hoping that the squaddie had at
least got a couple of weeks' leave as a reward, but I very  much doubted it.
Probably  just a tap on the tin hat with  a riding crop and  a  "Jolly  well
done, that man', before getting killed a few weeks later.
     When I'd finished, I  sealed the top on the tub, left the device in the
shed, and  started  back to the house, thinking  about what  else  I had  to
prepare for a possible four nights on the ground.
     The sky had turned metallic,  the clouds every shade of grey.  A gentle
breeze was the only consolation.
     There was  a loud  rumble of thunder  in the distance as I crested  the
slope. Aaron  and Carrie were standing by the sinks,  and  I  could see they
were arguing again.
     Carrie's arms  were  flying about and Aaron  was standing with his head
jutting forward like a rooster.
     I couldn't just stop and go back: I was in no-man's land here. Besides,
my hands were stinging badly with the nitro and I needed to wash it off, and
to get some aspirin down  my neck.  Dihydrocodeine would do the  job better,
but I needed to be awake later tonight.
     I slowed down, lowered my head, and hoped they'd see me soon.
     They  must  have  spotted  me  out  here  in  the open ground,  looking
everywhere and  anywhere  apart  from the  washing  area, because  the  arms
stopped windmilling.
     Carrie went  to  the  storeroom  door and  disappeared as  Aaron  dried
himself.
     I got to him as he retied his hair, clearly embarrassed.
     "Sorry you had to see that."
     "None of my business," I said.
     "Besides, I'll be gone tonight."
     "Carrie told me you'll need dropping off ten, right?"
     Nodding,  I  released the  water pressure  and  soaked my  hands before
cutting the supply and soaping up to get all the nitro off me.
     "You said you had a map? Is it on the bookshelf?"
     "Help yourself, and I'll get you a real compass."
     He passed me to hang the green towel next to mine on the line.
     "You feeling better now? We were worried."
     I started to rinse off.
     "Fine, fine, must have picked something up yesterday.
     How's the jaguar?"
     "They promised they're going to do something this time, maybe the  700,
but I'll believe it when I see it." He hovered awkwardly for a moment,  then
said, "Well, Nick, I'm heading to  go catch up on some work  here. It's been
sort of backing up on me this week."
     "See you later, mate."
     I pulled my towel off the line as he headed for the storeroom door.
     TWENTY-SIX
     Now that the sky  had  greyed over completely the storeroom  was almost
dark.  I  eventually found  the  string-pull  for  the  light  and  a single
fluorescent strip flickered on,  dangling precariously from wires  about six
feet from the high ceiling.
     The  first  thing  I  saw was that the weapon and  ammunition  had been
placed on a shelf for me, along with a Silva compass and map.
     I  needed to make some 'ready rounds', so ripped about six inches off a
roll of one-inch gaffa tape,  placed a round on the sticky side, and rolled.
As soon  as  the round was covered I placed  another,  rolled a little, then
another, until four  rounds were in a noiseless bundle, easy to fit  into my
pocket. I folded over the last two inches of tape to make it  easier to pull
apart, then  started on another.  A box of twenty was still  going into  the
bergen; you never know how these jobs are going to end up.
     I rummaged  around  in  the medical case for the aspirin and threw  two
down my neck. They were helped on their way  with a litre bottle  of Evian I
broke from a new case of twelve, and I lobbed three on to the cot for later.
     My leg was starting  to hurt again but I really couldn't be bothered to
change the dressing. I'd be wet and covered with  mud later tonight  anyway,
and the aspirin would help.
     I had to prepare for as much as four nights in the  field up  to two on
target and two in the  jungle  before  popping out once the dust had settled
and making my own way to the airport. Come what may, I needed to make Josh's
by Tuesday.
     I found an old A-frame bergen in the storeroom, its green canvas patchy
with white haze after years of exposure to the elements.  Joining the bergen
and  water  on  the cot went  nine cans  of tuna and  an assortment of honey
sesame bars that looked as if they'd get me through daylight hours.
     Judging by what was on  the shelves, they had certainly got their hands
on enough of that military give-away. I grabbed a poncho and some dark green
mozzie nets.
     I could make a shelter from a poncho with the hood tied up and a couple
of metres of string through the holes at each corner, and the mosquito  nets
would not only keep the beasties off me at night, but also act as camouflage
netting.
     I took three one for protection, and  the other two for camouflaging me
and the tub  once we were in position. A large white  plastic cylinder  in a
tree, tilted down  at the road the other side of the gate, just might arouse
suspicion.
     Most  importantly,  I found a gollock,  an  absolute  necessity for the
jungle because it  can provide protection, food  and shelter.  No one  worth
their salt is ever without one attached to their body once under the canopy.
This  one was  US Army issue and much sturdier than  the  one Diego had been
swinging at me. It was maybe six inches shorter, with a solid wooden  handle
and a canvas sheath with a light alloy lip.
     I climbed up the angle-iron framework of the shelves and, holding on to
one of the  struts,  checked  out  the  goodies  higher up. Next  door,  Luz
suddenly sounded very pleased with herself.
     "Yesss!" Baby-G told me it was 3.46 probably her schoolwork ending  for
the day. I wondered if she was aware  of  the arguments Aaron and Carrie had
had  about  her. What did she know  about what  was happening  now? If  they
thought  she  didn't know  what  was going  on,  they were  probably kidding
themselves if she was anything like Kelly she never missed a trick.
     For a second or two  my thoughts wandered to Maryland: we  were  in the
same time zone, and right now Kelly would probably be doing the same as Luz,
packing  up  her  books. It was private,  individual, and expensive, but the
only  way forward until she  had adapted  between  the  one-on-one attention
she'd been receiving in  the  clinic and  the  push  and shove of mainstream
education  alongside  Josh's  kids. I had a flash  of worry about what would
happen  now that  I wasn't going  to make the second  half of the money then
remembered that that was the last thing to be concerned about.
     I realized what I was doing  and made the cut. I had to force myself to
get on with the job wrong, the mission.
     I knew what kit I wanted, which wasn't very much. I'd learnt the lesson
the hard way, just like so many holiday makers  who take five suitcases with
them, only to  discover  they only use the contents of one. Besides food and
water, all I  needed was the wet clothes I'd be  standing up  in, plus a dry
set, mozzie net,  lightweight blanket  and  hammock. All this would  be kept
scrupulously dry in  plastic in the bergen,  and  by  the poncho at night. I
already  had  my  eye on the string hammock on the  veranda if I didn't find
anything better.
     None of these things  was  absolutely  essential, but  it's  madness to
choose to go without. I'd spent enough time in the jungle on hard routine in
places like Colombia, so close to the DMP that no hammock or poncho could be
put up, sitting all night  in the  shit, back to back with  the rest  of the
patrol, getting eaten alive by whatever's flying around or mooching over you
from  out  of the leaf litter, not  eating  hot  food or drink for  fear  of
compromise  due  to flame  and smell,  while waiting for the  right  day  to
attack. It doesn't help if you're spending night after night  like that with
all your new insect  mates, snatching no more than a few minutes' sleep at a
time. Come first light, bitten to death and  knackered, the patrol still has
to get on with its task of watching and waiting.
     Some patrols lasted for  weeks like  that, until  trucks or helicopters
eventually arrived to pick up  the cocaine and we hit them. It's a fact that
these conditions degrade the effectiveness  of a patrol as time  goes on. It
isn't soft to sleep under  shelter, a few inches above the shit  rather than
rolling around  in  it,  it's  pure common sense. I wanted  to be alert  and
capable of taking that shot as easily on the second day as on the first, not
with my eyes swollen up  even more because I'd been trying to hardcore it in
the shit the night before. Sometimes that has to happen, but not this time.
     I carried on  rooting around, climbing  up and down the shelves like  a
howler  monkey, and was so happy to find the one  thing I was desperate for,
its clear  thick liquid contained in rows of baby-oil-style plastic bottles.
I  felt like  the thirsty Arlington Road  winos  must feel  when they find a
half-full  bottle in the bin, especially when the label said it  was  95 per
cent  proof. Diethyl-mtoluamide - I just knew it as  Deet  was magical stuff
that  would keep the little mozzies and creepy-craw lies away  from me. Some
commercial stuff contains only  15 per cent, and is  crap. The more Deet the
better, but the problem is it can melt some plastics -hence the thickness of
these bottles. If  you get it into your eyes it hurts; I'd known people have
their contact lenses melt when it had been brought into contact with them by
sweat. I threw three bottles on to the cot.
     After another ten  minutes of  digging in boxes and bags,  I started to
pack the bergen. Having  removed the noisy wrappers from the sesame bars and
put  them all into a plastic bag, they got stuffed into the  large left-hand
side  pouch for easy  access during the day. I shoved a bottle of Evian into
the right-hand one for the same  reason. The rest of the water  and the tuna
went into the bottom of the pack, wrapped in dishcloths to muffle any noise.
I'd only pull that food out at night when I wasn't in my fire position.
     I put  a large plastic  laundry bag into the long  centre  pouch at the
front  of the bergen. It would be taking any dumps I did whilst I was in the
jungle: I'd have preferred individual bags, but couldn't  find  any,  so one
big one  would have to take the lot. It  was important not to have any smell
or  waste around me because that would attract  animals and might compromise
my position, and I didn't want to leave anything behind that could be DNA'd.
     Into a similar clear plastic bag went the mozzie net I was going to use
for  protection at  night,  and  one of  the blankets that was  out  of  its
wrapping. The hammock would join the contents of this bag once I'd nicked it
from the veranda later on. All the stuff in this bag needed to be dry at all
times. Into  it also would go my dry clothes for sleeping in,  the same ones
I'd wear once out of the canopy and heading for  the airport.  I'd get those
from Aaron at the same time I got the hammock.
     I laid the other two mozzie nets beside the  bergen, together with some
four-inch wide, multicoloured  nylon  luggage straps. Black,  brown, in fact
any colour but this collection would have been better to blend into  a world
of  green. I placed them inside the top  flap, ready to make a sniper  seat.
The  design originated in India during the  days of  the Raj, when  the  old
sahibs  could sit up in  a  tree  in them for days with their Lee  Enfields,
waiting for tigers  below. It  was a  simple device,  but effective. The two
straps were fixed  between two branches to  form a  seat and you rested your
back against the trunk. A high viewpoint looking down on to the killing area
makes  for a great field of view  because you can look over the top  of  any
obstructions, and it  would also be good for concealment as long as I tucked
the mozzie net under it, to hide the rainbow holding up my arse.
     I sat on the cot, and thought about other stuff  I might need. First up
was  a shade  for the  front of the  optic sight, so  that  sunlight  didn't
reflect off the objective (front) lens and give away my position.
     I got a container of antifungal powder, again US Army issue, in a small
olive green plastic cylinder. Emptying the  contents, I cut  off the top and
bottom, then split it down the side. After wiping away all the powder on the
inside, I put it over the front of the sight. It naturally hugged  the metal
cylinder as I moved it back and  forth until the section protruding in front
of the lens was  just slightly  longer than the lens's  width. The  sunlight
would now only reflect off  the lens if the sun itself was visible within my
field of view.
     Next I needed to protect  the muzzle and working  parts from  the rain,
and that was going to be just as easy.  I fed a plastic bag  over the muzzle
and taped it to the furniture, then loaded up with rounds,  pushed the  bolt
action forward to make ready the weapon, and applied the safety.
     I ripped open the bottom of one of the clear plastic bags that had held
the blankets, so only  the two sides were still sealed, then worked  it over
the weapon like a  hand muff until it  was covering  the sight, magazine and
working parts, using the gaffa tape to fix  each open end to  the furniture.
Then, making a small slit in  the plastic above the sight, I pushed  it down
so  that the sight  was  now  clear, and  gaffa-taped  the plastic  together
underneath to keep the seal. Everything in that area, bar the sight, was now
encased in plastic. The weapon looked stupid, but that didn't matter, so did
I. The safety could still be taken off, and when the time came I could still
get my finger into the trigger by  breaking the plastic. If I needed to fire
more than one round, I'd  just quickly rip the bag to reload. This had to be
done  because  wet  ammunition and  a  wet  barrel  will  affect the round's
trajectory -not a lot, but it all counts. I'd zeroed this weapon with a dry,
cold barrel  and dry ammunition, so it had  to stay like that to optimize my
chances of a one-round kill.
     Next, I used the  clear plastic from the  last of  the blankets on  the
shelf  to protect the map, which said it had been compiled by the US  Army's
551st  Engineer Company for the Panamanian government in  1964.  A lot would
have changed on the  ground  since then Charlie's house  and the  loop  road
being just two of them.
     That didn't concern  me too much; I was interested in the topographical
features, the high ground  and water features. That was the stuff that would
get me out of there when I needed to head towards the city.
     The compass still had its cord on, so I could just  put it over my head
and  under  the  T-shirt.  What it didn't  have  was any  of its roamers for
measuring off scale:
     mozzie repellent had already been on this one and the  plastic base was
just a frosted mess. I didn't care, as long as the red needle pointed north.
     The  map, compass, gollock and docs would stay on  my body at all times
once under the canopy. I couldn't afford to lose them.
     The last thing I did  before getting my head down was thread the end of
a ball  of twine  through the slit drilled into the  butt designed to take a
webbing or leather sling, and wrap about four foot of it round the butt, cut
it and  tie  it secure. The weapon would never be over  my shoulder unless I
was climbing a tree.
     Only  then would I tie the string  into the slit in the stock and sling
it.
     I  pushed everything that was left off the bed, and gave the light cord
a  tug.  I didn't  want  to see the  others; it wasn't that  I  was  feeling
antisocial, just that when  there's  a lull before  the battle, you get your
head down.
     Lying  on my  back, my hands behind my  head, I thought  about what had
happened with Carrie today. I shouldn't  have done it. It was unprofessional
and stupid,  but at the same time,  it felt OK. Dr. Hughes had never managed
to make me feel like that.
     I  was  woken suddenly. I snapped my wrist in front of my face to check
Baby-G, and  calmed down:  it was just after a quarter past eight. I  didn't
need to get up until about nine.
     The rain  played a low, constant drumroll that accompanied the low thud
of the fans next door as I rubbed my  greasy, clammy head and face,  pleased
that there hadn't been any more dreams.
     The canvas and  alloy frame of the cot squeaked and groaned as I turned
gently on to my stomach, running through my bergen list.  It was  then, just
now and again above  the sound  of  the  rain  and fans, that  I  heard some
conspiratorial-sounding murmurs1 should know, I'd done enough of that stuff.
     The cot creaked as I slowly swung my  feet over the side and  stood up.
The sound was coming from the computer room, and I  felt my way towards  the
door. A sliver of light from beneath it guided me.
     I put my ear to the wood and listened.
     It was  Carrie. In a whisper she  was answering  a  question  I  hadn't
heard:  "They  can't come now ... What if  he  sees them? ...  No,  he knows
nothing,  but  how am I  going to keep them apart?  ... No, I can't... He'll
wake up ..."
     My hand reached for  the door handle. Gripping it tightly, I opened the
door slowly but deliberately no more than half an  inch  to see who she  was
talking to.
     The six-inches-by-six,  black-and-white image was  a little jittery and
fuzzed around the edges, but  I could clearly see  whose head  and shoulders
were  filling the webcam. Wearing a checked jacket and dark tie, George  was
looking straight into his camera.
     Carrie was listening via the headphones as his mouth moved silently.
     "But it wouldn't work, he won't buy that...  What do you  want me to do
with him? ... He's next door asleep ... No, it was  just a fever ... Christ,
Dad, you said this wouldn't happen ..."
     George was having none of it and pointed at her through the screen.
     She answered angrily.
     "Of course I was ... He likes me."
     In  that instant  I felt  as if a giant wave had  engulfed me. My  face
began to smart and burn as I rested my head on the door-frame. It was a long
time since I'd felt so massively betrayed.
     I knew I shouldn't have opened up to her, I just knew it.
     You've  screwed  up big-time  ... Why can you  never  see  when  you're
getting fucked over?
     "No, I've got to go get ready, he's only next door ..."
     I didn't have the answer to this, but I knew what I had to do.
     When I pulled the door open Carrie was clicking  away at  the keyboard.
She jumped out of her seat with shock, the headset wire jerking tight as the
headset pulled down round her neck and the screen closed down.
     She recovered, bending forward to take them off.
     "Oh, Nick -sleep better?"
     She knew, I could see it in her eyes.
     Why didn't you see the lying in them before?
     I'd  thought  she  was different. For once,  I'd thought...  Fuck it, I
didn't know what I'd thought. I checked that the living-room door was closed
and  took three paces  towards  her. She thought  she was about to die as  I
slapped my hand hard over her mouth, grabbed a fistful of hair  at the  back
of her head, and lifted.
     She let  out a whimper. Her eyes were bigger than I'd ever thought eyes
could be.
     Her nostrils snorted in an attempt to get some air into her lungs. Both
her hands were hanging on my wrists, trying to release some  of the pressure
from her face.
     I dragged  her into  the darkness of the  storeroom,  her feet scarcely
touching the ground. Kicking the door shut so that we both became  instantly
blind, I put my mouth right up to her left ear.
     "I'm going to ask questions. Then I'm going to let go of your mouth and
you'll answer. Do not scream, just answer."
     Her nostrils were working overtime and I made sure I pressed my fingers
even harder into her cheeks to make me seem more scary.
     "Nod if you understand."
     Her hair no longer smelt of shampoo: I could only  smell  coffee breath
as she gave a succession of jerky nods into my hands.
     Taking a  slow, deep  breath, I calmed down and  whispered into her ear
once more.
     Why are you talking to your dad about me? Who is coming?"
     I released  my grip  from her mouth a little  so she could suck in air,
but still gripped her hair. I felt her damp breath between my fingers.
     "I  can explain, please,  just let me  breathe-'  Both  of us heard the
noise of a wagon approaching as it laboured up the muddy track.
     "Oh, God, oh, please, Nick,  please just stay  in here. It's dangerous,
I'll explain later, please."
     I hit the light  and it started to  flicker  above us as I  grabbed the
weapon  from the  shelf, ripped the plastic from the bolt and rammed the two
bundles of ready rounds into my pockets.
     She was still begging as the engine got louder.
     "Please stay here, don't leave the room I'll handle this."
     I moved to the exit door.
     "Fuck you turn the light off, now!"
     The  roar of the engine was  right on top of the house.  I stood at the
door with my ear pressed against the corrugated iron.
     "Lights!"
     She pulled the switch.
     TWENTY-SEVEN
     I  eased the door open a couple of inches. With one eye pressed against
the gap, I looked  to the right, towards the  front of the house. I couldn't
see  a wagon, just the glow  of headlights  bouncing off the veranda through
the rain.
     I slipped  through the  door  and closed it  gently behind  me, leaving
Carrie in  the darkness. Turning  left, I made for the washing area  just as
two  vehicle doors  slammed  in  quick  succession,  accompanied  by  a  few
overlapping  shouts  not  aggressive,  just  communicating.  I  guessed  the
language was Spanish, though I couldn't tell from  this distance, and didn't
really care.
     As soon as I'd rounded the corner I set off in a straight line  towards
the  shack in the dead ground, using the house as cover. I didn't look back.
With the  weapon gripped tightly in my right  hand  and my left holding down
the ready rounds, I just went for it, crouched low, doing my best to keep my
footing in the mud and tree stumps in the darkness.
     I  moved for maybe  two hundred wet  and muddy metres before  risking a
glance back.
     The  house  was  silhouetted in the glow of headlights, and  the engine
noise had faded. I turned and moved on; another twenty paces and the lights,
too, slowly  disappeared  as I gradually dropped  down into the dead ground,
heading towards the hut.
     Turning right, I  ran for the other treeline. The back of my throat was
dry and I swallowed constantly, trying  to moisten it as  I fought to get my
breath back. At least I was out of the immediate danger area.
     Once I'd  got about half-way towards the trees I turned right again and
started  moving up  the  crest,  back  towards  the house,  my Timber  lands
squelching in the mud and pools of water.  I'd been concentrating so hard on
what I  was doing  that  I hadn't realized the rain had  stopped: it was the
racket of the crickets that made me aware.
     I slowed  when I was maybe a hundred and fifty metres behind the house,
and  started to move more cautiously, now with the  butt of the rifle  in my
shoulder, placing each foot carefully, keeping my body  as low as  possible.
There was still  complete  cloud  cover, and I felt  confident  I  could get
closer.
     My angle of  view gradually changed. I could  see the glow  coming from
the side bookcase  window, not strong  enough to reach the ground,  and then
the area in  front  of the veranda, caught in the headlights  of a large 4x4
parked next to the  Mazda. On the roof, upside down and strapped on tight, I
could see a Gemini, an inflatable rubber boat.
     I knew there were tubs in front of me somewhere and I'd be bumping into
them soon. Slowing even more, I crouched as  low as my legs  could bend. The
low revs of the engine became audible as I finally reached the rows of white
plastic. I  got on to my knees and  right hand and, with the weapon balanced
in  my left,  moved like a gorilla between  the rows.  I  made three or four
movements,  then  stopped  to observe. A  small animal  rustled  nearby  and
scuttled away between the tubs, which  were less than an inch apart. I could
hear frenzied scratching on plastic as it ran for its life.
     Making sure I didn't get tangled in the irrigation tubes trailing along
the ground, I carried on feeling my way through the grass and mud. The noise
of the crickets was horrendous, but with luck drowned out any sound I made.
     I  was  starting  to get sticky again from a combination of tension and
sheer physical effort as I  inched  forward. The scene on the veranda slowly
came into  focus: I was  about eighty metres  away  and could  see two  male
figures with Carrie. All three were bathed in  light and shadow. One man was
quite a bit  shorter  than  the other,  and all I could see of him  was  his
dark-checked  shoulders,  each  side  of  a supporting  pillar. He looked as
though he had skipped a good few sessions with his personal trainer.
     There  seemed  to be no weapons involved, and  I  couldn't  hear  their
voices.
     Keeping the  weapon in my left hand and out of the mud, I  eased myself
down into a fire  position between the tubs, making my movements as slow and
deliberate as possible. Gloop immediately began to soak into my front.
     The safety catch clicked gently as I  twisted it to the right and got a
blurred sight picture owing to the rain on the lenses.
     Carrie's head filled  half the optic through a haze of cigarette smoke,
with moths fluttering around the light on the  wall behind her. I focused on
her face, trying  to read  it.  She didn't  look scared  as she  spoke, just
serious.
     More smoke blew into  my sight  picture  from the  left.  I panned  and
picked up the taller of  the  two men taking another  drag  of his cigarette
before  speaking.   He  was  Latino,  round-faced,   with  a   crew-cut  and
rough-looking beard, and wearing a black collarless shirt.  I panned down to
see muddy green  fatigue bottoms tucked  into  equally dirty boots.  He  was
quite animated, pointing first at Carrie, then at the shorter man. Something
was wrong: I didn't need to lip-read Spanish to know that.
     The  movements stopped  and he  looked at Carrie again, expecting  some
sort of  answer. I panned right, on to her. She nodded slowly, as if not too
happy with what she was agreeing  to, and I followed her  as she pulled open
the mozzie screen and shouted into the house, "Aaron! Aaron!"
     I looked over  at the vehicle. Moths, and anything  else airborne, were
jiggering about in the  headlights.  It  was a CMC, its block shape high off
the ground and its body work  splattered with mud. All the doors were closed
and the engine was still running, probably for the air.
     The mozzie screen  squeaked and slammed shut. I aimed back towards  the
veranda  and saw Aaron.  There weren't any  greetings for him:  Carrie  just
spoke  to him for less than a minute, then with a nod  he went back into the
house, a worried-looking man. Carrie and the other two followed. Black Shirt
threw his finished  butt on to the veranda decking.  The  check-shirted  guy
carried an aluminium briefcase that I hadn't seen until then.
     He, too,  was  looking rough, with  a patchy bum-fluff  beard over  his
chubby face.
     I  watched  as they passed  the bookshelf window,  heading  towards the
computer room. There was nothing else to do now but wait.
     All of a sudden, to my left, there was a flash in my peripheral vision.
I turned to  see  the last  of  a match burning  in  the dark  of the  CMC's
interior, its yellow light illuminating the two dirt-free semicircles on the
windscreen.
     I brought the weapon  back into the aim, and saw a bright red glow from
the rear seat. Some long, hard drags were  being taken in  there. I  ran the
optic down the side windows  of the  CMC, but couldn't tell  whether or  not
they  were blacked out until  another  drag  was taken. That wasn't long  in
coming;  I  couldn't see anything  from  the  side apart from  a  gentle red
triangular glow in the  rear door  window. It  had  to be the  CMC  from the
locks. What  was  the chance  of  the  same  VDM?  Another  long, deep  drag
illuminated the triangle.
     I  watched  as  the  cigarette  was  sucked  to  death,  and  the  glow
disappeared, then slowly brought my weapon  out of the aim, resting it on my
forearms to  keep it  out of the mud. At that moment, the rear door furthest
from the  veranda opened and a body stepped out. I slowly  lifted the weapon
back into the aim, at the top half of a man taking a piss. I recognized  the
long features and nose, even without the CMC.
     This wasn't good, not good at all. The Pizza Man had been at the locks;
the locks were on the webcam here. He had been at Charlie's; I was on my way
there now. He knew George; George  knew about me. No, this definitely wasn't
good.
     The  mozzie screen  squeaked, followed  immediately  by  the  two  guys
stepping down from the veranda as he jumped back into the wagon mid flow The
little fat one was  still clutching  his briefcase. Carrie followed them out
but stayed on  the  veranda, hands on hips,  and watched as Blackshirt threw
what was left of a cigarette into the mud before they both climbed in.
     The  engine revved and headlights  flooded the area  around me  as  the
wagon turned.
     I hugged the ground, waiting for the light to wash over me, then got on
to  my knees and watched and  listened as  the  engine noise and tail-lights
faded back into the jungle.
     Pulling myself  out  of the mud, I applied Safe and  moved towards  the
house. As I let the mozzie screen slam back into position, I could see Aaron
and Carrie both in Luz's room, comforting  her  in bed. Neither looked round
as I went  to the fridge and pulled off the black-and-white beach picture of
the  Pizza  Man.  The round magnet keeping it  in place  dropped and  rolled
across  the  wooden floor. I stopped, had second thoughts. There had to be a
reason for him  not wanting to be seen. Could I make the situation worse for
myself if I  told them, and they told George? Maybe  even jeopardize the job
altogether?
     I found the magnet and  replaced  the photograph. I took a deep breath,
calmed down and thought business  as  I  headed for the storeroom. The light
was on now, and I placed  the weapon gently on the  cot as Carrie  came into
the computer room,  sat at the  PCs, and buried her  head  in  her hands.  I
closed the door behind her.
     Tell me."
     She just held her  face as  if  in another time  and space as  the fans
thudded above  us. She looked very scared as her face came up to look at me,
pointing out  towards the veranda. This whole thing is creeping  me out have
you  any  idea how crazy those people are? I hate  it when they come, I hate
it."
     "I can see that, but who are they?"
     They work for my father. They're doing some  sort of operation  against
PARC, on  the Bayanyo somewhere.  It's part  of Plan Colombia. '  She wasn't
just  scared but physically shocked.  Her hands trembled as she  brushed her
hair back behind her ears.
     "It's a drugs-surveillance thing .. . we have the relay board for their
communications. It's secure, so it comes through us, then to George. He said
to keep it from you for operational security."
     "So why did they break OP SEC by coming when I was here?"
     "The webcam ... they're monitoring ships suspected of  drug-trafficking
on  the canal. I was told to close it down before you arrived, but I forgot.
Good spy, huh?"
     She looked a sorrowful sight, eyes puffed up and red.
     "Make Daddy proud. It  seemed that when I eventually did close it down,
it messed  up their other communications,  something  to do with the relay."
She pointed to the mass of wires under the tables.
     "They had to  come and  fix it.  That's what George was telling me when
you came in. We didn't want it to get mixed up with the job he's sent you to
do-' "Hold on your dad sent me?"
     "Didn't  you know?  He's controlling  both operations. Nick,  you  must
believe me, this really is the first time we've done anything like this."
     I moved from pissed-off to depressed very quickly. It was just like old
times.  I sat in the other  chair as she sniffled herself back to normality.
Aaron  came into the room, his eyes darting between the two of us, trying to
assess the situation.
     She looked up at him, eyes red, wet and swollen.
     "I've told him," she said.
     "I've told him everything."
     Aaron looked at me and sighed.
     "I've always hated this. I told her not to get involved." It was as  if
he was talking to me about our child.
     He turned his attention to Carrie.
     "George should never have gotten  you into this.  It isn't worth it for
what you want, Carrie. There has to be another way."
     This was anger, his lips were wet, but it didn't last long. Taking  two
paces forward, he threw his arms around her, stroking her head when she laid
it against his stomach, making soothing sounds, just as I imagined he'd done
with Luz and I used to do with Kelly.
     I stood up  and walked back into the living room, following  my own mud
trail back towards the veranda. The mesh door squeaked open and I joined the
mozzies by the wall light as I threw the pillows on to the floor and started
untying the hammock, feeling quite sorry for both of them, and Luz.
     I was very clear about what was happening a total gang  fuck Everything
she'd said would have made sense, if it weren't for the Pizza Man. If he had
seen Aaron at the locks, or even the
     Mazda, it made sense why he'd  bolted so quickly:  if Aaron  and Carrie
didn't  know he  was on the ground, then of course he didn't want to be seen
by them. I was tempted to tell her, to pump her for more information on him,
but no. That would stay in my pocket in case I needed it especially as there
was still the question of his going to Charlie's that I couldn't work out.
     I undid the knot at the end attached to the hook in the wall and let it
fall, then started on the  thick rope wrapped  round  one  of the  veranda's
supports. The other tie  fell to the  floor,  and I left it and stepped  off
into the mud.
     What now?
     I opened up the back of the Mazda and saw in the light from the veranda
that everything had  been packed into an old  canvas bag.  I dragged out the
blue towrope, which reeked of petrol, and walked back towards the house.
     I still hadn't answered the question: What now?
     I stepped up  on to the veranda and  peered through  the  mesh into the
house. Aaron couldn't be  seen but Carrie was still in the director's chair,
bent  over, arms on her thighs,  studying the floor. I watched her for a few
moments as she rubbed her hair before dabbing her eyes.
     As I bent down to gather up the hammock I realized what I  was going to
do about it. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I  didn't have the luxury of doing
anything other than I'd come here to do: keep Kelly alive.
     I had  to keep  mission-orientated; that was the  only  thing  I had to
concentrate on. Fuck everything  else.  My sole focus had to be keeping  the
Yes Man happy: he was the one  who  could fuck  life up big-time for both of
us, not whatever was going on down here.
     I cut away from all extraneous thoughts and mentally confirmed  what my
whole life should have been about since Sunday. The mission: to kill Michael
Choi. The mission: to kill Michael Choi.
     With the  hammock and tow-rope gathered  in my arms I pulled the mozzie
screen  open just as Aaron tiptoed out of Luz's darkened bedroom  and gently
closed the  door.  He put his hands together against the side of his face as
he walked towards me.
     I kept my voice low.
     "Listen, I  didn't know anything about  Carrie, her  dad, or any of the
other stuff until  today. I'm sorry if life is  shit, but I've come  to do a
job and I still need to be taken to do it."
     He rubbed his  face so hard that the bristles rasped, and drew a  long,
deep breath.
     "You know why's she doing this, right?"
     I nodded, shrugged, tried to get out of it, and failed.
     "Something to do with a passport, something like that?"
     "You got it. But you know what?  I think she would have done it anyway.
No matter how much she hates to admit it, she's just like  George, takes the
Stars and Stripes gig to the max, know what I mean?"
     He  placed a hand  on  my  shoulder and forced a smile.  I nodded,  not
really having a clue  what  the fuck he was on about, and not really wanting
to explore it further.
     There was a pause before he withdrew his hand and  held up his wrist to
show his watch.
     "Anything  you need?" He was right: it was nearly  ten o'clock, time to
go.
     There is. I put all of that explosive from the hut in one of your tubs,
and I've left it down there."
     'You taking it with you?"
     I nodded.
     He took another  of his deep breaths, trying  hard not to  ask why.  It
seemed there were other things apart from the move north that Carrie  didn't
talk to him about.
     "OK, gimme five."
     We parted, him to his bedroom  and me back to the storeroom. Carrie was
still sitting on the director's chair, her elbows on  the desk, cradling her
head.  I  left  her to it and packed  the hammock and  other stuff  into the
bergen.
     The mozzie  screen squeaked and  slammed as Aaron  left  to collect the
device.
     Remembering  that  I  still needed dry  clothes,  I went  back  to  the
computer room.
     "Carrie?" There was no reply.
     "Carrie?"
     She slowly lifted her head as I  walked into the room,  not looking too
good, eyes and cheeks red. Things had changed: I felt sorry for her now.
     "I need some more clothes." I pulled at my mud-covered sweatshirt.
     "A complete set of stuff."
     It seemed to take her a second to understand what I was saying.
     "Oh,  right." She  stood up.  'I'll, um ..." She  coughed  to clear her
throat as she left the room.
     "Sure."
     I  rummaged around under  the cot and  shelves for more  thin polythene
blanket  wrappers.  With  several ripped ones in  my  hands, I picked up the
rifle and checked chamber by pulling the bolt up and back slightly to expose
the  brass case and head of the  round. I  already knew it was there, but it
made  me feel better  to  see it and know that  when I fired I wouldn't just
hear a dead man's click. Satisfied, I swathed the  muzzle and  working parts
in polythene again, completing the seal with tape before checking the muzzle
protection was still intact.
     Carrie reappeared with  a thick brown  cotton shirt and matching canvas
trousers.
     She never seemed to provide socks or underwear;  maybe Aaron didn't use
them.
     They went into the  protective  plastic  in the  bergen,  which  I then
closed down with the other two mozzie nets on top.
     She watched as I checked my leg. The  bandage was covered with mud  but
that  didn't  matter; the important  thing was that  there  was  no sign  of
leakage.
     I gave my trousers a good squirt of  Deet  before tucking them  into my
very smelly socks, then  doused them as  well. Once I'd finished the front I
got  to work on my forearms,  my hands, all round my neck and my  head, even
getting it into my hair.
     I wanted to be armour-plated with the stuff, and I'd go on replenishing
it  all  the time I was on  the ground. I  carried on squirting it  over  my
clothing and rubbing it in. Anywhere that wasn't covered in mud got the good
news. I threw her one of the bottles as she stood, zombie-like.
     "Do my back, will you?"
     It seemed to snap her out of her trance. She started rubbing it roughly
into my sweatshirt.
     "I'm taking you."
     "What?"
     "It's my job, I'll take you. I'm the one who wants the passport."
     I nodded. I didn't want to  get involved and talk more about it. We had
done enough of that. All I wanted now was the lift.
     The rubbing stopped.
     "We ought to be going."
     The half-used bottle appeared over my shoulder.
     "But first I want to tuck my child in."
     She walked out, and I  packed  all the Deet bottles in the top flap and
started to wrap  the weapon in the blanket for protection, not too sure if I
was looking forward to the ride or not.
     TWENTY-EIGHT
     The  atmosphere was strained as Carrie and  I shook around in  the cab,
following the  beam as it bounced off the jungle around us.  The wet foliage
shone as if it had been coated with varnish.
     For several kilometres her eyes had been fixed  on the section of track
carved  out by the  lights,  trying  to negotiate  the  ruts that rocked  us
rhythmically from side to side. I let my head wobble but kept a  hand on the
rifle between my knees to protect the zero.
     We eventually  emerged from the forest and passed through the valley of
dead trees. At last she cleared her throat.
     "After all  that  we have said to each other ... this doesn't  need  to
change things, Nick."
     "Yeah, well, we all make mistakes."
     "No, Nick, it wasn't a mistake, I  need  you to believe  that. What you
said means something. I'll never abuse that trust."
     "Is that why you told your dad I had a fever?"
     "Like I said, no one ever need know. I don't lie, Nick."
     Thanks."
     "Am  I forgiven?" She glanced at me to check that she really was before
her eyes darted back to the track as we tilted left.
     "Can't your dad just give Luz a passport? Surely he can sort that out?"
     "Sure he can,  I  know that. But he  knows  I'm  desperate.  I've never
gotten  anything  from him for free. I always had to earn  it  first. It was
only going to be for locating the relay board. Then it got worse, some  food
and stores,  a few gallons of two-stroke. They didn't want to go to Chepo in
case they got recognized, I suppose ... Then you came along."
     I sat and watched her as her eyes concentrated on the driving  but  her
mind was elsewhere.
     "Aaron was right. He told me that once it started it'd never stop, he'd
keep using me. You know what? Maybe he's right, but as  soon as the passport
comes we'll be out of here."
     "You'll go to your mum's? Boston?"
     "She's got a house in Marblehead, on the coast. I have a job waiting at
MIT and Luz is set for school."
     What's the score with your  dad? I can't work out if you hate him, love
him or what."
     T can't either. Then,  sometimes, I  even  get a little jealous  of the
attention he gives Luz, and others I think he only does it to keep an eye on
me."
     Still concentrating on the road, it seemed it was her turn to open up.
     "I never knew who he really was, what he really did. He just went away,
came back sometimes with something he'd pick up for me last minute, normally
something totally unsuitable. Then he left  again as soon as I'd gotten used
to  him being around.  Mom just  waited till I'd left for university and she
left, too. He's a cold man, but still my father."
     I tapped the muzzle.
     "He gave you this."
     She turned for a second and a fleeting smile came to her lips.
     "His way of saying he loves you, maybe?"
     "Maybe, but maybe it was only because he forgot to pack it when leaving
the Zone after his tour."
     "Aaron  said  you're  very  much  like  him  something about stars  and
stripes?"
     She laughed: this was obviously well-trodden ground.
     "Aaron  only thinks  that because, for  once,  I  agree with  George on
what's gone wrong in this country.  Aaron's too  stubborn to see it,  that's
why he wants to  stay. He's hoping for a brighter future but it ain't coming
on its  own.  The Zone as he remembers it has  gone. We, America,  let  that
happen. It's disgusting."
     "You guys could come back if the canal was threatened.
     Isn't there a clause in the treaty, something in the small print?"
     "Oh, yeah, sure like the Russians are going to invade. I'm not planning
my future around it."
     "What's  the big deal? After  all,  you lot gave the thing back, didn't
you?"
     She bristled.
     "No Carter did."
     We nearly hit the roof as the wagon bounced out of a rut deeper than it
had looked.
     "We  built  the  canal,  we  built  the country.  Geographically,  it's
virtually part of the US coastline, for Christ's sake. People like Lulu died
for  it and  that peanut-munching inadequate threw it  away like a Kleenex."
She paused.
     "Do you really want to know why it's such a big deal?"
     I nodded.
     "Why not?"
     "OK, there  are two major problems to address."  Her right index finger
sprang upwards from the bucking steering-wheel.
     SOUTH COM drugs interdiction and eradication capability  is now about a
third of what it used to  be before  'ninety-nine. In  short,  it's history.
People like Charlie and PARC are getting a free run. Unless action is taken,
and quickly, we lose the drugs war for ever.
     If  you think there's a problem now, watch this space."  She  shook her
head in disbelief at her countrymen's folly.
     "You know what I mean, don't you?"
     I  did.  I'd  got  to know quite a  few of the victims  these last  few
months.
     "So, the only answer was what Clinton did throw a billion plus at  Plan
Colombia, with troops, hardware,  all to kick ass down there. You  know what
Plan Colombia is, right? Of course, stupid, sorry."
     The suspension creaked and things rattled under the wagon as she fought
with the wheel.
     "Without the  Zone, we had no alternative but to project further south,
take the fight to them in their backyard."
     I was studying the red glow on the side of her face as she concentrated
on the track.
     "But it ain't going to work. No way. We're just getting dragged  into a
long, costly war down there that's going  to have little impact on the  drug
trade."
     Her eyes, still fixed  on the  way ahead, gleamed with conviction.  Her
father would have been proud of her, I was sure.
     I'm telling you,  we're getting  pulled into their civil war instead of
fighting drugs.  Soon it'll spread into Venezuela, Ecuador and all the rest.
This is  Vietnam the Sequel. Because we have  given away  the Zone,  we have
created a situation where we now need it more than ever. Crazy, no?"
     It made sense to me.
     "Otherwise it'll be  like launching  the  D-Day invasion of France from
New York?"
     She gave me a smile of approval, between fighting the ruts.
     "Panama's going to be needed as a forward operating area  from which to
project our forces,  as well as a buffer to stop the conflict spreading into
Central America. What Clinton has done  is a very dangerous alternative, but
without the Zone and what it stands for, he had no choice."
     We lapsed into silence again as she negotiated  the last bit  of  track
and we finally hit the road to Chepo.
     "And the most scary, fucked-up thing of all is  that China now runs the
canal.
     When we left, it  created a  power vacuum that China's filling. Can you
imagine  it? Without one shot being fired, Communist China is in control  of
one of the  United States' most important trade routes, in our backyard. Not
only that,  we actually let the very country that could back PARC in the war
take control."
     I could see now what Aaron had been on about.
     "Come on,  it's just  a  Hong Kong firm who got  the contract. They run
ports worldwide."
     Her jaw tightened as she gritted her teeth.
     "Oh,  yeah? Well, ten per cent of it is owned  by Beijing  they operate
the  ports at each end of the canal and some of  our old military locations.
In effect, we've got Communist China controlling fourteen per cent of all US
trade, Nick can  you believe we let that happen? A country that openly calls
the US its number-one enemy. Since 1919 they  have recognized the importance
of the canal."
     She shook her head bitterly.
     "Aaron's right, I do agree with George, even  though  his politics have
always been to the right of Attila the Hun."
     I was starting to see her point. I'd never look at Dover docks in quite
the same way again.
     "Charlie was one of the group instrumental in pushing the Chinese deal.
I wonder what  his kickback was freedom  to  use the docks for business? And
you know what? Hardly anyone knows up north the han dover deadline just sort
of sneaked up on America. And Clinton? He didn't do a thing."
     She didn't seem too keen on Democrat presidents.
     The threat  to  the US is real,  Nick. The hard reality  is that  we're
getting dragged into a South American war because  we gave away the canal to
China. The  Chinese, not  us, are now  sitting on one  of the  world's  most
important trade routes and they haven't  paid a cent for the privilege. It's
our bat and ball they're playing with, for Christ's sake."
     I started to see pinholes of light penetrating the  blackness ahead: we
were approaching Chepo. I gave her a long, hard look, trying  to figure  her
out as we rumbled over the gravel, and she kept glancing rapidly over at me,
waiting for some kind of response.
     "I guess this is where I fit in," I  said.  'I'm here to  stop  Charlie
handing over a missile guidance system to PARC so they can't  use it against
US helicopters in Colombia."
     "Hey, so you're one of the good guys." She'd started smiling again.
     That's not the way it feels." I hesitated.
     "Your dad wants me to kill Charlie's son."
     She jolted the wagon to a halt  on the gravel, the engine  ticking over
erratically.  I could now see her full face in red shadow.  I couldn't  make
out whether the look in her eyes was shock or disgust. Maybe it was both. It
soon became a mixture of  confusion  and  the realization that I had been as
economical with the truth as she had.
     "I  couldn't  tell  you  because of OP  SEC  I tried  to fight  it  but
couldn't, the lid was still completely off.
     "And  also  because  I'm ashamed.  But  I've  still got  to  do it. I'm
desperate, just like you."  I glanced  out at  the expanse  of  muddy, water
filled potholes caught in the headlights.
     "His name is Michael. Aaron teaches him at the university."
     She slumped in her seat. The locks ... he told me about-' That's right,
he's just a few years older than Luz."
     She  didn't respond. Her eyes joined mine, facing forward  and fixed on
the tunnel of light.
     "So, now you have  the  misfortune  of  knowing all that I know." Still
nothing.  It was time for me to shut up and just look out at the illuminated
mud and gravel as  the wagon moved  off.  Then  I turned  and watched as she
pursed her lips, shook her head and drove as if she was on autopilot.
     TWENTY-NINE
     Friday 8 September We'd  hardly  exchanged  another  word as we bounced
around in the cab for the next couple of hours.
     I  finished  getting the bergen out of the back and  pulled back on the
leaf sight as far as it would go to check that the battle sights were set at
400.
     "Nick?"
     I  leaned down to the half-open  window. Bathed by the red glow  of the
dash she was moving the blanket I'd thrown from the weapon, which had landed
on the selector.
     "Michael  is dying to save hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. It's the
only way I can deal with it. Maybe it'll work for you."
     I nodded,  concentrating  more  on protecting the  zero than trying  to
justify myself. Charlie should be getting the good news, not his boy.
     "It's certainly going to save one, Nick. One that you love very much, I
know.
     Sometimes we have to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, no?" She
held  my  gaze for  another  couple of seconds,  then  glanced down  at  the
selector. I wondered if she was going to look up again, but she chose Drive,
and hit the gas.
     I  stood and watched  the red tail-lights fade into the  darkness, then
waited the three minutes or so it  would take for my night  vision  to start
kicking in. When I could see where I was putting my feet, I tied the gollock
around my  waist, checked for the hundredth time  that the map and docs were
still secure in my leg pockets, and  felt for the  Silva  compass that  hung
round my neck under my T-shirt. Then I shouldered  my bergen, heaved the tub
on top,  and held it in place with a straight arm, my left hand gripping the
handle.  With the rifle in my right, I moved down to the road junction, then
headed west towards the house.
     I  soon broke  out  in  a sweat under the weight of the load, and could
taste the bitterness of Deet as it ran into my mouth. Only  three and a half
hours of darkness remained, by the end of which I needed to be ready at  the
gate. As soon  as it was light enough to see what I  was doing, I  needed to
place the device and find a firing position in the opposite treeline. It was
pointless trying to rig it up in darkness; I'd spend more time rectifying my
mistakes at first light than if I'd just done it then in the first place.
     The plan was so simple that as  I pushed on, listening and looking  for
vehicles, there  wasn't much to think about until I  got  there. My mind was
free to roam, but I wasn't going to allow that. It was time for nothing else
but the mission.
     After  a  few changes of arm  supporting  the weight of the tub,  I was
finally at the gates. Keeping over  to the right, in cover, I dumped the tub
while I caught my  breath.  Ground-mounted  perimeter lights illuminated the
walls, making  it  look even  more like a hotel. When  eventually  I  looked
through the railings of  the gate, the fountain  was still  lit, and I could
see the glint of  light on  a number of  vehicles  parked haphazardly in the
drive beyond it. The gold side windows of the Lexus winked back at me.
     The house was asleep,  no light  shining  out, apart from the  enormous
chandelier,  which sparkled through a large window  that I took to be  above
the main entrance.
     There wasn't  going to be any finesse about this  device, but it had to
be set very precisely. As the vehicle moved through the gates, the force  of
the shaped charge had to be directed exactly where I wanted it. I would also
have to make sure it was well camouflaged with the mozzie net.
     I went back and collected the tub, then stumbled along the animal track
that ran  between the wall and the canopy. The wall ran out after just seven
or eight metres, and at that point I moved a few feet back into the trees to
wait for  first light.  There was no need  to  go further. Besides,  some of
Diego's traps might still be set.
     Keeping the bergen on my back, I sat on the tub  with the weapon across
my legs to protect  the zero, the plastic  protection  rustling gently  each
time I moved. I was just willing the mozzies to try to take a bite out of me
now I was 95 per cent pure Deet, but they seemed to know better.
     I  changed my mind about keeping  the bergen on. It wasn't serving  any
purpose and, besides, I wanted water  from  the side pouch. As  I  took slow
sips I unstuck the T-shirt from my itchy chigger rash and gazed enviously at
the house with its air-conditioning and refrigerators working overtime.
     The occasional animal made  a noise in  the jungle as the mozzies still
circled in holding patterns around me, sounding like kamikaze planes heading
for  my face  before changing course after a sniff of what I had waiting for
them.
     Once I'd put the water back into the bergen I gave myself  another  rub
down  with the Deet, just in case they discovered a gap in the de fences The
tiny bits of leaf and bark on my hands scrubbed against my face and stubble.
     I sat, scratched my back, felt the fur on my teeth with my  tongue, and
wished I'd hit the fire press el three times when I'd had the chance.
     About forty-five boring minutes later I began  to see  an  arc  of pale
light rising above  the treeline. It was going to  be a dull one. The  birds
took their cue to get noisy, and the howler monkeys on the other side of the
house woke up the rest of the jungle as if the crickets ever slept.
     I began to make out a low mist lying on the  mud  of the  clearing and,
higher up, black and grey cloud cover.  It would be good for  me if the  sky
stayed overcast:
     it meant no chance of sunlight reflecting off the objective lens.
     Another ten minutes and light was penetrating the canopy.  I could just
see my feet. It was time to start rigging the device.
     After rechecking  the score  marks on the sight, and  that  the  battle
sights  were pulled back to 400,  the kit went  back on and  I moved  slowly
towards the gate. I dropped the tub and bergen about two metres short of it,
laying the weapon on the ground and not against the wall to avoid any chance
of it falling.
     It didn't take long to find a tree of the right height and structure to
take the charge there were enough of them about.  I took the  nylon tow-rope
out of the top flap pouch  of the bergen, tied one end  of  it  to the tub's
handle and  gripped the other between my teeth.  The taste of petrol  nearly
made me gag while I looked up and worked out how to climb my chosen tree. My
calf was throbbing painfully.
     It was  a noisy ascent but a time comes when you just  have to  get  on
with it, and now was  the moment,  before everybody  in  the house  began to
stir. Trapped  water fell on to my head and I was drenched again by the time
I reached my vantage point
     At  last I  could  just see over the wall towards the house, and to the
other treeline  to my half right, where  the  bottom  couple of feet  of the
trunks  were  still  shrouded  in  mist.  My firing  point  was  going to be
somewhere along  that treeline; it  was maybe  300 metres  away and  the tub
should  be easy enough to find from that  distance with the optic. I thought
about placing a large leaf or two on top of the wall as a marker to guide me
in, but it was too risky. If I could see it, so could anyone driving towards
the gate. I  had to assume they were switched on, and  that anything unusual
would  be treated with suspicion. I'd  just have to open my eyes and find it
once I got into position.
     I was still  working out how I was going  to strap the tub  in position
when I heard the noise of an engine start up in the  driveway.  I turned  my
head to look towards the source. The only things moving were my eyes and the
dribble from the sides of my rope-filled mouth.
     It was impossible to  make out what was happening. There were no lights
from any of the vehicles, just  the  low, gentle sound  of  a petrol  engine
ticking over.
     I had to act. This might be the only chance I got.
     I opened my mouth to release  the rope,  and almost fell as I scrambled
down  the trunk. Adrenaline surged as I grabbed the weapon and ran  back  to
the end of the wall, frantically tearing at the plastic, trying to check the
score marks, feeling for the ready rounds, feeling for my docs.
     I dropped on  to  my right  knee,  brought the weapon  up,  and  looked
through the optic, gulping  in  deep breaths to  oxygenate me  for the shot,
wiping the Deet sweat from my eyes before removing the safety.
     An oldish  guy moved  around in  the low light, the tip  of a cigarette
glowing in his mouth. He was wearing flip-flops, football shorts and a badly
ripped dark polo shirt, and was wiping the night's rain and condensation off
the sleek,  black Lexus with a chamois  leather. The engine must  be running
for the air, which meant he was expecting passengers soon.
     I sat  back on  my right foot and braced my left elbow on my left knee,
the soft bit just above the elbow joint jammed into the kneecap, butt pulled
firmly into the shoulder. Then I checked  my field of  view into the killing
ground.
     There  was no pain  in my leg  now, no feeling  anywhere  as I prepared
myself mentally, visualizing  the target coming from the front door, heading
for either the rear or front of the Lexus.
     Condensation formed on the lens.
     I kept the weapon in the aim and, with both eyes on the killing ground,
rubbed it clear with my right thumb and T- shirt cuff.  All the time, taking
slow, deep, controlled breaths, I was hoping it was going  to kick  off, and
at the same time hoping that it wouldn't until I was in a better position.
     The old  guy made his way conscientiously  along  the  wagon  with  his
chamois. Then the two huge doors at the front of the house opened and I  was
aiming  into a body, the  chandelier back  lighting him  perfectly. The post
sight was in the middle of a white, short-sleeved shirt-and-tie,  one of the
BG,  either Robert or Ross, whichever  had  gone out  for the drinks. He was
standing in  the door frame, talking on his Nokia and checking progress with
the wagon.
     My  heart-rate soared,  then training kicked  back  in: I controlled my
breathing and my pulse started  to drop; I blocked out everything around me,
closing down into my own little world. Nothing else existed, apart from what
I could see through the optic.
     The BG disappeared  back into the  house but  the front  door was still
open.  I waited  in the aim, hearing  feeling  the pulse in  my neck, taking
controlled breaths, oxygenating my body.  If I felt any emotion, it was only
relief that it might soon be over and done with.
     There  he was.  Michael stepped  outside, green on blue, carrying a day
sack  smiling,  talking with  Robert  and Ross either side of him. I got the
post  on  him,  centre  of  the  trunk,  got it on  his sternum,  took first
pressure.
     Shit... A white shirt moved between us.
     Keeping  the pressure,  I followed the  group.  I got part of his face,
still smiling, chatting animatedly. Not good enough, too small a target.
     Then someone else, a  dark grey suit, blocked my view completely.  This
wasn't going to work too late, too many bodies blocking.
     They were at the wagon. Shit, shit, shit... I released first  pressure,
ducked back  behind the wall, and ran for the  gate while applying Safe.  No
time to think, just to  do. Inside my  head I was going ape shit Opportunity
target! Opportunity target!
     Fuck  the  off-route  mine  now,  I  just  wanted  an explosion.  Still
screaming silently at myself, I grabbed the tub.
     There was a strange, empty feeling  in my stomach, the sort I  used  to
have as a  kid  running scared  from something, wishing my legs  could go as
fast as my head wanted them to.
     Gasping  for  air, I reached  the  gate and dropped the tub against the
wall, the blue rope still attached, the rest trailing behind.
     Opportunity target, opportunity target!
     The engine note of the  Lexus  changed  as the wagon started  down  the
drive towards me. It got louder as I picked up the bergen and sprinted along
the edge of the trees by the road.
     It was  time to hide.  I launched myself  into the  foliage at  a point
about thirty metres from the gate.
     Fuck, too near to the device ... I got into a fire position in the mud,
using the bergen just like the mound, my breathing all over the place.
     The electric whine of the motor opening the gates drowned out the noise
of the Lexus as it came nearer and then stopped.
     I was too low, I had no muzzle clearance.
     I jumped up in a semi-squat, grabbing air, legs apart to steady myself,
butt of the rifle in my  shoulder as I pulled and twisted to get the fucking
stupid safety off.
     I could see the wraparounds of the two  white-shirts in front as we all
waited for the gates to open, and knew I was exposed to them.  I kept as low
as I could, my  chest heaving  up  and  down as the Lexus finally started to
roll forward.
     Just twenty feet to go.
     The wagon stopped so suddenly the rear bucked up on its suspension.
     Shit! I stopped breathing and fixed both eyes on the tub. I brought the
weapon up to refocus into the optic, and took first pressure.
     The  engine  went  high-pitched  into reverse  and  I  saw  the  blurry
whiteness of the tub and the post clear  and sharp in the middle  of it then
fired.
     I dropped the weapon as  I hit  the  floor,  screaming to myself as the
shock-wave surged over me. It felt like  I'd  been  free falling at 100 mph.
and  was  suddenly stopped by a giant  hand in  mid-air, but my insides kept
going.
     Grabbing the rifle, I reloaded and got to my feet, checking  the battle
sight.
     There was no time to watch out for the debris falling from  the  sky: I
had to confirm he was dead.
     The  wagon had  been pushed back  six or seven metres on  the tarmac. I
started towards the dust cloud as shattered masonry and bits of jungle  fell
back to earth, butt in the shoulder, ears  ringing, vision blurred, my whole
body shaking. Rubble and twisted  ironwork lay  where part of the right-hand
wall and gates had once stood.
     I closed in on the mangled wreck, running in a  semi-stoop, and took up
a  position by the  remains  of  the  wall  just forward  of a  smouldering,
man-sized  crater.  Chunks of  brick  rained down  on  the  wagon.  The once
immaculate  Lexus  now looked like a stock car,  smashed, beaten,  its  side
windows missing, the windscreen safety glass shattered and buckled.
     I  took aim with the battle sights through  the  driver's  window.  The
first round  thudded  into the bloodstained white-shirt who was slumped  but
recovering over the steering wheel.
     Two!"
     Maintaining the weapon in the shoulder and supported by my left hand, I
reloaded  and  took  another shot  into  the  second  slumped,  bloodstained
white-shirt on the passenger side.
     Three!"
     With only four I had to remember my rounds fired; I was crap  at it and
counting out loud was the only way for me.
     Only  smaller  fragments  of leaf and  tree  floated from the sky  now,
landing on  the vehicle and tarmac all around  me as I moved in,  weapon up,
towards the  rear door. The  angle changed: I saw two slumped bodies covered
in shattered glass:
     one the green  T-shirt and blue jeans, the other  the dark grey suit. I
closed in.
     The suit was Charlie. I hoped he was alive.
     THIRTY
     The  target was  more or  less collapsed in the foot well with his  dad
down on the  seat draped  over him. Both were badly shaken, but alive. There
was some coughing from Charlie and I could see the target moving.
     Mustn't hit Charlie ... I took another couple of steps to  get me right
up against the door  and rammed  the weapon inside with my  face through the
window gap. The muzzle was no more than two inches from the target's bloody,
glass-covered and confused head.
     Bizarrely, the  air-conditioner  was still blowing, and a Spanish voice
jabbered on  the radio  as the target moaned and groaned, pushing his father
off him. His eyes were closed; I could see fragments of glass trapped in his
eyebrows.
     I felt the second pressure on my  finger  pad, but  it was  refusing to
squeeze further. Something was holding me back.
     Fuck, get on with it!
     The muzzle followed his head as it moved about, turning over on  to his
side. It was now virtually in his ear. I moved it up a little, to the tip.
     It wasn't  happening, my finger  wouldn't move. What  the fuck was  the
matter with me?
     COME ON, DO IT! DO IT!
     I  couldn't,  and in  that instant  I  knew why.  A stab of fear ripped
through my body.
     My brain filtered out almost everything,  but it  let in the  shouts; I
turned to see partly dressed men starting to  pour from  the house, carrying
weapons.
     I withdrew the  rifle,  reached in the front, and pulled  the Nokia off
the BG's belt. Then  I wrenched open the buckled metal and  seized a fistful
of suit. I dragged  a fucked-up Charlie  on to the tarmac, virtually running
with him to the other side of what was left of the wall.
     "Move! Move!"
     I kicked him to his knees and he fell forward on to his hands. Stepping
back out of grab range, I aimed at his head.
     "Can you hear me?"
     The shouts were getting nearer. I kicked him.
     "The missile guidance  system,  make  sure-'  "What  is  wrong with you
people?" He coughed as blood dribbled from his chin, not lifting his head as
he shouted back angrily, without a trace of fear.
     "It's been delivered last night! You have the launch control system you
have everything! The Sunburn is complete! What more do you want?"
     "Delivered? This is about getting it delivered?"
     He looked up at me,  staring along the barrel that moved up and down as
we both fought for breath.
     "Last  night! You  people  use my son  to threaten me, demanding it  by
tomorrow night, you get it and still-' As the blood ran down his neck he saw
my confusion.
     "Don't you people know what each other is doing?"
     Tuesday  the  guy  in the pink Hawaiian shirt. He was here -has  he got
it?"
     "Of course!"
     "Why should I believe you?"
     "I  don't care  what  you  believe.  The deal is  done, yet  you  still
threaten my family... Remember the condition no Panamanian  targets.  Why is
it still here?
     You  said  it  would move  straight to Colombia not use it here. Do you
know who I am? Do you know what I can do to you?"
     "Fatherrrrr!" Michael had seen us and his eyes widened.
     "Don't kill him please don't kill him. Please!"
     Charlie  yelled something in Spanish, probably telling him to run, then
fixed  his glare on me  once more. There was not  a  flicker  of fear in his
eyes.
     "Well, Englishman, what now? You already have what you came here for."
     I took a swing with the rifle butt and got him on the side of the neck.
He curled into a  ball of pain as  I turned and ran along the treeline, back
towards  the  bergen.  I grabbed it  in my spare  hand, looked  back and saw
Michael limping towards his dad as people and vehicles converged.
     That  was the problem. Michael was  real  people. He was  a kid with  a
life, not one of the shadow people I  was  used to, the  sort of  target I'd
never thought twice about killing.
     I  hurled myself into  the  jungle, crashing through  wait-a-while, not
caring about sign.  I just  wanted to get my  arse out of here and  into the
wall of green.
     Barbs tore  into my skin and my throat was so parched it  hurt to  take
breath. But none of that mattered: the only thing that did was getting away.
     The commotion behind me  gradually faded, soaked  up by the jungle as I
penetrated deeper but I  knew it wouldn't be long before they  got organized
and came in after me.
     There  was  automatic fire.  The  follow-up was much  quicker than  I'd
expected: they were firing  blindly, hoping to zap me as I ran. That  didn't
bother  me, the trees would  take the brunt.  The  only important  thing was
whether or not they were tracking me.
     I pulled out  my  compass, checked,  and headed  east for about  twenty
metres,  towards  the loop, taking my time now, trying not to leave upturned
leaves or broken  cobwebs in  my  wake.  Then  I turned  north,  then  west,
doubling back on myself but off to the side of my original track. After five
or six metres, I stopped, looked  around for a thick bush, and wormed my way
into it.
     Squatting on my bergen, butt in the shoulder, safety off,  I fought for
breath.
     If they were tracking,  they would  pass  right to left, seven or eight
metres in front as they followed my sign. The rule about being chased in the
jungle,  learnt  the hard way by far better soldiers than me,  was that when
the enemy are  coming fast you've got to sidestep and creep away. Don't keep
on running, because they'll just keep on following.
     Slowly peeling three rounds from one  of the ready rounds I pulled back
the bolt.
     The  bearing surfaces glided smoothly over each other  as  I caught the
round  it  was  about  to  eject,  then  fed  the  four  rounds  slowly  and
deliberately back into the mag before pushing the bolt home.
     I sat, watched  and listened as I  got out the blood-smeared mobile. No
matter what  was going  on  down  here  stop  delivery, guarantee  delivery,
whatever I'd failed to do what the Yes  Man had sent me here for, and I knew
what that meant.
     I had to make a call.
     There was no  signal, but I tried the number anyway, just  in  case, my
finger covering the tiny speaker hole that sent out the touch tone. Nothing.
     Baby-G said it was 7.03. I  played with the phone, finding vibrate, and
put it away again.
     Shit,  shit, shit. The pins and  needles  were  returning.  I  had  the
helpless  feeling that Carrie had  described, that  awful emptiness when you
think you've lost someone and are trying desperately to find them. Shit, not
here,  not  now A frenzied exchange in Spanish brought  me back to the  real
world. They were close.
     There were  more shouts from under  the canopy  but were they following
me? I sat motionless as seconds, and then whole minutes, ticked by.
     Nearly seven fifteen. She'll be getting  up  soon  for school... I  had
fucked up, I had  to accept that. But what was more important  now,  at this
very  moment, was getting a  signal on the mobile, and that meant going back
uphill towards the house, where I'd seen it used.
     There was the odd resonant  yell that sounded like a howler monkey, but
I saw no  one.  Then there was movement to my front, the crashing of foliage
as they got closer. But they weren't tracking: it sounded too much of a gang
fuck for that. I held my breath, butt in the shoulder, pad on the trigger as
they stopped on my trail.
     Sweat  dripped off my face as three voices gob bed  off at  warp speed,
maybe deciding  which  direction  to  take.  I  could hear their M-16s, that
plastic, almost toy-like sound as they moved them in their hands, or dropped
a butt on to the toecap of a boot.
     A burst of  automatic fire went off in the distance and my three seemed
to decide  to  go back the way they'd come.  They'd obviously had  enough of
this jungle lark.
     Anyone tracking me, even if they'd lost my sign and had had to cast out
to find it, would have gone past my position by now. Even  with me trying to
cut down on sign,  a blind man could have followed the highway  I'd made  if
he'd known what he was feeling for.
     I got just short of the edge of the treeline, all the time checking the
signal bars on the mobile. Still nothing.
     I  heard the heavy  revs of one of the bulldozers and the squeal of its
tracks.
     Moving forward cautiously, I saw  plumes  of black diesel  smoke billow
from the vertical  exhaust as  it lumbered towards the gate. Beyond  it, the
front  of the  house was a  frenzy of people. Bodies with weapons shouted at
each other in confusion as wagons moved up and down the road.
     I moved back into the wall  of green, applied Safe and started checking
up at the canopy as I unravelled the string on the weapon to make a sling. I
found a suitable tree about six metres in: it would have a good  view of the
house, looked easy to climb, and the branches  were strong enough to support
my weight.
     I took out  the  strapping that was going to be my seat, got the bergen
on my back,  slung the weapon over my shoulder, and started to clamber up as
engines revved and people shouted out in the open ground.
     When I was about twenty feet up I tried the Nokia again, and this  time
I got four bars.
     Fastening  the straps between two strong branches, I  hooked the bergen
over another next  to them, settled  into  the seat  facing  the house, then
spread one of the mozzie nets over me before closing down the bergen in case
I had to buy out.
     I was going to be here for a while, until things had quietened down, so
the net had  to be hung  out on to branches so it wasn't clinging to me, and
tucked under to cover  the straps. I needed to hide my shape, shine, shadow,
silhouette and movement;  that wouldn't happen if I didn't spread  it  out a
bit  to prevent myself looking  like a man in a tree with  a mozzie net over
him. Finally, cradling the weapon across  my legs, I calmed myself down as I
hit the keypad.
     Not giving him time to think or talk, I got to him in a loud whisper.
     "It's me Nick. Don't talk, just listen ..."
     THIRTY-ONE
     "Josh,  just  listen.  Get her  to safety,  do it  now.  I've fucked up
big-time. Get her away somewhere safe, she needs to  be where no one can get
at her. I'll call in a few days, got it? Got it?"
     There was a pause.
     "Josh?"
     "Fuck you! Fuck  you! When does this stop?  You're playing with a kid's
life again. Fuck you!"
     The line went dead. He'd hung. But I knew he'd take this seriously. The
last time I'd fucked up and put kids in danger, they'd been his own.
     I felt a flood of relief as I removed  the  battery  before  the mobile
went back in my pocket. I didn't want to be traced from the signal.
     Tasting  the bitter  Deet as sweat  ran into  my mouth, I  watched  the
commotion outside the house. I wondered if the police would be up here soon,
being given my  description,  but doubted  it.  Charlie  would  want to keep
something like this  under wraps and,  anyway, it wasn't as if the explosion
would have disturbed  the neighbourhood; big bangs would  have been a  daily
occurrence as they cleared the jungle to make way for his house.
     I  leant over to the bergen, got out the water and took  a  few  swigs,
feeling better about  Kelly now. No matter what Josh thought of  me, he'd do
the  right thing for her.  It  wasn't  the answer, just the best  short-term
solution I had available.
     She and  I were still in deep shit. I knew I should have called the Yes
Man, explained to him what I thought I knew, and waited out. That was what I
should have done, so why hadn't I? Because a voice in my head was telling me
something different.
     Charlie had said Sunburn. The  Yes  Man had sent me here to deal with a
missile  system  that  was  a  threat  to  US  helicopters  in  Colombia.  A
ground-to-air    missile   system.   That   wasn't   Sunburn   Sunburn   was
surface-to-surface. I remembered reading about the US  Navy flapping because
their   anti-missile  de  fences  couldn't  defeat  it.  Sunburn  was  their
number-one threat.
     I tried to  recall details. It had  been in Time or Newsweek, something
like that, last year  on the  tube to  Hampstead ... it was about ten metres
long because  I'd  visualized  being able to  fit two  end to end in  a tube
carriage.
     What else? I wiped the sweat from my forehead.
     Think, think ... The Pizza Man ... He had been at the locks on Tuesday.
The locks webcam  was  part of the relay com  ms from the  house.  The Pizza
Man's  team  were  monitoring drug movements  by PARC.  He'd  also  been  at
Charlie's house and maybe, if Charlie had told me the truth, he had Sunburn.
     I suddenly saw what was happening. George was carrying the fight to the
enemy:
     they'd  been  monitoring drug  shipments through the canal, and  now it
looked  as  though they were  getting proactive, maybe  using Sunburn  as  a
threat  to  PARC that if they used the canal to  ship drugs they'd get taken
out.
     That  still didn't answer why  I'd  been  sent  here  to  stop  Charlie
delivering a  ground-to-air  system ... The noise of  rotor blades clattered
over the canopy.  I recognized at  once the  heavy bass wap wap wap  wap the
unique signature of American Hueys, coming in low. The  two helicopters shot
past, immediately above me.  The massive downwash made  my tree sway as they
flared into the clearing, then, just feet off the  ground, crept towards the
front of  the house. Mud  puddles were  blown  away, and  jungle  debris was
blasted in all directions. The house was now  behind a wall of down  draught
and heat haze blasting out from the Hueys' exhausts. A yellow and white Jet
     Ranger  followed  behind,  like a  child  trying  to  keep up with  its
parents.
     The scene before me could have come straight  from  a Vietnam newsreel.
Armed men jumped from the skids and doubled towards the house. It could have
been the 101st "Air Assault' screaming down for an attack, except these guys
were in jeans.
     The  Jet  Ranger swooped  down so close to  the front  of  the house it
looked as if it was actually going to ring the doorbell, then it backed away
and settled on the tarmac near the fountain.
     The  heat  haze  from  its exhaust blurred  my  view, but  I could  see
Charlie's family begin to stream towards it from the front door.
     I sat and  watched through the optic as my former  target  comforted an
older Latino  woman,  still  in  her nightgown. On  her  other  side  was  a
bloodstained Charlie, his suit ripped, his arms around  her.  All three were
surrounded by anxious, shouting men with  weapons, shepherding them forward.
As I followed them with the optic, the  post was on Michael's chest for what
felt like an age.
     I looked at  his young, bloody face,  which showed only concern for the
woman. He belonged to  a different world  from his father, George, the Pizza
Man and me. I hoped he'd stay that way.
     The air was  filled with  the  roar of  churning  blades  as they  were
bustled inside the aircraft. The two  Hueys were already making height. They
dipped their noses, and headed towards the city.
     The  Jet  Ranger  lifted  from  the  tarmac,  and  headed in  the  same
direction. There was relative quiet  for a few seconds, then somebody barked
a series of orders at the men on the ground. They started to sort themselves
out. Their mission, I guessed, was to look  for me. And this time  I had the
feeling they'd be better organized.
     I sat in my perch, wondering what to do next as wagon after wagon  left
the  house packed  with men  and  M-16 assault  rifles, and returned  empty.
Checking Baby-G, I knew  I'd have to start moving out of here  soon if I was
to make maximum use of daylight.
     Last light, Friday.  That had been my deadline. Why? And  why were  the
Firm  involved  in all  this? They obviously  needed  Sunburn  in place  for
tomorrow.  I had been bullshit ted  with the ground-to-air story.  I  didn't
need  to know what it was really about  because,  after  the London fuck-up,
sending  me  was  their  last desperate attempt to  get  their hands on  the
complete system.
     Last light. Sunset.
     Oh, fuck. The Ocaso ...  They  were going to hit the cruise liner, real
people, thousands of them. It wasn't a drug thing at all... why?
     Fuck it, why didn't matter. What mattered was that it didn't happen.
     But where was  I going? What was  I going to  do with what I thought  I
knew?
     Contact the Panamanians? What would they do?  Cancel the ship? So what?
That would  be  just  another short-term  solution.  If they  couldn't  find
Sunburn in time, the Pizza Man could just fire the fucking thing at the next
ship that came along. Not good enough. I needed an answer.
     Go to the  US embassy, any embassy? What  would they do -report it? Who
to?  How long would it be before someone picked up  the phone to George? And
however important  he was, there'd be some even more powerful people  behind
him. There had to be. Even C and the Yes Man were dancing to their tune.
     I had to get back to Carrie and Aaron. They were the only two who could
help.
     Movement outside the house was dwindling: no more vehicles, just one or
two bodies walking around, and to the left and  out of sight, the sound of a
bulldozer shunting the damaged Lexus off the road.
     It was 8.43 time  to leave the tree. I unpinned the  trouser-leg pocket
and pulled out the map. I bent my head down so  my nose  was just six inches
from it and  the compass on its short  cord could rest on its faded surface.
It  took me thirty seconds  to  take a bearing, across green, then the white
line of the loop road, more green, to the middle  of Clayton  and  the  main
drag into the city. As to  how I got back to the house from there, I'd  just
busk it -anything, just as long as I got back.
     Having  checked that  my  map was  securely  pinned  in  my  pocket,  I
clambered down with  the bergen and weapon,  leaving the hide to  the birds.
Once the bergen was on and the string  back round the weapon, I headed  east
towards the loop and Clayton, taking my time, focusing my mind and my vision
on  the wall  of green, butt  in the shoulder,  safety off,  finger straight
along the trigger guard, ready to react.
     I could have been back  in Colombia, looking for DMPs, carefully moving
foliage out of  the way  instead of fighting it, avoiding  cobwebs, watching
where I stepped to cut noise and sign, stopping, listening, observing before
moving  into dead ground, checking my bearing, looking in front of me, to my
left, to my right, and, just as important, above.
     I  wanted to travel faster than I was going,  desperate  to get back to
Aaron and Carrie's, but I knew this was the best and safest way to make that
happen.
     They'd  no  longer be  thrashing  about or  firing  blindly, they'd  be
waiting, spread  out, static, for me  to bumble into them. Tactical movement
in  the jungle  is  so hard. You can never use the easier high ground, never
use tracks, never  use water features  for navigation. The enemy expects you
to use them. You've got to stay in  the shit, follow  a compass bearing, and
move slowly. It's worth it: it means you survive.
     Sweat  laced  with Deet  dripped  into  my eyes,  not just  due  to the
humidity inside  this  pressure  cooker but because  of the stress of  slow,
controlled movement, constantly straining my eyes and ears, and all the time
I was thinking: What if they appear to my front? What if they come from  the
left? What  if they fire  first  and I don't  know where the fire  is coming
from? Contacts in the jungle are so close you can smell their breath.
     THIRTY-TWO
     It had taken me two  hours to reach the loop, which  was a  lot quicker
than I'd expected.
     I dumped the bergen, and  unstuck my T-shirt from my back in an attempt
to  relieve the  chigger bites. Then I fingered my  wet, greasy  hair off my
forehead  and  started moving slowly  forward, butt in  the shoulder.  As  I
neared the road it was time to apply Safe and get down on the  jungle floor.
Using elbows and the toes of my Timberlands, I dragged myself to the edge of
the canopy. The  weapon lay along the right side of my body; I moved it with
me,  knowing that  with the  safety  firmly  on, there  was no  chance  of a
negligent discharge.
     Last night's  rain filled the dips and pot-holes in the tarmac, and the
sky was still dull. A motley collection of black, light and dark grey clouds
brooded above me as I looked and listened. If the boys had any sense, they'd
have triggers out along the roads, doing a bit of channelling of their  own,
waiting to see what emerged from  the  canopy. Even if  they  did, I  had  a
bearing I had to stick to.
     Edging my way forward a little  more so  that my head was  sticking out
from  the foliage, I couldn't see  anything up the road  to the right, apart
from the road itself disappearing  as it gradually bent  left.  I turned  my
head the other way.
     No more  than forty metres away was one of the wagons from the house, a
gleaming black Land Cruiser, facing me and parked up on my side of the road.
Leaning  against  the  bonnet was a body with an M-16 in his hands, watching
both sides  of the  bend. He  was  maybe  in his twenties, in jeans,  yellow
T-shirt and trainers, and looking very hot and bored.
     My heart pumped. A vehicle was my fast-track out of here  -but  did the
body  have mates? Were they spaced up and down the road at intervals, or was
he  on stag, ready to whistle up the rest of the group if he saw anything as
they enjoyed a quiet smoke behind the wagon?
     There was  only one way to find out. I inched slowly backwards into the
treeline, finally getting up on to my hands and knees before crawling to the
bergen.
     Shouldering  it,  I  removed Safe and  slowly  closed on  the  wagon by
paralleling the road,  butt in the  shoulder,  eyes and ears on  full power.
Each time my foot touched the jungle floor and my weight crushed the leaves,
the sound seemed a  hundred times louder to me than it really was. Each time
a bird took flight I froze in mid-stride, like a statue.
     Twenty painstaking minutes had passed when I was brought to a halt once
more.
     From  just the other side  of the wall  of green came the sound of  his
weapon banging  against the side of the Land Cruiser. It seemed to be just a
little forward and to my  half right,  but no  more than about  eight metres
away.
     For a minute or two I stood still  and  listened. There was no talking,
no  radio  traffic,  just  the sound of  him coughing and gob bing on to the
tarmac. Then came the noise of metal panels buckling. He was standing on the
roof or bonnet.
     I wanted to be in a direct line with the wagon, so I moved on a  little
further.
     Then, like a DVD in extreme slo-mo, I lowered  myself to my  knees  and
applied  Safe,  the barely audible metallic click sounding in  my head as if
I'd banged two hammers together. Finally I laid down the weapon and took off
my bergen  one strap at  a time, continually looking in the direction of the
wagon, knowing that if I moved forward just two  metres I would be  in plain
sight of my new best mate and his M-16.
     Once the  bergen was on the ground  I  rested the rifle against it with
the barrel sticking  up in the air to make it easier to find. Fuck the zero,
I didn't need it now. Then, very slowly and deliberately,
     I extracted my gollock. The blade sounded as if  it was running along a
grinding  stone instead of  just gliding past the alloy  lip  of the  canvas
sheath.
     Down on  to my stomach once more and with the gollock in my right hand,
I  edged  carefully forward  on  my  toes  and elbows,  trying to control my
erratic breathing as I wiped the Deet very slowly out of my eyes.
     I neared the edge of the treeline at a point about five metres short of
the wagon.  I could see  the nearest front wheel, its chromed alloys stained
with mud at the centre of a lot of wet, shiny tyre.
     I  edged forward a little  more, so slowly  it would have  made a sloth
look like Linford Christie. Another  couple of metres and the bottom of  the
door sills and the front wing came into view but in the gap between them and
the  grass,  I  saw  no legs. Maybe he was  sitting  inside, maybe,  as  the
buckling sound had suggested, he was standing on the roof. My eyes  strained
at the tops of their sockets as I tried  to look up. I heard the coughing up
of phlegm and spitting;
     he was definitely outside, definitely up there somewhere.
     I counted off sixty seconds before moving again. He was  going to  hear
me soon. I didn't even want  to swallow: I was so close I could have reached
out and touched the wheel.
     I still couldn't see  him, but he was above me, sitting on the  bonnet,
and  his  heels had started to bang  rhythmically  against the wing furthest
away from me.
     He must be facing the road.
     I knew what  I needed to do, but I had  to psyche myself to do it. It's
never easy to take  on somebody  like this.  Up there was virgin ground, and
when I got on to it,  I had to react  quickly to  whatever I  found. What if
there  was another guy in the  wagon, lying asleep? What if he  had heard me
and was just waiting for me to pop up?
     For the next  thirty  seconds  I  revved  myself up as  mozzies hovered
around my face. I checked I was holding the gollock  correctly  with a  good
firm grip, and that the blade was facing the right way. I took one last deep
breath and sprang to my feet.
     He was sitting on the opposite wing with  his back to me, weapon on the
bonnet to his left. He heard me, but it was too late to turn. I was  already
leaping towards  him, my thighs striking the edge of the bonnet,  my feet in
the air. My  right hand swung round and  jammed the gollock across his neck;
with my left I grabbed the  blunt edge of the blade and pulled tight, trying
to drag his head on to my chest.
     The M-16  scraped over the body work as he moved back with  me over the
wing, my  body  weight starting to pull  us both to the ground as  his  legs
kicked and his body twisted. His hands  came up to grab my wrists, trying to
pull the gollock away, and there was a scream. I squeezed his  head  against
my chest and committed to falling backwards off the wagon. The air  exploded
out  of me as my back hit the ground and he landed on top of me, and we both
cried out with pain.
     His hands were round the gollock  and he writhed like a madman, kicking
out in all directions, banging against the wheel  and wing. I opened my legs
and wrapped them  round  his waist,  forcing my feet  between his legs, then
flexed my hips in the air and thrust out my chest, trying to stretch him  as
I pushed  the gollock against his neck. I worked my  head  down to his  left
ear.
     "Ssssh!"
     I could feel  the gollock in the folds of his skin. The blade must have
penetrated his neck a  little; I felt warm blood on my hands. I shushed  him
again and he finally seemed to get the message.
     Keeping my hips thrust out, I  bent  him  over me in an arc. He stopped
moving,  apart from his chest,  which heaved up and down. I could still feel
his hands against mine as he gripped the blade, but he wasn't struggling any
more. I kept on shushing into his ear.
     He didn't say or do anything as I forced him over to the right, pulling
back  on the  blade,  murmuring, "Come on, over you  go, over you  go,"  not
knowing if  he could even understand  me.  Soon my chest  was  on his  head,
pressing his face into the leaf litter, and I was able to look behind me for
the  M-16.  It wasn't far away; I got my foot into the  sling and  pulled it
within reach. The safety catch was  on, which was  good: it meant the weapon
was made  ready,  that there  was  a round in the chamber, because you can't
apply Safe on these things  otherwise. I could hardly use it to threaten him
if he knew it wasn't ready to fire.
     There was snorting from his  nostrils as they filled up with mucus from
shock, and the movement  of his chest made me feel I  was on a trampoline. I
still had one of my legs wrapped around him and could feel the weight of his
hips  on my  knee in  the mud.  The important thing was that apart from  his
breathing he  was motionless  exactly as I would have been in this situation
because, like him, I'd be wanting to come out of it alive.
     I untangled  my leg while keeping the  pressure  on his neck  with  the
gollock,  and the moment  I was free I used my  left hand to grab  the M-16.
Then, still  keeping the blade against his  neck,  I slowly got up, shushing
gently until I was hovering over him and could take away the blade.
     He knew  exactly what was happening and did the right thing by  keeping
absolutely still,  his  face wincing  with pain  as the blade  ran along his
neck. It  wasn't cut  that much, and they  weren't deep gashes. Once free, I
jumped back and got the M16 on him with just my left hand.
     I spoke gently.
     "Hello."
     His eyes locked on mine, full of fear. I put the gollock to my lips and
gave him another shush, nodding for him to get to his feet. He complied very
slowly, keeping his hands up even when I began to steer him into the jungle,
back in the direction of my kit. There wasn't really enough time to be doing
this because  more of his  crew  might arrive at any minute, but I needed to
retrieve Carrie's rifle.
     We  reached the  bergen site  and I got  him to lie face down  while  I
hurriedly  shouldered the Mosin  Nagant and sheathed  the gollock. I  pulled
back the  cocking  piece on the M-16 just to make sure there was  a round in
the chamber, and that both of us hadn't fucked up.
     He  stared at  me,  straining his  eyes  to his  extreme  left. He  was
flapping, thinking he had a date with a 5.56mm round at any moment.
     I smiled.
     "Speak English?"
     There was a nervous  shaking of his head as I moved a few paces towards
him.
     "Cpmo est aT He nodded shakily as I got the bergen on.
     "Bien, bien."
     I put my thumb up and gave him a smile.
     "Good, good." I
     wanted to bring him down a  bit. People who think they have nothing  to
lose can be unpredictable but if he thought he was going to live, he'd do as
he was told.
     I wasn't really sure what  to do with  this boy. I didn't want  to kill
him because it might turn noisy, and there wasn't any time to try to tie him
up properly. I didn't want to take him with me, but there wasn't any choice.
I couldn't  just let  him run wild not  this  close to  the house, anyway. I
jerked my head.
     "Vamos, vamos."
     He got to his feet and I pointed towards the Land Cruiser with the
     M-16.
     "Camion,  vamos,  camion." It wasn't exactly fluent, but  he  caught my
drift and we moved.
     At  the wagon it  was simply  a matter of shoving the bergen and  rifle
into the  back, then manoeuvring him into the passenger foot  well  with the
M-16 muzzle twisted into his shirt and lying across my lap. The safety catch
was on automatic,  and my right index finger was  on the trigger. He got the
message that any movement on his part would be suicide.
     The key  was  in the  ignition. I turned it  and selected Drive, and we
were moving.
     The Land Cruiser was  shiny and new, still with its showroom smell, and
it gave me a strange  sense of security. As  we  headed  for Clayton and the
city I looked down at my passenger and smiled.
     "No problema."
     I knew there wouldn't be any problems from him. I'd just seen a wedding
band on his finger and knew what he would be thinking about.
     The rain was coming early today by the look  of  the multiple shades of
grey, so low now that they were shrouding the rugged, green peaks in the far
distance. It wouldn't be long before the sky opened big-time.
     What  was  I to  do with  my new mate? I  couldn't take him through the
toll. I might be in a lot  of trouble  there as it was, if it was now  being
watched.
     We  passed  one of the  playgrounds  between the married quarters and I
stopped,  got out and  opened his  door. He  stared  down the barrel of  the
beckoning M-16.
     "Run. Run."
     He looked at me,  confused,  as he climbed out, so  I kicked him on and
waved my arm.
     "Run!" He started legging  it past  the swings  as I got  back into the
driver's seat and headed for the main drag. By the time he found a phone and
made contact, I'd be in the city and well out of the  area. I was  certainly
safe from the air: nothing was  going to be flying  when the skies opened. I
checked the clouds once more, just to make sure.
     I  also checked the fuel:  just under  full. I had no  idea if that was
enough, but it didn't matter, I had cash.
     The M-16  was  shoved between the door and seat as I hit the  main drag
and headed for the toll booth.
     THIRTY-THREE
     The 4x4 pitched and rolled along a waterlogged  jungle track, launching
walls of water and mud in  all directions. I  was just  glad to be  doing it
with windows  closed and air-conditioning humming.  Maybe ten  more  minutes
until I reached the clearing and the house.
     The rain had started as soon as I hit El  Chorrillo, slowing everything
down. By the  time I joined the Pan Am Highway, it was dropping from the sky
like  Niagara  Falls, and had carried on like  that for the next hour. After
that, the cloud had stayed really low and threatening  all the way to Chepo.
I stopped off at the store the old Indian  had been sitting outside two days
before,  and bought a couple of  Pepsis and  a plastic bag of  little sponge
cakes. When those were gone  I dug around  in the bergen for the sesame bars
and water.
     There was no drama on the  next bit of road apart from  the mud and the
water.  I gave a  bit of thought  to having to ditch the wagon later on, but
the main preoccupation was getting back  to the  house  and persuading those
two to help me.
     Maybe there was  a way that Carrie could  get George  to stop it. Maybe
they  knew how to  themselves. Maybe if I ripped  the dish off  the roof ...
Maybe, maybe.
     Bouncing  along  the track,  I came into the clearing to see  that  the
cloud  had lifted.  But there  was no sun yet, and no one to  be  seen. Both
their wagons were parked  outside the house, and  the generator was chugging
as I passed the tubs, hitting the  horn as  it seemed to be the thing to  do
around here.
     As I got  nearer the house I  saw  Carrie  come to the mozzie door  and
stare out.
     I  parked  the Land Cruiser  and climbed out into  the  humid air.  She
opened  the  mozzie screen for me as I  stepped  on to the veranda,  clearly
trying to work out the Land Cruiser.
     I waited until the hinges  stopped squeaking. 'I'll  explain that later
... There's been a fuck-up Charlie's already handed over the guidance system
... last night... There's more."
     My muddy  boots  clumped on  the veranda  boards as  I passed  her  and
entered  the  living room. I wanted them both  together before they  got the
news.  The  fans  were  blasting away and  Aaron was sitting in  an armchair
facing me, leaning over a mug of coffee on the table.
     "Nick."  His little finger was dipping aimlessly  into the black  fluid
and letting it drip on to the wood.
     I acknowledged him as  the screen  squeaked and slammed, Carrie staying
behind me by the door.
     He kept his voice low  as he rubbed the side of his  forehead, twisting
in the chair to check the computer-room door was closed.
     "Michael dead?  She  told me all about it when she got back." He turned
back and took a messy, nervous swig from the mug.
     "No, he's alive."
     "Oh,  thank  God,  thank God." Slumping back in the chair,  he held the
brew on his thigh, wiping his beard dry with an open palm.
     Carrie  was still behind me  by the  door.  She, too, let out a sigh of
relief.
     "We've been so worried. My father stood  you down last night, missed us
by an hour. He said you  weren't needed any more  and went totally crazy  at
Aaron when he found out you'd already gone."
     I  turned to her,  almost  whispering, "Oh,  he's  crazy all right."  I
slowed down so that there would be no mistake.
     "I think your dad's  planning a missile attack  on  a cruise liner, the
Ocaso, tomorrow.  It's going to happen  once  it's in the Miraflores. If  he
succeeds, a lot of people, thousands, are going to die."
     Her hand shot to her mouth.
     "What?  But you're  here to  stop ...  No, no, no, my father wouldn't-'
"George isn't pressing any buttons." I pointed towards the fridge.
     "But  he is, the one with the scar on his stomach. You know, the  beach
babies, your favourite picture." They both followed my finger.
     "I saw him at the Miraflores, running as soon as  he  saw Aaron and the
Mazda. He was also at  Charlie's, at his  house,  on  Tuesday, and then here
last night. He stayed in  the wagon, he didn't want  to  be seen ... Charlie
just told me that he was the one who took delivery ..."
     "Oh, God. Milton..." She leant against the wall, holding her neck  with
her hands.
     "Milton was one of the Iran-Contra procurement guys in the 'eighties.
     They  sold the weapons to Iran for the Lebanon hostages,  then used the
money to buy other -weapons for the Contr- Oh, shit."
     Her hands fell to her sides, the tears starting to well up.
     "That's his job, Nick, that's what he does."
     "Well, he has  just procured himself an  anti-ship  missile and I think
he's going to use it tomorrow on the Ocaso."
     "No, he couldn't,  you must be wrong,"  she stammered.  My father would
never let that happen to Americans, for Christ's sake."
     "Yes, he would." Aaron had something to say.
     "The DeConcini Reservation. Think on it, Carrie, think on it."
     His eyes were locked on hers, and  he  spoke  with bitter  calm, trying
hard to keep his voice down.
     "George and those guys ... they are going to take down that ship so the
US has just cause to come  back. And you know what? He's made us  part of it
my God, we're  part  of it. I knew  something like this would happen, I told
you there was more to this ..."
     Carrie slid  down  to the floor,  maybe realizing at long last what her
dad had really got up to all his life.
     I turned to the rasp of bristles being slowly rubbed.
     "She gets into the  locks  at ten tomorrow morning my God, what are  we
going to do?"
     But the question hadn't been addressed at me. His eyes were still fixed
on her.
     Why'd he get you involved,  uh?  Maybe you wanted more than a passport.
Maybe you wanted a reason for your get-back-to Boston ticket, huh?"
     "I didn't ...  and I didn't  know, Aaron.  Please believe me,  I didn't
know."
     He  paused.  I could hear  breath travelling in and out  of  his  hairy
nostrils as he tried to keep calm, before flicking his eyes at me.
     "You, Nick, have you been used too?" He pointed behind me.
     "Just like her?"
     "It's the story of my life," I said.
     "Carrie, Luz, you will have to talk to George beg him, threaten him."
     I turned,  but Carrie ignored  me. She just  stared submissively at her
husband.
     Aaron's voice was still low but  now laced with heavy sarcasm as he met
her stare.
     "Why should he stop? Hell, he thinks  it's a neat idea. So neat he gave
his daughter some of the action as  a  surprise." His eyes became enraged as
he forced his mug on to the tabletop and leaned forward.
     "So  that means everybody's happy Uncle Sam  comes back  and  saves the
day, the money guys,  the military, the right-wingers, they all get the Zone
back. And, hey, if it goes wrong, other  guys  take the heat." He pointed at
Carrie, his eyes burning into her once more.
     "That's you, and me, and Luz. It's one fuck of a passport out."
     I opened my mouth to speak, but Aaron wasn't done.
     "Our  child  will  be  getting  letters from  her  mother  on  Alcatraz
letterhead, and that's  if  we're lucky. That's if they  don't  execute you.
It's out of control.
     How will we live with ourselves after this?"
     Aaron held up his left hand, displaying his wedding ring.
     "We're a team, remember?  I told you this was wrong. I told you he  was
lying, I told you he was using you." He slumped  back into the chair, wiping
his  eyes  with straight fingers and rubbing his  beard  in distress  as  he
checked out the computer-room door once more.
     I turned. She was looking down, tears rolling down her cheeks too.
     "I'm  contacting  him again tonight...  It  wasn't supposed to  be like
this."
     That was a start.
     "Good. If I close down the  relay  board now will you  still be able to
make contact?"
     She was  opening her mouth, but if words came  out I  didn't hear them.
From above us came an unmistakable and ponderous wap wap wap wap wap.
     We all looked up. The noise was  suddenly so loud it was as if the roof
wasn't there at all.
     Both of them rushed towards the computer-room door.
     "Luz, Luz!"
     I moved to the mozzie screen. I checked back to see them barge into the
other room. Shit, it was still on "The webcam, close down the camera!"
     I  pressed my nose  against  the mesh. I wanted the  M-16  in the  Land
Cruiser, but  it wasn't  going  to  happen. The  two dark  blue  helis  were
hovering above the house now,  having already disgorged their payload. Pairs
of jeans  carrying M-16s were closing in  on the veranda.  Michael must have
made the connection with Aaron from the meeting at the locks.
     I ducked  back into the room out  of sight, just as the other two  came
running in with a frightened Luz.
     The heli noise  was overwhelming.  One of them  must have been hovering
just inches from the roof; the bookshelf was shaking so much that books were
tumbling on to the floor.
     The  scene beyond the screen was a  maelstrom of flying  twigs, foliage
and mud as men bobbed about, cautiously approaching the veranda and pointing
weapons.
     Aaron's face  was stone, glaring  over Luz's head as they  knelt either
side of her, curled up in the armchair, her eyes shut tight in fear. Both of
them cuddled and tried to reassure her.
     From behind them came shouts in Spanish from the storeroom.
     I could see bodies now on the veranda.
     It  was  all over. I dropped  to  my  knees  and  threw my  arms up  in
surrender, yelling at Aaron and Carrie, fighting against the rotor blades to
be heard, "Just be still! Be still, it'll be all right!"
     I was  lying, I didn't have a clue what was going to happen. But you've
got to accept  that  when  you're in the  shit you're  in the shit. There is
nothing you can  do but take deep breaths, keep calm, and hope. I thought of
my  failure, and  what that meant,  as the pins and  needles returned to  my
legs. This was not a good day out.
     Men  spilled into  the  room from the back of the  building at the same
instant as the mozzie  screen burst  open. There was crazed shouting between
them as they tried to make sure they didn't shoot each other. I kept my head
down  in submission and could feel the  movement in the floorboards  as they
stamped about.
     Out of  the  corner of  my eye, I saw the flicker  as the  image on the
screen of the PC refreshed itself. Shit!
     I chanced a look up and saw the  expressions  of relief  on their faces
that  they hadn't  encountered any resistance. Over their civilian  clothes,
they were all wearing black nylon chest harnesses for their spare mags. Four
of  them surrounded  Aaron and  Carrie,  still  crouched around the armchair
comforting Luz.
     She  was  giving out high-pitched, hysterical screams, terrified by the
frantically pointed weapons just inches from her face.
     I stayed on my knees, not  looking at anyone in particular, just making
sure I  looked scared  which I  was. But at least  there was one positive; I
knew we were being kept alive for some reason, otherwise we'd have been shot
on sight. All the weapons that I could see were on Automatic.
     I kept still, looked down, took  deep  breaths,  trying  to keep myself
calm and my head free but it wasn't happening too well.
     When people get excited and scared with weapons in their hands anything
can happen especially as I  could see, now that I was viewing them  close up
and not  through an optic sight, that  some of  these  people were only just
getting used to having face hair. It only takes one jumpy  young man to fire
then everyone joins in out of fright and confusion.
     Boots  and  trainers  rushed  past  as  loud  instructions  came   from
commanders  trying to  make themselves heard over the continuous thumping of
the rotor blades.
     Radios blasted out  incomprehensible mush that even they  couldn't hear
properly.
     The sole of someone's boot kicked me between the shoulder blades to get
me down on the floor. I went with it,  flat  on to my stomach, hands  out to
break my fall  and save my face;  then, showing compliance, I quickly placed
them  on the back of my head. I was roughly searched and lost everything out
of my pockets, which made me feel naked and depressed.
     The  shiny  Nokia  went  into  someone's  pocket  as  the helis'  noise
subsided, and  shouts filled  the vacuum, mixed with  the din of  corrugated
iron getting banged  and  the storeroom being ransacked. I bet anything nice
and  shiny in  there was falling  straight off the  shelves  and  into their
pockets as well.
     The clatter of rotors  slowed  gradually and there was the high-pitched
whine of the turbos as both engines closed down.
     Carrie  and Aaron's  comforting sounds  to  Luz dropped with  the noise
level as  rapid Spanish radio traffic echoed  from the  storeroom. Everybody
else was much quieter in the house now; maybe it  had just been the noise of
the helis whipping them into a frenzy.
     But then came the sound of  lighter rotors.  My stomach  churned  and I
knew that an already bad  day was  about to get a whole lot worse. Maybe the
reason we hadn't been killed on  sight was that  Charlie wanted to see to it
in person.
     THIRTY-FOUR
     As the Jet Ranger's rotor blades cut out, I heard the barking of orders
and bodies started  rushing  from  the room. Three remained covering us, two
nervous young guys, maybe their first time out,  and one older, in his early
thirties.
     Outside on the veranda I  could hear a lot of warp speed jabbering. The
boys  were probably swapping stories about  how  particularly good they were
during the attack. I kept my head turned to the left.
     The family were still  huddled around the armchair.  Carrie was nearest
to me as they cuddled and stroked  Luz's head. Aaron's eyes burned into her.
It  was hard to read his expression: it looked  to  me  like pure anger, but
then he reached out and stroked her face.
     Calmer and more  controlled  Spanish came from  the rear  of the house,
sounding more cultured than the guys with weapons gob bing off.  I tilted my
head very  slightly and  screwed my eyes to the top of their sockets  to see
what was happening.
     Charlie, dressed  in a  navy tracksuit and white trainers, had three or
four others buzzing around him like presidential aides as he strode into the
room. He walked towards  me, looking as if he had need of nothing, not  even
oxygen. I felt scared.
     There was nothing I  could do physically about things at the moment. If
I saw the  chance to get away I would grab it, but  right  now I just had to
look away from him and wait.  Whatever happened, I knew it was  likely to be
painful.
     They came towards me, talking quietly to each other as he was called by
one  of the bodies still in the computer room, and then there was the squeak
of rubber soled  trainers on floorboards  as the  group promptly turned  and
headed back from where they'd just come.
     I glanced up and saw them hunched around the PC as the screen flickered
and slowly rolled down the image of the lock as  it was refreshed.  One  was
pointing  at the picture, talking as if he  was  giving Charlie a multimedia
presentation.
     The others nodded and agreed.
     I  turned my eyes  to  the  armchair.  Aaron and  Carrie  were  looking
anxiously over Luz's head  at the group. Aaron turned and stared back at his
wife, his  eyes swivelling in their sockets as he leant  to  kiss a  sobbing
Luz's hair. The guys were still mumbling on the veranda behind me.
     I watched as one of the crew broke away from the PC and  came back into
the living  area. He'd had a change of  kit  since I stole his Land Cruiser,
and now boasted a clean, shiny black tracksuit. His neck  was covered with a
gauze dressing, held in place by surgical tape, and there was a big smile on
his face as he sauntered towards me.
     I lowered my eyes, clenched my teeth and tensed up.
     He crouched down and cocked his head so we could have eye-to-eye.
     "Como esta, amigo?" His prominent Adam's apple bobbed up and down under
the blood-spotted gauze.
     I nodded.
     "Bien, bien."
     He gave the thumbs up with a smile.
     "Si, good, good."
     I kept  my body tensed  but  still nothing happened. He was taking  the
piss. I couldn't  help but smile back as he got to his  feet and returned to
the  crew at  the  PC,  then addressed  a  few remarks to Charlie,  probably
telling him I was indeed the same man and maybe confirming to him that I was
the only one on the ground earlier.
     Charlie seemed very cool  about things, not even turning to look at me.
Instead he smiled and pinched both cheeks of the
     Land  Cruiser  guy as he handed over  the plastic bag carrying my docs.
Charlie then went back and muttered to some more of his aides by the screen.
     My Land Cruiser  friend pulled out my  roll of  dollars from  the  bag,
before leaving via  the  storeroom. Seconds later, one of the Hueys  sparked
up, turbos whining. Some of the lads were being lifted out.
     The heli took off, thundering over the roof,  as the staff meeting came
to an end. They streamed back into the living area,  Charlie in the lead, my
bag of docs in his hand. He made a beeline towards me. I did my best to bury
my face in my shoulder.
     His mud-stained trainers stopped  a foot  or two away from  my eyes, so
new  they didn't even  have creases  in the nylon yet.  I concentrated on my
shoulder as he crouched down with a crack of his knees  and grabbed my hair.
I just went with it: what was the point of resisting?
     Our  eyes met. His  were dark brown  and bloodshot, no doubt due to the
force of the explosion. His skin was peppered with scabbed-up pockmarks from
the shattered glass, and the  side of his neck was dressed like  that of the
guy from the Land  Cruiser. But for all that, he didn't look angry, just  in
command.
     He stared at me, his expression impenetrable. I could smell his cologne
and hear his steel  watch strap jangle as he  grabbed my chin with his spare
hand.
     The palm  was soft, and well-manicured fingers pressed  into my cheeks.
There still was no anger in his eyes, no hint of any emotion whatsoever.
     "Why are you  people  so stupid?  All I wanted was  some  assurance the
device wouldn't be used inside Panama.  Then you  could have had the  launch
control system. Some form of assurance, that's all." He threw my docs to the
floor.
     Instead, I have my family threatened ..."
     I let the weight of my head rest in his  hands, my  eyelids drooping as
he shook me about some more.
     "So  I comply and  take  the rest of  your  money, you  then assure  me
everything is fine, just  business. But still you try to kill my family.  Do
you know who I am?
     What I can do to you, all of you people?"
     He held me, looking at me, his eyes giving nothing.
     "You are going to use Sunburn against  a ship in the Miraflores  that's
the target, isn't it?" He shook me again.
     "Why you are doing it, I don't care. But it will bring the US back that
I care about a great deal."
     As my face moved from side to side I caught glimpses of my passport and
wallet, discarded in their plastic on the floor by the bookshelves, and both
Aaron and Carrie, still  covering  Luz  on the armchair, their faces red and
set with fear.
     Charlie brought  his  mouth  to my ear and  whispered, "I want  to know
where the  missile is, and when  the attack will  take place. If not,  well,
some of my people here are only a few years older than that one in the chair
and, like  all  young men, eager  to display their manhood ...  That's fair,
isn't it? You set the rules children are now fair game, aren't they?"
     He kept my head in his hands, waiting for my reply. I  looked  into his
eyes  and they told me  what I needed to know: that none of  us was going to
leave here alive, no matter what we said or did.
     It  was Aaron who broke the silence, with a scoff: "He's just the hired
help."
     His voice was strong and authoritative.
     "He  was sent here to  make you  hand over the  guidance system, that's
all. He doesn't  know a thing. None of  us know  where Sunburn is, but I can
get on line at eight thirty tonight  and find out. I'll do it just let these
three go."
     I studied Charlie's  face as he stared at  Aaron. It was a good try  on
Aaron's part, but a bit naive.
     Carrie went ballistic.
     "No,  no  what are you doing?" She begged Charlie, still hovering above
me.
     "Please, he-' Aaron cut in at once.
     "Shut up. I've had enough, it's got to end. It's got to stop now!"
     Charlie  released  my  head  and I  let it fall to the floorboards, the
right side of my face taking  the hit.  He  wasn't too keen to have  my hair
grease on his hands and bent down to wipe it on my shirt before walking over
to the coffee table.
     Aaron followed him with his eyes.
     "Eight  thirty I can't do anything  until then.  That's when I can make
contact and find out eight thirty. Just let them go." He stroked Luz's hair.
     Charlie  muttered instructions to the  people around  him  as he walked
towards the kitchen area, not acknowledging me as he passed.
     Aaron  and Carrie obviously understood what was going on and started to
rise  with Luz  as two guards crossed  the floor. Carrie still tried to talk
sense into  Aaron. What are you  doing?  You know he'll just-'  He was tough
with her.
     "Shut up! Just shut up!" He kissed her on the lips.
     "I
     love you. Stay strong." Then he  bent down and kissed  Luz,  before the
guards dragged him towards the computer room.
     "Remember,  Nick,"  he laughed, 'once a Viking,  always  a Viking. Some
things never change."
     He  disappeared,  jabbering  some kind  of  explanation or  apology  in
Spanish to the men who pulled at his arms.
     The mozzie screen squeaked open behind  me and commands were shouted at
the  boys on the  veranda. The other two had already  been herded into Luz's
bedroom, and the door was closed.
     Charlie had been inspecting the coffee pot and now checked the mugs. He
obviously  decided the  blend was crap, or the mugs weren't clean enough, so
he  came back  towards me and hunkered down  once more, bending his head  to
connect his eyes with mine.
     "Sunday London you were there?"
     My gaze remained locked on his. It was like two kids playing stare as I
kept my mouth firmly shut.
     He shrugged.
     "It doesn't matter, not now. What does is the Sunburn1 want it back. Do
you know how much you have paid for it?"
     I had to blink now,  but I remained locked on.  Fuck him,  we  were all
dead anyway.
     "Twelve  million  United States dollars.  I'm thinking of  reselling it
good business, I think." He stood,  to  the cracking of knees once again. He
paused and took breath.
     "It seems the war down south will escalate quite soon. I should imagine
PARC would very much appreciate the opportunity to  buy Sunburn, to prepare,
let's say,  for when  the  Americans send  a  carrier fleet  to  support its
troops." He smiled.
     "After all, the  Russians designed the missile with just one  target in
mind: the American aircraft carrier."
     I was pushed towards Luz's bedroom and opened the  door to see  both of
them lying on the bed in a huddle. Carrie was stroking Luz's hair;
     she  looked up in terror as the door  creaked open, her expression only
changing when she saw it was me.
     The door slammed shut. I moved over to the bed and sat down beside them
with my finger to my lips. We've  got  to get out of here before these  kids
get organized."
     She  looked  down  at  her daughter,  kissed  her  head,  and spoke  in
whispers. What's he doing? He  knows  nothing. George won't say a-' "I don't
know, sssh ..."
     I was  only just  beginning to  understand what Aaron  was doing, but I
wasn't going to tell her.
     I got up and went  to the window,  which was protected  by a  wire-mesh
mozzie screen on  the outside.  The windows, side-hinged  types  that opened
inwards, were  caked  with faded, flaking cream paint. The  hinges had  long
since lost their coat, with luck through use. The mozzie screen was  held in
place by wooden pegs that swivelled on screws.
     I looked out and studied the  treeline  two hundred metres away as  Luz
sparked up behind me. Is Dad coming?"
     Carrie soothed her.
     "For sure, baby, soon."
     The  ground outside  was littered with freshly broken terra cotta tiles
from the roof. There was intermittent chat and the odd laugh coming from the
veranda to my left.
     I inspected the window, my mind still very much on Aaron. He wasn't  as
naive as I'd thought.
     "Once a Viking, always a Viking."  They slash, they burn, they pillage.
They never change. He'd told me that. He'd come to the same  conclusion as I
had. No way was Charlie letting us out of here alive.
     I was expecting some resistance from  the windows,  but they gave quite
easily and  opened towards me with  just one pull. Immediately closing  them
again, I went over to the bed.
     "Here's  what  we're going  to  do.  We're going to get out through the
window and get ourselves into the trees."
     Luz  had been looking  at her  mother but her head  jerked  towards me.
Tears streaked her face. What about Dad?"
     'I'll come  back for him later. There's no time for  this. We've got to
go right now."
     Luz looked up at her mother and silently implored her.
     "We can't," Carrie said. We can't leave him. What will happen when they
find us  gone? If we stay put  and  don't  antagonize anyone,  we'll be  all
right. We don't know anything, why should they harm us?"
     The  whine  of the turbos on  the Jet Ranger  started up and the rotors
were  soon  turning. I waited until they reached full revs before putting my
mouth to Carrie's ear.
     "Aaron knows  we're all dead whatever  happens even if George does tell
him the location. You understand? We all die."
     The  heli took off  as her head  fell on to  Luz's. I followed to  keep
contact with her ear.
     "He's buying me time to save  you two. We must go now, for Luz's  sake,
and for Aaron's. It's what he wants."
     Her shoulders heaved with sadness as she hugged her daughter.
     "Mom?"
     The  tears were  infectious.  Both of them  were sobbing now into  each
other's hair as the noise of the Jet Ranger disappeared over the canopy.
     THIRTY-FIVE
     There was  still more than an hour to go till last light but I had made
my decision. We had to get out of here as soon as we physically could.
     Mumbling and laughter still drifted  from the front of the house, as if
to remind me of the risk we'd be taking. If somebody was on stag at the edge
of the veranda, we'd  be in full view  for the entire two hundred metres. It
would  take  us at  least ninety seconds to make  that  distance over  muddy
ground, and that's a very long time for an M-16 to have you in its sights.
     But who knew what the next hour held? The three of us could be split up
and moved to separate rooms, killed, or even put into the remaining Huey and
flown out.  We  had  no  control over  that,  and  by  waiting could  end up
squandering the chance Aaron had given us.
     As I looked through the glass and  mesh, it was  easy enough to confirm
our route half right towards the dead ground,  then into the  treeline. We'd
be moving at an angle away from the  front of the house and the veranda, but
there'd come a point where we cleared the corner at the back and were in the
Huey's line of  sight. Would  there still be people aboard? Maybe the  pilot
carrying out  his checks? There was no right or wrong about the  decision to
go  now. These things are not a science: if we died, I'd have been wrong; if
we lived, I'd have been right.
     Once absorbed by the  wall of green we'd be relatively safe; we'd  just
have to  contend with a night out on the jungle floor, then spend  the  next
day  moving  through  the  canopy towards  the dead  valley,  navigating  by
paralleling the track.
     We'd cross the tree graveyard at night, hiding under the  dead wood  in
the  day,  until we made  Chepo. From  there, who knew? I'd worry about that
then. As for Aaron, I doubted that he'd last much past eight thirty.
     Carrie and Luz were still comforting each other on the bed. I went over
to them and, with Britney  on the wall  overseeing events, whispered, "We're
going to go for the trees."
     Luz looked at her mother for reassurance.
     "The thing  to remember is that we must spread out when we're  running,
OK? That way it's harder to be seen."
     Carrie looked up from  her child and frowned. She knew  that wasn't the
reason.
     She knew a single burst from an M-16 could kill all three of us, and if
we were spread out, we'd be that bit harder to hit.
     Luz tugged at her mother's arm.
     "What about Daddy?"
     I  could  see Carrie fighting back the tears  and  put my hand  on  her
shoulder.
     "I'll  come back for him, Luz, don't worry. He wanted me to get you two
into the jungle first. He wants to know you're safe."
     She nodded  reluctantly, and  we heard more  mumblings from the veranda
and boots the other side of the door. Going  immediately was the right thing
to do.
     "If we get split up," I said quietly, "I  want you two to carry on into
the trees without me,  then make your way towards the far right  corner  and
wait for me there." To Luz I added, "Don't come out if anyone calls for you,
even if it's your dad it'll  just be a trick. Just my voice, OK? Once you're
safe, I'll come back for him."
     I'd  cross  that  bridge when  I  came to  it, but for  now a  lie  was
necessary to keep them quiet  so I could get on with what he was sacrificing
himself for.
     "Ready?"
     Both heads nodded. I looked at Luz.
     "Me first, then you, all right?"
     I moved back to the window and out of whisper  range.  Carrie followed,
looking out to the treeline, listening to the laughter out front.
     They're  outside,  on  the   deck,  Nick,  isn't  it-'  "No  time,  not
interested."
     "But how are we going to  get  to  the trees without-'  "Just  get  her
ready."
     She was  right. How were we  going to make it? I didn't know. All I did
know was that there wasn't any time for fancy  plans,  even if I could think
of one. We just had to get on with it. We were dead anyway, so anything else
was a bonus.
     Pulling open the windows let the sounds of crickets and the boys on the
veranda trickle into the  room.  I thought of  the Beirut  hostage who could
have  escaped within the first few days of capture when a toilet  window was
left open. But he didn't take the chance, didn't seize the moment. He had to
live with his regret for the next three years.
     My mind went into auto-drive, just getting on with the  job. Fuck  'em,
fuck the noise outside, fuck the Huey. I was almost wanting them to see us.
     The wooden pegs  squeaked  as  I  swivelled them  to release the mozzie
screen.  It rattled in its frame  as I pushed it free. I froze, waiting  for
the murmuring  on the  veranda  to change into  shouts. It didn't happen.  I
pushed again and  this  time  the screen came away. Slowly  and carefully, I
lowered it towards the ground. Boots banged about  on  the  decking  and the
front door slammed as I felt the screen touch the mud and broken tiles.
     I clambered out feet first. My Timberlands squelched into the mud and I
moved  the screen  to one side  before beckoning Luz,  not even bothering to
check the noises. I'd know if they saw  me. Better to  concentrate on what I
was doing rather than flap about something I had no control over.
     Her mother helped her, even though she didn't need it, and I guided her
down beside me into the mud.  Using one hand to hold her against the wall, I
held out  the  other for Carrie as the boys  on  the  veranda  appreciated a
punchline and one of the rocking chairs was scraped across the wood.
     Carrie  was soon beside me. I got her to  stand next to Luz against the
wall,  and pointed  to  the  treeline to our  half  right. I  gave  them the
thumbs-up but got no reply so, taking  a deep breath, I took off. They  knew
what to do.
     Within just a few strides the mud had slowed our run into not much more
than a  fast walk. Instinct made all  three of us hunch low in an attempt to
make ourselves smaller. I pushed them ahead of me and kept motioning to them
to spread  out,  but it wasn't working. Luz  ran close to her mother, and it
wasn't long before they were actually  holding hands, breathing hard five or
six metres ahead.
     It was difficult going and I fell twice, sliding as if on ice, but we'd
covered the first hundred metres.
     The heli came into view  to  our  right, parked just short  of the dead
ground.
     There didn't seem to be anyone in or around it, or any sort of movement
at the rear of the house. We pushed on.
     There were maybe thirty  metres to  go when I heard the first  reports.
Not big, inaccurate brass, but single, aimed shots.
     "Run!" I yelled.
     "Keep going!"
     An enormous flock of little multicoloured birds lifted from the canopy.
     "Keep  going, keep  going!" I didn't look behind us;  it wouldn't  have
helped.
     Carrie,  still  gripping  her  daughter's  hand,  was  focused  on  the
treeline, half dragging Luz along as she shrieked with terror.
     The  rounds  cracked behind  us as  they went supersonic.  My mind  was
trying to  beat  them by  going at a million miles an hour, but my feet were
only taking me at ten.
     With  maybe  twenty metres of  open ground  left,  the  rounds  finally
started  to zero  in on  us. The cracks  were  accompanied  by thuds as they
slammed into the mud ahead and to the side of us, until all I could hear was
an almost  rhythmic crack thump,  crack thump, crack thump as they opened up
big-time.
     "Keep going, keep going!"
     They lunged into the jungle, still slightly ahead and to my right.
     "Go right, go right!"
     Almost at once, I heard a scream. It was a strangulated half gasp, half
howl of pain, just metres into the foliage.
     More rounds  ripped into the  jungle, some with a high-pitched ziiinnng
as they ricocheted  off the  trees. I dropped to my hands and knees, gasping
for breath.
     "Luz! Call to me where are you? Where are you?"
     "Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!"
     Ziiinnng-ziiinnng... "Luz! Lie down! Keep down! Keep down!"
     The single shots now become  bursts as  I started  crawling. The  M-16s
were firing into the entry points in an effort to hose us down; we needed to
move offline to the right, downhill into dead ground. Leaves give cover from
view but not fire, dead ground does.
     "I'm coming, keep down, lie down!"
     Some of  them  were  long bursts, the rounds  going high as  the weapon
barrels  kicked up, but  some were short, the  switched-on guys aiming three
and five rounds at a time  as  I heard a  wagon  revving up to join  in  the
frenzy.
     I covered  six  or seven metres through the foliage until I found them.
Carrie was  on  her back, panting, eyes wide open,  tear-filled  and  big as
saucers,  her cargos bloodstained on the right thigh,  with what looked like
bone pushing  at  the material. Her injured  leg  appeared shorter  than the
other, and the  foot was lying  flat with the toes pointing outward. A round
must  have hit her in the femur. Luz was hovering over her, not knowing what
to do, just staring openmouthed at her mother's bloodstains.
     The rounds had died down  for  now as  the shouts and engine noise  got
louder.
     I grabbed Carrie by the arms and, shuffling on my arse, started to drag
her through the leaf litter in the direction of our emergency RV, the corner
of the treeline, and into the dead ground.  Luz followed  on  her  hands and
knees, sobbing loudly.
     "Shut up! They'll hear you!"
     We only managed five or six metres.  Carrie cried out uncontrollably as
her injured leg  got jarred and twisted, covering her face with her hands in
an  effort to  keep quiet. At least the  noise  meant she was breathing  and
could feel pain, both  good signs, but the  two of them were  making  such a
racket that it was only a matter of time before we were heard.
     I jumped up, grabbed Carrie's wrist, and heaved her over my shoulder in
a fireman's lift. She screamed as her damaged leg swung free  before  I held
it in place. I pushed through the vegetation with long, exaggerated strides,
trying to keep  the leg stable with one hand and keeping a tight grip of Luz
with the other,  sometimes by her hair, sometimes by her clothing, sometimes
around her neck, whatever it took to keep us moving together.
     The BUBs  now sparked up  as  frenzied shouts and  the high revs of the
engine came from  behind us. Short  bursts from M-16s randomly  stitched the
area. They were at the entry points.
     We crashed our way through some more  wait-a-while and Carrie's leg got
snagged.
     She screamed and  I half turned, pulled  it  free,  knowing there was a
chance that the  broken ends  of her  femur could act like scissors, cutting
into  muscle, nerves, tendons, ligaments or, worst of all, sever the femoral
artery. She'd be history  in minutes if that happened. But what else could I
do?
     We crashed on, and began a gentle decent. I guessed we were about level
with the heli in the clearing to my right. I could still hear  people hosing
the place down behind us, but the jungle  was soaking up a lot of it  and we
seemed to be out of the initial danger area.
     The BUBs reminded  me  I'd  have to stop  soon and  sort  out Carrie. I
needed that last precious light.
     I pushed towards  the treeline until I could  see the beginning of  the
open  ground, then dragged Luz back with me  so we were just behind the wall
of green.
     At last I was able to lay Carrie down, making sure as I did so that her
feet were pointing at the treeline.
     The M-16s only fired  sporadically now, up on the higher ground, though
there  was still  a  lot of  vehicle  noise and  shouting  up  and  down the
treeline. I didn't  care: if there were  any dramas we'd  just drag  further
back in. The priority now was sorting her out.
     Carrie lay on her back taking short, sharp breaths, her face contorted.
I joined  in with her pattern of breathing as I tried to get my breath back.
Luz was bent over her on her knees. I gently straightened her.
     "You've got to help your mum and  me. I need you to kneel there, behind
me. If anyone comes you  just turn round and give me a tap not a shout, just
a tap, OK? Will you do that?"
     Luz looked at her mother, then back at me.
     "That's good  this  is really important." I  positioned her behind  me,
facing the  treeline,  then turned to Carrie.  No  way were we going  to  be
walking out of here, but that wasn't my major concern: sorting her out was.
     She fought the pain through gritted teeth. There was blood. Her femoral
artery wasn't cut or lit  res of the stuff would  have been pouring out over
her  leg, but  if  she kept  leaking like  this she would eventually go into
shock and die. The bleeding had to be stopped and the fracture immobilized.
     Not even bothering to explain what  I was up to, I got down at her feet
and started to work with my teeth  at the frayed hem of her cargos. I made a
tear, gripped  both sides  of  it, and ripped  the material  upwards. As the
injury  was  exposed I  saw that she hadn't  been shot. She must have fallen
badly  and  overstressed the femur: the bone was sticking out of what looked
like  a rack of raw, blood-soaked beef. But at least there was muscle  there
to contract, it hadn't been shot away.
     I tried to sound upbeat.
     "It's not so bad."
     There was no reply, just very rapid breathing.
     With military casualties in the field  I had always found  it better to
take the piss, not feed their worries. But this felt  different: I wanted to
reassure her, to make her feel OK.
     "It  looks  a  lot messier  than  it is. I'll make sure it  doesn't get
worse, then get you to a doctor. It'll be fine."
     With  her head tilted back she seemed  to  be looking up at the canopy.
Her face was fixed in a terrible grimace, eyes screwed tight.
     I cleared some leaf litter that had stuck  to the sweat on her forehead
and whispered into her  ear, "Really,  it's not that  bad  ... it's  a clean
break. You haven't lost that much blood, but  I've got to fix it so the bone
doesn't move about and cause any more damage. It's going to hurt  more while
I sort it out you know that, don't you?"
     I caught sight of Luz, who was still in position on  her knees, looking
back  at  us.  I  gave  her the  thumbs up, but all I  got in  return was  a
fleeting, tearstained half-smile.
     Carrie's chest  heaved  up  and  down  as  she  sucked in air,  quietly
screaming to herself as she took the pain.
     "Carrie, I need you to help me, will you  do that,  will you help me? I
want you to hold on to the tree behind you when I say, OK?"
     Forcing the words out haltingly through the tears, she sobbed,  "Get on
with it."
     There was a burst  of fire further up  the treeline.  Luz flinched  and
looked back.
     I held up both my hands and mouthed to her, "It's OK, it's OK."
     The firing stopped and  Luz turned back  to her task. The  BUBs  echoed
about us in the fading light  as  I gently eased  Carrie's inch-wide webbing
belt through the hoops of  her cargos and put it down  by her  feet. Then  I
took off my sweatshirt, knowing I  was  sentencing  myself to being  one big
mozzie banquet.
     I  ripped a  sleeve away from its stitching. Carrie's eyes were closed,
her  lips  quivering,  as  I started  pulling on  the large waxy leaves that
drooped down about us. In a  minute, I'm going to move your good leg next to
your bad one. I'll do it as carefully as I can."
     Rolling up the leaves into big cigar shapes,  I gently packed  them all
the way down  between  her legs, to  act as padding between the good leg and
the  bad. I  carried on as the odd Spanish shout penetrated the canopy, then
picked up her good leg.
     "Here we go, here  we go." She was  breathing as rapidly as if  she was
giving birth. I brought it gently over towards her  injured one, just as the
first splatter  of rain hit the canopy.  I didn't know whether to  laugh  or
cry.
     Luz moved back to me on her knees.
     "It's raining, what do we do?"
     I shrugged.
     "Get wet."
     Carrie's  features twisted again  in  agony. As rain tumbled on  to her
face  she held  out  her hand  for  Luz  to grasp,  and mother  and daughter
whispered to each other. I needed Luz on stag. I signalled that I wanted her
to move, and she shuffled back to her post.
     I  pushed the  sleeve through the mud below Carrie's knees and  laid it
out flat, then frantically ripped the rest of the now soaking-wet sweatshirt
into strips to improvise bandages.
     "Nick, the ship ..."
     The ship has to wait."
     I  carried on ripping and tearing  as  the  rain  notched itself  up to
monsoon strength. I couldn't even  hear the BUBs  any more, or the people in
the open ground if they were still there.
     I leant over her, right up to her ear.
     "I need you  to bring your hands back and grab hold  of the tree behind
you."
     There was  a deep rumble of  thunder  directly above us as I guided her
hands  round the thin  trunk, debating  whether or not to explain what I was
going to do with her next.
     "Grip hard and don't let go, no matter what."
     I decided against it; she was in enough pain without anticipating more.
     I crawled back down to her feet and fed the belt under both her ankles,
digging into the mud so  I didn't  move her  damaged leg any more than I had
to. Then, kneeling  in  front  of  her, I gently picked up the  foot  of the
injured leg between my hands, the right supporting her heel and the other on
her toes.
     Her whole body tensed.
     "It's going to be OK, just keep hold of that tree. Ready?"
     Slowly but firmly, I pulled her foot towards me. I rotated it as gently
as I could, stretching the injured leg out straight to stop the taut muscles
from displacing  the bone any more and, I hoped, bring  some relief from the
pain. It wasn't easy, there was a lot of thigh muscle to pull against. Every
movement must  have felt like a stab  from a red hot knife. She gritted  her
teeth  and for  a long time didn't make a sound, then finally it  all became
too much. She screamed  as her body jerked, but  didn't release her grip  as
the exposed bone started to retract from the open wound.
     Rain fell in torrents and more thunder rumbled across the darkening sky
as I continued with the traction. She screamed again  and her body convulsed
as I sat down, pulling her leg with all my weight.
     "Nearly there, Carrie, nearly there ..."
     Luz came running over  and joined in the sobs. It  was  understandable,
but I  didn't need  it. I hissed at  her, "Shut  up!" There was no other way
that I could think of, but it just made her  worse. She whimpered again, and
this time I just let her get on with it.
     My  hands were busy and  I couldn't cover her  mouth. I couldn't let go
because the muscle contraction  would pull it back  in  again and cause more
damage.
     I  started to  feed the canvas belt over Carrie's  ankles  with my left
hand, and then over her sandal led feet in a figure of eight.
     "Keep  your good leg straight, Carrie, keep it straight!" Then I pulled
back  on the ends of the belt to keep everything in place, tying a knot with
the belt still under tension to keep her feet together.
     Carrie  had been  jerking like an epileptic, but  still held on to  the
tree and, more importantly, kept her good leg straight.
     "It's OK, OK. It's done."
     As I knelt up Luz fell on top of her mother. I tried to get her off.
     "Let her breathe." But  they weren't having  any of  it, clutching each
other tight.
     It  was getting so dark I could hardly see beyond the two of  them now,
and the fracture  still had to be  immobilized so it couldn't  do  any  more
damage. I gently folded over the sweatshirt sleeve lying under her knees and
tied the ends  together with  the  knot on the side  of her good knee. Large
lumps  of bright  green leaf protruded between her legs  now  that they were
getting strapped together.
     I  placed strips  of sweatshirt firmly and  carefully over the wound. I
fed  the material under her knees and then worked it up before  tying off on
the  side of the  good leg. I wanted  to immobilize  the  fracture, and  put
pressure on the wound to stem the blood loss.
     Rain cascaded down,  blurring my vision as it ran into  my  eyes. I was
working virtually  by feel as I  tied off the other sleeve round her ankles,
adding more support to the canvas belt.
     I stayed sitting at Carrie's feet, almost shouting to make myself heard
above the rain. TMow you can give me my Scout's first-aid badge."
     All I had  to do now was make sure that the sweatshirt wasn't  tied too
tight.  I couldn't  tell if  the blood  supply  was reaching below the ties;
without  light I couldn't see if the skin was pink  or blue, and finding the
pulse was a nightmare. There was really only one option.
     "If you feel pins and needles, you've got to tell me, OK?"
     I got a short, sharp "Yep!"
     I  couldn't even  see my hand  in  front of my  face  now  as I checked
Baby-G. The dial  illuminated and it was 6.27.  Just behind me, I could hear
both of them crying, even above the drumming on the vegetation.
     I was  starting to feel cold. Not too sure where their  heads  were,  I
called out into  the darkness, "You two must keep physical contact with each
other all the time. You must each know where the other is all the time never
let go of each other." I put my hand out and felt wet material: it was Luz's
back as she cuddled her mother.
     No way were  we walking out of here. What the fuck was there to do now?
I didn't really  know. Well, actually  I did, but I  was trying to  deny it.
That was probably what was making me feel cold.
     I was kneeling there in the rain when I heard Luz speak up.
     "Nick?"
     I tapped my hand on her back to acknowledge her.
     'You going to get Daddy now?"
     THIRTY-SIX
     It seemed I had come to that bridge.
     I'll be no more than a couple of hours."
     She wasn't wearing  a watch, but some kind of timing would be something
to cling on to.
     "Eight thirty,  Nick,  eight  thirty..."  Carrie fought  between short,
sharp breaths, as if I needed reminding.
     "If I'm not back by first light," I said, 'you need to get out into the
open ground  and make yourself known. You'll  need taking care of. Once  the
weather clears they can  use  the heli to get you to hospital." Maybe, maybe
not:  I didn't know what they'd do, but  there was no  other way if I didn't
return.
     Going back to the house had been a simple choice to make. Carrie needed
medical attention. I needed a wagon to get her to Chepo. I had to go and get
one, and that meant getting Aaron out of there too. Stealing a wagon  in the
middle of the night, then picking Carrie  up  so  close to  the house  was a
no-no: it  simply wouldn't work. I needed  to have control of the  house and
the people in it first.
     I didn't know if it was the physical pain, or the realization that what
I'd just talked about was  a contingency  plan for if Aaron and I  were both
dead, but  she let out a loud sob. Rain  drummed on Luz's back  as she knelt
over her mother and joined in. I just let  them get on with  it,  not really
knowing what else to do while I
     tried to think  through what I'd  do  once I  was at the  house without
coming up with much.
     I  checked Baby-G:  6.32. Less  than  two hours till Aaron's  bluff was
called.
     I felt my knees sinking into the mud. 'I'll see you both soon. In fact,
I won't see you, I'll hear you ..." I gave a weak laugh.
     I drew an imaginary straight line down her body to her feet. She hadn't
shifted position since I'd laid her down, so I knew that that was the way to
the treeline.  I started crawling, feeling my way  over the wet leaf litter,
and soon emerged into the open ground.
     There  was  an immediate  difference in  the  ambient  noise.  The dull
pounding  of rain  into  mud  took over  from the  almost  tinny noise of it
hitting leaves. It was just as dark, however, and because of the dead ground
I couldn't see any lights from the house.
     I stood up and stretched, then ripped an armful of palm leaves from the
trees  at  the  edge  and laid them out  on  the ground at  my  entry point,
throwing mud on top to keep them in place. Then, with the heel of my boot, I
scraped deep score marks into the mud for  good measure. It didn't matter if
Charlie's men found the  long straight puddles after first light by then I'd
either have done my job and be away from here,  or it would all have gone to
rat shit anyway and Carrie and Luz would need finding.
     I set  off towards  the house, conscious that  the  helicopter would be
somewhere to my left. I was tempted to make  my way over  to it and  have  a
look for a weapon.
     But what if the pilot was asleep inside or listening to a Walkman? What
if they had somebody on stag? It was unlikely, in the middle of  nowhere and
with  us now lost in the jungle,  but still, I couldn't take the chance of a
compromise so far  from the house. The aim was to get all of us out of here,
not go the best of three falls with someone in a helicopter.
     As  I crested  the high  ground,  I saw the glimmer  of  light from the
single  bulb burning away in the shower area.  There was no other  lighting,
nothing from Luz's bedroom, or Carrie and Aaron's. I certainly couldn't tell
if our escape window  was still open  or not,  and  I didn't intend  getting
close  enough to  that side  of  the  house to find  out. Why bother? It was
wasting time. I'd  go to the side where I knew there was an entry point that
would definitely get me in.
     I moved back down the  slope and, avoiding the  helicopter, made my way
round to the other side of the house as more thunder rumbled above.  Picking
my way through the mud,  eventually moving  up to the left of  the house,  I
crested the  high ground again. The shower-area light was now  to  my right,
still trying to penetrate the curtain of rain.
     Approaching  the tubs, I became aware of the chug of the generator, and
at that point got on to my hands and knees and began to crawl. The mud  felt
warm and lumpy on  my  bare skin,  almost soothing the itchy swellings on my
stomach.
     The chug was  soon  drowned out by the rain  beating on the lids of the
plastic tubs. There were  no  signs  of life from the  house, and  it wasn't
until  I drew  level with the storeroom that I  could  just  make out a thin
sliver of light coming from beneath the door.  I kept moving, and eventually
saw  a dull  yellow glow filtering  through the mozzie screen  on the window
between the bookshelves, but no movement inside.
     There was no need to crawl any more as I got to the end of the tubs and
drew level with the veranda and wagons. Covered in mud, I stood up and moved
cautiously towards them.
     I headed  for the Land  Cruiser, now pointing towards the track through
the woods, rain hammering on its body work I stood off to the side and could
see  movement inside the  house, though  from this distance they wouldn't be
able to see me.
     "Lurking', standing in the shadows and watching, was a skill I'd learnt
as a young squaddie in Northern Ireland, during long hours on foot patrol in
Republican  housing estates. We'd watch  people  eat  their dinners, do  the
ironing, have sex.
     Through  the  haze  of rain  and screens  I  could  see the fans  still
spinning by the armchairs, which were empty. Three guys were sitting at  the
kitchen  table, all  dark-skinned and dark-haired, one with a beard. Weapons
lay on  the floor. Two  of the guys wore  chest harnesses.  All of them were
smoking, and  seemed to be having a sober  conversation.  They were probably
trying to make up the story of how we'd managed to get away.
     There was no sign of Aaron.
     I checked Baby-G as I blew out the water that ran down my face and into
my mouth. Less than ninety minutes to go before they discovered he knew jack
shit.
     I  moved off to the  right so  I could  get an angle through  the front
entrance and see the bedroom doors. Both were  closed. He was either in  one
of them,  or inside  the computer room;  I'd  find that  out soon,  but  the
priority  was to check  if the Mosin Nagant or M-16 were still  in the  Land
Cruiser. There had been no light, no movement or steamed-up windows  in  any
of the three wagons. It was safe to approach.
     I wiped the water from the side windows and checked inside.  No sign of
either weapon or gollock,  not that I could  see much in the dark. It was  a
long shot, but I'd have been making a basic error if I hadn't checked.
     I  went to  the rear of  the wagon  and  slowly but  firmly pressed the
release button and opened the glass top section of the rear gate six inches,
just enough for the interior lights  to  come on, then bent down and scanned
the  luggage area. No weapons,  no  bergen, no gollock. I pushed the section
back down until it hit the first click and killed the lights.
     I moved towards the storeroom to take a look  through the gap under the
door. As I passed the  bookshelf window, too far from it for the  weak light
to illuminate me, I saw that all three were still sitting at the table.
     The  tin  roof  above me  was  getting pummelled big-time as I moved in
towards the side of the house and stepped up on the concrete foundations  of
the extension.
     The noise drowned anything it might have been useful to hear.
     Moving back out into the rain and round the water butt, I could now see
the light seeping from under the storeroom door.  I got back on the concrete
and  down on my hands and knees, shook my head to get off as much water as I
could so it wouldn't run into my  eyes, then shoved my right eye against the
gap.
     I saw Aaron at once,  sitting in one of the director's chairs under the
glare of the computer-room strip lighting.  A  man, maybe mid-forties, in  a
green shirt and with no chest harness or weapon visible, was sitting next to
him in the other canvas chair, in the act of offering him a cigarette, which
he took.
     Beyond them,  sitting at Luz's computer  and with his back to me, was a
younger man, in blue, with long hair tied in a ponytail like Aaron's, except
his was  still black. I  guessed by the primary  colours  darting about  the
screen and the frenzied movement of the mouse that he was playing a game. An
M-16 was resting against the table beside him.
     I looked back at Aaron. His nose was bloodied and his eyes swollen, and
the right one had blood leaking from  it.  But he was smiling  at the  green
guy, maybe feeling happy with himself that he'd got us away. I  was glad  he
didn't know what had happened since.
     By now  the  cigarette had been lit and he took long,  grateful  drags.
Green Guy got up  and said something to Blue, who didn't bother to turn from
the game,  just raising his  free hand instead  as Green Guy  went  into the
living room to join the other three.
     Right, so there were at least five of them,  and there might be more in
the bedrooms. What now?
     I lay on the concrete and  watched the inactivity for a few minutes  as
Aaron  enjoyed his cigarette, taking it from his mouth, examining it between
his thumb and forefinger, exhaling through his nose. I was trying to come up
with something that would get me Aaron and one of those weapons.
     Taking the final drag, he turned on his  chair to look at Blue  playing
Luz's game, then he ground the dog-end into the concrete.
     Shit! What's he up to?
     I leapt back and scrambled behind the water butt just as the door burst
open  and light  flooded the  area. Aaron launched  himself off the concrete
into the mud, followed by startled Spanish screams.
     As he ran and slithered  into the darkness towards the tubs there was a
long burst of automatic fire from within the storeroom.
     I  curled  up, making myself as small as  possible as yells echoed from
the living room, together with the sound of feet pounding on floorboards.
     Rounds were hitting  the tin wall  with dull thuds as the weapon  burst
out of control.
     Aaron had already faded into the darkness  when  Blue got  to the door,
hollering in panic, and took aim with a short sharp burst.
     I heard an anguished gasp, then chilling, drawn-out screams.
     His pain was quickly drowned  by panicky M-16s opening up  through  the
window  between the bookshelves to my right,  just  blasting away  into  the
night. Their muzzle flashes created  arcs  of stroboscopic light outside the
window, as the mesh screen disintegrated.
     Blue was  screaming at the top  of his  voice probably to cease firing,
because that was what happened.  Panic and confusion ricocheted between them
in rapid, high-pitched Spanish. Someone was with Blue at the door, and  they
shouted at each other as  if they  were  trading on the stock market.  Other
voices weighed in from just inside the living area.
     I stayed  curled up  to conceal  myself behind the  water  butt as Blue
moved  out  into  the rain towards  Aaron. The  rest  withdrew inside, still
shouting at each other.
     I had to  act:  now  was  my time.  I stepped into the  rain after him,
keeping to  the  right  of  the  door  to  avoid the light, quickly checking
through the storeroom for movement. There wasn't any.
     Rain fell into  my eyes and blurred  my  vision.  Blue's  back was just
visible in the  light  spilling  from the storeroom,  as  he advanced on the
dark, motionless shape of Aaron on the ground a few metres ahead of him. The
M-16 was  in his right hand,  and the muzzle was trailing down alongside his
calf.
     I was  no more than five paces behind him,  and still walking. I didn't
want to run  and risk slipping. I kept moving,  concentrating on the back of
his head. He was taller than me. Now nothing else mattered as I entered  his
zone. He'd sense I was there soon.
     I leapt behind him and a bit to his right, jamming my left  leg between
his, body checking him, at the same time grabbing  at his face with  my left
hand, pulling hard, trying to pull him back over me. I wanted his mouth, but
felt mostly nose when the warmth of his shout hit my  hand.  The weapon fell
between us as his hands came up to snatch my hand away.
     Still pulling  hard, I arched  him  backwards, yanking  back his  head,
presenting his throat. I raised my right hand high above my head, palm open,
and swung  down hard to  chop across  his throat. I  had no  idea  where  it
landed, but he dropped like a stunned pig in an abattoir, taking me with him
into the mud.
     I kicked myself free, scrambling over the top of him until I lay across
his chest, feeling  the hard alloy  of the  magazines between  us.  My right
forearm  jammed  into his  throat  and I leant  on it with all my weight. He
wasn't dead; it hadn't been that good. The chop had  got the nerves that run
each side of the trachea and fucked him up for a while, that was all.
     No reaction, no  resistance,  no last  kicks yet. I pressed  into  him,
shaking the rain off as it  kept trying to get into  my eyes. Looking up,  I
could see into the storeroom. The  others were probably still in  the living
room, trying  to come  to terms with the even bigger nightmare they were now
facing, waiting for Aaron's body to be  dragged back by this fuck wit  who'd
let him escape.
     I looked down on  him, his  eyes closed,  no kicking  or  resistance. I
eased  off  and  put  my  ear  to  his  mouth.  No  sound  of  breathing.  I
double-checked by digging the middle and  forefinger of my  right hand  into
his neck to feel the carotid pulse.
     Nothing.
     I rolled off  him and felt for Aaron. My hands were soon  warm with his
blood as I felt  up his body for  his neck. He, too,  was dead.  I scrabbled
around in the mud for the M-16, then started to remove Blue's chest harness.
I  rolled him over, unclipping it from  his back,  then dragged off the neck
and shoulder straps. His arms lifted limply in the air as I pulled.
     With  the  harness weighing  heavily  in one hand and  the M-16  in the
other, I ran to  the back  of the  house for the cover and light it afforded
me, and placed  the weapon  on the sink. The  moths had found shelter out of
the rain as well, flitting around the light on the wall between the sink and
the shower as I gulped air, knowing I didn't have much time before they came
out  here to  see what was  taking their  friend  so long. Fuck the heli. If
anyone was still in it now, he was deaf.
     Aaron's  blood dripped off my hands as I took  out a fresh thirty-round
mag and pushed my thumb down into it to make sure it was full. For me it was
too full with thirty rounds1 took  out the top one and pushed down  again to
check the spring had a chance to do its job.  I pressed the release catch on
the right and removed the  old  magazine, then pushed the fresh  one home by
sliding it  into the rectangular housing,  waiting to  feel  it  click  home
before giving it a  shake  to make sure it was secure. I  cocked the weapon:
the sound was barely audible above the rain battering the tin roof.
     There was a round already  in the chamber  and it flew out into the mud
as it got replaced with a new one from the  mag; it wasn't necessary to have
done it, it just made me feel better to see a round going into the chamber.
     I applied Safe, quickly checking the other three mags in the pouches of
the nylon harness. If I was in the shit and changing mags  I didn't want  to
slap on a half-empty one. This  took  precious extra seconds  but was always
worth the effort.
     I put the harness on, straps  over my shoulders and neck,  the magazine
pouches across  my chest, and clipped the buckle at  the  back, continuously
grabbing air in an effort  to keep my heart rate down,  whilst listening for
shouts that would tell me they'd discovered Blue.
     My panting slowed and I  mentally prepared  myself. Pulling  a magazine
from  the  harness, I held it  in my left hand with  the curved shape facing
away  from me so it was ready to be rammed into the magazine housing if this
one became empty.
     Then I grabbed the stock, wrapping my left hand around the whole lot.
     I thumbed  the safety, pushing past  the first click single  rounds and
all  the way to  Automatic, my index finger  inside  the trigger guard, then
moved  out into the rain once more, towards the heli to clear the corner  in
the darkness, and on towards Aaron and Blue. Their bodies were  lying as I'd
left them, motionless  in the mud next to each other as the  rain bounced in
little pools around them.
     Looking into  the  storeroom  and beyond,  I  couldn't see any movement
apart from the blurred images on Luz's screen.
     There was more thunder but no lightning as I moved forward, butt in the
shoulder, weapon up, both  eyes open. My breathing calmed down as it  became
fuckit time once again.
     I stepped up on to the concrete and into the  light from the storeroom.
I moved  inside, avoiding  the cot, lifting my feet up high before replacing
them to avoid the cans, spilt rice, and other shit strewn across  the floor.
Eyes forward, weapon up.
     I  could hear them in the kitchen  area and began to smell  cigarettes.
The talking was heated: today had been one big fuck for all concerned.
     There  was  movement,  a  chair  scraping,  boots walking  towards  the
computer room. I froze, both eyes open but blurred by rain, index finger pad
on the trigger, waiting, waiting ... I was going to have the upper  hand for
no more than  two seconds. After  that, if I  didn't  get this  right, I was
history.
     The boots appeared. Green Guy. He turned, saw me, his scream cut  short
as I squeezed. He fell back into the living room.
     As if on autopilot  I  followed him through the  doorway, stepping over
his body into the  smoke-filled room. They  were panicking, screaming out at
each other, wide eyed, reaching for their weapons.
     I moved off  to the  left,  into the corner, both eyes  open, squeezing
short sharp  bursts, aiming into the mass of movement. The  hot  empty cases
bounced off the wall to the right and then my  back  before clinking against
each other as they hit the floor. I squeezed again ... nothing.
     "Stoppage! Stoppage!" I fell to my knees to present a smaller target.
     It was as if my  world was in slow motion as I tilted the weapon to the
left  to present the ejection  opening. It had  no  working parts: they were
being held  to  the rear.  Looking  inside, there  were  no  rounds  in  the
magazine, no rounds in  the chamber. My eyes were now fixed on the threat in
front.
     I hit the release catch and the empty mag hit my leg on its  way to the
floor.
     Two  bodies were sprawled, one moving with a  weapon, one  on his knees
trying to get the safety off.  I locked on to it. The mist of the propellant
was already mixing with the heavy cigarette smoke. The bitterness of cordite
clawed at the back of my throat.
     I twisted  the weapon  over to its  right  and  presented  the magazine
housing.  The fresh magazine was still in my left hand; I rammed it into the
housing,  banged  it into position from the mag bottom,  and slapped my hand
down hard  on to the locking lever. The working parts went  forward, picking
up a round as I got the weapon into the shoulder, brought the barrel to what
I was looking at, and fired on my knees.
     Another mag and it was all over.
     There was silence as  I  reloaded, apart from the rain hitting the roof
and the kettle whistling on the cooker. Two of the bodies were on the floor;
one was slumped forward over the table, his face distorted with a dead man's
sneer.
     I remained  on my knees, surveying the  carnage.  The  acrid  stench of
cordite filled my  nostrils. Mixed with the cigarette smoke, it looked as if
a dry-ice machine  was running,  covering the bodies,  some  with their eyes
still open, some not. There wasn't much blood on the floor yet, but it would
be there as soon as their bodies gave it up.
     I looked around.  Everybody  I had seen  was  accounted  for,  but  the
bedrooms had to be checked.
     Getting to my  feet,  butt in my shoulder,  I gave  three  short bursts
through the door to Luz's room then forced my way in, and then the same with
Carrie and Aaron's. Both were clear and Luz's window was now closed.
     I turned to the kitchen. The floor was covered  in a mixture of mud and
blood.
     I went over  to the stove, kicking my way past empty cans that had been
shot or pushed on  to the floor, and took the kettle off the  ring. I poured
myself a mug of  tea  from a tin of sachets on the side. It smelt of berries
and I  threw in  some  brown  sugar and stirred it as I  walked towards  the
computer  room, kicking a weapon out of the way. I  dragged the blood-soaked
Green Guy away from the door;
     empty cases chinked together as his body moved them across the floor. I
stepped into the computer room and closed the door behind me.
     Seated in  a  director's chair,  I slowly  sipped  the sweet,  scalding
liquid  while picking out two empty  cases  that had got caught  between  my
chest and the harness  on their way to the floor. My  hands were starting to
shake  a little,  as I  silently  thanked  all those years of  skill-at-arms
training that had made stoppage drills second nature.
     Tilting the mug for the  last  few drops of the brew,  I got to my feet
and went to Aaron and Carrie's bedroom. I pulled off the harness and changed
into an old black cotton sweatshirt with a faded Adidas logo on the front.
     It  was time to drag  Aaron out of the mud.  I put the harness back on,
gathered up their purple bedsheet,  and went to  the Land  Cruiser  with the
M-16.  I  checked  that the keys were still inside,  lowered the  rear seats
ready for Carrie, then climbed into the Mazda and fired it up.
     The  headlights bounced up  and  down as  I bumped  through the  mud to
Aaron. He was heavy  to retrieve, but I finally got him into the back of the
Mazda and wrapped him up in the sheet. As I tucked one corner over his face,
I thanked him quietly.
     Closing the tailgate, I left the wagon where it  was, then dragged Blue
and hid him amongst the tubs  before walking back to the house. I turned off
the livingroom lights and closed the door before  kicking Blue's empty cases
under the desk and  storeroom shelving. Luz didn't need to see any of  that:
she had seen  enough  already today. I knew what happened to kids  when they
were exposed to that shit.
     Finally,  using  a  torch from the  storeroom  shelves  to light me,  I
dragged the cot out  into the  rain and threw  it into  the back of the Land
Cruiser.  It just fitted on the opened  lower half  of the tailgate.  Then I
headed for the dead ground and the treeline.
     THIRTY-SEVEN
     The wipers pushed  away the flood  with each stroke, only  for it to be
instantly  replaced,  but  not before  I  glimpsed the  entry point  in  the
treeline.
     The  Land  Cruiser hit a  tree stump and reared up, tilted over  to the
left,  and  came  back  down just  as  the headlights hit  on  the palm-leaf
markers.
     I  left  the  lights and  engine running, grabbed  the torch  from  the
passenger  seat, ran round and dragged out the  cot. With a firm grip on one
of the legs as it trailed behind me, I broke through the treeline.
     "Luz! Where are you? Luz! It's me, it's Nick, call to me!"
     I shone the torch in a broad sweep but it only reflected back at me off
the wet leaves.
     "Luz! It's me, Nick."
     "Over here! We're over here! Nick, please, please, Nick!"
     I turned to my right and pushed towards her, dragging the cot away from
a stand of wait-a-while that wanted to hang on to it. Just a  few feet  more
and  the torch beam landed  on  Luz, soaking  wet, kneeling  by her mother's
head, her hair flat and her shoulders shaking. Carrie was lying beneath her,
in  pain, covered in leaf litter. Seeing  Luz's  face in the torchlight, she
raised a hand, trying to remove the hair stuck her face.
     "It's OK, baby, everything's OK, we can go back to the house now."
     I dragged the cot alongside them, and inspected the job I'd done on her
leg. It wasn't as good as it should have been: maybe I didn't  deserve  that
first-aid badge after all. Thunder rumbled and cracked above the canopy.
     "Where's Daddy? Is Daddy at the house?"
     Luz looked at me from the other  side of her mother, squinting into the
torchlight, her red face wet with rain and tears.
     I looked down  and busied myself  with  the dressings, pleased that the
weather,  distance and canopy would have soaked  up the  sounds of automatic
gunfire. I didn't know what the fuck to say.
     "No, he went to get the police ..."
     Carrie coughed  and screwed up her  pale face,  smothering her ;M child
into her chest.  She looked at me quizzically over her head. I If  closed my
eyes, put the torchlight on to my face and shook my head.
     I?
     Her head fell back and she let out a low cry, her eyes shut tight.
     Luz's head jumped up and down as her chest convulsed. She ;
     tried to steer her mother's thoughts elsewhere, thinking it was ;
     only physical pain.
     "It's OK, Mom, Nick's going to get you back ;
     to the house. It's OK."
     ;V
     I'd done as much as I could with the dressings.
     "Luz, you've got r to help me get  your mum on the cot, OK?" Moving the
torch slightly so as not  to blind her, I looked at her scared face, nodding
' slowly as rain coursed down it.
     "Good. Now  get behind your  mum's head, and  when I say, I want you to
lift her  from under the armpits.  I'll  lift her legs at the  same time and
we'll get her on the cot in one go. Got it?"
     I shone the  torch above  Carrie's head  as  Luz  got  into a  kneeling
position behind her mother's head. Carrie was still thinking of  Aaron. That
pain was far greater than anything her leg was causing.
     "That's  right. Now put  your  arms  under her armpits." Carrie  raised
herself limply to try to help her daughter.
     I  jammed the torch into the mud. The beam shone up into the canopy and
rain splattered on to the  front of  the lens. On my knees, I  slid one  arm
under the small of her back and the other under her knees.
     "OK, Luz, on my count of three are you ready?"
     Thunder reverberated over the canopy.
     A small but serious voice answered, "Yes, I'm ready."
     I looked at what I could see of Carrie's face.
     "You know this is going to hurt, don't you?"
     She nodded, her eyes closed, taking sharp breaths.
     "One, two, three up, up, up."
     Her scream  filled  the  night. Luz was startled. Carrie  had gone down
harder than  I'd  have  wanted, but at least that phase was over. As soon as
she landed she started breathing quickly and deeply through gritted teeth as
Luz tried to comfort her.
     "It's OK, Mom, it's OK ... ssssssh."
     I pulled the  torch from  the  mud and  placed it on  the  cot next  to
Carrie's good leg so that it shone upwards, creating horror-movie shadows on
their faces. The hard bits are done."
     "It's OK, Mom. Hear that? The hard bits are done."
     "Luz, grab your end, just lift it a little and I'll lift this end,
     OK?"
     She jumped  to  her feet and  stood as  if  to attention, then bent her
knees to grip the aluminium handles.
     "Ready? One, two, three, up, up, up."
     The  cot  lifted about  six  inches and I  immediately started crashing
backwards  through  the  vegetation  in  the  direction Carrie's  feet  were
pointing. More thunder rumbled, swamping Carrie's sobs. Luz still thought it
was just pain.
     "We'll see Daddy soon. It's OK, Mom."
     Carrie couldn't hold back and cried out into the storm.
     I kept  checking  behind  me  and soon made out the  lights of the Land
Cruiser penetrating the  foliage. Just  a few paces later we were out in the
open.
     The rain was  relentless as  we  lifted Carrie  into  the  back  of the
vehicle,  like a  patient into an ambulance,  her legs  protruding on to the
tailgate. 'You  need to stay with your mum and hold on to her in case we hit
a bump, OK?"
     There was  going to be  no problem with that. Carrie pulled  her  child
down and mourned covertly into her wet hair.
     As I drove very  slowly  towards the  rear of the house, the headlights
cut through the rain and bounced back off  the shiny  skin and Plexiglass of
the Huey. Its rotors drooped as if depressed by the weather.
     Carrie  was still getting soothing messages from Luz as we pulled up by
the  storeroom  door.  It took  longer  than I'd expected to get her inside,
kicking cans out of the way, not worrying  now there was no one to alert. We
waddled with the cot into  the brightly lit computer room. She was in a  bad
way,  with soaked, bloodstained clothes, pruned  skin, glued  hair, red eyes
and covered from head to toe in leaf litter.
     As we lowered her to the floor near the two PCs, I looked to Luz.
     "You need to go and turn the fans off."
     She looked a bit confused  but did it  anyway.  The fans would make the
moisture  evaporate  quicker,  producing a  chilling effect.  Carrie  was in
enough clanger from shock as it was.
     As soon as Luz left us, Carrie pulled me down to her, whispering at me,
"You sure he's dead, you sure? I need to know ... please?"
     Luz made her  way  back to us as I looked  her straight in the eye  and
nodded.
     There was  no dramatic reaction: she just let go of me and stared up at
the slowing fans.
     There was still  nothing I could  do to help her with her grief, but  I
could do something about her physical injuries.
     "Stay with your mum, she needs you."
     The medical suitcase  was still on the shelf, though it had been opened
and some  of  the contents scattered.  I collected everything  together  and
threw it  back in  the case, then knelt at the side of  the cot and searched
through  to  see what I  could  use. She'd lost blood, but I couldn't find a
giving set or fluids.
     "Luz? Is this the only medical kit you have?"
     She nodded, holding hands with her mother, squeezing her fingers tight.
I  guessed they would have depended on a heli  coming in to get them in  the
event of  serious illness or accident. That wasn't going  to happen tonight,
not with this downpour -but at least it  was keeping Charlie at bay. As long
as it kept  raining so hard he wouldn't be able to fly back to  find out why
contact had been broken.
     I found the dihydrocodeine under the shelves. The label might have said
one  tablet when required, but she was getting three, plus the aspirin I was
pushing from its foil. Without  needing to be  asked, Luz  announced she was
going  to fetch some Evian. Carrie swallowed eagerly, desperate for anything
to deaden what she was feeling. With  this lot down her neck it  wouldn't be
long before  she  was dancing with the fairies, but for now she was studying
the wall clock.
     "Nick, tomorrow,  ten  o'clock..." She  turned to  me,  her  expression
pleading.
     "First things first."
     I ripped  the crunchy Cellophane  from a  crepe bandage  and started to
replace the belt and  bits of sweatshirt in  a figure  of eight  around  her
feet. She had  to be stabilized.  As soon as that was done, we needed to  be
out  of  this house  before  the  weather improved  and Charlie fired up his
helis. Even if  the  rain stopped when we were half-way  to Chepo, the Hueys
would catch us up en route.
     The clinic in Chepo, where is it?"
     "It's not really a clinic, it's  the Peace Corps folks and-' "Have they
got a surgery?"
     "Sort of."
     I  pressed  the soles of  her feet and her toes and watched the imprint
remain for a second or two until her blood returned.
     Two thousand people, Nick.  You've  got  to talk to George, you must do
something.
     If only for  Aar-' Luz  returned with  the water and  helped her mother
with the bottle.
     I didn't disturb  the dressings over the  wound site,  or  the  foliage
packed  between her legs, but  just gradually worked my way up her legs with
the four inch bandages. I  wanted to get her  looking like an Egyptian mummy
from her feet up to her hips. Carrie just lay there, staring vacantly at the
now stationary fans.
     I got Luz to  hold her mother's legs up  a little  so  I could feed the
bandage under  them. Carrie cried out, but it had to be done. She managed to
calm herself, and looked directly into my eyes. Talk to George, you'll speak
his language. He won't listen to me, never has..."
     Luz was on her knees, holding her mum's hand once more.
     "What's happening, Mom?
     Is Grandpa coming to help?"
     Carrie stared at me, mumbling to Luz, "What's the time, baby?"
     Twenty after eight."
     Carrie squeezed her hand.
     "What's wrong, Mom? I want Daddy. What's wrong?"
     "We're late ... We've gotta  get Grandpa ... He'll be worrying ... Talk
to him, Nick. Please, you've got to ..."
     Where's Daddy? I want Daddy." She was getting hysterical as Carrie held
her hand tight.
     "Soon, baby, not yet ... Get Grandpa ..." Then she turned her head away
from her daughter and her voice was suddenly much quieter.
     "Nick has to go and do something for us first and himself. I don't mind
waiting, Chepo  isn't that  far." She stared  at me  for a  few moments with
half-closed, glazed eyes,  then rested her head back on the cot, mouth open.
But there  wasn't  any noise. Her  big, wet, swollen  eyes looked at me  and
begged silently.
     Luz got up and went over to her PC.
     "We'll see Daddy soon, right?"
     Carrie couldn't tilt her head far enough back to see her.
     "Get Grandpa."
     "No, not yet," I said.
     "Get a search engine Google, something like that."
     Both of them looked at me as if I was mad. My eyes darted between them.
     "Just do it, trust me."
     Luz was already clicking the keyboard of her PC at the other end of the
room when Carrie beckoned me closer.
     "What?" I could smell the mud caked in her hair, and heard the sound of
the modem handshaking.
     She stared at me, her pupils almost fully dilated.
     "Kelly, the Yes Guy. You got to do something ..."
     It's OK, I've taken care of that, for now at least."
     She smiled like a drunk.
     "I got it, Nick I got Google."
     I walked over and took her place  on the  chair, and typed  in "Sunburn
missile'.
     It threw up a  couple of thousand results, but even the first I clicked
on  made  grim   reading.  The  Russian-designed  and  -built  3M82   Moskit
sea-skimming missile (NATO code-named SS-N-22 "Sunburn') was now also in the
hands of the Chinese.
     The line drawing showed a  normal, rocket-shaped missile, quite skinny,
with fins at the bottom and smaller ones midway up its  ten metres. It could
be  launched from  a ship  or from a  trailer-like platform that looked like
something from Thunderbirds.
     There was a defence analyst's review:
     The Sunburn anti-ship missile is perhaps the most lethal in the  world.
The Sunburn combines a  Mach 2.5  speed with a very low-level flight pattern
that uses violent end  maneuvers  to throw off defenses. After detecting the
Sunburn, the US Navy Phalanx point defense  system may have only 2.5 seconds
to calculate a  fire  solution  before impact  when  it  lifts up and  heads
straight down into the target's deck with the devastating impact of a 750 Ib
warhead. With a range of 90 miles,  Sunburn ... Devastating wasn't the word.
After the  initial  explosion,  which  would  melt everyone in the immediate
vicinity,  everything caught in the blast  would become a secondary missile,
to the point of steel drinks trays decapitating people at supersonic speed.
     That was all I needed to know.
     I moved off the chair and walked towards the other two.
     "Luz, you can get your grand ad now."
     THIRTY-EIGHT
     I knelt down beside Carrie. The banjo  you were talking about,  is it a
river? Is that why they have a boat?"
     The drugs were kicking in.
     "Banjo?"
     "No, no where they came from last night, remember? Is it a river?"
     She nodded, fighting hard to listen.
     "Oh, the Bayano? East of here, not far."
     "Do you know where they are exactly?"
     "No, but... but..."
     She motioned me  with her head to bend down closer. When she spoke, her
voice was shaking and trying to fight back the tears.
     "Aaron next door?"
     I shook my head. The Mazda."
     She coughed and started to cry very  gently. I didn't know what to say:
my head was empty.
     "Grandpa! Grandpa! You gotta help ...  There were these men, Mom's hurt
and Daddy's gone for the police!" She  was  getting herself into a frenzy. I
moved over to her.
     "Go and help your mum, go on."
     I   found   myself   facing  George's  head   and  shoulders   in   the
six-inch-by-six  box in the centre of the screen. It was still a bit jittery
and  fuzzy  around the edges, just like last  night, but I could clearly see
his dark suit and tie over  a white shirt. I plugged  in the headset and put
it  over my ears  so nothing could be heard over the tinny internal speaker.
Luz had been protected so far from all this shit: there was no need for that
to change.
     "Who are you?" His tone was slow and controlled over the crackles.
     "Nick. A face to the name at last, eh?"
     "What's my daughter's condition?" His  all-American  square-jawed  face
didn't betray a trace of emotion.
     "A fractured femur but she's going to be OK. You need to sort something
out  for  her at Chepo. Get her picked up from  the Peace Corps. I'll-' "No.
Take  them both  to the embassy.  Where  is Aaron?" If  he was concerned, he
wasn't sounding it.
     I  looked behind me and saw Luz, close to  Carrie but within earshot. I
turned back and muttered, "Dead."
     My eyes  were on  the screen, but there was no change  of expression in
his face nor in his voice.
     "I repeat, take them to the embassy, I'll arrange everything else."
     I  shook  my head  slowly, looking into  the screen as  he  stared back
impassively. I kept my voice low.
     "I know what's happening, George. So does Choi. You can't let the Ocaso
take the  hit. You know  how  many people will be there? People like Carrie,
Luz -real people. You have to stop it."
     His features didn't move a millimetre until he took a breath.
     "Listen up,  son, don't  get yourself involved  in something you  don't
understand. Just  do exactly what I said. Take my daughter and  Luz  to  the
embassy, and do it right now."
     He hadn't denied it. He hadn't asked, What's the Ocaso?"
     I needed to finish my piece.
     "Get it stopped, George, or I'm reaching out to anyone who will listen.
Call it off and I'm silent for life. Simple."
     "Can't do that, son." He leant forward as if he wanted to get closer to
intimidate me. His face took up a lot of screen.
     "Reach out all you want, no one will be listening. Just too many people
involved, too many agendas. You're getting into ground that you  wouldn't be
capable of understanding."
     He moved back, his shirt and tie returning to the screen.
     "Listen  up good, I'll tell  you what's simple. Just take  them  to the
embassy and wait there. I'll even get you paid off, if it helps." He paused,
     to ensure I was really going to get the message.
     "If not? Take my  word for it, the future won't  look bright. Now  just
get with the  program, take them to the embassy, and  don't get dragged into
something that's so big it'll frighten you."
     I  listened, knowing that as soon as I  was through those embassy gates
I'd be history. I knew too much and wasn't one of the family.
     "Remember, son, many agendas. You wouldn't be sure who you'd be talking
to."
     I  shook my head and pulled off  the  headset, looking around at Carrie
with a shrug of exasperation.
     "Let me speak to him, Nick."
     TSfo point. He's hearing, not listening."
     Two thousand people, Nick, two thousand people ..."
     I  went  over to them  both and grabbed  one end  of the  cot with both
hands.
     "Luz, we need blankets and water for your mum. Just pile them up in the
storeroom for the journey."
     I pulled  the cot back so  Carrie was within reach of the  headset, and
placed it over her  head, repositioning the mike so it  was near her  mouth.
Above us,  George's face  still dominated the screen  as he  waited  for  my
answer.
     "Hi, it's me."
     The face on the screen was impassive, but I saw the lips move.
     "I'll live ... all those people won't if you don't do something to call
it off."
     George's mouth worked for  several seconds, but his expression remained
set. He  was arguing,  rationalizing, probably commanding. The  one thing he
still wasn't doing was listening.
     "Just  once, just for  once in  my life ...  I've never  asked  you for
anything. Even the passport wasn't a gift, it came with conditions. You have
to  stop it. Stop it now ... I looked at George,  and  his  cold, unyielding
face as he spoke. It was now Carrie's turn to listen. She slowly  pulled the
headset from her face, her eyes swollen with tears,  and let  it drop on her
chest.
     "Disconnect  it ... get him out  of here ... It's  over  ... Comms  are
closed."
     I left them to it as George had already cut the com ms himself.
     The  box had closed  down.  That was because he'd be getting  on to the
missile crew using the relay.
     Looking up at the ceiling, I followed the black wires from the  dishes,
down  behind  the  plywood boards and out  under the  tables, looking like a
plate of spaghetti as they jumbled themselves up with white wires and fought
with each other on their way to feed the machines.
     Sliding  under  the  desk,  I  started  to  pull  out anything that was
attached to anything else as I shouted at  Carrie. Where's the relay  board?
Do you know where the relay is?"
     I got a weak reply. The blue box. It's near where you are somewhere."
     Luz came back into the room and went to her mother.
     Under the mass of wiring, books and stationery I  found a dark blue and
badly scratched alloy box, just  over  a  foot square and four inches thick.
There were three coaxial cables attached, two in,  one out. I pulled out all
three.
     There was mumbling behind me. I turned just in  time to see Luz heading
for the living-room door.
     "Stop! Stay where you are! Don't move!"  I jumped to my feet and  moved
over and grabbed her.
     "Where you going?"
     "Just to get some clothes. I'm sorry ..." She looked over to her mother
for support. I let go so she could be at her mother's side, and as I  turned
to follow her I noticed a small pool of blood that had started to seep under
the door. I ran into the storeroom and grabbed the  first thing I could find
for the job,  a  half-empty fifty-pound plastic sack  of rice that had  been
kicked over.  I lugged  it back and placed  it like  a  sandbag  against the
bottom of the door.
     "You can't go in there it's dangerous, there could be  a fire.  The oil
lamps fell  when the helicopters came,  it's everywhere. I'll get your stuff
for you in a second."
     Getting back under the table, I ripped out every wire that was attached
to anything, then listened to make sure it was still raining.
     I'll get the clothes for you now, Luz, just stay here, OK?"
     I nearly gagged when I opened the door and  stepped  over the rice bag.
The smell of cordite had gone, replaced by death,  a smell like a bad day in
a butcher's shop. Once the  door was  closed I turned on the light. The four
bodies lay amongst  the splintered wood  and  smashed glass,  their blood in
thick, congealed pools on the floorboards.
     I tried to avoid stepping in anything as I went and got a spare  set of
clothes for  Luz and a sweat top for Carrie. Opening the door,  I threw them
out into the computer room.
     "Get changed, help your mum. I'll stay in here."
     Positioning my  feet  to avoid  the blood, I  started to  pull a  chest
harness from under Green Guy. It must have been dragged from the table as he
collapsed, and was dripping with blood. That didn't matter, what did was the
mags inside.
     I started to wrench off the other harnesses.  They,  too, were soaking,
and  some of the  mags had been  hit  by rounds. The nylon had  split  open,
exposing twisted metal and bits of brass.
     Hefting three harnesses, all filled  with fresh mags, I rescued my docs
from the floor and  collected  two hundred and  twelve  bloodstained dollars
from the five bodies. Feeling  less  naked,  I secured them in my leg pocket
before checking the bookshelf for mapping of Chepo and the Bayano.
     I found what  I was looking for, and she was right: it was to the  east
of Chepo.
     There was  no time to ponder, we  had to leave. The weather might clear
at any minute. If the Peace  Corps couldn't do anything for her, they  could
at least get her to the city.
     I  ran   through  on  to  the  veranda,  and  out  into  the  wonderful
heli-repelling rain.
     As soon as I got to the  Land Cruiser I dumped the kit in the foot well
then  jammed the M-16 down between the passenger seat and  the door before I
closed it.
     I didn't know why, I just didn't want Luz seeing it.
     I went round to the other side and checked the fuel. I had about half a
tank. I grabbed the  torch  and  headed  for  the Mazda.  When  I lifted the
squeaking  tailgate,  the light  beam fell on the  now bloodstained bedsheet
covering Aaron. I could  also see the  jerry-cans secured  at  the  rear and
jumped in beside him, my boots slipping  in a pool of his blood. The sickly,
sweet  smell  was  as bad  as it  was in the house. I rested my  hand on his
stomach to steady myself,  and  discovered  he was still soft. I dragged out
one of the heavy containers and slammed the tailgate shut.
     I unscrewed the Land Cruiser's fuel cap and pulled back  the  nozzle of
the  jerry  can The  pressure  inside was released with a hiss.  I hurriedly
poured the  fuel into the  tank, splashing  it down the side  of  the wagon,
drenching my hands.
     As soon as the jerry-can was empty I closed the  fuel cap and threw the
metal  container into the  foot well on  top of  the harnesses. I  thought I
might be needing it later.
     THIRTY-NINE
     Having made sure that mud had replaced Aaron's blood on my Timberlands,
I walked back towards  the  glare of the computer  room and checked that the
rice bag was still doing its job.
     Carrie was smoking,  and as I got closer I didn't need a sniffer dog to
tell me  what. Luz was sitting  on  the floor beside  the cot, stroking  her
mother's  brow  and  watching  the smoke ooze  from  her  nostrils.  If  she
disapproved, she wasn't showing it.
     Carrie's flooded eyes stared up in a daze at the motionless fan as  her
daughter  carried  on gently  massaging her sweating forehead. I squatted at
her feet and gave them another pinch. The blood flow was still there.
     As I stood up my gaze switched to Luz. Tour mum tell you where it was?"
The question  about the giggle weed was irrelevant and I didn't know why I'd
asked  it just something to say,  I supposed. Her head  didn't move  but her
eyes swivelled up at me.
     "As if ... but it's OK, today."
     Carrie tried to let out  a  bit of a  laugh, but  it sounded more  like
coughing.
     I bent down and retrieved one  of the crepe bandages from the floor and
put it into my pocket. Time to go."
     She gave a nod as Carrie took another deep drag of the joint.
     "Come on, then, let's get your mother out of here."
     We both had our hands on the cot, Luz at the feet end, facing me.
     "Ready? One, two, three. Up, up, up."
     I  steered  us  while  she  shuffled backwards,  ploughing  through the
littered  storeroom floor. We squelched through the  mud and  slid  her once
more into  the  back of the wagon,  head  first. I  sent Luz  back into  the
storeroom for the blankets and Evian while I used the  bandage to secure the
cot legs at the  head  end to anchorage  points to stop it sliding around on
the  journey.  Carrie  turned her  head towards  me, sounding drowsy on  her
cocktail of dihy-drocodeine, aspirin and giggle weed
     "Nick, Nick ..."
     I was busy tying off in the dull interior lighting.
     What am I going to do now?"
     I knew what she was getting at, but this wasn't the time. 'You're going
to Chepo and then you'll both be in Boston before you know it."
     "No, no. Aaron what am I going to do?"
     I was reprieved by  Luz returning with water and an armful of  blanket,
which she helped me arrange over Carrie.
     I jumped off the tailgate back into the mud and went round and  climbed
into the driver's seat.
     "Luz, you've got to keep an eye on your mum make sure she doesn't slide
about too much, OK?"
     She  nodded earnestly, kneeling over her as I started up and turned the
Land Cruiser in  a wide arc  before  heading on to the track. The main beams
swept over the  Mazda. Carrie  eventually  saw it in  the red  glow  of  our
tail-lights as we crept past.
     "Stop, stop, Nick stop ..."
     I put my foot  gently  on the brake and turned in my seat. Her head was
up, neck straining to look out of  the gap at the rear. Luz moved to support
her. What's up, Mom? What's wrong?"
     Carrie just kept on staring at the Mazda as she answered her daughter.
     "It's OK, baby I was just thinking about something. Later." She  pulled
Luz close and gave her a hug.
     I waited for a while as the rain fell, more gently  now, and the engine
ticked over.
     "OK to go?"
     "Yes," she said.
     "We're done here."
     The journey to Chepo was slow and difficult as I tried to avoid as many
potholes and  ruts as I could. I  really wished there had been  time to look
for another gollock. Going back into the  jungle without one reminded me too
much of Tuesday.
     By the time we came out into the dead  valley the rain had eased  a bit
further  and the wipers were  just on  intermittent. I looked  up  over  the
wheel,  knowing I wouldn't be able  to see, but hoping all the same that the
cloud cover was still low. If not, there'd be a heli or two revving up soon.
     Once we hit the road, which looked more like a river in places, we were
making no more than about ten Ks an hour. My nostrils were  hit by the smell
of cannabis again, and glancing round, I saw Luz kneeling by her mother with
the joint just an inch from Carrie's lips, trying hard to get it  back  into
her mouth between jolts. I fished in my pocket for the dihydrocodeine.
     "Here, give your mum another of these with some water. Show the doctors
or whoever the bottle. She's had four in total and an aspirin. Got that?"
     Eventually the fortified police station came into view and I called for
directions. Where's the clinic? Which way do I go?"
     Luz was the one on top of this now: her mother was well and truly gone.
     "It's kinda behind the store."
     That  I did know. We passed the restaurant and the jaguar  wasn't  even
curious as we drove on into the dark side of town.
     I  flicked  my  wrist  to have  a  check of Baby-G. It was  just before
midnight. Only ten hours in which to do what I had to do.
     I took a right just before the breeze block store.
     "Luz, this the right way? Am I
     OK?"
     'Yep it's just up here, see?"
     Her hand passed  my face from behind and pointed. About three buildings
down was  another breeze block  structure with  a tin roof  and the circular
Peace Corps sign stars and stripes, only instead of the stars a dove or two.
I really couldn't see in this light.
     I  pulled up outside and  Luz  jumped  out of the back. I could tell it
wasn't a medical clinic at all: there was a painted wooden plaque below more
doves which read, "American  Peace  Corps Community Environmental  Education
Project'.
     Luz was already banging on the front door as I looked back at Carrie.
     "We're here, Carrie, we're here."
     I got no response. She was definitely waltzing  with the pixies, but at
least the pain was subdued.
     The door-banging got a  result. As I climbed  out  of the Land Cruiser,
heading for  the tailgate,  a  woman  in her  mid-twenties  with long  brown
sleep-hair appeared on  the threshold, wearing a tracksuit.  Her eyes darted
about rapidly as she took in the scene.
     What's wrong, Luz?"
     Luz launched into  a frenzied  explanation as  I got into  the rear and
undid the security bandage.
     "We're here, Carrie," I said.
     She murmured to herself  as  the young woman came to the rear, now wide
awake.
     "Carrie, it's Janet can you hear me? It's Janet, can you hear me?"
     There was no time for hellos.
     "Got trauma care? It's an open fractured femur, left leg."
     Janet held out her arms and began  to ease the cot out of the  wagon. I
grabbed the other end and between us we lugged Carrie inside.
     The office was barely furnished, just a couple of desks, cork boards, a
phone and wall clock. What I'd seen so far was doing nothing to make me feel
happier about their level of expertise.
     "Can you treat her? If you can't, you need to get her into the city."
     The woman looked at me as if I was mad.
     More people were emerging sleepily from the rear of the building, three
men  in different shades of disarray, and a rush of American voices.  What's
happened, Carrie? Where's Aaron? Ohmigod, you OK, Luz?"
     I stood back as events took over.  A  trauma pack appeared and a bag of
fluid  and  a  giving set  were  pulled out and prepared.  It  was  hardly a
well-rehearsed scene from ER, but they knew exactly what they  were doing. I
looked at Luz, sitting on the floor holding  her mother's  hand once more as
Janet read the dihydrocodeine label on the bottle.
     According to the wall clock it was 12.27 nine and a half hours to go. I
left them to it for a while and went back to the wagon. Once in the driver's
seat I hit the  cab light, wanting to save the torch because I might need it
later, and unfolded the map to get  my bearings  on the Bayano. It came from
the massive  Lago  Bayano  to the east  of  Chepo, maybe thirty K  away, and
snaked towards the  Bay of Panama on the edge  of  the  Pacific. The river's
mouth  was  in line  of  sight  of the entrance to the canal  and,  a little
further in, the Miraflores. If this was the river they were on,  they had to
be at the mouth.
     Sunburn couldn't negotiate high  ground: it was  designed  for the sea.
The  range  to  the  canal  was  just  under  fifty Ks, about thirty  miles.
Sunburn's range was ninety. It made sense so far.
     I  studied  the  map, wondering if  Charlie  was  doing the same before
getting  out there to look for it. He didn't  know  what  I did  so he'd  be
scanning  the  sixty  to seventy miles of  jungle shoreline that fell within
Sunburn's range and  could be used as a  launch  point. That  was  a  lot of
jungle to sift through  in less than  ten  hours. I  hoped it would mean the
difference between me destroying it and him repossessing it so he could hand
it straight over to PARC.
     The map indicated that the only place to launch  from was the east bank
as  the  river  joined  the sea. The west bank also had a peninsula,  but it
didn't project far enough out to clear the coastline. It had to be the east,
the left-hand side  as I  went down  the river. It had to be, and  there was
only one way to find out.
     The Bayano's nearest reachable point  was  seven Ks south, according to
the map,  via  a dry-weather, loose-surface road. There, the river was about
two hundred metres wide. It then  wound  south,  downstream to the coast for
about ten K. In  reality it  would be more, because of the river's bends and
turns. By the time it hit the coastline it was nearly two kilometres across.
     That was it, that was all I knew. But fuck it, I  had to work  with the
information I had and just get on with it.
     I went to the  rear of the wagon and closed the tailgate, then got back
behind the wheel, fired the engine, and moved off.
     I bumbled about  the dark  sleepy town, trying  to head south using the
Silva compass still round my neck. The map was the same 1980s 1:50,000 scale
I'd had for Charlie's house, and Chepo had grown a bit since then.
     It was only then that I realized  I hadn't  said anything to Carrie and
Luz.
     Carrie wouldn't have heard but, still, it  would have been  nice to say
goodbye.
     After  getting two bottles of  Evian down  my  neck and  an hour of the
dry-weather  track, now just  a mixture of mud and gravel,  I saw a river in
the tunnel of light carved out immediately ahead  of me. Stopping, I checked
the map and  distance once more, then jumped out of the wagon with the torch
and picked  my  way down the  muddy bank. The crickets  were  loud, but  the
movement of water was louder.
     The river wasn't a  raging  torrent surging with  a massive  rush, even
after these rains: it was wide  enough to  accommodate all the water  coming
from  the tributaries  that  fed it with a  constant  flow. It was certainly
moving in  the  right  direction, from my right to my  left,  heading  south
towards the Pacific although  so would every other bit of water this side of
the country so near to the sea.
     Running along the bank, I checked  for  a boat, anything that would get
me downstream quickly. There wasn't  even a jetty no  ground sign,  nothing,
just mud, rough grass, and the odd scabby-looking tree.
     I scrambled up the bank,  got into  the wagon, and checked  the map and
mileometer once more.  This river had  to  be the  one I  wanted: there  was
nothing else around here big enough to get mixed up with.
     I drove back up  the track towards Chepo, checking each  side of me for
somewhere to  hide the  Land Cruiser, but  even  after three  kilometres the
ground picked out  by the headlights  still looked  completely bare-arsed. I
finally parked up on the side  of  the road, dragged out the dried-out chest
harnesses, the M-16 and jerry can  then tabbed back towards  the  river with
the kit dangling off me like a badly packed Cub Scout.
     FORTY
     Saturday  9 September  I  seemed to  have spent my  whole  life sitting
against a tree  in  the mud, listening to a million  crickets disturbing the
night. I  wasn't under the  canopy this time, but down  by the Bayano  as it
rumbled past me out there in the dark.
     The mozzies weren't out in such force  here, but enough had found me to
bring  up a  few  more lumps  on my neck to replace the ones  that had  just
started going down. I ran my tongue around my mouth: my teeth felt more than
furry now, it was as if they  had sheepskin coats on. I thought about what I
was doing here. Why couldn't I smarten up? Why hadn't I just killed  Michael
and had done with it in the first place?
     With only half  an hour  to  push  before first light and a move to the
target,  I knew  I was bullshitting myself. I knew I would  have  done  this
regardless. It wasn't just the fact that so many people -real people were at
risk: it was that maybe, just for once, I was doing the right thing. I might
even end up feeling a little proud of myself.
     Pulling my knees up and resting my elbows on them to support my head, I
started to rub my stubbly, sweaty face on my forearms. I could hear the weak
but rapid wap  wap wap of a Huey  somewhere out  there in  the  darkness.  I
couldn't see any navigation lights, but could tell it was only one aircraft.
Maybe Charlie had been back to the house. After what  he'd found waiting for
him there, he'd be out looking, but I had no control over that.
     Anyway, for the  time being  he'd be having those  aircraft  search the
coastline for Sunburn rather than us three.
     Invisible birds started their morning songs  as a bright yellow arc  of
sunlight prepared to  break the  skyline  and  yield  up  a hot morning. I'd
already repacked my  docs and map in the two layers  of plastic  bags, tying
each one off  with a knot. I checked the Velcro  flaps on the individual mag
pouches of  the  harnesses to ensure  that  they weren't going  to fall  out
during the next phase. Finally, I made sure all my clothing  was loose, with
nothing tucked in that might catch water and weigh me down.
     I undid the plastic clips for the back straps of the  harnesses and fed
the ends through the handle of the jerry-can  before refastening them. I did
the same with the neck straps, through  the carrying handle of the M-16. I'd
learnt from  my  own experiences,  and from others, that  more soldiers  get
killed negotiating  rivers than ever die  in contacts under the canopy. That
was why  everything  was attached to the  empty jerry-can and not to me, and
why I hadn't moved until first light.
     I  dragged  the  whole lot  down to the edge of  the tepid, rusty-brown
water. It felt good as I waded in up to my thighs, then ducked my head in to
take  the sweat off my  face.  Refreshed,  I  heaped the three harnesses and
weapon  on  top of  the  floating jerry-can,  which  wanted  to go  with the
current.  It was stronger than  it had looked  from  the  bank, and  freshly
dislodged  foliage, green and  leafy, sped  past as  the jerry-can bobbed in
front  of me, now more  than half submerged with the weight  of  its load. I
pushed  on into  gradually  deepening water, forearms over  the  weapon  and
harnesses, until eventually my feet began to lose touch with the riverbed. I
let myself go with  the flow, kicking  off from the mud like a child with  a
swimming float. The stream carried me with it, but  I kept contact with  the
bottom to keep some  control, alternately kicking and going with the current
as if I was doing a moonwalk.
     The  loggers had been here and both sides of  the  river  looked like a
First World War battlefield,  a wasteland of mud and tufted  grass, just the
odd dead tree left standing.
     Because of  the river's meandering route I had no idea  how long it was
going to take to get  to the mouth, not that there was much I could do about
it: I was committed.
     After about half an hour, with the  sun  low but clearly  in  view, the
jungle  began  to sprout  up on either side  of me,  and as  the foliage got
denser it  cut out more and  more light. The sun  wasn't yet high enough  to
penetrate the  gap the  river created  in the canopy,  so above  me was just
brilliant blue sky. Apart from the noise of the moving water, there was only
the odd screech from more invisible birds up in the canopy.
     I kicked along, keeping near the left bank, always  having contact with
the bottom as  the  river got wider. The opposite bank gradually got further
away,  looking  as if  it was another country  now.  The jungle gave way  to
mangrove swamp, making the place look like a dinosaur's backyard.
     The river  soon widened to well over  one and a half Ks. As I rounded a
particularly wide, gentle bend, I could see the Pacific Ocean lying just a K
further  downstream.  In the  far distance I could see  two container ships,
their funnels spewing smoke as the sun bounced off the calm, flat surface of
the sea.
     A lush green island sat out there five, maybe six Ks away.
     I kept on going, keeping my eyes peeled for anything that would help me
locate Sunburn.
     The  current  was slowing and I moved  downstream  another five hundred
metres.
     Then, maybe two hundred  metres from the river mouth, approaching me to
my left, was a small, open-decked  fishing boat that had been dragged  up on
to  the bank and left to rot; its rear had  collapsed altogether, leaving  a
skeleton of grey,  rotting  wood. As  I got  closer I  could see there was a
clearing  beyond the boat in which stood a small  wooden  hut in  a  similar
state of decay.
     I floated past, my eyes  scanning the area.  There  had  been movement,
fresh movement. I could clearly see the dark underside  of  some large ferns
just up from  the bank, and some  of  the two-foot-tall grass growing around
the boat was interlaced where it had been walked through. Only tiny details,
but  enough. This had to be it, it  had to be. There was no other reason for
it to be here. But I couldn't see any sign in the mud leading from the bank.
     I carried  on for another fifty metres, with the  ocean in  front of me
now, until  the canopy took over and the boat  disappeared. I touched bottom
and slowly guided the jerry-can ashore.
     Dragging the kit  into the canopy, I got on my knees and unbuckled  the
harnesses and M-16. The weapon wouldn't need any preparation: a brief dip in
a river wasn't going to stop it working.
     I donned  the  first chest harness  and adjusted the straps so that  it
hung lower than it should have, virtually around my waist. Then I put on the
second, a bit above the first,  adjusting it so  it  was at the bottom of my
ribcage, and the third  one higher still. I rechecked that all the mags were
stored facing the correct way, so  that as I pulled them  out with  my  left
hand the  curve of the magazine would  be facing away from  me, ready  to be
slapped straight into  the weapon. Finally, after  rechecking chamber on the
M-16,1 sat on the jerry-can  for a minute or  two longer, mentally adjusting
and tuning myself in to the new environment. The coolness of the water on my
clothes began to lose out to  humid  heat  once more as I checked Baby-G. It
was  7.19, and here I was, Rambo'd up, bitten half to  death,  my  leg  held
together by a soggy bandage, and no plan except to use all my mags.
     This would be my 'go, no-go' point. Once I  moved from here there would
be no turning back unless I fucked up totally and was running for my life. I
looked down and watched the drips  from the harnesses hit  the  mud,  making
little moon craters,  not wanting to check my  docs in my map pocket just in
case the knots hadn't worked. This was wasting time, I was as ready as I was
ever going to  be, so just get on with  it...  Wiping my  hair back with  my
fingers,  I stood  up, jumped  up and down  to check  for  rattles and  that
everything was secure. Then I removed the safety catch, pushing  past single
rounds, all the way to Automatic.
     I  moved towards  the  hut,  pausing  every  few paces,  listening  for
warnings  from the birds and other jungle life, butt in my shoulder, trigger
finger against the guard, ready to shoot and scoot with a full mag to scare,
confuse and, with luck, kill while I broke contact.
     The  ground was a  lot  wetter and muddier  here because we were at sea
level.  I wanted to get a move on but also had  to  take my time; I  had  to
check the area around the hut, because it would be my  only escape route. If
the shit hit the fan it would  be a case of straight down to the river, pick
up the jerry-can, jump in and go for  it, down to the sea.  After that, well
whatever.
     Like  a  cautious  bird rooting for food  amongst  the  leaf  litter, I
squelched  forward  four  paces  per bound,  my Timberlands heavy with  mud,
lifting  my feet up high  to clear the crap and mangrove vines on the jungle
floor as I concentrated on the sun-bleached wooden hut ahead.
     I stopped just short of the clearing, went slowly on to my knees in the
mud  and protective foliage,  looked and listened. The  only  man-made sound
around here was the water dripping from my clothes and chest harnesses on to
the leaf litter.
     The track leading into the canopy had been used recently, and something
had  been pulled along it  that  cut  a groove  through the mud and  leaves.
Either side of that groove were footprints that  disappeared  with the track
into the trees. I hadn't seen any sign in the mud as I floated past, because
it had been covered with dead leaves and maybe even had water poured over it
to wash away the sign.
     Past the  bank, though, the sign was clear to  see: stones pressed into
the  mud by boots,  crushed leaves, broken  cobwebs. I got up and started to
parallel the track.
     Within twenty  paces I came across the Gemini, with  a Yamaha 50 on the
back. It had been dragged up the track and pulled off to the right, blocking
my  way. The craft was empty apart from a couple of  fuel  bladders and some
fallen leaves. I was tempted to wreck it, but what was the point? I might be
needing  it myself soon, and destroying it  would take time as well as alert
them to my presence.
     I moved on, and could  still see masses of ground  sign heading in both
directions as the narrow track meandered around the trees. Still paralleling
the track to  my left, I started to move deeper into the canopy, using it as
my guide.
     Sweat  trickled down my face as the  sun rose and lit the gas under the
pressure cooker.  A heart-monitor bird was  up in the  canopy somewhere, and
the  crickets just never stopped. Soon the  sun was trying to penetrate  the
canopy,  shafts  of bright light  cutting  down  to  the  jungle floor  at a
forty-five-degree angle.  My cargos  had a  life of their own, the weight of
the wet, caked-on mud making them swing against my legs after each pace.
     I patrolled on, stopping, listening, trying to keep up speed but at the
same time  not  compromise myself by  making  too much  noise.  I  continued
checking  left, right and above  me,  all  the  time thinking:  What if? and
always coming  up with the  same answer: Shoot and scoot, get into cover and
work out how to box round and keep moving to the target. Only when  I knew I
was fucked would I try to head back to the jerry-can.
     There was a metallic clang in the trees.
     I froze, straining an ear.
     For several seconds all I could hear was my own breath through my nose,
then the clang rang out again. It came from straight ahead and just slightly
off to my left.
     Applying the safety catch with my right thumb, I went down slowly on to
my  knees, then on to my stomach. It was  time  to move slower than a sloth,
but BabyG reminded me it was 9.06.
     I inched  forward on  my elbows and toes, with the weapon to my  right,
exactly as I  had done when I  attacked the Land  Cruiser, except  that this
time I was having to lift my body higher  than I'd have  wanted  to stop the
chest harnesses dragging in the mud.
     I was  panting: the  crawl  was hard  work.  I put out  my  hands,  put
pressure on my elbows and pushed  myself forward with  the tips of  my toes,
sinking into the mud.
     Moving through the undergrowth six inches  at a  time, I could feel the
gloop  finding  its way up my neck  and forearms. I stopped, lifted  my head
from the jungle  floor, looked and listened for more activity but still only
heard  my own breath, sounding a hundred  times  louder than I wanted it to.
Every  soft crunch  of wet  leaves beneath  me  sounded like the popping  of
bubble wrap
     I was constantly looking for alarm trips wires, pressure pads, infrared
beams or maybe even string and tin cans. I didn't know what to expect.
     A mud-covered Baby-G now told me it  was 9.21.1 made myself feel better
about the time by thinking that at least I might finally be on target.
     Mosquitoes materialized from nowhere, whirring  and  whining  around my
head. They landed on my face and must have known that I couldn't do anything
about it.
     There was noise, and  I froze.  Another clunk of metal on metal then  a
faint, fast murmur above  the noise of the crickets. I closed my eyes, leant
my ear towards the source,  opened my mouth  to cut  out internal noises and
concentrated.
     The inflection  in the voices wasn't Spanish. I strained to listen, but
just couldn't work  it out.  They  seemed  to  be  talking  at  warp  speed,
accompanied now by the rhythmic thud of full jerry-cans.
     It was 9.29.
     I had to get closer and not worry about the noise,  not worry about the
people making it. I needed to see what  was happening so  I could  work  out
what I had to do within the next twenty minutes.
     FORTY-ONE
     I lifted my chest from the mud and slithered forward. Very soon I began
to  make out  a small clearing beyond the wall of green. Sunlight penetrated
the canopy in thick shafts, dazzling me as it bounced off the wet ground and
perimeter foliage.
     Movement.
     The black-shirted guy who'd  been on the veranda crossed  left to right
in the clearing before disappearing as quickly as he'd arrived, carrying two
black bin liners  half  full and shiny in  the sunlight. He wore a  US  Army
webbing belt with two mag pouches hanging down from it.
     I  took some slow, deep breaths to re oxygenate myself. The thud of  my
pulse kicked in my neck.
     I made another two slow advances, not bothering to lift my head to look
forward through the foliage. I'd know soon enough if they'd seen me.
     The  voices came again from  my right,  a lot  clearer, and faster, but
still in control. I could understand them now, sort of... They were  Eastern
European, maybe Bosnians. The doss-house had been full of them.
     The small cleared area in the trees was about the size of half a tennis
court.  I couldn't see  anything, but  heard  the unmistakable  hiss of fuel
under pressure being released in the vicinity of the voices.
     One more slow, deliberate bound  and now I heard the  fuel splash.  Not
daring even to rub my  lips together to wipe off the mud, I strained my eyes
to the top of their sockets, my mouth open. I felt dribble run down from the
corners.
     Black  Shirt was  to  my  half  right,  maybe  six, seven  metres away,
standing  with  the little fat guy who'd  been  with him that night.  He was
still wearing the same checked shirt. The jerry-cans were being emptied over
the assembled  contents of  their  camp:  camouflage  netting, American Army
cots, a generator turned on its side, plastic bin-liners full and  tied. All
were piled into a heap. It was nearly time to leave, so they were destroying
any evidence linking them to the site.
     I remained perfectly still, my throat dry and sore as I tried to listen
to the two Bosnians above the din of  crickets  and bird calls. Their voices
still came from my right, but we were separated by foliage.
     Holding my breath, straining my muscles  to  keep total control of them
to cut down on noise, I edged forward another few inches, my  eyes glued  to
the two at the rubbish dump just a few metres away as the  last  of the fuel
was  poured and  the cans thrown on top.  I was so  close I could  smell the
fumes.
     As the  area to my right opened up  a  bit I  saw the backs  of the two
Bosnians,  dressed in green  fatigue tops  and  jeans, bathed in a  shaft of
sunlight. They were bent  over a fold-down table,  one twisting the hair  on
his beard as  they both studied two screens inside  a  green metal  console.
There were two integrated keyboards below each screen.  That had to  be  the
guidance system; I'd wondered what it looked like. To the right of it was an
opened laptop, but the sunlight was too bright  for me to make out what  was
on  any  of  the  screens.  Beside  them  on  the ground  were five civilian
rucksacks, two  M-16s with mags on,  and another  jerry-can probably to deal
with the electronic equipment after the launch.
     I wanted to check the time  but Baby-G was covered  in mud. I  couldn't
risk movement so close on target.  I watched the two Bosnians talk and point
at  the  console  screens,  then  look over  at the laptop  as  one hit  the
keyboard. Beyond them I could  see  cables running down from the rear of the
console and into the jungle. The Sunburn had to be  at the river's mouth. As
I'd  have expected,  the guidance  system  was separated  from  the  missile
itself. They wouldn't have wanted to be right on top of shed loads of rocket
fuel when it went off. There was  no generator noise, so I guessed the power
supply must be part of the missile platform.
     The Bosnians  were still gob  bing  off as the fifth member came out of
the canopy from behind the console. He, too, was  dressed in a green fatigue
top, but had black baggy trousers, an M-16 over his shoulder and  belt  kit.
He lit a cigarette  with a  Zippo and watched the Bosnians hovering over the
screens. Sucking  in deeply  on his nicotine hit,  he used his free  hand to
wave the bottom of his shirt to circulate some air around his torso. Even if
I hadn't recognized his face, I would have known that pizza scar anywhere.
     The two  fuel pourers moved away from the rubbish  dump  as Black Shirt
lit  up as well. They were totally uninterested  in what was going on at the
table just behind them and mumbled to each other as they checked the time.
     All of a sudden the  Bosnians  began to jabber and their voices went up
an octave as Pizza Man sucked on his filter and bent in towards the screens.
     Stuff was happening. There  must be only minutes left. I had to make my
move.
     Taking  a deep  breath, I pushed up on to my  knees, my mud-caked thumb
shifting the safety to Auto as the weapon came into the shoulder. I squeezed
with both eyes open, short, sharp bursts into the mud by the dump. There was
a rapid  thud, thud,  thud, thud as the rounds penetrated the first layer of
mud and slammed into the harder ground.
     Unintelligible screams mixed with the sound  of rounds on auto  as  the
Bosnians panicked and  the  other two went for their weapons. The fifth just
seemed to vanish.
     My shoulder rocked back with another short burst  as I held the  weapon
tight to stop the  muzzle rising. I didn't want to hit the Bosnians: if they
could fly the thing, they could stop it. The sounds of automatic gunfire and
panic echoed  round the canopy and a cloud of cordite  hung in  front of me,
held by the foliage.
     The mag emptied as I kept on squeezing. The working parts stayed to the
rear.
     I  got to my  feet and moved position before  they reacted to where the
fire had come from. I ran to the right, towards the  table, using the cover,
the mud  heavy on  my clothes, pressing the magazine-release  catch  with my
forefinger,  shaking the weapon, trying to remove the  mud-clogged magI felt
the  mag hit my thigh as I fumbled at the lower  harness  and pulled  out  a
fresh  one. I  smacked it  on and hit the release  catch. The  working parts
screamed  forward  as  long bursts of automatic fire came from my left, from
the clearing.
     I dropped instinctively. Mud splattered my face and the air was  forced
out of my lungs. Gasping for breath, I crawled like a madman, pushing to the
edge of the clearing.  If they saw me they would fire where I'd  dropped for
cover.
     I was  in time  to  see the Bosnians disappearing down the track, their
terrified voices  filling the gaps between  bursts  of gunfire. I  also  saw
Pizza  Man,  the other side  of  the clearing, in cover, shouting at them to
come back.
     "It's just one man, one weapon! Get back!"
     It wasn't  happening, the other two were following the Bosnians, firing
long bursts into the jungle.
     "Fucking assholes!"
     Weapon  in  the shoulder,  he  took single shots at them. Fuck  that, I
wanted them alive.
     Flicking safety to single rounds, I gulped in air,  closed my  left eye
and  took aim centre  mass of  what  little  I  could  see of  him,  stopped
breathing and fired.
     He dropped like a stone, disappearing into the foliage without a sound.
     The  other two were still  firing into shadows  as  they moved down the
track.
     A cordite mist hung about the clearing as I let off another magazine at
them.
     Steam  oozed out of the cooling  vents  on the  mud-covered  stock  and
around my left hand. Shit, shit, shit...  I wanted to create noise, I wanted
to create confusion, I wanted to  get  everyone sparked up, not lose them in
the jungle. But I wasn't going to chase them. It was pointless, there wasn't
enough time.
     I changed mags and crossed the clearing towards Pizza Man,
     weapon in the shoulder, moving fast but  cautiously.  The others  might
still come back, and I still couldn't see him.
     He was alive, panting  for breath and holding  his chest, eyes open but
helpless.
     Blood flowed gently between his fingers.
     I tossed his weapon to one side and kicked him.
     "Close it down! Close it down!"
     He just lay there, no reaction.
     I grabbed  his forearm  and dragged  him into the clearing, and  it was
then that I saw the exit wound gaping in his back.
     His  eyes were shut tight, taking the pain of the round and movement. I
dropped  his arm as he mumbled, almost smiling, "We're coming  back, asshole
..."
     I leant over him, butt  in the shoulder, and thrust the muzzle into his
face.
     "Stop it! Fucking stop it!"
     He just smiled beneath the pressure of the metal stuck in his skin. The
weapon moved as he coughed up blood over the end of the barrel.
     "Or what?" He coughed up some more.
     He  was  right. I kicked him out of frustration  as I ran to the table,
checking the track for the others, checking Baby-G.
     Just three minutes to go.
     The left-hand VDU  was full of  Russian symbols, the other was  a radar
screen with a hazy green background peppered with white dots as its sweeping
arm moved clockwise.
     The laptop displayed the webcam image of the  locks. A  cable  led from
it, along the ground and up a tree, where a small satellite dish was clamped
to a branch.
     I  looked back at the  laptop. I  could  see  the band  playing,  girls
dancing  and crowds in the seats and more standing against the barriers. The
Ocaso  was in pride of place on the  screen. Passengers thronged  the decks,
clutching cameras and handy-cams.
     Scrambling round  to  the back of  the table,  I  fell to my knees  and
started pulling  out the mass of wires  and  thick  cables that led from the
back of the console and out towards the sea. Some were just slotted in, some
had a bracket over them, some were screwed into their sockets.
     I  tried  desperately  to  disconnect  them  two  at  a  time,   almost
hyperventilating  in  frustration  as my wet,  muddy  hands slid  about  the
plastic and metal. I  flapped  like  a  child in  a blind panic,  yelling at
myself, "Come on! Come on! Come on!"
     I looked over at the dump, wishing I had a gollock. But even if I found
one  and started  slashing  cables,  chances  were I'd electrocute myself. I
couldn't tell which were transmission and which were power.
     Curled up in  pain, Pizza Man was watching me,  his  shirt  soaked with
blood and covered with mud and leaf litter.
     Fighting another connection, I spun the laptop  round just as the image
started to refresh from the top.
     A  high-pitched whine started within  the  canopy, winding  up  like  a
Harrier jump jet before take-off.
     Within seconds the noise surrounded me.
     Four cables to go. The more I tried to pull or unscrew them, the more I
lost it.
     I gave one big tug in frustration and despair. The console slid off the
table  and landed in the  mud. The  high-pitched whine became a  roar as the
rocket engines kicked in.
     In almost the same  instant  there was a deafening,  rumbling boom, and
the ground began to shake  under my  feet. I  stayed on my knees, looking up
into the canopy as its inhabitants took off in a panic.
     I didn't see  vapour,  I didn't see anything, I just felt the sickening
rumble  as the  missile  left its platform and surged out of the jungle. The
treetops shook and debris rained down around me.
     I  didn't know what  to feel as I  released  my grip on the  cables and
looked over at the laptop, mesmerized, catching the last glimpse of the ship
as the image faded.
     I could hear Pizza  Man,  still curled up  in  the leaf  litter  like a
child,  panting, trying to get oxygen. When I looked at him, he was smiling.
I was sure he was trying to laugh.
     The  screen  was  blank  and there was  nothing I  could do  but  wait,
wondering if I'd be  able to  hear the explosion, or if the sound  would get
swallowed up by the jungle and distance.
     My chest heaved up and down as I tried to take deep breaths, swallowing
hard,  trying  to relieve  my  dry  throat, just  waiting  for the screen to
refresh or stay  blank  for ever as the camera  would surely be taken out as
well.
     I was right: he was laughing, enjoying the moment.
     The first strip at the top started to show and I could  hardly  contain
the terrible feeling of expectation.
     Slowly, lazily, the image unfolded and I braced myself for the scene of
carnage,  trying to convince myself that  the camera being intact was a good
sign,  then thinking I didn't know how far the camera was from the locks, so
maybe not.
     The picture  refreshed  itself. The  ship  was  intact,  everything was
intact. The  dancing  girls  were throwing  their  batons  in  the  air  and
passengers were waving at the crowd on shore. What the fuck had happened? It
should have made it there by now: it travelled at two  and  a half times the
speed of sound.
     I didn't trust what I was seeing. Maybe  it was the image that had been
captured just before the  explosion, and  I was going to wait  for  the next
cycle.
     I'd never felt so exhausted, and all other thoughts had left my mind. I
didn't  even care about a possible threat from  the  other  four,  though if
they'd had any sense they'd already be dragging the Gemini into the water.
     The  smell of sulphur hit me as the exhaust seeped through  the jungle,
creating a low, smoky mist around the area and making it look like God lived
here as the vapour was exposed to the brilliant shafts of light.
     Pizza Man made gurgling sounds, coughing up more blood.
     The top of the image began  to unfold and this time I saw smoke. I knew
it. I  jumped to my feet and hovered over the laptop.  Sweat dropped  off my
nose and chin and on to the screen. My sweatshirt pulled down on me with the
weight of mud as I gulped in air to calm my heart rate.
     Still  the  only thing I could see was smoke as the  picture rolled  on
down.
     It hadn't worked.
     I sat back in the mud, more exhausted than I'd ever been in my life.
     Then,  as  the image filled the screen, I saw that the ship  was still,
there.
     The smoke was coming from its funnels. The crowds were still cheering.
     The  sounds of  the jungle returned. Birds screeched above  me as  they
settled  back in their roosts.  I sat there, almost bonding with the mud, as
the  seconds  ticked by.  And  then,  starting as  quiet  as a  whisper  but
increasing  very rapidly, came  the distinctive wap wap wap  of  much bigger
birds.
     The sound got louder and then came the rapid rattle of rotors as a Huey
zoomed  straight over  me.  Its dark  blue  underbelly  flashed  across  the
treetops,  and I could hear others circling as its downwash shook the canopy
and vegetation rained down about me.
     Time to switch on.
     I  jumped to my feet and grabbed  a jerry-can, dousing the console with
fuel, making sure it poured into the cooling vents at the  back, then  I did
the same  to  the laptop. I picked up  two  rucksacks  and threw them over a
shoulder, hoping that whatever made them weigh so much was stuff I could use
in the jungle.
     Finally grabbing the weapon, I moved to Pizza Man, manhandling him over
on to his back.  There  was no resistance. His legs started to tremble as he
looked at me with a satisfied smile. The small entry wound high in his chest
oozed blood each time he took a breath.
     "It didn't work," I shouted.
     "It didn't make contact, you fucked up."
     He  didn't  believe me and hung on  to the smile, eyes closed, coughing
more blood.
     I reached into his pocket and pulled out the Zippo.
     The heli had returned  and was over by the river,  flying low and slow.
Others were now closer. There were long, sustained bursts of automatic fire.
They had found the escaping Gemini.
     I knew he could  hear  me. That's  Charlie's people.  They'll  be  here
soon."
     His eyes  flickered  open and he  fought to keep the smile  through the
pain.
     "Believe me, you  fucked up, it didn't work. Let's hope  they  keep you
alive for Charlie. I bet you two have a lot to talk about."
     In truth, I didn't  have a clue  what they'd do. I just wanted to  kill
that smile.
     "I hear he had his own brother-in-law crucified.  Just think  what he's
going to do to you ..."
     As  I  heard  heli noise  almost directly overhead I  ran  over to  the
console and flicked the lighter. The  fuel ignited  instantly. They  mustn't
fall into Charlie's hands; then all he would need was another missile and he
would be back in business.
     I turned and ran from the  flames. Passing Pizza Man, I couldn't resist
giving him a taste of the kind of kicking I'd got in Kennington.
     He did the same as I  had, just curled  up and took it. I  heard shouts
from the track. Charlie's boys were here.
     I flicked the Zippo again and tossed it on to the dump.
     As  the roar of  the Hueys  became almost  deafening, I shouldered  the
rucksacks, picked up  the weapon, and ran into the jungle as fast as the mud
on my boots would let me.
     FORTY-TWO
     Friday 15 September  Pulling down the visor to shade me from the sun, I
watched  through the dirty  windscreen  as passenger after passenger,  laden
with oversized cases, was dropped off outside Departures. I felt a twinge of
pain in my calf and adjusted myself in the seat to stretch my damaged leg as
the roar of jet engines followed an aircraft into the clear blue sky.
     There had been enough anti-surveillance drills en route  to the airport
to throw  off Superman,  but  still I  sank  into the seat  and watched  the
vehicles that came and went, trying to remember if I had seen any of them or
their drivers earlier.
     The  dash  digital said it was nearly  three  o'clock, so I  turned the
ignition key  to power up the radio,  scanning the AM channels for news even
before the antenna  had fully risen. A stern American female  voice was soon
informing me that  there were unconfirmed  reports that PARC were behind the
failed missile attack, which appeared to have been aimed  at shipping in the
Panama  canal. It was sort of  old news now and  low down the running order,
but it seemed that after it  launched, fishermen saw the missile fly  out of
control before falling into the  bay  less  than half a mile from the shore.
The US had already reestablished a presence in the republic as they were now
trying to fish out the missile and set up de fences to stop any such further
terrorist attacks.
     The polished voice continued, "With approximately twelve thousand armed
combatants, PARC  is  Colombia's  oldest, largest,  most  capable  and  best
equipped  insurgency. It  was originally  the military wing of the Colombian
Communist  Party, and  is organized  along  military lines.  PARC  has  been
anti-US since  its inception in 1964. President Clinton said today that Plan
Colombia,  the one  point three  billion-'  I flicked it  back on to the  FM
Christian channel and hit the  off switch before cutting the ignition again.
The  antenna retracted with  a quiet electric buzz. It  was the first bit of
news  I'd heard about the incident.  I had done my  best to avoid  all media
these  past  six days,  but  hadn't  been  able  to  resist  any  longer the
temptation to find out what had happened.
     The injury still hurt. Pulling up  one leg of my cheap and baggy jeans,
I inspected  the clean dressing on my calf and  had a little scratch  at the
skin above  and  below  it as a jet  thundered  just above  the  car park on
finals.
     It had  taken three long, wet and  hot days  to walk out of the jungle,
clean  myself up, and  hitch  a ride  into  Panama  City. The  rucksacks had
contained no food, so it was back to jungle  survival skills and digging out
roots on the move. But at least I could lie on the rucksacks and keep out of
the  mud, and although they didn't fit very well, the spare  clothes  helped
keep the mozzies off my head and hands at night.
     Once I'd reached the city, I  dried out the two hundred odd dollars I'd
lifted from the guys in the house in the sun  and the blood flaked  off them
like thin  scabs.  I bought clothes and the dirtiest room in the old quarter
that didn't care as long as I paid cash.
     Up  until  Tuesday,  four days  ago, my credit  card  still hadn't been
cancelled,  so it looked as if things were still OK with the Yes Man.  After
I'd cleaned myself up, I went into a bank  and took out  the max  I could on
it, $12,150, at some  ripoff exchange rate, before using my ticket to Miami.
From there I took a train to Baltimore, Maryland. It had taken  two days  on
four trains, never buying a ticket for more than a hundred dollars so as not
to  arouse  suspicion. After  all,  who pays cash for  any  journey  costing
hundreds?  Only people who  don't want a  record  of their movements, people
like me.  That's  why the purchase  of  airline  tickets for  cash is always
registered. I hadn't minded the Yes Man  knowing  I  was out of Panama as he
tracked me to Miami, but that was all I'd wanted him to know.
     But now,  three days  later,  who knew?  Sundance  and  Trainers  might
already be sightseeing in Washington, even phoning that  half-sister to tell
her that once they'd finished off some  business they'd come to New York for
a visit.
     I  heard  the door  handle go and Josh was at the window  of his black,
doublecabbed Dodge gas-guzzler. One hand pulled  open the driver's door, the
other cradled a Starbucks and a can of Coke.
     I took the coffee as he climbed into the driver's seat,  and  muttered,
Thanks',  as I  placed the  paper  cup  in  the  centre console  holder.  My
fingernails and  prints  were still ingrained with  jungle dirt; they looked
like I'd been washing my hands  in grease. It would take a few more days yet
to wash out after my holiday from hygiene.
     Josh's eyes stayed  on  the entrance to the long-term  multi-storey car
park, the other side of our short-term one.  A line of  vehicles was waiting
to take a ticket and for the barrier to raise.
     "Still thirty minutes to push until we're due," he said.
     "We'll drink them here."
     I nodded, and pulled back on the ring pull  as  he tested the hot brew.
Anything  he said was  OK by  me today.  He had picked me up at the station,
driven me about  for  the last  two hours,  and had listened  to what I  was
proposing. And now here we were, at Baltimore International airport, where I
should have arrived from Charles  de Gaulle in the first  place, and he  had
even bought me a Coke.
     He still  looked  the  same, shiny  brown  bald head, still hitting the
weights, gold-rimmed glasses that somehow  made him look more  menacing than
intellectual.
     From my side I couldn't see the torn sponge scar on his face.
     The Starbucks was still a bit  too hot for him so he  nursed  it in his
hands.
     After a  while  he turned towards  me. I knew  he hated me: he couldn't
hide it  from his  face, or the way  he talked to me. I would have  felt the
same, in his shoes.
     There'll be rules," he said. 'You hear what I'm saying?"
     Another jet came down over the wagon and he shouted over the roar as he
pointed every other word at me.
     "You are first going to sort out this shit you've got us all in, man. I
don't care  what it's about or what you have to do just finish it. Then, and
only then, you call  me. Only then we talk. We don't deserve this shit. It's
a grim deal, man."
     I nodded. He was right.
     Then,  only  when that's done,  this is how  it's going  to  be like  a
divorced couple,  a  couple that  do the right thing by their kids. You fuck
that  up, you fuck yourself up. It's the only way  it's  going to  work. You
hearing me? It's the last chance you're ever getting."
     I nodded, feeling relieved.
     We sat  there  and  drank,  both of us checking the vehicles  that were
trying to find a space.
     "How's the Christian thing going?"
     "Why?"
     'You're swearing a lot nowadays ..."
     "What the fuck do you expect? Hey, don't worry about my faith, I'll see
you if you ever get there."
     That  put paid to that  conversation. We  sat for another  ten minutes,
watching vehicles and listening to the aircraft. Josh gave occasional  sighs
as he thought about what he had agreed to. He was certainly not happy, but I
knew  he would do it anyway, because it was the right thing. He finished the
Starbucks and put the cup `<49' into the console holder.
     That recycled paper?"
     He looked at me as if I was mad.
     "What? What7s with you?"
     "Recycled, the cup. A lot of trees are used making those things."
     "How many?"
     "I don't know a lot."
     He picked  up  the cup.  The  sleeve says sixty per  cent post-consumer
recycled fibre feel better now, O spirit of the fucking woods?"
     The cup went back into the holder.
     "Meanwhile, uptown ... they're here."
     We drove out of the car park and followed signs for long stay,
     eventually turning into the multi-storey.  I  bent  down into the  foot
well  as if I'd dropped something  as  we  approached the barrier and ticket
machine.  The last thing Josh  needed was  a picture of us together at  this
time.
     I could  see plenty of empty spaces but we  drove straight up the ramps
to the second-to-last floor. The top floor was  probably uncovered, and open
to observation.  This  was  the  next  best floor: there  wouldn't  be  many
vehicles  coming up this far,  and those that did  would be easier  to check
out. I had to hand it to Josh, the guy was thorough.
     We pulled into a space and Josh nodded at a metallic green Voyager with
a  mass  of  cartoon-character baby  sun screens  pulled  down,  effectively
blacking out the rear. The plates were "Maine -the Vacation State'.
     "Five  minutes, got it? This is  dangerous, she's my  sister, for God's
sake."
     I nodded and reached for the handle.
     "Just  remember,  man,  she  missed  you  last  week.  You  screwed  up
big-time."
     I got out and as I approached the Voyager the front window powered down
to  reveal a woman  in her  mid-thirties, black and  beautiful, with relaxed
hair pulled back in a bun. She  gave an anxious half-smile and indicated for
me to go round to the sliding door as she got out.
     "I appreciate this."
     There was  no  answer from her  as  she went  over to Josh's  wagon and
climbed in next to him.
     I felt some apprehension at seeing  Kelly.  I  hadn't done so for  just
over a month now.  I slid the door across.  She  was  strapped into the rear
seat, staring at me, a little confused, maybe a little wary, as I got inside
to conceal us both.
     It's incredible how much children seem to change if you  don't see them
every day.  Kelly's hair was cut  much shorter  than when I'd last seen her,
and it made her look about five years  older.  Her eyes and nose seemed more
defined somehow, and her mouth a bit larger, like a young Julia Roberts. She
was going to be the spitting image of her mother.
     I put on my smiley face, moving baby toys out of the way to sit down in
the row in front of her.
     "Hello, how are you?" Nothing exuberant, nothing over the top as  I sat
between two strapped-in baby seats and looked back at her. The reality of it
was, I just wanted to throw  my  arms  around  her and give her the  world's
biggest hug, but didn't dare  risk it. She might not  want me to;  maybe  it
felt strange and new to her as well.
     Something the size of a Jumbo  was taxiing upwind of us. I could hardly
hear  myself think and  stuck my finger in my  ear and made a funny face. At
least I got a smile from her.
     Josh's  sister had left  the engine ticking over, and I could  feel the
air conditioning working overtime as I pulled myself over  the back rest and
kissed her cheek. There wasn't any coldness in her reaction, but nothing  in
the way  of exhilaration either. I understood:  why get excited, only to  be
let down?
     "It's great to see you. How are you?"
     "Fine ... what are those lumps on your face?"
     "I got stung by some wasps. Anyway, what are you up to?"
     "I'm  on a vacation with Monica are you going to stay with us? You said
you were coming to see me last week."
     "I know,  I know, it's just that... Kelly,  I... Listen, I'm  sorry for
not doing all the things I said I would with you. You know, call, come visit
when I said I would. I  always wanted to do those things, it was just, well,
stuff, you know."
     She nodded as if she knew. I was glad one of us did.
     "And now I've mucked it up again and have to go away for  a while today
.. . but I really wanted to see you, even if it was only for a few minutes."
     There was a roar  that  almost made  the  Voyager  shake as  the  jumbo
thundered down the runway and lifted into the sky. I waited, frustrated that
I couldn't say what I wanted to until the noise died.
     "Look, maybe I was jealous of  Josh when you  started to live with him,
but now I know it's the right thing, the best thing. You need to be with his
gang, having fun, going to  Monica's for a holiday. So what  I've worked out
with Josh is, once I come back  from sorting some stuff out, I'll be able to
do things you know, coming to see you, calling, going on holiday.  I want to
do all those things with you, because I miss you so much and think about you
all the time.  But it has to be like this now, you  have to  live with Josh.
That make sense?"
     She just looked and nodded as I carried on, barely taking breath.
     "But just  now I've got to make sure I finish  stuff so  that I can  do
those things with you.
     That OK?"
     "We will go on vacation? You said we would one day."
     "Absolutely. It might  not be  immediately,  though. After you get back
from Monica's you'll be going to a teacher for a while,  and I have  to sort
out... well..."
     "Stuff?"
     We smiled. That's right. Stuff."
     Monica opened her door with a wide smile for Kelly.
     "We gotta go, honey."
     Kelly looked at me with an expression that I couldn't read, and for one
terrible moment I thought she was going to cry.
     "Can I talk with Dr. Hughes?"
     Concern must have been written all over my face.
     "Why? Why's that?"
     Her face conjured up an enormous grin.
     "Well, my dad just divorced my other dad.
     I got issues."
     Even Monica laughed.
     "You been watching too much Ricki Lake, honey!"
     She closed the door on a smiling Kelly and Monica drove out.
     Josh spoke through  his window as I  walked back, watching  his  sister
leave.
     "You'll get the transportation for the train station outside Arrivals."
     I nodded and turned towards the lift with a  small wave, but he  wanted
to say more.
     "Look, man, maybe you ain't quite the dwarf I thought you were. But you
still gotta sort your shit out, then  we get to sort our shit. You gotta get
a grip of your life, man, get some religion, anything."
     I  nodded as  he drove  out, two vehicles behind the Voyager, and leant
against a concrete support as another aircraft thundered overhead on finals.
     She was fucked up enough and the  way I acted made it worse. But I  was
no longer going to sign her  over to Josh  and  walk away. That was the easy
way  out. She  not only needed but  deserved two  parents, even if they were
divorced. I hoped that me being there, if only a little, was better than not
at all. Besides, I wanted to be there.
     So that was the plan. Once  I had  sorted out the 'stuff, I'd come back
here and we'd do it correctly. Sort out visitation rights, and a system that
gave Kelly what she needed, structure to her life and the knowledge that the
people around her were there for her.
     However, the  'stuff wasn't going to be easy.  Two obstacles had to  be
overcome if  I wanted to stop  me,  Kelly, and even Josh  and  his lot, from
being targets now and for ever.
     George and the Yes Man.
     The  long-term solution to  this problem had to be through George. He'd
be able to call  off the  dogs. And the way  to contact him would be through
Carrie. How I was going to do this I hadn't a clue, because George was going
to  be severely  pissed off. That was a whole  new world that I hadn't  even
started to work out yet.
     First I needed  to get  to Marblehead, and the two trains I was  taking
would get  me there by six  tomorrow morning. It  shouldn't be  hard to find
Carrie, or her mother. The place wasn't that big.
     As for the short-term problem of the Yes Man,  he had to be dealt  with
quickly, just in  case  Sundance and  Trainers were already  on their way. I
still had the security blanket, which I'd tell George about,  and Kelly  was
safe. The Left Luggage ticket was valid  for three months and hidden  behind
one of the pay phones at Waterloo. I would have to go and get it before then
and put it somewhere else.
     No way was  I going to call  him yet, though. The call would be traced.
I'd do that tomorrow, when the train got me into  Boston South. Or maybe I'd
call  once I  got into  Union  Station  in  Washington,  before getting  the
connection north.
     Then I thought, Why bother going back to the UK at  all? What was there
waiting for me apart from the sports bag?
     I  started to  fantasize and  thought that maybe,  if I played my cards
right,  George could even fix me  up with a  US  passport. After all,  I had
stopped  the system getting  into PARC's hands and maybe sticking out of the
top of an aircraft carrier. I'd say that was pretty Stars and Stripes.
     I pushed away  from the  concrete  and reached the lift  as  the  doors
opened  and a  couple pushed  out  a luggage trolley  carrying far too  many
suitcases.
     Who  knows? Maybe while  I was  sorting stuff  out, Carrie would let me
sleep on her mother's couch.
     Andy  McNab  joined  the  infantry as  a  boy  soldier. In 1984 he  was
'badged' as a  member of 22 SAS Regiment and was involved in both covert and
overt special  operations worldwide  During  the Gulf War he commanded Bravo
Two  Zero,  a patrol  that, in the words  oi  his  commanding officer, 'will
remain regimental history for ever'. Awarded both the Distinguished  Conduct
Medal (DCM) and the Military Medal  (MM), McNab  was the British Army's most
highly decorated  serving soldier when  he finally left  the SAS in February
1993 He wrote about his experiences in twc phenomenal bestsellers, Bravo Two
Zero, whicr was filmed in 1998 starring Scan Bean, and Immediate Action.
     His  novels,  Remote  Control,  Crisis  Four  and  Firewall,  were  all
bestsellers.
     Besides  his  writing  work, he lectures to  security and  intelligence
agencies in both the USA and the UK.

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