Authors: Danny King
1.TO READ OR DIE
“Well I thought it was bollocks,” said Mr Cooper, stunning no one. This was MrCooper’s assessment of everything: films, music, museums, exhibitions or rollercoasters. In fact, if you’d thought of it, spent five years developing it,registered patents to protect it, trademarks and copyrights, then employed ateam of highly skilled and dedicated professionals to put it all together, MrCooper would take one look at it and dismiss it as bollocks without breakinghis train of thought.
Inthis case we were talking about a book.
“It didn’t make sense. I mean one minutehe’s walking around being an adult, the next he’s a kid again. I didn’t knowwhat was going on. And what was all that stuff with his missus? She was allover the place an’ all. One chapter she’s a girl, the next she’s a woman. Andhe’s married to her? I couldn’t follow a bleeding word of it.”
“Yeah well, there was something of a cluein the title, Mr Cooper,” Mr Chang pointed out.
MrCooper looked at the cover of the book and rolled his face.
“TheTime Traveler’s Wife. Bit obvious isn’t it?” he reckoned.
There was no reasoning with Mr Cooperwhen he was in this sort of mood; his mind was made up and there was nothing I,nor anyone else, could do about it. Some people were just like this. Somepeople felt uncomfortable about leaving themselves open to new experiences sothey slammed the door shut at the first sign of the unfamiliar and wedged achair under the handle in case they inadvertently found themselves likingSense and SensibilityorWho Framed Roger Rabbit.
“Well what about everybody else? Didanyone like it?” I asked the assembled lads.
“Yeah, I liked it a lot,” said Mr Smith.“It was a really clever and romantic story. And I liked how it came full circleand how all the strands connected to other strands. I mean, Henry and Clare’sstory wasn’t like a traditional story that unfolded bit by bit, but more afoggy whole that gradually came into sharp focus as the book went on. I thoughtit was beautiful. Really really lovely.”
“Yeah, and I liked the stuff where he wasa kid,” Mr Chang agreed. “When he goes back in time and shows himself the ropesand tutors himself about his life to come. That was good.”
“I thought there could’ve been more ofthat stuff to be honest,” Mr Petrov said. “I liked the time travelling chaptersthe best but they got less and less as the book went on. It became more abouthis relationship with Clare rather than about him going back in time, which Ithought was the most interesting stuff.”
“No, his relationship with Clare was thewhole story,” Mr Chang disagreed. “The time travel aspect merely set what isbasically an old fashioned love story against a… a… a… supernatural backdrop.”
“Well I just liked the time travelstuff,” Mr Petrov maintained. “I thought there could’ve been more of it. Hetalked about other trips he’d been on and said he sometimes went back andforwards fifty years into the past and the future so I would’ve liked to haveseen more of those chapters and less of the ones with him and Clare washing thedishes.”
“Man, you’ve got no soul,” Mr Smith toldhim.
“Hey, I didn’t say I didn’t like it. Ithought it was great, but who watchesJurassicParkfor the kids?” Mr Petrov said.
“Who doesn’t?” Mr Schultz chuckled,rubbing his hands together and beaming broadly to remind me of the company Iwas keeping.
“Bottom line, it was a page turner…” MrChang started before his beeper interrupted him. “Oh damn, I’ve got to go,” hefrowned, looking around for his stuff.
“Okay, well before we all dash off, let’stake a vote on it. What marks are we giving it?” I asked.
“Out of five?” Mr Smith asked. “Five,” heshrugged.
“What’s the highest, five or nothing?” MrChang double-checked before committing.
“Five of course. Who’s going to base aseries of scoring on nothing being the highest?” I pointed out, imagining MrChang in Blockbusters with half a dozen 0/5 turkeys under his arm.
“I’ll give it four and a half then.”
“No halves. They make it harder to tot upthe final scores.”
“Alright then five.”
“Four, but mostly for the gay wankingstuff,” he winked, making sure we all knew what page his copy would flop opento if dropped.
“Four. But it would’ve got a five ifthere’d been more about the time travelling, like if he’d gone back to thestone age and had a look around then.”
“Itwasn’t meant to beDoctor Who,” Ireminded him. “Mr Cooper?”
“Nothing. It was bollocks,” he grunted.
“Hey you can’t give it nothing, that’sjust stupid,” Mr Chang objected.
“I can give it what I want, it’s myscore, if I wanna give it nothing, I’ll give it nothing,” Mr Cooper insisted,standing up to meet Mr Chang’s challenge.
“But you’re going to drag all our scoresdown with your protest zero,” Mr Petrov fumed.
“Then you should’ve picked a better book,shouldn’t you!” Mr Cooper glared, giving us a glimpse into what this was reallyall about, namely our collective and unanimous veto against his suggestion,Vinnie: My Lifeby Vinnie Jones.
“He isentitled,” it pained me to confirm, although I mentally put aside a big fatzero for Mr Cooper’s next nomination, even if it was my own autobiography.
Theroom settled down and all eyes turned to me.
“Five,” I shrugged, upping my own scoreby a point to redress the injustice.
“Oh, you fucker!” Mr Cooper spat.
“Which givesThe Time Traveler’s Wifeand provisional total of… about threepoint eight out of five,” I declared doing the maths on a scrap of paper. “Welldone Mr Chang, good suggestion.”
Mr Chang looked suitably pleased withhimself, then slipped his mag belt over his arm and reached for his BerettaModel 12.
All at once my own beeper burst intosong, quickly followed by the beepers of Mr Cooper, Mr Smith, Mr Petrov and MrSchultz.
“Hang on a minute, what is this?” Ibaulked, looking around at the equally anxious faces of my fellow readers.
“Let’s go!” Mr Cooper said, grabbing hiswebbing and SPAS 12 as the rest of us tore into our equipment, pulling on ourKevlar and lock & loading our weapons. My own choice of weapon was theAustrian-made AUG 9 Para. It was converted from the Steyr AUG assault rifle, soit’s a lot more accurate than most other 9-mm sub-machine guns. And this jobhad been good because we’d been allowed to pick our own weapons. I hated thosejobs where they forced you carry around whatever guns they wanted you to carryjust for the aesthetic beauty of seeing fifty blokes all lined up in matchingorange boiler suits with crappy M16s.
“Come on!” Mr Chang said, kicking openthe door of the Pump House and charging out into the jungle.
“Wait,” I shouted after him. “Hold up!”
Meand the others followed hard on Mr Chang’s heels, out of our unofficial bookclub HQ and up the hill towards the main bunker network. As soon as we wereoutside we heard the explosions: great big booming blasts and accompanyingcracks that were coming from the direction of the command structure and DoctorThalassocrat’s Tidal Generator.
Through the blasts I could also make outthe crackle of gunfire and agonised screams, so I tried to reach the CommandCentre on my radio, but there was no response.
“What are you doing? Come on!” Mr Cooperbarked at me when he saw me slowing up.
“Wait!” I insisted. “We don’t even knowwhat we’re running into.”
“Trouble,” growled Mr Schultz, snappingback the shoulder stock on his M203 theatrically, like a big idiot. “And it’sgoing to get its ass kicked.”
He, Mr Cooper and Mr Petrov ran on afterMr Chang, leaving me to urge caution to Mr Smith.
“Just be careful mate. If this place hasbeen overrun already then there ain’t no point sprinting into a hail ofbullets.”
“I agree,” Mr Smith nodded, “but we’dbetter make a show of it if we don’t want to get chiselled for our dough.” Andwith that Mr Smith ran off up the hill and towards the sounds of disaster.
I made sure my Kevlar was firmly done upbefore following, reaching the crest of the rise after five minutes of huffingand puffing through the vegetation. There I found Mr Smith, Mr Schultz, MrPetrov and Mr Cooper, but there was no sign of Mr Chang, though I didn’t noticethis at first in light of the sight that greeted us. From the crest of the hillwe could see the whole of the island and down towards the eastern coastline Ispotted the command structure – or at least what was left of it. Theshiny steel and glass tower that had previously dominated the tree line was nowa twisted smoking heap on the jungle floor. Enormous balls of flames billowedinto the air as each of the tower’s twenty-two condenser units blasted into thenext. And way down on the coastline itself, the once dominating Tidal Generatorwas completely gone, lost to the deep forever.
“Oh dear,” Mr Smith clucked. “Looks likewe’re out of work again guys.”
“But how?” Mr Schultz asked, apoplectic.
Theanswer jetted over our heads a second later; Jack Tempest, agent XO-11 of theBritish Secret Service, ripped away in Doctor Thalassocrat’s escape rocket withthat old bike he’d come ashore with the previous day. To add insult to injury,as he was passing overhead, Tempest clocked us and gave us his best shit-eatingsalute before disappearing out into the big wide blue of the Pacific Ocean.
“What a wanker!” Mr Cooper said, voicingall our thoughts for us.
“Come on, let’s at least see if there’sanything we can salvage.”
Jack Tempest was Britain’s most decoratedExecutive Officer and a right royal pain in the arse to boot. He was foreverlanding in other people’s ointment and ruining everything for everyone. Andsome of these jobs had taken a lot of time and effort to set up. I’d been ontwo outings he’d scuppered in the past, though my friend Mr Rodríguez had beenon four. Imagine that? Four jobs? I mean it wasn’t like we didn’t havemortgages to pay but no one worried about that, did they? At least the Britishgovernment didn’t. I’d already borrowed twenty grand off Linda’s folks just tostay afloat and I’d promised them I’d be able to pay it back by the end of theyear – with interest. Now that had gone for a Burton too.
I couldn’t even understand how it hadcome to this. We’d had him. We’d had him banged to rights. Mr Chang and I hadpersonally caught him on the Tidal Generator, found the explosives he’d beenplanting and taken him to see Doctor Thalassocrat.
“Well done men, excellent work,” we’d beencongratulated at the time. “Sweep the entire island and make sure Tempestdidn’t have company,” which we’d done, finding that little blonde side kick ofhis with the tiny arse and distracting cleavage hiding down by the docks. Wecouldn’t have done any more.
By the time we’d gone off duty, JackTempest and his squeeze had been sealed inside Thalassocrat’s main water pipe,bracing themselves for a quick swim through the turbines, which is whatThalassocrat had been dying to do to someone for ages, the horrible bastard.Yet here we were a few hours later, with our base in bits and our boss nowhereto be seen – just an ominous red cloud of chum floating in the bay fivehundred yards away, driving the seagulls potty.
Worse than that we then found Mr Chang. Hewas lying a hundred yards away from the rocket launch pad with his head tornopen and a look of total surprise frozen onto his face. But then what had heexpected tearing off like that in the direction of gunfire without a clue as towhat he was running into? It was so pointless. Such a waste.
“Are we still counting his score?” MrCooper asked.
“Yes we are, you nasty git.”
“Just a thought.”
I went through Mr Chang’s pockets andfound his Agency ID card before cautiously pressing on.
We couldn’t get anywhere near the commandstructure, it was too much of an inferno, so me, Mr Petrov and Mr Smith roundedup what was left of the men while Mr Cooper and Mr Schultz checked out theboats. The first one blew up the moment Mr Cooper started the engine, erasinghim and his zero from the face of the Earth, while Mr Schultz was a bit morecautious, locating the pack of C4 connected to the second boat’s ignition, onlyto take out the entire dock when he rested his rifle against the wrong rubberring.
“Christ almighty!” I cried as the shockwave knocked us onto our faces. Bits of boat and berth rained back down as meand Mr Petrov dived into a nearby cave for cover.
“Tempest has booby-trapped this wholefucking island,” Mr Petrov said and this was further confirmed when one of ourfellow survivors, Mr Fedorov, picked up a watch he’d spotted in the wash andpaid for the lapse dearly. I raced down to the beach when I’d heard his screamsand could barely bring myself to look at what I found there.
“Oh God, help!” he was choking as bloodpoured into the sands from a broken stump that used to be his arm. “Help,please help. Please. I want to go home. I want to go home,” he said over andover again in Russian.
I did everything I could to try and stemthe bleeding, tying a tourniquet around his elbow and giving him morphine toease his pain but Mr Fedorov soon lost consciousness and drifted off into asleep from which he’d never awake. Poor old Fedorov, I’d really liked that guy.He used to tell brilliant jokes, even in English, though I could never rememberthem afterwards to tell anyone else. Mr Fedorov stored them up like a computerthough and often had the whole mess in stitches. The only joke of his I couldremember was this one: What has eight legs, four wings and gives ugly Americansheart attacks? KFC’s Bargain Bucket.
I thought about this joke as I tucked MrFedorov’s ID card into my pocket but now it just made me sad, so I took myjacket off, laid it across Mr Fedorov’s face and headed down the southernshoreline where Mr Smith and the others were waiting.
“Did you send the signal?” I askedCaptain Campbell, the highest-ranking surviving officer, when I got there.
“Yeah,” Captain Campbell confirmed with aglower, and so that was that. The Agency would come and pick us up –hopefully before the UN, or worse still, the US got here – and we’d liveto fight another day. We wouldn’t get paid because The Agency would keep ourentire signing on fees to pay for the service but at least we’d be spared aprolonged vacation water-boarding in Guantanamo Bay, or wherever it was theydid that from these days. Not that this brought much comfort to many, not afterspending six months in this Godforsaken dot in the ocean, putting up withMosquitoes, lice, crabs, jelly fish, Thalassocrat’s tantrums and bloody VinnieJones’s highs and lows courtesy of Mr Cooper. Some things could nevercompensate a man enough for that.
“Where were you guys?” Captain Campbellasked, almost accusingly.
“Off duty. Where were you?” I asked rightback in case he felt like pointing the finger.
“You weren’t in the barracks,” CaptainCampbell worked out for himself, seeing as the barracks were no longerstanding. “What were you doing? Drinking or something?”
“No actually, we were reading,” Mr Smithanswered for me when he saw I was getting ready to stick one on Thalassocrat’schief tea boy.
“Reading? Jesus!” Captain Campbellsneered, pulling a face but saying no more on the subject.
We sat on the sands under the baking hotsun for a few more minutes, checking our weapons and the horizon for the rescueplane before Mr Ali broke the silence just behind me.
“What were you reading?” he asked.“Anything good?”
2.FROM THE PACIFIC WITH EMPTY POCKETS
The extraction team arrive three hours later. A big Beriev Be-200 swooped lowover the island dropping dinghies and life jackets into the water and landing aquarter of a mile out to sea. Most of us swam out to the dinghies, but CaptainCampbell had to take charge of one of them and go back for the guys who were eithertoo wounded to make it on their own or bleeding too heavily to swim in theseinfested waters.
Captain Takahashi was at the door to helpus on board, meaning it was station Japan that had been dispatched to pick usup.
“Hey boys, no joy?” he guessed as hehelped each of us on board. “Never mind, we got hot drinks and cold beer foryou on the plane. Just make yourselves comfortable and leave everything to mycrew.”
Captain Takahashi had picked me up beforeand he remembered me when he ran my Agency ID card through the scanner.
“Ah, I get you before, in Siberia wasn’tit?”
“Yes, I remember. Thank you for pickingus up Captain,” I replied, as it never hurt to kiss the arse of someone who hadthe power to kick you out over the middle of the Pacific.
“You not having a good run, no?” CaptainTakahashi deduced.
“It seems not Captain,” I sighed,accepting his hand and climbing aboard.
“Well we take good care of you today, youhear? Captain Takahashi number one friend to boys in trouble,” CaptainTakahashi reassured me, handing me back my card and pointing me in thedirection of one of his saucy oriental attendants. “You go with her and justtake it easy my friend, okay?”
“Okay,” I agreed, receiving a little bowfrom the beautiful porcelain girl in front of me. I made to head back to theseats but the girl stood her ground in front of me.
“Excuse me, but I will take that nowplease,” she said, dropping her eyes to the AUG 9 slung over my back to remindme this job was over.
“Ohyes, sorry,” I said, slipping the gun off my shoulder and handing it to her.She removed the clip, ejected the chambered round and stowed the rifle in alocker at the front with the rest of the boys’ weapons. I handed over my Glock21, Taser, Mace, field knife and brass knuckles too before I was passed back toanother equally beautiful attendant and shown to my seat.
“Wehope you enjoy your flight. If there is anything you require today, please letus know,” she said, handing me a complimentary packet of peanuts and aminiature bottle of Japanese whisky, before returning to the front of theaircraft.
Ohyes, Captain Takahashi and his famously sexy flight attendants. He was wellknown for them the business over, which is probably why he got so many jobs nowthat I come to think of it. But I wouldn’t have dared try it on with any of hisgirls, not without a parachute. Takahashi’s attendants were strictly for showonly.
You see, not all of the people who’d beenemployed by Doctor Thalassocrat were on The Agency’s books. Some of them camefrom other outfits, some were long time associates known to Thalassocratpersonally, while others worked freelance – like the lab technicians forexample.
These were the guys who really came acropper on this job.
Threelab technicians survived the inferno and swam out to the plane with the rest ofus. One of them was stupid enough to try using a dead Agency guy’s ID to get onboard the plane and the same pretty girl who’d taken and stored my weapon amoment earlier now drew her own and shot him straight between the eyes withoutso much as a bow. There was always one, wasn’t there? On every pick-up, therewas always one.
The attendant slipped her weapon out ofsight again and carried on disarming the boys as they came aboard with a smileand a bow as if she’d done no more than have a quiet word with an unrulypassenger, but no one was left in any doubt as to the perils of trying it onwith Captain Takahashi. The other technicians were wise enough identifythemselves up front as not being on The Agency’s books and had to agree torecompense The Agency for their passage home. They are expensive tickets at twomillion dollars a seat but preferable to option B.
As for the boys with rival outfits, theywere in a slightly more fortunate position in that their bills got sentdirectly to their own agencies. If their outfits had standing agreements withThe Agency, that was. If not, then they too were advised to have a few millionair miles going spare or a rubber dinghy and arms like Popeye.
Captain Takahashi’s co-pilot popped hishead out of the cockpit and barked something at the Captain in Japanese. Icouldn’t understand the words but body language is the same the world over,particularly the body language of someone who’d just seen the Old Bill closingfast on the radar. Captain Takahashi barked something back at him and theco-pilot disappeared to start the engines as Captain Takahashi finisheddragging the rest of the survivors on board.
Captain Campbell and the worst of theinjured men were last to be pulled on board. One of them, another Russian Ijust about recognised as Mr Andreev, was in a terrible state. I really couldn’tsee him lasting the journey, but Captain Takahashi took the time to get himonboard all the same because he held an Agency card. A few of the moreunscrupulous blokes I’ve worked for would’ve just put two in his head and lefthim for the sharks, but Captain Takahashi didn’t even contemplate it despitehis co-pilot’s running commentary over the intercom. He eased him through thedoor, then slammed it shut the moment Mr Andreev’s ankles were over thethreshold and shouted at his co-pilot to step on it.
Two of Captain Takahashi’s girls laid ontop of Mr Andreev to stop him from plummeting down the aisles, while the restof us were slammed back into our seats as the plane accelerated across thewater. Captain Takahashi wasn’t the sort of bloke to let a take-off stop himfrom wandering around his own plane though and he fought his way forward untilhe was behind his seat and flipping buttons alongside his co-pilot.
The first of these pinged a seatbelt signon over all of our heads advising us that we were in for a bumpy take-off– as if we didn’t know – while rest started deploying flares andsmoke from the rear of the plane.
“Looks like it’s going to be a closeone,” Mr Petrov said in the seat alongside ofme and a momentlater we left the water and banked hard right.
All sorts of alarms started screaming inthe cockpit up front and Captain Takahashi responded by pumping chaff andflares out of the back to tell us Mr Petrov was more right than he knew. Abovethe din of the engines I heard a whoosh as the first missile ploughed throughthe chaff and missed our tail by a whisker, and suddenly we were banking hardleft. The plane was at a virtual right angle as Captain Takahashi dodged andweaved all over the sky and from the port side window I could suddenly see ourpursuers; three warships, stretched out across ten miles of open ocean andclosing in to mop up Tempest’s mess. While we’d been in the water we’d beensheltered by the island, but as soon as we’d taken off we’d announced ourselvesto their radar.
Captain Takahashi now dove toward the seahard and levelled off barely fifty feet from the waves, only to then sweep north.All around me faces and knuckles were almost opaque with fear, all except thoseof Captain Takahashi’s girls, who looked like they were having another mundaneday at the office.
A stream of white-hot tracer firesuddenly lit up the skies around us as our pursuers realised they were gettingnowhere with their Sea Sparrows but a little more dodging and weaving and wewere across the horizon and out of range. More Sparrows were launched after us,but Captain Takahashi’s bird was jam-packed with the latest radar deflectingtechnology and after two more minutes of aerial dodge ball, he flicked off theseat-belt sign and announced that this afternoon’s in-flight movie would beThe Time Bandits.
Eighteenof us survived Thalassocrat’s job. Nineteen if you want to count the labtechnician who’d got himself shot trying to sneak on board, but only eighteenof us made it onto the plane, lived through the take off and managed to last anhour ofTheTime Banditsbefore it was turned off by popular demand. It isn’t abad film, I’ve seen it before, but no one was in the mood to watch Snow White’smates running around history after we’d lost our wages – particularly thetwo surviving lab technicians who were near inconsolable at the thought ofhaving to sell their houses, belongings and spare kidneys to pay for theirflights home.
But you know what, eighteen wasn’t bad.
I’ve been on jobs where hardly anyonemade it through to the other side. That Siberian job that Captain Takahashi hadpicked me up from being a case in point. Only four of us had survived that one,which was probably why Captain Takahashi remembered me. He came back to my seatduring the flight and talked to me some more about that day.
“You worked with that fella with thefunny name, didn’t you? In Siberia? What was his name again?”
“Yes, that it,Polonipus Crumb,” the Captain laughed, shaking his head and urginghis girls to laugh along too. Some smiled politely, though the others justregarded me with cautious indifference. “Funny name him. Funny.”
And a funny end he met too, old Polonius.He’d had some potty notion about knocking the Earth off its axis by a dozendegrees to melt the polar ice caps and bring the Equator further north totransform the frozen tundras into rich fertile land – while sinking everyother square inch of rich fertile land under a few billion gallons of freshlyunfrozen sea water, you understand. Of course he didn’t have a clue, he didn’t.Even the lads on the job didn’t think he could do it, but he was a nice enoughbloke and paid well – in Russian gold no less. And if by some miracle hedid manage to pull it off… well, I’d rather be sunning myself with old Poloniuson the new Arctic Riviera than standing on my roof in Sussex wondering whereall this bloody water had come from.
But no, I don’t need to tell that you hedidn’t manage it. Russian agents backed by Spetsnaz commandos brought the wholeplace crashing down around our ears while we were testing his stupiddefridgerator (*patent pending). Polonius himself took a tumble into atemporarily defrosted lake trying to flee on his snowmobile, so that when theice set again he was frozen inside a big block of it like something out of aTom & Jerrycartoon. Apparently, Ididn’t see it myself, but the Russians cut him out and carted him off as asouvenir.
“Funny,” Captain Takahashi smiled again,squeezing my shoulder and heading back to the front check if Mr Andreev wantedThe Time Banditsback on.
Yeah hilarious. I’d ended up with mothsfluttering out of my pockets on that job too.
A little while later Mr Smith came overand sat with me.
“So Jones, what are you going to do whenyou get back?” he asked.
I rubbed my face and opened anotherlittle bottle of Japanese whisky. “I don’t know,” I shrugged. I hadn’t met MrSmith before this job but we’d got on well and become firm friends. He was anAmerican while I’m British so it’s natural for people who shared a commonlanguage to eat their sandwiches on the same table of any internationalcanteen, though it wasn’t just a language thing. Mr Chang for example, had beena lovely bloke, as had been Mr Fedorov, while I could’ve happily watched MrCooper getting blown up, and then revived, and blown up again all day long, soit was more than just a language I shared with Mr Smith. We shared a sense ofhumanity too. And in a profession predominated by killers and psychopaths thatwas a rare old thing.
“Are you going to re-register with TheAgency?” he asked, cracking open a half bottle of Okinawan Merlot.
“I don’t know,” I said, and I didn’t. Ididn’t want to. Tempest might’ve had nine lives but I only had the one and Iwas rather attached to it. But then again what choice did I have? This job wassupposed to have paid off my mortgage, settled my debts, gold-plated the farmand left me enough so that I never had to look at another price tag again.
If things had worked out.
“I’m going to,” Mr Smith said. “I’ve gotto go and see my kids first, but as soon as I’m done I’m heading over to Cody toput my name on the list again. Even if it’s a long termer, I don’t care, I’lldo it.”
Long term contracts, middle termcontracts and short term contracts. These were what we signed up for, withscant few other details available. Due to the generally secretive nature of thework we did, the employers cherry-picked their workforce, not the other wayaround, which makes sense if you think about it. No point tipping off MI6 orthe CIA about what you’re up to with a card in the front window advertising fordinner ladies with space station experience. All we got to know was the lengthof the contracts and how much they paid. Short term contracts were usuallyanything between a month to a year, middle term contracts between a year tofive years, while long term contracts could conceivably last the rest of yourlife. But then again, so could any of these contracts, so suck the bullets outof that if you please. Personally, I only ever signed up for short to middleterm contracts. I had plans, namely finishing off my farmhouse and filling itswardrobes with Italian suits, so I didn’t want to see out my days tunnellingtowards the Earth’s core in a silicone plastic bubble twenty thousand feetbeneath the Azores (unless the perks were exceptional).
“You’re not serious are you?” I asked.“Long term?”
Mr Smith just shrugged. “Gotta dosomething, I guess.”
“Signing your life away isn’t doingsomething, it’s doing nothing for the rest of your life, for no good reason.You can’t be that desperate,” which he couldn’t. Only refugees, unemployedTaliban and condemned men ever signed on for long term contracts. Guys fromPhiladelphia with nothing in the bank and debtors at the door may have beendesperate, but they couldn’t have been that desperate surely.
“How we’ve changed,” Mr Smith pondered.“A hundred years ago a job for life was what we all aspired to; safety andsecurity, knowing what we were going to be doing and how we were going to beeating when we were fifty-five. That was all we wanted. Now it’s seen as acurse. Interesting don’t you think?”
“Yeah,fascinating. Why not get a job at the Post Office then?” I suggested.
“I don’t like lines.”
“And your kids? What about them?”
Mr Smith didn’t answer. He merelycontemplated his cup of wine and glossed over that one with a frown. He didn’tsay more and I didn’t press him. Well you just don’t, do you. The fact that MrSmith was on The Agency’s books at all meant that his past was a no-go area,just as it was with mine and every other Affiliate on this plane. The basic rulewas, don’t ask and we won’t kill you. I knew Mr Smith had kids and returnedhome to the East Coast after each job because he’d felt comfortable enough toconfide this much personal information to me. Just as I’d been comfortableenough to confide in him that I lived in the south of England, had been marriedonce before and hated sweet corn on my pizzas. This was actually quite a lotfor Affiliates to tell one another. There were some fellas on this plane, likeMr Petrov for example, who I’d worked with several times before that didn’teven know this much about me. And vice versa by the way. Which was why we oftenlooked for other things to talk about. Safe things. Neutral things. Unrevealingthings.
As if to demonstrate, Mr Smith strokedhis stubble and finally said:
“I’ll tell you what, if we end up on thesame job again, we should start another book club, you and me. That was good,that was. I enjoyed that.”
“Yeah, sure,” I agreed, suddenlyremembering the late but unlamented Mr Cooper. “And if it turns out to be along contract, we can even read Vinnie Jones’s book if you like.”
Mr Smith chuckled. “Man you really dohave me down as desperate, don’t you?”
3.TIME ON TIME AGAIN
We landed in Sendai and spent the next two weeks debriefing to an infinite numberof Agency monkeys. Some Affiliates didn’t like the whole debriefing palaver,the sheer utter mind-numbing repetitiveness of the process, but it’s anecessary evil if The Agency are to continue to offer the service they do andwe’re all to stay out of prison.
Besides, the accommodation’s not bad andthere’s all the music, movies and exercise equipment you could wish to distractyourself with during your stay. And in return, all you had to do was repeat thesame story over and over and over again until you didn’t even know what thewords meant any more.
And then, just when you’d reached thepoint at which the words “I see, and what happened then?” caused you actualphysical pain, you were asked to repeat it all again some more.
It’s boring and it’s frustrating, annoying and exhausting, but no worsethan visiting your Nan in hospital. And as long as you stuck to the facts andyour account tallied with everyone else’s, you had nothing to worry about, noteven if you’d dropped the clanger that had sunk the whole sorry operation. TheAgency was good like that. They understood. I mean everyone makes mistakes,don’t they? We’re not robots, in spite of what some of our employers like tothink, so The Agency didn’t get nasty if you’d made a mistake, because whatwould be the point? It wouldn’t bring anyone back or resurrect whateverhare-brained scheme you accidentally thwarted when you left the front gatesopen and let all them Ninjas in, so they just made a note of what happened,what went wrong and who’s fault it was, then dropped you from their books toend your career. But that would be the worst of it. You wouldn’t get a bulletin the brain. Not if you’d been honest with them. As long as you’d been honestwith them, you’d usually be okay.
If, however, you tried lying or passing the buck that was generally whenyour head started developing new and unnecessary holes. The Agency has no timefor anyone with anything to hide, hence the repetitive debriefing. It’s thebest way to catch someone out.Deceptionslie flat when astory’s told in chronological order, as that’s the way a liar learns his lies.But if you were to turn the story around and ask it from a different angle, orfrom Mr Smith’s perspective or from Mr Cooper’s, suddenly that’s when the liesstand out, like boot polish on a bald spot or reading glasses on a footballer,and the façade begins to slip.
“And so who else was in this reading group of yours?”
“Mr Petrov, Mr Smith, Mr Chang, Mr Cooper, Mr Schultz and Mr Clinton.”
“So there were seven of you in the Pump House?”
“No, six of us; Mr Clinton was on duty.”
“But you were not?”
“No, we were all off-duty. Me and Mr Chang had just come off, while MrSmith, Mr Petrov and Mr Cooper were just about to go on.”
“And Mr Schultz?”
“It was his free day, so he wasn’t due on until the next morning.”
“I see. And the book you’d all read wasThe Time Machine?”
“No,The Time Traveler’s Wife.”
“Which scored three point six out of five?”
“No, three point eight out of five.”
“And who gave it the lowest score?”
“Mr Cooper, he gave it a zero.”
“Really? I thought it was rather good myself. Better than the film.”
“I haven’t seen it.”
“It had Eric Bana in it as the guy.”
“He was in theHulk.”
“Really? I thought that was Edward Norton.”
“No, they did a Hulk film before the Edward Norton one.”
“I don’t think I saw either of them.”
“He was also Henry the Eighth in that Anne Boleyn film with ScarlettJohanssonn.”
“No, Erica Bana, the guy inTheTime Traveler’s Wife.”
“Oh, I think I know who you mean now. Who was Clare?”
“I can’t remember.”
“I’ll have to look out for it.”
“I’d probably give it a three and a half.”
“No, the book.”
“That’s a bit harsh.”
“Yeah, I thought you said you thought it was rather good?”
“I did, but it wasn’t brilliant. It had some good bits in it, but Iwouldn’t say it was the best book I’d ever read. I was just saying it didn’tdeserve a zero, that’s all.”
“So when did you last see Mr Clinton?”
“We don’t do halves.”
“In the book club, we don’t do halves. It has to be a whole number.”
“But you saidThe Time Traveler’sWifescored three point eight out of five.”
“It did. But we all gave it a whole number score. It just came out asthree point eight as a mean average.”
“So what do you want to do, give it a three or a four?”
The interviewer thought on this for a moment before answering.
“Four,” he eventually concluded, another triumph for the gay wankingstuff no doubt.
After twelve days of debriefing, one of The Agency drivers drove me backto Sendai and I caught a commercial flight back to London via Tokyo. I didn’tsee Mr Smith when I left, but The Agency never releases its men at the sametime at the end of a debriefing so I didn’t think anything of it, although Idid wonder if I’d ever see him again. I hoped so, because we’d got on well andhad enjoyed a few nice chats during our time on the island. And in thistestosterone-charged business of ours, that’s a dividend that’s not to be takenfor granted.
I arrived back in Britain in the early hours of Sunday morning. I didn’tknow it was Sunday as I’d lost all track of the days over the last couple ofweeks, but I saw that it was when I saw the Sunday papers on a newspaper stand.
I bought a copy ofThe Observerand read it from cover to cover on the train down to Sussex but there was nomention of Thalassocrat, Nanawambai Atoll or Hawaii’s recent pickle with thePacific. But then again I didn’t think there would be. Very few of our jobsever made the headlines, not least of all because very few of them ever cameoff. But more because few governments felt the need to panic their people intorioting or taking to the hills on a daily basis, so most of these jobs wentunreported. After all, if the masses in the major metropolitan centres knewjust how many plots, plans and schemes there were to blow them up, sink them,freeze them, bury, blind or bugger them on any given week, property priceswould plunge through the mantle. And as most of the world’s governments werelittle more than glorified landlords, this was not a situation that would winanyone a stay in office.
This was also why most of the boys lived in the sticks and all of TheAgency’s branches were in piss-pot little backwaters like Cody, Lincoln,Furukawa and Limoges instead of New York, London, Tokyo or Paris. Well whatself-respecting megalomaniac would go to the trouble of destroying Limoges whenthey could be remembered for toppling the Eiffel Tower?
So most of us bought places far enough away from the seas to dodgetsunamis, high enough in the hills to escape flood waters and remote enoughfrom the neighbours to avoid questions.
My own little bolthole was a nineteenth century farmhouse just outsideof the town of Petworth in West Sussex. It had original oak beams, adjoiningstables, two acres of land and a mortgage you wouldn’t wish upon your worstenemy.
A cab dropped me off outside my gate just before lunch time and thedriver accepted the fact he wasn’t going to get a tip with all the grace of adog being pushed away from a plate of chips. But my Agency allowance had to seeme home, get my phone put back on, fill my larder with rice and tinned soupsand get my hair cut, so I was buggered if I was giving him an extra quid justfor demonstrating he could do twenty minutes on Tottenham Hotspurs without stoppingto breathe. Especially after I’d foregone the luxury of a First Class seat onthe way back from Tokyo just to bank a little extra.
I watched the cab vroom off up the winding country lane, checked mymailbox to see if I had any post and headed on through the gate and up mydrive.
After six months in the Pacific, almost two thousand hours on patrol,three fire fights, a hostile extraction, twelve days of debriefing andtwenty-four hours in transit, I was finally home.
4.IN-LAWS AND OUT-LAWS
The first thing I had to do was see Linda’s mum and dad in Arundel. Bill beamedwhen he opened the door, but his beam dipped a shade when he saw the apologeticlook I shone back at him.
“Not much Bill,” I shrugged, gutted to find myself in such anembarrassing position. “Sorry.”
Bill frowned, looked at the ground, nodded a couple of times thenrevived his smile.
“Well it’s good to see you anyway. Glad you’re in one piece. Let’s goand get a drink.”
Bill almost had his stick out of the brolly stand when Marjorie gave upcalling from the back room and came to see who’d just knocked on her door forherself.
“Mark!” she cried, wrapping her fingers around my neck and planting abig ruby kiss on my face.
“Oh it’s lovely to see you. Did you strike it rich?”
Bill and me exchanged withered looks.
“Not quite, Marjorie, no.”
“Well how much did you get?” she asked, refusing to read between thelines.
“Nothing I’m afraid. We struck out,” I shrugged.
“You struck out?” Marjorie glowered, letting go of me and stepping backinto the hallway. “What do you mean you struck out? What about our money?”
“Marjorie…” Bill started but Marjorie just cut him short.
“Shut up Bill. Now you listen here Mark, we lent you that money in goodfaith because you were in a hole, but we have no intention of subsidising youas well as our daughter so we’d like that money back if you don’t mind. Withinterest as promised, if you remember.”
“I said shut up Bill, I’m dealing with this.”
“Marjorie please, I’m so sorry but I don’t have it. Things didn’t workout…” I tried to explain but Marjorie wasn’t overly interested in what did ordidn’t work out. All she was interested in was the thirty grand’s worth ofinterest I’d promised her in April in order to convince her to let Bill lend methe money (that’s one hundred and fifty per cent in case you’re interested).
“You owe us that money!” she demanded. “You owe us that money and yousaid you’d have it by now.”
“I know. And I thought I would but I promise I’ll pay you back. Moneyand interest. Fifty grand, you’ll have it all.”
Marjorie baulked in shock.
“Yeah,” I confirmed, “Fifty. What?”
“How much did we lend you?” she asked.
I looked to Bill but Marjorie was absolutely adamant I didn’t have any“phone a friends” left so I told her the truth. “Twenty grand.”
“Twenty!” she croaked, and suddenly she opened up a second front onBill. “You told me you were only lending him ten. You lied to me.”
Me too as it happens, which meant Marjorie had actually been expectingthree hundred per cent in interest back. Jesus!
“Marjorie please…” Bill tried once more, but Marjorie wasn’t forappeasing. She held twenty grand’s worth of IOUs on us and that bought her alot of airtime.
Where was Takahashi when we really needed him?
Billfinally managed to grab his walking stick and we beat a stuttering retreat tohis local, determined not to darken his and Marjorie’s door again until we werein no fit state to be argued with.
“Women hey?” Bill tried to apologise, but there was no need. I was, orat least had once been, married to his daughter and Linda was nothing if nother mother’s child.
“I’ll pay you back, Bill, honest I will. Interest and all.”
“I know. When you can Mark. When you can,” he said, patting me on theback with his free hand.
We found a quiet corner of the pub by the fire and settled down to catchup properly.
“So what was the job?” Bill asked; his eyes not just illuminated by theflicker of wood flames but by the promise of adventures yet to be relayed.Duly, I told him everything that had happened over the last six months; DoctorThalassocrat, the Tidal Generator, the plans, the pay off and the conditionsand Bill listened intently. I’d not seen him since I’d first accepted thecontract so this was all new to him – every little detail. He sipped hisbeer and asked the odd clarifying question here and there, but for the bestpart of half an hour he just listened.
Bill was a good listener. He didn’t hold up the story with a dozenunrelated anecdotes of his own and he didn’t feel the need to tell me what hewould’ve done in my shoes, like so many people did. Linda had been terrible forthis. I don’t think I’d ever been able to finish a story in her company becauseshe liked to take issue with every aspect of my anecdotes. Something like this:
“Red boats? What did they want to use red boats for? I would’ve usedblue boats.”
“Yeah, well anyway, that’s not important, the pointis…”
“No it is important Mark, because you can see red boats from a long wayoff, whereas if they’d been blue they would’ve been invisible against the sea.”
“Linda, we weren’t trying to be invisible so it really doesn’t reallymatter. What did matter was that the ferry was suddenly…”
“Look, just because they didn’t need to be invisible for this particularpart of the operation, you should always plan for the unplannable because younever know what’s going at happen once an operation starts and if you’resuddenly trying to get out of there, you’ve got a much better chance in a boatthat doesn’t stand out against the sea than one that’s red.”
“For fuck’s sake.”
“Now I remember this girl in the shop who used to use brown lipstick.Brown, can you believe that? Anyway I said to her…”
That had been Linda. Not that she’d ever been on an operation in herlife or even in a boat as far as I knew, but that wasn’t the sort of thing thatwould stop her from knowing all there was to know about boats, blue orotherwise. No, in fact Linda had been a hairdresser, which is how she’d knowneverything there was to know about everything and counted as her specialistchosen subject whatever anyone else cared to talk about. Yep, there’d beennothing my ex-wife hadn’t known, except perhaps how to shut the fuck up.
Bill wasn’t like that though. Bill was a good listener and brought twothings to the conversation that his daughter never did – ears and abrain. More than that though, Bill positively enjoyed hearing about the jobsI’d been on because it took him back to his own operational days when he’d beenin the game.
Oh yes, Bill had been an Affiliate too.
Madagascar, Bermuda, the North Sea, Switzerland, South America; he’dworked on jobs that had threatened pretty much every corner of the globe buthe’d hung up his guns more than a dozen years ago when an injury had eventuallygot the better of him and he missed the life greatly. Not so much the death anddanger aspects of the job – no one liked these, except perhaps the mainplayers – more the camaraderie and sense of purpose that came with eachoperation. After all, there were few better feelings in life than being part ofsomething, particularly something monumental, such as taking off across WhiteSands in fleet of moon buggies to steal the Space Shuttle. What overgrownschoolboy didn’t dream of such adventures? Only Bill didn’t have to, becausehe’d been there, done that and lived to tell the tale, which was no mean featconsidering the number of jobs he’d been on. There weren’t many old timers onThe Agency’s books. Not too many veterans. But Bill had always been a cautiousold stick and with each job came experience. “Just use your common sense. It’llsave you nine out of ten times better than any bullet proof vest,” he wouldalways say, so I respected and valued his opinion. And because I generally tookhis advice, he respected and valued mine. It was a nice relationship. In fact,if we’d been able to keep his daughter out of it, it might have been evenbetter.
“Tempest again?” Bill frowned. “That little sod’s got more jam than Robertsons.”
“Didn’t you run across him back in the eighties?”
“Yeah, eighty-nine it was. Up in Canada. He was only a whipper-snapperback then of course, but he beat the crap out of me and killed my mucker.”
“How did he get the better of you?” I asked.
“Oh it was stupid really. He had something hidden in his tie-pin whichhe dropped on the floor. I bent over to pick it up and it blew up in my face,choking me.”
“Yeah, bloody stuff. Anyway, I couldn’t see a thing and got a smack overthe head in the fight. When I woke up Tempest was gone and poor old Jack Cottonwas dead, strangled with these fairy lights Tempest grabbed off our Christmastree,” he lamented.
“It was the boss’s idea, meant to brighten up the base would you believe.I think he was trying to be ironic.”
“Oh, one of them,” I understood.
“Yeah.” Bill looks at me with hate in his eyes. “Anyway, get this, whenI came round, guess what that arsehole had done.”
“He’d only gone and put a Santa hat on old Jack’s head, the evilbastard.”
“What, after he was dead?” I recoiled.
“Yeah, like he was having some sort of joke or something,” Bill fumed,bile clawing at his throat.
“That’s just sick,” I agreed.
“Yeah, too right it is. You don’t do that to someone, no matter what.That was a man’s life that was.”
I could see Bill was genuinely upset about this. Even more than twentyyears on it still gnawed at him. Losing a friend was bad enough, but having hismemory so dishonoured to boot was an unforgivable act of desecration. How didhe live with himself after doing something like that?
“You should’ve just shot him as soon as you found him, shot him in thehead and taken no chances,” Bill told me.
“I would’ve if it had been up to me, but Thalassocrat had ordered us tobring him any prisoners,” I explained, which was an understatement to say theleast. Thalassocrat had been most insistent on this point. He’d bullshitted usthat he wanted to interrogate any and all prisoners personally but we all knew hereally just wanted feed them through the turbines, the big sadist.
“Couldn’t you have shot him anyway, you know, sneaky like? Sorry aboutthat boss, it was an accident,” Bill suggested.
“You know what these maniacs like Thalassocrat are like. If I’d triedthat, I might as well have taken my shoes and socks off and climbed in theturbines myself,” which was always a danger whenever you worked for amegalomaniac with disappointment issues.
“So how did Tempest get away?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But we all missed out on a big payday becauseof him.”
“You reckon Thalassocrat let him out?”
“He’s bound to have. I mean, there was no other way out of that pipe,short of swimming in a screw-like fashion at a hundred-and-eighty knots,” Iasserted. No, it was obvious, Tempest had probably teased Thalassocrat aboutOperationBlowfish’s chances ofsuccess or his own lack of physical prowess and Thalassocrat had fallen for it,pulled him out of the pipe to gomano-a-manoand blown it for everyone else whose Christmas bonuses depended upon wipingMidway off thePacific A-Z.
“Someone should put a contract on him and be done with it,” I suggested.
“It’s been done before, in my time. You ever hear of Carlton Franks,XO-13?” Bill said. I hadn’t. “He was around in the sixties and seventies.Spoiled a lot of jobs. Killed a lot of nice blokes. In the end a contract wastaken out on him before a particularly big job and he was shot in Monaco on hisway home from the shops. Broad daylight. Dozens of witnesses. No attempt at subtletyor subterfuge, just bang bang bang right through the eggs and goodnightVienna.”
Bill took a sip of his pint as he recalled the reaction.
“Didn’t make any difference though,” he shrugged. “French Secret Servicejust followed the assassination squad’s trail right back to the guy who’d hiredthem and sent him to the bottom of the Aegean with a pair of handcuffs and ananchor. The irony was that no one would’ve probably even heard of this guy orwhat he was up to if he hadn’t bumped off Franks, so it just goes to show thatyou can never pre-empt these things. Just worry about yourself and keep youreyes on the prize.”
He was right of course. Besides MI6 and the CIA there were a wholealphabet of intelligence organisations out there; French, Russian, Hutu andBasque, practically every nation and every creed on Earth had their own secretservice. Only the Maoris didn’t bother any more, but that was only becausetheir agents stood out in casinos no matter what colour hats they wore.
“I try, but what’s the point when nobody else can?” I said bitterly.
“Bill seriously, it’s getting me down. I do everything right. I doeverything you showed me and thanks largely to you I’m still here, alive andhealthy and in one piece, but I’m skint.”
“Not every operation goes wrong,” Bill said.
“Most do,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, well maybe, but you always get some up-front money.”
“A few grand.”
“Enough to keep the wolf from the door.”
“But for how long?”
Bill thought about this and chewed on a smile. “Until the next job,” heconceded.
“Exactly. It’s no way to earn a living,” I told him.
“Yeah, but Mark, all you need is for one of these jobs to pay out. Justone and you’ll be sitting pretty, you’ll see,” Bill said before knocking backthe last of his pint, grabbing his stick and hobbling up to the bar for twomore bitters.
I thought about this while he was being served and came to a fewconclusions. First off, it was dangerous doing what I did for a living. Thestakes were high, but accordingly so were the rewards. The trouble was, thewhole thing was a catch-22 situation. With The Agency contracts the way theywere, we never knew what sort of jobs we were signing on for until we were onthe boat or the plane or the submarine or rocket ship. And what’s more, we neverknew what sorts of guys we were signing on to work alongside until it was toolate too. And as any given operation was only as foolproof as the most foolishmember of the company, each job was like playing a hand of poker blind.
But then, I guess this was why blind hands paid out the best.
And were played by the players who had the most to lose.
“Thanks young man, very kind of you?” Bill told some young boy-scoutbar-teen who’d brought our pints over a few minutes later. He gave the lad awizened old smile, just to underline his ‘kindly granddad’ credentials, thenwaited for him to leave before pressing me on my plans. “So what are you goingto do? Are you going to try something else or are you going to sign up again?”
I rolled this over in my mind as I drained the first couple of inches.Mr Smith had asked me the same question on the plane back from the island. Ihadn’t known then and I didn’t know now, though I doubt if either he or Billbelieved me.
Come to that, I’m not sure I believed myself.
Some times, there simply were no choices.
No matter what we liked to think.
5.CAPRICORN IN ASCENT
The first thing I noticed was the pain in my neck. Something had hit me frombehind and it had hit mehard.
The second thing I noticed was theheadache that was splitting my skull in two. Right between the eyes it was.Jesus, I could hardly see straight. I blinked a few times and rubbed my facebefore noticing the third thing.
Someone had incapacitated me with a blowfrom behind.
But they’d left me with my gun?
What sort of brain surgeon did that?
I looked around the corridor and saw MrGrey, who I’d been on duty with tonight, also spread out across the deck. Ipulled myself to my feet and checked him over and found he too was alive butunconscious, and had similarly been left to sleep it off next to his rifle.
Christ, my head!
I somehow managed not to honk over thesleeping Mr Grey and hauled myself to my feet. I felt pretty wobbly on my pins,like Bambi on ice after too many alcopops, but eventually I managed to steadymyself against the wall until I had my balance. My head wouldn’t stop throbbingand I scratched my face and rubbed my neck until I realised the violentthrobbing was actually the bunker alarm. And it was then, only at this moment,that it finally dawned on me not all was as it should’ve been with OperationSolaris.
Oh God, not again.
Ilooked up and down the corridor for signs of intruders and saw that the steeldoor at the far end was open. I approached cautiously and peered around thecorner. Four more guards littered this corridor, though these guys hadn’t beenas lucky as us judging by all the scarlet that had been splashed all up thewalls.
What the hell had happened here?
I wracked my brains and tried to think.The last thing I remembered was talking to Mr Grey aboutThe Miracle of Castel di Sangroby JoeMcGuinniss,which half a dozen of us had just finished. We had been due to discuss it atour next dinner break but Mr Grey had chosen to disregard book club protocol totell me that he thought Joe had overstepped his brief as a writer and hadgotten too close to the Castel di Sangro team, which I thought was a validpoint, if a little fucking obvious.
The next thing I knew, I was waking upwith a splitting headache and a P45 in my pocket.
I followed a trail of death through thewinding labyrinth of corridors, past the Communications Centre, in whicheveryone was also dead, and eventually came to the main operations room. And itwas here that I found Victor Soliman, our esteemed benefactor. At least, Ithink it was Victor Soliman. It was a bit difficult to tell without his namebadge or skin. He’d somehow been cooked to a crisp between his enormous crystalrefractors so that only his bones and glass eye survived – which is how Irecognised him in case you’re wondering.
Scattered all around were piles ofscientists, technicians and guards, all of whom had been either shot, blown-upor crushed under fallen beams. I checked the ceiling to make sure the roofwasn’t about to come in and reasoned I’d missed the worst of the fun and games,although judging by the plastique plastered everywhere, the party wasn’tentirely over yet.
I sprinted on through, past thedestruction, past the death and past caring, following the emergency lightingtowards the surface when all of a sudden a voice stopped me in my tracks nearthe thermal guidance hard-drive.
“Look out Rip, he’s got a gun!” ityelled, and I looked up to see two guys spinning around from planting chargesaround the mammoth computer system to glare at me.
“Oh nuts,” I froze.
I recognised one of the men immediately.It was Rip Dunbar, formerly of the SEO (Special Executive Operations), aclandestine branch of the CIA, which was odd as I’d heard he’d hung up his gunsto flog Bonsai trees somewhere. I guess he’d come out of retirementagain. Anyway, he was the furthest awayfrom me and about twenty feet from his own gun, while between us was someskinny looking Nguni, who’d obviously led Dunbar to us.
Like me, the Nguni was also holding hisrifle, and while his wasn’t actually trained on me, I was smart enough torealise my former colleagues hadn’t all shot themselves, so slowly and verycarefully I slipped the rifle off my shoulder and set it down on the grilledfloor to show them I wasn’t interested in disturbing them at work.
The Nguni broke into an evil smile andslipped the rifle strap from his own shoulder.
“Okay then, let’s make this moreinteresting shall we?” he chuckled.
Before I could say anything more, the Ngunihad set his rifle down and was posing in front of me like an action figure.
“Jabulani, no!” Dunbar cried and I was infull agreement, but the Nguni wasn’t listening and grabbed a couple of six footsticks from a nearby pile, hanging one over his head and holding the other outjust in front of himself.
“Let’s do this the Nguni way,” helaughed, fully sold on the idea.
“You’re can’t be serious?” was all Icould say.
TheNguni’seyes darted toward the pile of sticks and he urged me to pick up a couple andtry my luck.
“Get bent!” I almost choked, damned if Iwas about to fight someone with sticks, particular someone who’d been fightingwith sticks since before he could walk, but he was suddenly in show off modeand intent on proving himself to his Yank friend.
“Watch yourself Jabulani,Soliman’smercenaries are killers,” Dunbar warned him,laughably overlooking the fact that none of his mates were dead while someforty of mine most certainly were.
“Argghhharggghhh!” the Nguni screamed, coming at me in a blur andmaking me stumble backwards over my gun. I landed painfully on my butt and attheNguni’smercy, but the Nguni stopped just shortof me and instead simply glowered with amusement and threw one of his sticksinto my chest. “Fight!” the mentalist demanded.
Before he could molest me further, Ihurled the stick back with all of my might, straight into the bridge of thenose and the Nguni screamed with pain. This bought me a precious few secondsand I used them well, snatching up my rifle and machine-gunning the bastard offto see his forefathers.
“Jabulani,noooo!!!”Dunbar cried in horror.
I swung my rifle his way and offered himthe rest of the clip, but Dunbar whirled like a Dervish, and dived behind astack of wobbly crates. I sent another clip his way, splintering hissurroundings to matchwood and Dunbar dashed out from behind them and foundsafety behind a huge reel of steel cables.
I continued to pepper his position withmy AK, dropping empty clips onto the floor and slamming home new ones, but thiswas purely to keep Dunbar’s head down while I desperately wracked my brains forideas.
The position he’d taken up was in adirect firing line with the exit, so I couldn’t make a dash for the surface,while behind me only death and detonation awaited.
Worst still, Dunbar had decided to takemy recent stick fighting success to heart and called back from his shelter:“Okay youmother, you just made thispersonal,” which was simply astonishing. Like it was okay for him and his stickfighting little mate to wipe out everyone I knew but the moment Team Solimangot on the scoreboard suddenly it was personal. Unbelievable.
Once out of ammo I retreated back to theops room to escape Dunbar’s wrath, only to remember all the new plastiquefixtures and fittings that now decorated the place. I was caught between a rockand a hard-head, but a burst of automatic gunfire told me Dunbar was intent onseeing the whites of my eyes when he avenged his termite-eating buddy. Thisworked in my favour.
I grabbed a fresh clip of ammo from adismembered torso and ran back to the corridor I’d been guarding with Mr Grey,lock & loading as I went. Mr Grey was still flat out, oblivious to all ourworries as I leapt him in a single bound and found a loose maintenance panel inthe wall just behind where we’d been standing. This was obviously where Dunbarand stick boy had entered and how they’d got the drop on us.
I thought about hiding inside, thenthought better of it and hid in the concealed broom cupboard a little furtheron. A few seconds later Dunbar appeared at the far end and scanned the space.He looked around, kicked the body of Mr Grey and told him to get up. Mr Greydidn’t move, not even when Dunbar put a shot in his thigh and I realised thenthat Mr Grey’s brains were probably porridge. Dunbar must’ve given him one hellof a whack when he’d first come in. And suddenly here he was, with his back tome, just begging to be shot.
I clicked the safety off my AK and beganto take aim when I heard Bill’s words again.
“Common sense. That’s what you’ve got touse, your common sense,” they said and knew he was right. What was done wasdone. And I’d almost fallen for the same distractions that had dazzled Dunbarand got him hunting for me in person when he could’ve just locked the door onthe way out and triggered the plastique.
I lowered my gun, shook these daftnotions of ‘pay-back’ from my head and focussed on staying alive.
“I know you’re in here somewhere,” Dunbartold the corridor. “Come out and show yourself yousonovabitch!”
In an instant, he swung and blasted whatremained of Mr Grey in half, even though he hadn’t moved so much as an eyebrowin the last half an hour, then he swept his smoking barrel back across thepipe-lined corridor. He moved slowly, taking his time, studying every nook,cranny and access panel, of which there were plenty. That’s the thing aboutthese bases I’ve found. Thereare no endof accesspanels, service ducts and maintenance hatches, all of which are usually justlarge enough for a heavily armed raiding party to crawl through. One daysomeone’s going to ask themselves if all these ducts are absolutely necessary,because this is usually how the enemy gets in. Or out. Or away. Or manages toeavesdrops on our plans on their way to the poorly defended arsenal. One day,someone’s going to realise this and the architect responsible is going to getfired – possibly through an electro turbine –which’llbe no bad thing.
For the moment though I was grateful,because Dunbar didn’t know which of the myriad of doors, ducts and grates I wasbehind, but he knew I was close because he kept talking to me as if I were askulking child.
“I know you want me, so come and get me.Here I am. Just you and me. So let’s get it on.”
As tempting, if somewhat homo-erotic, asthis sounded, I was damned if I was going anywhere near him while he was inthis sort of mood and stayed quiet and let him pass without trying anything heroic.
“So, you like to play hide and seek doyou? Well okay then, let’s play, you cowardly motherfucker!” he snarled, lacinghis invitation with a few strategic insults but still to no avail. Then, as ifto underline the point, he started counting backwards from thirty as he pulledthe corridor apart. “Twenty-nine… twenty-eight… twenty-seven… twenty-six…”panels were ripped open “… twenty-one… nineteen… eighteen…” tunnels werescanned “… fourteen… thirteen… twelve…” crannies were poked.
Dunbar swept the corridor methodically from side-to-side,pulling off and looking inside each service panel as he passed, though Inoticed he didn’t look inside the panel just along from my position.
The one that wasalreadyhalf-open. The one he and stick boy had entered through.
Hello, I thought. Got some booby prizes up there already haveyou?
No, Dunbar walked right past it as if itdidn’t exist, and instead finished his countdown just outside my coat cupboard.
“… three… two… one.”
Dunbar braced the rifle stock into hisshoulder.
His finger tightened around the trigger.
His eyes narrowed.
“… or NOT!”
In that instant, he turned on a sixpenceand machine-gunned the Coke machine opposite to bits.
The machine disintegrated in a ball ofglass and sparks as he emptied his clip into its shiny neon belly until theonly noises to be heard were the crackle of circuitry and the tinkle of shellcasings as they tumbled through the steel grating walkway.
I was crouching just about as low as Icould, right at the bottom of the cupboard, and curled into a little ball,though I still heard him tell the wreckage, “That was for Jabulani!” whichsuited me just fine; no Doctor Pepper and crisps for a week in exchange forthat annoying little honey thief. That was a trade I could live with.
Unfortunately, Dunbar hadn’t settled thescore he thought he’d settled and his tearful manly rhetoric soon turned towhiney cursing when he found that I wasn’t behind the lads’ snack dispensereither.
“You fuckingmother!” he spat, “where are you?”
I didn’t say, so he stepped up hissearch.
The door handle of my cupboard was givena good hard rattle, but I’d locked and jammed it from the inside the moment I’dclimbed in, pissing over his plans somewhat. Not to be deterred, Dunbar turnedthe door into Swiss cheese with his AK, but I’d seen this coming and was nowcowering with a mop bucket over my head behind a load of Kevlar vests as thebrooms around me bit the dust.
Another clip done, Dunbar spent five moreminutes trying to bluff a confrontation out of me before chucking in the toweland killing a couple of bins on his way out. The SEO would come to view this asone of their greatest triumphs, but on a personal note Dunbar ended his day ona bit of a downer. Which was good.
When he was finally gone, I kicked openthe door and tumbled out into the corridor. I knew he wouldn’t be waiting forme as big men like Dunbar didn’t do sneaky things like that, so I shook thebucket from my head and considered my position.
I was the last man standing, with lifeand limbs intact. Which was good. But I was a mile beneath several million tonsof African volcanic rock and the wrong side of an unnecessary amount ofplastique explosives. Which was less so.
I had to get out of here.
And I had to get out fast.
Dunbar would’ve no doubt hit thecountdown on his way out, which gave me just five minutes to get clear. SEO andCIA detonators always counted down from five minutes for some reason. I wasn’tsure why. Perhaps they’d got them as a job lot on the cheap or perhaps theyalways set them to five minutes because this gave them just enough time to getclear of a standard blast radius, high-five a buddy, eat a Hershey Bar andsalute a flag. Either way, I was at least fifteen minutes from the nearest exitand all out of hard hats.
I ran around in ever decreasing circles,pondering my fate and considered risking Dunbar’s less-than-inviting point ofentry, before accepting that my best days were behind me. See, while the basehad no end of tunnels and access ways, only a couple of them lead to thesurface. The rest just circumvented the volcano and criss-crossed back andforth because that’s what base tunnels did. My chances of picking the righttunnel without consulting a blueprint were less than impressive and myprospects were rapidly going down the pan.
That was it.
I tore down two corridors and thunderedinto the men’s latrines. The place was empty. No one dead with their heads downany of the toilets and no signs of any explosives, just a beaten up old copy ofThe Miracle of Castel di Sangrointhe last cubicle.
I pulled the trigger on my AK andsplintered the porcelain pan into a thousand pieces, then lobbed a frag grenadeinto the hole.
The frag widened the hole with adeafening thump and splattered the walls with second-hand stew. Victor Solimanwould’ve been distraught at the sight of his brilliant white walls in such astate. I’d worked for a lot of fusspots in my time before but never one who’dbeen so anal about the brilliance of his latrines. Perhaps if he’d spent alittle more money on the base’s security measures and a little less on Vim wemight’ve even got away with this one, but no, once again we all paid the pricefor signing on with a man who’d once tried to patent disposable toilet doorhandles.
I dived into the jagged hole the frag hadjust made and slid down a tube, landing in six inches of last night’s supper.For almost thirty seconds, I lay on my belly gagging, retching and chokinguntil I had nothing to add to the soup. Had I known I was leaving this way Imight’ve grabbed a gas breather from one of the emergency stations, but I’dbeen in such a hurry to get out of here that the details simply hadn’t occurredto me. In the event, I pressed on as best I could and tried to overlook thedécor. It might’ve been cramped, it might’ve been slippery, it might’ve been toxicto the point of suffocating but at least it led to the outside world.
The pipe sloped down at an angle of aboutthirty degrees, so that once I had a bit of momentum behind me I was able tohalf drag, half slide my way to freedom, which might’ve been fun at WaterWorld,but was less so the morning after Tex-Mex night. Sewage splashed in my face,sweet corn collected under my nails and other people’s piss filled my trousers,but at least I was making process, which was good considering I had only… two secondsleft!
The first in a series of deep thunderousbooms resounded behind me and I gave up caring about trying to keep my mouthclosed as I flung myself down the sloping pipe. I scrambled and scampered, butit was too little too late – the blast caught up with me in a heartbeat.
It takes a lot to blow up a volcano.Volcanoes by their very nature, can withstand mind-boggling amounts ofpressure, so building an impenetrable base in one is a smart move if you’resetting out to annoy countries with enormous air forces. However, you encountera whole different set of problems when you attach a dozen blocks of plastiqueto pretty much everything that’s combustible inside and light the blue touchpaper. Because once you’ve filled your impenetrable underground bunker with acolossal store of energy, that same energy has to find a way out. And if itcan’t escape through the walls, because they’ve been forged out of MotherNature’s hottest furnaces, it will look elsewhere to escape.
These are places you don’t want to belingering when your impenetrable underground base blows up.
The sheer force of waste welled up on mefrom behind and shot me along the pipe like a bullet. The walls scraped myshoulders, the joints ripped my knees and the chilli almost drowned me, butnothing could slow my plunge into the onrushing blackness.
For twenty terrifying seconds I lost allcontrol of my senses as I was propelled towards the unknown. I think I evenpeed myself with fear – I’m not certain, I think some of it was mine– but providence took pity on me and together with a thousand recycleddinners I burst into daylight and flew fifty feet into a great septic lake ofwaste at the bottom of the eastern slopes.
The cool waters were dark and cloudy, butI managed to thrash in them enough until I popped to the surface and sucked ina lungful of pungent air. This did little to help the situation and I continuedto gasp, splutter and drown until I noticed my presence had shaken the localinhabitants to action.
On the far banks of the lakes, watchingme with raised eyebrows were a dozen freshwater crocs. If I’d been one of them,I would’ve sued and possibly eaten the estate agent, because their home waterswere anything but fresh, but the crocs didn’t seem to mind. In fact, theyseemed to have grown fat on whatever Soliman had ejected from his pipes andjudging from the looks on their craggy faces, they weren’t quite full yet.
I struck out for the nearest bank as thewaters across the lake churned against the force of eager swimmers.
“Come on, give me a break!” I implored,kicking and clawing for the rocks just twenty feet beyond the brown geyser.
I fought the urge to suck in my limbs andinstead beat them with all of my might until my fingers struck mud. I glancedover my shoulder just in time to see a rake of jaws flash by the back of myneck and tumbled clear to snatch my Colt from its holster. A blur of pinkexploded into red as I punched two bullets into its epicentre and then emptiedthe clip into the rest of his colleagues. By the time I was done there was morethan enough fresh meat to go around and only two crocodiles left to squabbleover it, so I scrambled away to leave them to their bounty and sought a vantagepoint from which to get my bearings.
The summit of the volcano was billowingsmoke and a dozen vents and pipes along the eastern ridge were spewing flames.Dunbar hadn’t been messing about when he’d set the charges. Nothing could’vesurvived that inferno. Nothing. Not a computer chip, a lens refractor, not evena man hiding near a Coke machine. At least with any luck this was what Dunbarthought, though I’d probably used up my quota of luck for the day, if not thedecade, so I took nothing for granted.
Instead, I emptied my shoes, threw awaymy handkerchief and started walking for home.
Whichever way that was.
6.LUCK IS NOT ENOUGH
After only a mile or two of parched scrubland, the remorseless African sun hadbaked me – and whatever had left the pipe with me – to a goldencrust. I couldn’t decide if this was better or worse, but either way I wasn’tgetting in the Ritz any time soon.
I trundled on for a couple of mileschoking on the dust of my former colleagues’ dinners until I found what passedfor a road in these parts. It was wide, dusty and rutted with gaping potholes,but a road nonetheless. But a road to where? I didn’t know. That was the thingabout this job. It took me to far-flung and exotic locations, but I neveractually got to see them. Most bases were self-contained: bed, board,recreation time and work, but as far as the surrounding countryside wasconcerned, I could have been anywhere.
One of the guys had told me that thelocal people around this way were Nguni, like my friend stick boy, but I didn’tknow where the Nguni were from. Nguniland would’ve been my best guess so Iflipped a coin, ignored how it came down and headed south whatever.
At first, I ducked off the road and hidwhenever a car came along but after four hours of murdering my feet, I decidedto risk it and see if I could hitch a ride. After a few more minutes a shimmerof dust appeared on the horizon so I tucked my Colt into the back of mytrousers and stuck out my thumb.
The shimmer neared.
My thirst was my most pressing concern.If I didn’t manage to negotiate a lift, or at least wangle a bottle of water,I’d be dead by nightfall. Of course I could always hijack whoever was comingalong. A quick shot to the temple and thanks very much, but that sort of Karmaalways caught a man up in the end. No good ever came of no-good deeds. If alifetime of Affiliating had taught me anything, it had taught me that.
Within the shimmer, a windscreen caughtthe sun and glinted with solastic brilliance. Victor would’ve been very happy.
The glinting flickered and grew until Irealised the windscreen was too large for a simple car. It was a truck that wascoming my way. This changed things for the stickier but it was too late toslide off the road. Whoever was driving had already seen me and was hooting hishorn with excitement. I clenched my teeth, clicked off my Colt’s safety andwaved back.
A surprisingly spruce Zil131 roared upand threw a cloud of red dust in my face as it juddered to a halt in front ofme. I barely had time to clear my eyes before the driver, his passenger andabout fifteen militia all started pouring out of various exit points andswarming around me in an excited scrum. I could tell at first glance theyweren’t regular military. The togs were Russian Army and Navy surplus, Spetsnazcast-offs that had been given to Oxfam when their new strip had come in circa1978, so I figured someone local had their own little private army.
Some Johnny in a second-hand Admiral’suniform seemed to be in charge of these boys, judging from the surplus of starsand paraphernalia across his shoulders, so I came to attention and gave him mybest Private Benjamin salute. This took the Admiral back a step or two but thenhe broke into a broad toothy smile and rebounded a couple of fingers off hiseyebrows in response.
“You a soldier?” he asked when he’dstopped grinning.
“Yes sir,” I confirmed, pandering to hisego to save us wasting ammunition.
“And whose army are you in?” he asked.
“I’m currently between armies, sir,” Itold him.
“You are between armies?” he laughed. Hismen looked at each other and shrugged before a tall ebony lad off to the lefttranslated for them and suddenly they were all doubling up theatrically as ifI’d just told the best Knock-Knock joke in the world.
The Admiral continued to cackle too, milkingit for all he was worth, while the ebony translator just stared at me with icein his eyes. He would be the first one I’d put down when the laughing stopped,but the Admiral was enjoying himself way too much at the moment to let thingsdescend to that.
“So tell me,” he continued, his Englishgood, but African-taught, “how are you here? And what is that on your clothes?”
“It’s shit, sir,” I told him.
No translation necessary this time, theboys all took to their sides once more.
“Shit?” the Admiral chortled. “And whyare you covered in shit?”
It was a good question. I just wished Ihad a good answer. In the event I told him; “I’ve had a bad day, sir.”
This did the trick and it made him boomlike kiddies’ entertainer until his ebony C3PO reminded him that this wasn’tthe Comedy Store and business was pressing, calling time on the day’sentertainment. The Admiral wound down to a thoughtful smirk, then asked mewhere I was going.
“I don’t rightly know,” I told him thenplayed my Joker. “Perhaps you’re looking for soldiers at the moment, sir?”
“Looking for soldiers?” he blinked.
“To serve in your army, sir,” Ielaborated.
“To serve in my army?” he repeated,giving me some insight into how he’d learn English in the first place.
“Yes sir. A very good soldier I am sir,”I told him, saluting once more to demonstrate my pedigree. “I can help trainyour men, sir.”
“Train my men? Train them to do what? Getcovered in shit?” he asked, not unreasonably under the circumstances.
“Yes sir, when necessary.”
“Ness-sess-sary? And when is itness-sess-sary to get covered in shit?” he grinned.
“When all else fails,” I told him. “Sir.”
The Admiral’s expression changed fromamusement to one of genuine bewilderment and he obviously came to theconclusion that I was far too interesting to shoot for the moment because hehad a quick word with his number two then invited me to join them in the truck.
“Er, no. In the back, if you please,” heclarified, when the man covered in shit started towards the passenger sidedoor.
Now, there was one of two ways this daycould unfold for me. Actually, there were dozens, but if we lumped most of themunder the umbrella of “nastily” then we were left with just two. But whenyou’re in the company of a 23-year-old African Russian Naval Admiral, there’ssimply no way of telling which it’ll be. See, I was a soldier. At least I wasfrom the moment I’d stood to attention and saluted Teen Amin, though betweenyou and me I’ve never served so much as a day in any army the UN wouldrecognise. I’d tried of course, when I was younger. I’d had a go at joining up.I’d caught a bus to Aldershot, stood around in my pants with a load of otherspotty Herbert’s waiting to be sexually assaulted by whichever Sergeant fanciedwearing a white coat that day and passed with flying colours, only to get sentpacking when they found out about my conviction for aggravated burglary.Seriously. It seemed a bit like double-standards to me, but I was denied thechance to burst in and out of Paddy’s house and push him around simply becauseI’d taken the initiative and got in a bit of practice before I’d reached theage. The Foreign Legion weren’t much friendlier. I had always thought they’dtake anyone but they wouldn’t touch me either. I don’t think it helped my causewhen I’d turned up at their recruitment centre in a stolen Renault, but thenhow else was I meant to get down to Aubagne with empty pockets?
I wondered if the Admiral was aspernickety about his troops as the Legion. From the looks of the evil lookingthug with one eye, seven fingers and the PK bi-pod machine-gun slung across hisshoulders it was a possibility.
Of course the best possible outcome fromtoday’s meeting would be an invitation to throw my lot in with theirs and jointheir crusade. I wasn’t sure who or what they were crusading against. Anyonewho didn’t have a gun usually qualified in traditional African warfare, butthese chaps looked a cut above the box-standard bush militia. They were older,better dressed, better equipped and better disciplined, in that they hadn’ttried to shoot me into little pieces or burn me alive the moment they’d seenme, so presumably they had a few proper objectives and everything. Then, when Iwas fed, watered and knew where I was in the world, I could nick one of theirjeeps and an A-Z and make for the nearest airport. It wasn’t a perfect plan byany means but it seemed to tick all the right boxes.
There was however one problem. Playingthe lowly soldier card as I had was a risky strategy because on the one hand Iwas saying, “look, you’ve no reason to kill me, I’m not a threat to you” butthis often translated as “look, you’ve no reason NOT to kill me, I’m not athreat to you”.
My only hope was the Admiral’s ego.Because if there was one thing African bush Admirals liked better thanmindlessly killing lost westerners it was being saluted by white soldiers– particularly white soldiers from proper armies. Nothing authenticatedtheir rank quite like it.
7.ON HIS MOST EXCELLENT MAJESTY’S MOST SPECIAL SECRET SERVICE
After a couple of hours touring the nation’s potholes we pulled up outside alarge, freshly painted former colonial farm. The order was given to dismount sowe all piled out of the back of the truck and stood around in an informal linejangling our change. I for one couldn’t have been happier that we’d finallyarrived at our destination. The big ebony translator had made a point ofsitting directly opposite me for the whole journey and despite the road doingits best to get us all ready for space, his eyes hadn’t left mine for a second.
The Admiral breezed by to send the boysto dinner then ordered me to follow him up to the house. His translator cametoo, despite the fact that we didn’t need a translator, walking in my shadowand burning his eyes into the back of my neck as we passed through a set ofdouble doors and into a dizzyingly cool hallway. The Admiral glanced my way tosee if I was impressed with the air conditioning and I duly shivered myappreciation.
An adjutant in crisp white duds rushed upwith a pitcher on a tray and poured the Admiral a glass of iced water. TheAdmiral quenched his thirst with a smack of his lips then replaced the glass onthe tray and sent the adjutant away. Once again, he glanced my way, though thistime my appreciation was somewhat less than forthcoming.
“Commander Dembo, how was yourreconnaissance mission?” a new crisp white adjutant asked as he waltzed by togreet us.
“Excellent,” the Admiral confirmed,checking his breast apparel to make sure he had enough room for a few newmedals. “Is His Most Excellent Majesty in? I wish to see him at once.”
The adjutant eyed me as if I’d justdropped out of Commander Dembo’s nose and deduced I was the reason for theurgency. The adjutant frowned.
“I’m afraid His Most Excellent Majesty isattending to some very important business at the moment, he cannot bedisturbed.”
It was now my turn to glance theAdmiral’s way and he liked this about as much as I’d liked passively drinking aglass of ice water, but His Most Excellent Majesty had better things to do andthere was nothing to be done. Rank had spoken.
“Very well, we’ll wait,” the Admiralconceded. “But would you tell His Most Excellent Majesty that I’d like to see himat his earliest opportunity? I have something to give him.”
“Is it this?” the adjutant guessed,pointing at me.
“Well, yes but…” the Admiral started, butthe adjutant cut him off.
“Then might I suggest you wash it whileyou wait. His Most Excellent Majesty prefers not to receive gifts that make theeyes water so.” And with that he swept away, leaving the Admiral and I to getbetter acquainted over a bar of soap.
A couple of the Admiral’s men showed me to a water barrel out back and I wasdunked and scrubbed until I was as clean as the water would allow, then pulledout and stuck in some Russian infantry desert fatigues, with boots and cap tomatch – only minus the insignia. His Most Excellent Majesty’s designerswere no doubt still working on their own motifs, but I suspected they’dprobably plump for a scorpion crawling over a dagger or something like that.Private insignia, if nothing else, served to reflect just what sort ofdangerous bad asses the men who’d ironed these patches on were.
The downside of my bath was the fact thatI lost my gun. With an armed escort on hand there was simply no way of hidingit. The moment it dropped from my belt the big ebony translator went spare atme for carrying a concealed weapon and ordered me to be frisked for furtherconcealments to within an inch of my dignity. Happy I was finally harmless,both to life and nose, the Admiral took me back to the house and presented meto His Most Excellent Majesty, who pushed the peak of his oversized cap out ofhis eyes and looked up at me with suspicion from behind an enormous mahogany desk.
It was a kid. It was a ten-year-old kid!
The whole of the room awaited my reactionbut I’d worked for screwier outfits than this one in the past and would’vehappily saluted the coat stand had they’d introduced me to it, so I quicklysnapped to attention and gave His Majesty a bit of the old King’s Own.
The kid’s eyes narrowed further.
“Your Most Excellent Majesty,” theAdmiral lip-smacked, “I bring you this man. A soldier. I captured him for youpersonally.”
A few eyebrows went up around the roombut on the whole we let him have that one. The kid, or His Most ExcellentMajesty, as he preferred to be called, nodded thoughtfully then congratulatedthe Admiral on a job well done and told him to consider himself promoted to thenew rank of Colonel-General. I was tempted to ask if all the Admiral’spromotions had been this hard won and if so, suggest they either reset him backto Private once a year or sew a few more arms onto his jacket before the base’sSpring clean. In the event, I just carried on saluting until my arm turned numband my knees started to knock. The adjutant behind His Most Excellent Majesty’sleft shoulder whispered something into his ear and His Most Excellent Majestysuddenly remembered what was expected of him and returned my salute with aflick of the wrist.
I snapped this way and that and thenstood at ease.
The kid began to grin.
He saluted me again, so I went throughthe whole pantomime once more, although not having ever having practiced closeorder drill, I couldn’t help but spot a few inconsistencies in my own routine.Nobody else seemed to notice though, which was surprising seeing as they hadevery opportunity when the kid started saluting me again and again and againfor fun, forcing me through my ill-rehearsed moves until the adjutant asked HisMost Excellent Majesty if he’d like to question the prisoner any yet.
“The prisoner, Your Most ExcellentMajesty. Would you like to ask him any questions before we er…” the adjutanttailed off with a look to his shoes before leaving me to fill in the blanks formyself.
“Oh yes, very much,” His Most ExcellentMajesty confirmed, then looked at me. “What is your favourite football team?”
The adjutant spared me having to ask HisMost Excellent Majesty whathisfavourite football team was when he steered him back to the script.
“The questions we agreed, Your MostExcellent Majesty,” the adjutant said. “You remember?”
“Of course I remember, Sissiki. What areyou saying about me, that I am a fool?”
“Oh no, of course not Your Most ExcellentMajesty. I am most humbly sorry.”
“I should think so too, because you arethe fool, not me,” His Most Excellent Majesty bristled and for one or twoseconds a window of opportunity opened when any one of us could have suggestedwhipping down this kid’s pants and belting the living daylights out of him toconcord all around.
“You,” His Most Excellent Majesty pointedat me, “what is your name?”
“Mark Jones, Your Most ExcellentMajesty.”
“And what do you do?”
“I am a soldier, Your Most ExcellentMajesty.”
“And where is your army?”
“Destroyed, Your Most Excellent Majesty.All dead.”
“All dead?” he blinked.
“Yes sir,” I confirmed. “All. I was theonly one who survived.”
The newly promotedAdmiral-Colonel-General, His Most Excellent Majesty and the adjutant looked atme with mixed expressions. Only the translator continued to glare with as muchmistrust as before.
“And how did you survive?” the adjutantasked. “Did you run away? Are you a coward?”
This hadn’t occurred to His MostExcellent Majesty, who suddenly looked crestfallen at the thought, but I wasable to quickly restore his confidence with some boy’s own tales of dare-doingand heroism. When I was done, His Most Excellent Majesty stared at me agog.
“You killed fifteen men single-handedly?”he gasped.
I totted up my fantasy body count andconfirmed that I had indeed killed fifteen men. Single-handedly.
“Oh, a hero, huh?” the adjutant cooed.
His Most Excellent Majesty picked up thebaton and ran with it.
“Yes,” the adjutant sneered. “But not somuch of a hero that he was able to save the lives of his comrades.”
“Very true,” I confirmed, “because wewere attacked by over a thousand men, and I was only able to save mycommander.”
Now this did catch His Most ExcellentMajesty’s attention.
“You saved your commander?”
“Yes Your Most Excellent Majesty.”
His Most Excellent Majesty mulled thisover. There was something about it that he didn’t believe, but he couldn’tquite put his finger on it. He suddenly got it.
“If you saved your commander, where ishe?”
“He escaped in the helicopter.”
“Yes Your Most Excellent Majesty, Imanaged to get him to the helicopter and he escaped.”
“And why didn’t you escape with him?” theadjutant was dashed to know.
“I did, but the helicopter was too heavy.We were going to crash, so I jumped out to make the helicopter lighter and gotleft behind.”
This finally broke the silence behindme.
“Preposterous!” the big ebony translatorroared. “You jumped out of a helicopter and lived?”
“I landed in mud, a very dirty muddylake, to be sure,” I explained. “And that is why, when the…” I forgot what rankthe Admiral was momentarily before remembering, “… the Colonel-General capturedme I was covered in mud. Was that not so Colonel-General?”
The Admiral (which I think I’ll keepcalling him because he was still in his Russian naval uniform despite whateverrank His Most Excellent Majesty had just invented for him) was on shaky groundhimself, what with the details of my capture, so he chipped in and corroboratedmy version of events in order to shore up his own pile of nonsense.
That did it for His Most ExcellentMajesty and he confirmed that I was indeed a most excellent soldier, ending allconcurrent thinking on the subject.
“But Your Most Excellent Majesty, whatarmy did he belong to? Why were they in our territory? What were they doinghere? And who were they fighting? These are the things we need to know. Notjumping out of helicopters and single-handed fighting,” the adjutant objected,but he’d lost his audience and the ten-year-old kid in a wobbly hat andover-sized uniform disagreed.
“Get away from me Sissiki. Do not tell mewhat we need to know. I am His Most Excellent Majesty, the Supreme Ruler andCommander-in-Chief of the First Lumbala Special Army and I know what we need toknow, so do not keep telling me what to do. Unless of course, you think youwould like to be the Commander of the Special Army?”
The adjutant thought about this longerthan was prudent before apologising once more and expressing his undyingloyalty to all things Excellent.
“You see Colonel Jones, my advisors arevery stupid,” His Most Excellent Majesty told me.
“I’m afraid I’m not a Colonel, Your MostExcellent Majesty,” I told him.
“No?” he looked confused.
“No,” I shrugged. “I’m just a…” a thoughtoccurred, “… Brigadier.”
“A Brigadier?” His Most Excellent Majestyrepeated.
“What is a Brigadier?” he asked.
“It’s like a Colonel-General, only moresenior.”
“Ha!” His Most Excellent Majesty clapped,pointing to the Admiral. “He outranks you!”
The Admiral chewed on this one and notedthat I did indeed seem to suddenly outrank him.
“So, would you like to be in the SpecialArmy?” His Most Excellent Majesty asked me out right.
“It would be an honour Your MostExcellent Majesty,” I saluted.
“Then that is settled,” he declared,returning my salute three or four times. “You will be my chief of the guardsand you will be in charge of saving my life if ever the enemy attacks.”
I told him it was a job he’d never knowme to fail at.
“Excellent!” he said. “I now need tospeak with my Colonel-General alone but Captain Bolaji will show you to yourquarters,” he told me, giving our big ebony translator a name at last. “Goodday to you, Brigadier Mark Jones.”
“Good day to you too, Your Most ExcellentMajesty,” I saluted, then turned on a sixpence and marched out after CaptainBolaji.
The door closed behind us and the Captainturned to me and growled. “The Colonel-General is a fool. We should have leftyou by the side of the road where we found you.”
“You’re not really a people person, areyou?” I deduced.
“Just know this,” he jabbed, “I will bewatching you closely at all times, and if you endanger our mission I will nothesitate to kill you.”
“Brigadier,” I reminded him.
Captain Bolaji’s expression tightened uparound his eyes. “Brigadier,” he reluctantly concurred.
He turned and headed out through thedouble doors and once more into the African heat. I kept pace with him step forstep but Bolaji didn’t look at me. He just rattled off the usual list of dosand don’ts that always gets rattled off whenever you join an organisation suchas this one. ie. eight hour guard shifts, alternate night duties, no shootingthe local wildlife, my shampoo’s the one with the A on it, that sort of thinguntil I had a general idea of what the daily grind was all about. The onlything that was still a mystery was the mission itself, but I didn’t worry aboutthat. I never do. That was the adjutant’s department as despite the higgledy salutingorder he looked like the brains of the operation. All I had to worry about wasguarding my bit of the fence and watching my back until the first opportunitycame to slip away. I had no intention of being here for the long haul.
Still, there was no reason to fritteraway the time twiddling my thumbs so after Captain Bolaji allocated me a bunkin the main barracks block, I decided to ask about recreation time.
“Recreation time?” he stared.
“Yes, what do you do when you’re not onduty around here?”
The Captain mulled this question overfrom all angles before asking me why I wanted to know.
“No reason. Just wondered, that’s all.”
“You just wondered?” he glared.
“Yes, if you read at all.”
“If I what?”
“You know, read. As in books?”
Now the Captain was truly confused.
8.SHOULD OLD ACQUAINTANCE BE FORGOT
“I do not understand how he made the perfume out of dead people. Dead people donot smell good,” Savimbi said.
“Yes, they smell bad,” Beye agreed.“Especially the women,” which was a curious statement and one worthy ofGrenouille himself.
“He wasn’t making the perfume out of thedead women, he was just extracting one ingredient from their bodies,” I argued,but the overall consensus was that nothing about dead people smelt nice so how couldanyone make perfume out of them, least of all the most powerful perfume in theworld.
“I think it is a metaphor,” CaptainBolaji said.
“Yes, all the women he killed werebeautiful, the most beautiful women Grenouille could find.”
“I would not have killed them, I wouldhave fucked them,” Mbandi grinned, slicing open a big papaya with his bayonetand sinking his pink-yellow teeth into the pink-yellow flesh.
“Then you would have had to kill themfirst, Mbandi,” Savimbi quipped, prompting chairs and papaya to go flying inall directions as the third meeting of the Special book club descended into yetanother punch-up.
Captain Bolaji knocked the bayonet out ofMbandi’s hand while Savimbi’s mates pinned him to the ground until he’d calmeddown, then once order was restored we retook our seats and continued discussingPatrick Süskind’sPerfume.
I don’t know what it was with Africanmen, particularly your typical African bucks. They loved – and I meanabsolutely lived for – ripping the piss out of each other’s virileinabilities but had a paper thin sense of humour when it came to jibes abouttheir own lack of sexual prowess. Perhaps it was a tribal thing; an ancientmarker of accord, that their ability to pull virgins, impregnate them with asingle thrust and leave the countryside dotted about with single mums reflectedtheir position in society. So bigging themselves up as God’s gift while dissingtheir mates as seedless grapes was all part and parcel of this primevaltradition. Locking antlers across the Serengeti, that’s all they were doing.Locking antlers.
Of course, blokes in Britain did thistoo, only with Turtle Wax and Ford Mondeos.
Still, as quaintly ritualistic as thiswas, it did somewhat hack into the cut and thrust of our debate and turn ourFriday morning meetings into African Gladiators. But on the plus side, they’dall read the book.
“Sorry Captain, you were saying?” Iinvited.
“Yes, I was saying it was a metaphor.”
“A metaphor? For what?” Beye asked.
“For God’s finger; that this mysteriousingredient, which was distilled from the most beautiful women in all of France,was not a smell at all, but an alchemic. Grenouille’s perfume, as beautiful,hysterical and intoxicating as it was, was life itself.”
Captain Bolaji attended every book clubmeeting. At first I figured it was just to keep an eye on me to ensure I didn’ttry to insurrect the men, but over the weeks he’d really gotten into the spiritof things and always made a key contribution, be it picking holes in Dan Brown’sAngels & Demonsor wrestling thepin back into Mbandi’s grenade. Accordingly, I thought he made a good pointhere but Jaga wanted to know if life was so beautiful, why did Kasanje’s feetsmell so much?
Chairs went flying again.
Captain Bolaji looked to the rafters androlled his eyes.
This time the fracas was interrupted byVice-President General-Brigadier Admiral-Colonel Dembo, who’d been making outlike a bandit in the promotions stakes in recent weeks.
“What is this? What is this” Africa’shighest ranking soldier cried as he waded into a twisted knot of arms and legs.“Captain Bolaji, call your men out immediately! We have visitors.”
This caught the Captain’s attention so hepulled a whistle from his top pocket and gave it two blasts, ending book talkfor another day. The troops rushed to their bunks and collected their hats andrifles (which had been banned from book club after the first meeting) and weall filed outside into a scorching hot dust storm. Across the compound a largeSoviet helicopter was blowing His Most Excellent Majesty’s daisies around andsettling just in front of the main building.
The Admiral quickly arranged us into somesort of welcoming committee and found a suitably convincing smile for his face.A moment later the door on the side of the helicopter slid back and sixteenpairs of the very latest Russian issued army boots hit the ground and formed anhonour guard of their own.
His Most Excellent Majesty, theCommander-in-Chief of the First Lumbala Special Army even made a rare excursionaway from the air conditioner, making me realise that the money men must’veflown into town. Sure enough a couple of high-ranking Europeans in incognito khakisleapt from the bird and strode towards their host for a handshake. Naturally,His Most Excellent Majesty bemused and amused them by trumping their handshakewith one of his newly learned salutes (these Commander-in-Chiefs, they grow upso fast don’t they?), but they were good sports and played along to His MostExcellent Majesty’s delight.
Words were exchanged and lost in the roarof the engines, then the money men played Santa and ordered a couple of theirpink and sweaty troopers to drag a crate off the helicopter and plonk it downin front of His Most Excellent Majesty’s smile. A crowbar knocked the lid offand a shiny black M16 was handed to His Majesty. Bullets were quickly found anda nearby bin dispatched, all to His Most Excellent Majesty’s immensesatisfaction, before the leading lights decided they’d had enough fun in thesun for one day and headed into the house for shadowier discussions.
The Admiral ordered those of us notinvited to help offload of the rest of the crates so half a dozen of usmule-trained the remainder of cargo to the weapons bunker.
Being the only white soldier in a blackAfrican army was always likely to earn me a few looks, though one particularlytough-looking trooper eyed me with deep-set misgiving. His eyes narrowedfurther when a chrome lock-box came off the troop carrier and made its way toour bunker, followed closely at heel by a couple of white-coated boffins.
When all was unloaded, the Admiralordered most of his men back under the carpet, but the most photogenic of uswere posted outside the bunker to guard His Most Excellent Majesty’s newest toys.
My tough-looking friend and a couple ofhis Russian comrades were given equivalent orders and a dozen of us formed upfacing each other under the murderous African sun while the brass sloped off tochange shirts.
My tough-looking friend’s face crackedinto a warm smile.
“Mr Jones!” he said.
I returned his smile with interest andstuck out a hand.
“Mr Smith!” I declared, beaming to see myold American friend again.
Mr Smith shook my hand warmly and weslung our rifles over our shoulders and jawed for a couple of minutes on oldtimes.
“What are you doing here?” Mr Smithfinally asked.
“Just trying to scrape a few penniestogether to pay the bills,” I explained.
Mr Smith wasn’t convinced though. “Youdidn’t get this job through The Agency.”
“No, work on spec – ‘situationsvacant’ sign hanging on the gate post.”
Mr Smith decided against scrutinisingthat one too closely and asked me if I was being well treated.
“Well enough, I can’t complain,” I said,complaining as much as I could with my eyes out of view of my Special brethren.Mr Smith noted it and frowned in acknowledgement. Troopers on either side of uswere staring with suspicion so we explained to our respective comrades thatwe’d served together before.
Captain Bolaji decided we’d caught up enoughand reminded us of our orders. After a token glare of protest, I unslung myrifle and resumed my post, but Mr Smith stayed right where he was. I thoughtfor one moment they were going to get into it with each other but in the eventMr Smith just asked me what I was reading.
“We’ve just finished Patrick Süskind’sPerfume,” I told him, rolling up thesleeves of my tunic to show him the bruises.
“You’ve got a book club going?” hedelighted.
“Of sorts. Just something to pass thenights.”
“You’d be surprised what we’ve been ableto get delivered from Durban,” I told him.
“What did it score?”
“We haven’t scored it yet. ButEnd of The Affairgot two point ninelast week, while Alan Bennett’sUntoldStoriesdid very well with four point two.”
“Really? That surprises me,” Mr Smithsaid.
“Well, it was a bigger book, wasn’t it?And in hardback. Better for fighting with,” I explained.
Mr Smith understood. He thought for amoment, looking like he wanted to say something but didn’t know how to put it,before asking me if I’d readPapillon.
“HenriCharrière yeah?” I said. “No, I haven’t read that one yet.”
“We just read it a few weeks back.”
“Yeah, we’ve got a little book club ofour own going, like before,” Mr Smith told me.
“Hey that’s great. Are you scoring andnominating and everything?”
“Yeah, same as we did back on the island.It’s working out really well,” he said, and several of his comrades nodded inagreement behind him.
“What did you give forPapillon?”
“Igave it four and it scored four point four overall. Went down very well withthe chaps,” Mr Smith beamed, letting me know whose nomination that had been.“Easily our best scorer. And you know what, that’s for a book that’s almostforty years old,” he added.
“Perhapswe’ll do that one next, because my choices don’t seem to be going down at allwell,” I said, as the door of the bunker swung open and the white-coatedscientists emerged, rubbing their necks with handkerchiefs and checking theirwatches.
Wewhipped our hands out of our pockets and snapped to attention but thescientists were too preoccupied with their own cleverness to notice. The leadscientist, who I recognised as having also been on Thalassocrat’s island withus, radioed in that they were all done and a minute later the Euro players werestepping out of the house and walking back to the bird, matching His MostExcellent Majesty salute-for-salute.
MrSmith looked at me and gave me a formal nod. I returned his nod and said I’dcatch him in the bookshop some time. Mr Smith held his retreat for just onemoment and fixed me in the eye.
“Don’tbother withPapillon. TryThe Fourth Protocolinstead. You’ll likeit, particularly the ending,” he said, ladling on as much emphasis as he dared.
“But…”I started, but Mr Smith repeated his recommendation before sprinting away tocatch up with the others as they climbed into the helicopter.
Thewhipping blades kicked up His Most Excellent Majesty’s yard all over again andmost of the guards ducked into doorways and behind buildings to shelter fromthe stinging hot dust.
Istayed right where I was, staring up at the ascending helicopter in silentalarm.
BecauseI’d already readThe Fourth Protocol.
Andso had Mr Smith.
Ithad been one of the first books we’d all read together on the island.
Ithad scored four point one.
And Iremembered only too well what had happened to Valeri Petrofsky at the end ofit.
The compound vibrated against the roar of engines. Hum-Vees, Armoured PersonnelCarriers, jeeps, light armour and even a couple of big guns – mobileartillery. American, Russian, French, South African. The Special Army waskitted out from all four corners of the continent with whatever our benevolentEuropean backers could lay their hands on. Most of the vehicles were in goodworking order, while others were just about serviceable for one last suicidemission. My own Land Rover had clearly seen more action than me, but my MG 3machine-gun that was fixed to a swivel just above the driver’s head was asclean as a whistle, if slightly noisier.
Savimbi looked up at me from the driver’sseat and asked me if I could hear what His Most Excellent Majesty was saying. Iglanced forward to the little podium out front and saw His Most ExcellentMajesty gesticulating and saluting away like the Duracell Bunny. I shrugged. Icould’ve guessed the theme but I couldn’t make out any of the small print. Thiswas probably no bad thing though. Last minute instructions to carefully laidplans by ten-year-old megalomaniacs rarely led to victory parades for anyoneother than the other side.
Of course, before this day had comealong, I’d finally found out why the Special Army had structured itself alongthe same lines as Musical Youth. Apparently, the European backers, drippingwith money and eager to back a side (any side) had found themselves a HowdyDoody in the form of a local prophet boy who’d won friends and influencedpeople by tossing chicken bones about. He’d been quite revered in his localscrub but only to the extent that he was never short of pineapples. But then,all of a sudden, some chaps with heavy pockets and questionable judgementdescended from the heavens to herald him as a living deity who’d been sent tobring order to his people and unite the tribes. They’d even backed up thisrather ambitious declaration with money, guns, armour and men. Now, as odd asthis seemed to many of the locals, they figured there must’ve been something toit. After all rich Westerners didn’t stay rich for very long throwing theirmoney around for giggles and despite being asked several times if they weresure there wasn’t someone more qualified or taller they’d rather have leadtheir army the Westerners were adamant. His Most Excellent Majesty was theirman – or rather boy.
Any further doubts were assuaged with aconsignment of the latest shoulder-fired Czech rocket launchers.
It seemed to work as well at first,because a number of warring tribes soon put their differences aside to take HisMost Excellent Majesty’s shilling. Local skirmishes fell off and the SpecialArmy’s ranks swelled. The prophecy, it seemed, was true. God had surely sentthis boy. And guided by the voices of their ancestors and advised by his loyaladjutant, his people would come again. Hallelujah!
And of course, let’s not forget thosebenevolent Westerners who’d made it all possible and who’d never asked for asingle thing in return...
They wanted what?
Actually, it wasn’t so much somethingthey wanted, more something they suggested. A target; a target that wouldgalvanise His Most Excellent Majesty’s position and free his people from thebondage of economics.
More specifically, the diamond minesaround the Zambezi basin.
And more specifically still, the newexcavation just outside Caia.
Belgian prospectors had sent ripplesaround the world with a series of stunning finds at Caia and were now pullingdiamonds out of the ground the size of grapes with conveyor belt frequency;diamonds that would be fought for and argued over for years to come; diamondsthat would lead to the rape and ruin of his people; diamonds that would corruptthe very fabric of his culture.
Diamonds that should be His MostExcellent Majesty’s.
The plan didn’t take much selling.
And so this became the Special Army’smost secret mission. This was what we’d all been trained for.
And this was what we’d be doing today.
I was still a little sketchy on some ofthe finer points, like what were we meant to do once we’d seized the mine andhow we were meant to hold out against the inevitable government assault whenthe Special Army numbered only three hundred men and a few Cold War APCs, butthe Admiral assured us during our individual unit briefings that His MostExcellent Majesty had a bargaining chip up his sleeve that would dissuade anyretaliation.
The chrome lock-box, I hedged.
The one we’d loaded onto theeight-wheeler at the rear of our raiding party. A cluster of APCs and mobileguns protected it on all sides and the Admiral took personal charge of thevehicle.
I had a really horrible inkling aboutwhat was inside it.
His Most Excellent Majesty emptied anM16’s clip into the air to decorate the end of his speech with a few fireworksthen signalled his forces to move out with a regal swirl of the wrist. The roarof the cavalcade increased and several of the gunners theatrically locked &loaded their fixed machine-guns, despite the fact that we were a good fiftymiles from anyone to shoot. The scouts at the front of the column moved off andthe rest of us duly followed.
Me and Savimbi were somewhere towards themiddle of the fray and it was our job to protect the right flank of the convoyon our way to our objective, then break off and take out the foot traffic oncewe’d got there. The big guns would see to the fixed targets.
I pulled my goggles over my eyes and tieda bandana around my face. My gun was also covered, protected from the dust by acotton sheet, but as we veered away from the main force to take up our positionon the flank, I whipped it back to at least look operational.
Yes well, to be perfectly honest, myheart wasn’t in this job at all. I’d bided my time while I’d been on the basebecause I’d found myself earning surprisingly good money, but Mr Smith’s covertwarning had just reminded me of my desire to desert. The Special Army couldstick its secret mission up its collective arse. And the urgency with which Iwished to abscond was cranked up even further when I saw that His MostExcellent Majesty wasn’t coming with us. Something that always got my alarmbells ringing for me. Very inspiring.
No one else seemed to question hisabsence from the convoy but then I guess most of them were tribal guys; localswho’d been in on this deity stunt from the ground floor. They were all going tothe promised land, but it’s different for mercenaries like myself. I couldn’tgive two figs about His Most Excellent Majesty, his people or his prophecies.The only land I was interested in was the couple of acres around my house inPetworth. Any and all other dirt I was happy to let the rest of the world fightover.
Time to leave.
I think Captain Bolaji suspected I’d tryto make my exit during the mission because he took up a mobile position righton my tail, his MG 3 locked & loaded and just looking for an excuse to chewme and Savimbi to bits. Not that Savimbi had done anything to upset the goodCaptain, or earn his suspicion, but that was just too bad. You can’t make anomelette without killing Savimbi, as they say around these parts.
I glanced to my rear. Captain Bolaji hadhis dust cover off too. I was going nowhere for the moment. Well, nowhereexcept the diamond fields of Caia with a three hundred strong rolling battlegroup of the chosen few.
Hail hail! And watch your cross fire.
Overhead two Alouette attack helicoptersbuzzed us, spraying the convoy with even more red dust. They were our aircover, and our first weapon of assault. They’d hit the mine’s defences fiveminutes before us with rockets and 20mm cannons, then circle and hold back anyreinforcements while we filled the place with bodies.
No prisoners. That was the standingorder. No one was to be spared.
I wondered if that included us.
TheFourth Protocolby Frederick Forsyth. The plot revolvesaround an undercover KGB agent called Valeri Petrofsky. He’s selected by hisGeneral to travel to England to collect various packages smuggled in by KGBmules. The pieces look innocuous enough in themselves (metal discs, odd lookingpipes, etc) but once fitted together they make a nuclear bomb. This bomb isassembled in a little suburban house in Ipswich next to a USAF base andprepared for detonation. The idea is that the public would think the explosionwas one of the USAF’s unpopular cruise missiles blowing up, prompting a wave ofanti-Americanism that would sweep the Yanks and their nukes from the UK and thesocialist-infiltrated Labour Party into government. On the other side is an M15officer called John Preston, who’s investigating the infiltration of the LabourParty by the hard (and evil) left and who follows events to a little cul-de-sacin Ipswich. It’s a good and exciting book, like all of Forsyth’s, andbelievable and thought-provoking. But the bit that always stood out for me, andthe point we discussed at length in book club, was when Petrofsky went to startthe timer he found it had been reset to zero by nuclear boffin, IrinaVassilievna robbing him of his getaway in order to erase his (and the KGB’s)involvement. I won’t say any more in case you want to read it for yourself, butme, Smith, Cooper and Chang all spent hours going to town on this particularpoint because we all sympathised with Petrofsky. The foot soldier’s lot is nota happy one. And we’re so often in danger from our own side as much as from theenemy.
Expendable. That’s how me, Mr Smith,Savimbi and Petrofsky were seen more often than not. Mere assets, to be rolledout and used like so much toilet paper. And when we’d done what we’d been askedto do, and our chiefs had the moon on a stick, our rewards were invariably theflushing of the chain.
Well that wasn’t going to happen to me.
I had no intention of being anywhere nearthat chrome lock box when His Most Excellent Majesty phoned up the Admiral fromthe safety of a concrete bunker some fifty miles away and told him to lookinside it now.
Smoke rose on the horizon after an houron the road. Smoke and rolling balls of fire.
As we got closer, I saw our helicoptersdancing backwards and forwards over the target like mating bluebottles, firing theirrockets and emptying their cannons into whatever ran, walked or crawled below.
Radio silence was finally broken and theAdmiral told us to break convoy and assume our attack formation. Savimbiimmediately swung off the road and took to a dirt track that swept towards themine’s right flank. I shouldered the MG 3 and locked home the first round of avery long and heavy belt.
By now, we were travelling throughpopulated areas: townships and makeshift dwellings that had sprung up aroundthe mine to house its workers and their families. Dozens of confused faceslooked out as we rolled through their camps. The cleverer ones ran. The sillyones lingered to watch what was going on. It was on a cross roads of one ofthese settlements that me and Savimbi encountered our first target – apolice car. Not national police but the mine’s own private security.
I swung the heavy machinegun around andopened up on it, blasting it with a fifty round burst and reducing it totwisted scrap in a matter of seconds. The occupant inside fared little better,losing his life before he even knew he was in danger.
We rolled on by.
It’s a terrible thing to take a life.I’ve killed quite a few people in my time (and a couple of crocodiles) and I’msure if I were able to turn back the clock and meet them in differentcircumstances I’d find very few who’d deserved it. But I couldn’t. And for thatI was grateful. But let’s not fool ourselves here. This was what I did. Thiswas what the job entailed. It wasn’t nice, it wasn’t justifiable and it wasn’tright.
It was crime.
Crime on an enormous scale.
A lot of people were going to die today.
I just had to make sure I wasn’t one ofthem.
A small police station approached on theleft. I swung my gun and peppered the doors and windows as we sped by but wedidn’t slow to finish the job. There was no need. The long line of vehiclesbehind us all chipped in and did their bit as they ploughed on past, rippingthe station apart and blasting it with 7.62mm and RPGs until a burning shellwas all that remained.
More and more security ran out in frontof us as we got closer to the mine. Some took pot shots but most were caughtwith their pants down and overwhelmed by the sudden appearance of such aheavily armed force. They had no chance. We attacked over a half-mile front with a hundred armoured vehicles. Andas much as I wasn’t silly enough to assume it was going to be a cake walk, Idid recognise a one-sided victory when I was gunning down fleeing securityguards in the back.
The big guns opened up behind us, lobbing152mm shells over our heads so that death and destruction awaited us aroundevery corner. We hosed down the wreckage with machinegun fire and continued onto our objective:
The mine itself.
It rolled into view over the next rise. Along wire fence peeled off in both directions, straddled by gun turrets andsecurity stations. All hell was breaking loose at one end of the line. Elementsof our column had reached the front and were smashing their way through thedefences around the main gate. The front office was bright with flames and Isaw several figures struggling to escape the windows. Gunfire picked them offas they tumbled out and the Caia mine sécurité burned where they fell.
One of the gun turrets started firing onour part of the column as we emerged from the rat-run of shanty streets. Me andCaptain Bolaji returned fire, spraying the position until we were past it andout of range before turning into the mine’s works through holes in the wire.
Captain Bolaji stayed right on my tail,his sights fixed on me as much as the enemy. We pushed on through, firing leftand right alternately, mowing down green uniforms where we found them.
Before we made much headway though,bullets started pinging off our Land Rover’s armour. I couldn’t tell where thefire was coming from and neither could Savimbi but we’d turned straight into acluster of small arms. I tried bringing the gun to bear, but their force offire was too much and I had to drop out of sight behind the armour while Savimbitried to extricate us from the ambush.
A grinding of gears and a desperatescreeching of the tyres did little to put any distance between us and ourpersecutors and after a few more seconds a thump of blood from the driver’sside told me Savimbi had left the building. The Land Rover was left to careeninto the back of a beast of a mining truck before beat bopping about on thespot as its tyres and hydraulics were shot to pieces.
It was at that moment, after a sustainedten or twelve seconds under fire that I realised no one was coming to my aid– most notably Captain Bolaji. That son of a bitch! He’d been with us allthe way, right through the settlement and past the mine’s defences, blastingwhat we’d blasted and shadowing us slug-for-slug. Now suddenly we – orrather I – actually needed him and the bastard had his feet up, obviouslyhoping I’d cop one to save himself the trouble.
I opened the steel ammo case against therear of the cab and started bowling grenades in the direction of the enemy. Iwasn’t close enough to take any of their sunglasses off, but if I could justget their heads down for a few seconds I had a plan.
Explosions started splintering betweenus, one after the other as a dozen grenades patiently waited their turn to ripthe air apart.
I grabbed the M4 Carbine off the bracketsjust behind the passenger seat and scrambled across what was left of Savimbiand the windscreen, leaping over the bonnet and landing on the runner boards ofthe giant Earth Mover we’d crashed into.
As more explosions echoed behind me, Ipulled myself up into the driver’s seat and hit the ignition button. The dieselengine roared to life first time and belched a huge black cloud of smoke overthe cab.
I threw the gears into reverse andfloored theaccelerator,launching the titan back tosmash through the enemy’s makeshift defences and fill its enormous treads withsecurity guards. Several men attempted to board me but a couple of bursts fromthe Carbine soon put paid to them and moments later I was rumbling through themiddle of a war zone, oblivious to fence posts, gate posts and guard posts. Ialso flattened several portacabins and a couple of vehicles (which may or maynot have been ours) with my immense twenty-foot high tyres before I got themonster motoring in the right direction. And that was when I saw it – theAdmiral’s eight-wheeler, rolling through the gates and towards the mine with anunstoppable inevitability.
That’s it, I figured, I’m out of here.
The upside of losing Savimbi and the LandRover was that I also seemed to have lost Captain Bolaji. Taking this as mycue, I pointed the Earth Mover in the direction of the distant hills andflattened the accelerator.
Suddenly I was swimming against the tide.Jeeps, APCs and armour were pouring into the works while I was intent onleaving via the same holes. Luckily my Earth Mover could cart over threehundred and fifty tonnes when fully loaded, so brushing aside a few old Russiantrucks hardly scratched the bumpers. The armour I pushed to one side, but thejeeps I just went straight over without jigging the windscreen wipers.
Sparks started to explode all around thecab as my former comrades voiced their objections, but I ducked beneath thesteering wheel and carried on over the top of them until I was outside.
Once clear of the main perimeter I foundless people to run over. Most of the Special Army were now inside and attackingthe mine’s installations, while the population at large had taken to the hills.I’d momentarily lost the main road from having to duck under the dashboard so Imade one of my own through a row of corrugated houses until I found theofficial road again.
For a few precious minutes I rolled awayfrom the mine stupidly thinking I’d made it, but only too quickly bullets beganstrafing the cab again.
I glanced into my wing mirror and sawCaptain Bolaji making free with his ammo moments before the glass disappearedin an explosion of shards. I swung the steering wheel into the Captain’sdirection, but he just popped up in the opposite wing mirror and carried onrattling bullets off my doors.
What was left of my windows disappearedin the next hail, but Captain Bolaji couldn’t bring his arc of fire to bear onme. The driver’s seat was a good twenty-five feet above ground and protected fromthe rear by six inches of solid steel. The only way to get anywhere near me wasto shoot through the driver’s doors, but in order to do that he had to make itpast a trio of twenty-foot high wheels, which didn’t appeal to his driver inthe slightest.
I checked the clip on my carbine andresorted to my Colt when I found it was empty.
The road ahead was relatively straight,so I stuck the Carbine through the steering wheel and checked my rear. CaptainBolaji had disappeared from the driver’s side, so I clambered over the seatsand checked behind the right rear wheel. Sure enough there he was, bouncingbullets off the rubber in an attempt to burst my tyres, but having about asmuch luck as the residents of Caia were. Well, like I said, this truck carried overthree hundred and fifty tonnes of dirt and rocks fully laden so they didn’tmuck around when it came to the tyres.
I took a bead on my target and pulled thetrigger three or four times until I saw his driver’s hat come off. CaptainBolaji’s jeep immediately veered into my rear wheel and disappeared under theaxles with a satisfying bump. Captain Bolaji himself leapt for his life but Ididn’t see what became of him as a crunch from the front suddenly grabbed myattention.
I turned just in time to see the side ofa steel bridge vanishing under the front wheels of the Earth Mover and a riverlooming large in the windscreen. I gasped through sheer terror, but just aboutmanaged to hold onto the breath as I plunged thirty feet and crashed face firstinto the mighty Zambezi.
10.DILEMMAS WITH HYDROGEN AND OXYGEN
Everything immediately went black and I tumbled and turned inside the cab untilthe Earth Mover hit the bottom with a thump.
My head hit the ceiling and I lost thebreath I’d been saving for later, but when I spluttered and choked, I found tomy surprise that I could still breathe. A small pocket of air had accompaniedme to the bottom of the river so I sucked in as much as I could and studied mylatest share price.
Not brilliant, but things could’ve beenworse.
And suddenly they were. The rear of theEarth Mover started tumbling after the front and the air began draining away asthe machine twisted in the murk and came to a rest on its back. Fortunately, bythe time I was submerged again, I’d managed to pump my lungs full of air andwas confident I had a couple of minutes before I had to find any more.
I’m pretty good at holding my breaththese days. Most Agency Affiliates have to be. Besides marksmanship, flyingkicks and unbreakable skulls, a good pair of lungs is all part of the kit. Veryfew jobs won’t dunk you in the drink at some point, whether it be oceans, seas,lake or rivers, shark pits, moats, alligator enclosures or piranha tanks. Andif you want to get out of them again and pick up your wages at the end of thejob, you’d better know how to hold your breath. The Agency actually runscourses for surviving water. And pretty vigorous they are too. More than a fewblokes have drowned just attending these courses but The Agency has world-classlifeguards and medics on hand at all times and has yet to permanently lose astudent to water. The drowning side can actually help you. I almost drowneddoing this course and nothing makes you more aware of the limits to which youcan push your body. As long as you’re able to pump your lungs before you’resubmerged, as long as you know to release it slowly, as long as you let yourown natural buoyancy do as much of the work as you dare, as long as you don’tpanic and as long as you don’t breathe the water, more times than not you’lllive to climb onto dry land again.
I launched myself through the windscreenof the Earth Mover and was pulled clear by the current. I could see the Africansun twinkling far above my head, sending golden rays through the dirty water toshow me the way back to life, so I kicked off my boots, my jacket and my gunbelt and motioned my arms and legs in gentle circles, clawing myself towardssurface inch by murderous inch.
The current was mercilessly strong andfor every three feet I rose, I sank another two until my lungs burned withimpatience. I knew not to kick too frantically as that had been my undoing onThe Agency course. You don’t rise any quicker, you just use up your oxygen.Instead I tried meditating my way to the surface. This sounds a bit gay, andI’ll be the first to admit it, but it can actually save your life. By focussinginwardly and shutting down all extraneous activity, you conserve oxygen foryour vital organs, granting you precious extra seconds to circle around in theswells as you float towards daylight. But it is an incredibly hard thing to do,because you’ve basically got to fight against your instincts. I mean, whenyou’re in thirty feet of water and gasping for breath, your panic stations willdemand that you strike for the surface, but fighting against the water willonly make you want to breathe all the more. What you actually have to do istake a moment to calm yourself, then relax as many muscles as you can (yourback, neck, buttocks, stomach etc) and slowly and rhythmically waft yourselftoward the light. Hopefully, if you’ve done it right, Saint Peter won’t bestanding there when you open your eyes to tell you you should have kicked, andyou’ll break the surface as gently as a sea turtle on its journeys around theoceans.
Of course, it’s almost always those lastfew inches that actually kill you, tricking you into believing that you’ve madeit when you haven’t, and that’s when you’ve got to be at your most disciplinedand resist the urge to thrash for the finishing line.
Though this can be particularly hard whena semi-submerged tree branch stabs you in the face.
“Oh you… [cough]… fuckin’…. [retch]… cuntin’… fuck…[gag]… shi… [heave]… urghhh!”
I managed to somehow cling onto thebranch and pulled myself the last few inches to the surface, though the painthat gouged my face almost knocked me back into the depths. I gulped down abellyful of river and air, coughing and hacking with every breath until I waseventually able to keep some air down.
The river continued to pull at my feet,but my arms were tightly wrapped around the branch to keep me afloat.
I looked around to take stock of mysituation but saw nothing out of the right eye but blood and shapes, andnothing at all out of my left. I felt my face and a shiver ran down my spinewhen I found a tangled mess of skin and bone where my left eye used to be.
I splashed some water into my right eyeto clear my vision, but I was still unable to see anything at all out of myleft.
Blood started pouring down my face again,flavouring the water and banging the dinner gong for any nearby crocodiles, soI put my less immediate worries on hold for a moment and hauled myself alongthe branch until I reached the bank. The mud sucked at my hands and feet but alittle more clambering saw me up the slope and away from the Zambezi’s circlingpatrons.
I wanted to clean my face, push it backtogether and pick out any fragments of wood and dirt that were stuck in my eye,but my hands were caked with mud and my shirt was somehow filthier than thewater it had just left.
I found some waxy vegetation nearby anddid what I could to clean my hands up, and although I was still reluctant toput them into an open wound, what choice did I have?
A couple of bits of bark and one of thetastier splinters of wood fell from my face as I tried to flick it clean, alongwith one or bits I think I was meant to keep. Only my hand was keeping myeyeball and eyebrow in place, so I untied my bandana from around my neck and didwhat I could to tie it around my head. My eye was gone, and a good proportionof my face too, but at least I was alive, which is more than a lot of peoplewould be able to say come the end of this day.
I was stupidly just allowing myself thinkthat the worst of it was behind me when the same waxy vegetation that hadserved as my medicine cabinet began exploding all around me. I looked up andsaw Captain Bolaji on the crest of the riverbank, emptying his pistol in mydirection in a fit of ill-judged impatience. If he’d snuck up on me or had lainin wait, he would’ve had me for dead, but like so many inexperienced gunmen,he’d opened up on me from a distance, assuming I’d be as easy to hit at fiftyyards as a paper target.
I was on my belly and scrambling beforehe’d got more than three or four shots off, and used the sloping bank as cover.
Captain Bolaji swore at me and told me todie, but I hadn’t accommodated any of the hundred or so other piss poor shotswho’d made similar demands in the past so I didn’t see why I should make anexception for him.
If I’d still had my Colt and my 3D visionI might’ve stayed and taught Captain Bolaji how to shoot, but I was unarmed andhurt, so I scrambled through the undergrowth, keeping my head down and arsemoving as I slithered for salvation. Thanks to the loss of my trousers my legswere soon scuffed to sirloin and together with all the blood that was pouringoff my face I quickly realised a half-cut tracker with a hangover could’vehappily run me down, so I took the decision to lay up and wait for CaptainBolaji. If he was impatient enough to open up on me from fifty yards away, hewas a good bet to run straight into a blade if I gave him the opportunity.
I rolled off the trail and pulled mycombat knife from my ankle sheath. The Captain soon caught up with me, eyes tothe dust as he chased down my blood trail, and I saw that he too had been hurt,presumably when his driver had taken a detour under my Earth Mover. Thisbolstered my confidence and I sunk back behind the tree and crouched with theblade poised to strike.
Sounds of twigs cracking heralded hisarrival and I stabbed into a rush of movement but misjudged the distance thanksto my newly acquired 2D vision. Still, the shock knocked him off kilter longenough for me to turn my attention to his gun and I slashed it from his hand,opening his tendons and veins as I did so.
Far from falling back as I would’veexpected, Captain Bolaji launched himself at me, seizing my knife hand andtumbling us both into a scrub-filled gully to crack our heads on the waitingrocks.
“Dog bitch!” Captain Bolaji screamed,trying to turn the knife on me.
“Fucking twat!” I screamed back, equallydetermined to be the one who did the stabbing around here.
Captain Bolaji smashed me on the side ofthe face with his free hand, rocking my head back and exposing my neck for adangerous few moments. However, I managed to use the momentum to bring my facestraight back into his, head-butting him on the bridge of the nose with asickening crunch. To be honest, I wasn’t sure which of us had just done thecrunching but neither of us seemed that happy about it and both reeled backwith nausea.
“That wasn’t good,” I spluttered, and forone moment Captain Bolaji nodded in agreement.
Almost immediately though we werestraight back to it, grappling and scratching at each other as we fought forpossession of the blade.
My shock and blood loss must’ve begun totell because Captain Bolaji started to get the upper hand. He rolled me onto myback and twisted the blade in my grip until my hand was almost at a right angleto itself. It was impossible to push the blade away when my wrist was at thisangle, so I held him for as long as I could and settled for opening a secondfront on the bastard, whipping my knees up between his legs until I eventuallywon a coconut.
Captain Bolaji’s strength slipped and Iwas able to push him off and turn the knife around. Captain Bolaji still had ahold of my wrist but the tide had turned and he knew it.
“No!” he gasped, as the tip of the bladebegan to pierce his neck.
I’ve killed a couple of people with aknife before and they always react the same way when the end comes. Pleading,desperation, pity and regret. Mr Fedorov, my late lamented Russian colleague,used to say that knife fights were like games of chess; each player started outon the attack with such intent, rushing their Queens and Rooks into the fraywith only final victory on their minds until inevitably the issue was forced,and the losing King was left to run around in ever decreasing circles until thefinal blow was struck.
Well my knee-to-the-nuts had sappedCaptain Bolaji of all his Bishops, Knights and Rooks and only a few token Pawnsstood between him and Check Mate. Captain Bolaji recognised this and did whateveryone in his position always did when their time came. He pleaded with me to“wait”, used the last of his strength to delay the inevitable and prayed for amiracle to save him.
It arrived right on cue, just as I wasabout to deliver to killer blow.
A white hot flash filled the sky behind me, searing my back and making merecoil in surprise. A supersonic blast of superheated air arrived right on itstail and me and Captain Bolaji scrambled away to escape its wrath, throwingourselves behind a rocky overhang as bushes and trees spontaneously combustedall around us as far as the eye could see.
The nuke – I’d forgotten about it.
I could tell by the confusion on CaptainBolaji’s face that he hadn’t been part of His Most Excellent Majesty’s strategymeetings either and was probably wondering if we’d managed to stab each otherand taken a tumble into hell as a consequence.
Because hell was exactly what we’d found.
Fire raged on all sides, sucking theoxygen from the air and choking us where we cowered. Having seen firestormsbefore I knew we’d suffocate if we stayed where we were. We had to get away,find air and a respite from the heat. The solution was no more than fifty yardsaway.
I shouted this at Captain Bolaji and henodded to show that he understood, so we jumped to our feet and sprinted as onethrough the burning vista.
The heat was incredible, almost too muchto bear, and it came in rolling waves as we careened in zigzags through thecrackling vegetation, feeling the most bearable route down to the river. Ifwe’d stumbled, we would have undoubtedly roasted where we’d dropped, but ourmovement prevented us from burning too deeply. Like hogs on a spit, we cookedall over, slowly but evenly until the river was suddenly there, broad andinviting, and we leapt into its cool waters without hesitation.
The relief was all embracing and webobbed in the swell as the current swept us downriver and away from the flames.But this was when our problems really started. See, we weren’t the only oneswho’d had the brilliant idea of hitting the water the moment the bomb went off.Every croc and hippo sunning itself on the water’s edge had decided that wasenough sun for one afternoon so that the Zambezi was now standing room onlywith all creatures great and small.
The first thing to have a lunge at me wasa fifteen-foot crocodile with tan lines across his face. I managed to keep itat arms length with a boot on the nose and a branch in its eye before I washelped out by a passingimpala whichfloated straightinto his outstretched mouth.
And the impala wasn’t the only one whowas having an off day. Lots of half-cooked antelopes and wildebeests cloggedthe waters in a desperate attempt to escape the flames, some were kicking andwhinnying, some were not, but the crocodiles quickly recognised the bounty forwhat it was.
I decided to take my chances back onshore when a submerged hippo took exception to my proximity and I flounderedand thrashed about in the rip until I fished up on a silt beach nearby.
I pulled myself clear of the water, butstayed close to the river for the air and finally allowed myself to actuallyput a little thought into my next move, rather than simply reacting to whateverwas trying to shoot, roast or eat me.
After a little frantic splashing and acry of “Oh God please no”, I had company in the form of Captain Bolaji, whohauled himself out of the water and who looked up at me warily. I barely hadthe energy to speak, let alone continue our game of chess, so I just shruggedto indicate that my bolt was shot and the Captain pulled himself up the beachand collapsed next to me.
Neither of us said anything at first. Wejust watched our surroundings burn and the sky turn black with smoke.
The radiation would follow, but as longas we didn’t linger and as long as we didn’t have a stiff wind on our backs allthe way home we’d escape the worst of it. Well, maybe. We’d been about threemiles from the blast when it had gone off and judging from the fact that I wasstill alive to feel my wounds I reckoned the bomb must have been a relativelysmall affair. Just a couple of kilotons or so. Plus it had been a surfacedetonation, maybe even a subterranean detonation if the late Admiral had driventhe payload into the mine itself. All of these things had worked in our favour.We’d caught the bomb’s flash and had felt its breath, but we’d been on the veryfringes of the destruction zone and escaped with a couple of tanned necks andsinged eyebrows. Much of the vegetation around us had burst into flames, butthis was southern Africa, you only needed to turn on a flashlight around theseparts to burn the place down. Oh yes, we’d been lucky all right. Or rather,Captain Bolaji had been lucky. I’d missed martyrdom by design rather thanaccident.
“What was that?” Captain Bolaji finallyasked.
“His Most Excellent Majesty’s secretweapon, I reckon,” I told him.
Captain Bolaji looked at me in confusion.
“A nuclear bomb,” I clarified.
“A nuclear bomb? You mean a nuclear bomb?Like an Atomic Bomb?”
“Yeah. Bloody things,” I stewed, this notbeing my first run-in with one of Oppenheimer’s firecrackers you see.
“The Europeans?” he immediately clicked.
“Yeah, probably,” I confirmed.
“To destroy the mine,” I reasoned.
“Destroy it? But why?”
“Well we weren’t going to steal it, werewe?” I laughed.
Captain Bolaji still looked confused, andI could’ve explained that by detonating a nuke on the site of a mine, we’d justdirtied the ground – and any diamonds dug out of it – for the nextthousand years, rendering them worthless. Not an altogether disagreeable turnof events if you happened to own a stockpile of diamonds that were rapidlydepreciating in value following the opening of a mine in Caia, but which hadnow recovered their original worth (and then some) thanks to the Special Army’sfirst and last heroic outing.
I could’ve explained this, but what wouldhave been the point? I didn’t know any of it for a fact and what’s more, itdidn’t make a jot of difference to either of our bank accounts so who reallycared?
“Don’t ask me, mate,” I eventuallyabridged, quoting the Affiliate’s mantra. “I just work here.”
But the Captain wasn’t to be flannelledand asked me how I’d known about the bomb.
“I didn’t. But I suspected,” I told him.
“I had an idea.”
“But you didn’t tell anyone about it?”
“Tell anyone? Like who?”
“Like who? Like Mbandi? Kasanje? Jaga?The Colonel-General? They’re all dead,” he gesticulated.
I adjusted the bandana over my bad eyeand retied the back to hold my face in place.
“Yes they are,” I confirmed when I wasdone. “But I didn’t kill them.”
Captain Bolaji’s face fell, so I askedhim what he would’ve done had I troubled him with my suspicions. Off the top ofhis head Captain Bolaji reckoned he didn’t know, but his reticence was cloudedby hindsight, so I suggested he might’ve reported me to His Most ExcellentMajesty at the very least, which would’ve seen me – and him –sporting matching blindfold up against a wall to prevent us from spoiling thesurprise for everyone else.
“Either way, the Special Army would’vestill wiped itself out at Caia. Nothing and nobody was going to stop that,” Isaid, though what I actually meant was nobody like me was going to stop it.Jack Tempest or Rip Dunbar might’ve had a crack at it had they been in myboots, but they’d clearly had more exciting missions on this week.
As much as it galled him, Captain Bolajisaw that I was right and tried to accept his sunny fortune with the good graceby which it had dropped in his lap. It still narked him something rotten thathe was only alive by chance, but then again which of us wasn’t?
“Howdid you suspect?” he finally plumped to ask.
It was a fair question and one to whichhe had a right to know so I asked him a question in turn.
“Have you ever readThe Fourth Protocol?”
Captain Bolaji hadn’t.
“Come on then, I’ll tell you about it onthe way to the airport.”
12.THE SOLACE OF THANKS
As you can imagine, the towns and villages all around Caia were in a state ofpandemonium. Buildings were on fire, people were running about screaming, andon the horizon, to everyone’s horror, an enormous swirling mushroom cloudslowly rose towards the heavens. Me and Bolaji walked right out from underneathit and blended in.
We’d ditched what had remained of ourSpecial Army uniforms and strolled into town wearing just our underpants andeach other’s blood. Nobody paid us any attention, nobody even noticed us as wewashed our burns in the town’s water pump, whipped a few clothes off a line andknocked out a local cop to take his jeep and weapons.
I urged Captain Bolaji to cut his lossesand come with me to Harare, but the Captain was adamant about swinging by thecompound to pay his final respects to His Most Excellent Majesty, so I agreedto go along for the ride.
Not that there’d be much point. I knewthe plan, and I knew the tactics. I’d been here before.
As expected, there was nothing left ofour old command headquarters but for a few burnt out buildings and a scatteringof bullet-riddled corpses surrounded by 9-mm shell casings. A Special Forcesunit had dropped in for tea. All His Most Excellent Majesty’s troops that hadbeen left behind to guard the place had either been downed in position ormarched out into the centre of the parade ground and dispatched there.
The adjutant had not escaped the clean-upoperation either and lay dead in the grass fifty yards behind the main buildinglooking none too happy about it. He still had his wallet (and his passportrather interestingly) so we spent a few minutes harvesting the rest of thebodies for petrol money and anything else we could find before Captain Bolajifound His Most Excellent Majesty’s battered and bruised body curled up behindthe Royal outhouse.
He called to me and for several secondswe stared down at our former Commander-in-Chief’s swollen arse before CaptainBolaji planted a boot up the middle of it, causing His Most Excellent Majestyto suddenly wake with a start and begin wailing with fear.
“Why didn’t they kill him too?” CaptainBolaji asked, as we watched our magnificent leader cry his eyes out.
“I don’t know, I guess it was just morefun to leave him alive,” I said over the sounds of weeping.
“Brigadier Jones?” His Most ExcellentMajesty finally saw through his tears. “Captain Bolaji? You came back?”
“Yes, didn’t we just,” Captain Bolajiscowled.
“Quick, get me some clothes,” His MostExcellent Majesty ordered, spectacularly misjudging the mood of his men.
Captain Bolaji put a second boot up hisarse to remind him of recent events and I cocked my gun theatrically to echothe point. His Most Excellent Majesty yelped in pain, then screwed up his faceand began bawling his eyes out all over again.
It was hard to tell what he was saying,as so often is the case with crying children, but if I’d had to guess Iwould’ve said it sounded something like “please don’t hurt me” and “I just wantto go home. I want my mamma” etc.
Captain Bolaji looked at me and suckedhis teeth. I’d already holstered my weapon and rage and was now just feelinglike shit. Eventually the Captain let out a sigh of frustration, then tugged abloodstained jacket off a nearby sentry and threw it at His Most ExcellentMajesty’s feet.
“Put that on,” he told him.
His Most Excellent Majesty studied thejacket and managed to stop crying long enough to pull it on, but his sleeveswere too long for his arms and the breasts were riddled with bullet holes andthis just seemed to set him off again.
“Stop crying Kimbo, or I’ll give yousomething to cry about?” Captain Bolaji barked, comically dismissing His MostExcellent Majesty’s recent run of luck as something less than a clip round theear.
“Kimbo?” I asked.
“Kimbo Banja, it is his name,” CaptainBolaji told me.
“Oh,” I replied, relieved that I didn’thave to keep on referring to this snivelling little kid as His Most ExcellentMajesty any more, though it had helped with the word count over the last coupleof chapters.
“Come on, let’s go,” Captain Bolaji said.
We gathered up a few final bits andpieces that we’d need for the journey then climbed into our jeep and buggedout. Kimbo didn’t say much at first. I guess he had a few things on his littlemind, but when he did it was clear he’d known less about the operation than wehad. He’d been patronised and pandered to by the Euro boys, but when all thegrown-ups had started to talk Sissiki had put him to bed. All he’d been toldwas that he was going to throw some crooked diamond miners out of his countryand that when we were done, he’d be celebrated and revered, worshipped andrewarded, and big mates with David Beckham. He didn’t have the first idea aboutthe nuclear bomb and started crying his eyes out all over again when we toldhim about it.
The Europeans had been there with them,apparently to pop the cork on the Special Army’s success, but the moment theygot a radio call from their spotter on the ground, the mood had changed andtheir soldiers had started killing everyone. Nobody was spared, not even thewives of his senior officers, and Kimbo thought he was going to die too, butinstead all they did was parade him around in his birthday suit and tan hisarse with their belts, before flying off into the sunset with laughs wobblingtheir bellies.
“Is everyone dead?” he swallowed indisbelief.
I looked over my shoulder from thepassenger seat and nodded.Kimbo’seyes fell to hisfeet and he went quiet. Where once was a cock-sure, energetic young despot, allthat remained was a fragile and scared little boy. All his authority was gone.All his confidence, his innocence and his pluck, all had been taken from him.Would he ever fully understand what had happened? What his part in it had been?How he’d been used? Would he ever come to terms with this?
Maybe. Maybe not. But then again this wasAfrica. And bad things happened to little boys in Africa every day. What wasone more traumatised toy soldier on a continent full of them?
After a few moments Kimbo looked up andthanked us for coming back for him. I glanced over at Captain Bolaji, and he dulylifted an eyebrow, but left the home truths where they lay.
“I knew you would, Brigadier Jones,”Kimbo continued. “Just like you said you would. Just like you saved your othercommander, you saved me.”
Kimbo leaned over the passenger seat andwrapped his arms around me in gratitude. His little body trembled against mineand soon he was in tears again. I let him cry it out for a few seconds beforepeeling his arms from my neck and putting him back in his seat. I fixed Kimbowith my remaining eye, gave him my steeliest look and then brought my handsmartly up to my brow to crack off the salute to end all salutes.
“It was my pleasure, Your Most ExcellentMajesty,” I told him, finally jogging a smile out of the nicest littlesuper-villain it’s ever been my privilege to serve.
Just outside Harare, there’s an orphanage for children of war. It was set up bya nice old stick called Father Anthony who’d been working out in Africa sincebefore Bob Geldof was in shorttrousers. The orphanageplays home to boys and girls who’d either lost everything through war or who’dbeen conscripted and put through the grinder themselves. Victims and formersoldiers bedded and boarded together. They read, wrote, played, worked throughtheir traumas and day-by-day learned to become children again.
A new boy now resided there. To FatherAnthony and the other pupils he was simply Kimbo Banja. But I would alwaysremember him as His Most Excellent Majesty, Supreme Ruler andCommander-in-Chief of the First – and hopefully last – LumbalaSpecial Army.
13.NONE BUT THINE EYE
“Mr Jones, I’ve come to remove your bandages. Please sit up.”
I recognised her sweet aroma before Irecognised her sweet voice and smiled accordingly.
“Sarah Jessica Parker,” I deduced.
“Of course, how could I forget?” Ireplied, moving to one side to make room for Nurse Parker as she perched on thebed beside me. “Lovely,” I added.
Of course, this wasn’t really SarahJessica Parker, but it’s how I’d come to know and recognise her since I’d beenhere in the hospital so I saw no reason to stop with the sexy pseudonyms anytime soon.
The sight in my left eye was gone. Infact, the whole of my left eye was gone, but worse still was the infection thathad spread to the right, threatening to rob me of daylight completely. It hadbeen a scary few days, but the doctors seemed confident that they’d caught itin time. Here and now we’d find out.
Nurse Parker began to unwind my bandages.
Sarah Jessica Parker was, and as far asI’m aware still is, an American actress, one of the girls in that show,Sex and the City. I’d never actuallyseen it myself, but I remembered who she was when I asked the nurse whatperfume she was wearing and she told me, Sarah Jessica Parker, so this was howI came to imagine her throughout my time in bandages.
“Keep your eyes closed, Mr Jones.”
Sarah Jessica Parker carried on unwindingthe bandages and daubed my eye with a crystal cold solution, wiping away thecrust that had built up over the last two weeks in preparation for me seeingagain.
Two weeks. That’s how long I’d been here.Fourteen nights. That’s how long my eyes had been bandaged.
Just over two weeks earlier, I’d arrivedin Harare with Captain Bolaji after forty-eight hours on the road andpractically fell out of the jeep. With no money, no passport and no strength,I’d been an unmarked grave waiting to be dug. Captain Bolaji had wanted to takeme to the city’s central hospital, but no offence to Harare, I would have stooda better chance doing the work myself. Plus, the authorities might’ve wanted toknow where I’d picked up my injuries and why I was making their Geiger Countersound like Flipper and his mates.
So I’d made the call. Or rather, I’d hadCaptain Bolaji do it on my behest, which had proved something of revelation tohim.
“An Agency looks after you?”
“Yes. It looks after all its people,which is more than I can say for half the bastards it rents us out to.”
Captain Bolaji thought for a while. “Howdo I join?”
“You don’t,” I told him.
“Well how did you join?”
“You didn’t? You just said you did.”
“No, I didn’t join them, I was invited tojoin.”
“Yes. You don’t choose to join TheAgency, The Agency chooses you.”
Captain Bolaji thought some more on that.“Then how do I get invited?”
“That’s easy, keep me alive until theplane arrives and they’ll have a look at you,” I told him, before passing outon the grimy hotel bed.
The next few hours were a dreamy blur. Ifelt someone moving around the room and the swirl of the ceiling fan. I feltwater on my lips and a cloth on my face, the ringing of a telephone, andeventually, the knock on the door. Voices, swabs and injections followed, alongwith a fast ride along a bumpy road, then a roar into the sky. More needles inmy arm preceded stars in my mind but I no longer cared. I was too far gone. Toopumped full of drugs. Too pumped full of infection. Heat wrapped my body like ablanket and I finally succumbed again.
The next time I awoke, Sarah JessicaParker was checking my blood pressure when a pair of shoes entered the room. Ofcourse, it was an Agency Interviewer, here to take down my story. “Plenty oftime to rest later. Let’s hear what happened first,” he invited.
When only one man survives a job –in this case OperationSolaris– the debriefing’s much more intense because there’s no one else tocorroborate the facts with you. A polygraph is sometimes used, but not in thisinstance. My infections had messed with my system too much to render myreadings useless, so instead I just went over and over the story of whathappened with The Agency Interviewer, and all the whens, wheres, whos and howsthat went with it. The Agency isn’t so much interested in the whys. That’stheir job to figure them out. They’re the analysts, we’re just the foot soldiersso they like us to stick to the facts, make our reports objectively and leaveany interpretations to them.
For eight days the Interviewer grilledme, at all times of the night and with increasing intensity as my recoveryprogressed. Eventually, after the eighth night he told me he was satisfied withmy story (which they always do to allay your fears) and got me sign mystatements – at least, I’m assuming they were my statements, but whatwith my eyes bandaged I could just as well have been signing half a dozen blankcheques for him. I doubted it though. Trust’s very important at The Agency andit swings both ways.
“So now let us turn to the matter of theraid on the Caia diamond mine,” the Interviewer had suggested, opening a newfolder and scanning the chip in my arm to begin the process all over again.
As exhausting as this was, the debrieffor the Caia job wasn’t nearly as intense as it had been for the Soliman jobbecause The Special Army hadn’t hired through The Agency, so technically,they’d had nothing to do with it. But their fingerprints were still on the job.The appearance of my old friend Mr Smith, when the bomb had been delivered,told me as much, so I knew there were wheels within wheels here and playedalong accordingly.
At least until the following question wasput to me.
“And so what made you decide to abort theoperation when your driver Savimbi was killed?”
Now, at this point I should have told himthe truth. I should have. But I didn’t. Because Mr Smith had taken a chance forme. So weirdly I felt honour-bound to do the same for him. Hmm, a few book clubrules we hadn’t discussed there.
ObviouslyI told the Interviewer that we’d encountered each other out in Africa and thatwe’d even talked. I told him that we’d said hello, that we’d previously been ina book club together and that we’d even discussed what we were currentlyreading. I’d had to tell him that much as The Agency’s computers would match usas having worked together on OperationBlowfish.They’d also put us on overlapping jobs, and they’d identify the fact that we’dboth been in His Most Excellent Majesty’s compound when the bomb had beendelivered, so unless we’d been wearing balaclavas or some sort of kooky headgear (which were some times required) then we would have definitely clockedeach other.
So I told the Interviewer all of this.And I even told him the context of our conversation and the specific booktitles we’d mentioned (PerfumeandThe Fourth Protocol).
I told him all of these things, butomitted the message behind the chat.
Andthis was a risk.
Itwas a calculated risk, but a risk all the same. A very big risk.
See, if Mr Smith’s job wentoff beam(asit inevitably would) and he lived to tell the tale, then at some point in thefuture he would have to tell this same tale to The Agency, with the same dates,the same locations and the same chance meetings.
If he didn’t, if he held back, he’d be asgood as inviting a bullet in the brain.
So he’d tell them he’d bumped into me.He’d tell them we’d talked books. And he’d tell them he’d recommendedThe Fourth Protocolto me. He’d have to.Because he’d know I would have already told The Agency during my debriefing.The only way to protect yourself during the debriefing is to tell the truth,the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you if you don’t.
But would he tell themwhyhe’d recommendedThe Fourth Protocol? Would I? That wasthe real quandary.
It was doubtful, because he’d be droppinghimself in it if he did. Losing his Agency Affiliation and all the protectionsand guarantees that came with it. I was in no such danger, because technicallyI’d done nothing wrong. After all, it was Mr Smith who’d voluntarily spoken outto save my life, not the other way around. He’d been the one who’d broken protocol.He’d been the one who’d taken a chance. He’d been the one who’d jeopardised anentire operation, not to mention his own life, to save a former colleague. Noone could blame me for heeding his warning. I mean, who wouldn’t in my shoes?So he’d only dropped himself in it.
If I’d wanted to, I could’ve told themall of this and relaxed safe in the knowledge that I’d done nothing wrong.
But Mr Smith had done this thing for me.And I wouldn’t have been here now to tell this story if he hadn’t. So I took achance for him, and for the first time in my life told The Agency a lie.
“I sensed something like thisdouble-cross was on the cards.”
“You sensed?” the Interviewer asked.
“Yes,” I confirmed.
“How did you sense it? Are you psychic orsomething?”
“No. But I have been on dozens of jobs soI’ve come to know when something doesn’t feel right. And when I saw the packagethe Russians brought with them and the accompanying scientists alarm bellsstarted ringing.”
“Metaphorical alarm bells. Not actuallyalarm bells,” I clarified – pedantic cunt.
“Metaphorical alarm bells. Yes, I see,”he noted down. “So you decided to abscond from the Special Army when you sawthe package?”
“Because you sensed that the Special Armywas being used to take a nuclear weapon into the diamond mines of Caia? Andthat this weapon would be detonated, eliminating the Special Army along withthe mine?”
“That is correct, if a little specific.My suspicions were more general than that.”
“Nevertheless, your decision to abscondwas based purely on these suspicions?” the Interviewer pressed.
“I would say so.”
“You would say so?”
“Then please do say so.”
“What? Oh, yeah, my decision to abscondwas based purely on my suspicions that there was trouble ahead for the SpecialArmy and that we were being double-crossed.”
“And these suspicions were entirely ofyour own making? That no outside influence had a hand in planting them therefor you?”
“Only the actions of His Most ExcellentMajesty, his Russian paymasters and fifteen or so years of experience plantedthose suspicions there. That is correct.”
“Just so that we are clear about this,”he pressed. “Nobody forewarned you about the bomb?”
“They didn’t need to, I worked it out formyself.”
“Whether they needed to or not is immaterial.All I want to know is if they did.”
“No sir, they did not.”
“Not even…” I heard the Interviewerflipping through a few pages to refer to his notes. “… Mr Smith? He didn’t warnyou about the bomb?”
“No sir. We talked only about books.”
The interviewer was silent for a fewmoments then I heard some scribbling before he spoke again.
“I see. And what happened then?”
And there, with that single white lie,book club was forced underground. And the seeds of future events weresown.
“Okay Mr Jones,” Nurse Parker said a fewdays later. “Now open your eye.”
Now, I wasn’t quite so naïve as to believe that Nurse Parker actually lookedlike Sarah Jessica Parker, my suspicions first being aroused when she flattenedmy grapes and almost up-turned the bed when she perched next to me. But what Ihadn’t expected was her to be was black. I don’t know why I shouldn’t havethought this. I mean this was the Caribbean after all. The majority of nurseshere were black. And most of them were old enough to be our mothers, evenJennifer Lopez who did the bed baths around here, which especially disappointedme.
ButNurse Parker didn’t have a Caribbean accent. She was American, eastern seaboardunless I was mistaken, which had helped underline my Sarah Jessica Parkerfantasies. But when the bandages came off and my vision as restored –albeit in only one eye – I lost them all to reality and a knowing winkfrom Nurse Parker.
Still, what the nursing staff around heremay have lacked in catwalk poise, they more than made up for in medicalabilities. They were the best – and I do mean theBEST– on the planet. This was The Agency’s own privatehospital and better medical and care facilities you’d not find anywhere elseoutside the 22ndCentury. Doctors, nurses, physiotherapists andpharmacists: they had recovery and recuperation rates other military hospitalscould only dream about. I guess it helped that there was an almost constantinflux of trauma patients to deal with: gun shot wounds, shrapnel, burns,breakages and shark bites. Not too many patients were brought in here to havetheir wisdom teeth out. And such a workload only pooled experience andexpertise until the hospital’s staff led the field in patching up battlefieldcasualties.
Then again, for what they charged theyshould. My fees from OperationSolariswere covering my eye surgery and facial reconstruction. They had lain in TheAgency’s bank accounts awaiting my return to Britain but I hadn’t made it– again. And so I’d called them in and used the money to save my ownlife. And patch myself together for next time.
“Now Mr Jones, we’ve removed what wasleft of your injured eye and replaced it with a plain silicone orb for now,”Doctor Jacob told me from behind a heavy old cedar desk. Nurse Parker hadwheeled me here for my morning consultation and left us at the doctor’srequest. The reason why was about to become apparent.
“If the orb feels comfortable, and youare happy with it, then we can have a cosmetic version made up for you thatexactly matches your right eye so that no one would ever be able to tell youhave a prosthetic eye. You won’t be able to see out of it, of course, butcosmetically, you will look quite normal.”
I glanced at my reflection in the mirror,at the six inch gash that ran vertically down the left hand-side of my face,across my eye socket and to my ear and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank God for that. My looks are allI’ve got.”
The Doctor read between my laughter linesand assured me that they could lessen my scarring too. “With skin grafting andlaser treatment, we can reduce the visible injury to a few lines or slightdiscolouration if you want.”
“If I want?”
“Certainly. But some Affiliates like tokeep their battle scars. They find they get more contracts that way,” heexplained.
“Yes. Lots of gentlemen prefer to hire– how shall we say – more robust looking employees to action theirduties. Such staff can often bring a certain pizzazz to proceedings,” he said,nodding approvingly at my disfigurement.
I looked at the mirror again, screwed myface into a growl and warmed a little to the apparition who leered back.
“Yes, I suppose,” I agreed, with arenewed appreciation. “Perhaps I’ll leave it for the moment and see how thingswork out.”
“Excellent,” Doctor Jacob smiled, not somuch as an eyelash out of place on his own face. “Your surgery credits willstay on your file for either five years, or until you sign your next contract,in which case any and all future medical work will come out of your fees fromthat job. Understand?”
“Good. Well, that’s the small print outof the way,” he said, rising from the desk and walking around to examine my eyeat close quarters with a small penlight. “I must say it’s a most excellentrebuilding job around the socket. Doctor Silverman, I believe it was.”
“I’ll send him a bunch of flowers,” Isaid.
“Her. Doctor Silverman is a woman,”Doctor Jacob replied.
“Then I imagine she’ll like them evenmore.”
“I expect so yes,” he agreed, clickinghis little light off and slipping it back into his pocket. “Of course, thereare alternatives to simple replica eyes, you know. Look here.”
The doctor wheeled me over to a medicalcabinet at the back of the room and pulled opened a thin drawer. Inside,several hundred eyes stared back at me although they were like no eyes I’d everseen before.
“You can choose pretty much any design.Your eye socket will support anything in here,” the doctor told me.
There were plain white orbs, pupils asblack as night, green, red, silver and gold. Some featured yellow smiley faces,skulls & crossbones, circular target designs, stars & stripes, musicalnotes, dollar signs and Oriental symbols. Others had silhouettes of nakedladies on them, lightning bolts, male and female symbols, bar codes, grinningdevil faces and, most sinister of all, Disney characters.
“What’s that one?” I asked, squinting atone in particular.
“That’s a washing machine window. Look,there are little socks and knickers going around inside. See?”
I recognised the undergarments tumblingaround amongst soap suds and bubbles and cooed accordingly.
“I don’t like it.”
“No, no one seems to. No one’s orderedthat one yet,” the doctor agreed.
“Do a lot of people order eyes then?”
“Oh yes. Affiliates are always losingthem,” he told me making me remember Victor Soliman and his glass eye.
“What’s the most popular design?”
“The skull & crossbones,” he told me,picking it out and handing it to me for a closer look. “It’s a classic designand Affiliates don’t seem to mind other Affiliates having it. Beautifulgraphics,” he smiled, studying the eye through a magnification glasses.
“I don’t want something that someone elsehas got,” I told him.
“No, and lots of Affiliates feel that waytoo, so when we prescribe them a design, they have the choice of beingallocated the copyright, which is theirs to keep for life – how ever longthat lasts.”
It was then that I noticed little redstickers next to fifteen or so of the designs, a couple of which I’d had myremaining eye on.
“Unfortunately yes. All those designs arespoken for I’m afraid,” the doctor confirmed, with an apologetic cluck of thecheek.
Amongst those already taken was thevintage sniper scope view, with the little cross hairs and yardage numberingthat I was going to have. It was one of the best in the drawer and reflectedthe image I wanted to convey – deadly, but retro.
“No sorry, someone’s already got thatone,” the doctor shrugged.
And that wasn’t all. The biologicalhazard symbol, which would have been my second choice, had been taken too. Andthe nuclear symbol. And the dollar sign. And the hand grenade.
Even bloody Mickey Mouse had been taken.
“Oh. I don’t know then,” I frowned. “CanI try a few in?”
“Certainly, but why don’t you take thiscatalogue away with you and have a think about it?” the doctor suggested,handing me a samples catalogue then a life-sized picture of a man’s face withseveral pieces either missing or on flaps so that you could fold them back tosee what he looked like with no eyes, ears, teeth or chin. “To help youdecide,” he smiled.
“Oh,” I replied suddenly feeling I’dgotten off quite lightly, all things considered.
“Now, another thing to consider isaccessories,” the doctor said.
“Yes. Because the eyes don’t have to simplybe cosmetic eyes, you understand. They can also be tailored to specificrequirements, if that’s what you’d prefer,” the doctor then said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, they can conceal tools, or weaponsif you wish. Here, look here,” he said, moving along to open a second drawer.In here were more eyes, only these had realistic pupils and looked like eyes,only with simple lettering inscribed on each to indicate their purpose –A through X.
“Now, this one here’s a little camera,”the doctor said, picking up A and showing it to me. “It can take over athousand digital images, depending on what resolution you set it at. It has twogigabytes of storage, a ten times magnification lens, auto focus, infrared andit’s completely water-proof.” The doctor handed me the eye and I turned it overin my hand. There were a couple of little rubber buttons in the back of it anda portal for inserting a cable, but other than that, it looked just like aneye.
“How do you take the pictures?” I asked.
The doctor smirked, almost embarrassed.“You blink. Here look, when you want to start taking pictures, you just givethe front of the eye a firm push to turn it on,” the doctor said, doing justthat to prompt a little click. “Then you just blink away until your heart’scontent and it takes one image per blink until you turn it off. Then you justpop it out and download the pictures onto a laptop. Rather neat don’t youthink?”
“Very nifty,” I agreed. “And this one?” Isaid pointing to B.
“Oh, same thing, only it’s also got avideo unit on it so it’s got a bit less space for photos.”
The doctor proceeded to talk me throughall the various eyes, giving me a little tutorial on each until I was baffledby the array of choice. Here’s what was available:
A – digital camera
B – digital camera with DV camera
C – USB flash drive with 64 GBcapacity
D – audio recorder/player
E – radio transmitter/receiver
F – radio traffic scrambler
G – GPS tracking device
H – fold-out blade
I – multi-headed screwdriver
J – torchlight with twenty-fourhours of battery life
K – compressed O2 (approx threeminutes of underwater breathing)
L – phosphorous flare
M – smoke flare
N – one-shot mini-pistol (.22calibre)
O – iPod
P – laser-cutter
Q – plastique charge (withdetonator)
R – incapacitating gas pellet
S – empty watertight compartment(for smuggling)
T – cyanide powder (for self-use orfoul play)
V – eye scanning skeleton key
W – cigarette lighter
X – ballpoint pen (blue, black andred)
Thedoctor spent a few minutes demonstrating each, and they all worked flawlessly,all except the ballpoint pen of course, which the doctor gave up on after twominutes of futile scribbling against the back of his notepad.
To demonstrate the plastique charge, thedoctor led me across the hallway to the test range and handed me a pair of earprotectors and an eye guard.
“It comes with a five second fuse andshould be enough to blow open most locks,” he said, pushing the soft eye intothe keyhole of a chunky padlock that was shielded by a couple of sandbags. TheDoctor then pulling on a little red cord that hung out of the eye where theoptical nerve should’ve been and ushered me clear. We ducked behind a wall ofsandbags twenty yards back and were rewarded with a thunderous crack as thecharge detonated. Doctor Jacob looked suitably amused and on scouring the roomshowed me what was left of the lock. Not much.
“It won’t get you into a safe but it willget you out of a cell,” he summed up.
The gas pellet was likewise as effective,filling the room with a noxious clear vapour that comatosed the doctor’s canaryin under five seconds.
“He’ll be fine. He’s been through it afew times,” the Doctor assured me.
And besides all the weapons and designs,I also had the choice of a stationary eye or a magnetically responsivemotorised eye that would match the movement of my right eye.
“It’s a lot to think about,” I confessed.
“Well, with the basic package we offeryou five eyes. One, a purely cosmetic dress eye with watertight compartment andfour others which feature whichever accessories you’d like, either of a designof your choice or replicas of your healthy eye.”
“Oh, that’s quite good,” I said, nolonger feeling quite so backed into a decision. “Well, I’ll have a look throughthe brochure and get back to you. Thanks you, doctor.”
“You’re welcome my boy. And if thatsniper scope view design becomes available again, I’ll let you know,” hereplied.
“That would be great.”
Nurse Parker re-entered after a quickfingering of the doctor’s buzzer and invited me to retake my wheelchair for theride back to my room.
“Remember Mr Jones,” Doctor Jacob said,just before I reached the door. “Look after your new eyes and they’ll lookafter you.”
I nodded my appreciation and was sweptfrom the room by Nurse Parker, already wondering if I shouldn’t just throw itall in and upgrade my arms and legs while I was here.
15.A BLINDING NIGHT’S SKY
I looked out across a crystal blue sea and watched the gulls circle and squawkabove the crashing waves. I’d been recuperating here just short of six weeksand my strength and confidence had come back to me a little more each day. Thesurroundings had helped, naturally. It wasn’t an accident that The Agency hadone of its primary trauma hospitals in such an idyllic location. Your heartcouldn’t help but soar at the sun, the sea and the scenery. A little oasis oftropical paradise – that’s what this was. Paradise. The guys in here hadbeen to hell and back, seen and done things no man should be burdened with, andsuffered injuries they had no right to survive. Yet here we all were, inheaven.
And hell’s a little easier to forget whenheaven’s so beautiful.
I returned my healthy eye to the JohnWyndham on my lap and soaked up a few more words.The Day of the Triffids. I’m not normally into science fiction– space ships, aliens, foreign worlds and “what is this thing you callkissing, Captain?” I find it all a bit of a yawn. Perhaps it’s because I havetrouble relating to it. Spaceships. Other worlds. Runaway robots. Thesituations and settings feel too artificial to me. But then again, I haven’tread that much sci-fi in my time, especially “quality sci-fi”, so maybe Iwasn’t giving the genre a fair shout. Perhaps I should take the plunge and getan Isaac Asimov or a Robert A. Heinlein as my next book? But then again whyshould I if I didn’t enjoy sci-fi? There were thousands of books out there.Maybe millions even. I could read a book a day for the rest of my life andnever have to worry about sci-fi.
If I’d still been with Linda, and ifshe’d been here with me today, she would’ve made me read an Isaac Asimov next.She wasn’t into sci-fi either, she just liked making me do whatever I didn’twant to do. It was the same with everything; food, clothing, movies orhaircuts: if I hated it, didn’t suit it or was allergic to it, she’d make mewear it, watch it or eat it. Naturally she claimed she did these things to helpme broaden my horizons, but really she just liked making me do the things Ididn’t want to do. And each time she got her own way she’d see it as avindication of her own righteousness. And every time she didn’t, she’d see itas a confirmation of my stubbornness and turn it into a fight about mydrinking.
I looked out at the sea again and let awarm breeze carry these thoughts away before returning to my book.
As it happened I was quite enjoyingThe Day of the Triffids. It was the sortof sci-fi I could live with: fantastical and a bit of a stretch, but stillwithin the realms of my imagination. Most of it was set in London or on theSouth Downs, where I lived, which was a big help. And the odd walking vegetableasides, there was nothing too implausible about the story. The circumstanceswere incredible I’ll grant you, but the ways in which the characters analysedand reacted to their situations were always fair and believable.
Basically, this is what happens.Somewhere in the future (and bearing in mind this book was published in 1951,so the future in question here is the early 1960s) scientists develop anextraordinary plant whose oils are radically superior to anything on themarket. This has global implications as far as world hunger, engineering, tradeand peace are concerned, so you’d think everyone would be happy about it,wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, there’s a downside. The Triffids are deadlymeat-eating plants that can walk around on their roots and kill people with asingle flick of their stingers. But that’s okay, because they are only plants,after all, not poisonous elephants, so they’re kept in check, behind electricfences and farmed by experts for their oils. Then one evening, a spectacularmeteor shower lights up the night’s sky across the entire globe. Everyonerushes to watch it, only to wake up the next morning blind. Only a handful ofpeople escape, our hero Bill Masen being one of them, because he’d been inhospital with his eyes bandaged up (like all good heroes have from time totime) so he missed the cosmic light show, which is lucky for him.
Things are naturally chaotic at first,with whole populations crying out for help in the darkness, and the sighted dowhat they can for the blind, but soon realise the situation’s utterly hopeless.There are simply too many blind to look after, feed and care for, and too fewsighted. They can’t save everyone and disease and death are soon filling thecities, so the few sighted survivors take to the countryside and start afresh.
The Triffids don’t actually come into itvery much at first. Bill and his chums have a hundred and one other things toworry about in the early chapters, but as the book goes on, and the Triffidsescape their captivity and start feeding like crazy on the bumbling blind.
Anyway, like I said, the situation’s abit contrived, but the characters are very plausible. Wyndham himself calledhis books “logical sci-fi” and usually made his central characters sensible menor women who used logic and reason to negotiate their way through extraordinarycircumstances.
I liked this. And because Wyndham didn’tfeel the need to keep sending his characters out in the middle of the night inopen-topped cars with empty fuel tanks simply because no one had been stung ina while, it made the whole story more palatable. I just wished half the blokeswho hired us made some of the same decisions.
As a lifelong proponent of “common sense”,I figured Bill might like this book too, so I made a mental note to recommendit to him when I got back to Sussex and dipped my eye into the next paragraph.
“Ah Mr Jones, here you are,” a sweetAmerican voice declared from across the lawn. Nurse Parker strode towards mewith a little tray of drugs and handed me a cup of tablets.
“Margarita time already,” I said,knocking them back and chasing them down with a paper cup of water. “Any chanceof a beer?”
“Any chance of one-forty over eighty?”she replied, to the amusement of the assorted disabled villains loungingnearby.
“You’re leaving us soon I hear.”
“End of the week they say,” I confirmed.
“Well take care out there, Mr Jones. Wedo good work, but we don’t do miracles.”
“I will,” I promised, which wasn’t somuch a lie, more an accepted response to such an undeliverable request.
Nurse Parker looked at the book in mylap. “You too, huh? Why is everyone reading that same book?”
“Everyone?” I said.
“Well, everyone here. Mr Collins and MrMihailov were reading it yesterday, or the day before,” Nurse Parker reckoned.“And I saw Mr Hu with it last week.”
“Well, you know how it is, one guy seesanother reading a book and before you know it we’re all reading it. We’re abunch of sheep really don’t you know?”
“Clearly,” Nurse Parker agreed, unsurewhat to make of the explanation and even less so the phenomenon. She shruggedthe concern from her shoulders and made do with telling me that I shouldn’tread for too long as I was putting a strain on my eye, so I switched my eyepatch between eyes and asked her if that made her happier.
“Much,” she replied with a giggle, thenwent about her drug peddling.
I returned the patch to its rightful eyeand watched Nurse Parker go, before glancing over at Mr Collins relaxing in theshade of the palms. He seemed unfazed to have had his name mentioned by NurseParker and simply reached for his lemonade. The tall glass instantly shatteredbetween his Tungsten fingers, once again making everyone laugh.
“Bollocks!” Mr Collins growled, his thirdsuch accident in as many days. “Fucking hand.”
Well, we were all having troubleadjusting to our new accessories.
After another hour I came to the end ofthe book and slowed up my reading pace to soak in the last few words until the storyfinally gave way to blank paper. The last page of a book is like that for me.It’s a curiously affecting experience, particularly if I’ve enjoyed the book,as I had with this one. I always made sure I read every single word to prolongthe experience; the biography, the acknowledgements, the “also published by…”and even the legal guffins, probably because I didn’t want it to be over. Ididn’t want to let go. For me, the end of a book is like the end of a journey,or like saying good-bye to an old friend whose company you’d particularlyenjoyed. And when that final page was turned and you closed that book for thelast time, all you were left with were the memories. And possibly a shit movieif they made one. Occasionally I’d turn back to the beginning and reread thefirst couple of pages, just to remind myself of where it had all begun, butit’s ultimately a futile exercise because you can never retrace footsteps ofdiscovery. You can only ever trample over them.
I closed the book, ran a grateful eye overthe cover one last time, then slipped my feet into my slippers below the deckchair.
The sun was now dipping into the west,casting shadows across the lawn and freshening the breeze. Most of the guys hadgone inside for dinner, or treatment, or for rest. Only Mr Gerber remained, hisfeet in his slippers, despite his slippers being nowhere near the rest of hisbody.
“Are you finished now, Mr Jones?” MrGerber asked, between breaths, as he back stroked lengths of the pool with hisremaining limbs.
“Almost,” I replied with a nod, settingthe book down on the table at the end of the row from his, then heading off tothe comm link office. In the reflection of the glass door, I saw Mr Gerber lookabout then haul himself out of the water and walk on the flattened palms of hishands towards where I’d leftThe Day ofthe Triffids. Nurse Parker had been right when she’d said that she’d seenMr Collins and Mr Mihailov reading it on previous days, and Mr Hu reading itlast week. We’d only had one copy between us, so we’d been taking it in turnsto read. It worked out cheaper that way.
It also made it easier to disguise thefact that we were part of a book club.
Surprisingly, no one who’d joined us sofar had questioned the need to do things this way. I suppose we were all fromcovert backgrounds, so why shouldn’t we? Secrecy was kind of habit forming.
I watched Mr Gerber haul himself up intothe deck chair next to where I’d made the drop and wipe his hair and body withhis towel, before reaching for the book. I envied Mr Gerber for the journey hewas about to take and the characters he was about to meet. Bill Masen, JosellaPlayton, Will Coker and of course, those terrible implacable Triffids, foreverwandering the Sussex Downs and laying siege to the last few pockets ofhumanity. He was in for a real treat.
Still, I wasn’t quite done with them yetand entered the ice-cold comm link office through the tinted glass doors.
Mr Martin was on duty and turned to greetme when I entered.
“Email?” he asked.
“Internet,” I replied.
He tapped a few keys on his keyboardwhile I filled out the access form and topped it off with an inky thumb print.
“Let me see,” he instructed once I’dcleaned my thumb. He studied it for a moment, pricking my thumb to draw bloodto ensure I wasn’t wearing a latex fingerprint, then asked me what machine Iwanted. “Do you require privacy?”
“Will I get it?” I almost laughed.
“What I mean is, do you want a booth orare you okay with one of the table monitors?”
I looked around the empty comm link office,then back at Mr Martin.
“Give me a booth.”
Mr Martin managed to hide most of hissmirk while he tapped a few more keys then told me to take the first booth onthe left. I closed the door behind me and settled in front of the machine as itclicked and whirled to life.
I opened up the internet and searched afew sites: big boobs, girl-on-girl, anal sluts, that sort of thing, beforeselecting something suitably eye-popping for Mr Martin to get distracted bywhile he monitored my surfing from his own computer. It was rumoured that hehad a penchant for interracial sex, particularly two or more big blackgang-bangers ambushing a slender young white girl, which many of us thought wassomething of a cipher into Mr Martin’s own desires seeing as he was neither bignor black.
I flipped my eye patch up, dug my fingersinto my socket and popped my eye out into my hand. I gave it a quick wipe, thenextended the jack and slotted it into the USB portal of the machine.
A little window opened up in the cornerof my screen and piggybacked buttfuckers.org to our own website. This windowdidn’t appear on Mr Martin’s computer and what’s more no trace of it wouldremain once I’d pulled the scrambler. You could argue that these precautionswere a tad OTT for a bunch of swotty book worms and you’d probably be right,but the fact remained that ours was an affiliation outside of the normal boundsof Affiliating and as such, it would be regarded with suspicion if The Agencyor any of our employers were to find out about it.
Eight books had already been posted, withusernames and scores beside each.The Day of the Triffidshad been read by sixteen guyssofar, only seven of which were residents of this hospital. The others were MrSmith over in Tajikistan (username:FailSafe), who’d given it a four, stating the fact that he thought it haddrifted a little towards the end. Someone calledCyber Guy, also on the Tajikistan job, who’d given it a three;Mr Mumboin Sri Lanka, who’d given it afour;Captain Electricin Belize,who’d given it a four;Sergeant Ardentalso in Belize, who’d given it a five;Snowman,Ice ManandSnow Flake, all of whom were somewhere inside the Arctic Circle,who’d given it a four, a four and a five respectively, andTheRtHonourable Baron Bean BonerinSwindon, who’d given it a two. Who’d invited that guy to join?
This, together with my fellow patients’scores, gaveThe Day of the Triffidsan overall score of 3.69 (rounded up to two decimal places). I thought this wasa bit low so I logged on using my username (BookMark) and gave it a five, bringing its average up to 3.76. If I’d been thefirst reader to score this book, I might well have given it a four myself, as afive is a big ask for any book, but the lads’ harsher scoring of a book I’dreally enjoyed had influenced my final decision causing me to weigh in with amaximum to correct the perceived wrong. I wondered if the others had been doingthis too. And if so, what the book would have scored had we all voted with ourconscience.
I made up my mind to have a word with MrAlekseev after dinner. Mr Alekseev (username:Tech Boy) had designed and encrypted the site to my specificationsfrom this very seat while recuperating from reconstructive facial surgery, so Ifigured I’d ask him if he knew of some way of fixing it so that each usercouldn’t see a book’s overall score until they’d submitted their own. Thenagain, that would be a bit annoying, slogging your way through a pile of utterdonkey shite just because it had been on our site, only to discover thateveryone else had thought so too. It kind of undermined our powers ofrecommendation.
I wracked my brains a little longer as tothe problem before I was interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Mr Jones, the doctor would like to seeyou if you have a minute. We have the rest of your eyes for you to try.”
It was Nurse Parker.
I pulled my eye from the back of thecomputer, erasing the book club window, then folded the USB jack into the orband pushed it back into my eye socket.
“Does he want to see me right now?” Iasked, opening the door and sheepishly fixing Nurse Parker with my good eye.
She glanced at the ongoing porn on myscreen and framed her disapproval with a stare.
“If you’re not too busy,” she frowned.
I clicked the computer off then stood,remembering to theatrically retie my pyjama cord.
“Lead on,” I invited.
“Like I say Mr Jones, you only got onegood eye left,” Nurse Parker advised. “Go easy on it.”
16.BETTER OFF DEAD
The first three opened up with theirsub-machine guns, obliterating the targets to their cores. I let off a volleyof automatic fire over their heads, warning them onto their bellies as MrHerbert threw stun grenades into the mix.
“Move it!” I yelled. “Pick up the pace!”
They shuffled forward, splattered withdirt and peppered with that stinging dust that hits you when a flash-bangexplodes nearby, but all of them made it to the wall.
“Get your arses moving, maggots!” Ioffered by way of an encouragement.
I fired another burst of AK fire overtheir heads as they took to the ropes, then timed their splits on my stopwatch,stopping only when they fell out of my line of sight, and a whoosh from MrSato’s flamethrower signalled he had them now.
“Next three!” I ordered, and three morecherries took to the target range and obliterated three fresh paper targetswith their SMGs.
I’d been home only two weeks when I’d gotthe call. Was I available to help vet and train a new batch of recruits for TheAgency? Well blimey, I was so potless I would have gone onCelebrity Big Brotherhad I been asked to, so I jumped at thechance and a week later found myself in an enormous underground cavern on aprivate island just off the West Coast of Scotland, firing live rounds at TheAgency’s latest crop of temps.
“Get your arses moving!”
God this took me back. It only seemedlike last week that I’d been here myself, face down in the mud, bulletswhizzing past my head, methane filling my pants, wondering what the fuck I’dlet myself in for. And those instructors! Just where the hell had they got themfrom? As a typical cocky twenty-something brain donor, I’d always thought ofmyself as Rambo’s harder brother, but they’d scared the hell out of me.Particularly when they let that kid in my intake fall into the grinder insteadof hitting the emergency stop button when it had become clear ropes weren’t hisstrong suit.
“We won’t be there to hit stop buttonswhen you’re operational,” our grizzled old veteran had growled at usafterwards, which had been a fair point, though one that hardly made it up tothe pile of mince lying under the grinder who, just a few minutes earlier, hadbeen worried about what they might say if we didn’t finish the course in theallotted time.
And now I was one of them; seasoned,grizzled and decorated with the scars of a dozen different campaigns. I’d comefull circle. Just as Bill had before me – which of course was where I’dmet him. At least, it’s where I’d got to know him. He’d been our instructor.Where I’d actually met him had been the same place the guys running around infront of me had met their various Agency recruiters – namely prison.
That’s where The Agency does itsrecruiting. That’s where it gets its guys from. Although it’s not enough justto be a prisoner, you have to be a lifer – and a lifer with a minimumtariff of at least twenty years. The Agency likes to know it can dump you rightback in the hole it rescued you from should you ever think to question theirterms.
It was the insurance we all had hangingover our heads. Me, Bill, Mr Sato, Mr Smith, all of us; we were all lifers,from far and wide.
Like most of the guys on the ticket, mysentence had been handed down for murder. And not just any ordinary murdereither, but the murder of a policeman no less. Of course, it hadn’t matteredthat I hadn’t known he was a policeman at the time. He’d been in plain clothesand hadn’t identified himself properly, so I’d assumed he was one of JohnBroad’s men come to rap my knuckles for ripping off his main supplier. I’d beenwrong, although I hadn’t known it until half a dozen uniforms piled in behindthe unfortunate Sergeant Hopkirk, who by this time was sporting a ratherfetching steak knife handle.
Well neither his colleagues nor the judgefelt in the mood to show me any leniency and after I got out of the hospital, Iwas bunged into a cell and left to rot for the next thirty years – atleast.
And that’s where I stayed, slowly doingmy porridge, keeping myself fit so that I’d at least be able to have one lastdance when they finally released me, and reading everything I could lay myhands on.
Then, after four years, a craggy old soakcame to visit me. He’d introduced himself as Bill and asked me if I’d beinterested in being reborn. He offered me a new life, a renewed hope and a wayout of my confines. This was how he’d phrased it too, the big comedian, sonaturally I’d assumed he’d been fixing to introduce me to his pal Jesus andsell me that whole Amway of hope.
But actually, as you know by now, he’dmeant a proper new life. And proper renewed hope. And a proper way out of myactual confines.
My life as I knew it was forfeit. Andthere was nothing I, nor anyone else, could do about that. But there was a newlife out there for me if I wanted it. It would be dangerous, merciless and inall likelihood short. But I’d see spectacular things. Be part of momentousevents. And risk all for unimaginable rewards.
If I’d wanted it.
All I had to do was kill myself.
So that’s what I did. Six weeks afterBill’s visit, I knotted my bedsheets together and hanged myself from the windowof my cell. The screws found me thirty minutes later and rushed me to themedical unit but it was too late, I was already dead. Asphyxiation caused by aligature to the neck. That’s what was written on my Death Certificate. And as Ihad no immediate family nor next of kin, my body was collected by a localundertakers twenty-four hours later where it was taken to an airfield justoutside Durham and flown by Lynx AH.9 Battlefield helicopter to a very privatehospital in the Scottish highlands and handed over to a team of specialists,who revived me, repaired the damage and handed me back my life.
Of course, I hadn’t really been dead. I’dbeen in a deep deep all-but dead coma, and shut down so completely that even anautopsy wouldn’t have been able to ascertain if I’d still been alive –unlikely after an autopsy. But autopsies rarely looked into prison hangings.Bill had supplied the drugs. All I’d had to do was take them and hang myself.My coma would protect me for up to forty-eight hours until The Agency could getto me.
And if they didn’t get to me on time?
“No problem,” Bill had assured me.“There’s a complaint procedure in case of such events, but in all the time TheAgency’s been operating, it’s never had a single action filed against it.”
Like I said, he was a fucking comedian.
It took my body three months to recoverbut when it had, I was fed, drilled, trained and prepared, before being shippedoff to East Timor to help Connaughtard Cottletrophff destroy the wheat crop ofAustralia, for somewhat megalomaniacal reason. That first signing on paymenthad settled my account with The Agency. It was also the first time I’d everencountered Jack Tempest. And also the first time I’d ever seen someone drownin a vat of grain – poor old Connaughtard.
When I was extracted by The Agency, I wasgiven a new identity – my current one as it happens – with all theaccompanying documents; birth certificate, driving licence, passport, even anew National Insurance number. One job and I was a living, breathing free manall over again. My past had been erased. My time served. My debts repaid. Noone was looking for me. And no one would. As long as I kept a low profile andavoided my old stamping grounds of course. That life was over for me. The Agencymade that very clear. This was an entirely new life. And if I wanted to keepit, I had to let the old one go completely. That had been the deal. That wasthe price we all paid to be reborn.
So Bill took me in and put me up. We’dbeen in East Timor together and I’d thrown him on to the evac chopper afterhe’d been shot, so he’d taken me under his wing to repay me for saving hislife, providing me with a sofa to sleep on and even introducing me to hisfamily.
Oh well, that’s enough disaster storiesfor one day. Back to shooting the new recruits.
“Son of a bitch!” Captain Bolaji swore asI blasted the masonry around the rope he was clambering, causing him to falloff again.
“Get up that rope you black bastard!” Ishouted, fully aware that this sort of language didn’t go down at all well inthe workplace these days, but equally aware that while sticks and stones couldbreak one’s bones, grinders would also ruin your favourite shirt.
Captain Bolaji glared at me withcontempt, then hurled himself at the rope and climbed hand over fist as Ipeppered the surrounding wall with the rest of my banana clip, chuckling tomyself and grinning with satisfaction when he fell over the top and encounteredMr Sato’s flamethrower.
“Priceless,” I sighed.
Actually, not all new recruits had to belifers. A few exceptions were made for former soldiers or time-servedmercenaries with the right experience. Captain Bolaji had saved my life. So inreturn The Agency door had been cracked open for him. A potentially dangeroussituation for Captain Bolaji, because there was no prison he could be returnedto if things didn’t work out; just the quandary of what to do with the loneAfrican gunman who knew all about our secret organisation but who didn’t wantto be part of it any more.
Hmm, yeah, tricky one. No lawyersrequired I suspect.
“Last three,” I shouted, and the lastthree recruits took to the range while I loaded a fresh magazine and reset mywatch. “Move it!”
There were around thirty new recruits in all: four from Britain, six from theContinent, six from the States and thirteen from Asia. That left just CaptainBolaji sticking out like the sore thumb. Strangely, there weren’t many AfricansAffiliates. I’d only ever encountered one other in all my time at The Agency. Idon’t know why this should be. The Agency certainly wasn’t prejudiced. Afterall, one man’s money was just as good as another’s. No, if I’d had to guess Iwould’ve said that most Africans didn’t need to look that far a field fortrouble. There were plenty of wars and local conflicts to interest its youngmen, so why travel?
Not that we were soldiers. Not really.
No, we were criminals, plain and simple.Straight down the line and no pretence at anything else. We were criminals, outto make a buck and feather our nests with all the gaudy trappings – ie:drink, drugs, women and leopard skin furniture.
And I think it was this, more than raceor religion that was the hardest thing for Captain Bolaji to deal with when itcame to fitting in. He didn’t vocalise his doubts, that would’ve been silly,but I recognised the inner conflict that was raging away behind his eyes. See,when we’d been part of the Special Army, he’d been an ideological soldier. He’dgenuinely believed in the cause and in particular His Most Excellent Majesty,which is why he’d been so easy to dupe. But now, here he was in amongst thedupers, or at least their kind, and it was a hard thing for him to reconcile.
I stared down at Captain Bolaji a coupleof hours later in the boiler room and wondered if I’d been right to trust him.Then again, had I been right to trust anyone? There were two others with us;rock solid recruits who’d stay the course and no doubt turn Affiliates if theysurvived their first operation. But would they be able to keep their mouthsshut about the things that really mattered?
“The first rule about book club is youdon’t talk about book club,” I told my three new recruits. “The second ruleabout book club is you don’t talk about book club!” These were essentially thesame rules, I’ll admit, but I was having trouble making up the ten and ChuckPalahniuk had gotten away with it so I figured I could too.
Captain Bolaji crumpled his eyebrows andfrowned.
“The third rule; no names – postusernames only when you’re on-line. The fourth rule is no chit chat. We’re allcopied into the same forum so no boring banter about West Ham’s chances nextseason thinking we’re all going to find it fascinating because we’re not– book talk only. The fifth rule is no operational details. You can postyour location, but not what you’re doing there or who you’re working for,” Itold them, pacing backwards and forwards in front of the boiler. “If you’rereally concerned about the safety of other book club members, you can, in extremecircumstances, recommend we avoid certain parts of the world in the comingmonths.”
“Like what?” Mr Nikitin (username:Smoker) asked.
“Like, for example, you might post upsomething like; ‘crikey, have you seen how much hotels charge in Washington thesedays? I’d wouldn’t go there if I was you – especially not next April,’that sort of thing. You know, subtle.”
Mr Nikitin nodded to demonstrate heunderstood. Captain Bolaji, who still hadn’t chosen his username yet, justfrowned some more.
“The sixth rule is no posting your ownbooks. You are only allowed to read the books that are officially nominated. Ifyou want to be a loose cannon, join a library. If you want to nominate a book,wait your turn and earn your credits. The seventh rule; you have to finish abook before you can comment on it. That’s every single page. It doesn’t matterif it’s boring. If you want to give it a kicking, you have to finish it. Theeighth rule is no giving away the endings. We’re all reading the same bookshere, but not necessarily at the same time, so don’t go spoiling the endings byboasting how you could see the big twist coming from a mile off or that theyall did it, let us find that out for ourselves. The ninth rule is voting; ifyou read a book, you have to vote on it. No excuses. No abstaining. Marks outof five, one being the lowest, five the highest…”
“Well obviously,” Mr MacDonald (username:Small Fry) said. “I mean, who’d do itthe other way around?”
“You’d be surprised,” I replied. “And nofavouritism. You’re voting for the book, not your boyfriend’s recommendation.There are no prizes for having nominated the most popular book.”
“I’m not gay,” Mr Nikitin objected,interrupting my flow.
“I’m not gay.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“You said we can’t vote for ourboyfriend’s nomination. I don’t have a boyfriend. I have girlfriends. But notat the moment,” said Mr Nikitin, who The Agency had busted out ofYekaterinaburg Prison Camp a month earlier.
“I didn’t mean literally. I take ityou’re not an actual maggot either, it was just a euphemism. You know, aninsult?”
“Oh,” he blinked. As time was of theessence and as Mr Nikitin didn’t come across as someone who enjoyed the roughand tumble of blokey banter, I decided to skip straight to the end of the meeting.
“Tenth and final rule of book club is,” Itold the guys, pausing to make sure I had their total attention, “Nochick-lit.”
“What’s chick-lick?” Mr Bolaji obviouslywanted to know.
“Here are your scramblers,” I said,handing out USB sticks disguised as .38 hollow tip specials. Most of the covertequipment Affiliates used on jobs was weaponry disguised as household objects,yet the equipment we used in book club was the exact opposite. I hoped theirony wasn’t lost on them.
“Don’t lose them. They’re encrypted withyour usernames and IDs, so you’ll need them to post your scores or nominateyour books,” I told them.
“What happens if you put them in a gunand fire them?” Mr MacDonald asked.
“They produce an image of a computerscreen that you’ll be able to see if you look up the barrel. It’s got pull downmenus and everything and you can scroll through them by pulling on the triggerrepeatedly.”
“Really?” Mr MacDonald cooed.
“No not really. You’ll just break the USBand probably blow you own head off, but do give it a go if you want because Imight be wrong.”
“I was only asking.”
“Okay, so you all understand the rulesand the need for complete secrecy?”
They did. Or at least, they said theydid, which were two subtly different things, but indistinguishable from eachother without the benefit of crocodile clips and a car battery.
“Alright then,” I told them with a finalnod of approval. “Welcome to book club.”
17.THE GIRL WITH SPYDERCO HEELS
I don’t know what it is with right-hand men but for some reason they love tofight everyone – even their own men. They’re like small-town bar roombrawlers. They strut about the place, eyeballing anyone who looks at them andbeating their chests at themerestinkling ofdisrespect – which again, just like small-town bar room brawlers, theysee everywhere.
Zillion Silverfish had a guy like that;five feet tall, six feet wide, fists like bazookas and the sense of humour of ahungover elephant. He used to have this stupid cowboy type boot-lace neck tietoo that he’d whip off and throw at people whenever it wasn’t his birthday. Ifhe got them right, which he did more often than not, it would wrap around theirnecks like mini boleadoras and choke them in seconds.
What was his name? Oh yes, that was it,Mr Karlssen.
“Mr Karlssen, show the gentleman out,”Silverfish would say with a knowing smirk, then next thing you’d know –whoosh, the poor unsuspecting fellawould be on the floor turning purple. Which would have been fair enough. I meananything work related, but Mr Karlssen couldn’t keep it to himself and Ipersonally had to rescue several of my colleagues from a stifling death justbecause they’d either let Jack Tempest get away or had eaten the laststrawberry yoghurt in the canteen. Of course Silverfish should’ve kept him incheck but he never said a word, not even after Mr Karlssen killed that littleArgentinean lad who’d made the mistake of wafting a hand in front of his nosewhen he’d tried entering the toilet just as Mr Karlssen was leaving. For fiveminutes he’d lain there before anyone had been allowed to go to him, but MrKarlssen didn’t get so much as a fiver docked from his pay packet.
Oh well, what goes around comes around,as they say, and while it’s well documented how Silverfish met his maker handcuffedto that Patriot missile, it’s less well known how his lapdog choked on his ownparticular bone. Obviously, it had been at the hands of his own tie –ironic deaths being harder to avoid in this game than the Child Support Agency.Jack Tempest had caught it with that hat stand that Mr Karlssen had bought forhis Stetsons and twirled it around like a cheerleader’s baton and thrown itstraight back at him, scoring an unbelievable bull’s-eye first time. It hadbeen a hell of a shot. I personally couldn’t believe it. I mean, of all thethings to be good at! Tempest must’ve had one of those neck ties himself (andpresumably a similar make of hat stand) because I couldn’t see how he could’vepossibly made a shot like that without months of practice. Still, that’s JackTempest for you. And he wonders why everyone hates him.
Anyway, that had been the officialversion of Mr Karlssen’s death although it hadn’t actually been the end of him,because Tempest had ducked out to go after Silverfish while Mr Karlssen hadstill been struggling. Under normal circumstance one of us might have come tohis aid but no one lifted a finger to save him. Oh we’d all been there, andclose enough to untwine the boleadoras, but no one felt so inclined, not afterall we’d endured at his hands, so we folded our arms, passed around the fagsand watched him turn several shades of scarlet as he choked on this ultimatebetrayal.
Mr Gonzales made sure with a bullet tothe head – which is what Tempest should’ve done – then rejoined thebattle. Personally, I decided to leave it when I saw all those airborne troopsparachuting in and I got as far as Panama before The Agency had to pick me uponce more.
So I’d had my fair share of run-ins withright-hand men but none, not even Mr Karlssen, compared with Sun Dju, who wasthe fruitiest bird I’d ever known – in every sense of the word.
I’d not crossed her path before but she’dcome to the island just as we were completing the cherries’ basic training.She’d been accompanying her boss, Xian Xe Xu, who liked to be called X3– which would’ve been okay had we been his Facebook friends but whichcreated problems when we’d had to address him verbally. No one knew what tocall him. X cubed? X to the power of three? Triple X? Nine X? I mean,seriously, what’s your name mate? In the event most of us had simply played itsafe and called him “sir” to his face and “that X bloke” behind his back, whichseemed to do the trick.
But I was talking about Sun Dju, wasn’tI?
The first time I laid eyes on her was inthe unarmed combat gymnasium. All the cherries were sat around a big crash matwhile Mr Sato walked them through a few basic moves – knocking away adagger, throwing someone over your shoulder, holding your hand in front of yourface to stop someone poking you in both eyes with two fingers, that sort ofthing. Easy enough and occasionally even useful, but hardly kung fu, which waswhen I noticed Sun Dju skulking around behind us in that painfully provocativeway I’d seen too many times before.
X3was with her, smiling tohimself because he knew what was coming, while I was desperately trying toavoid both of their eyes and keeping my fingers crossed that everyone else didthe same.
Some hope. See, Sun Dju was one hell of asaucy bit of crumpet; six feet tall, as slender as a pack of Camels and peachyin all the best places. She also wore a red figure-hugging leather one-piecesuit that was so tight you could make out what she had for breakfast.Yesterday.
I swapped my eye patch across from my badeye to my good and carried on making out like I was monitoring the combat,hoping someone would give me a nudge when we broke for coffee. Big mistake.See, while I could no longer be temped to gawp at her delicious candywrappings, I could no longer look away either when she wandered past, then backagain, stepping up in her six-inch stiletto heels to ask what I was staring at.“You wanna fuck or fight me?”
When nobody answered I peeled my eyepatch back to see everyone in the gymnasium suddenly staring at me.
Sun Dju’s face contorted into a deadlysnarl and before I had a chance to explain my negligence, her utility belt hitthe floor and her long painted nails were beckoning me onto the crash mat.
Mr Sato and Mr Nikitin bowed at eachother then quickly fled the square to make room and all too quickly I had noplace left to go – except the mat. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want tofight or fuck Sun Dju – at least, not without the benefit of a shin padsand a bottle of Rohypnol – I suddenly had no choice. As one of the combatinstructors at the institution, I was expected to rise to any challenge. By thecherries, by my fellow instructor and by the Agency staff, who were nowregarding me with raised eyebrows. See, X3was hiring. And itseriously wouldn’t do to have members of the organisation they were hiring fromchickening out and feigning back problems when challenged to a fight.
I slid the patch back across to my face,slipped my ‘eye.Pod out’ and dropped it into one of my shoes when I kicked themoff at the edge of the mat.
Captain Bolaji looked up at me, as if toask if I knew what I was doing, but unfortunately I did. And it didn’t make theslightest bit of difference. However, I did have one thing going in my favour.And that was that everyone to a man knew I was about to get the shit kicked outof me, including The Agency’s senior staff (it’s a done deal when one of thesefruit-loops decides to prove themselves – you might as well kick your ownhead in and save them the trouble), so I didn’t have the weight of expectationon my shoulders. Just the problem of getting in there, getting hit and goingdown as quickly and as believably as possible, before she could do any realdamage.
She shaped up before me on the mat.
I was savvy enough to know not to bow andsure enough one of her boots missed my head by millimetres as she aimed avicious spin-kick into my coconut.
“Fucking cheating bitch…” I splutteredfalling back on my arse and scrambling away to the peels of evil Mandarinlaughter. It was then that I also noticed she’d kept her heels on, only thesheaths of her stilettos were now missing, exposing two glistening six-inchblades to slice the crash mat to pieces.
Well now, I hummed, that hadn’t been inthe brochure.
She came at me fast, kicking and spinningfuriously, throwing cartwheels and splits as she attempted to stab me with herferocious footwear. I ran around in circles at first, backwards and forwardsand from side to side trying to put as much distance between myself and SunDju’s killer heels. But when I felt them rake the backs of my calves and spiralupwards into my vulnerable buttocks, I realised I was setting myself up to besliced little and often, until the weight of my wounds slowed me down andallowed her to land the big one, so after several more seconds of scrambling, Ifinally turned to face her.
Sun Dju saw my pained and desperateexpression and cackled accordingly.
Thecherries and staff lapped it all in too, transfixed by the spectacle, butguarded enough not to display their excitement lest they be next. CaptainBolaji gawked on with morbid disquiet, too fearful to look, too excited toblink. I was one karate kick from the mortuary.
Sun Dju finally dropped the laughter andcame at me one last time, but far from fleeing, this time I darted straight ather, throwing myself between her whirling legs and engaging her atclose-quarters. I made it with fractions of seconds to spare and planted athrusting forehead into the epicentre of her surprise with as much force as I couldmuster. The resultant crunch almost made me sick, so appalling was the jarringthunk, and I staggered away with stars popping in my head and fell into thefront row of cherries immediately behind me.
Still, if I think I’d caught it badly,this was nothing compared to Sun Dju, who was flat on her back and looking asif a grenade had just gone off in her face. Nose, mouth, teeth and eyes, theywere all still in there somewhere, but now concealed beneath the geyser ofblood.
“I think you got her there, Mr Jones,”one of my cherries pointed out helpfully.
“What have you done? What have you done?”X3hollered, rushing to his comatosed lieutenant’s aid and bundlingher up in his arms. The Agency seniors were also looking at me in displeasure,somewhat stunned by such an unprecedented turn of events and wondering wherethis left their lucrative supply contract. Well, I might’ve proved myself butI’d also just undermined X3and Sun Dju’s authority in front of abatch of potential recruits. Not a good thing if you’re hoping to rule with aniron fist and a steel heel.
“What have you done?” X3demanded again, but Captain Bolaji and a couple of the other cherries kept himat bay until I could wobble to my feet.
“She made me an offer,” I eventually toldhim, X3’s face now just inches from mine. “Well there’s my reply.Though if you don’t mind I think I’ll forgo the fuck if you don’t mind, I’m notreally feeling up to it any more,” I groaned, hobbling off towards the medicalbay.
X3continued to piss and moanin my wake, calling me an “ant” to his “colossus”, the usual stuff, but hisprotestations were now only falling on deaf ears when The Agency’s senior staffreminded him where he was and who’d picked the fight in the first place. Theyeventually sent him packing in humiliation by asking the question that wasdying to be asked; that was if he and his hard-boiled lieutenant couldn’t evendefeat a mere “ant” like me, what chance did they have against Jack Tempest ofthe British Secret Service?
18.LICENCE TO LITERATE
I was hauled over the coals the next day for upsetting the applecart, but nottoo severely because nobody could really blame me for trying to stay in onepiece, no matter how much it had let the team down. Still I’d still cost TheAgency a contract and could’ve potentially frightened away future business ifword got around that they had some schizoid instructor who didn’t know hisplace, so they returned my status to operational and sent me packing too.
It was a shame because I’d been enjoyingmy time on the island, and what’s more I’d been earning. Not a lot, but it hadbeen a regular wage and the odd fighty bitch asides, the only serious dangerI’d experienced was when I’d come perilously close to losing my nominatingrights following some scandalously low scores forThe Kenneth Williams Diaries, which while it had admittedly beenoverly long and soul-sappingly tedious in large chunks, had thrown up a fewinteresting insights. It didn’t matter though, a new rule was collectivelyvoted in banning all books over five hundred pages in length and anything evenremotelyCarry-Onrelated.
I arrived back in Petworth later thatnight and wondered where I went from here.
Idropped by and saw Bill in Arundel after a couple of days, and was able to payhim back a couple of grand, which pleased Bill no end, but infuriated Marjoriebeyond all volume control. I also took Bill for a pint and told him all aboutmy recent adventures; my African excursions, my time in the West Indies, mystint as an instructor and even about book club.
Of all the things I talked about, thecrocodiles, the nuclear blast, the run-in with Sun Dju, it was my book clubthat most unsettled Bill.
“They worry people they do,” he said,sitting forward and leaning on his walking stick with both hands in a mannerthat reflected his discomfort at such a revelation.
“No. Well yes. Well more, organisationswithin organisations,” Bill responded.
“We’re only passing the time,” I toldhim. “They’re just books.”
“Yeah, and Opus Dei is just teaching theway to spiritual enlightenment. But they still get to open fifty-million dollarheadquarters in New York and phone up Presidents in the middle of the nightwith their political Christmas lists so don’t go underestimating The Agency’s reactionshould they ever get wind of it.”
“Well I can see what books you’ve beenreading lately,” I deduced, reaching for my Guinness and knocking its head offit before setting it back down. “We’re hardly Opus Dei. There’s only two orthree of us,” I lied, apt to downplay the extent to which we’d spread in lightof Bill’s paranoia.
“Yeah, and so were Opus Dei when theyfirst started out. What organisation’s not? Two blokes having a chat andstarting a club. But these things spread. They’re fine if they spreadindependently in the outside world. That’s fair enough and good luck to them,but you don’t let a parasite lay its eggs in your brain just because they’reonly eggs, do you? Eggs hatch.”
“And little Opus Deis are born,” Ifinished for him.
“Exactly,” Bill nodded, looking over hisshoulder this way and that before figuring it was safe to take a sip of beer.
“So you don’t want to join us then?” Iput to him.
“What?” he double-took.
“You don’t want to join our book clubthen?”
“Are you asking me?” Bill checked.
“Of course,” I said.
“For fuck’s sake Bill, have a word withyourself.”
I decided to stop knocking the ball backacross the net as I figured this rally could go on for some time and eventuallyBill accepted that I was honesty, seriously, genuinely asking him to join.Straight up.
“Ah Mark, you’re a star,” Bill positivelybeamed, putting his stick to one side and shaking me by the hand as if I’d justannounced I was having puppies.
“So you’ll join?”
“Absolutely,” he enthused.
“It’sjust a book club, Bill,” I reminded him.
“Oh yeah, of course, no I understand,” hebrimmed anyway. “It’s just nice to be asked,” he grinned. “Nice to be a part ofsomething again after all these years; part of something with the boys.”
I gave him his USB stick, this onetailored to look like a Ladbrokes’ pen, which is where Bill spent most of hisretirement these days, and Bill (orPopsas he was to be known) savoured every word of it as I instructed him on how touse it.
Like I said before Bill missed the life.He’d been an Affiliate from the late-sixties to the early-noughties and hadbeen involved in some of the biggest and most spectacular heists the world hadever seen. Or not, as the case may be. Forget The Great Train Robbery, that washandbag snatching compared to the stuff Bill had been a part of – theplot to blow the Hoover Dam, the hijacking of the Space ShuttleAtlantis, the underground germ warfarelab in Mount St Helens, the assassination of Henri Paul – Bill had led alife most men could only dream of. But it had all caught up with him in anabrupt fashion when a bullet in the back had finally ended his career in 2000.It had almost ended his life too, but I’d not given up on him. I’d worked onhim non-stop until The Agency choppers had arrived, bundled him on board of thefirst one out of there and got him to the hospital ship just in time. By theskin of my teeth, I’d saved his life – but Bill’s fighting days wereover. Despite being super-fit for his age, a partial paralysis to the right legand the loss of a kidney meant Bill could never bear arms again. And a part ofBill died with his loss of operational status.
He’dkept his hand in by going back to the island as an instructor, but had lastedlittle more than a year after a new and painfully young Agency staffer waspromoted to Overseer and did what all painfully young men do when they’repromoted to senior positions – he got rid of all the old guard.
So Bill was unceremoniously thrown on thescrap heap. He had precious few mementoes to remind himself of his past glorieseither – well you didn’t collect photos or visa stamps when one trawl ofthe family album could get you extradited to pretty much every country onEarth, did you? And unlike the veterans of legitimate armies, there were nodays, no ceremonies, no medals and no obelisks to commemorate the campaignswe’d fought. Or the comrades we’d lost. Not when you were an Affiliate. No sir.When the fighting was over, we were expected to go away, keep a low profile andnever speak of what we’d seen or done again. If we’d been lucky enough to seeold age, of course. Which most Affiliates didn’t because the lure of signing upagain was always there. With all the unfinished business and unrealised richesthat came with it.
So Bill missed much about his formerlife. He missed the action. He missed the huff and the puff. He missed theexotic locations. And he missed the camaraderie. But most of all, Bill justmissed making a difference; even if that difference was invariably a terrifyingplot that threatened to destabilise the entire free world. But like Bill said,it was just nice to be a part of something.
So a USB stick disguised as a bookie’sbiro and an invitation to join a reading circle might’ve seemed like a prettypoor proxy to most blokes, but Bill was made up with it all the same andcouldn’t shake the smile from his battle-scarred face. It was good to see.
“Thanks again, Mark. I really doappreciate it,” he told me for the sixth or seventh time.
“It’s okay, Bill, glad to have you onboard. Welcome to book club,” I said.
“And so, I just put this in the back ofmy computer do I?” he asked, popping the lid off his USB to examine it closely.
“Yeah, that’s it. Just stick it in your USBport, log on with your username and password and off you go. Oh, there are somerules on it too, so you should probably have a look at them first before you doanything else,” I remembered.
“And that’s it?” he said.
“Pretty much,” I replied. “Well, there isjust one other thing.”
“What’s that?” Bill asked, his boyishenthusiasm exposing a vulnerable underbelly.
“The first book you have to read is byRussell Davies.”
“Russell Davies,” Bill noted. “Got it, noproblem, what’s it called?”
“TheKenneth Williams Diaries,” I confirmed, figuring I might as well pay himback for letting that kid fall through the grinder at boot camp.
19.THE DYMETROZONE COUNTERSTROKE
The weeks hang heavy when I’m not working. It’s not so much the inactivity thatalways gets to me, more the knowledge that my savings were plunging inexorablytowards the red; and that when they were gone, they’d take my farmhouse and mycomfortable life with them.
I can’t live in a town. I can’t live in acity. I’m a limbo man between lives. And as good as my documentation appearedto the naked eye, it wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny. It couldn’t, becauseMark Jones didn’t really exist. And all it would take was one nosey neighbouror one inquisitive bank manager to get the Easter Egg hunt under way.
I had to stay in the sticks. I had tokeep myself to myself. I had to stay solvent.
So I lived to work and I worked to live.Most Affiliates did.
Still, there was nothing I could do untila suitable contract came up. I’d put my name down on the short and middle termcontracts lists so now I just had to wait. Hopefully something would come alongbefore the year was out. I had enough money to get by until then – if Itightened my belt and stopped buyingHeinzbrand baked beans.
To pass the days in the meantime, I’dmanaged to get a part-time job in a little second-hand bookshop in Petworth.This contributed a few pennies to the coffers and allowed me to read all thebooks I wanted for free. Naturally, I didn’t want to attract unnecessary attentionor scare off customers, so I dispensed with the eye patch and wore my Sundaybest cosmetic orb, though there was precious little I could do about the sixinch scar that ran across my face, so I stuck to the backroom wheneverpossible.
And it was while working here that theoddest things began to occur.
The boss of the place was an inoffensiveold stick called Stewart, who was probably only about five years older than me,but who dressed more like my granddad’s scoutmaster. Stewart was a remnant ofthe last century. He mistrusted anything that required batteries, refused toacknowledge more than four channels on his TV set and thought corned beef andpickled onion sandwiches were a pretty good thing. Not that Stewart spent muchtime watching his TV set mind. Books were his thing. They were his refuge, hispassion and his livelihood. He bought them, sold them, traded them and consumedthem. He even smelt like them and acquired great box-loads of paperbacks fromhouse clearances and auctions and spent his afternoons going through them likelucky dips, occasionally cooing with delight when he’d find an early GrahamGreene tucked in amongst several hundredweight of Mills & Boons.
Pretty much everyone around Petworthliked Stewart, despite his obvious eccentricities and musky odour. He was acharacter, but an amiable one, so it raised a few eyebrows when he was foundunconscious at the wheel of his car, stinking of scotch and wrapped around atree just outside of town. Stewart was arrested when he came to in the back ofthe ambulance, but didn’t have a clue how he could’ve got in such a state.
“I don’t even like scotch,” he protestedafterwards. “Especially at eleven o’clock in the morning when I’m coming backfrom an auction, for goodness sake. I don’t know what could’ve happened.”
I didn’t give Stewart’s denials muchcredence because I had a few secrets myself, and fully intended blamingeverything on a huge international Masonic conspiracy when my own skeletonsfinally caught up with me. But then a couple of nights later the bookshop wasbroken into – but nothing stolen.
I learned this when I strolled up to workon the Thursday morning and found Stewart waiting outside his front doornervously smoking a cigarello.
“Hey Johnny Walker, what’s going on?” I’dbeen in the middle of greeting him, only to stop dead in my tracks when auniformed police Sergeant stepped out of the shop doodling into his notepad.
“We’ve had a break-in, Mark. The wholeplace is a disaster area,” Stewart said, rushing towards me as if a hug and areach-around were on the cards. Fortunately my stunned reaction wasmisinterpreted by all parties and I was able to regain my composure before theSergeant focussed his pencil on me.
“And what might your name be, sir?” heasked.
Whatmight your name be, sir? What a way to ask that! Why notsimply, “What’s your name?” instead of all the hyperbole? No wonder foreignershad such a hard time learning English with wordsmiths like him stalking ourland filling sentences with unnecessary prose. But then, his phrasing had beenno accident. Those extra few words and inclination added rich layers ofintrigue to the Sergeant’s question and had me mentally feeling for the stubbythrowing knife in my belt buckle.
“Mark Jones,” I eventually replied when Iremembered.
Stewart confirmed like a nodding dog.“Yes this is Mark. Mark works for me.”
The Sergeant lifted an eyebrow to joinhis tone. “I see,” he mused. “New in town are you, sir?”
“No, I’ve lived around here for almostten years,” I replied, hosing down that particular line of inquiry to a finesteam.
“I’ve never seen you before. I’d thinkI’d remember you too,” the Sergeant needled.
“The face is new. I’m not,” I said,referring to my scar.
“Nasty,” he whistled. “How d’you come byit?”
The Sergeant looked back at the bookshop.“Paper cut was it?” he chuckled, all pleased with himself.
“My other work,” I clarified.
“And what might that be, sir?” he asked,lining up his pencil in case it was breaking into bookshops at night.
“I’m an engineer,” I told him.
“I see,” he repeated, reminding me of theAgency interviewers. “And where exactly do you work, Mr Jones?”
“Abroad, the Far East mostly. Indonesia,Mongolia, Malaysia.BoscoDrilling,” I elaborated,which was an Agency front and employed half the battle-scarred engineers inNorthern Europe. “Do you need their details?”
“Nono, that’squite alright,” he assured me. “Just an address will be fine.”
“They’re in Humberside somewhere. I’llhave to look out their exact address.”
“No,” the Sergeant smiled. “I mean youraddress.”
“Oh, it’sPethertonFarm, Station Road, just past the river.”
“Oh really, I know it. I’ve alwayswondered who lives there,” the Sergeant perked up.
“Then the mystery is finally resolved,” Itold him.
“Yes, well quite,” the Sergeant agreedthen redirected his pencil at Stewart. “Well, like I was saying, it’s probablyjust kids messing about but make a list of what’s missing and drop it by thestation as soon as you can and we’ll keep our eyes peeled.”
Stewart made as big a deal as he humanlycould out of agreeing with the Sergeant, so the Sergeant suggested he allowedhimself a nip of scotch. “For the shock. Just if you’ve got any with you,” headded, raising an eyebrow my way before pedalling off with a chortle.
“Do you need a drink?” I double-checked.
“No I don’t,” Stewart objected. “Why doeseveryone keep asking me that?” he fizzled.
We spent the best part of the day tidyingand checking the stock, and sure enough found nothing had been taken, not eventhe first edition John leCarréthat Stewart kept inthe window, the one he’d optimistically marked up £800 after someone hadscrawled John leCarréon the title page, supposedlyJohn leCarré, which could’ve been possible, but thelove hearts and kisses looked an ill-advised afterthought on the part of thelast trader.
The break-in had undoubtedly been kids.Stewart and the Sergeant both agreed on that and the file was closed with aclaim to the insurance company, but I was less sure. Kids took souvenirs. Kidsleft fingerprints. Kids broke things for fun.
The shop had been trashed but it hadn’tbeen joyously trashed. There was very little in the way of real damage. Bookshad been tossed out of the shelves. A window had been broken. A door yankedopen. But the breakages looked somehow cosmetic. Like how you’d expect abookshop to look had it been broken into by a bunch of naughtykids.
Something was up. Just what was Stewartinto?
I was in my local in town a couple of nights later, having a quiet pint afterwork with theGuardiancrossword whenthe pub rhubarb suddenly stopped. It took me a few moments to notice this, soentrenched was I to find a four letter word that meant appendage, third letterM. I kept putting ARMS and scribbling it out when nothing else fitted, and itwas only when I finally arrived at LIMB that I become acutely aware of thesudden silence.
I’ve experienced this before, not in mylocal, but in the jungle. A big cat will step into a clearing and all thetweeting and warbling will immediately stop. But it wasn’t a big cat that hadjust stepped into The Star, but an astonishingly luscious piece of crumpet thatwould have the Ferraris piling into each other had she been waiting by thelights in Monte Carlo, let along a few Rotarians choking on their real ale inSussex.
She was a redhead, but a redhead of suchdazzling richness that the second thought to cross my mind concerned hercollars and cuffs. I almost didn’t have to wonder either, for she was dressedin a figure-hugging mini-dress that revealed more than it covered and sportingan unbelievable set of pins, decked off with a dazzling pair of ruby heels thatwouldn’t have looked out of place sticking out from beneath a fallen house.
She ordered aDubonnetManhattan.
“Stirred, that’s very important,” she’dinsisted, but had to rethink her whole order when a quick search of the optics(and the internet) by the landlord revealed they were all out of RougeVermouth, not to mention Maraschino cherries. Obviously there’d been a recentrush. After several more aborted orders, she finally had to make do with avodka Red Bull and a bag of dry roasted before turning to face the gobsmackedpub.
Quick as a flash, the pub started staringat their pints again, including me, who’d inadvertently taken half a dozendigital photos of her arse while she’d been up at the bar. For the next fewseconds, the redhead’s eyes drifted across all the locals as her heels circledthe pub, and eventually her tumbler and packet of Planters parked themselves infront of me to indicate she’d made her choice.
“Osteology,”she said when I looked up, taking a careful little suck on her curly strawwithout breaking eye contact.
“What?” I replied.
“It’s the study of bones,” sheelaborated, lifting an eyebrow to suggest she knew what she was talking about,even if I didn’t.
“Is it?” was all I could think to say.
“Huh?” it was then that I realised shewas referring to my crossword. “Oh!” I finally twigged, and scribbled it in.
“Glory Days,” she then said.
I checked the crossword to see where thatone fitted, but she called my attention back.
“No, I’m Glory Days –GloriaDays,” she said before adding, “DoctorGloria Days.”
“Oh, right,” I acknowledged, but left it at that. I didn’ttell her my name. Not even my fictitious name as it was getting a little wornfrom all its recent use, so I just stared at her and waited for her nextannouncement.
Glory teased her straw a little longer before asking me ifI’d ever seen charms like hers, dropping her eyes towards her chest to give mepermission to check out her knockers. Clearly, she was referring to the weirdgeometrically-shaped pendant that decorated her cleavage, but I took it all injust out of courtesy.
“Ever seen anything quite like them?” she jiggled, a naughtysmile dancing across her scarlet lips.
Now obviously, I’d seen tits before, even nice tits, andthey’re always a welcome distraction when I’m struggling to finish a crossword,but I was still stuck for what exactly it was she wanted.
“I’m sorry, but do I know you?”
“No,” she replied. “But my father’s Professor Days… or atleast, was.”
“Who’s your dad now?” I asked.
“No, I mean, he’s dead,” Glory amended.
“Oh,” Iohhedagain, none of thismeaning the slightest little thing to me. “Sorry.”
“Sorry? What are you sorry for? You killed him after all!”she snapped, causing old Trevor to look up from his shepherd’s pie in surprise.
“Me? Look, there’s been some mistake, I’ve never even heardof your dad, let alone killed him. Are you sure you’ve got the right bloke?”
“Don’t worry, he was an arsehole anyway. I’m not here forrevenge,” she reassured me, dispensing with her straw and staring over at oldTrevor until he blinked and looked away. “But you should know one thing. I’vegot theDymetrozonenow,” she whispered.
“Good for you,” I said, still feeling my way around thisconversation. “Can they do anything for it?”
“Tell your boss, if he wants it, he’ll have to deal directlywith me,” Glory then instructed.
“And he’ll know what this means? Because Stewart’snot…”
“Remember, if he doesn’t want it, I can always deal with theBritish,” she warned me, before knocking back her Red Bull, ice cubes and all.
“I’ll bear that in mind,” I assured her,scribbling downDymetrozoneon the corner of mypaper, tearing it off and folding it up.
“You have twenty-four hours to answer,”she said, crushing the ice cubes between her teeth without even flinching.
“That can’t be good for you,” I was justsaying when she swept away, knocking over her chair and rushing headlong forthe door without checking her stride or taking her peanuts with her.
Old Trevor look up from his pie again.“Friend of yours is she, Mark?”
“I don’t think so,” I replied, thoroughlybaffled by the whole exchange.
“Seems nice,” he said, a piece of mash tohis mouth as he thought to qualify his assessment. “I would.”
I did as Glory asked and gave Stewart her message, but I might as well havegiven it to the cat for all the meaning it held.
“Like I said, if you don’t want it,she’ll deal with the British,” I repeated for the umpteenth time.
“The British what?” Stewart asked.
“I don’t know, she didn’t say.”
“But I’m British. Does she know that?”Stewart furrowed.
“I don’t know,” I simply shrugged. “Idon’t think it matters.”
“What did she say she had again?”
“Dymetrozone,”I said, reading the little corner of newspaper I’d torn off.
“Perhaps it’s a book,” he pondered,picking a random hardback off the shelf to look at its copyright page.
“It could be,” I agreed, before headingoff to the backroom to sort through a box of Dick Francis that Stewart hadpicked up on his way to the shop this morning.
“Did she give you her number?” he calledafter me.
“No,” I called back.
“Well, did she say how I should get intouch with her?”
“Is she going to the pub again tonight?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well how am I meant to give her myanswer if I don’t know how to get in touch with her?” Stewart exclaimed.
“Beats me,” I replied, unwilling to getdrawn into Stewart’s affairs too deeply.
I didn’t know how much of his ignorancewas genuine, because some odd things had been happening to him just lately sohe was clearly up to something. I preferred not to know though. I liked thisjob. And I liked being around the books. I only worked here a few mornings aweek so I could stay clear of whatever he was getting himself into, but if itwas dealing hooky books (which was my guess) then he was odds-on to lose hisshirt, socks and pants because he wasn’t savvy enough to go head-to-head withsome of the sharks that swam in that pond.
Oh you might laugh, but there’s a lot ofmoney to be made from trading rare books. They were lightweight, practicallyuntraceable and eminently forgeable. For every £1,000 of genuine sales, there’salways a couple of hundred done away from the public gaze. And this money waseasy to hijack if you were so inclined. And a little bit of cleavage and asuggestive look or two would certainly dazzle Stewart into parting with hislife savings if that was Glory’s plan. Or whoever had hired her.
I wondered if I should take Stewart for abeer and tell him about the facts of life but reasoned this could open up awhole horrible can of worms for me, so I kept my mouth shut, played deaf, dumband blind, and continued filling our recycling bin out back with Katie Prices.
Stewart went to The Star that night. Hehad a shave, wore his best jumper and waited there until closing time, much tothe concern of the landlord, who’d insisted on patting him down for his carkeys at eleven but Glory Days never showed up. And she didn’t show up the nextnight either. In fact, she left Stewart sitting there for three nightsstraight, drinking alone and vehemently denying he had a problem to whoever putan arm on his shoulder.
It was only on the fourth night, whenStewart had given up and I’d popped in for a cheeky half on my way home thatshe finally appeared again, decked out head-to-toe in a purple latex cat suitthat was so tight, I realised why she’d not been able to leave the house forthe last three nights.
“So, what’s your answer?” she demandedwithout so much as a “how’s it going?”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I sighed at thesight of her camel’s hoof.
“You think I’m bluffing, don’t you?” shesnapped in response.
“Listen, seriously, I don’t care. Tell itto Stewart, he’s the bloke you want.”
“Twenty per cent, that’s my offer. If hecan’t come up with that then Iwillgo to the British,” she warned me.
“Then go, this has nothing to do withme.”
Glory thought about this for a moment,then turned a chair around and sank down on it in a way that had old Trevorchoking on his ploughman’s.
“But it could,” she purred, dispensingwith the spikes and all but liquefying before me. “I don’t have to sell it toyour boss, you know. If you help me get a copy of the accelerant software, wecan always go to the British together. And I know they’d pay more than twentyper cent too. I’d be personally extremely grateful.”
She dipped a finger into my Guinness’shead, let the creamy froth dribble down her digit, then sucked it clean with amurmur of indulgence.
“Are you alright Trevor?” I heard someoneask across the pub.
“That’s an interesting offer,” Iadmitted, momentarily wondering if I could con a quick handful out of her onaccount. “But I really think you should speak to Stewart. He’s in the shop mostdays.”
Glory’s demeanour changed yet again. Sherefound the scowl she’d temporarily pocketed and snatched her more thangenerous offer back up off the table.
“Fine, if that’s the way you want it,”she hissed. “And there was me thinking you were someone I could talk to.Someone important.”
“Nope, not me. Never,” I promised her.
Before I could say another word, Glorywas off again, flying through the door in a hail of stiletto sparks and chairs.
I spent the next hour carefully reviewingmy mental transcript of our last conversation and came to two conclusions;firstly, she probably wasn’t selling books; and secondly, the boss in questionprobably wasn’t Stewart.
As slow as I was to grasp this, when Ifinally did, it almost suffocated me like a blanket of nerve gas. Myprofessional life had somehow caught up with me at home. But how? And who couldbe the boss Glory was referring to?
To the best of my knowledge, almost everyboss I’d ever worked for had died, and died horribly at that (except forStewart, although there was still time). Connaughtard Cottletrophff, ZillionSilverfish, Polonius Crump, Condoleezza Vice, Jed Choo, the Tamar twins, toname but a few. I wrote all their initials down the right hand corner of mynewspaper and saw that only Morris Merton, Hope Verity and Kimbo Banja had beenalive when I’d left them, though Morris had just been taken into custody by theTurks, so I didn’t fancy his chances of still being in large enough pieces toget anything going. Hope Verity, on the other hand, had shacked up with thathairy-arsed Italian secret service agent and blown the Nepal job just as welooked like pulling it off. A lot of boys had got roasted on that one, so therewas a fair amount of ill-will floating about for her, not least of all from theCalcutta mob, who’d put up a ten-million dollar contract on her the day aftertheir outlay went up in smoke. Literally. But still, that had been seven yearsago. And I’ve never known anyone to survive that long with a ten-million dollarcontract on their heads. Which left only Kimbo Banja. And the less said abouthim the better.
No, the more I thought about it, the moreit worried me.
I stayed for another hour, chewing myfingernails off and worrying about unseen demons before leaving to go home.
And that’s when things really got fuckedup.
20.IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO DILATE
The night was quiet and the weather chilly. One or two cars were veering aroundthe town’s tight bends but there were precious few people about on the streetitself. I pulled my collars up around my ears and lurched in the direction ofhome.
I was halfway along Station Road, justpast the mini-roundabout, with the bright lights of Petworth on my back, when ablack Transit van screeched to a halt beside me and flung open its doors. Twoburly bruisers leapt out as I tried to flee, grabbing me by the lapels andrepeatedly flapping a cosh against my head until they found the switch.
I’ve been knocked out a few times in mycareer so these days I’m able to judge just how long I’ve been unconscious bythe size of the headache when I awake, and this one throbbed away like billy-o,telling me I’d only been under a matter of minutes.
My first sensations were rocking, asBruiser-A threw the van around the twisting country lanes of Sussex, whileBruiser-B tore through my pockets. They were talking, discussing my fate asthough I were a bag of compost, though I was barely able to make out thespecifics because of the grinding split that ran down the middle of my senses.When I finally did manage to feel past it, I heard a third voice barking ordersat the others and this one caught my attention; a female voice – harshand authoritative, yet alluring and self-aware. I didn’t even need to come aroundfully to know it was Glory Days.
“Giveme his cell phone. And pull his wallet apart, he may have the key in thelining.”
I groaned without meaning to, tippingthem off that I’d just joined the conversation and Bruiser-B immediatelyreached into his pocket to sing me another lullaby, but Glory granted my braina stay of execution.
“No, not yet. I want to hear what he’sgot to say first.”
“Onnhh, my fucking head!” was the firstinformation they got out of me, followed by an off-the-cuff observation abouttheir heritage and what they could all go and do to each other.
Glory shoved Bruiser-B aside and laughedin my face.
“You’ll talk, just see if you don’t. Ohyes Mark Jones, you’ll talk alright.”
Bruiser-B leered at me as if his bonusdepended on it, so I decided not to invite him to join book club and insteadtold them I wasn’t working for anyone at the moment. I propped myself up on myelbows and tried appealing to my brother Affiliates.
“You’re probably both Agency boys,” Iimplored, nausea all but clogging my throat. “Check the waiting lists withthem, short and middle termers. I’m not signed up with anyone at the moment.”
“Agency? The Agency? I don’t hire throughThe Agency,” Glory Days spat. “I want lions, not donkeys.”
“We’re RS,” bruiser B informed me,meaningRegenschirm Stellenvermittlung,one of The Agency’s every growing number of petty rivals, employing mostlyex-Stasi men.
As discouraging as it was not to be inthe clutches of fellow Affiliates, it did offer me a chink of light, so I toldBruiser-B to give my respects to his disabled grandmother the next time the RSgot together for Christmas and sure enough he clobbered me up the side of thehead.
“Arhh, you fucker!” I gasped, curling upinto a ball and clutching at my face with both hands.
Bruiser-B just laughed and made a fewdisparaging remarks about the manliness of Agency pansies, but like most greatapes he didn’t know what he was talking about. Agency Affiliates were the mostprofessional, most loyal and most disciplined soldiers-of-fortune in the business.If anyone were lions it was us, not those fucking knuckle-draggers from theRSorExecutive ElitesorlosHombres de Guerra. It was just our misfortune that more often than not wewere employed by donkeys; donkeys like Thalassocrat or Jed Choo or Hope Verity.Fucking narcissists who could take an audacious plan, a dedicated following anda winning position and throw it all away over the merest slight to their egos.
But then paradoxically, it was theloyalty of Agency Affiliates that more-often-than-not allowed them to do this.How’s that for irony?
Still, that was by-the-by, and none of itwas going to help me out of this van, but there was one other thing Bruiser-Bfailed to realise about us Agency boys. Besides being the most professional,most loyal and best-disciplined soldiers in the game, we were also the bestequipped.
“There’s more where that came from,”Bruiser-B assured me, slapping my hands away from my face.
When I looked up, Glory Days recoiled inhorror.
“Oh my God, you knocked his eye out?” shegasped, but had little chance to expand on her revulsion as a deafening cracksuddenly blasted out the rear doors and sent Bruiser-B tumbling into thedarkness.
The blast dumped Glory flat on top of me,so I headbutted her in the kisser, kneed her in her perfectly-formed clump andthrew myself headlong into the night as Bruiser-A parked the careering vanhalfway up a Scots Pine. I hit the ground running and fled into the darkness,only to tumble straight over one of the larger bits of Bruiser-B.
Glory Days and Bruiser-A finally gottheir act together and came after me as I scrambled to my feet. The first whizzof hot lead told me the interrogation was over and that this was now aboutpayback. See what I mean? So pointless.
More shots buzzed my ears, chasing methrough the night like angry hornets and I ducked and dived this way and that,desperate to dodge that terrible sting of death for as long as I could, only tobe suddenly blinded when a set of car headlights clicked on just ten feet in frontof me.
I dropped to my knees and turned away asa whirling click thrust two mini-guns out above the wheel arches and theyilluminated the blackness further still when they began spitting out threethousand rounds-per-minute.
To my on-going surprise, none of theserounds found their way into me, but Glory Days, Bruiser-A and that poor ScotsPine who’d never done anything to anyone all felt the full force and left thisearth in a cloud of blood, sap and flames as the Transit’s petrol tanksexploded to duly cremate all three of them.
The guns stopped firing and then trainedon me with a whirl.
I braced myself for more pain than I’dever known, but the guns stayed silent. Instead, the Jaguar XKR’s passengerdoor simply swung open and a voice commanded me to get in.
“Unless you’d rather stay and explain toGloria’s friends what happened to her, of course,” an unmistakable smugnesssnorted.
No! It couldn’t be!