MIME-Version: 1.0 Content-Type: multipart/related; boundary="----=_NextPart_01CBFE75.B0EC0E40" This document is a Single File Web Page, also known as a Web Archive file. If you are seeing this message, your browser or editor doesn't support Web Archive files. Please download a browser that supports Web Archive, such as Windows® Internet Explorer®. ------=_NextPart_01CBFE75.B0EC0E40 Content-Location: file:///C:/D07A91C5/drake.htm Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable Content-Type: text/html; charset="us-ascii" The long voyage

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drake=

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Geoff= Wolak, 2011.

 

www.geoffwolak-writing= .com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

 =

The awakening

 

 

The creature stirred, an eye slowly opening. It found only dar= kness, soon waking from the dream fully and remembering its incarceration, a claw = run around the limits of its enclosure, the texture of familiar cold stone examined. Distant tapping registered, vibrations felt through the ground. T= he creature closed its eye and opened its mind.

     It sensed men, four men, keenly digging at the tunnel wall. It could read their thoughts, and the men sought treasure, treasure from the great war of Europe and the American colonies, the war of the strange men who smoked tobacco fr= om the West Indies. But what they sought was not here, that the creature knew.= It ... was here.

     Another man, a different feeling; surprise, fear, and now anger. The newcomer, he m= eans to fight the others. He possesses something, made ready. Four sharp reports echoing, the men slumped, fear, desperate fear, the life leaving them. The other man, moving away now.

     Silence.

     Now only darkness and silence again.


Outside of Sophia, Bulgaria. May, 2010.

 

‘Kobus?’ came an American accent.

     ‘Yeah?’

     ‘Hello, Kobus, you there?’

     ‘Still here, boss, bad line,’ Kobus said with a slight accent evident, a hin= t of his Afrikaans roots.

     ‘Where are you?’

     ‘Outside of Sophia, well outside of it; they still use horses and carts around here,= and Donny Osmond is in the charts.’

     ‘Donny Osmond? Hell, he’s still going. And I went to some of his concerts in high school! Any sign of our boy?’

     ‘He’s sat stuffing his face with some dodgy looking lady.’

     ‘And...’

     ‘I’ll have a word after he’s finished stuffing his face with his dodgy look= ing lady.’

     ‘Will that be a quiet word?’

     ‘No, because I’m fucked off with this stupid country and its dated plumbin= g.’

     ‘Let me know.’ The line went dead.

     Kobus van der Schule lowered his mobile phone, pressing the red button just to make s= ure that the call had been cut.

     Stepping into a run-down provincial cafe, just as it started to rain, he ordered foo= d by pointing at it on the menu – a few words in German used, a coffee requested. He settled down, adjusting the jacket of his well-worn black sui= t, a sandwich soon brought out and placed down, the tablecloth having seen better days. The walls had also seen better days, the blood-spattered remains of m= any swatted flies making their own decorative patterns, interrupted by the fade= d edges of posters long since pulled down. It did nothing for his appetite.<= /p>

     Easing forwards from where he sat, and around the edge of a small square table that wobbled, he was afforded a good view of the mark. The man now sat across the street and in another cafe, chatting to a pale and skinny girl that looked = like a Russian hooker, and not a local girl; they had a darker complexion. Kobus sipped his coffee.

     Needing to use the bathroom, he eased up, edging past a few bored-looking locals tackling soup, and ducked sideways through a narrow opening and into a dark= corridor, a hatch on the right displaying the kitchen - and the earnest cooking going= on within. A strong smell of boiled cabbage assaulted his nostrils as he peered through the dark for the gent’s toilet. The toilet signs were in Bulgarian, but he knew the difference between ladies and gents in Bulgarian from previous visits this charming country.

     Pushing the door for “Maze= ”, he squeezed s= ideways into a cramped and tatty toilet, cursing the pungent aroma. With the door closed he regarded the flimsy lock, not bothering with it. He peed into the bowl, his urine stirring fag-ends floating in a dark brown pool. When finis= hed, he didn’t bother to flush. Since it looked like no one else had flush= ed the toilet since the establishment had opened, why should he bother.= =

     A cracked mirror above a small corner sink presented Kobus with his own image, the slight variance in the angle of the broken glass pieces making his face seem a little thinner. ‘You’ve lost weight, boy,’ he told= himself.

     He ducked his head, and moved to where the larger of the mirror fragments offered him= a full, yet slanted view of his own face. He took in his forty-two year old features, the lines around his eyes, his tanned olive skin, the scar below = his hairline and his dyed-black hair; his roots would need doing in a week or s= o. Making a face, he gave his own image a peeved look.

     Back at his table he eased down, his coffee cooling, his sandwich unappetising. = The mark was still sat eating, but the girl was now gone. Staring at the mark, = and focusing on the face of his target, the mark turned his head, and stared straight back into Kobus’s eyes.

     A click registered.

     Kobus managed to get his hand inside his jacket as the shot rang out, the sharp m= ovement forwards saving his life. The cafe’s window shattered as a scream went up. Turning, and drawing his pistol, Kobus could see the fair-skinned girl = from over the road, standing now behind him, and taking careful aim with both ha= nds. Focused on the end of the barrel, that small black circle, he imagined a bu= llet being released in slow motion – and how it might feel as it impacted = him.

     Click.

     Kobus’s pistol had been lifting up in slow motion, and had lined up with her mid section as she stared at him in surprise, her features turning quickly to a= bject terror. With his pistol horizontal he fired, his arm still rising. She was knocked back and bent double, a hit just below her heart, the report of the discharge sounding odd in the confined space of the cafe. Kobus had straightened, and was moving towards her before the spent 9mm cartridge had= even tinkled off the lino floor.

     It had all taken little more than two seconds, Kobus now beginning the move to leap over her before she had even hit the floor and settled. His foot landed just beyond her shoulder, gained purchase, and allowed him to continue onwards, straight into the kitchens. The chef was now staring at the girl’s unnatural form as she lay on the cafe’s lino floor, a horrified look etched into his face as Kobus picked up speed.

     The kitchen aisle wasn’t big enough for two.

     A shoulder from Kobus, and the chef - along with several boiling hot pans - went flyin= g, a scream issued, a flare of flame caught from the corner of Kobus’s eye= as he focused on the open back door - and on freedom. He could see that the do= or was wedged open by a seat, a waiter now sat on it having a cigarette. The young= man looked up with wild eyes as Kobus moved closer, the waiter soon throwing himself the out of the gunman’s way and towards a line of cardboard b= oxes.

     Cool fresh air signified a safe exit, but was anyone waiting? A split second choice, a= nd Kobus chose the bushes and trees over an open door in a brick wall, ducking left = and right as he ran through the back yard. Moist branches caressed his cheeks a= nd he ran, assuming the worst; assuming that the girl had an accomplice, and t= hat a shot would probably ring out any time now. He tore through the bushes and straddled a crumbling stone wall, halting once over and spinning, bringing = his pistol to bear on the rear of the cafe.

     Only now did he notice his own rapid breathing and pounding heart as he scanned = the garden. No one visible, it was clear. He turned and ran.

     He knew the layout of the area in general, and the cafe in particular, and he = knew the exits. He had at least done that part of his homework right.

     The lane he had reached now led him to the end of the block of shops and cafes,= and he turned left, not towards his hire car. He sprinted to the end of the blo= ck, an old lady seeing the gun in his hand, but he didn’t care; he was no= w up against the clock. Reaching the main street and halting, a van and car drov= e noisily past, and between them he glimpsed the mark ducking down the side of the ca= fe that the man had been sat in.

     Through the traffic, Kobus sprinted across the main road and kept going, pistol in hand, now on a parallel course to the mark and six shops away. An alley presented itself. He turned into it at speed, breathing heavily, and made t= en fast paces before he saw the mark reach a car, a black BMW saloon. The mark stopped, and stared at the image of Kobus charging towards him, the man soo= n reaching into his jacket.

     Kobus fired twice as he ran, neither shot being well aimed, but one found flesh, = the mark doubled up and knocked backwards as Kobus charged forwards. Reaching t= he mark, the man now on his back and grimacing - holding his stomach where his appendix might be, Kobus quickly put a round into the man’s knee, dropping his weight onto the man, a knee onto the man’s thigh causing= a burst of air.

     ‘Where’s the exchange?’ Kobus shouted. ‘I know you speak English, fuck f= ace! Where’s the exchange!’ Kobus thrust his pistol into the bloodied appendix area, eliciting an oddly unnatural sound from the man.

     ‘Paper,’ the man cried out, reaching for a jacket pocket, his features contorted.

     Kobus got there first with his left hand, pulling out a folded piece of paper, wh= ich he shook by a corner till open. It revealed a map and directions. Stuffing = the paper into his jacket pocket, Kobus relived the man of a silver .45 pistol, finally grabbing the car keys, which had been lying on the damp ground.

     Back on his feet, Kobus glanced over his shoulder and down the alley, noticing now = several people staring towards him from the road as he moved towards the driverR= 17;s side of the black BMW. Pressing the OPEN button on the key, the manual door button clicked up, the door opened a second later, the seat claimed. Key in= the ignition, engine started and revved, Kobus selected R-Reverse and floored t= he pedal. A loud bump, and the rising of the car, confirmed the position of the mark, and the fact that he was still lying prone, a second bump signifying = the front wheels making contact.

     Five yards down the alley, and braking hard, Kobus could now see the body of the mark through a rain-spattered windscreen, one leg across another in an unnatural position. He turned the wipers on, selected D-Drive and sped forwards, two jolts signifying contact.

     ‘Double tap,’ Kobus said with some satisfaction, soon reaching the end of the alley and joining what passed for a main road around rural Bulgaria. He cut= in front of a small white car, almost forcing it off the road, and sped off be= ing tooted.

     On the main highway, heading back towards Sofia, and now catching his breath, he called in to his CIA handler, Riggs.

     Riggs worked for yet another newly formed taskforce, this particular new task for= ce responsible for gun running through the former Soviet Block countries, he a= nd his team working out of Amsterdam. The Dutch capital was close enough to be close, but far enough across an ocean and a jurisdictional border to allow = for some plausible deniability; a rented office, no IDs carried, jobs paid for = in Euros. They were a long way from a Congressional Oversight Committee.

     Bulgaria had been the responsibility of the CIA’s former Russian Section ̵= 1; Europe/East, which had little to occupy its time with these days. The good jobs, and the good staff, all worked in the Mid East section, save that few= really wanted to work in the Mid East section these days. And, since this particul= ar job had started in Greece - the assigned territory of Kobus, he had been allowe= d to follow his lead into Bulgaria. It was not far on the map, as he had reported the fact. Hardly an inch. A thumbnail in distance.

     ‘Kobus?’ Riggs asked.

     ‘Yeah, got a problem.’ Only now did Kobus register that he was wet from the rain.

     ‘What happened?’

     ‘There’s good news, boss, and there’s bad news. The good news is ... I know wh= ere the exchange will be, I have a map.’

     ‘And the bad news?’

     ‘They made me; girl nearly took my head off. Her fucking gun jammed.’

     ‘And if it hadn’t..?’

     ‘We’d not be having this chat. She was stood two feet away.’

     ‘Close, Kobus, too close.’

     ‘I didn’t know you cared.’

     ‘It’s the paperwork; if you’re killed I have lots of forms to fill in. And = the mark?’

     ‘Won’t be up and about and walking for ... a year or so, if at all.’<= /p>

     ‘You shot him in the legs?’

     ‘I shot him in the appendix, then the knee, then ran him over – twice – with his own damn car.’

     ‘Jesus.’

     ‘I didn’t plan it that way, but I knew I’d never get another chance after he made me. I had to move quickly.’

     ‘And this map?’

     ‘A place the other side of Sophia, in the hills, I’ll be there before nightfall. And I have his gun, so I’ll use that. And I’ll leave= his car at the scene, his prints all over it. All I’d need for a full set= ... is his girlfriend, but I shot her.’

     ‘Let me know if they turn up and buy the weapons. Personally, I think it’s nothing. But we’ll see.’ The line was cut.

     ‘We’ll see,’ Kobus repeated as he lowered the phone. He eased back into the vehicle’s comfortable seat, and eased off the gas, taking a moment to calm himself. He blew out. ‘Fucking hell, boy, you should be dead. Again.’

     Finding a packet of cigarettes in a well under the handbrake, he flicked open the c= ardboard lid with a thumb, revealing both a plastic lighter and a row of cigarettes. Shaking the pack, he loosened a cigarette, pulling it out with his lips, the lighter shaken out onto his lap. He lit up.

     ‘Fucking hell, boy,’ he softly let out, barely above a whisper. He shook his h= ead and closed his eyes for a second. ‘What the hell are you doing?’= ;

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2

 

Of heaven and hell

 

 

Beyond the high rise blocks of Sofia, Kobus followed the map&#= 8217;s directions into the hills, negotiating narrow winding roads, finally haltin= g at a village a few miles short of the intended exchange location. Pulling up n= ext to a cafe, the hunger hit him like a kick in the stomach. Was it nerves, or= the adrenaline rush? He shook it off, soon sat in a cafe and tackling a beef st= ew that wasn’t half bad.

     After two cups of coffee, and six cigarettes, just passing the time and watching = the world go by, he went for a stroll, the rain having eased off. Around a corn= er, he slowly climbed up well-worn stone steps leading to a narrow lane, findin= g a small enclosed square at the top, the local tourist trap, a dated church wi= th numerous gargoyles staring down at the sinners below. Placing a cigarette on his lip, he peered up at a row of particularly grotesque animal gargoyles.<= /span>

     An American accent caused him to turn his head, a large lady in a hat now focu= sing on a gargoyle. ‘They’re to ward off evil,’ she told her l= ady friend in a southern drawl.

     ‘No,’ Kobus told her. She turned, and waited. ‘They divert water away from = the stone, so that the water doesn’t erode the stone and mortar. They sta= rted as simple spouts, but then became decorative – mostly human faces, th= en animals. You’ll find them in Greece, Rome, everywhere.’ He poin= ted up at them. ‘Those have been altered, and re-carved to scare people. Thank the Catholic church for that.’

     ‘I never knew that,’ she admitted.

     ‘In Paris, the gargoyles are not functional, they’re there to scare peopl= e, people with really good eyesight – because they’re mostly over = two hundred feet up.’

     ‘You work here?’

     ‘No, just ... passing through,’ Kobus said before placing the cigarette ba= ck on his lip. He stepped inside the church, dropping a coin in the collection box.

     ‘No smoking, please,’ a priest said with an accent.

     ‘Is there anything in the Bible about smoking?’ Kobus toyed.

     The priest’s eyes widened. ‘I ... believe not, but it could be considered a selfish act of pleasure.’

     ‘Not all acts of pleasure are selfish,’ Kobus responded, now staring down = the darkened aisle and towards distant flickering candles. ‘Smoking helps me think, and that helps me do my job, and my job keeps people safe. As someone once said, good people sleep safely at night because bad people patrol the stree= ts and borders.’

     ‘You ... are a policeman?’

     ‘Of a sort.’ Kobus focused on the statue of Mary. ‘But today I̵= 7;m a dead man walking.’

     The priest blinked, and adopted a curious frowned. ‘Then perhaps, dead man walking, you should turn = your thoughts to what you might say to God.’

     ‘I’d say ... that I broke a great many laws, and hurt a great many people to keep the borders safe, and so I’ll be judged.’ He faced the priest. ‘I was raised a Christian, and I know the difference between right and wrong, and I know much of what I’ve done is wrong. So I’ll fight on, sinning all the while, and not be judged on my accumulated sins, but on= the tally of those I saved. Hopefully, the scales will tip in my favour.’=

     The priest edged closer. ‘And do you believe that ... one justifies the other?’

     ‘I believe that sacrificing my eternal soul to save a child is a reasonable trade-off. Don’t ... you?’

     The priest held out his hand, a gesture for the cigarette. Kobus made a face, a= nd handed over the cigarette. The priest glanced around, took a quick drag, and handed it back. ‘We shall both be judged, and hopefully by those we helped, not our own score cards.’

     Kobus smiled. ‘I should have been judged today, a few hours ago, but I̵= 7;m still upright and warm.’

     The priest clasped his hands. ‘A near-death experience can ... give us all focus, a time of reflection.’

     ‘I usually sit and think about the morgue, about being cut up,’ Kobus sa= id with a shrug, staring down the aisle.

     ‘And will the world suffer a great loss, if you left us?’

     Kobus puzzled the priest’s meaning. ‘I’d have one person at the graveside,’ he said with menace, leaning in towards the priest. ‘And he’d be checking that I was actually in it.’ He carefully mouthed, ‘So no.’

     A woman walked past, also American, talking about ghosts.

     ‘This place supposed to be haunted?’ Kobus idly enquired of the priest.

     ‘A don’t believe that a church can be haunted, since it is the house of = God. Ghosts ... are those who have failed to find their way, and exist outside of God’s house.’

     Kobus slowly nodded.

     ‘And what of you, what would you do if you ... saw a ghost?’ the priest as= ked.

     ‘That’s easy; I’d embrace it.’

     ‘Embrace ... it?’ the priest puzzled.

     Kobus made firm eye contact. ‘If ghosts exist, truly exist, then it proves = that your user manual is not just a pile of crap thought up by the early church = to control people and to collect taxes. It would mean ... that this abominatio= n of a species is not just some cosmic accident, and that there is a purpose. It would mean ... that I could retire to a beach = with a cold beer, because someone else would have a plan, and ... and it wouldn’t be my responsibility anymore.’

     ‘An ... odd view on things. But the lack of tangible proof is what tips the sca= les between curiosity, faith, and belief. Everyone is curious, some have faith without conviction, and some believe.’

     ‘I’m in the first camp, at the edge, an eye on the border and a beer in my hand.= ’

 

Three hours later, darkness claimed this damp night in the Bul= garian hills. And Kobus should have known that no one would show up, not now, not = with the principal mark being damp road-kill. He scouted around the area at leng= th, but found no international arms dealers huddled about the campfire chatting= in hushed tones.

     He stopped and froze. A camper van, parked in the bushes.

     For a full ten minutes he stood under a tree and observed the van, no signs of movement, no sounds issued from within. Could it be a courting couple, or j= ust broken down? He slowly circled the area, twenty yards from the van, and returned to the tree, his jacket now damp from the continuous drizzle. It h= ad been a warm day, and he hadn’t bother with a coat, but he knew that his su= it was getting wetter by the hour.

     Approaching the van, each step measured, each footing tested before he placed his weight down, he finally put an ear to the van’s wet glass; nothing, no sex g= oing on within. He peered in as best he could, and managed to see right through = the glass and out the other side, no one visible.

     Back-tracking, he followed the track higher through the dark, the track that had been clea= rly indicated on the map. That track now wound its way through thick trees, and towards t= he base of a cliff, heading towards a gorge. As he climbed higher, he consider= ed that no vehicles had been up this track recently; it was grassed over, he c= ould feel it under his shoes. He also figured it was a dead end, and a bad place= for arms smugglers to meet up for a cup of tea and a chat in the dead of night; vehicles would have had to labour up this track.

     Reaching the cliff face, he turned and took in the view, now panting a little. ̵= 6;Out of shape, boy,’ he whispered to himself. Turning, a tiny point of lig= ht caught his attention. His pistol was out a second later, Kobus frozen to the spot. He stood motionless and silent in the dark for five minutes, checking every shadow and rock, listening intently, an ear to the breeze.

     Nothing.

     He advanced slowly up the path, secure in the knowledge that anyone laying a t= rap would probably not put out a light to guide weary strangers closer.<= /p>

     Crunch.

     He stopped and backed up, crouching down and tapping the damp grass with his l= eft hand. A pen, a plastic pen; someone had been here. But when had they been h= ere? And had the deal been done hours ago? He advanced again, soon seeing the bl= ack mouth of a cave in a dark grey cliff, as well as the outline of a metal fence. He couldn’t make out the detail, just dark grey or black outlines afford= ed him in the available illumination on this dark night.

     A moan.

     He knelt, his pistol pointed towards the cave entrance. Kneeling there for two minutes, his eyes finally focused on a body, a black outline against dark g= rey, beyond it the point of light. Something had happened here, and he had missed it. It now looked like the arms dealers had not enjoyed a sing-a-long around the campfire after meeting up; these arseholes had shot each other. But did= the buyers shoot the sellers, or the other way around. And, more importantly, w= ould he learn anything useful by staying.

     Kobus straightened and turned, certain that an approaching car would not only be heard, but also seen a long way off down the hill. Unless there was someone hanging around, he’d have plenty of warning. And then there was the c= liff face and its gorges; he had an escape route.

     Homework done, he stepped cautiously forwards, each shoe delicately placed down, the ground beneath tested. The body moaned again. With his pistol aimed at the mid-section of the body’s outline, Kobus felt for a pulse at the neck. Weak, rapid; the man was going into shock. Kobus rudely tapped the man on t= he head with the end of his pistol, several times, no response given. He patted the man down: no weapons, but a shit load of what felt like climbing gear. = Had this poor fellow been in the wrong place at the wrong time, happening across the arms dealers after a pleasant day’s climbing?

     Kobus lifted his head to the cliff as he straightened. Could there be something up there? Hidden weapons stash? No, that was stupid; arms dealers didn’t climb mountains, they met in secluded places with several exits, and then places with easy access. He moved towards the point of light, stepping thro= ugh a wide gap left by open gates in a high fence, some sort of sign hanging at= an angle.

     A battery torch revealed itself, lying on the ground, probably belonging to t= he hapless climber. Had the man fallen from above, or had he been in the cave? Approaching the torch, Kobus scanned the immediate area, finding it all qui= et enough. Lifting the torch, he used it to check the ground around the body. Blood, a blood trail leading from the cave to the hapless climber. This cli= mber hadn’t fallen from the cliff; he’d been in the cave.

     Something glistened in the torch light as Kobus slowly advanced. Kneeling, he found a brass shell casing, 9mm. His pistol was still in his hand, and now he tight= ened his grip. It brought him right back to the conclusion that hapless climber = had stumbled across the arms dealers. Could they have used this cave for some reason, he wondered. Only if they were the most stupid arms dealers in the world; it was a dead end at the top of a terrible track.

     Kobus shook his head dismissively as he inched towards the entrance to the cave, finding another sign, this one fixed to the rocks. He illuminated it with t= he dull torch light. He didn’t understand much of the Bulgarian, but got= the gist of the writing – as well as the skull and crossbones; what was inside was dangerous.

     A few steps inside the cave, and another body presented itself, illuminated by the dull yellow light from the torch. Kneeling, Kobus could find no pulse, but = the body was not cold yet; this guy had died within a few hours. Noticing a jumbo-sized torch alongside the body, Kobus upgraded his equipment. Turning= the new torch on, its batteries seemingly fresh, he now had a good view of the = inside of the cave, and its dimensions. With a glance over his shoulder, he stepped inside.

     The creature opened an eye.

     Ten yards in, and the cave split left and right, the remnants of a narrow-gauge train track visible, but buried in dirt for the most part; this had been a working mine at some point. The blood trail led off to the right, and he followed it deeper into the mine, his pistol still prone, the only sound be= ing the odd drip of water echoing from the dark. He slowly passed and inspected= rusted buckets, and a line of open-top miniature train carriages that must have be= en used for carrying ore at some point.

     Squelching through mud, he followed the blood trail on, soon finding a brand new backp= ack, again looking like a climber’s pack. Another torch in the dirt signif= ied that he was on the right track, and it also signified what had happened her= e. The hapless climbers, cum hapless cave explorers, had met a few bad guys. B= ut were they his bad guys?

     Another body, this one face up, blood on the man’s chest, the man’s jum= per soaked in blood. No pulse, but still warm. He patted down the body, finding= no weapon, but a wallet with the usual family photographs in it, a picture of = the kids.

     ‘You’re no gun runner, my friend. You ... were in the wrong place at the wrong time= by the look of it.’

     Straightening, and listening intently, he advanced slowly along the tunnel, his powerful t= orch affording him a great depth of vision ahead, concentric rings of varying br= ightness created by the torch’s uneven lens. Sixty yards in, having turned a b= end to the left, another body presented itself, this one sat against a wall. The man’s eyes were open, but there was nobody home. At the man’s f= eet lay shovels, a pickaxe, a crowbar, and more rope.

     ‘What were you after, boys? Kobus puzzled.

     Advancing a few steps, he approached a section of tunnel wall, loose chippings at its base - the signs of recent excavation. At first glance the wall appeared to= be part of the mine, but at closer inspection he could see that a brick wall h= ad been made to look like it was a natural part of the mine. A fist-sized hole presented itself, revealing that the wall was two or three bricks thick, finally covered in concrete; a solid wall.

     Licking a finger, Kobus held it in front of the hole, detecting a slight draft. ‘So, where do you go, and what’s on the other side? Something worth dying for, I’d hope.’ He took in the dead man. ‘What were you after, my friend?’

     A close inspection of the wall revealed that it had not been recently made, that it= was at least fifty years old, and clearly nothing to do with modern-day gun runners. Kobus put away his pistol, and stood staring at the hole for a mom= ent, nothing but the echo of dripping water for company. Placing down the torch,= he lifted the pickaxe, and slammed it into the wall near the existing hole.

     The creature opened both eyes fully, staring into the dark as loud reverberatio= ns reached it.

     Ten minutes of earnest labouring resulted in the removal of a jacket, as well as the removal of much of the outer layer of the wall. As that layer had come = away - the ravages of time helping by loosening the mortar’s adhesive abil= ity, the hole had enlarged, soon a large section falling inwards. Lifting the to= rch and thrusting it through, a new tunnel revealed itself, and its dimensions,= a heavy damp smell now escaping the hole.

     Kobus eased back, and turned his head away to breath. ‘Fuck me that’s stale.’ He forced several breaths, held the last one, and thrust his = face inside the hole again. There, in the dirt, rested a helmet, circa Second Wo= rld War, a rifle – a Garand M1, US Army issue, and a body, a pair of boots clearly visible.

     Extracting his head and arm from the hole, Kobus stepped back to breathe, adopting a puzzled frown. ‘American servicemen? In Bulgaria?’

     He knew that no American servicemen had reached Bulgaria during the Second Wor= ld War, so where had they come from? And, more to the point, what where they d= oing here?

     Placing down the torch, the pickaxe retrieved, the edges of the hole were made larg= er with several powerful swings - the impacts echoing and repeating down the tunnel, many of the bricks falling away unseen into the interior. With a ho= le now big enough to crawl through, Kobus retrieved the torch, taking a minute= to listen down the tunnel.

     Nothing. Just a slight breeze and the constant drips of water.

     Putting a leg through the hole, he bent double, and eased inside. ‘God, that’s a bad smell,’ he said to himself as he straightened. Turning, he could see writing scratched onto the wall, but couldn’t m= ake out the words, or even what language the words were in. His torch illuminat= ed the entire inside of the wall, behind him only blackness, a gentle caress of his ears by a cool draft.

     Swivelling around, he knelt next to the soldier, finding a skeleton with hair still visible, thin fingers, silver dog tags shining back in the torch light. ‘What were you doing in here, my friend?’

     Straightening, he walked past the skeleton, four steps and to another skeleton. But this o= ne had a leather jacket and a flying cap. ‘Aircrew, downed after a raid = of some sort.’ He nodded to himself. ‘And the local Gestapo, they walled you up in here.’

     Turning his head, he remembered the Garand rifle, something that the local Gestapo would never have left behind. He adopted a puzzled frown and walked on, soon finding several wooden desks – the wood badly rotten, a few faded pap= ers, pencils, a faded map on the wall, its surface black with mould.

     ‘You weren’t walled in here, boys, this was a local resistance cell.’= ;

     Using the torch beam, he discovered rusted tins - opened and empty, bottles of wh= at could have been local wine, and stand-up wooden lockers that were now black with mould and rotten through. Another three airmen presented themselves, t= he final one lying at an odd angle, and he seemed to be reaching towards an opening in the tunnel wall, a hole dug out. There, inside a room partially hidden by the remnants of an old stone wall ... rested a large sarcophagus,= the sarcophagus looking oddly out of place. Curious, he scrambled over loose ro= cks and ducked inside.

     Standing over the sarcophagus, the object appearing to be some six feet long and two= foot wide, he illuminated the engravings on the lid, not understanding any of the words. The words didn’t even appear to be Bulgarian. He shrugged and = made a face.

     Moving on down the tunnel, Kobus convinced himself that the cave had been used by = the resistance, a resistance that had oddly walled-in half a dozen American air= men during the war. Splashing through half an inch of water, Kobus plodded alon= g a good sixty yards, finally finding a rusted ladder leading upwards, just bef= ore the tunnel ended. Licking the back of his hand, he raised it as high as he could, detecting the breeze. It was the way in and out, the wall there to f= ool the local Gestapo, not to keep anyone inside.

     A tapping sound caused him to turn, and to freeze. He knocked off the torch, = and slowly pulled his pistol out of its holster, soon stood motionless in the p= itch blackness. He could feel the gentle breeze on his face, and hear the distant drip of water.

     There, again, a faint tapping sound.

     There were no visible lights down the tunnel, so no one was moving around and loo= king for him. Ah! A revelation hit him. One of the cave explorers in here was st= ill alive and moving around. He sighed heavily.

     Switching the torch back on, he strode back towards the wall, sloshing through the mud and the water. Drawing level with the sarcophagus he stopped dead. The sound was here, close by, not the other side of the brick wall. But the men in he= re had been dead a long time, a very long time. He stopped and listened.

     A scratching sound. A rat?

     Tapping, almost rhythmical. A rat that could tap things? A rat skilled in Morse Code= ?

     He illuminated the sarcophagus fully with the torch, slowly walking around it = in the confined space. It appeared as if it had not been disturbed in a hundred years, still covered in dirt and sat in mud, no marks on it suggesting that= it had been opened recently. Could the rat be inside?

     Tapping, distinct now, and it was definitely coming from within the sarcophagus. And= it was no damn rat, that he was certain of.

     Stood over the sarcophagus, pistol in hand, he swung the torch about, checking ev= ery inch of the walls. Where the sarcophagus lay, the opening it occupied was simply rock, and it appeared as if this small area had been roughly chisell= ed out, no care for straight walls or an even floor. It was just big enough for the sarcophagus.

     Tapping.

     ‘You’re fucking me off now,’ Kobus quietly cursed. After again diligently che= cking the tunnel, he returned to the sarcophagus and sat on it, the cold stone fe= lt through his damp trousers.

     More tapping, and definitely coming from within, he could feel it through his ha= nd. He tapped the sarcophagus three times with his pistol, getting three taps b= ack. With a heavy frown taking hold, he tapped twice, getting two taps back. Jum= ping up, he quickly walked to the end of the tunnel, to the body of the first airman, halting and lighting up.

     In the dark, he could not be sure of the passing of time, and time passed very slo= wly, enough time for three cigarettes and a great deal of thought. ‘What a= re you afraid of, boy?’ he finally asked himself. ‘It’s not dying, so what is it. Afraid of a ghost, of a monster? You said you’d embrace it. Well, here’s your chance.’

     He shook his head, rubbed his forehead and took a long drag, exhaling slowly through pursed lips. ‘It’s not the idea of a ghost that worries you, is it. What did the priest say: curiosity, faith, or belief. That̵= 7;s what you’re afraid of, boy, you’re afraid of being right.’= ;

     Shaking his head, he went and fetched his jacket from where he had left it in the m= ain tunnel, placing it on because he was now getting chilled, the sweat from hi= s previous labours in opening the hole now cooling on him. Stood at the entrance to the hole he had made, he almost turned and left, finding himself stood there fo= r a good ten minutes.

     He stood thinking, thinking about a great many things, of life and death, and = of his death. He finally made a face and shrugged, ducking back into the hole.=

     Sat back on the sarcophagus, he lit a fresh cigarette, taking a moment in the dull t= orch light.

     ‘Maybe that girl didn’t miss me. Maybe ... I’m in a coma in hospital, = and dreaming this.’ He heaved a sigh. ‘Fuck it.’

     He banged the sarcophagus hard with his pistol, twice. Two taps came back. Eas= ing down onto a knee, the cold damp mud ignored, he examined the edge of the sarcophagus in detail. It had not been opened recently. Three taps came.

     Easing up, he sighed, kicking the side of the sarcophagus in anger and frustration. Retrieving the pickaxe, he stomped back to the sarcophagus with determinati= on, placed down the torch, and gave the stone lid an almighty whack at one end. Several cracks appeared, as well as a small hole. Dropping the pickaxe, he = put two fingers into the hole and pulled out a piece of stone.

     A hand slowly reached out, the pale white fingers feeling the edges of the cracked stone, long nails scraping.

     ‘You have so ... got to be shitting me.’

     The hand slipped inside. ‘Help me,’ came in a whisper, a man’s voice, the words English but accented.

     Kobus stared down at the hole, and into the black interior, his mouth hanging ope= n. He cleared his dry throat. ‘Hello?’

     ‘Hello,’ came back in a whisper.

     Kobus took a long drag of his cigarette, pursing his lips as he exhaled. ‘T= his is so fucking weird.’ Loudly, he asked, ‘Who ... who are you?’

     ‘I am ... Cornelius De Vargo,’ came a whisper, almost a plea.

     Kobus took another long drag of his cigarette, studying the hole. ‘And ... = you survived in there ... how?’

     No answer came back.

     ‘You speak English?’

     ‘I speak the tongue ... of the men from the colonies.’

     Kobus puzzled that. ‘Colonies?’ he repeated to himself. ‘The American servicemen? You, eh, you been in there sixty years, my friend?R= 17;

     ‘Longer, much ... longer.’

     Kobus took a final drag, flicking away his cigarette. He lifted the pickaxe, and smashed it down with anger and determination, three heavy blows cracking the lid in many places. Throwing down the pickaxe with anger, he sat on the edg= e of the sarcophagus and lifted out a large section of lid, straining with it as= he threw it down. There, lying inside, was a frightened young man, deathly pal= e, long white hair, big brown nervous eyes.

     Kobus stared down at the young man in the torch light. Lifting the torch, he shon= e it directly towards the young man, the man squinting away from the bright ligh= t. ‘What ... the fuck ... are you?’

     ‘I ... am like you.’

     ‘I’d survive in there for ten minutes before the air ran out,’ Kobus point= ed out, examining the young man’s clothes. ‘So no, my friend, you’re not like me.’

     ‘You have little fear,’ the young man noted.

     ‘Should I fear you?’

     ‘Everyone ... should fear me,’ the young man said, now with some strength in his words.

     Kobus moved closer, inching his face towards the young man. He placed a hand insi= de the sarcophagus, and felt the mouldy old fabric of the clothes that the you= ng man wore. ‘There are many things I fear, but you’re not one of them.’

     The young man squinted towards Kobus. ‘You dance with death, you do not f= ear it. You are a warrior.’ He turned his head and sniffed the air several times. ‘You did not kill the men who sought treasure. You take the ki= ng’s schilling and work for the magistrate.’

     ‘How did you survive in there?’ Kobus repeated. ‘And what, the fuck,= are you?’

     ‘I was a man like you, once, a long time ago. I danced and made merry when new= s of the West Indies reached our town.’

     ‘Columbus?’ Kobus puzzled.

     ‘I have ... been here a long time.’

     ‘Again, what are you? And why do you speak English?’

     ‘I speak the tongue of the men from the colonies. They ... taught me.’

     ‘The American airmen?’

     ‘Men ... who came in strange craft through the air, a war with Germania.’<= /span>

     ‘Coming back to my other question, what= ... are you?’

     ‘I ... am a man like you, but...’

     ‘But ... one that can survive a few hundred years without air, or ... food, or water.’ Kobus waited.

     ‘I am a man of two halves, and wish not to be judged.’

     Kobus puzzled that. ‘I’m not here to judge you, my friend.’

     ‘You would judge the darker side of me, that which keeps me alive.’=

     ‘Darker side?’ Kobus nudged. He waited.

     ‘Inside of me lives a demon, not what you see now.’

     ‘A ... demon? Like ... heaven and hell, demon from hell ... kind of demon?R= 17;

     ‘The men from the colonies called me ... a vampire.’

     Kobus’s eyes widened. ‘A vampire?’

     ‘I ... change when the creature has control.’

     ‘Really? Show me.’

     The young man stared up at Kobus, trying to make some sense of the man who had released him from eternal darkness. ‘You ... have no fear. You ... wi= sh to dance with death, to be close, to smell death. You ... seek answers, I c= an read it in your thoughts.’

     Kobus slowly nodded to himself. ‘We all seek answers, not least what the fu= ck you are. So, change for me.R= 17;

     ‘If I give in to the demon, it will be = he who you talk with, not me. He may kill you.’

     ‘I don’t ... care,’ Kobus stated with some attitude. ‘Right = now I’m sat on an old stone sarcophagus with someone who should be dead, = and yes – I have a few questions. One of those questions, asked of me recently, was ... what would I do if I truly saw a ghost. Well, what I woul= d do ... would be to embrace it.’

     The young man puzzled that odd statement, tipping his head as he looked up.

     ‘Yes, my friend, I’d embrace it, because it would mean that there is a God,= and there is a heaven and hell, and that maybe, just maybe, there’s a plan for all this shit – a plan that makes sense to someone. It would mean= ... that mankind is not some giant cosmic accident, that we’re not just w= asting our time. It would mean ... that our pathetic little lives have some meanin= g in the grand scheme of things. So you, my friend, and your demon within, don’t worry me. I have a few demons of my own to deal with.’

     Kobus drew his pistol, the weapon being carefully observed by the young man. ‘So, let the demon out, or I’ll leave you here ... with a few e= xtra holes in your skull for ventilation.’

     The young man smiled, a weak and thin smile formed. ‘If I thought your we= apon might kill me, I would – as you say - embrace it. Those from the colonies, they made loud noise and fire, small things passing into me and through me. But I went on.’

     He lifted a pale white hand, long and curled fingernails. ‘Put your noise and fire in my hand, and observe.’

     Kobus took a moment to study the young man, aimed at his palm, and fired a round through with a loud echoing report. Studying the skin in the dull torchligh= t, Kobus could see a little blood around the wound but, as he observed, the ho= le closed itself, the fingers of the hand flexed. ‘Fuck me.’ He grabbed the hand and turned it over, inspecting both sides.

     ‘Do you still wish to see the demon?’

     Kobus nodded. ‘I do,’ he said after a moment.

     The young man lowered his head and closed his eyes, grimacing. His chest rose u= p, a deep breath inhaled, his mouth stretched wide and contorted as Kobus eased = back a little. Rising from the sarcophagus, a new face appeared, lifting up into= the upright sitting position. The new face offered prominent bones, an older fa= ce – that of a middle-aged man, wild and strong eyes, and a set of pointy teeth right across the mouth.

     Kobus took a long drag, and slowly exhaled. Easing forwards, he put his own face = to within a few inches of the demon.

     ‘You hold no fear,’ came a deep and resonating voice. ‘You tempt dea= th, you puzzle it and probe it, even welcome it.

     Kobus slowly nodded to himself. ‘Do you know anything of heaven and hell?’

     ‘I ... know only of myself, and this prison within a prison.’

     ‘Prison ... within a prison?’

     ‘I am imprisoned within this body, this body within these walls.’=

     Kobus pointed with the fingers holding his cigarette. ‘Door’s open.’

     The creature turned its head and upper body towards the main tunnel. And then hesitated.

     ‘Something wrong?’ Kobus probed when he caught the creature’s look. He wai= ted, taking a drag. ‘Big wide world out there.’

     ‘Your world.’

     ‘Yes, my world,’ Kobus said with a sigh. ‘A great many people, a great many police officers and soldiers with guns, and weapons far more dangerous than this pistol.’ He waved the pistol. ‘But the fact is ... no= one would want to harm you, they’d want to study you; you could make your= self a lot of money and live well in the world you’d find out there.’= ; He sighed. ‘If Michael Jackson did it, so can you. Of course, they wouldn’t let you run around and kill people; you’d have to get = by on processed food, the occasional fatted calf.’

     ‘You mock me.’

     ‘And yet ... you haven’t tried to kill me.’

     The creature again looked over its shoulder at the tunnel, and at freedom.

     ‘Be easier for you to ... live out ther= e, if ... well, if you had a little help.’

     The creature focused on Kobus. ‘You would have me do your bidding.’=

     ‘You can always stay here, if you like.’

     The creature stared back. ‘You take the king’s schilling and kill f= or the magistrate. You are like those who pursued me.’

     ‘Not like those, exactly. And right now, you, my friend, are the most important thing in the world to me, because you represent hope.’

     ‘Hope?’

     ‘Hope that there’s a meaning to this life, hope that God has a grand plan f= or us, that there is a goal for us. You see, my annual psychiatric report says that I have a constructive personal= ity, that I like to make things, fix things, and see things work. I like to make= plans, to work things out, and to see progress. I care ... very much for my fellow= man – as a whole – but I don’t mind losing a few along the wa= y, like the cave explorers here. It’s important to me that the ship gets= to port in good condition, not that all of the sailors survive. Can you ... understand any of that?’

     ‘I can read your thoughts, some of your thoughts, yes. You would have me do yo= ur bidding for the king’s schilling, to restore order to chaos.’

     ‘And in return...’ Kobus floated.

     ‘And in return ... I survive in your world, with your help. And what would a man= of the magistrate see me do?’

     ‘I would see you kill men, and – you know – drink blood or eat the= m, whatever it is that you do, but just those that displease the magistrate. T= here would also be pleasures of the flesh - women, drink and food in excess. It’s a big wide world, plenty to do and to enjoy, and in a few places you’d be less than scary.’

     ‘The other will resist me.’

     ‘The young man? I’ll talk to him, since I don’t think he wants to st= ay here either. Does he ... fear the outside?’

     ‘He greatly fears your world, yes.’

     Kobus took a drag. ‘What else does he fear?’

     ‘He fears that I may gain control, and that he will see my world through his own eyes.’

     ‘When you kill, does he see and feel everything?’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘Ah. And when he’s in control, do = you see and feel everything?’

     The old man nodded. ‘Yes.’

     ‘Who placed you in here?’

     ‘He did,’ the creature snarled. ‘He sought out those who would help, and paid them in gold coin, to place him here and build walls, to be here f= or all time.’

     ‘Brave kid,’ Kobus commended. ‘He didn’t want to live with you running around killing people. Which begs the question ... as to why you let yourself be sealed in here?’

     The creature lowered its head.

     ‘He can control you, can’t he.’

     ‘He ... learned to take control, in the tenth year.’

     ‘Strong young lad. And now, you speaking to me? Would I be right in assuming that he’s allowing it?’

     The creature did not answer.

     ‘Do I have your agreement in principal ... to work with me, not against me, and= to work with the young lad, not against him? In return, you get the pleasures = of the world through his eyes – and my guidance through my world.’=

     ‘So be it, because you are more like me than him.’ With a curled lip of smile, the creature lay down, its features relaxing, soon the frightened fa= ce of the young man peering up. He eased upright.

     ‘You heard all that?’ Kobus asked.

     ‘I did so hear the agreement you made.’

     ‘You’re the half in control, what do you say?’

     ‘I ... wish to live, to see the sun and smell flowers...’

     ‘But?’

     ‘I ... am afraid, and afraid that I will do evil.’

     ‘I want you to do evil, that’s the whole point, but to the bad people, a= nd then for the king’s schilling. If you kill the bad men, you’re doing good – by protecting the good people from harm.’

     The young man peered over his shoulder at the tunnel.

     ‘Every great journey starts with a single step,’ Kobus stated. Easing up, he grabbed the young man by the armpits and lifted him upright. The young man wobbled, carefully taking a step outside of the sarcophagus, barely able to take his weight. ‘Will your strength come back?’

     ‘Slowly. But ... there is a faster way.’

     ‘Faster way?’

     ‘Take me to the men who are dead, but still warm.’

     ‘Ah, that faster way,’ Kobus realised. He helped the young man into the tunnel, to the right and slowly along, past the airmen. ‘These airmen...’

     ‘Yes, we killed them and drank their blood.’

     ‘Do you refer to the demon in you as yourself?’ Kobus puzzled as he helped the young man along.

     ‘The men here, they found us after the demon had made a noise to attract them. I could have fought harder to stop the demon, but I was weak.’

     ‘You didn’t kill them straight away, not if you learnt English,’ Kob= us noted as he eased through the hole in the wall. He helped the young man through, a mass of long white hair coming through first.

     ‘They did not die quickly, and ... one man I kept alive for many cycles of the mo= on. The men from the Americas, they had food inside of steel, and he lived off it.’

     ‘And that man taught you English?’ Kobus asked as they approached a dead c= ave explorer.

     ‘The demon can learn very quickly, and I know what it knows. I can hear the word= s or read thoughts to know what is meant.’

     ‘You’d make for a hell of a card player.’

     ‘You seek to benefit from me, to make profit,’ the young man said as he kn= elt.

     ‘The making of the profit is not as important as how it’s used – to = do good.’

     A face turned up, that of the creature, the older man. It stared dispassionately up for a moment, then sunk its teeth in the cave explorer’s neck, a slur= ping sound issued, mixed with a growl like a lion.

     A full four minutes later the demon stood, now more steady on his feet, as well as adopting healthier skin colour; pale instead of white. It licked its blood-= stained lips.

     ‘Enough?’ Kobus asked. ‘Need more?’

     The creature studied Kobus for a moment. ‘Enough.’ He closed his ey= es, the young man soon back.

     ‘Feeling better?’

     ‘This does not trouble you,’ the young man said as he glanced down the leng= th of the tunnel.

     ‘There are a great many things that trouble me, and on certain days – you feeding might trouble me on some level. But that guy was dead, and you didn’t kill him. And if it helps you, and you help me fight the bad g= uys, then it’s a good act.’

     ‘You would justify the means by the end.’

     ‘Wouldn’t most people? Does a father beat his child for discipline, for the childR= 17;s benefit in later life, or for pleasure?’ Kobus grabbed the young man’s arm and led him forwards, holding the torch in his left hand. <= /span>

     ‘What magic gives you light in this strange lantern?’ the young man asked as they walked.

     ‘Batteries, and cheap imports from Asia.’

     ‘I know nothing of your world,’ the young man sighed.

 

At the mouth of the cave, the young man stopped and breathed d= eeply, lungs filled with clean and fresh air.

     ‘Been a while, huh,’ Kobus let out.

     They stepped forwards, the young man lifting a hand to feel the falling rain. He stopped. ‘What awaits me, these wonders that the men from the colonies spoke of?’

     ‘More than they knew of awaits you, and in some cases less – a lot less. Th= ey were from the year 1944, it’s now 2010 – sixty years later. And= a hell of a lot has changed.’

     ‘These lights in the distance, these fires burning.’

     ‘They’re street lamps and house lights. All houses have lights at night; electricity.’

     The young man turned his head, and waited.

     ‘Electricity?’ Kobus faced the distant lights. ‘How the fuck do I explain electricity?’ He blew out. ‘Some things can only be explained at length, and step by step.’

     The young man took a step backwards, back from the rain, and from the world that lay beyond the cave. He glanced over his shoulder at the dark cave.<= /p>

     ‘Having second thoughts?’ Kobus asked.

     ‘I fear that the demon will hurt many.’

     ‘This is a new world, and your demon wouldn’t last long here. There are more magistrates than blades of grass, more guns than birds in the sky. And ... there are many men here who do far more evil than he ever could.’

     ‘You see me as a child.’

     ‘You are, and what’s out there will shock you; you’re not so scary to these people. They make TV programmes about vampires; they’re very popular.’

     ‘T ... V?’

     ‘A band of travelling actors, a stage drama.’

     ‘Ah, I see. They tell stories of my terrible deeds.’

     ‘No, they make light of your terrible deeds, and laugh and smile at them.’=

     ‘What manner of person would smile as such deeds?’

     ‘It’s a different world. And, after you’ve seen the traffic and eaten at Mc= Donalds, you may just want to be back in the damn cave.’

     ‘Is your estate far?’

     ‘My estate ... is in Britain.’

     ‘Home of the Angles? Across the water to the north?’

     ‘Yep, across the water to the north. But I doubt we’d get you on a plane wi= thout a haircut and a manicure. So, there’s a motel I passed, rooms with discreet access, so you’ve got a date with a hot bath.’<= /p>

     ‘A bath would be good. Is there a fire ready to heat the water?’<= /p>

     ‘Uh ... yes, the fire is burning ready. And we’ll get you some clothes th= at are less than five hundred years old,’ Kobus quipped.

     The young man regarded the tattered clothes that hung on him. ‘Yes, a new shirt. You have coin?’

     ‘I have coin, Cornelius.’

     The young man took a moment. ‘That name hurts my ears.’

     Kobus took a moment to puzzle the lad’s meaning. He shrugged. ‘What n= ame would you like to use?’

     ‘I ... don’t know.’

     ‘I’ll call you Drake.’

     ‘Drake?’

     ‘They used to refer to vampires as Count Dracula, so Drake for short.’

     ‘Who is ... this Count Dracula?’

     ‘He was supposed to be you, but I guess it lost a little in translation over the years.’

     ‘I was not a Count, but a tailor’s son and apprentice.’

     Kobus lit a fresh cigarette as they stood there in the dark mouth of the cave. ‘How did the demon get into you? Did you ... rape, pillage and slaugh= ter, bring down the wrath of God or something?’

     Drake shot Kobus a look, frowning heavily. ‘No,’ he insisted. He lowe= red his head. ‘But I did sin. I drank mead and lay down with girls out of wedlock. Twice.’

     Kobus slowly exhaled, nodding his head. ‘Drank mead ... and lay down with g= irls out of wedlock, eh.’ He shook his head. ‘You have no idea what waits for you out there, do you.’

     ‘I greatly fear this new world,’ Drake softly admitted.

     ‘Well, first things first. Can you break those nails off, you look a bit ... you k= now, like a weird old Chinaman.’

     Drake began to snap the long nails as Kobus took out a pocket knife, soon sawing through long white hair and letting it fall.

     When done, Kobus stood back and lifted the torch. ‘You still look like shi= t, so we’ll get you a haircut tomorrow. You ... ready to leave?’

     Drake focused on the distant twinkling lights, the lights of houses down the hill= . He straightened. ‘I am ready.’ They walked forwards, and into the drizzle.

     Nearing the BMW, Drake halted. ‘There is a man, hidden, he waits, he has ... = the fire stick that you have.’

     Kobus had his pistol out in a second. ‘Where?’ he whispered. <= /p>

     Drake pointed. ‘Fifty paces. And there, a second man, a third further down = the hill. They show fear, and anger, and they wait.’

     ‘I killed their friend.’

     Drake turned his head, just a dark outline. ‘Why ... did you kill their fri= end?’

     ‘They’re criminals, and they seek to profit from selling weapons against the rules of the magistrate. Those weapons will harm many.’

     ‘I will be judged by those I save,&= #8217; you told a priest.

     ‘You can read that in my mind?’ Kobus whispered.

     ‘I can, since you thought it when you explained why you had killed the man.= 217; Drake faced forwards. ‘We must stop them from their commerce.’<= /span>

     ‘Stay here, I’ll get around behind them.’

     ‘No,’ Drake called as Kobus started to move off, a hand on Kobus’s arm. ‘They may harm you. They cannot harm me.’

     Kobus halted, staring at the dark outline of the young man. ‘You’ve o= nly been out the cave five minutes, are you up for this?’

     ‘I must admit that ... killing these men is a task that best suits me, in this time or mine, in your world or mine.’

     ‘You’d let the demon out?’

     ‘If it helps you, then yes.’

     ‘And controlling the demon afterwards?’

     ‘He is happy to wait, and to observe with great curiosity, since he thinks you = will lead me towards disaster.’

     ‘I might just do that,’ Kobus whispered.

     ‘You say the words, but you hope they are not true; I sense that you would guide= me and protect me. So I will do this act, and be judged by those I save, not b= y the acts I commit.’ He ran forwards, and soon out of sight.

     Ten seconds later two shots rang out, followed by a scream. Kobus edged down the track slowly, pistol prone. Another shot, a cry, two more reports echoing. = Then just silence. A minute later Kobus could hear footsteps, a dark shadow walk= ing up the path. He held off firing.

     ‘It is done,’ Drake coldly stated.

     Kobus straightened. ‘Did you ... you know, feed on them?’

     ‘No, I ... we snapped their necks li= ke game before the plucking.’

     ‘Cool. Let’s go then.’ Kobus holstered his pistol, leading Drake to the car. The BMW’s lights flashed and the door locks clicked open as they neared, Drake halting.

     ‘What is it?’ he asked, peering at the car.

     Kobus took a moment. ‘It’s a ... carriage without horses, fire inside that makes the wheels turn, and we don’t have time for a fucking less= on. Get in.’ Now sat in the driver’s seat, Kobus waited, looking for Drake. He sighed. ‘Like he knows how to use a fucking car door.’= ; He leant across the seats and opened the door, the light coming on. ‘Come inside, and sit like me.’

     Drake nervously edged into the car.

     Kobus pointed at his own car door. ‘Grab this part, and pull quickly towards you.’

     Drake pulled the handle and closed the door with a click. Running an eye around t= he vehicle, he said, ‘Such wondrous workmanship, a carriage fit for a ki= ng. And glass, like in church, fine glass.’

     ‘German you see, reliable. And ... all cars are like this, the same workmanship. We= ll, in Britain they’re not, but you’ll get used to that.’ He started the engine.

     ‘What growls within?’

     ‘Magic. Lessons start tomorrow.’ Kobus turned on the headlights, reversed out= a little, and started down the track, soon to a road and picking up speed.

     Drake was sat smiling widely. ‘This carriage moves at great speed, and glid= es effortlessly like a swan.’ He pointed at the steering wheel. ‘This wheel cho= oses where the nose of the beast follows.’

     ‘Steering wheel, and yes – it chooses the direction.’

     They joined a main road, soon reaching eighty MPH, Drake smiling like an idiot. = When another car passed he panicked, a hand raised to his face. Looking over his shoulder, he said, ‘I feared we would collide, to pass so closely.= 217;

     ‘Relax, I’m a safe driver.’

     ‘What is ... road-kill?’

     ‘Ah, well ... small animals that the beast accidentally kills as it moves.’= ;

     ‘Ah, a field mouse under the wheels of the cart.’

     They pulled into the roadside motel, halting i= n a quiet corner of the car park. ‘Stay here,’ Kobus said as he eas= ed out, leaving Drake alone in the car. Paying for a room, Kobus ordered food = to be delivered, paying over the odds. Back at the BMW, he opened Drake’s door. ‘Come on, before someone sees you.’

     Drake followed Kobus into a ground floor chalet, Kobus checking the car park with= a look back. With the light flicked on, the door closed and the curtains draw= n, Kobus placed down the car keys and eased off his damp jacket.

     ‘Wondrous workmanship,’ Drake noted, running a hand over the frame of a cheap watercolour. ‘Such wonders, a suite fit for a king.’

     ‘Actually, this is poor quality. There are better rooms, and they’re cheap for t= he common man.’

     Drake shook his head in admiration. ‘How you live.’

     ‘You’ll get used to it. Right, you stink, so follow me.’

     Drake followed Kobus into the bathroom, seeing his own image for the first time in many centuries, and stopping to stare at the pale young man staring back. ‘I have not gained any years, but I am pale like the end of winter.&#= 8217;

     Kobus looked over his shoulder as he tackled the shower settings. ‘How old = are you, I mean ... were you?’

     ‘I was three years past twenty, to be wed to a fine and sturdy wench that my father favoured.’ Drake turned as the shower came to life, puzzling i= t. ‘Where does this water come from?’ He lifted his head to the ceiling.

     ‘From metal pipes in the ground.’ Kobus eased past Drake, opening a wardrobe and finding a white fluffy robe that needed a wash. Still, it was step up f= rom what Drake had on. ‘This robe, you wear it after washing, OK. Your ot= her clothes, put them out through that small window.’ He lifted a motel-i= ssued soap bar in plastic and unwrapped it, handing it over.

     ‘A marvellous perfume.’

     ‘You wash with it, rubbing it all over your body when you’re stood upright= in the water.’ He grabbed a small shampoo vial and opened it. ‘And this ... you squeeze this out onto your hair to wash it. Take your time, and stay here; I’m going shopping for you.’

     Leaving the chalet, and checking again the car park, Kobus wondered what Drake woul= d do with the bidet, and what state the room would be in when he got back. And w= as this wise, leaving him in there.

     At the edge of Sophia, Kobus noticed a supermarket that was still open at this hou= r, and bought additional soap and shampoo, plus toothbrushes and paste, but not just for Drake. Kobus’s overnight bag was still in his hire car, abandoned earlier. It was no great loss, just inconvenient. He found two ge= nts fleeces that seemed about the right size, and a cheap tracksuit - yellow wi= th a black stripe. He could not guess Drake’s shoe size, so bought a pair = of slippers, a stretchable soft fabric. At the quiet checkout he grabbed biscu= its and chocolates.

     Back at the motel, he slowly circled, checking cars, finally parking the car in a lane and under trees. Back at the chalet, he scanned the car park at length, and turned the key in the lock. Inside, he saw no sign of Drake. ‘Sti= ll here, buddy?’

     Drake stepped out from the bathroom, now in the white robe, his skin tone matching the robe. ‘I sensed your approach,’ he said with a keen smile.<= /span>

     Kobus dumped the bags onto one of two single beds.

     ‘Come, see,’ Drake called.

     With a curious frown, and wondering about the state of the bathroom, Kobus stepped forwards. Inside the bathroom he found it wet, wet in many places it should= not be wet, towels on the floor – and now very wet.

     ‘I mastered the water, making it faster or slower, warmer or colder.’

     ‘Well done,’ Kobus sarcastically offered.

     ‘And look.’ With a wide smile, Drake turned the cold water tap on, then of= f. ‘Water flows, water stops.’ He straightened. ‘Such wonder= s of your world.’

     Kobus peeked into the toilet bowl. ‘Mastered the toilet?’

     Drake studied the toilet. ‘What does it do?’

     ‘You know, after you drink a lot of mead ... you need to go.’

     ‘Ah, yes.’ He pointed. ‘You go here?’

     ‘Yes, then flush’ Kobus reached across and pressed the flush.

     ‘Wondrous. But I do not ... go.’

     ‘No?’

     ‘No.’ Drake stopped smiling. ‘If the demon feeds in the quarter, I need not food or drink.’

     ‘But ... could you eat?’

     ‘Yes, I can, but the demon becomes irritable.’

     ‘C’mon,’ Kobus called, leading Drake to the main room. He opened a plastic bag and pulled out a track suit. ‘Go into the bathroom and place this on.R= 17;

     Drake studied the yellow tracksuit intently as he turned for the bathroom. A minu= te later he emerged, the tracksuit a reasonable fit.

     ‘Great, now you look like fucking Bruce Lee.’

     ‘These clothes are not suitable?’ Drake puzzled. ‘They seem most finely made.’

     ‘They’ll do for now. Here.’ Kobus handed over the slippers. ‘They’= re called slippers. What were they called in your day?’

     ‘Slippers.’ Drake sat on the end of a bed and placed on the slippers, which fitted well enough. Standing, he walked around in them. ‘Great softness for slipp= ers, no errant thread or stiffness.’

     ‘And your old clothes?’

     ‘Placed through the small window as you desired.’

     ‘I thought it smelt better in here.’ From a bag, Kobus pulled out scisso= rs. ‘Sit.’ With Drake sitting, Kobus cut his hair, a rough job. ‘Better, but it still needs work.’

     Drake ran a hand over his head. ‘Short hair for the summer.’

     ‘Fingers, please.’

     Drake presented a hand, and Kobus cut what was left of the long nails as best he could.

     ‘You almost look human. Someday soon we’ll get you a dermatologist; you’ve many oddly-large blackheads in your skin.’

     ‘As you wish, if I will appear more fitting in this time.’

     Kobus sat, opening a bag and retrieving a chocolate bar. He snapped a chunk off f= or himself and chewed, breaking off a lump for Drake as an afterthought.

     Drake sniffed the chocolate, before placing it into his mouth. Smiling as he chew= ed, he said, ‘Wondrous.’ He pointed towards the door. ‘A man brings beverage and food. He approaches.’

     Kobus eased up and stepped to the door, accepting pizza and cans of beer. ‘Danke,’ he offered the man, not wishing to seem British, or Afrikaans for that matter.

     Drake sniffed the air. ‘What is it?’

     ‘Pizza, the ... food of the Venetians. And mead. We call mead beer or lager.’ Kobus sat against the headboard, and cracked open a can, soon munching on a pizza slice as Drake worked his way slowly through the chocolate bar. Lifting the TV remote, Kobus turned on the room’s small TV.

     Drake jumped back, startled. ‘What is it?’

     ‘TV.’

     ‘You used this word before; an ensemble of stage actors.’ He pointed. R= 16;I see them, but where are they?’

     ‘The TV shows you things happening in other places, like magic. They’re far off.’

     Drake sat on the edge of the bed, now keenly focused on the TV, the news relaying images of the Iraq conflict. ‘Where is this place?’

     Kobus took a moment. ‘Iraq, a place in the east where ... I fought in a war.’

     Drake focused on Kobus, and waited.

     ‘It’s near the home of the Persian Empire.’

     ‘Ah, yes, the Moors; always a war with the Moors. They move towards Dacia. They = did, in my time. And again now?’

     Kobus took in the images, not happy with the topic. ‘No, now ... now we mov= ed on their land, to remove a fals= e king that hurt his people. But in the fighting we hurt many more than just the f= alse king.’

     ‘You are saddened by this, and angered,’ Drake softly noted.

     ‘Sometimes, you hurt those you go to help.’

     ‘When the cavalry charges, their blood up, they know not the farmer or the peasant boy from the enemy soldier in the heat and the dust.’

     ‘Very true,’ Kobus softly noted.

     Without taking his eyes off the TV news, in Bulgarian, Drake said, ‘You were a soldier?’

     ‘I was. I was born in South Africa, a place you’ve probably never heard = of, but went to school in Britain. After studying, I joined the British Queen&#= 8217;s army, an officer, and fought in the land of the Moors near Persia. And afte= r, after ... I worked for the magistrate, for the American colony.’ Lift= ing the handset, he changed channel. ‘That’s better for you, Friend= s. And in English.’

     ‘Friends?’

     ‘A drama about young friends in the American colonies.’ He turned the so= und up a bit. ‘You can practice your English.’

     Drake sat, transfixed, as Kobus munched through a large pizza, downing three cans= of lager. Forty minutes later, Kobus checked his pistol, kicked off his shoes,= and puffed up the pillows. He lay fully clothed, and now closed his eyes.

     ‘You need sleep?’ Drake asked without moving his eyes of the TV.

     ‘I can sleep just fine with the light on, and the TV, so you watch all you wan= t, buddy. You have a few ... gaps = in your knowledge to fill. And they say TV is good for kids, or bad for them, I’m not sure which.’

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3

 

A new reality

 

 

At 7am Kobus opened an eye, the curtains revealing a dull grey light. Turning his head, Drake smiled warmly, sat where he had been, the TV= now displaying a children’s programme.

     ‘I put the pizza through the small window, and the small metal drums,’ D= rake informed his roommate. ‘May I ask questions?’

     Kobus let his legs down, and placed a cigarette on his lip. ‘Sure,’ he said, rubbing his forehead.

     ‘People go to small rooms with other people, to undertake gainful employment for co= in – known as dollars, which transact the rent dues from the lord where they live. What dollars are left= in hand are used in the pursuit of partners for sex without wedlock, and to ma= ke oneself appear better than those around them, a continuous struggle.’=

     Kobus nodded, and then made a face. ‘Yep, pretty much, and definitely a continuous struggle.’

     ‘I feel for Ross, he means well and struggles hard, but fails to succeed at ea= ch turn.’

     Kobus stared at the side of Drake’s head. ‘I should have started you = with Dallas; you’d have a better fix on the world.’

     ‘I saw images of the men I killed.’

     Kobus stood. ‘What?’

     ‘On the TV, images of the men of the magistrate in blue, and the three men I killed.’

     ‘Did you understand any of what was said?’ Kobus pressed.

     ‘Some, and the magistrate believes the men to be criminals, members of a group = 211; a group of bad men.’

     ‘And the cave?’

     ‘They entered the cave, yes. The men who sought treasure were taken in bags, also= the men from the colonies. You are concerned.’

     ‘I work for the magistrate in America, where Ross and Rachel live, not here. I work in the shadows.’

     ‘You are a spy.’

     ‘Where did you get that word?’ Kobus idly asked, yawning.

     ‘Ross was spying on Rachel, and Chandler spied on a woman, and a man spied on Mon= ika. Spying is common in Friends. And they eat pizza like you, and are very care= ful with the cleaning of teeth.’ He turned his head, a puzzled frown adop= ted. ‘Joey lies down with many women out of wedlock, but always seeks more company – and seems at a great loss to understand women. He has much experience, but is always at a loss to understand them.’

     Kobus stared down at Drake. ‘All women are different, and knowledge of the moods of one does not help with= the next.’

     ‘I think Rachel and Ross will unite again,’ Drake said as he turned back= to the TV.

     Kobus stared at the back of Drake’s head. ‘I’ve unleashed a monster,’ he said as he headed to the toilet. Back in the room, and stretching, he asked, ‘Sunlight, it doesn’t affect you?’<= /span>

     Drake shook his head.

     ‘Garlic?’

     ‘It’s pleasant with some foods.’

     ‘A crucifix?’

     Drake shook his head.

     ‘What would kill you?’

     ‘I wish I knew that,’ Drake said, a glance upwards, big sad eyes display= ed.

     After a moment, Kobus said, ‘I’ll take a shower, then we’ll go.’

     ‘Should I wash again?’ Drake keenly enquired.

     ‘No, you’re fine.’

     Drake seemed deflated, turning back to the TV. ‘In the night you made loud noises with your nose. My father did this, so I placed you on your side many times.’

     ‘I don’t snore, I just breathe loudly. I’m too young to snore.R= 17;

     ‘You are offended by this idea.’

     ‘Watch the damn TV.’

 

Out of the shower, and back in the same clothes, Kobus’s mobile went.

     ‘You are concerned about the magistrate,’ Drake noted. ‘About me.= 217;

     ‘Yep. Now be quiet.’ Kobus lifted his phone, and pressed the green button. ‘Yeah?’

     ‘Kobus, you’re still alive. What the fuck happened, I’ve just seen it on the news?’ Riggs asked.

     ‘When I got there I found a bunch of dead cave explorers, weekend amateurs, and a= ll shot by a 9mm. I think they stumbled on the gang.’

     ‘And the cave? They found US servicemen from 1944!’

     ‘I think the locals were looking for them, maybe they thought there was someth= ing of value in there, but they stumbled on the meeting place for the others.’

     ‘Did they meet?’

     ‘No, that was called off after I acciden= tally ran over that guy.’

     ‘He died in hospital,’ Riggs reported. ‘What about the gang members?’

     ‘They turned up looking for me, no deal going down. Bit of a squabble in the woods.’

     ‘Fuck’s sake, buddy, nine dead bodies in two days; the press and the local police w= ill be all over this. Luckily, they’re calling it a gang incident –= for now.’

     ‘I left no evidence behind, and I’ll ditch the car.’

     ‘You still have that guy’s car? They’ll be looking for it!’

     ‘It’s tucked away.’ He focused on Drake. ‘Anyway, some good news, of a kind.’

     ‘What’s that?’

     ‘The men, they led me to a safe house in Sophia; they were holding someone priso= ner.’ Drake now turned his head, and listened. ‘And this guy is a real find= for us, but I don’t want the Company to know yet.’

     ‘Know what? Who is he?’ Riggs asked.

     ‘He’s ... Romanian, a young lad who used to work in the circus.’

     ‘In the circus?’

     ‘Yep, and he reads minds.’

     ‘He read minds? You been drinking, Kobus?’

     ‘He’s the real deal, that’s why they had him. If you hold up twenty playing cards he gets nineteen right – every time.’

     ‘He does?’

     ‘I tested him on a few people already, at random. He told me their occupations= and names, and then I asked them; right every time – more or less.’=

     ‘Fucking hell, buddy. A mind reader?’

     ‘After centuries of circus tricks, there was bound to be some truth in it. Anyway, he’s my new partner, so keep that in mind if we’re seen, and I don’t want this to go up the line; they’ll take him off us.R= 17;

     ‘You wanna work with this guy?’

     ‘He has ... specific skills that I think will come in handy.’

     ‘How much does he know about you? About us?’

     ‘He’s a fucking mind reader, dummy, he knew before I told him.’

     ‘Hey, look, if this guy is on the level, he could be worth a lot the agency; you = know what they’re like with their weird programmes, Distance Viewing and a= ll that crap.’

     ‘Look, if he helps me ... and I help you, who gets the credit, and a be= tter office?’ Kobus probed.

     ‘Well, yeah, I would.’

     ‘If I crack a big case, you get the smarty points, boss; desk in Langley, not t= oo far from the water cooler, bit of a view.’

     ‘You really think this guy is on the level?’ Riggs pressed.

     ‘Why do you think they had him holed-up? They were trying to get him to do the lottery.’

     ‘Can he?’

     ‘No, that’s the future, he just reads minds.’

     ‘Pity. What’ll you do next?’

     ‘Couple of days off, back to Athens, then the next job; the weapons deal will never happen now.’

     ‘No shit. They’re all dead!’

     ‘Find me something in a few days. Over and out.’ He cut the call.

     ‘You gave false testimony about me,’ Drake noted, ‘to protect me, bu= t to also gain me employment with the magistrate.’

     ‘Yep, otherwise they would ask. If my boss thinks you’re useful he’ll protect you from others who may ... desire your particular skills. And in my game, your skills are excellent.’

     Drake lowered his head. ‘We fight the bad men, in the hope that our tally is good at the end.’

     ‘We fight the bad men, and to hell with anyone who judges us,’ Kobus said= as he stood.

 

With Drake helping, they pushed the car along the lane, and in= to a field, finding a convenient slope down towards a lake. With a final shove t= he car started rolling, gaining speed.

     ‘Such a wondrous carriage, to meet such a fate,’ Drake lamented.

     ‘C’mon,’ Kobus urged as he turned.

     They walked down to the nearest village, a taxi hailed, an odd look given to Drake’s bright yellow tracksuit by the driver. In Sophia, they halted= at a row of shops, Drake having spent the time in the taxi staring wide-eyed at everything, marvelling the buildings, and the cars on the roads.

     Paying the driver, Kobus led Drake on, walking past many shops till they found a ladies hairdresser. It looked quiet enough. ‘You do men?’ Kobus asked in English.

     The woman shrugged, glancing at Drake’s blue slippers.

     Kobus thrust a fifty Euro note towards her, and pointed at Drake. The lady held t= he note, curled a lip at Drake’s hair-job, and finally gestured Bruce Lee towards a chair, a bib thrown around him.

     ‘What to do?’ she complained.

     Kobus shrugged at her, and sat.

     In Bulgarian, Drake said, ‘I want look like Joey on Friends.’

     The ladies in the establishment laughed – at length, but then got to work. They cut the mangled white mop, and dyed it, a thirty minute process. As th= ey did so, Kobus paid another girl to tackle Drake’s finger nails, much complaining issued, another twenty Euros handed over. When done, Drake stood and faced Kobus with a keen childlike smile. The jet black hair stood out a= s a drastic contrast to his deathly white skin.

     ‘You need some sun, you’re pale,’ Kobus said as he stood. ‘Tha= nk you, ladies. Oh, where can I find a dermatologist?’

     They understood the word, pointing down the block. Outside, they walked down the block, Drake catching his reflection in the glass of many shops, Kobus roll= ing his eyes and shaking his head. At the dermatologist, they needed an appointment, so a bribe was paid, and soon found a Russian girl in a side r= oom.

     ‘Speak English?’ Kobus asked her.

     ‘Some, yes.’

     Kobus grabbed Drake by the shoulders and placed him in the seat, soon pointing the lady towards deep and dark blackheads across Drake’s chin, neck and shoulders. A lip was curled, a glance at the blue slippers made, but the gi= rl got on with the task, removing almost a hundred black lumps from under the skin. At the end of it, she rubbed in an acne cream with her gloved hands.<= /span>

     ‘It was a pleasant experience,’ Drake admitted after they left. ‘So= too the cutting of my hair. I admit I felt ... aroused.’

     ‘That’s OK, so do I on occasion when a nice young girl is giving me a cut. Right, we need some clothes for you, and a shirt for me.’

     They entered a men’s clothes shop. ‘You speak English?’ Kobus asked a girl stood waiting.

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘My friend, he doesn’t know his size. Can you guess?’

     She looked Drake over, frowning at the blue slippers as Drake smiled keenly bac= k. ‘I think medium, or more smaller.’

     ‘I want underwear, jeans, t-shirt, jumper, jacket, socks. Two of each, please.= ’

     It was a good order for the shop assistant, and she got to work, Drake soon trying= on pants and jeans, a fit first time. The t-shirts were OK, plenty of room in = the jumpers and jackets. And finally they squeezed black trainers onto his feet= .

     ‘Good, we’ll take them all, and another of each,’ Kobus told the girl, taking out the cash. He handed over two hundred and twenty Euros, and left a happy shop assistant.

     ‘I feel ... strange,’ Drake admitted as the emerged onto the street, carrying the spare clothes and yellow tracksuit in a bag.

     ‘Strange?’

     ‘The clothes feel good, and warm, a strange sensation. I feel ... protected.R= 17;

     ‘I guess we all feel vulnerable naked.’

     ‘What is next?’ Drake keenly enquired.

     Kobus pointed up. ‘Sun tan.’

     ‘Sun ... tan?’

     ‘False sun from the sky, to make your face less ... white; you look like a sheet of paper. In fact, I’d be happy if you just looked as pale as a sheet of paper, I’d feel less conspicuous.’

     A few minutes later, Drake stepped into the booth and took the clothes off his to= p as he was instructed to. He placed on goggles – that were not necessary = in his case, and stood still for six minutes, enjoying the warmth. When done, = he wished more time.

     ‘You’re pale, so you’ll burn. Probably. C’mon, enough sun for one day.&= #8217;

     Walking around a corner, Kobus noticed a suitably   rundown hotel, and approached. The establishment had a room with two single beds available, for one night, the room paid for in cash, a curious glance shot at Drake from the receptionist. Once in the room, Kobus turned on the TV, explain the changing of channels = to Drake.

     ‘I’m going to pick up a bag I left in another hotel, and get a car. I’ll b= e an hour at most. Don’t ... go anywhere.’

     ‘I shall study again the world through the magic box.’

     Kobus asked. ‘You heal very quickly?’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘You have marks on you that will put people off, small holes from the girl today. Can you cut them, and see them heal quickly?’

     ‘I believe so.’

     ‘Look in the mirror in the bathroom, make many small cuts, see if the holes go,’ Kobus suggested before he headed out.

 

Kobus returned an hour later, Drake seemingly damp, but back i= n the same clothes. ‘I had another shower, and mastered the controls,’= ; he enthusiastically reported. ‘And now my skin is better.’<= /p>

     Kobus closed in, inspecting Drake’s chin. ‘Yeah, better. Be hard to k= eep the girls off you now.’

     ‘Girls?’ Drake repeated. ‘Is there ... a local summer dance?’

     Kobus hid a smile. ‘Would you ... like to lay down with a girl out of wedlock?’

     ‘It ... is the accepted custom here, no?’

     ‘It is,’ Kobus agreed with a coy smile. ‘But I think what might best suit you – for now – would be a girl who takes coin for such ..= . lying down out of wedlock.’

     ‘A lady of the night.’

     ‘Yes, a lady of the night.’ Kobus checked his watch. ‘There is a club= here that’s open all day. C’mon then, let’s go meet a lady of = the night, now that you’re all keen, clean and raring to go.’

     They drove around to the club in question in a hired BMW, this one silver with a wooden finish, Drake now adept at opening and closing the car door, as he pointed out. Inside the club, they found three bored looking ladies in night gowns.

     Kobus beckoned one over. ‘Speak English?’

     She nodded.

     ‘My friend here has not been with ... many women.’ He handed over sixty Euros. ‘Blowjob.’

     The lady led a keen Drake away. ‘I have had a shower,’ could be hea= rd as Kobus headed to the bar.

     ‘Coffee,’ he ordered.

     ‘Ten Euros,’ the barman said with attitude.

     ‘Ten Euros? Do I get a blowjob for that?’

     Ten minutes later, and Drake hurried back, beckoning a now concerned Kobus towa= rds the door.

     ‘You didn’t let the demon out?’ Kobus asked in a whisper as they ste= pped out onto the street, glancing back at the club.

     ‘No.’

     ‘Then what happened?’

     They headed to the car.

     ‘This lady, she knelt before me and ... took me in her mouth, a most enjoyable sensation. After ... afterwards, she was sick like a rabid dog for many minutes, and went to sleep on the carpet.’

     Kobus stopped dead, his eyes wide. ‘You, er ... well ... you gave her some = five hundred year old seed. A bit ... of= f, I’d guess.’ They walked on. ‘Christ, that’s more de= tail than I needed to know.’

     ‘Have I done wrong?’ Drake worried.

     ‘No, but ... now that you’ve cleaned out your ... you know, next time will= be better.’

     ‘I feel bad for this lady,’ Drake said as they got into the car.<= /p>

     ‘We won’t be welcome back in that club,’ Kobus suggested as they dr= ove off. He shook his head, wide-eyed. ‘Bloody hell.’

     ‘Is it customary here to send flowers?’

     Kobus gave him a look. ‘Eh ... no, not to hookers.’

     ‘Hookers: ladies of the night. This word was in Friends, Phoebe was suspected of bein= g a hooker.’

     ‘I’ve got to start choosing what you watch,’ Kobus said with a sigh.=

     Back in the hotel room, Kobus selected a channel for Drake, a programme about the Second World War.

     ‘The men from the cave,’ Drake noted, keenly attentive.

     ‘We’ll leave when it gets dark; I prefer to drive at night.’

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4

 

It’s a dirty job, but someon= e has to do it

 

 

An hour later, and Kobus was snoozing after a large pizza had = been delivered and eaten.

     Drake shook him awake, a hand on Kobus’s mouth. ‘There are men at the door.’

     Kobus eased up, his pistol drawn. ‘What do they want?’ he whispered.<= /span>

     ‘They seek us from the first room,’ he said softly, pointing at the pizza b= ox. ‘They know we are the same men.’

     ‘Do they work for the magistrate?’ Kobus whispered.

     ‘One man does, but takes coin from bad men,’ Drake softly answered. ‘They have pistols, if I say it correct.’

     ‘Unfortunately, you do,’ Kobus said as he considered his options.

     ‘There are also men in a carriage, below us.’

     Kobus looked to the window, then opened it. They were two storeys up.

     Drake’s head appeared alongside. ‘This car,’ he said, pointing.<= /p>

     ‘Jump onto it, and meet me in that park,’ Kobus requested, pointing at a pa= rk a block away. ‘Go.’

     Drake didn’t hesitate, on the ledge in an instant and launching himself off. He landed on the roof, the vehicle’s windows blown out, a loud report of breaking glass created, the roof bent in and crumpled. He steadied himself, jumped i= nto the road, and ran towards the park.

     Kobus had put an ear to the door when Drake had leapt, now hearing the muffled sounds= of men shouting as they moved away. Grabbing the bags, he opened the door with the chain on, checking the corridor quickly before releasing the chain. He ran along the corridor, down the back stairs and out of the rear, one block over before circling around at a fast walk. Pausing, on a corner of the street t= hat the hotel fronted, he could now see several men stood around a car, a man b= eing dragged clear. Crossing over, he skirted around a block, and to the rear of= the park. Stood there, scanning the trees and bushes, Drake dropped from above, startling Kobus.

     ‘Did I do well?’ Drake keenly enquired.

     Kobus caught his breath. ‘You did. Are you hurt?’

     ‘No, I am not hurt,’ Drake said. ‘Thank you for enquiring as to my health.’

     ‘Thank you for enquiring as to my healt= h?’ Kobus repeated as they walked off.

     ‘It is not correct?’

     ‘It’s correct, but you can use fewer words.’

 

They waited in a second park till dark, and reclaimed the BMW = from where it had been left, fortunately a block away from the hotel and not in their = own hotel’s car park. The damaged car had now been removed, two uniformed police officers positioned either side of the hotel’s entrance.

     As they drove south, Kobus’s mobile went. ‘Yeah?’

     ‘It’s me,’ Riggs began. ‘Listen, your prints just went through the sy= stem in Sophia.’

     ‘They made me, again, and they have the cops in their pockets.’

     ‘Yeah, well your prints have you down as being dead for six years, and a Russian gangster at that.’

     ‘They will be confused.’

     ‘Where are you?’

     ‘Driving back towards Athens.’

     ‘Turn around.’

     ‘Turn around?’

     ‘We got some intel, and your dead friends are linked to something big, al Qa’eda big.’

     ‘That lot, linked to al Qa’eda?’

     ‘Trying to buy an advanced detonation system.’

     ‘To detonate what?’

     ‘Multiple devices, somehow,’ Riggs reported. ‘If you have any leads, no matter how small, follow them up. You have two days before the boys from ab= ove send in a team.’

     ‘Great.’ Kobus took a moment. ‘OK, leave it with me. Over and out.’ He c= ut the call.

     ‘You are concerned,’ Drake said as Kobus turned the car around.

     ‘The men you killed, their friends are trying to buy weapons still, and my people worry about it.’

     ‘We must find them?’

     ‘We must find them,’ Kobus agreed.

     ‘They have a place to sleep and to meet, above a club for ladies of the night.= 217;

     Kobus turned his head and stared at Drake as he relayed the information. ‘Y= ou read their minds,’ he realised. ‘You know where it is?’

     ‘The club has the name of wild fowl.’

     ‘Duck, swan?’

     ‘Something of that name.’

     Kobus pulled up near a taxi rank and got out. Approaching a cab, he handed the dr= iver a twenty Euro note through the open window. ‘I’m looking for a club, for ladies, name like a duck or a bird.’

     ‘Duck? You mean Ockotan?’ came back, heavily accented.

     ‘Yes, where is it?’

     ‘In centre, next to cinema.’

     ‘Thanks.’

     Back in the BMW, Kobus said, ‘I know where it is. So later, you, young man, will have some money, and I’ll need you to lay down out of wedlock wi= th many ladies.’

     ‘Yes?’ Drake asked with a huge grin.

     ‘Yes. Ask them questions, read their minds, and sit near men and read their minds. Drink beer.’

     ‘I shall work hard at this endeavour,’ Drake said with a straight face.<= span style=3D'mso-tab-count:1'> 

     Kobus shot him a look, Drake avoiding eye contact.

     As they drove, Drake pointed at a sign for the local district council, a coat = of arms. ‘This shield on a pole, it is to say whose land this is?’=

     ‘Shield on a ... pole?’ Kobus repeated. ‘Ah, the sign. No, it’s t= he local council.’ Drake waited. ‘A group of men who rule this area.’

     ‘The King’s men.’

     ‘No, there’s no king anymore.’

     ‘No king?’

     Kobus took a moment as he gathered his thoughts. ‘Every four years, all the people decide who they want to be leader and king.’

     Drake frowned heavily. ‘The people ... decide on who will be king? Serfs and peasants have a say in the running of the land?’

     Kobus smiled. ‘They do, yes.’

     ‘And women?’

     Kobus lifted his eyebrows and nodded.

     ‘And after each four years on the throne … a new king is chosen?’ Dr= ake puzzled.

     Kobus nodded. ‘Yep.’

     ‘And does it not lead to chaos?’

     ‘That, my friend, is the subject of many newspaper inches and much debate.’<= /span>

     ‘It would seem like the ebb and flow of the tide,’ Drake puzzled.<= /p>

     ‘Er ... yep, pretty much. The next king undoes what the last king did, and we g= et nowhere. It’s called democracy.’

 

At 9pm, Drake entered the club, now dressed in his jeans and j= umper, four hundred Euros in his pocket. The large doorman looked him over, getting back a pleasant smile. At the bar, Drake sat and looked a bit lost, a lady = soon approaching, a few words exchanged in Bulgarian, a price fixed, money count= ed out slowly and handed over, being handed on to the barman.

     Fifteen minutes later Drake returned, trying to hide a silly smile, the lady taking= a seat again. He sat at the bar, close to four large men, his back to them. ‘A tankard of your finest ale, innkeeper.’ As an afterthought, = Drake said, ‘Please.’

     A small beer was placed down. ‘Seven Euros.’

     Drake scanned the numbers on the notes, and then the few coins he carried. ‘= ;Is there a seven Euro coin?’

     ‘What?’ the barman puzzled. ‘Give me the ten, I give you change.’

     ‘Ah.’ Drake handed over the ten Euro note, coins returned, and keenly examined. &= #8216;These are nice and shiny,’ he commended. ‘Thank you indeed.’

     The barman shot him a quizzical look.

     As Drake sat drinking, the men behind him chatted quietly about many things. W= ith his drink finished, a different lady thought she might try her luck, another price agreed. He headed off again, being curiously observed by the first ho= oker, an indignant look offered.

     Fifteen minutes later he returned, alone, another beer ordered with a cheery smile.= The hooker returned five minutes later, complaining ‘a long time cumming’ to the other girls.

     Drake keenly resumed his task, that of reading the minds of the bored men sat around the bar. With his beer downed, Drake went to stand, but halted, a hand on his stomach. He burped loud enough for everyone in the club to hear. ‘Sorry,’ he sheepishly offered.

     ‘Oh, fuck me,’ the barman complained, swiping a dishcloth around at the sm= ell created. A punter moved away, and to another stool.

     Tapping his chest with a fist, Drake approached a third girl, a price agreed, the r= est of the girls in the room – as well as the men – now wondering a= bout the insatiable stud in their midst, the young man now on his third girl.

     Twenty minutes later he returned, again a silly smile fixed to his face, all of the men now watching him. He ordered another beer, the barman keeping his dista= nce as he placed it down. With the beer downed, Drake felt unwell, and stood, holding his stomach. The pain grew, his features contorted, people noticing, everyone now focused on him.

     Drake bent double, but forced himself upright, a huge belch issued, like a randy Walrus sounding his intentions. But in that same instant Drake passed wind,= a full six seconds worth, a hand on the bar stool to steady himself.

 

Kobus was sat in the car with the window down, smoking and che= cking his watch, wondering if this had been a good idea; the kid had been gone al= most an hour. He had a view of the club’s entrance, and now saw two men run out, both men dropping to their knees. He sat upright in the car and flicked out the cigarette, starting the engine.

     As he observed, another three men staggered out, all appearing unwell, two of them vomiting on the pavement, a girl in a nightdress tumbling out, soon followe= d by two other hookers rushing out. A chair went through a window.

     ‘Shit,’ Kobus let out, pulling the car around and getting ready.

     Drake walked calmly out, past the people kneeling on the pavement with a glance b= ack at them, and through parked cars towards Kobus. Sensing, and then seeing Ko= bus in the BMW, Drake jogged across to the car and got in.

     ‘I think I should avoid this establishment in future,’ Drake said as they drove off.

     ‘What the hell did you do?’ Kobus puzzled, staring at the broken windows as they passed the club.

     ‘I did as you asked, and I gained information as you asked.’

     ‘Did you start a fight? Let the demon out?’

     ‘No.’

     ‘Well?’ Kobus pressed after a moment’s silence.

     ‘I ... drank the beer, as you suggested, but ... it caused a great pain in my insides.’

     ‘Can you drink beer?’ Kobus puzzled. ‘Did you before?’<= /p>

     ‘Yes, I drank mead and made merry, and ... also gave forth wind from ... below ..= . an unpleasant odour, but not like this.’

     Kobus stopped at the lights, turned his head, and stared wide-eyed at Drake. ‘You just evacuated a nightclub ... because you farted?’=

     ‘It was ... a most disagreeable odour.’ He glanced at Kobus from under his eyebrows. ‘Many people ... they fell to the ground, sick at the mouth, many asleep.’

     Kobus stared back, his mouth opening. He pointed a finger at Drake’s face. ‘If you need to do that in this car, or near me, you fucking warn me first!’

     ‘I will endeavour to do so, yes.’

     They drove off.

     Kobus shook his head. ‘First you almost kill a hooker from a blowjob, now y= ou destroy a club with a fart. Jesus, boy, you’re dangerous enough witho= ut the damn demon.’

     ‘I did learn of things,’ Drake offered.

     ‘I should hope so after all that.’

     ‘There is a man named Ramius, he will meet with a Cossack tomorrow at the coast, a= nd buy something of value – but wanted by the magistrate – and sel= l to a Moor from the place you fought the war.’

     ‘Iraq?’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘Shit...’

     ‘Is that information good?’

     ‘It’s very good - in that we know, not so good ... in that they probably plan on killing a great many people.’

     ‘If we stop them, and save many, then we can count that many at the ends of our lives.’

     ‘I should think so. But do me a favour: when you get to the Pearly Gates and s= tand before St. Peter, tell him about what just happened in that club – th= ey love stiff like that in heaven. Don’t leave out any detail.

    

An hour later, and booked into yet another two-star hotel, the= phone went.

     ‘Yeah?’ Kobus answered.

     ‘You still in Sophia?’ Riggs asked.

     ‘Yes, boss, hard at it.’

     ‘Strange story on the wire, some nightclub hit with a chemical weapon.’=

     Kobus slid his gaze across to Drake. ‘Chemical ... weapon?’

     ‘Thirty people in hospital, firemen in respirators.’

     ‘Haven’t seen it on the news yet,’ Kobus said, Drake now looking away and pretending to concentrate on the TV. ‘But we got a lead. Guy name of Ramius, deal going down on the coast tomorrow with a Russian seller, and it sounds like the detonators. And get this, the buyer is Iraqi.’=

     ‘Iraqi? Shit, they’ll be all over this in Langley. But I want some hard evide= nce before I rattle anyone’s cage.’

     ‘Run this Ramius fella through the computer, see what hardware he could get hold= of, and get back to me.’

     ‘Are you heading down to the coast?’ Riggs asked.

     ‘At dawn, deal is for 4pm apparently.’

     ‘You need some back-up on this?’

     ‘No, I have my new partner in crime doing a good job.’

     ‘He’s panning out?’ Riggs asked.

     ‘Where’d you think we got the intel?’

     ‘You’re shitting me? And you trust this guy?’

     ‘Run the name, and see what you get. Over and out.’

 

Ten minutes later, Riggs was back on. ‘Kobus?’

     ‘Yeah?’

     ‘That’s the right name, and it’s flagged; I’ve already had a call from = upon high. When I said he was selling to Iraqi’s you could hear the shouts= from Langley without a phone.’

     ‘Does that mean I’ll get some company?’

     ‘I ... may have mentioned that we don’t know about the buy location.R= 17;

     ‘Meaning ... that you’d like me to get you something solid, solid enough to he= lp your career along.’

     ‘Hey, you offered, so go make me proud. I’m looking forwards to that office.’

     Lowering the phone, Kobus eased off the bed. ‘You did well.’

     ‘Yes?’ Drake keenly enquired with a boyish smile.

     ‘Yes, the name was correct. Anyway, did you get to lay down out of wedlock at the club.’

     ‘I did, three times.’

     ‘Three!’

     ‘Three, yes.’

     Kobus sat opposite. ‘Us mere mortals couldn’t do it three times in an hour.’ He waited.

     ‘The ... demon assisted.’

     ‘And did the demon ... enjoy himself, by any chance?’

     Drake lowered his head and nodded. ‘He did.’

     ‘There are many pleasures in this new world that don’t involve killing people and drinking their blood.’

     ‘It is indeed a wondrous place,’ Drake agreed.

     ‘You watch TV, and I’ll catch a few hours before we leave.’ Kobus lay down. ‘And Drake, if you need to release some air, do it in the damn = corridor.’

     ‘May I ask a question?’

     ‘Sure.’

     ‘The images on the magic box, they are not ... true images sometimes.’

     ‘They’re computer generated.’ Drake waited, Kobus explaining, ‘They̵= 7;re magic, and not real.’

     ‘A drink cannot make someone fly.’

     Kobus shook his head.

     ‘Great cities in the land of the Chinese are not attacked regularly by a giant creature that breathes fire.’

     Kobus resisted a smile, and shook his head.

     ‘Animals have not been trained to speak.’

     Smiling, Kobus shook his head.

     ‘Men still battle over Jerusalem, as they did in my time.’

     Kobus stopped smiling. ‘Men still battle over Jerusalem, yes, and five hund= red years from now they’ll still be battling over it.’

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5

 

Family trouble

 

 

An hour later, Drake turned Kobus onto his side, and returned = to the TV. But as he sat there he slowly turned his head, moving it like a bird of prey focusing on a distant mouse. He stood and walked to the door, then sho= ok it off. Sitting back down, he turned his head again, now to the window, the= thick curtains drawn tight. Stood in front of the curtains, he closed his eyes and opened his mind.

     Kobus woke with a jolt at the sound of breaking glass, the crack of a high-powered round just a fuzzy memory, not sure now of what he had heard. He sat up and= let his legs down, seeing Drake on his back, a hole in his white t-shirt, a hin= t of blood. The demon slowly sat up, an arm raised, an accusing finger pointed at the curtains.

     ‘Two men, in a room, a long fire stick. They see clear in the dark.’

     Kobus slammed his back to the wall. ‘A rifle with a thermal sight. Smart for locals.’

     The demon pointed at the bedside table. ‘This ... magic to talk with the magistrate. They ... see it through the dark.’

     ‘They’re tracking my mobile,’ Kobus realised. ‘Shit...’

     ‘People gather below, the men leave.’

     Kobus leapt over the bed, grabbed his jacket and their bags, and knocked the light off. ‘Are you OK?’ he whispered. ‘Can you move?’

     ‘I can walk, yes.’

     ‘Anyone near?’ Kobus asked as he opened the door.

     ‘No,’ the demon responded as he drew level.

     Kobus opened the door, took a peek both ways, and ran down the corridor, away fro= m the lift and stairs, the demon close behind. At the base of the stairs, Kobus turned to find Drake. ‘You OK, buddy?’

     ‘It was painful, a great jolt. But I am OK. These men, they came from the colon= ies of Rachel and Ross.’

     Kobus halted and froze, taking a moment. ‘They were Americans? Armed with a rifle fitted with a thermal sight?’

     Drake nodded.

     ‘We need to find them ... before th= ey find us.’

     ‘They move quickly to a carriage, some distance.’

     Kobus took out his mobile phone, hesitated, and then pocketed it. ‘If they’re tracking me, then they can come and damn well find me.’= He led Drake out of the rear of the hotel, checking the street carefully, and = down the road to the car, the vehicle thoughtfully parked well away from their c= heap hotel - and in the car park of a second cheap hotel.

     Kobus halted ten yards away from the car, and pointed the key-fob towards the BMW, unlocking it. He waited a further two seconds. Running to it, he placed the bags on the rear seat, but stopped to check the wheel arches and the unders= ide of the car.

     Sat in the driver’s seat, Kobus hesitated as he put the key in the ignition.=

     ‘You are uncertain of the carriage,’ Drake noted.

     ‘They may have put a bomb on it.’ Kobus heaved a breath. ‘Fuck it.= 217; He started the car and revved it.

     ‘A bomb? Gunpowder, like a cannon ball.’

     ‘Yes,’ Kobus confirmed as he drove off.

     He headed straight out of Sophia and onto a highway, soon reaching a hundred m= iles an hour, the roads quiet at this hour. At the first service station he pull= ed in, and parked in a dark corner next to a cafe, just two patrons sat eating within.

     ‘They will find us ... because of the magic to talk with the magistrate,’ D= rake stated.

     ‘Could you sense their approach, if we wait here?’

     ‘I can.’

     Kobus eased back, folded his arms, and closed his eyes. After a moment, and with = his eyes still closed, he said, ‘You did well back there, you saved me; t= hat bullet was meant for me. Question is: why?’

     ‘The magistrate is not happy with you?’

     Kobus opened his eyes. ‘The magistrate ... has many lords, and many men.= 217; After a moment, he lifted his mobile, and called Riggs.

     ‘Kobus?’

     ‘Yeah, got a problem. Two American gentlemen, with a high power rifle fitted with a thermal sight, just took a shot at me.’

     ‘What?’ Riggs rasped.

     ‘They’re tracking me via my phone, a number known to very few, old friend. Is there = ... something you’re not telling me?’

     ‘They’re not Company,’ Riggs scoffed. ‘What the hell are you saying?R= 17;

     ‘I’m saying ... that the local cops probably can’t track a mobile, that th= ey don’t have this fucking number, and they’d not use American mercenaries with thermal sights. Would you not agree, arsehole?’

     ‘Well ... yeah, seems like a long shot. Are you hurt?’

     ‘No, they missed by an inch, the shot taken through windows with the curtains closed. Do me a favour, and see if there’s a team in the area –= and if I’ve strayed into something I shouldn’t have.’<= /p>

     ‘Meaning what?’

     ‘Meaning ... I have no idea, but maybe I’ve stepped on someone’s toes.’

     ‘Kobus, I sent you there - it’s in the system, my name as handler. If there w= as an issue ... they’d come talk to me, or just order you off. Shooting = you would attract a lot of interest, questions asked, so let’s not write = an airport novel over this.’

     ‘I’m going to have a chat with the nice gentlemen, and then ... maybe we’ll have some answers.’

     ‘Be real careful, and pull out as soon as you can.’

     ‘Are you ordering me off this case?’ Kobus pressed.

     ‘No, but ... I’d like to know who the fuck they were as well.’

     ‘Sleep with a pistol under your pillow, old friend.’

     ‘Always, buddy, always.’

    

Riggs dialled Langley.

     ‘14-10.’

     ‘It’s Riggs, Amsterdam. There’s been an incident in Sophia, Bulgaria. One o= f my team was just shot at by two Americans armed with a rifle fitted with a the= rmal sight, and he’s sure they’re tracking his mobile. I want a check made of the area.’

     ‘We’ll get right back to you if we find anything,’ 14-10 offered with a plea= sant and affirmative tone. ‘Good night.’

     The young man answering the phone turned to a second man sat in the same cubicl= e, a silver-haired man with a waxy stone complexion. The young man’s pleas= ant expression slipped. ‘They missed Kobus, sir, who somehow guessed about his mobile being tracked. But that’s not the most interesting aspect = of the call.’ He paused for effect. ‘Kobus reported the shooters as being two Americans.’

     The silver-haired man stared dispassionately back for a moment, before slowly adopting a frown. ‘How could he know? They fired from across a road, = not seen, no evidence left.’

     ‘Mister Russell - sir, there’s only one way Kobus could have got himself out = of that hotel and known the detail= , and that’s if the two assets employed are lying, and working with Kobus a= nd Riggs. They reported a clean kill, but the hotel reported no bodies to the police, no blood.’

     ‘No blood? A chest shot with a sniper rifle?’ Russell eased back, and tur= ned his head to a wall calendar, a pleasant Canadian wilderness displayed. ‘Remove both assets, check their phone logs.’

 

Kobus lowered his phone, and held it, gently tapping the steer= ing wheel with it.

     Drake turned his head. ‘You suspect the magistrate wishes you dead.’<= /span>

     ‘Not the magistrate, a ... family member with unwarranted designs on the throne.’

     ‘They take the king’s schilling, but work false deeds.’ Drake pointed across the car park, at a car approaching. ‘It is the two men from America-land. They seek us.’

     They observed as the car in question slowed beyond the petrol pumps and finally = halted, its lights turned off. No one got out of the car. A minute later the car dr= ove slowly around to the opposite side of the cafe.

     Kobus looked over his shoulder. ‘C’mon.’ Out of the car, he add= ed, ‘I need them alive, but hurt, pistols removed.’ He led Drake on= at a jog, around to the rear of the café, and into the dark. Checking t= he immediate area, he drew his pistol and ducked behind tall metal bins, no illumination coming from the rear of the cafe – just a god awful smel= l coming from the bins. He pointed to nearby bushes, ‘Hide there, jump on them when ready - if they come this way.’

     ‘They come this way,’ Drake confirmed as he dashed into the dark bushes.

     Kobus checked his pistol and knelt, listening out for footsteps. Those footsteps = soon came, barely discernible, the men moving cautiously.

     ‘Around the corner,’ came a whisper through the dark, an east coast American accent, soon followed by a thud and muffled groans.

     ‘Come forwards,’ someone whispered.

     Kobus burst out, finding two men face down, both dazed, and it was the demon knelt over them. It lifted the hand-held scanner that the men had been using, his face adopting a green tinge. Kobus grabbed the first man, the demon lifting= the second man without prompting, the duo soon dragging the would-be assassins through the dark and to the edge of a field, dumping them down on a patch of hard dry soil, the ground studded with the short remnants of a harvested cr= op.

     Patting down the men, Kobus removed their pistols, throwing them away into the dark. Wallets were removed and pocketed. Turning one of the men over, Kobus slapp= ed the man’s face a few times, before presenting the man’s outstretched arm to the demon. ‘Snack on his hand.’

     A bite of sharp teeth into the flesh of the hand elicited a loud cry.

     ‘Who are you?’ Kobus asked. No answer came back. He turned his head to the demon. ‘Bite off a finger.’

     As the flesh of the finger was torn away, a growl issued, the man screamed.=

     ‘Who ... are you, and why are you trying to kill me?’ Kobus pressed, a kne= e on the man’s thigh preventing the man from moving.

     Again, the man resisted.

     ‘Bite the thumb off,’ Kobus coldly ordered, not needing to prompt the demon= , a loud cry released as the demon tore the flesh with his teeth, the thumb com= ing away.

     ‘Listen up, fella: I’m going to let him eat all of your fingers and toes, fin= ally your cock. And then ... then I’ll let him keep going.’

     The demon tore off another finger without prompting, causing a sharp cry.

     ‘The Company sent us,’ the man forced out in a strained whisper.

     Kobus lifted his head, and stared across at at distant house with its lights on, taking a moment. ‘And would they, by any chance, have told you ... why?’

     ‘No,’ the man strained to get out.

     ‘Any other assets in the area?’

     ‘No,’ was cried out.

     Kobus lowered his gaze to the dark outline of the man. ‘Are you on the book= s?

     ‘No,’ came out as another finger went, a horrible crunching noise created.=

     ‘Your handler?’

     ‘We get our orders ... from our boss, not The Company,’ the man cried out. ‘You know ... how it works, you bastard.’

     Kobus stood. ‘Remove both thumbs of both men, but leave them alive. Quickly= .’ He turned and headed back as growls and screams penetrated the dark night.<= /span>

     Drake joined Kobus in the car a minute later. He sat, and waited, facing a pensive Kobus.

     Kobus lifted his phone and called Riggs. ‘You awake?’

     ‘Yeah, and I have a call in to find out what the hell’s going on.’

     ‘I caught up with the two shooters.’

     ‘You did?’ Riggs asked, clearly surprised. ‘Already? What happened?&= #8217;

     ‘I made them talk. They’re a private firm, hired by the agency to track = me and ... to kill me. I have their IDs.’

     ‘Jesus,’ Riggs let out. Now sounding angered, he said, ‘Give me a name.’=

     Kobus lifted a wallet, and read out a name and a drivers license number. When don= e, he hung up, tossing the wallets out of the car. Starting the car, he pulled forwards and halted, a final look at his mobile before he tossed it away. T= hey pulled off, and got back onto the highway, heading east for the coast.

     ‘You feel for the magistrate ... like a son betrayed by his father,’ Drake noted, no energy in his voice.

     ‘Not a bad analogy,’ Kobus said with a sigh. ‘And now ... now we nee= d to find the bad men and stop them, whilst looking over our shoulders for other= bad men – those trying to stop us from stopping the first group of bad me= n.’

     ‘The more bad men we fight, the greater the tally,’ Drake enthused. ‘= ;A difficult task ... is a worthy task.’

     Kobus glanced at him as they drove, and forced a weak smile. ‘If you look a= t it that way, then yes – it probably is.’

     They drove through the night, east, always east.

 

Russell stood at a window, peering through the blinds, his han= ds clasped behind his back. A man approached, heard but unseen.

     ‘Sir, the two assets we sent after Kobus, they were intercepted by Kobus himself = and unknown others, mutilated, made to talk.’

     Russell turned his head. ‘Mutilated?’

     ‘Fingers torn off.’

     Russell turned back to window. ‘Unusual. Are they dead?’

     ‘No, they’re both alive, sir, and they’ve definitely identified Kobu= s as being responsible.’

     ‘He left them alive.’ Russell nodded gently. ‘A ... message to us?&= #8217;

     ‘Sir, if Kobus mutilated the men, then they couldn’t have been working toge= ther as we believed.’

     ‘No, there’s someone else whispering in his ear, and not Riggs.’

     ‘Riggs doesn’t seem to be in the loop, sir.’

     ‘Have our people look for Kobus at the marina.’

     ‘Yes, sir.’

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

6

 

The smell of sun tan lotion=

 

 

At noon, Kobus and Drake reached the coast, Drake sat staring = out of the window as normal, a curious study of anything and everything he noticed along the road.

     Kobus idly enquired. ‘Does the demon have a name?’

     Drake turned, and took a moment. ‘His name is Marcus, I heard it in his dreams.’

     ‘His dreams?’

     Drake nodded. ‘He has few memories, but some. He was, once, a man.’

     ‘I would have figured that. Do you know anything more about him?’=

     ‘Many images.’

     ‘Of hell?’

     ‘No, of his time here. He lived in a village near the sea, with a wife and daughters. I see little more than images.’

     ‘After sleeping for a few hundred years, I would have thought that you would have dreamt of more.’

     Drake took a moment. ‘We ... dreamt of much, but not of places and people w= e had seen with our own eyes, we dreamt of strange images.’

     ‘I guess dreams are abstract,’ Kobus idly noted. ‘Does he believe = in heaven and hell?’

     ‘No.’

     ‘No? He’s a fucking demon! How does he explain what he is to himself?̵= 7;

     ‘He has no knowledge of heaven and hell, and serves no master. He ... knows only hunger and anger.’

     ‘Could he be keeping things from you?’ Kobus pressed.

     ‘He kept many things from me, for a great many years, but all became clear.R= 17;

     ‘Apart from where he came from - and how he became what he is. And you don’t know how he got inside you?’

     Drake stared at the dashboard for several seconds. ‘I met a man on the road= , an old man, Marcus. He killed me with a sword, and I awoke to know two minds.’

     Kobus slowly blew out. ‘Well, it’s a long way from the vampire stories they = tell here. Guess that it lost a lot in translation over the years, just like the bible.’ He turned his head. ‘Have you read the bible?’

     ‘The holy book was only to be read by the men of the cloth. I read the mind of o= ne before ... before we killed him, and the words were laid down in Latin so t= hat only those of the cloth could read them, a great secret.’

     ‘To stop the common man from drawing his own conclusions,’ Kobus noted, placing a cigarette on his lip. Mumbling a little, he continued, ‘It = was deliberately mysterious – and they meant it to be so, and heavily edi= ted to be hard to read, and they re= moved certain things. One Pope removed all favourable references to women.’=

     ‘The men of the cloth, they did not believe in the book, and lay down with women= for coin.’

     Kobus lit up. ‘Sounds just like the men of the cloth from this time, except= they like small boys. It is ... a = job, not a calling.’ As an afterthought, he offered Drake a cigarette.

     ‘I have tasted the tobacco, with the men in the cave.’ He made a face. ‘I did not desire it.’

     Kobus held up his lit cigarette. ‘Does it bother you if I smoke?’

     ‘No,’ Drake replied with a smile. ‘You are most con-sid-e-rate.’ Faci= ng forwards, he added, ‘The fragrance is pleasant when first happened upon.’

     Half an hour later they stopped for lunch at a service station, choosing to sit outside on wooden benches as the day warmed up, Drake happy with the strong summer sun on his skin. Kobus munched on a burger, a can of Sprite to wash = it down, Drake chewing on gum.

     ‘I don’t feel that different,’ Kobus noted, staring out of focus.<= /span>

     ‘Different?’

     Kobus ran a hand across the wooden bench they sat at, someone’s initials ca= rved into it. ‘Knowing that demons actually exist; I figured I would change more. I’m not sure what Marcus is, or where he came from, and that le= aves a doubt. I had hoped to look God in the face and shout a little.’

     Drake glanced across, taking his time to think through his response. ‘I had believed that God was punishing me for sinning, but ... a great many men do more sin, and yet have no demon. And here, in this place, my sins are not sins.’

     Kobus swiped away a fly. ‘The demon took you because you happened along that road, not because you sinned,’ he commented before sinking his teeth = into the burger.

     ‘You seek the water to be round when the bucket is removed.’

     Kobus adopted a slight frown as he chewed. ‘What?’

     ‘Water in the bucket takes the shape of the bucket, but without the bucket the wat= er takes a new shape. So they said in my time.’

     Kobus considered the analogy, watching kids running around. ‘The water ... = is defined by the object that holds it.’ He nodded. ‘We call it ro= und because the bucket is round, and we label human nature as good and evil. Go= od and evil is only seen - and measured – in the context of people. No people, no evil.’ He focused on Drake. ‘They may have been righ= t in your time; we observe and measure something that’s only there because= we make it there – and chose to measure it. And some people make a career out of studying it.’

     ‘They said – evil is as evil does.’

     ‘The act is evil, not the person,’ Kobus noted, making a face. ‘And = that act comes from within, from the primitive monster in us all, and without conscious thought. And if it’s there in us all it’s not evil - it’s just part of nature and evolution. And religion – thatR= 17;s the battle between the inner self and the rules of the game.’<= /p>

     ‘Rules of the game?’ Drake puzzled.

     Kobus held his hands wide, a gesture at those people around them. ‘This: so= ciety, democracy. It has rules, many rules in order to function, and most of those rules came from the Ten Commandments; don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t steal - the basis of a civilised society. But does that society still need religion?’ Kobus sipped his sprite.

     ‘In my time, few knelt in church. The nobility and learn-ed men knelt in church, sometimes a gathering in a field for the poor of the village.’ Drake stared across the car park. ‘When the rich man died, many priests and many people walked behind the carriage. When a poor man died, he was buried quickly, a few short words from the priest.’

     ‘Hypocrisy,’ Kobus let out. ‘Typical bloody church.’

     ‘You knelt in church?’

     Kobus took a moment. ‘I grew up in Durban, South Africa, a beautiful place = in the coast. We went to church twice a week, and I attended what they called Sunday School on a Sunday afternoon, Saturday sometimes, two evenings of the week. I was seven years old when my father moved to Britain, a difficult ti= me at first. But I liked London, lots to see and do.

     ‘As a family we went to church till I was maybe twelve or thirteen, then just seemed to stop, only going for special occasions. In Britain, well – = in most places, people only go to church to be married, for christenings, and funerals.’

     ‘I did not kneel in church often, because I did not have coin for the collection.’

     Kobus slowly nodded to himself, thinking about many things.

 

Approaching the car, Drake said, ‘Shall I not study the control of the carriage?’

     Kobus halted after unlocking the car. He took a moment, staring across the car’s roof at Drake. Making a face, he said, ‘Come around this side.’

     Drake keenly came around, accepting the keys. Kobus jumped into the passenger sea= t, Drake placing the key in the ignition. ‘Letter N,’ he said, pointing at the automatic gear handle. ‘Turn of key.’ The engine started. ‘Letter D. Look forwards, foot down.’

     The car shot forwards, Drake soon braking. Kobus had been forced back into his seat, and now lurched forwards, a steadying hand on the dashboard.

     ‘Easy,’ Kobus encouraged. ‘Small movements.’

     Drake started again, a gentle press of the pedal, soon going around in a circle, around the car park’s limits.

     Kobus pointed. ‘There, stop in that small space, between the lines.’<= /span>

     Drake manoeuvred as requested – not crossing his arms as he turned the whee= l, easing to a halt before mounting a curb.

     ‘Not bad,’ Kobus offered. ‘Reverse into the space behind.’ 

     ‘Letter R for going backwards,’ Drake stated as he selected the right setting, looking over his shoulder as he manoeuvred back, braking after a gentle nud= ge of another car. ‘I shall master it,’ he insisted.

     ‘Not bad for a first time,’ Kobus said as he opened the door and stepped o= ut. At Drake’s side he opened the driver’s door.

     ‘It was a very short lesson,’ Drake nudged as he emerged.

     ‘I have a job to do, and you can have lessons when we have the time.’

 

Back on the road, they made good time to Varna, driving to a p= oint on the coast just north of Varna town. As they drove, Drake keenly studied = the map he had been given, now tasked with navigation based on those place name= s he remembered, names given up in thought by the men in the club. Drake’s navigation was not too bad considering that he had never visited the place – or ever seen a roadmap before, and they soon found an area that Dra= ke believed to the right place. Thirty minutes of driving around led to a hote= l, Drake recognising the image of it – as well as its name. They pulled = up opposite the hotel, the street sloping gently down towards the sea, many tourists now out and about on this hot day.

     Kobus leant across Drake and peered up at the hotel. ‘I could get a room, b= ut I think they know what I look like. I have a fake passport, but I don’t know if they have the name.’

     ‘I can go inside,’ Drake volunteered.

     Kobus took a moment, studying the hotel. ‘It looks like a tourist hotel, and too big to be a brothel or private club. We’ll chance it. But you stay here; they know your face from that club.’ Kobus made a face towards Drake. ‘Those still conscious.’

     He retrieved his bags from the back seat, and stepped across to the hotel. In a busy reception, he enquired in English about rooms. They had a single room, yes, a British passport shown, payment made for three days, full board. Kob= us found the room on the fourth floor, and found it to be basic; painted concr= ete walls and bland water colours, bedding with cigarette burns.

     With his bags dumped down, he walked down the back stairs to the ground floor, finding a side door wedged open. Through it he found the edge of the pool, screaming kids running around, adults sunning themselves. Walking around to= the front of the hotel, he retrieved Drake, locking the car.

     ‘You mean to leave the carriage here,’ Drake noted as they walked back tow= ards the hotel. ‘Something about a ... small smelly fish.’

     Kobus smiled at the analogy. ‘Bait,’ he carefully mouthed. ‘If = they have its license number, it’ll attract them to us.’

     ‘You desire the confrontation.’

     ‘I do,’ Kobus noted as they slipped in through the open side-door, and up the back stairs. In the room, he pointed Drake towards a seat. ‘Sit d= own, close your eyes, and see if you can sense anyone.’

     Drake did as asked, Kobus lighting up before sitting on a bed, his back against t= he headboard. After five minutes, Drake said, ‘There are a great many mi= nds here, and children. Nothing is clear.’

     ‘Well, keep at it,’ Kobus sighed. ‘Something may turn up.’

     Drake stepped to the window, and peered down. When he struggled with the balcony door’s lock, Kobus opened it. They both stood on the balcony, the roa= r of kids splashing around the pool rising up to them.

     ‘There are many undressed people here,’ Drake noted.

     ‘It’s an acceptable custom to wear such small clothes for swimming, and sunning yourself.’

     ‘Should we ... not purchase such clothing?’ Drake asked, fixed on the ladies = in bikinis.

     Kobus hid a smile. ‘We’re on the clock, young man. C’mon, we’ll go for a walk, see if anyone takes an interest in us.’

     At the base of the back stairs they passed two teenage girls in bikinis coming up, Drake smiling politely at them, and getting a coy smile back. At the edge of the area of mown grass Kobus hesitated, but then turned towards the pool, looking a bit odd in his dark suit. He led Drake around the edge of the noi= sy pool and to a poolside bar, cold drinks ordered. Grabbing a table, they sat= in the shade, Drake focused on the boisterous kids splashing around the water.=

     ‘Like the river at the height of summer,’ Drake noted. ‘When I was a = boy, I liked to swim in the river, and to jump off a tall rock.’ A shapely woman in a bikini, walking past, caused him to turn his head and to follow = her progress.

     ‘Drake, in this time, you shouldn’t watch women so obviously; they can be offended by it. Not to mention their husbands.’

     Drake nodded. Pointing at a man, he said, ‘I have noticed the glass eyes wo= rn by many.’ He waited.

     ‘Many people have bad eyesight, and the glass helps. Also, when the sun is bright, the dark glass helps. We’ll buy some today; it’ll help to disgu= ise us. And then you can watch girls in bikinis without causing offence.’

     ‘Indeed yes.’ He sipped his drink, and studied the glass. ‘I like this taste.’

     ‘Sprite.’

     ‘Sprite,’ Drake repeated.

     ‘But if you drink a lot it’ll cause wind, like beer.’

     ‘I ... shall partake in moderation.’

     ‘Drink all you like, just stand away from me when you need to make wind.’

     They sat studying the pool scene for twenty minutes, Drake not detecting anything before they decided to wander. Around the front of the hotel, Kobus bought cheap plastic sunglasses, placing a pair on Drake.

     ‘Comfortable?’

     ‘They do not cause pain.’ Drake lifted the sunglasses and took in the view = with normal vision, lowered them, and lifted them again, puzzling the difference= .

     Kobus placed on his own sunglasses, and led Drake down the street towards the bea= ch, the crowds thick.

     On the promenade, Drake took in the scene. ‘So many people, and ... all with good thoughts.’

     ‘They’re on holiday with their families,’ Kobus explained. ‘Should hope they’re bloody happy.’

     ‘Two men are observing us, from ... Seetle?’ Drake said without turning.

     ‘Seattle?’

     ‘Yes, and one from ... Bos-o-ton.’

     ‘Boston. They armed?’

     ‘Pistols. And they know of ... a Beemer. What is a Beemer?’

     Kobus led Drake along the promenade, a slow amble of a pace, the crowds thick and= the day hot. ‘BMW is called a Beemer; the car.’

     ‘Beemer,’ Drake repeated. ‘Two other men are at the hotel, these men think of i= t.’

     Noticing a girl in a bikini, a well-endowed young lady, Drake came to a dead stop.

     Noticing, Kobus halted. ‘You like big boobs as well, eh.’

     ‘I must admit to be most aroused by this display.’

     Without smiling, his thoughts on the men behind him, Kobus said, ‘That’s OK, you’re supposed to be.’

     Noticing a small park, they ducked into it, quickening their pace, soon edging aroun= d a large dried bush that looked like it needed a little water, or any water, a= nd out of a side gate at the jog, ducking into a cafe.

     Kobus walked quickly through the café and towards the toilets, past the toilets w= ith a glance back, and out into the garden, stepping through an open gate to a = lane. He ran to the left, down the lane with Drake close behind, and turned right= at the end, as if to double back towards the promenade. He found a narrow stre= et, cars packed with two wheels on the pavement, overhanging trees offering ple= nty of shade, and no one about.

     ‘Do you sense them?’ Kobus asked Drake, some urgency in his voice.=

     Drake lifted an arm, towards the street of the cafe. ‘They come around this way, and will turn to this road.’

     ‘Find a tree, monkey boy, and jump on them. I’ll be at the end of this stre= et and distracting them.’

     They exchanged nods and turned separate ways. ‘Back on the clock,’ D= rake said as he stepped away.

     Little more than twenty seconds later, the two pursuing men walked around the corn= er in light coloured suits, noticing Kobus sixty yards down the street, a hand= on a car door. As Kobus noticed the men – he had been waiting by the car deliberately, he walked slowly off, and back towards the beach, halting beh= ind a camper van. The junk in the back of the camper camp van offered him a par= tial view of the two men as they walked down the narrow street, the men’s images alternating between being brightly lit in the sun, or darkened by sh= ade of a tree.

     A blur, and Drake fell on the men. Kobus ran to the opposite side of the road, seeing now the two men on the pavement, Drake twisting a head like it wasn’t even attached to a body. When done, Drake ran along the street= , alternating between light and dark as he progressed. He handed over a wallet as he drew level.

     ‘Michael and Tom, they were known as.’ He fell into step with Kobus, both men glancing back before they left the street, stepping into a short and narrow alley joining the rear of the promenade. ‘They felt much anger towards you, for what I did to the other men.’

     ‘Anger ... makes professionals sloppy,’ Kobus commented as they joined the crowds, opening the wallet and scanning it. He kept the driver’s lice= nse and the cash, but casually tossed the wallet into a bin. Pointing Drake tow= ards a bustling beachfront cafe, they stepped casually inside and claimed a vaca= nt table. A girl came over, collecting old glasses and wiping down the table t= op.

     ‘Sprite. Two,’ Kobus ordered, the girl withdrawing. After a moment of observing the beach, and its oiled-up sunbathers, he idly enquired. ‘Both dead?’

     ‘Both dead. And I sensed that they moved with some urgency, something important a= fter dark – that they wished you not know of.’ He pointed. ‘Here.’

     Kobus looked over his shoulder, at a rock breakwater jutting out into the sea, the masts of yachts beyond. ‘The marina?’

     ‘Men will meet on a boat, commerce to be had.’

     ‘That’s ... disappointing.’

     ‘You are concerned about something,’ Drake said as the two drinks were bro= ught over and placed down. Drake struggled with the twist top, but got it eventually.

     Kobus took off his sunglasses, and attempted to peel a very small sticker off the glasses. ‘The commerce ... is something that should be stopped, but it won’t be stopped, it will be ... observed, and allowed to go ahead.’ He placed his sunglasses back on.

     ‘I do not understand the magistrate in this matter.’

     ‘They ... wish to wait for a time when greater commerce is transacted, to ... cat= ch a larger fish, and receive greater reward.’

     ‘I believe I understand,’ Drake offered before sipping his drink, an eye= on the bikini-clad girls at the next table. ‘Is it common for a lady to = have the painted skin of a deck hand?’

     ‘Deck hand?’ Kobus repeated, a glance at the girls. ‘Ah. Tattoos, we = call them, and I guess in your time it was just sailors that had them. And yes, = it is common these days.’

     Leaving the cafe, Kobus approached a payphone, counting out his coins, Drake helpfu= lly handing over Euro coins. Drake keenly observed as Kobus placed the coins in= to the slot, a finger pointed at the digital tally, a long number entered.

     To a background of screaming kids, as well as traffic, Kobus said, ‘That you, Riggs?’

     ‘Yeah, where are you?’

     ‘Varna.’ He put a hand over his ear.

     ‘Listen, I got a blank wall about any other operations in your area. That may be tru= e, or it may be a blank wall. And I just got a report from the Bulgarian polic= e: two Americans hospitalised after their fingers had been ripped off. Was that you?’

     ‘I needed answers.’

     ‘Was a time when you got answers quietly; I’m surprised at you, Kobus.R= 17;

     ‘They came to kill me, so forgive my lack of charity,’ Kobus snarled down t= he phone. ‘And I just dispatched another two in the street.’

     ‘Jesus.’

     Kobus raised the drivers license, and read the detail.

     Riggs reported, ‘The other two, they’re reported as working in the Kurdish north of Iraq, so the computer’s been altered.’<= /p>

     ‘As it will have been with this pair, but I got a few sentences out of them. Th= ey’re here to stop me from interfering in the deal; they want it to go ahead.R= 17;

     ‘Someone a few pay grades higher than me is taking a risk here.’

     ‘You have friends above, so go chat.’

     ‘They might just want to catch the buyers later, but that doesn’t explain t= heir interest in you; one word to me and you’d be pulled back. And no fuck= ing word!’

     Kobus took in the small colourful business cards of hookers, wedged into the edge= of the plastic display of national dialling codes. ‘It’s your call, boss.’

     ‘They’re operating outside the rules, and the computer says they’re not even in that country. So fuck ‘em. If I expose this I’ll get some bonus points.’

     ‘Or you’ll get us both killed.’

     Riggs took a moment. ‘You ... they’re already after, but I’d ho= pe that their interest stops at the border. And as for me, what do I do? Prete= nd this never fucking happened? They tried to kill one of my team on a sanctio= ned operation. They ... are in the wrong here.’

     ‘You hold on to that thought, it might be your last one.’

     Riggs sighed loudly. ‘What’ll you do next?’

     ‘I have a lead on the meeting, so I’ll ... observe the meeting, make not= es with my neat handwriting, and send you a report – like I’m paid= to do.’

     ‘I’ve seen your handwriting buddy; thank God for email reports!’

     Kobus couldn’t resist the smile. ‘I’ll let you know what happen= s. Over and out.’

     Hanging up, and joining Drake at the promenade wall, sirens could now be heard.

     Drake turned. ‘They know of the dead men.’

     Kobus slowly nodded to himself, staring across at the inviting ocean. ‘C’mon= , we have a few men to ... chat to.’

     They ambled slowly through the crowds, crossed the road behind the promenade, and returned to the street of their hotel, walking slowly past the hotel on the opposite side of the road. Drake sensed no one near the car. At the top of = the road they crossed over, slowly walking back down, ducking into the side entrance of their hotel, and to the door wedged open by the pool.

     Climbing the stairs, Drake halted on the third floor. ‘They have a room here.&= #8217; He pointed.

     They exited the stairwell on that floor, and stood staring down the darkened corridor, = dark compared to the bright sunlight outside. Drake pointed to a room facing the street.

     ‘Kick the door in, close it, and then ... throw both the fuckers down onto the st= reet from the balcony. Check the corridor before leaving, and before entering the room.’

     Drake stepped purposefully forwards, Kobus climbing the stairs again. At the room= in question, Drake halted for several seconds. Checking the corridor both ways= , he knocked on the door. When it clicked open he shoved it, knocking the first = man right across the room, Drake moving inside quickly and closing the door. A second= man emerged from the bathroom, lunging towards the beds, where the men’s = holsters were laid out. Drake got there first.

 

Kobus had walked to his room, but then backtracked to the stai= rwell, a dust-covered sliding window opening to the street below. Thirty seconds later, a naked body flew out and down, impacting the road. It didn’t bounce or roll, Kobus noted, it just seemed to crumple and stay flat, a horrible noise created by the impact. Screams rose up, people rushing towar= ds it, a yellow taxi slowing down.

     The second body, also naked, didn’t fly into the road, but landed on a dilapidated fence, skewered through the abdomen and punctured. Screams now filled the air, people rushing about below. A couple coming down the stairs behind Kobus could hear the screams from the open window. Kobus turned, a h= and to his mouth, pretending to be sickened, and pointed towards the window. Cu= rious, the middle-aged couple peered out, soon sickened themselves, but Kobus now = had his reliable witnesses.

     Entering his room, he left the door ajar, and took his jacket off, throwing it over = the back of a chair. Removing his holster, he placed it above a ceiling tile, a= nd checked the room, finally checking his pockets and the bags as Drake steppe= d in.

     ‘Naked?’ Kobus asked, lifting his head to Drake.

     ‘You thought it when you asked me.’ Drake waited.

     ‘No big deal, it’ll give the Company something to think about. But the po= lice will want to talk to everyone, and you have no identification, my lad.̵= 7; He glanced at the window. ‘Still, be getting dark in an hour or two. = If the police arrive before then, hop over to another balcony.’

     Drake turned the TV on, and sat, fumbling with the remote.

 

Bob Russell took a call.

     ‘Is it convenient, sir?’

     ‘Go ahead.’

     ‘All four assets in Varna have been killed, sir. Two suffered broken necks in the street, weapons and ID found on them, and two ... two were stripped naked a= nd thrown from a hotel balcony down onto the street, weapons and ID left in the room. Local police are all over it.’

     ‘Thrown ... naked, from a hotel balcony,’ Russell repeated. ‘Jesus. Any sign of Kobus?’

     ‘Not confirmed, sir, no one in the marina saw him, but they found his hire car at the hotel in question.’

     ‘And the current mission reports for Kobus?’

     ‘Working alone, following a lead on gun runners from the Ukraine.’

     ‘He didn’t get the better of four men working alone.’

     ‘No, sir, but the agency has no one else in the area.’

     ‘Computer records can be altered.’

     ‘Do we increment, sir?’

     ‘No, we’ll wait and see what happens with the meeting. If someone wants it stepped on, let them reveal themselves.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7

 

Commerce

 

 

The local police did the rounds in the hotel, but did not both= er to go room to room. As with the first two freelancers, the police were focused on= the weapons, awkward questions asked of the US Ambassador in Sophia, who asked a few awkward questions of his own through the State Department.

     At 7pm, and with the sun just below the horizon, Kobus led Drake out the back = way, the hotel’s food not sampled, the bustling restaurant ignored in favo= ur of a lamb kebab on the street. Kobus stood eating as Drake examined postcar= ds of nude girls, a carousel on display outside a tacky tourist shop.

     When ready, Kobus led Drake down to the marina, a tissue grabbed from a restaurant’s pavement table and used to wipe down sticky lips and che= eks. The marina offered a gate, fixed open, a bored–looking young guard sat nearby. Sat next to the guard was a ginger cat awaiting some scraps, and th= e cat looked like it might offer more of a diligent screening of people entering = the marina than the guard. Still, Kobus and Drake walked past the marina entran= ce and to the first cafe on the promenade, the first of the resort’s tou= rists now sat eating their evening meal. Kobus took a table overlooking the marin= a, he and Drake now studying the layout.

     ‘Do these small boats ply their trade across the ocean?’ Drake puzzled.

     ‘No, they’re for pleasure.’

     ‘Pleasure?’

     ‘People enjoy being on the boats, sailing out in the sun, and the ... skilful application of the sails to master the wind. A challenge.’

     ‘Ah.’

     ‘I’ll sit here and go through the motions, you go for a stroll to the beach, up o= ver the rocks, and wander around the boats slowly.’

     Drake slipped out of the restaurant as Kobus ordered food and a beer. Drake could= be seen below the cafe, his white t-shirt standing out as he ambled along the beach in the dying light, picking up things and examining them, soon scramb= ling over the breakwater and down the other side, still in sight as he walked al= ong to where locals fished with battery torches and paraffin lanterns.

     Having reached the end of the walkway, Drake turned about, still just about visibl= e in the bright illumination coming from the promenade, a promenade now full of people just out walking, or looking for a little inspiration as to where to= settle and eat their evening meal. Kobus detected a few Russian words, but noted v= ery little English spoken in the streets here.

     Kobus was halfway through his starters, and halfway through his first beer, when Drake appeared and sat.

     Drake glanced at those sitting nearby, and eased forwards. Softly, he reported, ‘I have discovered the commerce. Three men await the arrival of other= s at a time not yet hence, many coin and dollar to be handed over, the object to= be handed to another boat after the turn of midnight.’

     ‘Good work.’ Kobus sipped his beer as he studied the outline of the marina, that which he could see from this angle. He adopted a curious frown. ‘= ;Can you swim?’

     ‘Yes, I can swim well,’ Drake keenly offered.

     ‘Can Marcus swim?’

     Drake nodded.

     Kobus eased back, thinking.

     ‘You are uncertain as to a course of action.’

     ‘Because they – whoever they may be - might be right; it m= ight be best to see where the object goes. But ... but I still don’t know = why they tried to kill me, and that alters the plan.’

     ‘This ... object?’ Drake whispered, glancing around.

     ‘Would allow many cannon balls to explode at once, much damage done. It’s of interest, but not of very great interest, and that’s what has me worr= ied.’ He made a face, a peeved expression adopted. ‘That and their desire to kill me.’

     ‘The men in the boat know nothing of you.’

     ‘No?’ Kobus queried, Drake shaking his head. He stared towards the dark form of T= he Black Sea for a moment, noticing a few sailboats with their lights on, befo= re sipping his beer. Without facing Drake, he commented, ‘The false magistrate wants this to go ahead, and for me to be killed. But they could = make it go ahead with my assistance.’

     ‘They wish you dead for another reason?’

     Kobus nodded slowly, thinking.

     ‘What have you done to be so worthy of such a warrant of death to be issued?̵= 7;

     ‘Done? Nothing. Seen or heard ... hard to say. My last few jobs in Athens were ... nothing special.’

     ‘Then you must have seen or heard som= ething at an earlier time.’

     Kobus sighed. ‘That’s nine years of work.’

 

An hour later, Drake turned his head. ‘A boat approaches= , the men in it are ... most anxious.’

     Kobus eased up, leaving payment on the table, and led Drake out, down to the sand= and across to the breakwater, soon hopping from one foot to the next across lar= ge boulders. On the far side, they dropped down to the poorly lit concrete walkway, scaring feral cats, and towards a central pontoon.

     ‘Not sure how to play this,’ Kobus admitted. ‘I might just make it worse.’

     ‘You seek answers. Maybe the men have answers.’

     ‘The men are ... simply doing what they’ve planned; a commerce. It’s= the reason that they want me dead, and = the link to the commerce, that puzzles me.’

     ‘Do they wish you dead because of this commerce, or simply wish you dead?’= ;

     Kobus came to a halt, and faced the dim outline of Drake. ‘The two could be unrelated, just bad timing.’ He faced the boats lined up against the pontoons, ropes tapping against masts in the gentle breeze. ‘If that’s true, then it’s my job to stop the commerce; I’ve = not been ordered otherwise. And after ... after I need to figure out why they w= ant me dead. Good thinking, Drake, you might be correct.’

     Drake was pleased, his silly grin visible even in this dim light. They walked on,= the wooden slats beneath their feet creaking as they progressed. At the end of a darkened pontoon, Drake pointed at a yacht across the way, now manoeuvring = with its engine into a vacant space. ‘They are Cossacks.’

     ‘Russians,’ Kobus correct him.

     ‘A man watches them from another boat, a man from this place.’

     ‘Does he watch us?’

     ‘No.’

     ‘Then first things first. Lead on.’

     Drake walked at a fast pace, the wooden pontoon moving a little in the gentle swe= ll, the men’s current movements not very stealthy. Still, they looked like tourists out for a stroll. They again stepped onto the main concrete jetty, following the edge of the pontoons for fifty yards before walking down a parallel pontoon to the previous, passing a few people sat on their boats a= nd enjoying life on the ocean wave on this pleasant evening.

     Before Kobus had a chance to say or do anything, Drake had leapt onto a boat and disappeared into its galley. Kobus glanced over his shoulder, taking in tho= se boats with their lights on, noting the smell of cooking on the breeze and music coming from two directions. No one seemed to have noticed Drake’s movement, and none were now reacting to it. He approached the boat in quest= ion, all quiet below, and stepped across, a hand on his pistol, drawing it as he ducked into the galley.

     In the darkened interior he levelled the pistol, seeing Drake’s white t-shir= t, Drake now bent over a dark figure.

     ‘He lives,’ Drake stated.

     Kobus clicked on his lighter, finding a torch on the wooden galley table. He turn= ed it on, and examined the semi-conscious man, a middle-aged man of dark hair = and tanned skin, a pot belly, and looking like a local Bulgarian. Reaching arou= nd behind the man, he lifted out a wallet, finding a mobile phone in a pocket = as the man groaned.

     Kobus punched a number into the mobile, his face adopting a blue tinge as he did = so. ‘Riggs?’

     ‘Yeah?’

     ‘Trace this number back, it belongs to a Bulgarian watching the deal going down.’ Kobus spelt out the name.

     ‘It is going ahead then?’

     ‘As we speak, or soon. Russians just arrived by boat.’

     ‘Good work. And you spotted them ... how?’

     ‘Long story, and I’ll explain it at some point. Check out our friend here, = and his associations.’ Kobus paused. ‘What are my orders, regarding= the deal?’

     ‘Find out what you can, and stop it. Why?’

     ‘I just wanted to hear you say the words, because I suspect that someone wants= the deal to go ahead, maybe to catch them later on when the bombs are assembled. That would make for better coverage on CNN than the discovery of a few detonators.’

     ‘You’re a cynic, you know that.’

     ‘People keep shooting at me, otherwise I’d be as well balanced as you,’ Kobus toyed.

     ‘I’ll run this number, and the name. What about the deal?’

     ‘Be happening real soon.’

     ‘I’ll be sat by the phone ready.’

     Kobus hung up, and pocketed the phone, closing in on the watcher. ‘Did you sense anything from him?’

     ‘When he was filled with fear he believed me to be an America man, sent by a Jo-hans-son.’

     ‘Johansson,’ Kobus corrected. ‘And that name sounds familiar.’ Hunting around the galley, Kobus found the fridge, and pulled out a plastic bag full of ic= e. Tearing the bag, he emptied the ice cubes over the watcher, dumping most of them down the front of the man’s t-shirt. The man stirred, eyes slowly opening. The man’s hand instinctively came to his head, where he had = been hit.

     ‘You speak English?’ Kobus asked.

     ‘He does,’ Drake put in.

     Kobus waited. ‘Talk, or you go for a swim, a long swim.’

     The man looked up at Drake, finding a pleasant-faced young man. Kobus pulled out his pistol, and rudely tapped the man on the forehead with it.

     ‘What do you want, I have nothing here,’ the man said in a thick accent.

     ‘We’re not interested in what you have, we’re interested in what you know ab= out the detonators, over on the Russian boat. And no, Johansson didn’t se= nd us.’

     ‘Who ... who are you?’ the man asked, puzzling his assailants identity, and now fidgeting as he tried to remove ice cubes from inside his shirt.=

     ‘CIA.’

     ‘I work for Johansson,’ the man protested, pulling out his t-shirt so th= at the ice cubes fell to the galley’s wooden flooring.

     Kobus considered his answer. ‘Johansson is under investigation for ... ille= gal operations. We’re here to kill anyone involved.’

     ‘I just take money and instruction,’ the man protested, his wet hands sp= read wide. ‘I know nothing else!’

     ‘What are your instructions?’

     ‘Watch the boat when it come, say when it come and they go, only this.’

     ‘And men in the town?’

     ‘I don’t know of men in the town, I came to the boat early and hide beca= use four American men – they was killed.’

     Kobus lifted his head to Drake.

     ‘He tells the truth, he hides nothing.’ <= /span>

     Kobus straightened as best he could in the low-ceiling galley. ‘Drake, put a hand on his mouth, and show him your other side.’

     A growl preceded a muffled scream, the man’s eyes wild with terror.

     ‘Let him go.’

     Drake pushed the man along the galley.

     Kobus grabbed the man by the arm. ‘Go home, my friend; say nothing, do nothing.’

     The man hurried out, scrambling over the back of the boat and stumbling many ti= mes.

     Kobus faced Drake. ‘Does he intend to report this?’

     ‘No. One more on the tally?’

     Kobus smiled in the dim light from the torch. ‘One more on the tally,’= ; he agreed.

     ‘And the Cossacks?’

     Kobus sat on a bunk. ‘Do you sense them?’

     ‘Yes, they sit and wait with fear, for men to bring much gold coin.’=

     ‘Then they have the detonators.’ Kobus slowly blew out. Shaking his head, he said, ‘I have a terrible feeling that I’m not doing the right t= hing here, but I can’t pin it down.’ He rubbed his forehead. ‘= Can you swim far underwater?’

     ‘To the other boat? Yes?’

     ‘Take off your clothes here, go quietly into the water to the other boat, and pun= ch a hole into the bottom. Could you ... punch a hole through?’

     ‘I believe so.’

     ‘Come straight back. No, no when the boat starts to take on water they’ll n= ot want the detonators on them, they’ll panic. Go aboard the boat if you= get the chance, and take the object of great value.’

     ‘I will do so,’ Drake keenly stated as he started to strip off, soon a ghostly stick of white flesh leaving the galley, a gentle plop into the wat= er.

     Kobus lit a cigarette. ‘Man from Atlantis, eat your fucking heart out.̵= 7; Exhaling, he frowned to himself in the dark. ‘Man from Atlantis was B= obby in Dallas.’ He shook his head. ‘Should have definitely started Drake off with Dallas.’

 

Aboard the other yacht, six men sat nervously waiting, the lig= hts out, many eyes now focused on the darkened pontoon, a large holdall sat on = the galley table.

     A loud crack caused them all to jump, and to exchange looks. A second loud crack, = and rushing water could be heard.

     ‘Have we hit something?’ a voice asked through the dark.

     ‘We’re stationary, idiot!’ came back.

     Men crouched down and listened, ears against the hull as the roar of water increased.

     ‘We’re taking on water,’ someone suggested, an instant before a thin metal p= ole came through the the fibreglass hull, impaling a man through the chest. Sho= uts and screams went up as the pole was withdrawn, the body slumping, a spout of water shooting across the galley floor. The pole came in again, through a b= unk and straight through a man’s thigh, a scream issued by the man as others tried to help him.

     Four loud taps followed, the yacht now at an angle as men scrambled about in the dark trying to help each other. The pole sliced up through the hull, a crac= king sound issued just prior to a man being skewered from beneath, through the j= aw, the pole exiting the top of his head. With the pole extracted the body slum= ped. The final three men fled, the holdall left. As they ran along the pontoon, being observed by Kobus in the distance, the white fish that was Drake slithered aboard the stricken yacht, the holdall retrieved and dragged under the water.

     Kobus stood at the wheel, and listened intently for any signs of Drake, the boat gently rocking at its mooring. A wet holdall landing on deck was the first sign, a hand offered to Drake’s white form as he clambered over the s= ide, nudged straight into the galley.

     Kobus handed him a towel. ‘Dry yourself, you’ll catch your death.R= 17;

     ‘This was a saying from my time, but I do not believe I will perish from the chil= l of the water – which was most pleasant.’

     Kobus opened the holdall, water gushing out onto the galley table, and unwrapped a heavy tangle of wire, finding dozens of stainless steel tubes the size of AA batteries, all connected by thick green wires.

     ‘What is it?’ Drake asked as he dressed.

     ‘Detonators by the look of them, but ... very specialised.’ Kobus followed the wi= res back to a hub, on it writing in Russian, a few of the words recognised. He found three hubs, each of which was connected by a thicker wire to a master control, a black plastic box the size of a house brick.

     Once dressed, Drake sat and keenly observed Kobus in the dull torch light.

     Kobus explained, ‘Each of these silver fingers makes fire, and they’r= e all connected together, so they make fire at the exact same time. But ... but t= hese are fixed cables, two or three metres long, not radio controlled. This ... would set-off bombs that are very close to each other.’ With a heavy frown, he carefully unscrewed a detonator, and examined the workings.

     ‘You are greatly troubled,’ Drake noted.

     ‘This ... is a very odd detonator; it’s more like a firework. It would shoot out many sparks, and in here are what looks like magnesium and phosphorous pellets.’

     He eased back. ‘Central hub, nine feet, three smaller hubs, six feet and= six detonators.’ He unravelled the wires. ‘They’re in a daisy chain, not parallel.’ He stared down at the assembly, his eyes wideni= ng. ‘Oh shit.’

     ‘What troubles you?’ Drake asked, sounding concerned.

     ‘I’ve seen this before, and now I know why they want me dead.’ He closed his eyes and sighed loudly. Opening his eyes, he faced Drake squarely. ‘We’re in trouble, buddy, big trouble; they’ll stop at nothing to keep me quiet about this.’

     Night turned to day, a brilliant flash, the outside world suddenly in daylight. T= he blast rocked the boat, a mini tsunami created, Drake and Kobus hanging on as their boat bobbed up and down, startled looks exchanged.

     ‘Did you start a fire over there?’ Kobus shouted.

     ‘No.’

     ‘Then that was a bomb, a big bomb. Quick, tear up these wires, smash these plastic boxes.’

     Drake got to work with fervour, all wires torn, boxes smashed.

     ‘Drop it over the side. Quick, we need to go.’

     Drake dropped the bundle of wires into the sea as Kobus clambered up onto the pontoon, Kobus soon staring across at a huge cloud of grey smoke, illuminat= ed from within by an unseen fire. They joined others running along the pontoon, acrid smoke filling their lungs, soon out of the marina and onto the promen= ade as sirens registered.

     Back in the hotel room, Kobus stopped and lit up, sitting on the bed with his ba= ck against the headboard, his legs stretched out.

     ‘We did well, no?’ Drake asked from across the room, turning on the TV.

     ‘We did well,’ Kobus confirmed without looking up, no energy in his voice. ‘Too well.’

     ‘You are greatly troubled by what you learnt.’

     Kobus nodded before rubbing the bridge of his nose. Drake focused on his sponsor,= but Kobus made no comment, Kobus slowly working down the cigarette as he thought about many things, not least the implications of the detonator, a detonator with only one purpose.

     After a second cigarette, Kobus grabbed the watcher’s mobile, and dialled R= iggs.

     ‘Kobus?’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘Well?’ Riggs asked after a moment.

     ‘I ... intercepted the sellers, and got hold of the detonators.’<= /p>

     ‘You know, buddy, you’ve done better in the past few days than I’ve = ever seen you do. I thought you were good before, but this is fucking incredible buddy.’

     ‘Not as incredible as what comes next.’

     ‘Meaning?’

     ‘The detonator only has one purpose, and I know what that purpose is; I worked o= n it with the British Army.’

     ‘With the British Army? What, in Iraq?’

     ‘I need you to do something, no arguments; this is serious now.’<= /p>

     ‘And when was it not; they’ve been trying to kill you!’

     ‘There’s more at stake now, a great deal more. I need you to contact Deputy Director Mason, and give him the following message as coming from me, and this number.’

     ‘Deputy Director? What the fuck’s going on, Kobus?’

     ‘There was a project I worked on that you’re not supposed to know about.R= 17;

     There was a pause at Riggs end. ‘Oh.’

     ‘If you push it, you’ll be censured for sure.’

     There came another pause. ‘What’s the message?’

     ‘Tell Mason from me that the Pop-Dragon is out the box.’

     ‘Pop-Dragon. And I’m not supposed to know what it is.’

     ‘There are twelve people who know what it is, I’m one of them. Just send him= the message, and give him this number, or I’ll have no choice but to go around you.’

     Riggs took a moment. ‘I’ll send the message.’

     ‘Be difficult and insistent, just in case your message is ... blocked.’

     ‘Sounds like this is getting out of control,’ Riggs solemnly noted.

     ‘We’re way beyond that, boss. Make the call.’ Kobus hung up, and grabbed a f= resh cigarette.

     ‘You are not confident of our fight,’ Drake noted, now sat watching a cart= oon.

     ‘It soon won’t be our fight.’

     ‘We will fight shoulder to shoulder with others?’

     ‘We’ll ... pass the fight on to others, yes.’

     Drake seemed deflated. ‘And who will we fight?’

     ‘We’ll fight small fights, and you ... you can learn to drive.’

     Drake turned his head, smiling. ‘Yes?’

     Kobus forced a weak smile. ‘Yes.’

     When the phone went, it was Riggs. ‘Kobus, there’s something on the wire, a blast at that marina in Varna, a big fucking blast.’

     ‘Someone ... was covering their tra= cks. And no, it wasn’t me.’ He hung up.

    

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8

 

The hand of God

 

 

Ten minutes after speaking with Riggs, the mobile trilled, Kob= us raising it. ‘Number unknown,’ it displayed. Kobus hit the green button. ‘Yes?’

     ‘Kobus?’

     ‘Yes, that Mason?’

     ‘I got your message, which came as a shock, because I’ve just finished reading a report on the subject matter.’

     ‘Sir, I need to verify that you are actually you. Who was the princ= ipal who designed the bomb?’

     ‘Kamil, Dr Kamil, a Kurd of all people.’

     ‘OK, you know the detail.’

     ‘And what detail do you know?’ Mason pressed.

     ‘I was working on a job in Athens, which led to Bulgaria, to Sophia –= 217;

     ‘The body count has opened an investigation, a second investigation as to why the computer says that the dead men are in Iraq as we speak. Have you ... lost perspective, Kobus?’

     ‘They came for me, I reacted. They kept coming, I fought back; it was no more complicated than that.’

     ‘You’ll sit before a review board soon enough to explain that.’

     ‘Fine.’

     ‘So why the message?’

     ‘I followed a few leads to a marina in Varna, Bulgaria, and relieved a few Rus= sian gentlemen of a holdall with what I was led to believe were detonators of so= me description. Inside, I found a master synchroniser, nine feet of thick cabl= e to three hubs, breaking to six feet of cable and to specialised detonators ful= l of phosphorous. The rig was designed to detonate at high temperature, and at eighteen points simultaneously.’

     ‘My God...’

     ‘You can see why I sent the message. That rig was familiar.’

     ‘And it only has one use,’ Mason agreed. ‘Kamil is missing, so are h= is chemicals.’

     ‘With all due respect, sir, might I ask why someone with a desk close to yours is trying to kill me?’

     There came a long pause. ‘That matter is subject to a high level investigation.’

     ‘Will it draw a conclusion after I= 217;m in the ground?’

     ‘So far, Kobus, it looks like you can handle yourself, a few people around here mentioning your name.’

     ‘I’ll be happy to take less notoriety and a dull assignment, sir.’

     ‘Seems like that train has left the station.’

     ‘Do you have any instructions for me?’

     ‘Keep investigating, any and all leads, and send it all through regular channels.’

     ‘Will do, sir.’

     ‘We’ll talk again soon.’ Mason hung up.

     ‘Good news?’ Drake enquired, looking hopeful.

     ‘No, he wants me dead,’ Kobus said as he stood, walking to the window. He closed a crack in the curtains.

     ‘This man ... is the magistrate?’ Drake puzzled.

     Kobus slowly nodded, appearing drained. ‘He’s the second in command to the magistrate.’ He heaved a breath. ‘Given what’s happened, = and what I told him, he should have ordered me back to debrief, others to take over. I’m ... someone they use for small jobs, not important jobs. Wh= en he asked me to stay with this most important of jobs, I knew he was lying.’

     ‘Why does he wish you to continue, if you are not the tradesman for the job?R= 17;

     ‘So that he knows what I know and, more importantly, that= he knows where I am.’ Kobus closed his eyes, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. ‘We’ll leave in ten minutes.’

     Opening his eyes, Kobus stared down at Drake, as Drake offered a curious expression back. Kobus finally said, ‘If the bomb goes off, a million people will die.’

     ‘How many is that?’

     ‘More people than there are blades of grass in a meadow.’

     Drake lowered his head as he considered the idea. ‘That is a great many peo= ple, a great tally if we save them.’

     Kobus took a moment, staring down. ‘Drake, there’s only one thing that stands between those people ... and their deaths, and that’s you.R= 17;

     Drake puzzled that. ‘Me?’

     ‘You, and Marcus, are the only ones that can stop this. And I found you ... found= you in a cave after you’d been there for hundreds of years. After all tho= se years ... you were found now, t= his week, when this happens. And me, I’m one of a few people who knew abo= ut the bomb and what it does, one of a grand total of ... just the one CIA freelancer on this planet who could recognise that device.’

     ‘It seems as if many things are in alignment,’ Drake stated with a heavy frown.

     ‘The reason they tried to kill me a few days ago, was because I could recognise = the detonator. The Russians, they probably have no idea what it does, they just made it to spec.’

     Kobus sat on the end of the bed, thinking. Staring at the carpet, he began, ‘When I was in the cave, and I heard you tapping, I almost left. Not because I was afraid of you or a ... ghost or something, but because I was afraid to being right, right about something beyond this life.’

     He rubbed his forehead. ‘The day I found you, I spoke to a priest, and he suggested that many people are curious, that some accept religious teachings without conviction, and some actually believe. Well, buddy, there’s a fourth group: those that know.’ He stood, and looked down at Drake, t= he pale young man with dyed black hair. ‘You weren’t cursed by God= , my unfortunate young friend, you were sent by God for this very purpose.’= ;

     Kobus made ready to leave, Drake staring at the carpet for a whole two minutes be= fore moving.

     Standing, Drake said, ‘I have a purpose?’

     Kobus stopped packing, taking a moment. ‘You have a purpose, you always did.’ He turned his head. ‘You learnt to master the demon, a remarkable feat, and something you should be proud of. I’m ... proud = of you for doing that. And now, now your ... unique skills might just stop the bomb.’ Kobus took a moment. ‘Par= t of me would like you to take charge, to be the strong one, to ... take the responsibility.’

     ‘I know little of this world.’

     Kobus slowly nodded his head. ‘We were partnered up for a reason, I’m afraid, and neither of us will survive it.’

     Drake stepped forwards. ‘But if we possess a very great tally at the end of= our lives, we shall be saved, no.’

     Kobus forced a weak smile. ‘Part of me believes that, and part of me ... ju= st wants to walk away.’

     ‘You are a strong man, pure of thought and swift of sword. We shall prevail, no.’

     ‘My friend, we fight with a small pistol ... and a large amount of hope.’=

 

They said nothing to each other as they headed out, the car abandoned. A taxi whisked them down to central Varna, a cheap hotel found a= fter walking around for twenty minutes. Cash secured a tatty room, no questions asked. And the watcher’s mobile, that was now in the taxi, stuffed un= der the seat and being driven around Varna.

     ‘How will we find this bomb?’ Drake asked once inside the small and poorly decorated room.

     ‘The watcher on the boat gave up the name of Johansson; I think he’s a CIA section manager in Berlin, Germany. I met him once.’

     ‘We will journey there? To Germania?’

     ‘We will. And we’ll look for another detonator, because they can’t = set off the bomb without one.’

     ‘And the men with gold coin for the object?’ Drake asked. ‘They were close by.’

     ‘They’ll be long gone,’ Kobus suggested.

     ‘The men with coin have a house called “villa”, not far.’

     Kobus took a moment, placing a cigarette on his lip. ‘They’d be just middlemen, but...’

     ‘The coin would assist us in this fight,’ Drake finished off.

     Kobus nodded, and then checked his watch. ‘We’ll leave at midnight. Do you have a name for the area?’

     ‘I do,’ Drake offered. He sat, turning on a black and white TV as Kobus = lay on the bed.

 

At midnight, Kobus was snoring, nudged awake by Drake. ‘= It is time.’

     Kobus eased up, and yawned, rubbing his face. ‘Can you actually tell time?’

     ‘I have learnt from the TV, Big Bird taught me; the small hand and the big hand.’

     Kobus shook his cigarette packet, pulling out his last cigarette. Lighting up, he said, ‘Big Bird, eh.’

     ‘Cat is spelt C –A – T, dog is spelt D – O – G.’

     Kobus slowly cranked his head around to Drake. ‘I might just live long enou= gh to see you spell disillusionment.’

     ‘That sounds like a long word,’ Drake noted. ‘What does it mean?̵= 7;

     Kobus stood. ‘It means ... that the magistrate should do no evil. When he d= oes, we – his servants - are disillusioned.’

     ‘A good word, yes. But today on the TV, the word of the day is house.’

     After a quick wash, and the use of the toilet, Kobus was ready. ‘I need a n= ew shirt,’ he commented as he placed on his jacket.

     ‘Do you not wash your shirts?’ Drake puzzled.

     ‘When I have the time. C’mon.’

     Outside of the hotel, Drake described the villa’s area and name as best as he= could, and Kobus relayed the detail to a taxi driver, who thought he knew the plac= e. Twenty minutes later, and after a few dead ends, Drake pointed at a cafe th= at was still open. Paying the taxi driver, Kobus straightened, taking in the q= uiet cafe.

     ‘The men meet here often, I know this image.’ Drake turned. ‘When th= ey leave ... they go this way.’ He pointed off to the right. ‘Not far.’

     ‘Lead on.’

     They followed a dark pavement, few street lamps working, and past houses with high walls = and high wooden gates, cats dashing under parked cars. Dogs barked unseen, the other sides of those high walls. At the next corner, Drake took a moment, turning right, halting after ten yards.

     ‘Lost?’ Kobus asked.

     Car headlights caused them to duck behind a parked car.

     ‘It is them,’ Drake whispered.

     The car passed, heard but not seen, and slowed twenty yards down the road that = they were on. Lifting their heads up, they could see the car enter a villa throu= gh large gates held open by a guard. That guard checked the street carefully f= or a moment before closing the gates.

     ‘Bingo.’

     ‘Bingo?’ Drake queried.

     ‘It means ... we have won, or we are correct, or good, or we found something of interest,’ Kobus whispered.

     ‘Bingo,’ Drake repeated in a whisper as they stood. They checked both ways down the road, seeing no one, no vehicles approaching, and ran across, ducking behin= d a row of three tall metal bins.

     Facing Drake, Kobus interlaced his fingers – palms upwards, and instructed, ‘Do this with your hands, so that I can step up and over the wall.= 217; Drake nodded, led to the wall bent double, his hands soon interlocked. Kobus placed a foot in, and was launched upwards, landing on the top of the wall = and wobbling. ‘Fuck me.’ He crouched, placed a hand down, and jumped inside, hitting the dirt at the base of a tree.

     Drake landed next to the tree, almost silently, just as a dog barked in the house next door. After a moment crouched in dark shadows, Kobus ran forwards bent double. He crunched across dried grass, and slipped around to the rear of t= he property, lights now on in the upstairs windows, a few cracks of light esca= ping wooden shutters on the downstairs windows. He turned, Drake nowhere to be s= een.

     ‘Drake,’ he whispered, just as a body hit the ground beside him, air bursting from t= he man’s lungs, followed by a moan.

     Drake landed, straddling the man. ‘He was watching us from above.’

     ‘Good move.’ Kobus relieved the man of a pistol, then moved around a large = bush to view the rear of the property. Turning his head, he whispered, ‘Can you make a loud noise in the street, and come back.’

     Drake was gone in a blur. Six seconds later, it sounded like one car had landed on top of another, a car alarm sounding, a ghostly image turning solid as Drake drew level.

     ‘I said a loud noise, not to wake up the whole damn city!’ Kobus whisper= ed, a fist shaken. Bent double, he moved stealthily forwards, up onto a stone w= all bracketing steps, along it whilst trying to balance - his arms stretched ou= t, and up onto a balcony with ease. The balcony doors were not locked, sounds = now coming from the front of the house, echoing off the neighbouring houses. As= he moved inside, he could feel rather than see that Drake was close behind.

     A crack of light, from a door open just a fraction, gave away the room’s outline and dimensions, the light coming from the hallway. Pistol in hand, Kobus moved quietly around a central sofa and glass coffee table to the doo= r, now hearing raised voices on a lower level, yet distant and distorted. He turned to Drake. ‘How many men, and where?’

     ‘One above, at the front of the house,’ Drake whispered. ‘Six below,= at the front of the house, a woman below.’

     ‘And the money?’

     ‘Above, at the front, with a man who stands guard.’

     Kobus had just started to open the door, an eye on the hallway, when Drake grabbed his arm. He turned his head.

     ‘There is ... a man, near, he ... puzzles the noise I made at the front, and ... m= akes ready to kill all here.’

     ‘How does he plan on doing that?’

     ‘A ... bomb.’

     ‘Shit,’ Kobus let out as he sprinted towards the balcony door. ‘C’mon!’

     He scrambled back down to the wall, balancing as best he could along the wall,= and jumped, rolling as he hit the ground and impacting a small stone statue, the statue falling into a pond with a splash. Cursing, he jumped up and ran to = the rear of the garden, pistol still in hand, but found a high stone wall block= ing high path.

     Turning in the dark, he called for Drake, who was nowhere to be seen. Backtracking a few paces, Kobus placed a foot on a wobbly statue, reached up to a tree bra= nch with one hand, and gained purchase on a ledge in the wall. With his hand on= the branch, one shoe on the ledge and one shoe on the statue’s head, he reached for the top of the wall and got the pistol hand over, then a leg, cursing at the pain caused by scraping over the wall’s rough edges. He dropped eight feet, right onto his back, landing on hard dry soil, the wind knocked out of him.

     A dog growled.

     In agony, and stunned, Kobus lifted his head a few inches, seeing the black outline of a dog stood with its legs wide, growling down at him. Drake land= ed next to the dog, scaring it and causing it to jump sideways in shock. The d= og composed itself quickly, and growled towards Drake through the dark. Drake growled back, the dog retreating just as Kobus brought his pistol to bear on the mutt.

     Drake leapt six feet, and landed straddle over Kobus as night turned to day for t= he second time, the wall collapsing onto them.

     Kobus could see images, blurred images: light and dark, a bag, a bin, a curb ston= e. Water, water splashed onto his face. He opened his eyes, finding Drake̵= 7;s image, Drake looking worried.

     ‘Can you hear me?’ Drake asked.

     ‘Wha ... what happened?’

     ‘The house of the men with coin was damaged by a bomb.’

     ‘We ... should go.’ Kobus tried to move, grimacing in pain.

     ‘We are some distance from the house named “villa”, in a garden of = many trees and paths, things for children.’

     Kobus slowly eased up with Drake’s help, finding a dull yellow street lamp,= the lamp covered in spiders webs and surrounded by flittering moths. Peering around, he could see swings and roundabouts, now registering the echo of di= stant sirens, a low bush immediately in front of him, and distant houses beyond. ‘Fuck...’

     ‘You are hurt?’

     ‘I’m not hurt badly, just winded. I’ll ... be OK.’

     Drake lifted Kobus to his feet. ‘You will need more clothing, I fear.’= ;

     Kobus took in his clothes in the dull yellow light, starting to brush down the du= st and dirt.

     ‘We shall buy fine thread now that we have coin.’

     ‘Huh?’

     Drake pointed towards a large holdall. ‘I believe the number of the paper is fifty.’

     Kobus tested his legs and took a few steps, kneeling painfully to open the bag. ‘Fuck me.’

     ‘It is much gold coin?’

     ‘It is ... and more than would have been needed to buy that detonator.’

     Drake puzzled that as he knelt. ‘They ... would buy more than one?’

     ‘They would. Or ... something else.’ He stuffed a wad into his inside pocke= t, handing one to Drake – who placed it into a pocket in his casual jack= et.

     ‘We must return to the hotel, for you to rest.’ Drake lifted the hefty ba= g of cash after zipping it up, and grabbed Kobus under the armpit.

     It took ten minutes of slow hobbling to reach a main road, a taxi flagged down. Once in, Kobus asked for the centre of Varna, and halted the taxi several blocks away from the hotel. He hobbled the short distance, putting on a bra= ve face when let in by the night porter.

     ‘What happen you?’ the man asked, heavily accented.

     ‘Men fight me for money,’ Kobus replied, and pushed past, soon in the room= and under a hot shower.

     Out of the shower, and with just his trousers back on, he found Drake sat watching= TV. ‘Counted the money yet?’

     Drake looked over his shoulder and focused on the holdall. ‘I am uncertain = of how to count this paper.’

     Kobus sat next to the holdall. Retrieving a wad of fifty Euro notes, he counted f= ifty notes in each bundle, and estimated fifty bundles. ‘A hundred thousan= d or so, which may have been a fair price for the detonator if it was precision = made and tested. Less than I thought though.’

     Lifting out another wad, Kobus frowned down at the wad below. It was different. He peeled back the top fifty, and found notes valued at five hundred Euros. ‘OK, that’s ... odd.’

     ‘What is odd?’ Drake asked without taking his eyes of the TV.

     ‘The top note is a fifty, the rest five hundreds. It’s a trick. But ... it should be the other way around; five hundred on top and fifty underneath. A= nd ... there’s more than a million Euros here.’

     ‘A million was what you said was very big, yes?’

     ‘Yes. We could ... retire somewhere nice and turn our backs on the world. But the= y’d still want me dead, and this money isn’t really enough to disappear w= ith.’ He sighed.

     ‘You do not wish to give up the fight,’ Drake noted.

     Kobus took a moment, throwing down a wad. ‘No, I don’t, so I need my fucking head examined.’

     ‘At the house named “villa”, there was a women below, very sad. She= was a prisoner.’

     ‘A prisoner?’ Kobus queried as he rifled through the bag.

     ‘Yes, from the land you fought in.’

     Kobus pulled his nose out of the bag, staring at the back of Drake’s head. ‘From Iraq?’

     ‘Yes. And I smelt death in the house, a body hidden below where the woman was hel= d, the body of a child.’

     Kobus reached for his cigarettes, finding the box empty and cursing.

     ‘Shall I go to the shop for cigarettes?’ Drake keenly offered, now standing.=

     Kobus considered if that particular task was wise, but handed over a twenty Euro note. ‘Don’t be long.’

     Drake handed back the note. ‘I have coin.’ He turned, opened the wind= ow, and launched himself through before Kobus could stop him. Rushing to the window, Kobus found a flat roof one floor down, a row of brightly lit shops visible a hundred yards away. Shaking his head, he moved to the bed and lay down, aching all over, and now bruised in many places.

     Ten minutes later, Drake came back through the window with effortless grace, two bags in hand. He placed the bags down, and lifted out several packs of cigarettes - the correct brand, and a new plastic lighter.

     ‘Good kid,’ Kobus commended.

     ‘And we have chocolate biscuits, other biscuits, Sprite, and this.’ He hand Kobus a small medical kit for tourists, the wording English. ‘To make= you better.’

     Kobus eased up onto an elbow, letting his legs down. ‘Excellent.’ Sir= ens registered through the open window. He slid his gaze across to Drake, and waited.

     Drake lowered his head. ‘A man wished to part me from my money.’

     ‘And...?’

     ‘I kicked him.’

     ‘And...?’ Kobus pressed, louder this time.

     ‘I ... kicked him, and he went to the inside of a shop.’

     ‘Did the shop have one of those new fangled glass windows at the front?’

     ‘I ... believe so.’

     ‘You just kicked someone through a plate glass window?’ Drake did not answ= er. ‘At the villa, what did you do to make that noise in the street?̵= 7;

     ‘A large metal bin. I ... threw it onto a car.’

     Kobus twisted the top of a Sprite bottle. ‘I didn’t thank you. You sa= ved my life.’ He toasted a smiling Drake with his Sprite. ‘Cheers.’

     Drake smiled widely. ‘Good health, long life, and many fine sons.’

     ‘Yeah, well don’t know about the last part.’

     A mobile phone began ringing, causing Kobus to puzzle it; he had left the previous phone in a taxi.

     Drake took out the phone, from his pocket. ‘The man who wanted to part me f= rom my money dropped this.’ He handed it to Kobus. ‘I thought you m= ay have use of it.’

     ‘Good thinking.’ Kobus answered the call. ‘Malek? No, he’s shopping, try later.’ Kobus cut the call, and punched in the number f= or Riggs. ‘That you, boss?’

     ‘Yeah, and there’s more on the wire, a villa blown apart in Varna, ten or mo= re dead they’re saying.’

     ‘The Company took care of the boat, and the villa.’

     ‘Jesus, this is all way over my pay grade.’

     ‘Do me a favour, and run the names of the people at the villa, you should find Ramius in there. And see if there’s an ID on a woman and child.’= ;

     ‘How’d you know who was in the villa, Kobus?’ Riggs demanded.

     ‘I was watching it when it blew, a bit busted up; fucking wall fell on me.R= 17;

     ‘You’re hurt?’

     ‘Cuts and scrapes.’

     ‘Fucking Bulgarian authorities are jumping up and down.’    

     ‘I can imagine.’

     ‘What’ll you do next? Do you ... have any leads?’

     ‘One, and it’s a long shot, so I’ll be heading to Paris.’

     Drake turned his head, and listened in.

     ‘Paris?’ Riggs queried. ‘You’re leaving the area?’

     ‘It’s a bit hot around here right now, and no one will be making any deals for a while.’

     ‘No, fucking police are all over it. They’re saying its drug related, Russ= ian gangs. That name you gave me, it was for a low grade watcher, but he was li= nked to Berlin station.’

     ‘Probably nothing. Anyway, I’ll call you in a day or so when I get to Paris.= 217; He cut the call, noticing Drake’s look. ‘When I use the phone, = the magistrate can listen in.’

     ‘Ah, you gave a falsehood. We shall journey by another road.’

     ‘We shall, starting right now.’

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9

 

Gold

 

 

Drake turned off the TV. ‘What is a tamp-oon?’

     Kobus halted, considered his answer, and lifted the holdall. ‘You figure it out.’

     ‘They would appear to cause great pleasure to women, much smiling and dancing alo= ng the street after purchase.’

     Kobus halted, and cocked an eyebrow. ‘TV advertising has a great deal to answer for.’

     A bored taxi driver was offered as much money as he made in a month for the s= hort trip to Bucharest in Romania, Kobus explaining that they had a problem with= an aeroplane, a delay. They set off north after the taxi had taken on fuel, and the driver had picked up his passport from home.

     Kobus sat with his head against the door’s cool glass, staring up at yellow hig= hway lights as they flittered past. The only sound was the high-pitched whine of tyres on concrete, Kobus sat mesmerised by the rhythmical passing of the ye= llow lamps against the black night sky. The lamps became white for certain stret= ches of road, an occasional lamp out, and time moved slowly.

     The driver had puzzled the route, since it was not the most direct route, but K= obus wanted a particular border crossing-point used. They had stopped for a bite= to eat in the hills near the border, and now approached a quiet border-crossin= g in the dead of night.

     Halting at a cafe just short of the border, Kobus handed the taxi driver another month’s pay. He thumbed towards Drake in the back seat. ‘The bo= y, no passport, but I know a man here, he goes around. No ... questions.’= ;

     The taxi driver took the money, making a face and shrugging.

     Kobus stepped out, followed by Drake, Kobus handing Drake the holdall – whi= ch also contained Kobus’s holster and pistol. He pointed. ‘You see= the bend in the road, past the border controls?’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘Meet us there. Go around, quietly, don’t be seen.’

     Drake headed off down a slope without a second thought, the curious taxi driver watching him go. With Kobus back in the car, they drove up to the border, passports shown, no checks made of the vehicle; this was Europe, one big ha= ppy family.

     Across the border, they halted around the first bend, Drake opening the door little more than two minutes later, and surprising the taxi driver. The man glance= d at Kobus – who didn’t respond, made a face and drove on, heading n= orth for twenty miles before crossing the Danube, soon heading west along its no= rthern banks, now on the Romanian side.

     In the early hours they reached Bucharest, passing bland white high-rise blocks fo= r a few minutes before approaching the historic centre, picture postcard buildi= ngs glimpsed by Drake in the grey half-light. Kobus tipped the driver even more money, thanks given. And stuffed under the back seat of the taxi was the mo= bile that Kobus had used to call Riggs, now on its way back to Varna.

     They found a cafe that was open at this early hour, and sat with cups of coffee = near two uniformed police officers. Drake copied his mentor by adding milk and sugar, and then tasted coffee for the first time. Kobus waited.

     ‘I do not greatly favour its taste.’ Drake shrugged.

     ‘It helps us mere mortals to have more energy, to be awake more.’<= /p>

     ‘Ah.’ Drake nodded. ‘Like Red Bullshit.’

     Kobus cocked an eyebrow. ‘Red Bull<= /i>,’ he carefully mouthed. ‘Although, I think you were right the first time.’

     ‘What is it, bullshit? Men say this o= ften in the colonies of America.’

     ‘It’s what a cow does in a field after feeding.’

     ‘Ah. As I child we collected these when dry, for the fire in winter.’

     ‘When people say it ... they mean to suggest disbelief in something.’

     ‘They seem to disbelieve a great many things,’ Drake puzzled.

     Kobus sipped his coffee. ‘You must have picked up some sun yesterday; your = skin is less ... white.’

     ‘I appear more fitting?’ Drake keenly asked.

     Kobus nodded. ‘Be hard to keep the young girls off you.’ As Kobus observed, he watched a demon blush, sat now in a cafe in Romania before daw= n, a holdall full of cash less than four feet away from armed police officers. It was a surreal moment.

 

Two hours later, at 7am, they flagged down a taxi, soon to a s= econd hand car lot that was just opening up. Kobus found a ten year old BMW cover= ed in morning dew, the offer price being just over ten thousand Euros. He grab= bed the salesman. ‘You speak English?’

     ‘Yes, some.’

     ‘I’ll take this car, now, fifteen thousand Euros, no name or paper. Understand?’

     The man hesitated. ‘I must give name.’

     ‘You ... can give any name, my friend.’

     The man glanced around the quiet lot before coming to a decision. He fetched the keys.

     In a showroom, Kobus counted out the money, handing it over. When done, he made = firm eye contact with the salesman. ‘If there is problem, my friend, I come back – and I talk with you.’

     The man handed over the keys, and the vehicle’s documents, whilst avoiding eye contact.

     Sat in the car, and running a hand over the leather, Drake said, ‘Beemer, ye= s, like before.’

     ‘Beemer,’ Kobus confirmed as he drove out of the lot, stopping to adjust the seat.

     ‘A pleasant smell,’ Drake noted. He faced Kobus. ‘I can ... study = in this carriage?’

     ‘You can, because I don’t care if you damage it.’

     They headed northwest, and towards Germany, a long drive, and a few border cross= ings to negotiate along the way.

     ‘Should I not have papers?’ Drake asked. ‘For safe conduct across the border?’

     ‘You should, but the best forger I know is in Switzerland, in Zurich. We’re heading that way, so we’ll make a stop. There’s a guy in Prague= I know, he’s OK. In fact, he’s less known to the magistrate. OK, Prague it is.’

     Route A1 took them towards the hills, soon spectacular views glimpsed as the morn= ing warmed up, ornate and dated houses on the roadside reminiscent of Switzerla= nd or Austria, proud castles glimpsed atop distant ridges.

     They stopped off in a small town and bought fresh clothes, Kobus now dressed in jeans and t-shirt, a brown leather jacket bought, one of those new and very= expensive leather jackets that looked like it had been worn out already. Drake picked= up a pair of shoes he liked, Kobus a pair of ankle boots and two holdalls.

     After three hours, and rounding a bend, Drake pointed. ‘I know this place.’

     Kobus eased to a halt in a lay-by, peering across a deep wooded valley at a castl= e of three spires surrounded by trees. ‘Are we near your home village?R= 17;

     ‘No, but I was here in the eighth year, I believe. I travelled with a group of minstrels, and hid my identity from those who pursued me.’ Drake star= ed across at the castle, appearing saddened. Softly, he said, ‘I did gre= at evil here.’

     Kobus took a moment, and sighed. ‘Nothing we can do about that, it was a ve= ry long time ago. Place is probably a hotel for tourists.’

     ‘Tourists?’

     ‘People who travel for pleasure.’

     Drake nodded. ‘The lord of these lands, I killed him as he tried to hide his treasure.’

     Kobus turned his head. ‘Treasure?’

     ‘Gold coins. Many. After I killed him, I closed the wall he had opened with a hea= vy stone, so that his family would not benefit from the money; he did not trust them to know of his treasure. I made good the render on the wall.’

     ‘Sadistic.’

     ‘What is this word?’

     ‘It means, that you didn’t just kill him, but that you wanted to enjoy the family’s discomfort afterwards as well. It means ... that it served no practical purpose ... other than to cause suffering.’

     Drake nodded. ‘I was ... sadistic, yes.’

     ‘Marcus was, you ... were not. Don’t forget that.’ Kobus took a moment. ‘Do you want to look around the place for an hour?’

     ‘The release of such memories would only hurt me. But should we not collect the = gold coin?’

     ‘After all this time they would have been found.’

     ‘It was well hidden,’ Drake suggested.

     Kobus eased the car out. ‘Well, if you’re sure that it won’t up= set you too much we’ll have a look.’

     ‘If we have more coin, we have means to wage war, no?’

     ‘We’d have means to wage war,’ Kobus agreed. He noticed a sign for a hotel,= a picture of the castle, and turned off the main road, circling underneath the main road before negotiating a dated stone bridge that was single lane for traffic, finally climbing through dense woods up to the castle grounds.

     Getting out of the car, Drake said, ‘It has not changed.’

     ‘People like these old castles, and they look after them. A ... curiosity.’ <= /span>

     They wandered inside, and to reception, three attractive ladies in black and whi= te uniforms stood ready to assist.

     ‘Speak English or Deutsche?’ Kobus asked the first receptionist. The lady receptionist spoke both languages. ‘Do you have a room for tonight?&#= 8217;

     ‘Yes, sir.’

     ‘May we see one, please?’

     The receptionist called a porter, Kobus pointing Drake towards a diagram on the wall without the lady noticing. Drake closed in on the diagram, and held a finger on a room, a third of the way up a south-facing tower, the tower that they were stood under.

     Kobus eased closer to the receptionist. ‘Do you have a room above us, a view south - of the river?’

     ‘We have two, sir,’ she confirmed after attending a computer screen. She handed the porter the keys, the man leading them off, and into a lift that simply took them up one floor.

     When the lift door opened, Drake hesitated, before taking a single large stride = out and turning fully around, puzzling just how the hell he was now on a differ= ent floor without walking up the stairs. Kobus grabbed him by the arm as the po= rter opened a room.

     Inside the spacious room, Kobus noted a giant four-poster bed, a sofa, an ornate a= nd dated dresser, and a great view through tall and narrow windows, one whole = side of the room curved. He turned to Drake, and waited.

     Drake faced the porter. ‘May we enter another room?’

     The man led them out, and to the second room on the same floor. As they entered, Drake made brief eye contact with Kobus, a nod given.

     ‘We’ll take both rooms,’ Kobus loudly stated.

     The porter led them back down, Drake puzzling the magical box that transported = them between floors, inspecting the floor numbers at length before being dragged= out by Kobus.

     Five hundred Euros were handed over for the two rooms, one night with breakfast. This was a five star establishment. The porter carried their bags from the = car, a tight squeeze in the lift for the three of them with luggage. Kobus took = the first room, Drake the second.

     Kobus had dumped down his bags, quickly following the porter into Drake’s r= oom, tipping him and thanking him. With the door closed, Kobus turned to find Dr= ake running a hand across a wall, a section of wall to the left of a huge stone fireplace. Kobus closed in on the wall, examining it.

     The walls of the rooms were bare stone, adorned with a few shields and tapestri= es. That stone had been worked down to a finish that was smooth, but one that d= id not completely destroy the stone effect. The mortar between the stones was a pale grey, and finished to a very high standard.

     ‘It is here,’ Drake stated.

     ‘You can sense it?’

     ‘I can.’

     ‘We have till the morning, when the maids will come in and clean the room ̵= 1; after calling the police.’ K= obus put a hand in a pocket. ‘Opening that up will cause a great deal of f= ucking noise. They’ll tolerate young couples having loud sex, but demolishing old stone walls is generally against hotel policy.’

     Drake grabbed a poker from the fireplace, inspecting it. ‘The stone is balanced.’

     ‘Balanced?’

     ‘Balanced at the centre, here,’ he explained as he touched the wall, the lower mid-point of the stone in question. The mortar was obviously modern era, but the outline of the large stone was clear, some six feet across and four feet high. ‘The stone need only be turned, not levered.’

     Kobus lit up, and checked out the view as Drake quietly chipped at the mortar, making= a mess on the carpet. There was a “No Smoking” sign on the wall b= ut, given what they were doing to the room, Kobus figured it was the least that= the hotel owners would be pissed about.

     ‘I have purchase,’ Drake said after little more three six minutes of eff= ort. He shoved the poker in, to a depth of around two feet, turned it so that its barb caught the stone, and pulled. Increasing his effort, he pulled again, mortar popping out of the far join and peppering the previously clean room.= A loud crack revealed the sinking of the far end of the massive stone. Another tug, and a scraping sound was issued, Kobus concerned that it may be loud enough to attract attention.

     Drake was unperturbed by the noise and yanked again, an opening revealed. Drake l= et go of the poker, and managed to get an arm inside, a knee against the wall,= as Kobus stood keenly observing, a cigarette balanced on his lip.

     Dust rose up and mortar fell as the stone moved twelve inches, now revealing the curved side of the adjoining stone, and a hollow space behind. Wedging his upper body sideways into the hole, Drake moved the huge stone around till it was almost at a right angle to the wall. He jumped up, a foot on the base of the hole, a hand on the top of the stone, and slid in sideways. And disappeared.

     As Kobus closed in, a hand appeared, holding out gold coins. He picked one out. ‘They’re big, and heavy, worth some money. If you hold on, I’ll pass you a bag.’ He dumped the clothes from a strong holda= ll onto the bed, and squeezed the air out from it, shoving it through. Clicking his lighter, he peered into the gap.

     Beyond the stone, a small space revealed itself, just big enough for Drake to stan= d up in, just wide enough for him to avoid scraping his shoulders. Several rotten wooden boxes lay stacked up, now a loud tinkling from the coins as they fil= led the bag. Drake passed the bag through, Kobus taking hold of it. But when Dr= ake let go, the bag dropped to the floor, almost pulling Kobus’s arm out = of the socket.

     ‘Fuck me,’ Kobus let out as he straightened, rubbing a shoulder. ‘You can carry that. But I think the fucking handle will come off.’

     ‘There is more,’ echoed out, the words oddly distorted.

     Kobus blew out, thinking. He glanced over his shoulder. ‘We need more bags.̵= 7; He took a drag before dumping clothes out of a second bag, passing it throu= gh to Drake. Stepping to the bedside cabinet, he dialled reception. ‘Hel= lo? Would it be possible to purchase a new suitcase, a strong plastic one with wheels? If you could have it brought up, room Six. Thanks.’

     Placing down the receiver, the phone clearly indicating that this was room seven, h= e returned to the hole, Drake now filling the second bag. ‘We’ll need some help,’ Kobus thought out loud.

     Kobus went back to the phone, taking out his wallet. He found a number on a folder sheet of paper, and dialled it after transposing two digits. Many code-words and numbers were listed on the paper, but each number had certain digits swapped. ‘Georgiou? It’s Kobus, I’ve got a job for you. A= re you free for a few days?’

     ‘Sure. You want someone followed?’ came an accented voice.

     ‘No. But this job, it pays you twenty thousand Euros, and a percentage. The ... = Company got hold of some gold coins, from a Russian gangster that won’t be needing them.’

     Laughing could be heard.

     ‘Anyway, I need you to find a second driver, someone you can trust, and two strong c= ars, Audi or BMW. Drive to northwest Hungary, head for the town of Deva. What’s your mobile number these days?’

     Kobus wrote it down on a pad next to the phone. ‘OK, got that. How soon do = you think you could get here from Athens?’

     ‘In the morning. What money for the second man?’

     ‘Ten thousand.’

     ‘This is a good job. You want to use = Maros to fence them?’

     ‘Some of them, yes, but I don’t want them all fenced in the same place.

     ‘I know a few people,’ the man offered.

     ‘That’s why we’re talking,’ Kobus quipped. ‘And not a word to anyone.’

     ‘Of course. I’ll leave in an hour. Shall I call Maros?’

     ‘Yes, have him send someone to Zurich, ready to hand me cash, maybe ... two milli= on Euros. And ask him where he wants the gold dropped, and don’t use the phone; go see him if you can.’

     ‘I will do. Call me in the morning.’

     Kobus returned to the dusty hole in the wall, Drake now shoving a heavy bag throu= gh. Kobus got under it, but getting it on the bed nearly killed him. ‘Fuck,’ he blew out, the bag bouncing before settling, the anti= que bed creaking - and none too pleased at its treatment.

     Drake scraped through the hole and dropped down. ‘It is much coin.’

     ‘It is, and it may come in handy.’ Kobus took a breath. ‘But first, first we need to get it to the car, then we need to see if the car will take the damn weight, then we need to hand it to a man who’ll turn it into paper money. And we need to do all that without any fucker noticing.’=

     ‘You are not confident.’

     Kobus lit a fresh cigarette. Exhaling, and pointing at the bag with the cigarette= , he said, ‘We can do it, but can we do it without anyone noticing.’=

     Ten minutes later, a knock could be heard at Kobus’s room. He stepped into the corridor, and paid the porter for the suitcase. ‘Keep the change.’

     Back in Drake’s room, the air now thick with dust, he examined the strong = grey plastic case. ‘This’ll hold a bag’s worth of coins for su= re,’ he suggested. He grabbed a pillow and placed it into the case, Drake lifting over the smaller bag and placing it down, the case just about zipped up. Ko= bus wheeled the case around the bedroom. ‘It’ll do. Stay here.̵= 7;

     Kobus wheeled the case to the door and out, to the lift and down, and out to the = car. He had to wait a few seconds to make sure that no one was about, struggling= to get it in the boot - and cursing. Back at Drake’s room he knocked, the door soon opened by a grubby looking Drake. ‘Job done.’<= /p>

     ‘There is more coin,’ Drake informed Kobus.

     Kobus peered into the hole, and gave it some thought. Turning, he said, ‘I’ll be back.’

    

Twenty minutes later he returned, the case now empty save the = pillow. ‘No one saw me, so they won’t think I’m stealing pillows – or removing dead bodies in suitcases! And at two-fifty a night, we = should be stealing the fucking pil= lows.’

     Drake lifted the second bag of coins into the suitcase, plus many small plastic b= ags filled with the coins. ‘You have hidden the coins nearby, in a wooded area, for collection later?’

     Kobus absently nodded. ‘Hey, buddy, where’d you get the little white plastic b= ags?’ he enquired, pointing at them.

     ‘They were in the small room for washing.’

     ‘Oh,’ Kobus said, nodding. Somehow, stuffing plastic bags designed for sanitary towels full of priceless gold coins seemed wrong.

     With the third holdall utilised, and the majority of the coins now removed, Drake moved the stone back into place. Apart from the obvious missing mortar, a t= hick layer of grey dust everywhere and mortar on the carpet, their handiwork wou= ld not have been noticed. And the hotel owners were unlikely to remove the sto= ne to see what lay behind it. It would simply have appeared that the guests had ... dug out the stone’s mortar for something to do.

     Kobus placed the cigarette on his lip, and studied the large stone, wondering if = the mortar could be touched up, and not caring either way. Grabbing a pad next = to the phone, he wrote a note: “Sorry about the mess”. He placed i= t on a pillow, along with ten thousand Euros. It might just keep Interpol out of this.

     ‘Shall I shower?’ Drake nudged, the lad keen to get wet and soapy again.

     ‘Sure, I was just about to do the same. We’ll leave in an hour or so.’=

     Back in his own room, Kobus ordered a sandwich, and sat eating it in the bay of the= window with his feet up, taking in the view through the trees, the picture-postcard view of the river and its ancient stone bridge. And he tried to imagine Dra= ke, dressed like a wandering minstrel, moving around the castle and killing its occupants. A green and yellow striped hat, with points with bells on, came = to mind, Kobus shaking off the image.

     But being here rammed home the realism of what Drake was, a realism that was ea= sy to forget when looking at the fresh-faced young lad. Drake had been here, hundreds of years ago. And his sadistic deed, that of hiding the coins, wou= ld now benefit Kobus in particular, and the world in general, an odd symmetry.=

 

As dusk came on in the valley, Kobus packed up as best he coul= d, utilising the plastic bags that the clothes had been bought in. In Drake’s room he took charge of the suitcase, wheeling it slowly, and struggling to get it onto the back seat, nearly breaking his back.

     Returning to the hotel, he stepped to reception, and asked for a map, enquiring about local bars and restaurants. Later, when the reception staff saw him drive o= ff, it would seem that he would be returning, nothing amiss.

     In Drake’s room, the lad now clean and fresh - and heavily scented from = the complimentary aftershave, they lifted the remaining bag of coins, the plast= ic bags with clothes in, and headed out via the stairs. Drake checked ahead, as well as checking around the corners. They made it to the car without incide= nt, their bags placed onto the back seat, and drove off across the narrow stone bridge without checking out. Kobus did, however, fill in the little survey = form that asked how well the rooms had been cleaned.

     Reaching the main road, they turned west and towards the town of Deva, the car heavy= and sluggish. As they joined the highway, Drake pulled from his pocket a complimentary toothbrush with a short handle, and examined it.

     ‘Haven’t been stealing stuff from the hotel, have you? Kobus mock scolded.

     ‘This is for the cleaning of teeth.’

     ‘Your teeth won’t rot ... because of what you are.’

     ‘But I should still have good breath, no.’

     Kobus shot him a playful look. ‘Sure. But that’s what gum is for.R= 17;

     Drake retrieved the gum from his pocket, unwrapped it, and started to chew. Speak= ing whilst eating, he said, ‘The small paper says: do not swallow.’=

     Kobus made a face. ‘I’ve swallowed many. It won’t do you any ha= rm, but I guess they don’t figure it’ll do you any good either. Lab= els like that are for kids.’

     ‘The men in the cave, they had gum, but not like this.’ Drake stared ahead= for a moment. ‘Kobus, now that we have much coin, I would request some for the families of the men in the cave.’

     Kobus glanced at Drake, and considered for a moment what he was suggesting. ‘We’d have to find their names, and living relatives.’

     ‘It ... can be done?’

     ‘It can be done,’ Kobus agreed. ‘The bodies would be flown home in a few days.’

     ‘Then I can ... make amends.’

     Kobus glanced across at Drake, but said nothing as they drove through the dark.

 

Bob Russell lifted his phone. ‘Yes?’

     ‘Sir, some odd intel, very ... odd.’

     ‘Go ahead.’

     ‘We’ve been monitoring calls into Kobus’s handler, Riggs, for the past forty-eight hours. Kobus knew there was a woman and kid in the villa, he was there when it blew, minor injuries picked up.’

     ‘Did he know who they were?’

     ‘No, sir, he asked if the bodies had been identified.’

     ‘Could he have seen them, through a window?’

     ‘It’s possible, sir. I guess Ramius was sloppy.’

     ‘There’s something we’re overlooking, and that’s the British.’

     ‘They’ve made no enquiries since the project was mothballed, and we’re not awa= re of any British assets in the area, sir.’

     ‘Any sign of Kobus?’

     ‘We tracked a mobile he used to call Riggs. He drove over to Bucharest and back.’

     ‘Send assets to Varna. Find him.’

     ‘Sir, he informed Riggs that he’s heading to Paris.’

     ‘Paris? There’s no element of this in Paris. What’s in Paris?’

     ‘We don’t know, sir.’

     ‘Keep me informed.’

 

 

They reached the town of Deva quickly, noticing a roadside mot= el beyond the town that seemed quiet enough - just the one car in the car park. Kobus paid cash, no ID shown, the night porter heavily tipped. He parked th= eir car right next to their room, Drake effortlessly carrying the heavy suitcase and bag inside - just in case someone stole the damn car in the night. All told, they had around three million Euros on them, in either notes or coins= .

     With the door closed, the lights turned on, Drake settled in front of the TV. Not having got much in the way of good sleep in the past twenty-four hours, Kob= us lay down and closed his eyes, soon snoring, and soon turned on his side by Drake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A pleasant drive

 

10

 

 

The dawn light woke Kobus at 6am.

     ‘Coffee?’ Drake asked with a cheery smile.

     ‘Coffee?’ Kobus puzzled as he eased up, rubbing his face.

     Drake pointed at a plastic kettle on a tray, cups, and coffee sachets. ‘It = is for coffee, I have read and understood. Watch.’ Drake switched on the kettle as if it was a prize-winning effort, and stood back. ‘The water will become hot.’

     ‘Good lad,’ Kobus commended as he used the bathroom. Returning after flushi= ng, Drake was stirring powdered milk into the coffee.

     ‘Two small paper bags of sugar,’ Drake stated, proudly handing over the cu= p on a saucer.

     ‘Thanks,’ Kobus said as he took the cup. He took a sip. ‘Not bad. But the powde= red milk is never the same.’

     Drake handed over a mobile, Kobus immediately worried. Drake explained, ‘In= the night I sensed men fighting nearby, and I climbed through the window without waking you. One of the men dropped this as he fought.’

     ‘What were they fighting over?’

     ‘One of the men was married to a woman in a room here, the other man lying down = with her.’

     ‘It’s a motel,’ Kobus said dismissively. ‘Did they see you?’ he= asked as sipped his coffee.

     ‘No.’

     With his coffee downed, a second cup threatened and on the boil, Kobus used the mobile to call Georgiou.

     ‘Yes?’ Georgiou cautiously answered.

     ‘You awake?’

     ‘Kobus! Yes, awake, and we are here.’

     ‘From the town, follow the road northwest a mile, you’ll see a motel on the right. Room 10.’

     ‘We’ll be fifteen minutes.’

     Drake diligently watched the road as Kobus made a second coffee, the coffee downed before two black Audis pulled in.

     ‘What do you sense?’ Kobus asked Drake as he readied the bags of coins.

     ‘They approach, they are ... cautious ... not worried.’

     ‘Are they alone?’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘Do you sense a falsehood?’ Kobus asked as he approached the door.=

     ‘They ... think they may gain more commerce than you agreed.’

     ‘Can’t blame them for that,’ Kobus said as he opened the door. Georgiou reve= rsed his car close, halted and jumped out, the boot popped-open ready. Between t= hem they lugged the heavy suitcase into the boot, slamming it, the holdall hand= ed to the second man.

     With the cars locked, the two drivers came into the room after a cursory check of the car park, a nod at Drake as they entered. They all sat on the edges of beds.

     Georgiou, a dark haired and tanned Greek, began, ‘I have two buyers, maybe thre= e. Maros has two million Euros ready, in Zurich. We’ll drive these coins= to a rendezvous here, a truck to take it across to Switzerland.’<= /p>

     ‘Fine, but we’ll need to tally it squarely; my boss knows how many coins the= re are.’ Kobus handed Georgiou a coin.

     ‘I know these coins, and they’re rare; worth a great deal. I think it is= more than two million, much more.’

     ‘Tell Maros we’ll settle after he’s sold some. Right, there’s a= nother load, and the sale of those will be down to you alone. I’ll want the money paid into the usual account, bit by bit, but try and shift some of th= em quickly. Oh, ask Maros for a great many traveller’s cheques, a few ba= nk drafts made to cash.’

     He handed Georgiou a hand-drawn map with directions. ‘The place isn̵= 7;t far, it’s south east of here, an hour or less. Fetch it when you can.’

     ‘First I get some sleep!’ Georgiou joked, he and the other man laughing. ‘We drove all night.’

     Kobus swivelled, and pulled out wads of Euros from his jacket, handing over thirty thousand Euros in large notes. ‘Here, a cure for insomnia.’

     ‘The best kind of cure,’ Georgiou agreed. ‘With this I can drink mys= elf to sleep!’

     ‘Off you go, my friend,’ Kobus encouraged. They stood, handshakes given, D= rake practising his handshaking.

     With the door closed, Kobus turned to Drake, and waited.

     ‘I sensed no deception.’

     ‘Good, then ... next stop Zurich. Do we have any coins left on us?’

     Drake volunteered six coins.

     ‘Keep them on you,’ Kobus requested as he grabbed the plastic bags holding their clothes. ‘We have a border or two to cross, and I don’t w= ant to be found with those on me.’

     Kobus hesitated, noticed by Drake, placed down the bags and lifted the stolen mob= ile. After a moment, he punched in Riggs number. ‘Did I wake you?’

     ‘Just about, I’m still in the apartment. Had a late night meeting with my b= oss, he flew over, everyone talking about Varna.’

     ‘Did you identify the woman?’

     ‘They say she was an Arab, but no ID on her.’

     ‘Did they find the body of a kid?’

     ‘They did, buried in the basement. Tell me, do you have fucking X-Ray vision now?’

     ‘Remember that thing I told you I found in a safe house.’

     Riggs paused. ‘You’ve got to be shitting me.’

     ‘It’s why I’m still alive, and why you’re now probably in danger. So = keep it under wraps as long as you can.’

     ‘Too many people know about Varna, no way anyone could bury the detail. Already = talk of a Congressional Hearing, the White House asking questions.’=

     ‘This will be buried, made to look like Russians shooting a Russians,’ Kobus scoffed. ‘Still, it doesn’t matter now.’

      ‘Doesn’t ... matter now= ?’

     ‘Nothing. I’ll call you from Paris.’ He hung up.

 

In Langley, an operator lowered his headset and made notes on = a pad. ‘Safe house. Kobus found something. What?’

     An email was sent to Bob Russell. ‘Our boy is in Romania, near town of D= eva. Paris could be the destination after all.’

 

Kobus was moody as they drove off. After a while, Drake said, ‘You are uncertain about involving someone, someone who may help us.’

     Kobus considered his answer as they wound their way around tight bends in a fores= t. ‘I was a soldier in the British Army, an officer, a Captain in the Ir= aq War. When I was there I was involved in analysing – studying – a type of bomb we found. That bomb was kept secret, and few who knew about it, very few. The British Government knows a= bout it, a few senior people.’

     ‘Will they help us?’

     Kobus took a moment. ‘Yes, and no. Yes, they’d try and stop a bomb go= ing off, but they’re good friends with America, and they can be easily bu= llied.’

     ‘Why do you not take coin from them, if they are your people?’

     ‘They’re not my people, they’re my ... adopted people. And I offered them my services.’

     Drake turned his head. ‘They did not wish you in their service?’

     ‘No.’ Kobus changed lane. ‘I was angry with them for a while, but not now.’

     ‘I see.’ A moment later, Drake asked, ‘Who will the bomb kill?R= 17;

     ‘That, my friend, has been troubling me; the target. If the magistrate knows about= it, then ... well, they know and don’t care. My fear, my very old young friend, is that they’ll allow the bomb to go off.’

     Drake puzzled that. ‘Why would they wish such a thing upon themselves?̵= 7;

     Kobus glanced across at Drake. ‘If the bomb kills many, the king will grant= the magistrate more coin for more men.’

     Drake faced forwards. ‘I see. In my time, Moors were paid to sail near the coast, and the magistrate and the guard captain received more coin from the king in fear.’

     ‘Some things never change.’

     Drake crossed the border with Hungary by jumping the fence, and met Kobus on the = other side, with the holdall full of money. En route, he left the mobile on the mountain, something for the CIA to puzzle over. They continued their journey all that day, a few stops made for petrol and food, and faced the Austrian border in the dark. Drake had to take the mountain route at this border, al= most an hour to rejoin Kobus, an anxious hour for both of them.

     Twenty miles beyond the border they spotted a motel and pulled in. Kobus did not w= ish to risk his fake ID again, he had used it too often of late. They observed = for ten minutes those chalet rooms furthest from reception, as well as being on= a second floor, a door quietly forced by Drake. They claimed the room without turning on the lights, the TV turned to face away from the window, the soun= d kept down. Kobus lay down fully clothed after a wash and the use of the toilet, = and closed his eyes.

     At 5.30am, Drake woke Kobus as planned, the aim being to leave the motel before anyone spotted them. After using the bathroom, Kobus led Drake back to the = car before it got fully light, and pulled away quietly under a dark blue sky, t= he day promising to be warm and clear in Austria.

     By noon they were at the Swiss border, Drake finding Austria in the summer a v= ery beautiful place. He again lugged the holdall up and over a mountain before meeting the car, but did so this time in daylight and taking a risk. Driving on, they headed towards Zurich through steep gorges, through long tunnels, = and around the edges of steeply sided mountains.

     Halting at the edge of Zurich, at a service station, Kobus eased out and used the p= ayphone, a call in to Georgiou first. ‘Georgiou? It’s Kobus.’

     ‘Ah, my friend, how goes it?’

     ‘I was just about to ask you that.’

     ‘We got the other coins – from the woods, and Maros had the first batch o= n a truck. I’m back in Athens, and those coins – they’re wort= h a lot more than two million, my friend.’

     ‘You get ten percent, that’s all, and I had to work hard to get you that.’

     ‘I won’t let you down, I’ll offload them slowly.’

     ‘And discreetly.’

     ‘Yes, yes.’

     ‘And the money for me in Switzerland?’

     ‘Hotel Nova, Maros will be there tonight for 6pm.’

     ‘Thanks.’

     Kobus drove into the centre of the city as Drake sat taking in the detail, crossi= ng over the rivers and into the run-down part of town, selecting the worst hotel he could find after circling for ten minutes. The hotel had a room, cash offer= ed.

     ‘Passport? No, I lost it,’ Kobus said in near perfect German.

     The receptionist, who was also the owner - and looked like the only employee, s= hrugged, accepting the hundred Euros handed over. When he saw Drake he just grinned.=

     In the room, Drake said, ‘This man believes me to be a young boy who takes c= oin for pleasuring old men.’

     ‘In a hotel like this, such things are common. Don’t worry about it. And = don’t ... kill him.’

     The room was stuffy and warm, no air conditioning working, but it was a base. A= nd it was anonymous. Drake tackled the black and white TV as Kobus took the fi= rst shower.

     At 5.45pm they set out again, driving to the Hotel Nova, their target not far = from the lake. They parked on the street outside the hotel and paid the fixed me= ter.

     ‘What does it do?’ Drake enquired.

     ‘You put in a coin, and that allows your car to be here for two hours. If not, t= he car is removed and you have to pay a hundred Euros or more for its return. It’s to stop too many cars from blocking easy access down the streets= .’ He nudged Drake away, but they walked right past the Nova Hotel, Kobus chec= king faces and cars, but - more importantly – he allowed Drake time to get= a feel for anyone who was anxious.

     After a meandering stroll right around the hotel, Drake didn’t sense anythi= ng amiss. They entered the hotel, moving through reception and to the bar. Kob= us spotted Maros sat in a corner, the buyer a silver-haired Greek of sixty yea= rs of age - and of a morally casual attitude. A younger man sat with him, a fit looking man.

     Both men looked up as Kobus approached, then lifted up. They shook, smiles exchanged.

     ‘Come, sit, have a drink,’ Maros urged. ‘It has been six months, my friend. I don’t see you at the casino.’

     ‘Always working, you know me.’ They sat. ‘This is Drake, he’s a .= .. computer wizard. A hacker, you know.’

     Maros nodded towards Drake with a forced smile. Turning back to Kobus, he began, waving a finger, ‘Some of those coins are very rare, not all the same; worth a fortune without regard to the base gold.’

     ‘Good. You get forty percent.’

     ‘Forty?’ Maros pursed his lips and blew out. ‘They must be very hot for you to= be so generous.’

     ‘Yes, so be careful.’

     Maros beckoned a waitress, Kobus ordering a beer and a Sprite. ‘I have travellers cheques and bank drafts, so be careful; don’t leave them l= ying around.’ He handed over drafts for half a million Euros in total, and= Dollar travellers cheques for the same amount again, a thick bundle. ‘Dollar travellers cheques were easier.’

     ‘No problem,’ Kobus offered.

     ‘Cash is in the car. No hurry. So, what have you been up to?’

     Drake stood. ‘Please excuse myself for moving away for a small time.’= He stepped away, curiously observed by Kobus.

     ‘What nationality is he?’ Maros puzzled.

     ‘He’s Romanian, just learning English.’

     ‘He sounds like a damn computer,’ Maros quipped.

     Two minutes later, Drake returned and sat. ‘Excuse me, Mister Maros, do y= ou know a man called Vargas?’

     Maros lost his smile. ‘Yes. Why?’

     Drake glanced at Kobus. ‘I ... saw a face I considered of interest, and listened at their table. Mister Vargas wants to take the cash, and to ... slice you up.’

     Maros and his minder stiffened.

     Drake continued, ‘He employs three men who sit across the room, men from Veniceland.’

     ‘Veniceland?’ Maros repeated with a frown.

     ‘Italy,’ Kobus quickly stated. ‘Drake, stay here and ... follow the men.’ Kobus turned to Maros. ‘Let’s get to the car. Act natural, don’t look back.’ He tapped his jacket, signifying a weapon.

     A stony-faced Maros left money on the table for the drinks, the three of them= soon moving off as a group. As they entered the stairwell, the three would-be assailants followed at a discreet distance, Drake trailing close behind the= m.

     In the underground car park, Kobus checked over his shoulder as they reached Maros’s car, no signs of trouble yet. Maros opened the car whilst scanning the darkened structure, handing over a hefty holdall.

     The echoing report of a shot reached them.

     ‘Go!’ Kobus told Maros, rushing to the stairwell whilst lugging the holdall, two additional reports echoing. As he reached the base of the concrete steps, D= rake ran down to him. Glancing up, Kobus could see a hand hanging into the stair= well.

     ‘They are dead,’ Drake flatly stated.

     Kobus spun, and led Drake out, running. He passed the bag over like a rugby ball. ‘Here.’

     Drake carried the hefty bag without difficulty, both men running through the park= ed cars and across to a second set of steps. Running up the steps – thei= r footsteps echoing – they happened into an area that appeared to lead to the swimming pool. An emergency exit presented itself, the street beyond glimps= ed through glass panes containing a wire mesh. Breathing heavily, Kobus pushed down on the silver rail with a clatter and opened the door, soon in bright sunlight, turning a corner and slowing right down, the car in sight.=

     As they reclaimed the car, sirens wailed, Kobus holding off pulling out yet. T= he police car passed, halting at the main entrance, its officers inside the ho= tel when Kobus pulled slowly away.

     Drake lifted two wallets and three phones, and smiled across as they slowed in traffic.

     Kobus couldn’t resist a smile. ‘You’re quite the thief. I’= ;ve corrupted you.’

     One of the phones trilled, Drake offering it to Kobus.

     ‘It can’t be for me, so why don’t you answer it.’

     Drake peered at the phone. ‘The small green button, yes?’

     ‘Yes,’ Kobus confirmed as they pulled away from the lights.

     Drake pressed the button, and held it to his ear, as he had seen Kobus do. ‘Hello, and greetings ... I am called Drake, by what name are you cal= led ... he is deceased and no more ... yes, I killed him ... you sound most displeased, perhaps a tampon would put a skip in your step and a smile of y= our face.’

     Kobus turned and stared for a moment.

     Drake finished, ‘Thank you for your call.’ He peered at the phone. ‘Red, yes?’

     ‘Red button.’

     Drake pressed the red button several times.

     ‘What did he say?’ Kobus idly enquired as he drove.

     ‘He was looking for his friend, and most displeased at his friend’s death.’

     ‘I’m surprised the tampon advice didn’t cheer him up.’

     ‘Indeed. He said he would kill me, and very slowly.’ Drake examined his hoard.= ‘We now have three phones.’

     ‘Well done. But that hotel probably had cameras, so we’ll need to leave straight away.’

     ‘Cameras? This word seems familiar.’

     ‘A camera takes your image so that people can see it later.’

     ‘Ah, yes. In the cave, the man I kept alive, he did this.’

     ‘Aerial photography, from the bomber,’ Kobus noted.

     Back at their small and run down hotel, Drake remained with the car, the bags of clothes reclaimed, the holdall of cash having been in the boot all the whil= e. They pointed the Beemer north, towards the German border.

     ‘We now have much coin?’ Drake asked.

     ‘We have a very great amount,’ Kobus confirmed. Drake waited. Kobus said, ‘You ... want to send some to the servicemen’s families?’=

     Drake nodded.

     When Kobus spotted an internet cafe he pulled up and led Drake inside. Paying two Euros, they sat behind a screen.

     ‘A TV?’ Drake queried.

     ‘No, it’s called the Internet, a computer, a ... magic oracle of information.’ He typed in “US SERVICEMEN FOUND IN BULGARIA̶= 1;, and several stories appeared, Drake watching the mouse like a bird of prey after the mouse’s namesake. Kobus opened one story, scrolled down, and found a list of names, units and years served, home towns.

     Pausing, he said, ‘There may be an easier way.’ He Googled for veteran associations, found the right one, and clicked on the donations page, noting down an address. The girl sat at the counter had paper and a few airmail envelopes, a Euro coin handed over for them. Kobus wrote out the name of the veterans association onto several high-value travellers cheques, totalling = more than two hundred thousand dollars.

     He popped them into envelopes with a note about who the money was for, sealed = the envelopes, and wrote the address on the the front. Around the corner he bou= ght several Airmail stamps, and finally put the letters in the post box.

     Kobus explained, ‘The letters will be collected, here from this box, and ta= ken by aeroplane to America, and to the people who look after old soldiers. They’ll know what to do with it and ... good lad.’ He gave Drak= e an approving nod.

     Drake smiled back as they headed to the car. ‘We sent much coin?’

     ‘A large amount, yes,’ Kobus confirmed as they drove off.

     At the German border, Drake repeated the previous border hopping exercise, but now with two holdalls, Kobus having pointed out a distant church across the bor= der. There he met Drake forty minutes later, just as it started to get dark.

     ‘This is Germania?’ Drake asked as he clambered in, the holdalls now in the boot.

     ‘It is, but we’ll head north for a bit, then across to the Czech Republic.’

 

Bob Russell answered his phone. ‘Yes?’

     ‘Sir, the computer has thrown up a likely match to Kobus, an old fake passport – one of ours listed as destroyed. It shows use in Varna in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, and now the Swiss border with Germa= ny.’

     ‘I don’t have a map,’ Russell curtly stated.

     ‘That does put him on a course for Paris, sir.’

     ‘Move assets that way, we have enough people in Germany.’

     ‘Shall I put him on Interpol’s list?’

     ‘No, others will see it.’

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11

 

Germania

 

 

As they drove north through the dark, Drake said, ‘You a= re keeping something from me.’ He waited. ‘Something about this ca= r, and ... your papers at the crossing point.’

     Kobus took a moment. ‘Part of me ... wants to face them head on, to be foun= d, and ... I could have been more careful than I have been.’

     ‘If they come, we would fight them,’ Drake enthused.

     ‘The men that the magistrate would send are ... men like me, men who take coin t= o do a job. If you kill them, you’re breaking the sword, not killing the swordsman.’

     Drake took a moment. ‘I understand. And this troubles you.’

     ‘Half of me believes that the magistrate is lying to the king, but part of me won= ders if they have another plan, a valid plan. But the one thing that convinces me that this is important, as well= as very wrong, is you.’

     ‘It is an odd alignment of the heavens, to be for nothing,’ Drake solemnly stated.

     ‘Too damn odd.’

     ‘In order to fight the magistrate, you have to fight his soldiers, and this tro= ubles you. But is this not a test?’

     ‘A test?’ Kobus repeated as they drove.

     ‘If the fight was ... as play for a child with a sword of wood, would there be = an alignment of the forces of heaven, and would such a fight be a worthy one? = You will have to see the end, not the means.’

     ‘You’re wiser than you look,’ Kobus complained.

     ‘I have lived a long time ... and thought much. I was awakened by you, and you= say for a purpose.’ Drake took a moment, staring out of focus at the dashboard. ‘In the tenth year I mastered the demon, and tried many ti= mes to end my life. I was not successful, and worked with men of the cloth to create the cave within a cave, and to have my thoughts alone so that I would not kill.

     ‘And now, awake, I am being tested again by God, tested to do a great good, or m= any great goods. I believe that I was wrong to place myself in the cave.’=

     ‘Wrong?’

     ‘Yes, wrong. I should have been stronger, and I should have fought the demon and = ... used its strength and ... done good deeds. You, Kobus, have taught me how t= o do good deeds through evil acts. In my time, they said: evil is as evil does. I was not evil, the acts of the demon were evil. And now I do evil when I kil= l, but I am not evil, and my means will produce the ends; you will guide me – that I trust.’

     He turned his head to face Kobus. ‘But you also have your own demons within, and you also have to fight, and you also are being tested.’

     Kobus glanced at Drake as he drove along a quiet highway north. Facing ahead, he said, ‘How do you turn half a belief ... into a full belief, and sleep soundly?’

     ‘Only you can answer that, since you fight your own heart, Kobus van der Schule. = Maybe, you must give in to what your heart is telling you to do.’

     Kobus pulled off at the next service station. After a moment sat thinking, he attended a payphone, many coins placed in, and dialled a number. As he wait= ed, he took in the fire-fighting equipment laid out against the wall; sand, a f= ire blanket, an extinguisher.

     ‘Duty officer?’ came a British voice, a dull roar of traffic surrounding Ko= bus.

     ‘I know you’re recording this.’ He took a breath. ‘This is K= obus van der Schule, South African national with a British passport, currently in the employment of the CIA. Message for your director: Pop-Dragon is out of = the box, Uncle Sam happy to see it go pop somewhere - it’ll justify a few years worth of budget increase. I’ll be on this number for the next thirty minutes.’

     He hung up and stepped to the car, Drake easing out. After a moment, the traff= ic roaring past, Kobus glanced up at the yellow lights illuminating the foreco= urt. He finally said, ‘As far as the magistrate is concerned, I just slit = my own throat.’

     ‘Do you feel lighter?’

     Kobus made a face and nodded.

     Five minutes later the phone rang, Kobus stepping across to it. ‘Kobus.= 217;

     ‘Deputy Director, at home. But when our people ran the name, well – I figured we’d best chat.’

     ‘You’re familiar with Pop-Dragon?’

     ‘I am, and the system says that you used to be a Captain in our Army, a questi= on mark now as to your ... loyalties.’

     ‘I offered you my services, but you declined, so I work for the CIA - all part= of NATO and on the same side. A bit like an RAF pilot on secondment to the States.’

     ‘Not ... quite the same.’

     ‘Have you been following the action in Bulgaria?’

     ‘The report is on my desk.’

     ‘Everything that happened there was either about me, done by me, or to do with me.̵= 7;

     ‘That’s ... most disturbing.’

     ‘Yeah, well you’ll not like this next part then. A few CIA freelancers, list= ed as being in Iraq, came for me in Bulgaria - and missed. I was on an innocuo= us job, following a lead, something to do with the sale of arms. Four determin= ed individuals tried to kill me, and I had a chat afterwards; I identified the= m.

     ‘In Varna, I followed a lead to a marina, and got a detonator off a boat before= it blew. That detonator was made to order by the Russians: a master synchronis= er wired to three hubs, six wires down to specialised thermal detonators, fixed length, good workmanship. And I’d seen it before, in Iraq with Dr Kamil.’

     ‘You’re certain of that?’

     ‘I’ve killed quite a few people lately, that’s how certain I am. It only ha= s the one use, and that’s Pop-Dragon.’

     ‘Every study we’ve conducted says that Pop-Dragon is ... extremely difficult= to make go pop, extremely difficult.’

     ‘Dr Kamil is missing, and I think his wife and kid were in the villa that blew.’

     ‘Ah.’

     ‘If he puts his mind to it, he might make it go pop. His chemicals are missing = as well.’

     ‘They’re supposed to be guarded by US forces in Iraq. Which begs the questions as to= ... how they were released.’

     ‘My own people have been taking shots at me, and Pop-Dragon is out. Put two and= two together ... and justify your fucking salary.’

     ‘What exactly are you looking for from us?’

     ‘Question is, what are you looking for, n= ow that you know that it’s out the box? They won’t sneak it into t= he States.’

     ‘You think the target may be closer to home?’

     ‘Close enough to justify a budget increase, not so close as to destroy the US econ= omy. Is there anyone else’s economy that they don’t give a shit abou= t? Would a nice target be ... Paris, or Rome maybe?’

     ‘This will need to be handled with the utmost discretion -’

     ‘Why do you think they’re trying to kill me? And if you keep this quiet, a= nd Rome goes, I’d not like to be the one that explains it to the Italian= s. Would you?’

     ‘As I said, it’s a delicate matter. Do you need a little ... close protection?’

     ‘No, I can look after myself,’ Kobus said, a glance at Drake sat in the ca= r. ‘I was in this fight at the start, and I’ll see it through. Jus= t keep a channel open to me, and if I find the weapon be ready to act quickly, eve= n if you have to step on a few toes.’

     Back in the car, Kobus sat and stared at the traffic whizzing past for a minute.=

     ‘Do you have a course of action?’ Drake finally asked.

     ‘In hindsight, we should have tried to extract more information from the people= in Varna, but I suspect that they wouldn’t have known much more.’<= /span>

     ‘And what lies in Germania?’

     ‘A man who may have some answers.’

     They exchanged looks, and drove on.

 

North of Munich, on Route 93, Drake turned fully around in his= seat and peered behind. ‘Men follow.’

     ‘Face forwards, don’t let them see that we know,’ Kobus urged. ‘= ;How many cars?’

     ‘Two cars, but another comes closer from afar. Eight men. These men are ... sadi= stic, if I say it correctly.’   <= /span>    

     ‘Sadistic?’ Kobus repeated as he checked his mirrors.

     ‘They wish not only to complete their assigned task, but to enjoy it.’

     ‘Kinda wish I hadn’t explained that word to you,’ Kobus said as he indicated, changing lanes for the next exit. ‘And their assigned task?’

     ‘To kill you,’ Drake flatly stated. ‘But they wish to question you first.’

     ‘Yeah, no doubt,’ Kobus said as he took the next exit. An off-ramp led them lower, and to a roundabout under the highway, traffic lights controlling the traffic. ‘Hang on,’ Kobus said with some menace.

     He swerved around the line of cars, and sped straight through the lights, maki= ng side contact with another BMW, Drake staring wide-eyed at the other driver = as that man swerved. Horns sounded as Kobus threw the car the wrong way around= the roundabout - coming off left as cars screeched to a halt, and bounced over a median into the right lane, flooring it as the road ahead seemed clear.

     ‘They follow,’ Drake stated, looking back. ‘But their carriage is in = need of repair.’

     Kobus took the next exit, seeing ahead of him the dark outline of a forested area= . Braking hard, Drake placing a hand on the dashboard, Kobus slowed down enough to tu= rn safely. He left the main road, crashing straight through a metal cattle gate and onto a rough concrete road, a private road through ploughed fields, a hundred yards and to the start of the trees.

     ‘They come,’ Drake stated as the Beemer’s tyres growled over the hard concrete surface, the car’s headlights soon only penetrating a few ya= rds ahead of them as they followed a winding path. Another gate presented itsel= f, no time to react, smashed through, a headlight now out, the windscreen crac= ked on one side.

     The path straightened out for fifty yards, Kobus flooring it when he could see ahead clearly, and they passed a large metal shed. To Kobus, it reminded hi= m of a cattle shed. Beyond it, he turned off the headlights.

     ‘Get ready to jump out!’ he told Drake, the car now issuing an unhealthy scraping sound. ‘When I say, jump out and wait for them, but wait for= the second or third car before attacking them. I’ll distract them.’=

     Kobus swung the car tightly around a bend, and sped past a line of trees, the concrete track a dark grey against the black of the trees. As the end of the straight stretch of track neared, Kobus hit the brakes and skidded in the m= ud, despite the ABS brakes. He and Drake jumped out, Kobus grabbing a holdall w= ith money, but not for the cash; his pistol was in it. Lugging the heavy bag, he disappeared into the thick trees, approaching headlights glimpsed out of the corner of his eye.

     The first tail car slowed, noticing the Beemer at a standstill, the Beemer̵= 7;s doors now hanging wide open.

     The passenger lifted his radio. ‘They are on foot.’

      The driver switched his vehicleR= 17;s lights off, and eased slowly forwards, coming to a stop twenty yards from t= he BMW. They opened doors and drew pistols, but waited for a second vehicle to pull up, a jeep with four men in. Those four men jumped down with MP5’= ;s, the clicks of weapons cocking being the only sound to penetrate the blackness as eyes scanned the dark tree line.

     The passenger of the lead car gave a hand signal. Three men moved left, two to = the right, a third vehicle approaching at speed. It skidded to a halt, the passenger of the lead car directing its two men out and forwards.

     Kobus tried to slow his breathing, his knees now on moist soil, his nostrils full= of the smell of cow dung. He unzipped the holdall and pulled out his pistol, checking it as quietly as he could whilst staring through the trees and bus= hes at the light given off by his BMW. He knew that three vehicles had halted, = and that he could be facing ten or twelve men – all armed. Not to mention sadistic.

     A branch broke, in his two o’clock position. He froze. Lowering his hea= d towards the dark outline of the bag, he pulled out a thick wad and launched it back towards the car, the wad landing just two yards from the BMW. The Beemer’s doors were open, the internal light on, and the wad should h= ave been visible where it lay.

     Craning his neck, he lifted up, now noticing two men edging slowly towards the car, pistols levelled. The men could see no one in the car, and moved to the open doors, both men turning in opposite directions and outwards from the car, e= ach step slowly measured, pistols moving back and forth ready.

     Crunch. Someone was in Kobus’s three o’clock position, maybe ten yards away. Time was running short.

     ‘Hans! Come!’

     Kobus grinned; the first man had found the wad. Easing up, he could see the man back-tracking to the car, a second and third man soon there. They opened the boot with pistols drawn, as if someone might be hiding in the boot, and discovered one of the holdall stuffed full of Euros. The other men were cal= led in, soon something of a debate going on in hushed tones, the debate becoming something of a heated argument. Kobus moved.

     He made it to the edge of the trees, unheard and unseen, finding a very nice target; six men closely bunched up. Taking a deep breath, his raised his pistol, took aim, and fired off eight rounds in quick succession before throwing himself to one side and crawling desperately.

     Several shots came back, rounds pinging off trees as he crawled frantically through= the undergrowth. Automatic fire sounded out, the trees above him registering do= zens of hits.

     As he crawled away on his elbows, now covered in dirt and leaves, groans and moans registered through the dark, coming from the men he had shot. And he figured that each of the eight rounds fired had found a target, possibly some men h= it twice. He found the holdall by accidentally clambering over it, noting its texture, and eased up. The wild shooting towards him had halted, and now he could see men being dragged. Lifting the holdall, he edged closer; two roun= ds left in the pistol, one spare magazine.

     Peering through the “V” made by two branches, he suddenly remembered Dr= ake as a body landed on the BMW, penetrating the rear windscreen head first wit= h a loud smash. Those men that had been wounded, and had been leant against the car, were surprised to say the least.

     A distant scream registered, the reports of two rounds echoing about the tree= s. But as Kobus focused on the men near the car, a long metal pole flew in from the side, skewering two men and pinning them to the BMW. Kobus had to look twice, as the men hung there like limp rag dolls threaded by a giant knitti= ng needle.

     The sound of distant glass breaking, and two cracks of pistol shot, encouraged = Kobus to inch closer to the car. Noticing a wounded man, sat against a wheel but = now raising a hand and pistol towards the other vehicles, Kobus fired at the ma= n, a chest shot. The man slumped.

     A crack past Kobus’s head caused him to duck. Crawling on his elbows ag= ain, he could see the darkened outline of a wounded man pulling back the slide o= f a pistol. As he made ready, a body fell out of the sky and landed on the man, knocking down both that man, and a second wounded man.

     Kobus edged closer again, seeing a darkened figure crawling on his knees on the f= ar side of the track. A single shot, a head shot, and the man slumped. Kobus dropped the magazine into his hand and pocketed it, a fresh magazine slapped in, the slide pulled back and released.

     Drake appeared on the track, a long metal pole in his hand. He stood over the last man that Kobus had shot, stretched up and stabbed down, pulling the pole ba= ck up afterwards. In turned, he skewered each man on the ground, two only woun= ded and still moving before being skewered.

     Kobus moved cautiously out to Drake, his pistol aimed back down the track.=

     ‘They are all now dead,’ Drake flatly stated. He left the pole in the last victim, and studied the BMW. ‘We shall require a further carriage.= 217;

     ‘No shit,’ Kobus said as he straightened. ‘Grab the money. Quickly.= ’

     Drake struggled to lift the boot and edge it upright - the two skewered men left vertical, = and lifted out the bags, catching up to Kobus at the first vehicle. That vehicle now had a gunman through its windscreen, so was passed around. The second c= ar was on its roof, legs sticking out from beneath, but the third vehicle, a Range Rover, was fine, keys in the ignition.

     Kobus dumped the holdall on the back seat, Drake hurriedly throwing in the other bags. ‘Quick. Go back and check the car for anything that’s ours,’ Kobus said as he jumped in. He started the car, closed his door and pulled along the track, past the car on its roof, edging past the second vehicle and approaching their Beemer with the Range Rover’s lights on= .

     Drake ran to the passenger door, holding their clothes bags, but also holding up = the disposable toothbrush. He waited.

     ‘You wouldn’t want to leave that, now would you,’ Kobus sarcastically told Drake. Drake jumped in, the Range Rover bumping over legs as it edged around the BMW, low tree branches scraping over it. Sirens could now be hea= rd.

     Kobus followed the track to a junction, seeing street lamps across a ploughed fie= ld. ‘Hold on.’ He floored the pedal in a low gear, and sped across = the hard brown soil, creating an unnatural sound for any driver or passenger, d= irt pinging off the mudguards and wheel arches, quite a roar. They bumped across the field, smashed through a wooden gate, and lurched onto the road, straightening up. Turning right, they could now see flashing blue lights in= the trees.

     Kobus blew out, steadying himself. ‘Fuck.’

     ‘You are well?’ Drake enquired.

     ‘I’ll be OK after a bite to eat, a hot bath, a few beers and a good cry.’

     Drake reached into his jacket, and produced two mobile phones, holding them up. O= ne started to pulse and flash. ‘What is it doing?’

     ‘It’s ringing, but silently; the volume was turned off.’ He shot Drake a lo= ok. ‘Why don’t you answer it?’

     They turned a corner, and followed a road with a sign for the highway.

     Drake pressed the green button. ‘Hello, how are you?’ Drake flatly stated, getting a look from Kobus. ‘I am being called Drake. Hans? He= is dead. Yes, dead, I killed him. Also his seven friends. If we are messing with the wrong people, the= n who should we be messing with? Where might we find them? Hello?’

     Drake lowered the phone and pressed the red button. ‘What is ... messing?’

     ‘It means ... to involve yourself with someone else’s commerce.’

     ‘This phone is very pretty.’

     ‘It can also be used to track us,’ Kobus pointed out. ‘Turn them off for now.’

     ‘Off?’

     ‘Press the red button and hold, or a button on the top. The lights will go out.= 217;

     It took Drake a few minutes, each phone being passed over to make sure that it= was off.

    

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12

 

Rules of the game

 

 

As they drove northeast, Drake complained that he had not lear= nt to drive the Beemer before the car had been abandoned, Kobus promising faithfu= lly to start lessons soon – whilst pointing out who wrecked the Beemer. The debate raged as to who was responsible for the damage.

     Approaching the Czech border, Kobus figured that their new vehicle would, most likely, = be stopped, and that his fake ID was probably now flagged. He couldn’t r= isk using it again, not unless he wanted to attract some attention. They abando= ned the car on a dark hillside, a gentle push starting it off, the Range Rover bouncing down a steep grassy slope towards trees, a crash heard through the= dark. And Drake, he complained at length about the waste of the fine carriage, one that he could have learnt to drive in.

     Through dark woods, Drake lugged the bags of cash, Kobus the bags of clothes. Fortunately, it was warm night, no sign of rain to spoil things. At the bor= der fence they ignored the warning signs, Kobus directing Drake towards a secti= on of wire that was often cut, and a section that the authorities didn’t care too much about. Halting every once and a while, Drake felt for the presence of anyone nearby.

     They slipped through a part of the modest border fence that was already cut, acr= oss a neatly trimmed section of grass and a paved road, and to a second parallel fence, that barrier also already cut.

     ‘This important wall between kingdoms has a hole,’ Drake noted as he pushed through with the money bags, now just a dark outline ahead of Kobus.=

     ‘People use it for child trafficking into Germany,’ Kobus whispered through t= he dark. ‘Criminal gangs bring teenage girls across to Germany so that f= at old men can lay down with them for coin.’

     ‘It is against the law of the magistrate?’ came from up ahead.

     ‘It is. A girl must be sixteen years of age first.’

     They started up a grass bank.

     ‘In my time, a girl would be married by this age, or sold into the service of a house or castle.’

     Kobus panted as he climbed the slope. ‘I think we can safely say ... that y= oung girls ... are treated better these days. They go to school ... to college .= .. and get good jobs.’

     ‘I often thought of the girl I was promised to, when I was in the cave, of what may have become of us and our children. I had wished for fine sons.’<= /span>

     Kobus reached a ridge and halted, standing in a cooling breeze for a moment whils= t staring down at the lights of a village. ‘She may have found a nice man after= you left, and may have been happy.’

     ‘And what of you?’ Drake asked.

     ‘I was engaged once, betrothed, bu= t ... it didn’t work out. I had my job in the Army, she had a job with a charity called UNICEF, and we hardly ever saw each other.’

     ‘Charity?’

     They started down the slope. ‘A group of people who ... petition others for money to ... do good for the poor and needy.’

     ‘She sounds like a good person, to fight for good in a charity.’

     ‘Unfortunately, most of the money given to charities is used on the good lives of the peopl= e in the charity, not on the poor and needy. The people in the charity drive fine carriages.’

     ‘That would seem a falsehood; to petition for the needy, yet enjoy the trappings.= ’

     ‘You noticed that as well, did you,’ Kobus quipped.

     In the village, they found a lonely yellow taxi in the main square, and made the driver’s day with a fare to Prague, two hundred Euros agreed. They co= uld have haggled that fare down to sixty, but Kobus didn’t care; he had a= few Euros to hand.

     In central Prague, they stood and waited for the taxi to drive off, and approa= ched a second, soon taken to a small and tacky hotel near the red light district. Cash secured a room with two single beds, no questions asked, a tip left for the fat old night porter. With Drake watching TV, and also watching the mon= ey, Kobus headed out; money in his jacket, pistol in its holster.

     Through familiar and busy streets, he eventually found the bar he was looking for, = and the tattoo parlour next door. Stepping into the tattoo parlour, and into a sickly fragrance, he asked for Blok. Being shown through, he walked past a = girl having a tattoo of an apple put on her arse cheek, a second girl sat with h= er legs spread wide, a cobweb being tattooed around her pussy. She smiled up a= s he passed, smoking a joint.

     In the back room, Kobus again asked for Blok, being pointed up narrow winding step= s, and to a room that was not just painted red, but illuminated by red bulbs. A girl sat waiting, reading a magazine, a second having her clit pierced. Kob= us winced as he passed, soon through to a very small bar with as many patrons = as bar staff; one of each.

     ‘Blok around?’

     The girl behind the bar, adorned with continuous tattoos behind her flimsy white t-shirt, pointed to a door. Kobus knocked and entered, a face turning up fr= om a computer.

     ‘Kobus,’ a young man acknowledged; bald, ears pierced many times, a stud in his nose. ‘Been a few years, man.’

     Kobus plonked down onto a bright red leather sofa. ‘Need some fast work, an= d it pays very well.’

     ‘Yeah, hey, like ... cool,’ Blok let out. ‘For you?’

     ‘For me and one other.’ Kobus counted out five thousand Euros. ‘Has = to be good work, and it has to pass under scrutiny.’

     ‘Five thousand?’ The man lifted his eyebrows. ‘You’re employers= are getting generous.’

     ‘Another three thousand when I see them. I want two or three for me, same for a frie= nd. German and British for me, German and Bulgarian for him.’

     ‘Bulgarian passport will be checked at the airport, man. No fucker likes Bulgarians – ain’t properly in Europe an all.’

     Kobus considered that. ‘Make it British; they’re all foreigners anyway these days.’

     ‘When, man?’

     ‘Tomorrow.’

     ‘I’ll have to drop the smack tonight, man, and work. Bummer.’

     Kobus checked his watch. ‘It’s 3am, so not much of the night left.= 217;

     ‘I work nine to five man, like ... 9pm to 5am. After work we go out, me and the gang.’

     ‘Make an exception tonight. Next, is that crazy girl Roxy still around?’

     ‘Yeah, man, she’s out of the hole and loose on the street; on bail or someth= ing.’

     ‘Contact her for me, I have a job. Oh, and there’re a few people looking for me.’ He eased forwards and counted out another five thousand. ‘= If someone comes looking, point them to a hotel, any hotel, say I was in today= and ... coming back in a day or two, then make sure that they don’t wake = up for a week, and then with a tattoo on their faces.’

     ‘What’d you want the tat’ to be, man?’

     ‘Use your imagination, but something that would make them ... unemployable for s= py work.’

     ‘Yeah, will do, man.’

     Kobus stood. ‘Got a camera for me and the second face?’

     Blok passed up a small silver digital camera.

     ‘I’ll be fifteen minutes,’ Kobus said before he stepped out.

     He reversed course, trying not to look at the bodily alterations and adornments going on in each room. Out in the busy street – busy despite the hour= , he walked two streets over, and around to the hotel after doubling back. Drake opened the door before it was knocked. Inside, Drake combed his hair as he wanted it, hesitated, combed a different way, then finally settled on a sty= le, several snaps taken after being told not to smile so much.

     Back with Blok, Kobus handed over the camera. ‘Kid’s image is on the= re with mine.’

     ‘OK, man.’

     A knock at the door, and Kobus reached into his jacket. Blok eased up and ste= pped to the door, opening a slide. Happy with what he found, he opened the door,= a shapely and attractive woman stepping in. She was five eleven, tanned, blea= ch-dyed hair combed straight back, a diamond stud in her nose, and now wore a one-p= iece long red dress that suggested she made a living on her back. On each arm she wore black opera gloves up to her elbows.

     ‘You look familiar,’ Roxy said, heavily accented.

     ‘You did a job for me a few years back,’ Kobus told her. ‘A fat old German businessman; you liberated his briefcase, then cut his dick off just= for fun.’

     She made a face and shrugged. ‘He was a pig.’ She glided across the room and eased down into a comfortable chair. ‘What is this job?̵= 7;

     ‘Back stop.’ Kobus counted out ten thousand Euros in large notes. ‘You know that shit hotel, Camileri?’

     She nodded.

     ‘I’m there for a few days, coming back here tomorrow. Bring in some help if you = need to, the people after me are ... pro= fessionals. And you get a bonus for each action.’ He handed her a mobile, one from the men killed at the farm. ‘Turn it on and use it, and leave it somewhere; they’ll track it. See who comes out to play. Oh, thereR= 17;s a young lad with me. He is ... naive, inexperienced, but deadly when angere= d. He makes you look like a girl scout.’

     Roxy handed Blok two thousand Euros. ‘Invest it for me.’

     Kobus didn’t bother to ask what that meant, and slipped out past the naked girls, a scream signifying a new piercing. Back in the hotel room, he found Drake watching porn.

     ‘You’ll go blind,’ he told the lad, Drake puzzling that.

     ‘There is much nakedness and sex on this TV. I could not find the news programme.&= #8217;

     Kobus gave Drake a look. Finally, he commented, ‘It’s that kind of hotel.’

     Drake sniffed towards Kobus. ‘A great many strange new scents.’

     ‘You would have liked the place I just visited,’ Kobus said as he lay down. ‘And tomorrow, you’ll have papers for the borders.’

     ‘You seem happier,’ Drake noted, still focused on a gyrating threesome on = the TV.

     ‘Really?’ Kobus considered his own mood. ‘I just decided to play a few games wi= th some people ... and to hurt them. Maybe that makes me happy on some level.&= #8217;

     ‘You feel comfortable in this city,’ Drake suggested.

     ‘I worked here for two years, I know the place, and it offers us the chance to fight on better terms.’

     Drake pointed to his left without taking his gaze off the TV. ‘The people h= ere are having sex, also above, and in this other direction. This is a place for sex with coin?’

     ‘No, this is a flea-bag hotel, but right next door is where you find the girls. = Men come from far away to this city, because the magistrate here doesn’t = care about girls who sell sex; in most cities they do. Right, turn the sound dow= n, I need some sleep. Better still, turn it off, lie on the bed, and focus on the minds of those having sex.’

     Drake knocked the TV off and lay down, closing his eyes. ‘This man above, he has two girls with him.’

     ‘Lucky bugger,’ Kobus said, his own eyes closed.

     ‘We have much coin, but you do not lay down with a girl.’

     Kobus took a moment, opening his eyes and staring at the ceiling. ‘I like n= ice girls, quiet meals and walks in the park, but this job ... well, it doesn’t suit that lifestyle.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

13

 

The last day of innocence

 

 

With the sun beating through the window, Kobus eased up, findi= ng a damp young man. ‘You showered?’ he puzzled, not having heard Dr= ake during the night.

     ‘I closed the door, and I was quiet. Did I disturb you?’  

     ‘No,’ Kobus coughed out, reaching for a cigarette.

     ‘There are not many people in the hotel now, only ladies cleaning.’

     ‘Sounds about right,’ Kobus muttered as he lit up. He stood and peered out of= the window, finding an ugly view - the rear of another hotel and its rusted fire exits. Turning inwards, he took a long drag, and slowly blew out. ‘Be= st go buy a car. You can have some lessons. Stay and guard the money, and keep= an eye on the cleaners when they come in.’

     ‘I have found a place to hide our coin. Come.’

     Kobus followed Drake into the bathroom. Drake knelt, sliding a wooden bath panel along. It revealed a grubby area of old toilet rolls, an inch of dust peppe= red with dried-out old condoms, but under it all was a twelve inch metal grate.=

     Drake lifted it up with his fingers and slid it to one side. ‘It is heavy to lift, difficult to move. Here, this space, it has no scent of people, only rats; I have looked inside.’

     ‘Fine. Put the money in plastic bags, then shove it in, but ... you know, keep it within arm’s reach - or we won’t get it back. Oh, and wash your hands afterwards. Thoroughly.’

     Drake got to work, Kobus stuffing twenty thousand Euros in his jacket pocket, just forty 500 euro notes.

 

An hour later, and after a late breakfast in a cafe, they jump= ed into a taxi and headed across town, and to a row of used-car lots next to an industrial area. Drake picked out a BMW he liked, a 520 in silver, wood fin= ish, nine years old. With Drake stood admiring it, the salesman came over.

     ‘Tourist?’

     ‘We work in Germany,’ Kobus suggested. He pointed at the car in question = with his cigarette fingers. ‘How much?’

     ‘Eleven thousand.’

     ‘I forgot my passport and drivers license, they’re at the hotel.’ Kobus faced the man squarely. ‘Could I still buy it, for cash?’=

     The salesman took a moment. ‘Thirteen thousand, with no papers.’

     Kobus glanced at the car again, Drake keenly waiting, and finally nodded. Ten min= utes later they drove out of the lot, and the short distance to the industrial a= rea. There, they swapped seats.

     For an hour and a half, Drake drove around the empty industrial units. He tried a = quiet roundabout, signalled and reversed, and just about mastered parallel parking after a few minor scrapes. It was a good start, apart from the numerous cha= nges of seating position, Drake adjusting his seat up and down, back and forth.<= /span>

     ‘You’re a quick learner,’ Kobus commended as they swapped seats again. ‘= ;It took me weeks and weeks to get it right.’

     ‘Marcus learns quickly, and we share the knowledge,’ Drake explained as they joined the traffic back towards the hotel. ‘But I have noticed that w= hen you drive you do not think about what you do, you just seem ... to do it.’

     ‘If you drive for many years, then it becomes as natural as breathing.’

     Kobus had a bite to eat around the corner from the hotel, genuine tourists out and about and enjoying the historic buildings – not sex tourists, before reclaiming the room. The beds had been made, causing Drake to check the met= al grill, finding it as he had left it; covered in the kind of crap that no sa= ne person would touch without rubber gloves, a wooden stick, and a gas mask.

     ‘I’ll get some rest,’ Kobus sighed. ‘We may be out and about tonight,= all night.’

 

 

Bob Russell was sat at a large table, just the one file open, = when his assistant knocked and entered with a file. The man approached, but wait= ed.

     Russell lifted his head.

     ‘Last night, eight German assets picked up Kobus’s car at a car station nor= th of Munich. They followed, but Kobus made them, turning off the highway. The= car chase led to an isolated farm, shots fired. Kobus and one other escaped in a vehicle used by the assets.’ The man paused.

     ‘And the assets?’

     The assistant opened a file, placing down a dozen A4 black and white photograph= s. ‘From the German police.’

     Russell slowly moved the photographs aside in sequence, till they were spread across the table, lingering on an image of two men skewered into the top of the BM= W.

     ‘Sir, a wad of money was found by the police, serial numbers matching the payment made to Ramius.’

     Russell glanced up as he eased back into his chair. ‘Kobus was in the villa.’

     ‘There’s something else, sir. A Greek man named Maros, with links to Kobus and our Athens office, paid Kobus two million Euros in Zurich, for a large stash of gold coins.’

     ‘Gold ... coins?’ Russell puzzled.

     ‘Yes, sir. This man Maros is selling them on the assumption that they were ours, money to be paid into Company accounts in Athens, less the two million he handed Kobus. The coins, sir, are estimated to be worth five million dollar= s or more.’

     ‘What the fuck was Kobus doing with five million dollars worth of gold coins?R= 17; Russell banged the table with his faced. ‘Who is this man!’

     ‘He’s obviously not who we thought, sir, he’s been playing us for years.= 217;

     ‘Working for ... who,’ Russell said as he stood, stepping to the window and peering through the blinds.

     ‘The ... Russians, sir?’

     ‘The Russians couldn’t organise a tea party. No, this smacks of a private body.’

     ‘Not the British, sir?’

     ‘No, they’d not go up against us. Besides, they only have half a dozen fie= ld agents worth a damn, and they don’t carry weapons.’ He turned. ‘Have the money, the deaths, and Kobus linked, put him on our wanted = list – no one could argue with that now. Send our best teams to hunt him down.’

     ‘Paris, sir?’

     ‘Paris,’ Russell confirmed, turning back to the window.

 

 

An hour later, Drake shook Kobus awake, a hand over Kobus̵= 7;s mouth. ‘A woman approaches.’

     A knock came at the door.

     ‘What’s her name?’ Kobus whispered.

     ‘Rock. She means no harm.’

     Kobus nodded, eased up and answered the door to Roxy, letting her in. Stood now in jeans and a white t-shirt, a blue denim jacket, she looked Drake over as he smiled politely back, and finally claimed a chair. ‘Drake, this is Ro= xy. Roxy, this is Drake.’ Kobus and Drake eased down onto the beds, facing their guest.

     ‘I put on the phone and called some numbers of girls,’ Roxy began. ‘After I saw you. Now, two stiff fuckers sit in the cafe where I use = it, and drink coffee like they want a laxative.’

     ‘How far?’

     ‘Two streets over, on the main road.’

     Kobus pulled out a 500 euro note. ‘Take my young friend to the cafe, sit and talk for ten minutes close to them. He may know their faces ... from ... before.’

     She eased up, pocketed the money, and led Drake towards the door after looking = him over again.

     ‘Roxy,’ Kobus called. ‘He is more than he seems.’

     She stared back for a moment, shrugging a shoulder before leading a keen Drake = down the corridor. Outside the hotel, and now in bright sunlight, Drake walked alongside her as they navigated around the middle-aged tourist couples, the= afternoon hot.

     ‘I have been learning to drive a car,’ Drake volunteered.

     She glanced his way. ‘I don’t drive,’ she curtly got out,

     ‘I enjoy it greatly,’ Drake informed her as they crossed a road.<= /p>

     ‘You are young to be working with Kobus,’ she queried.

     ‘I am ... older than I appear.’

     She shot him a disbelieving look. ‘You like danger, eh?’

     Drake took a moment, adopting his serious head. ‘Death has no meaning for m= e. But I hope to live long enough to do great goods, for which I shall be judged.’

     She puzzled that as they walked.

     In the cafe, they approached the counter and ordered drinks, a cappuccino for her = and a Sprite for him, and sat behind the men in question, one of the men idly l= ooking them over as they sat. Drake sat facing the watchers, both men appearing to= be in their late thirties, thickset and strong, now sat with padded jackets and baseball caps - and nursing coffee cups.

     Roxy whispered, ‘You know...?’ she ended by gesturing with her eyes = and tipping her head slightly.

     Drake nodded, a phone trilling a second later, one of the men taking a call. Drake listened in, much “yeah, yeah” and “right”, little else. After the call, Drake decided to make small talk. ‘Do you ... h= ave a family?’

     She stared back for a moment. ‘No.’ She looked away.

     He thought up another question ‘Do you ... like TV?’

     She stared back for several seconds. ‘Sometimes.’

     Their drinks were placed down by a girl in an apron.

     ‘I like Friends.’

     She shrugged, disinterested. ‘I saw it once.’

     Drake had been reading her mind, and now changed track. ‘Do you like small dogs?’

     She nodded. ‘Yes.’

     ‘I raised a Spaniel in Bulgaria,’ he lied.

     She brightened. ‘I have a Spaniel.’

     ‘Mine was orange-brown, a white nose.’

     She tried to hide a smile. ‘Mine too, always eating my fucking shoes.R= 17;

     ‘I put my slippers and shoes up high,’ Drake said, having read it in her= .

     She coughed out a laugh. ‘That just makes mine scratch the chair.’<= /span>

     ‘Is there ... a good park here?’

     She thumbed over her shoulder. ‘Across the river, a nice walk next to the river.’

     ‘It’s good to be alone with just the dog, I can ... leave the world behind for a = few hours.’

     She nodded, taking several seconds. ‘How did you get into this work?̵= 7;

     ‘I ... began when I was young.’

     ‘Have you ... killed anyone?’

     Drake inched his head closer. ‘A great many.’

     ‘You are young enough to study, to do something ... better.’

     ‘There is no better calling ... than what I now do.’

     ‘You trust him? He might get you killed.’

     ‘We are both equal partners in the game of chance, as are you.’

     She glanced out of the window. ‘I stabbed a man when I was thirteen, was a prostitute at fourteen, in prison at sixteen.’ She made a dismissive face, and tackled her coffee.

     ‘And yet ... you care for a dog. You walk it, feed it, and love it. You are not lost, you only think you are lost.’

     She frowned back. ‘Now you do sound older, much older.’

     A man stepped in, to the counter, but noticed Roxy. ‘You fucking bitch!R= 17; he loudly called.

     Drake was up quickly, and presented himself in the man’s path, the two watc= hers now keenly attentive to what might be a situation. The man, middle-aged and fat, swung an arm to move Drake aside, startled by the immovable object. He stepped around, only to be blocked by Drake, who now had his chin on his ch= est, his eyes half closed.

     Frustrated, the man threw a punch, hitting Drake in the chin. Drake hardly moved, the m= an shaking his fist.

     ‘Withdraw,’ Drake firmly suggested.

     The man shook off his hand, and shook off his surprise, intent on getting to Ro= xy. Drake read the man’s mind, and made up his own mind. He grabbed the m= an by the arm, swung him around at waist height, and launched him straight at = the heads of the two watchers. Screams rose up as the man smashed through the p= late glass window, the two watchers stunned from the impact, following the man through the window and into the street.

     Drake jumped up onto seats and out into the street, landing in broken glass next = to the watchers and relieving one of them of a mobile without anyone seeing. A glance back at Roxy, and Drake walked off at a pace, ducking through the tourists. At the hotel, he knocked on the room door, Kobus opening it with a hand inside his jacket.

     ‘How’d it go?’ Kobus asked, a glance down the corridor before closing the do= or.

     ‘Well.’ Drake handed over a mobile. ‘The man who possessed this phone spoke to Johansson, who is here in the city.’

     ‘Here?’ Kobus loudly queried.

     ‘Yes, here, at a Hotel Grand.’

     Kobus waved the mobile. ‘And Roxy?’

     ‘Unharmed.’

     ‘The two men?’ Kobus pressed, his eyebrows raised.

     ‘Alive, but sleeping.’

     A knock came at the door.

     ‘It is Roxy,’ Drake stated, Kobus answering the door. She walked in, and stopped at Drake, her hands on her hips. After a second, she turned to Kobu= s. ‘He is stronger than he looks.’

     Kobus smiled and nodded.

     ‘He threw a man through a window,’ she reported.

     ‘It wouldn’t be the first time,’ Kobus responded.

     She lifted a mobile. ‘From the other man.’

     Kobus turned them both off. ‘OK, Roxy, go to the Hotel Grand, and see who l= ooks out of place. Take a girlfriend; I want twenty-four hour cover.’ He handed her another 500 Euro note.

     She studied Drake for a few seconds, and stepped out.

     ‘I like her,’ Drake said as the door was closed. ‘She has a good heart.’

     ‘A good heart? She’s a killer. And she enjoys it!’

     ‘She enjoys hurting men who like to hurt women, because when she was ten years o= ld she was hurt many times by her father and uncle.’

     Kobus took a moment, looking away. ‘Ah.’

     ‘But she has a dog she loves. She fights the bad men her way, and we fight them = our way, no.’

     ‘I guess there are parallels.’

     ‘We will attack the men at this hotel?’

     ‘We will,’ Kobus firmly stated. ‘And we’ll get some answers.’

    

Johansson ran a hand over his shortly cropped grey hair, and t= urned away from the window of his room at the Grand Hotel. ‘You lost your phones?’ He waited.

     The two watchers from the cafe stood with plasters on the faces and hands, a th= ird man sat near. They glanced at each other. ‘Someone picked them up –’

     ‘While you were taking a nap; a stunt made to look like a simple brawl, intended to liberate your phones. If your wallets had gone I could have put it down to locals – but they took only your phones.’

     The man in the chair put in, ‘Kobus has no phone tracking kit, and the ph= ones were switched off within minutes, meaning that someone simply sold them on.’

     Johansson took a moment. ‘Maybe.’ He closed in on the two watchers. ‘Last call made.’ He pointed at the first man.

     ‘Him,’ he said, motioning towards his buddy.

     Johansson slid his finger across to the second man.

     ‘Sports betting results,’ the man admitted.

     ‘Did either of you call this hotel?’

     ‘Ain’t got the number; we’d call your mobile, and that re-directs.’

     Johansson glanced at the man sat down, and turned back to the window. ‘Describe= the kid.’

     ‘Twenty, thin, jet black hair. It looked dyed.’

     ‘Pale complexion?’ Johansson nudged as he turned back towards them.<= /p>

     The two men nodded, Johansson making eye contact with the man in the chair.

     ‘Go and get cleaned up.’ With the men gone, Johansson joined the man sat down. ‘Same kid. They’re here.’

     ‘Why ... are they here?̵= 7; the second man asked.

     ‘If they have the money, then to offload it maybe, launder it maybe. First, they’ll need a new ID.’

     ‘I’ll start checking the forgers. You know Kobus worked this patch for two years.= ’

     Johansson nodded. ‘He knows the turf, we don’t. He’ll have connecti= ons here, he won’t be in a hotel room; he’ll be shacked up with some old girlfriend, or a hooker.’

     ‘We still don’t know what he’s into,’ the second man cautione= d. ‘Or with whom? They chopp= ed up four guys in Sophia, four in Varna – in broad daylight, and eight in Germany – Kobus leading our people straight into a carefully prepared trap.’ The man eased forwards. ‘They were sliced and diced, so = this has to be a Russian gang thing.’

     Johansson took a moment. ‘We’re thin on the evidence - either way; fucking Kobus has been playing both sides for years. Riggs has been suspended; he’s back Stateside having a torch shone up his ass.’

     The second man stood. ‘I’ll make you this bet: when you find him, there’ll be twenty Russian gunmen over your shoulder, all wanting a s= mall piece of you.’

     He left Johansson with that thought.

 

At 7pm, as it started to get dark, Kobus led Drake out, and Johansson’s associate was correct - there would be a few Russian gangsters about. With their jackets stuffed full of cash, they walked a few streets through early revellers, and to a club that was just opening, a nod= at the doorman. Inside the quiet club, just the one lone punter starting early, Kobus asked for a Demitri, being shown to a table to wait.

     Demitri was a short and grey-haired man, dressed now in a casual blue blazer that appeared too big for him. He came flanked by two heavies, both men around t= wo feet taller than their boss. ‘Kobus, long time,’ he offered as = they shook, his words accented.

     ‘Got a private room?’

     ‘Come, this way, we’ll talk.’ Demitri led them to an office, and to a cluttered desk of invoices and receipts. ‘Drink?’

     ‘Not yet, it’s going to be a long night.’

     ‘You have something on tonight, no?’ Demitri asked, pouring himself a drin= k.

     ‘I need a few boys,’ Kobus began, taking out the wads of cash. Drake fol= lowed suit with a cheery smile, soon quite a bundle handed over. ‘That shou= ld be a hundred thousand Euros, more or less.’

     ‘How many fucking boys do you want?’ Demtri asked, motioning towards the m= oney. ‘And for what?’

     ‘I’ve ... fallen out with my former paymasters, they’ve ... sent a team for me.’

     ‘Ah, they wish to close the chapter in the book, clean up the mess, sweep it und= er the rug,’ Demitri said, waving an arm.

     ‘Thanks for the analogy,’ Kobus quipped.

     ‘What thanks for your hard work, eh? It’s poor that they do not look after their people.’

     ‘Yeah, so, down to business. There’ll be another hundred thousand tomorrow – if I’m still alive. Starting ten minutes ago, I want your peo= ple out looking for Americans who can handle themselves. When they find them, I want them injected with morphine, even if it’s done in the street.= 217;

     ‘You want them asleep, not dead,’ Demitri noted, easing back and cradling = his drink.

     ‘They’re just doing their jobs,’ Kobus responded. ‘It’s their boss I’m interested in. At ten o’clock exactly I want a car set on f= ire, a hundred yards from the Grand Hotel. At ten thirty exactly I want smoke canisters let loose inside the hotel, and around the outsides.’

     Demitri made notes.

     ‘That’s all for now.’

     ‘I hope there’s not an American football team visiting,’ Demitri quipped. ‘We will use a lot of morphine for nothing!’

     Kobus smiled as he stood. ‘They’ll get over it. Oh, do you have some = 9mm ammo?’

     Demitri opened a desk draw and produced two boxes. ‘Enough?’

     ‘Enough,’ Kobus confirmed.

     Demitri tipped his head towards Drake as he stood. ‘You play a dangerous game, for such young company.’

     ‘He’s ... much stronger than he looks, a top agent.’

     ‘Yes?’ Demitri made a face, a big shrug issued. ‘We’ll be ready, don’t worry, my friend.’

     Outside, Kobus asked, ‘Did you sense deceit?’

     ‘No, he will do as asked.’

     They navigated their way down busy streets, tourists out for their evening meals, the first hard-core sex tourists on the prowl. Around the first corner, Dra= ke suddenly shoved Kobus into a noisy bar, flashing neon everywhere, the two of them immersed into the droning beat of techno.

     Drake placed his mouth close to Kobus’s ear. ‘Someone approaches; they think they know your face.’

     They slowly eased past the drinkers, most people in this bar drinking whilst standing, = and towards the toilets.

     ‘American?’ Kobus asked, Drake nodding. He halted behind a pillar. ‘Punch to the stomach.’ He tapped his abdomen. ‘Here. Don’t hurt them t= oo much.’

     Drake spun around the pillar as Kobus stood with his back to it, and weaved throu= gh a party of Brits on a stag weekend. Sensing the two men enter, Drake edged through the Brits, the two large men now looking every which way apart from= at him. Drake stepped left, smiling at a group of people - as if part of their group, and edged side-on to the two men. At the last moment, one of the men stared straight at him, a glance at the dyed black hair.

     Drake moved quickly, ducking low and coming up, a punch to the stomach that bent = the big man in half. A strong hand slapped down onto Drake’s shoulder from behind. Drake took a half step back and bent forwards a little, soon elbowi= ng the man in the solar plexus, the man crumbling to the floor.

     People had now moved back, a gap formed, two bouncers rushing over.

     Drake tapped his back pocket. Loudly, he said, ‘They try to take my money.’

     Given the reputation of bars in this city, no one was surprised, and no one had a= ny sympathy for the men on the floor. Drake headed quickly to the door, Kobus outside a minute later. They said nothing as they weaved through the crowds= , now being extra careful, and managed to get safely back to the hotel after doub= ling back.

     In the room, Kobus said, ‘Time for a change of hair colour I think.’ He stepped out of the room, and to a store cupboard at the end of the corridor, pinching a bottle of bleach. Back in the room, he directed a curious Drake towards the bathroom, soon running the warm water into the sink, the plug in the hole. With the sink almost full, Kobus squeezed out a little bleach, sl= owly swirling it with a hand.

     Put your head in, close your eyes, and wash your hair in it for five minutes.

     Kobus left the lad to it. Back in the room, he took off his jacket and lit up, opening the window. As an afterthought he closed the curtains tightly and s= at on the bed.

     By time he finished his cigarette, Drake was out, towelling his hair, which was now black in places, grey in others, blonde spots visible. ‘You ... y= ou look fine.’

     Drake paused, and returned to the bathroom to study his new hairstyle the mirror. ‘This is fitting?’ he loudly asked.

     ‘Yes, you have ... highlights,’= Kobus shouted.

     Drake appeared. ‘You find this new style amusing.’ He waited.<= /p>

     Kobus eased up. ‘The important thing ... is not to look as we did before,’ he said as he brushed past and into the bathroom.

     He took off his t-shirt, squirted more bleach into the sink, and washed his own hair in it at length. When done, he wrapped his head in a towel and took another cigarette, Drake combing his hair in a dresser mirror.

     ‘You look fine,’ Kobus insisted. ‘And you must have seen people here with hair like this.’

     ‘How do you appear?’ Drake ask= ed, looking up, and looking none too pleased.

     ‘I’ll wash out the bleach in the shower in a minute, save smelling of it all nigh= t. You can hop in first if you like.’ Drake stood. ‘Use a lot of s= oap on your hair, to get rid of the smell.’

     ‘You still find my hair amusing,’ Drake complained as he headed to the sho= wer, Kobus resisting a smile.

     After Kobus had showered, his hair was closer to a natural dark brown, but lighte= r in a few places, not too many streaks. But Drake was not a happy bunny.=

     ‘Look,’ Kobus said. ‘Tomorrow we’ll go to a hairdresser, and you can ha= ve any colour you like, just ... not black.’

     Drake bent over and studied himself in the dresser mirror again.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14

 

Into the fire

 

 

At 9.15pm, Kobus checked his pistol, placed a bundle of cash i= n his jacket, but then hesitated. He leant against the dresser and lit up.=

     ‘You are again uncertain of a course of action,’ Drake noted, sat in front= of the TV, the sound turned down.

     Kobus pursed his lips, and slowly blew out a pall of grey smoke. Softly, he began, ̵= 6;Part of me ... part of me still thinks like a normal person, not one who’l= l be dead in a few days. Part of me ... still foolishly believes that ... that o= nce this is all over he’ll go back to work, or maybe change jobs, or take= a holiday.’ He coughed out a small laugh, and shook his head.

     ‘You are following your head, but not your heart.’

     Kobus nodded, and took a drag. ‘Part of me ... wants to go on, to ... take = part in that constant struggle of Rachel and Ross, that struggle of work, and family, and relationships. I want to have ... options, and I have no options.’ He took in their run-down hotel room. ‘They may not have a perfect life, Rachel and Ross, but t= hey have options, and they don’t have anyone shooting at them.’

     ‘We must consider the mission, the end, and not the means - or the steps in between.’

     ‘Yes,’ Kobus finally agreed. ‘I know that, I just wish I could ... rid mysel= f of that ... urge to survive.’

     ‘If you did that, you would not be a person,’ Drake noted. ‘The tes= t, your test, is the battle you now have, that of a person who wishes the life= of Rachel and Ross, yet must step into fire for the good of others. Your rewar= d, Kobus van der Schule, will be in your own heart.’

     Kobus stepped across to the window, and peered through a crack in the curtains, a slight breeze caressing his face. ‘Self sacrifice. And, even with all the evidence laid out in front of me, I still have a doubt.’

     Drake turned off the TV, checked his watch, and stood. ‘If you did not have= a doubt, you would not be a man.’ He waited. ‘It is time.’<= /span>

     Kobus flicked his cigarette out of the window. ‘Into the fire we go.’= Putting on his jacket, he said, ‘I wonder how the young soldiers felt on D-Da= y, during the war.’

     ‘They too would have this struggle, between the urge to live, and the need for sacrifice,’ Drake stated.

     Kobus drew alongside Drake. After a moment, he said, ‘If I’m killed, = use this money, try and do some good. And you, young man, should also follow yo= ur heart.’

     Drake appeared saddened. ‘I fear not death, but I find that I greatly fear = your death. I have this struggle within, as you do.’

     Kobus nodded to himself. ‘Well, then. Let’s go do something real dumb – but for the right reasons.’ He glanced at Drake’s hair. ‘And if anyone says that you look like a badger, just ignore them.= 217;

     ‘What is a badger?’ Drake asked= as they left the room.

     ‘An animal of the forest.’

     ‘I appear like an animal of the forest?’ Drake loudly complained.=

     ‘A ... strong and noble animal of the forest,’ Kobus insisted.

     ‘You still think my hair to be funny!’

     ‘At least you look ... different.’

     Drake walked with his head down, grinding his teeth.

 

Johansson peered through the spy-hole in his door, and unlocke= d it, letting in his assistant.

     ‘We have three men down,’ the man stated as he pushed past his boss. Johansson closed the door, but held it. He waited. His assistant added, ‘Injected in the ass with morphine, by girls for the most part, who disappeared into the crowds. Our guys are safe, they’re just ... fast asleep and dreaming pleasant dreams.’

     ‘Russian gangsters would have shot them, or stabbed them,’ Johansson puzzled a= s he stepped across his room and to the window.

     ‘It’s a puzzler,’ the other man admitted.

     ‘Warn everyone about crowds, to avoid them.’

     ‘Ya taken a look out the fucking window lately, boss?’

     Johansson peered down at the crowds in the street. ‘This is his turf, and he’s making use of that fact. Fine, we’ll swallow the hook.R= 17; Louder, he said, ‘Have our ladies follow our guys, and tell the guys = to be a bit obvious. When they get stabbed in the arse, grab the girls doing t= he stabbing.’ He faced his assistant. ‘Move, and counter move,’ he loudly commended. ‘And I’m smarter than he is.’

 

One street away from their hotel, Kobus moved into a dark door= way, switching on one of the watchers mobiles. He punched in the number for Rigg= s, but his finger hovered over the green button. Finally he pressed it.=

     ‘Hello?’ came after six rings.

     ‘You’re not Riggs,’ Kobus said, an eye on the crowds.

     ‘No, Kobus, I’m his boss, Brad Martins. We have met.’

     ‘Where’s Riggs?’

     ‘Stateside, under investigation.’

     ‘For what?’

     ‘For his associations to you.’

     ‘Meaning?’

     ‘Oh, a few dead agents, a few million in gold coins. Is there ... something you’d like to get off your chest?’

     ‘Riggs is clean, he had nothing to do with anything that happened here. And for the record, I’m clean as well, and someday ... someday that fact might see the light of day.’

     ‘There’s a large pile of gold coins that spe= aks volumes about how clean you are.’

     Kobus took a moment. ‘That would take some explaining. But you need to ask yourself one thing, when you consider = that I have three million dollars in cash in a bag, and that’s why I’= ;m looking for answers, when I could be sitting on a beach. Keep that thought = in mind in the next few days, and then … then when a very large bomb goes off – one that’ll make 9/11 look like a sideshow – you mi= ght consider why I’m not sitting on a beach.’ He hung up.

     Seeing a teenager walking past, he stopped the youth. ‘Here, this is for you. Keep it. Go on.’ The teenager walked off examining the phone.<= /p>

     ‘You are saddened,’ Drake noted.

     ‘My ... previous boss, who was a boss a= nd a friend, he’s ... in the dungeon of the magistrate.’

     ‘It is sad, yes. But many an innocent man went to the dungeon.’

     Kobus took in the crowds, and the flashing neon signs of the many bars. ‘In your time and mine,’ he said, sighing. He turned, and led Drake off a= t a brisk pace.

     They approached the Imperial Hotel from the rear, a glimpse of the neon sign for= the Grand Hotel, their target hotel being third large hotel in a row on this bl= ock. With Drake a step or two ahead, moving slowly through the dark and sensing = for danger, they weaved through stationary cars in a dimly lit parking area at street level, and to the base of a fire exit.

     Kobus whispered. ‘Jump up, and turn the wheel so that the ladder comes down.’

     Drake crouched and jumped, climbing hand over hand onto a landing, and soon hand-cranking the ladder down, a few loud squeaks issued. When the ladder w= as low enough, Kobus jumped up, getting a knee in the bottom rung as Drake reversed his actions, the ladder rising quickly. Safely onto the first land= ing, Kobus stepped slowly and quietly higher, up six flights of metal steps and = to the roof, a padlocked gate preventing access onto the roof.

     Drake considered the lock, and the gate, finally the metal grill that housed the = fire exit. He yanked at a corner, breaking the thin metal strands, and pulled it back, enough room for him to climb through. Kobus followed, struggling after snagging his jacket.

     They found themselves on a sloping roof of grey lead flashing, the slope around = three metres and leading up to a flat top. Along the edge of the roof ran a stone balustrade some three feet high, and they now edged along it in the dark be= nt double, enjoying a good view of the city’s neon lights.

     Kobus had taken little more than five steps when Drake pushed him down. They wait= ed. ‘What?’ Kobus finally whispered.

     ‘A man with a rifle, and a ... thing for looking at night, as before in Sophia.’

     ‘A night sight,’ Kobus noted. ‘Stay low, and out of line of sight.’

     They started to crawl, dead pigeons pushed aside.

     At the end of the balustrade, Drake peeked up and over the top. ‘There is a = ... thing for the smoke of the fire. The man does not see us.’

     Kobus eased, up, scrambling up and over a wall and down onto the next roof, this = one flat, but with a similar stone balustrade, two lift housings sat perched at either end. And, oddly enough, a clothes line with a few clothes pegged out. Kobus looked up and made a face as he crawled past it.

     A firm hand on Kobus’s leg, yanking him back a few inches, and Drake was up = and running to the lift housing, and around it. Kobus drew his pistol, and lay flat. Ahead of him he could see the darkened outline of the lift housing, t= he tops of hotel signs across the road, the glow from the street below highlig= ht the gaps in the balustrade opposite.

     A man stepped out, stubbing out a cigarette with his shoe. Kobus froze, wondering just how dark this damn roof was. He took aim. The man turned towards him, = just as a dark figure appeared behind the man. Kobus tapped the roof with his pistol, the man inching his head forwards to see what the tapping might be.= A blow from Drake, the sound of cracking bone, and the man went down. =

     Kobus got up to his knees, to his feet, but ran across bent double, dropping to t= he lying position next to the man, Drake now knelt beside his victim.

     ‘He lives, but has damage,’ Drake whispered as the man groaned.

     Kobus checked his watch. ‘Fifteen minutes.’ He relived the man of his pistol, tossing it up onto the top of the lift housing as Drake pulled out = a radio and mobile phone. The phone was tossed up onto the lift housing, the radio kept.

     ‘Is the man with the rifle looking this way?’ Kobus whispered.

     ‘No, he ... eats something, and faces away.’

     Kobus eased up and ran to the balustrade at the front of this hotel, peering down= at the bustling street below, a pedestrian walkway without traffic. There, in = the middle of the street, sat a small garden, a few tall bushes. Kobus studied = the radio, finally retrieving a twenty Euro note from his pocket. He turned the radio on, jammed the folded note into the side of the TRANSMIT button, pres= sed the key down – it held, and tossed it into the bushes below.

     Drake turned his head towards the Grand Hotel. ‘Men puzzle the lack of word= s, and ... curse the lack of words. They ... believe someone to be in error, someone ... in the many people below.’

     ‘As they should,’ Kobus whispered, running bent double to wall that separ= ated this hotel from the Grand.

 

Johansson opened his bedroom door to his assistant.

     ‘We grabbed two ladies, and I use t= he words sparingly,’ the man said as he entered. Johansson shut the door. ‘They were paid by a local Russian hood. And get this: tonight at ten thirty they were due to set off the fire alarm in this hotel, tossing aroun= d a few smoke canisters.’

     Johansson was momentarily shocked, but tried to hide it. Stepping past his assistant,= he noted, ‘He knows I’m here, and he wants me.’

     ‘What’s his gripe with you?’

     ‘Wish I knew that. He put in a call Riggs’s boss, Brad Martins, a little wh= ile ago, and asked Martins to consider why he – Kobus – was not sat= on a beach. He has three million in cash, apparently.’

     ‘So why ain’t he sat on a bea= ch with the loot?’

     ‘He has an axe to grind, or maybe those he works for do.’

     ‘Who ya pissed off?’

     Johansson took a moment. ‘Good ... question. Another good question ... would be= how he knew about this place.’ He checked his watch.

     ‘We moving?’

     ‘That’s what he wants, for me to be out on the street.’

     ‘Sniper?’

     ‘I’ll pack quickly. Have the cars brought around the back and into the underground car park. Check it all carefully.’

     ‘From fox to hen ... in one minute,’ the man noted, getting a pointed finger from Johansson.

    

On the roof, Drake focused on the real sniper, not the imagine= d one. Lowering his head, he whispered, ‘They make ready to leave.’

     ‘Leave ... for a drink, for some food ... or leave for another hotel?’

     ‘They do not wish to return to this place.’

     ‘Can you get that sniper quietly?’

     Drake eased his head up. ‘He makes ready to leave, he does not care for anything else. He talks with another man, much ... bullshit spoken of. What is a bullshit detail?’

     ‘That would mean that they don’t believe in the merits of their task.’= ;

     ‘It should be easy to defeat such people.’

     ‘Go!’ Kobus urged in a strong whisper.

     Drake leapt over the wall, a thud heard a few seconds later, the clatter of somet= hing hitting the roof. He returned quickly. ‘The man thought of many cars under the hotel.’

     ‘Shit,’ Kobus let out. Bent double, he crawled like a crab sideways, and peered over the balustrade at the rear of the hotel. After a moment, peering down into = the dark car park of the Grand Hotel, he could see that two cars were being attended by at least two men each. Turning to Drake, he said, ‘You se= e those men and those two cars?’

     Drake peered down. ‘Yes, they are anxious.’

     ‘Wait till I reach the metal steps and start down, then throw the man you just hit down onto those cars, and the m= an from this roof. Can you ... throw that far?’

     ‘Yes.’ Drake leapt over the wall, and back onto the roof of the Grand.

     Kobus turned, running bent double next to the balustrade, and over to the Imperia= l Hotel, a hand on the lead flashing as he made his way along the balustrade. At the fire exit he clambered through, again snagging his jacket and cursing, soon stepping quietly down the metal steps.

     He had made it down to the second landing when a loud smash caused him to stop and look. He could not see the far car park clearly from where he was, but he c= ould guess what had caused the sound. He descended another two landings, another loud crash signifying an impact. Clambering down the ladder, he dropped the last four feet, suddenly scared rigid by the car next to him exploding, showering him with glass.

     Drake lifted Kobus upright. ‘Sorry, I ... was not sure of the merits of jumping.’

     ‘No shit!’ Kobus whispered, a quick look at a saloon that had unwittingly become a soft-top. He led Drake out of the rear of the car park, took posit= ion in a dark corner, and waited.

 

Johansson had opened his door, had half stepped into the corri= dor, but was pushed back inside by his assistant. ‘What is it?’ he a= sked as he closed the door.

     ‘We just lost the two guys on the roof, and two cars in the lot,’ the man reported, now a little out of breath. ‘The guys on the roof took a run and jump, and demolished the cars. Three guys badly hurt out back. We ... ain’t going nowhere.&= #8217;

     Johansson dropped his bag and stepped back into the room, kicking over a chair. He checked his pistol, and checked his watch. ‘The smoke will be just a decoy to get us out; they won’t set the hotel on fire.’ He kick= ed the upturned chair. ‘Call everyone back here. Now!’

     The assistant lifted his phone, as Johansson moved to the window, peering throu= gh a crack in the thick curtains, the street below full of revellers oblivious to the drama unfolding above their heads. ‘What do they want?’ he whispered to himself.

    

Bob Russell answered his phone. ‘Yes.’

     ‘Sorry to disturb you, sir, but there’s a situation developing in Prague.= 217;

     ‘Go on.’

     ‘Johansson has nine men down, and he’s now holed-up in his hotel, surrounded.= 217;

     ‘Surrounded? By who?’

     ‘We don’t know, sir, but local Russians gangsters were used to disable so= me of our men.’

     ‘Disable?’

     ‘Injected in the ass with morphine, right in the street in public.’

     ‘Where’s that Alpha Team?’

     ‘Sat awaiting a suitable target, sir. And sir, the front of that hotel has a thousand people in the street.’

     ‘They can move through the crowds, = and we don’t dare shoot. Move the Alpha Team to the rear of the hotel, not to make contact with Johansson and his people, but to see who’s watching= the place.’

     ‘Yes, sir.’

     Russell lowered his phone, and peered across at the Deputy Director.

     ‘Problem?’

     ‘Very much so, and we’re getting sidetracked with this man Kobus. Whoever he’s working for is expending a great deal of time, energy, and money, not only on keeping him alive, but hitting back at anyone getting close. Our people in Prague are nine men down and stuck in a hotel.’

     ‘Just who the hell has that kind of nerve, and the resources to pull it off?̵= 7; the Deputy angrily considered.

     ‘We can fight this war, or we can concentrate on other things.’

     ‘If there’s someone out there with those kinds of resources, willing to interfere with us, then I want to know,’ the Deputy Director insisted= .

 

As Kobus and Drake hid in the shadows, two ambulances and two = police cars pulled into the rear of the Grand Hotel.

     ‘Time to move,’ Kobus said. He led Drake back into the car park of the first hotel, and ducked between parked cars. Flashing blue lights then penetrated this car park, the police moving towards the car that Drake had landed on. =

     Kobus moved off, keeping low, an eye on the police. Finding a bin next to a wall,= and a convenient ledge on the wall, Kobus made a choice and lunged upwards. A f= oot on the bin, and second foot on the ledge, a hand on the wall, and he rolled over the top, landing between two cars. Drake landed next to him, on all fo= urs like a cat.

     ‘Can you sense anyone?’ Kobus urgently whispered.

     ‘A man makes ready to leave, two people walk to the hotel.’

     Car headlights preceded the car pulling out, the vehicle soon in the lane.

     ‘There is no one near,’ Drake finally whispered.

     Kobus lifted up, running bent double to the wall of the Grand Hotel’s car p= ark. Flickering blue lights could be seen, reflecting off the back of the hotel, people peering out of windows at the action below.

     ‘Men go to hospital,’ Drake began. ‘Two men go inside. They believe = that Johansson will remain in the hotel.’

     Kobus checked his watch. ‘Two minutes.’ He forced a breath, releasing= a heavy sigh. ‘C’mon.’

     Bent double, they ran behind parked cars, and to the rear entrance of this hotel. Once there, they straightened, and tried to look like guests. Inside, they ducked left and into the stairwell, rushing straight up to the top floor. <= /span>

     Kobus halted at the emergency door. ‘If we open this an alarm will sound.’ He took a moment, before rushing down the corridor to the fro= nt of the hotel. Halting at a door, he asked Drake, ‘Anyone inside?̵= 7;

     Drake neared the door, shaking his head after a moment. Kobus ran a hand over the door, finding it solid. He gestured Drake towards it, a shoulder taking the lock off. They quickly moved inside, the room dark, and closed the door - as best they could with its frame splintered.

     The balcony door was unlocked, and they now slid it open, the two of them engul= fed in a roar from the street below. They had no view of the front on the Grand, but were visible from across the street.

     ‘Anyone across the street? Watching the hotel?’

     Drake peered across. ‘Two men, they watch the street.’

     ‘Where?’

     Drake pointed.

     ‘Far enough away.’ Kobus hopped up onto the balcony wall, a quick and nerv= ous look down five floors as he wobbled, grabbed a drainpipe, and placed a foot on a sill over the balcony door. Reaching up to a gap in the balustrade, he soon= had a hand on the top of the stone balustrade, a knee on the base of the balustrade, and over, landing in a heap. Drake was already there, crouched ready.

     ‘A woman on a balcony, with a small dog, saw us. She calls the hotel people.’

     ‘Fucking great,’ Kobus whispered as he eased up. They ran to the wall of the Grand, scrambled over, and kept low as they headed to the stairwell.

     Reaching the stairwell, and opening the door, a shaft of light illuminated them, Dra= ke shot a second later. He spun, landing flat, and seemingly lifeless. The cra= ck registered with Kobus as a high velocity round, but probably with a silencer fitted, and it came from behind them. He let go of the door, the light cut away, and crawled over in darkness.

     ‘Drake!’

     ‘I am alive, but playing like an animal that has been killed; a blossom,’ Drake flatly stated.

     ‘That’s a Possum; playing Possum.’

     ‘Since I appear like a creature of the forest, is it not fitting?’

     ‘When you’re quite ready,’ Kobus curtly nudged.

     The lifeless form lifted up onto all fours, both men staying low as they headed= to the stairwell and down. As they moved lower, Drake pulled out a wad of cash= , the wad now with a hole in it. He showed it to Kobus, who tossed it away after a quick look.

     ‘Will this money not be good?’ Drake enquired, a look over his shoulder at = the discarded cash.

     ‘Well, we could take it to the bank and ask if they’ll change it for us. Just need to explain that it was in your jacket when you were hit with a high velocity round!’ He turned away, and down the stairwell, just as the = fire alarm sounded.

     ‘It has begun,’ Drake noted. ‘There is much concern from many people.’

     ‘They’ll evacuate, our boys won’t.’ He forced a breath. ‘We wait.’ He sat on the stairs, soon hearing people on the stairs below, clattering lower.

     After ten minutes the stairs fell silent, but the smell of smoke hit them.=

     ‘Few people remain,’ Drake suggested. ‘I sense men with guns, anxious men.’ Drake stood, and stepped down to the landing below, a puzzled f= rown taking hold. ‘I sense Roxy, here, afraid and held.’

     ‘They must have made her,’ Kobus noted as he stepped down. ‘Can you f= ind the room?’

     ‘I can.’ He led on. One floor down, he stopped at the access door to this floor. ‘Men watch this door.’

     Kobus coughed in the smoke, the fire alarm now ending.

     Drake peered down the stairwell. ‘Men make ready to come up, men ... who wi= sh good for people, and to help.’

     ‘Firemen.’ Kobus led Drake back up to the roof. They bent double and rushed across to = the middle of the hotel, and peered down at the rear through the balustrade; ro= oms at the rear did not offer their guests balconies. There was also the small matter of a hundred firemen running around, and a sniper.

     ‘She is two floors below. Here, this room.’

     ‘Can you climb down there?’

     ‘Yes, but men now look up.’

     ‘Then we go in the front.’

     They ran across the flat roof, and hardly paused before scrambling over the side= and dropping down onto a balcony. Tourists peered up and screamed at them ̵= 1; as if they might fall, the two men now appearing as if escaping the blaze. = Once on the balcony, they scrambled lower another floor, Drake kicking in the gl= ass. Kobus hesitated, turned back to the balcony and shouted ‘Help us,R= 17; before entering the bedroom.

     ‘You wish help from others?’ Drake puzzled.

     ‘No, that’s so they’ll think we’re guests.’

     Drake was not following, but rushed to the room door, placing an ear against it. ‘They are close.’ He pointed to the right. ‘They do not l= ook this way.’

     Kobus slowly turned the handle, opening the door a few inches and letting in a sh= aft of light, noting now a thin layer of smoke creeping along the corridor̵= 7;s ceiling. With the door fully open, magnolia walls and bland watercolours exposed, Dr= ake inched closer to the door frame, peeked out, then burst out in a blur. Kobus followed closely, looking every which way, his pistol levelled.

     Drake hit the first man with a punch, kicking the door that the second man stood = partially behind - a room directly opposite the first. He barged into the room that h= eld Roxy, Kobus shouldering his way into the room opposite. Kobus found a man o= ut cold, lying in the dark, blood covering his face, a pistol on the carpet. T= he room was clear. He opened the door again, pistol prone, and moved into the light, checking the corridor both ways.

     A face, off to the right.

     He lifted his pistol and fired twice as he moved, leaping across to the room opposite. Inside, he stepped over an unconscious man, finding a second man = out cold and lying in an unnatural position, Drake untying Roxy as she lay trus= sed-up on the bed, the lights on in this room.

     And the curtains were open, he noticed as an afterthought. A new thought entered Kobus’s head, a good instinct.

     ‘Down!’ he shouted. He was too late.

     The window cracked, not a loud noise, and Roxy’s head exploded, blood spattered across the wall.

     Drake spun, staring at the window, dragged down by Kobus a second later, who star= ted to crawl on his hands and knees to the door. Drake moved just two feet, and stopped, staring at Roxy’s lifeless eyes as she hung over the side of= the bed, blood spurting down to the carpet. The image held his attention for ma= ny seconds.

     Reaching the door and peeking out, Kobus could see a dozen firemen in dark uniforms = and shiny metal helmets now coming down the corridor towards him. He lifted his pistol, aimed at the ceiling, and fired three times, the firemen withdrawin= g in a mad scramble. Turning back into the room, Kobus caught his breath, sat no= w with his back against the door frame - his legs keeping the sprung door open, an= d sat staring at Drake’s expression. Several seconds passed.

     ‘Her death was my fault,’ Kobus finally said. ‘Because I followed my heart, and not my head.’

     Drake turned his head to make eye contact. ‘The end, not the means,’ = he said, no energy in his voice, his eyelids seemingly heavy.

     ‘We need to find Johansson,’ Kobus finally said, the broken window lettin= g in the sound of sirens.

     ‘One floor below, a ... room over the street. He waits, and he is afraid.’=

     ‘Then perhaps, my young friend, we should help him realise his fears.’

     Drake moved painfully slowly, Kobus holding the door whilst staying low. With the door shut they eased up, Kobus now starting to cough in the smoke. ‘Another man is close, but hurt from you.’

     ‘I must have winged him.’

     Drake stepped to a door, kicked it through with a roar, and entered, three rounds fired before a scream was issued. A loud smashing sound signalled the man exiting the hotel via the window without opening it first, falling three fl= oors to down to the car park below.

     Kobus moved past the room, pistol still prone, now watchful of the doors, and ran= to the stairwell. He found it clear, Drake behind him a second later. They wal= ked down one floor. Kobus made ready, grabbed the door, and ducked to the hinge side, yanking it open. The smoke was thicker here, and he put his face in h= is elbow as Drake walked brazenly into the corridor.

     After Drake had taken ten steps two shots rang out, closely followed by a second two, s= oon the sound of a door being kicked off its hinges registering with Kobus. Ano= ther two reports, a scream. Kobus ran forwards as best he could, bent double and trying to breathe through part of his t-shirt that he know held over his mo= uth. He reached an open door on the left, open because it was laying flat on the floor, off its hinges, Drake heard moving around inside.

     The door opposite opened.

     In slow motion, Kobus dropped to a knee, his back against the magnolia corridor wall, two shots fired into a figure. He could see the slide moving in slow motion, the expelled cartridges flying out. The figure gasped and fell backwards, the door slamming shut after being released.

     Kobus composed himself, catching his breath, making a check of the corridor both ways. Turning, he scrambled over the slippery door as it lay flat, and straightened up in the darkened interior of the room, flashing neon light entering the room from the hotel opposite, a lime green hue applied to the = grey images within. Someone had turned the room lights off, but had opened the curtains fully.

     Drake stood over a man on a bed, and as Kobus closed in he could see that the man’= ;s thumbs were now missing, the blood an odd brown colour in the green light, alternating to shades of grey. The man turned his head towards Kobus, trying desperately to control his breathing, breathing through his nose, his nostr= ils flaring wildly.

     ‘You Johansson?’ Kobus demanded.

     ‘He is,’ Drake put in.

     ‘What do you know about Pop-Dragon?̵= 7;

     ‘What ... is ... he?’ came back in a strained whisper.

     ‘Talk and you get an ambulance. If not, I’ll let him eat you alive, finger = by finger. What do you know about Pop-Dragon?’

     ‘Project ... is headed by ... Bob Russell.’

     ‘And the Deputy Director knows?’

     Johansson nodded.

     ‘Here’s the question that will decide if he bites your fucking pecker off: whatR= 17;s the target?’

     ‘Baghdad.’

     ‘Baghdad? You’re not about to blow up your own troops, or diplomats. So what’s the target?’

     ‘East ... the suburbs,’ Johansson strained out, controlling the pain.

     ‘Ah, roast the Shia, cause another civil war, keep you there for another decade,= and convince the folks back home that WMDs do exist - and that budgets need to = be increased of course. And who would get the blame? Iranian backed militias maybe?’

     ‘Yes.’

     Kobus lifted his head to Drake.

     ‘He speaks the truth.’

     Kobus stepped to the window, peering down at the police now moving people back, t= he road taped-off both ends, flashing blue lights everywhere, his face being bathed in the green flashing light from across the road.

     ‘Drake, getting to Iraq, and finding them and stopping them would ... be almost imp= ossible, even with the money and the best will in the world. Even with you at my side.’ He turned. ‘I don’t think we’re meant to go to Iraq, I think ... we&= #8217;re missing something.’

     He returned to Johansson, whose eyes were now moist with the pain. ‘Who = were the woman and child in the villa? Kamil’s family?’

     ‘Yes,’ was squeezed out from fitful lungs.

     ‘Why would you kill your only bargaining chip with Kamil? And after the delivery of the detonator was screwed up? Maybe .= .. because you didn’t need the detonator, because you could make one eas= ily enough yourselves. Maybe, you needed the world - and the agency - to think = that someone was buying the detonator. Help you to ... apportion blame later, pi= ss off the Russians; two birds with one stone.’

     Kobus heaved a sigh, and turned away. ‘Drake, we have fought the dragon, and we’re in the castle talking with the pretender to the throne, but ... there is no answer here, no maiden to rescue. Something ... is not right.’

     He turned back, and lowered his head to Johansson. ‘Is there anything that you’re not telling me that might save your life, because right now I&= #8217;m not tempted to let you live. What ... was the last thing you heard about Pop-Dragon?’

     Johansson took a moment, but Drake cut in with, ‘Contact was lost with ... Spec= ial Unit 14.’

     ‘And what does Special Unit 14 do?’ Kobus asked Johansson.

     ‘They ... transport the device,’ came back in a strained whisper.

     Kobus stared down. ‘You ... stupid son of a bitch,’ he slowly let out. ‘You lost the fucking device.’ Kobus tipped his head back, and sighed heavily. Lowering his head, he asked, ‘How long ago?’

     ‘They’re ... overdue ... reporting in. Twelve ... hours,’ Johansson strained to get out. ‘Might just be ... faulty kit.’

     ‘Final question: was Dr Kamil with Special Unit 14; along for the ride, under duress?’

     Johansson took a moment. ‘Yes.’

     Kobus took a step back, a last look at Johansson. ‘Drake, I’ll be on = the roof. You have one minute to vent some anger.’

     Kobus reached the corridor as the screaming began, and the scream echoed all the = way down the corridor as he ran through the smoke. On the roof he dropped to his knees and gasped for breath, the smoke now starting to have an effect. The = air was full of the sound of sirens, now the sound of a helicopter.

     A flash of red in his eyes.

     Kobus dropped flat, a crack of air, and he knew that a laser designator had been used. Snipers, those that had killed Roxy; they now had a better angle on t= he hotel roof. He had forgotten about them, and had nearly gotten himself kill= ed. Cursing himself, he shuffled backwards into the stairwell, and down a few s= teps as he studied the rising smoke. Had Demitri’s people set fire to the hotel for real, or just used half a tonne of smoke canisters?

     Drake leapt up the steps, halting on the landing below as Kobus kept his head dow= n.

     Kobus stared, wide-eyed; not an inch of Drake’s clothing or skin was free of blood. He looked like he had been swimming in it, and now stood rigid, his = chin on his chest, his eyes wild. After a moment, Kobus said, ‘I guess you= did vent some anger after all.’

     ‘I do not feel better,’ Drake stated.

     ‘Yeah, welcome to the club; I just missed a sniper by an inch.’

     Drake lifted his head, and peered up to the roof door. ‘The man who shot Ro= xy, he is ... many paces, maybe ... one hundred. There are ... six of them with long guns.’

     ‘We may be able to get across a balcony at the front, but I’d not make it; there’s a sniper out front as well. Basement is a possibility.’=

     ‘Wait for my signal, wait here.’

     ‘What ... will the signal be?’ Kobus puzzled.

     ‘As I jumped onto the car, so this noise it made.’ He leapt over Kobus in= a single bound and out of the roof door, several cracks registering almost immediately, high velocity rounds. Kobus turned, and inched higher - as far= as he dare go, additional cracks registering through the night sky.

     Kobus waited a full three minutes, wondering if the police would be coming up the stairs, or any of Johansson’s men, or if the damn hotel would burn do= wn around him. Maybe he would just choke to death, he considered as he waited = on the stairs.

     A distant burst of machinegun fire.

     Another burst.

     A smash, just like the men hitting the cars before, and now a car alarm.

     A second smash, a third, a fourth, more car alarms. At six, Kobus eased up and crawled to the balustrade, peering down. The police, the firemen, and now t= he ambulance crews were attending men’s bodies on damaged cars, the men looking li= ke they had dropped from a plane.

     Taking a breath, and making a choice, a choice of faith and belief, he lifted up a= nd ran as fast as he could, his heart pounding. He reaching the wall, still al= ive he noted to himself, and lunged over it. Across the flat rood he sprinted, pistol in hand, ducking under the oddly placed clothes line. On the roof of= the Imperial Hotel, he crouched down and crawled frantically along the lead flashing, and to the fire escape. Seeing the flashing blue lights below, he kept going.

     The hotel roof ended abruptly, an eight foot gap across to a lower roof. A leap= of faith was now required. Literally. He put his pistol away, stood on the edg= e, bent his knees and leapt forwards, landing and rolling. He slammed into a skylight and stopped, testing his ankles while still on his back. They hurt, but did not seem broken. Easing up, he ran to a door, finding it locked. Two rounds fired, and the lock gave.

     The inside of the stairwell was dark, the stairs unlit for the first two flight= s, but then normal hotel stairs appeared, carpeted in a light brown. He ran down, three flights before he heard a door slam above him, but kept going, right = down to the ground level. There he stopped dead in front of a huge mirror, and checked himself over. Composing himself, a hand through his hair, he stepped into the main reception area. Seeing a leaflet carousel, he grabbed two tou= rist leaflets, studying them as he walked straight out of the front of the hotel, the police cordon ending just before the entrance of this hotel. He disappe= ared into the thick crowds.

     Back at the hotel, he placed a thousand Euros on the desk, under the nose of the= fat old porter. ‘Men look for me. If they find me, I’ll kill you.’ From the look he gave the man, the man was left in no doubt.

     Kobus carefully checked the corridor outside his room, an ear to his own door for a few seconds. With pistol in hand, he turned the key without being in the firing line. Nothing. He reached an arm inside and flicked the light on, inching in slowly, every angle checked, even under the beds, finally the bathroom.

     Taking off his jacket, and issuing a huge sigh, a knock came at the window, startl= ing him. Since they were five floors up, he figured it was Drake. He knocked the lights off, opened the curtains, and let Drake in. Closing the curtains, he flicked the lights on, Drake stood soaked in blood.

     Kobus took a moment as Drake stood staring back. ‘Did anyone see you?’= ;

     Drake took a while before answering. ‘I used high places.’

     ‘Step into the bathroom, take off everything, and have a hot shower.’

     After a moment, Drake turned and entered the bathroom. Kobus rifled through Drake’s bags, finding the spare set of clothes. He placed them on the= end of the bed.

     Lifting a large plastic bag, he handed it through to Drake. ‘Put all of your clothes in this, and shoes and socks. I’m going downstairs, I wonR= 17;t be long.’

     Kobus put his denim jacket back on, and took the stairs down, checking every turn. Reaching the night porter, he said, ‘Coca Cola?’

     ‘In kitchen.’

     ‘Now!’

     The man brought back a large plastic bottle of Cola, sheepishly handing it over. Back in the room, Kobus now found the plastic bag containing Drake’s clothes left outside the bathroom door. Into it he poured the Cola, mixing = it around. Pulling a pillow case off a pillow, he soaked it in Cola and wiped = down the window ledge, the floors, and spots on the wall and bed covers. With th= at done, he sat on his own bed, his back to the headboard, and lit up. =

     Drake emerged naked ten minutes later, taking the clothes and dressing in silence, the new shoes placed on, not yet worn. When done, and still not having said anything, he sat on the edge of the second bed, facing away. Kobus eased up, and took the plastic bag of Drake’s clothes into the bathroom. He pou= red Cola into the bath, down the sink, and wiped down surfaces where he could s= ee blood. Placing the bag of clothes in the bathtub, he poured most of the Cola into it, and left it to soak.

     Back in the room, he sat down next to Drake, almost shoulder to shoulder. ‘= ;You ... feel bad for letting the demon out?’ Kobus softly enquired.

     ‘I did great evil, and enjoyed it.’

     ‘You ... enjoyed hurting those who hurt Roxy, you didn’t kill for fun. You helped me, you saved me for sure – I should be dead now.’

     ‘And the bomb he spoke of?’

     ‘Would have killed a million people yes, and may still do. But the betrayer has be= en betrayed, and the bomb is now in the hands of mad men.’

     ‘We shall fight more.’

     ‘We shall fight ... till the bomb is no more, and we will count those we saved.’

     ‘We shall count those we saved,’ Drake repeated.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15

 

Turning point

 

 

Bob Russell answered his phone. ‘Yes?’

     ‘Sir, news from ... from Prague.’

     ‘Go on.’

     ‘The hotel that Johansson was at, it was hit, none of our people walked out of it that weren’t already on their way to hospital earlier.’<= /p>

     Russell paused. ‘And Johansson?’

     ‘They’ll ... try and identify him by DNA records, sir.’

     ‘DNA records? What the hell are you talking about?’

     ‘They ... didn’t find a piece of him big enough to identify, sir, his entra= ils hanging from the light fittings.’

     A long pause preceded, ‘And the Alpha team?’

     ‘All dead, sir. Initial reports are odd, but not as odd as the rest of these reports, considering. They’re ... trying to match heads to torsos.= 217;

     ‘And dead or wounded enemy agents?’

     ‘The sniper teams reported at least three clean kills, but no blood or bodies we= re recovered, no sign of Kobus. Shell casings were found around the hotel, bul= let holes, but no bodies - except our people, sir.’

     Russell hung up.

     At the other end, the junior member of staff placed down the phone, closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Taking off his headset, he slowly swivel= led his chair and looked up at the cold stares of Brad Martins, Riggs, and two other men. As a group, they moved off without saying anything.

 

Sat in the hotel room, Kobus eased up and said, ‘We̵= 7;d best make use of the confusion out there, and get our new papers.’

     Drake eased up, and placed his jacket on without having lifted his eyes off the floor.

     Kobus took a moment. ‘I never had any children, but if I had a son, then I = hope he would have turned out as well as you have.’

     Drake lifted his face, lightening a little.

     ‘You have a good heart, and you’re doing the right thing. And never forget that if we fail ... a great many people will die. Keep those people in your thoughts.’

     Drake found some fortitude before Kobus led him out. They walked through the crow= ds, and around to Blok’s tattoo parlour, their nasal passages assaulted on entry with a mix of spice and pot. They were immersed in deep red light as = they walked through, past girls having tattoos added to odd areas, or being pier= ced, Drake shocked by the activities. Kobus had to drag him by the arm, twice.

     Knocking on Blok’s door, the slide opened, their faces examined. With the door open, Blok said, ‘Dude, have you heard about all the shooting and stuff?’

     ‘We’ve been keeping a low profile,’ Kobus said as they entered. ‘Why, what’s been happening?’

     ‘Some big shoot-out and a fire at some hotel, like the Grand, man. Bodies everywhere.’

     Kobus made a face. ‘Russian gangs. Got the papers?’

     Blok opened a drawer and produced six passports, a few drivers licenses, Kobus checking the work, and the likenesses, Drake very curious about his own ima= ge.

     ‘Paul Smith?’ Drake queried.

     ‘That’s the name you would use at the border,’ Kobus explained. ‘You’d say that you were British.’ He faced Blok. ‘= How solid are these?’

     ‘My friend got the names and numbers from Interpol, so like – they’= re real people, and current passports, man.’

     Kobus nodded. ‘Good.’ He handed over another three thousand Euros. ‘Destroy anything linking them to me.’

     Blok smiled. ‘We got a dude next door; he came looking for you, man.’=

     ‘Show me,’ Kobus said with a puzzled frown.

     Blok led them through to a second room, a man being working on, a new tattoo bei= ng applied. Only this man was drugged-up and out of it. ‘Gave him a beer with a little extra in, man.’

     Kobus closed in, peering at the tattoos. The man’s face now held a Nazi Swastika on his forehead, a dick with balls on a cheek, and “Fuck you” on the other cheek. ‘Should slow him up a bit,’ he quipped.

     Putting away the fake IDs, Kobus said, ‘Have you seen or heard from Roxy today?’

     Blok shook his head. ‘No, man.’

     ‘She was watching a few people for me. Hope they didn’t make her.’ He thanked Blok, and led Drake out, past the naked bodies.

     Outside, Drake said, ‘You created a falsehood about Roxy.’

     Kobus halted in the street, the never ending sea of drunken revellers moving past, and lit up. ‘Nothing we can do to bring her back, but we can divert b= lame away from us.’

     ‘We are to blame,’ Drake sull= enly stated.

     ‘And a few more may die before this is over.’

     Back in the hotel room, they packed up, Drake retrieving the money, the holdalls filled, his hands washed. Thoroughly. Reclaiming the car, from a spot a few streets away, Kobus threw off the parking tickets and eased in.

     ‘Where shall we go?’ Drake enquired.

     ‘Away from here, and then ... then we’ll decide, because right now I haven&= #8217;t any leads to follow.’

     Sat in the car, the engine started, Drake pointed. ‘This girl is greatly distressed.’

     Kobus took a moment. ‘So?’

     ‘We should help.’

     ‘There are probably a great many people around these streets we could help,’ Kobus said dismissively.

     Drake turned his head to Kobus, and waited. After a moment, Kobus switched off the engine. ‘OK, fine.’ They stepped out, and approached the sobbing girl. She seemed to be aged around twenty, cute, blonde hair, a skimpy short dress, and now stood looking very lost.

     ‘Do you ... speak English?’ Kobus asked.

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘Are you OK, love?’ Kobus asked.

     ‘I had all my stuff stolen, my bags, my phone, my money, everything. I only ha= ve my passport left. Now the hotel won’t help,’ she sobbed. ‘= ;I don’t even have a coin to call the British Embassy.’

     Drake took out twenty thousand Euros, being stared at by Kobus, and handed it ove= r. ‘Now you have coin. Please, don’t be sad.’

     She stared at the wad in her hand. ‘My god.’

     Kobus sighed, rolled his eyes, and turned, grabbing Drake by the arm and leading him away= .

     ‘Wait,’ she called. She stepped after them. ‘This is too much.’ She too= k a 500 Euro note off the top, and handed Drake the remainder. ‘Give me y= our address, I’ll send it back to you.’

     ‘There’s no need,’ Kobus assured her, stepping towards the car.

     ‘Please, I want to,’ she insisted, rushing after them, Drake giving Kobus a nu= dge with his look.

     ‘Get in the car,’ Kobus finally told her. ‘I know where the embassy = is. They have twenty-four hour staff for lost Brits.’

     They all got into the car, Drake making room for her in the back, moving the holdalls.

     As they pulled off, she dabbed her runny mascara with the back of a hand, and asked, ‘Are you here on a stag weekend?’

     ‘Not ... really,’ Kobus said as they drove towards the embassy.

     Drake turned his head. ‘We work for Interpol, and thus travel much through Europe.’

     Kobus shot him a look without the girl noticing.

     ‘Sounds interesting,’ she offered.

     ‘Where is your home?’ Drake enquired.

     ‘I live in Gibraltar with my father, my mother lives in England, in Essex.R= 17;

     ‘Where were you hoping to fly back to?’ Kobus asked.

     ‘Back to Gibraltar. I work for my dad, in shipping.’ She took a moment. ‘I don’t even know your names.’

     ‘I am called Drake.’

     ‘Drake, like the duck?’

     Drake stared at the side of Kobus’s head. ‘A duck?’

     ‘Drake, a male duck,’ she added.

     ‘A male duck,’ Drake repeated, still staring at the side of Kobus’s head.

     ‘His name is Paul Smith, but I call him Drake because he looks like a vampire af= ter a late night out.’

     ‘I’m Cathy, but my friends call me Cat. I was named after a saint that was burne= d, or something.’

     ‘A saint?’ Drake repeated with a frown. ‘Your father, he is a religious man?’

     ‘He is, I suppose. He met my mum when she was on holiday in Spain; he’s f= rom Gibraltar.’

     ‘What work is it ... that you do?’ Drake enquired, trying to make conversat= ion as they drove.

     ‘I’m a clerk, a shipping clerk, I do the paperwork for my dad; stevedoring and warehousing, freight forwarding. Mostly we ship around the Mediterranean, s= ome Middle East and Africa.’

     Kobus glanced at Drake. ‘What ... Middle East countries do you ship from?’

     ‘We handle Syria and Lebanon, but just landed a good contract for UN goods in a= nd out of Iraq.’

     Kobus slowed and pulled over, a look exchanged with Drake. ‘Cat, my young friend here has been nagging me for some time for a driving holiday across Europe. We were going to head for southern Spain and ... it wouldn’t = be out of our way to drop you off in Gibraltar. Are you ... in a hurry?’=

     ‘Oh, well, I have to be back in work in four days.’

     ‘How come you’re here alone?’ Kobus asked, looking the girl over in = the mirror.

     ‘I had a row with the two girls I came with, and stupid me – I moved to another hotel. I was only there a few hours when they raided my room.’= ;

     ‘You could find the girls,’ Kobus suggested. ‘Go to their hotel?R= 17;

     ‘I’d rather go home, they’re bitches; one had been seeing my ex for six mo= nths and never told me.’

     ‘Well,’ Kobus said with a sigh. ‘We can take you, and buy some clothes for you along the way.’

     ‘It’s odd, but I don’t know = you – yet I trust you.’

     Kobus and Drake exchanged a look. ‘We’re police officers,’ Kobus said. ‘Guess we look trustworthy.’ He pulled away. ‘OK, n= ext stop, Spain.’

     Drake smiled widely as they turned onto the highway, the three of them soon power= ing down the quiet road and towards the German border.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16

 

A friend for Drake to play with

 

 

They drove to the border in the dark, making good time, passpo= rts shown - fake and real, and found a hotel on the German side – a five = star hotel. Two rooms were booked, Cat with her own room, and she headed off for= a few hours sleep in a huge and luxurious bed. Kobus caught four hours sleep, Drake sat watching the TV as normal.

     Cat knocked on their door at 2pm – the sun high and the day warm, having showered, and having bought a bag of toiletries from the hotel shop with sm= all notes that Drake had given her. They ate a quick meal together in the hotel bar, bar snacks, and re-started their journey, halting at the first town to= buy clothes. And en-route Kobus explained away Drake’s lack of appetite by suggested he had pigged out with room service. Since both Kobus and Drake required clothes, the town was a worthwhile and practical stop.

     Drake insisted that Cat could have anything she wanted. She wondered what he earn= ed as a police officer stationed in Bulgaria, and did not wish to be too indeb= ted, but Drake was insistent. She relented, and bought a great many items, the c= ar soon stuffed full of bags.

     Taking a cigarette break away from the car and standing on a grass verge, the sun beating down, Kobus lifted one of the stolen mobiles, not even sure who it = had belonged to. He turned it on, waited to find a signal, and dialled London.<= /span>

     ‘Duty officer?’ came a woman’s voice.

     ‘It’s Kobus van der Shule. Your deputy director has thirty minutes to call me bac= k on this number.’

     ‘Hold on, don’t go yet,’ she urged. ‘I’ll put you through= .’

     After little more than ten seconds, the same man came on. ‘Kobus,’ he flatly answered, waiting.

     ‘Pop-Dragon was supposed to be set-off in the Shia east of Baghdad, reasons and politics aside, but they lost it.’

     ‘Lost ... it?’

     ‘They lost contact with the convoy transporting it.’

     ‘Then where is it?’

     ‘Somewhere in the east of Baghdad, in the hands of those least suitable to possess it, possibly on its way to Iran.’

     ‘Dear God.’

     ‘If you make a few discreet enquiries, you might get some answers. And don̵= 7;t worry about me, they have no idea how I might know that fact.’=

     ‘I also ... have no idea how you knew that fact. And Prague?’

     ‘What about it?’

     ‘You haven’t caught the news lately? It’s all over every news outlet= in Europe, and the States. Czech’s are trying to claim that a fire at a hotel killed a group of Americans, but the individual witnesses – man= y a drunken Brit on holiday - testify to a lengthy gun battle, and two dozen bo= dies being taken away. Even we are being stone-walled by the Czech authorities.&= #8217;

     ‘Guess they don’t want to harm the sex trade, valuable tourist dollars.̵= 7;

     ‘Any ... clues?’

     ‘I’m in Germany, so no.’

     ‘Will we be getting anything further on Pop-Dragon?’

     ‘If I know, and it’s relevant, you’ll know.’

     ‘Good of you, and ... I’m well aware of the difficult situation this leaves= you in with regard to your employers...’

     ‘Will there be a light left on in the window for me?’ Kobus asked, watching kids playing in a nearby park.

     ‘I have a long list of questions, not so many answers. So we’d play nice= ly for a while at least.’

     ‘It’s a nice thought, but I don’t think I’ll make my next birthday. In fact, I’d bet good money against myself.’

     ‘We could send a plane. You’d be in Northolt in a few hours for a de-brief.’

     ‘Shooting’s not finished, not yet.’

     ‘Should we be concerned?’

     ‘Yes, you should.’ He hung up.

     After a cigarette, most of the time spent staring down at the innocuous phone, Ko= bus called Riggs old number.

     ‘Kobus?’

     ‘Yeah, who’s that?’

     ‘Brad Martins.’

     Kobus sighed. ‘Listen, nothing I say is going to alter anyone’s opini= on about me, but there’s something you need to know.’

     ‘Go on.’

     ‘There’s a very nasty bomb called Pop-Dragon, invented by an Iraqi scientist working= for Saddam Hussein, a genuine WMD. Bob Russell and a few others, like Johansson, were planning on letting it go bang in the east of Baghdad, for ... reasons best known to themselves. Yesterday, Special Unit 14 was transporting the b= omb ... towards the target I guess, and they were jumped. They, and the bomb, a= re missing, the bomb now in the hands of the militias, possibly on its way to Iran.’

     ‘You’ve just put the last piece in the puzzle, and sat next to me is a senior figure from the FBI, this call recorded.’

     ‘FBI?’

     ‘After the deaths in Europe a lot of questions were asked, not so much answered. A= fter yesterday, some of Bob Russell’s trusted aides switched sides and own= ed up. Some even figured they might be killed by ... persons or groups unknown. Bob Russell has been suspended, pending a full enquiry.’

     ‘And Riggs?’

     ‘Still a few unanswered questions, not least his competency in running you.’=

     ‘His competency was fine, and he’s clean.’

     ‘I’d like to believe that. Unfortunately, we have a high body count. On the plus side, the operations were not sanctioned, and so in some way you could say = that the dead men were operating outside of the law. Still, we’ve lost more people in a week than the last twenty years, the President getting daily reports.’

     ‘It’s not over yet,’ Kobus said, kicking grass stalks with his shoes.

     ‘Meaning?’

     ‘Meaning just that; don’t take your eye off the ball.’

     ‘Don’t suppose you’d like to come in.’

     ‘Not yet.’

     ‘Riggs mentioned something to me, about a young lad. Is there ... any truth in it?’

     ‘Who knows about him?’

     ‘Just the two of us, and Riggs, for now.’

     Kobus took a moment, and looked across the road, Drake and Cat sat on a bench and enjoying ice cream. ‘There is some truth to it, yes.’

     ‘And would the skills demonstrated have ... gained you a large sum of money?R= 17;

     ‘They would.’

     ‘And the money was used for...?’

     ‘Hired help in various places. I was trying to find out about Pop-Dragon, they were trying to kill me; it was no more complicated than that. And I’d stro= ngly suggest that you not send anyone after me for a chat.’

     ‘They can’t decide if you’re our most wanted, or our most helpful. Fortunately, Bob Russell’s minions are backing up your story and admitting to sending a hit squad after you. They admit to a bomb on the boa= t, and blowing the villa.’ Martins took a moment. ‘Some of the rep= orts from that hotel in Prague are ... X-Files stuff. Is there ... anything you = can tell me?’

     ‘I spent a million dollars on some good Russian lads to help protect me; guess they got carried away. And for the record, I greatly regret the loss of lif= e on our side.’

     ‘And the young lad?’

     Kobus took a moment, kicking dandelion heads. ‘Talk to those above, discree= tly, and see what deal you can get us; the asset is more valuable than you could ever imagine. I’ll call again in a day or two.’ He hung up, Dra= ke now walking over.

     ‘You are troubled, and you have given a falsehood again, about me.’=

     Kobus took a moment, tossing the phone into a bin. ‘If the magistrate belie= ves that you can read minds ... then he’ll be interested in working with = you, but ... they’d want you to do bad things for them, and ... they’= ;d never let you go. I said what I did so that we’d have some time, time= to figure this out and stop the bomb.’

     ‘It is our destiny.’

     Kobus slowly nodded, ‘It would seem that way. So I think they may back off,= or cooperate for a while, long enough for us to stop the bomb.’

     ‘And after?’

     ‘And after ... I’ll be dead and you’ll be in the dungeon.’

     ‘This is not a good forecast,’ Drake noted.

     ‘Most brave knights, those with a destiny, did not rescue the fair maiden. The dr= agon roasted them in their own armour, peeled them like a banana, and ate them w= arm, the knight’s lance used as a toothpick. In the real world, the heroes don’t come back.’

    

They set off again, and through the beautiful hills of Bavaria= , heading west. And in no particular hurry.

     ‘You’ll get your money back,’ Cat insisted, now sat in sunglasses, a new white t-shirt – no bra, and new blue jeans.

     ‘Cat, I have a confession to make,’ Kobus began, also now wearing sunglasse= s as he drove. ‘The last job we did, we infiltrated a Russian gang, a gang= of arms smugglers and drug dealers. We were there when the warehouse was raide= d, but we snuck out unseen. Take a look in the holdall.’

     She unzipped the holdall. ‘My God! How much money is here?’<= /p>

     ‘Close to a million Euros.’

     ‘A million? My God, what’ll you do with it all?’

     ‘Well, no one has reported it missing; it’s drug money. Drake here, he wante= d to ... hand it out people in need, like you were back there. Kid’s been = giving away money since we got it,’ Kobus lied.

     ‘If you got caught you’d be sacked, and sent to prison,’ she said, holding a thick wad and thumbing through it.

     ‘It’s drug money, so no one will miss it. And no one knows about it,’ Kobus suggested.

     ‘We shall use it to help those in need,’ Drake explained.

     Kobus took a moment. ‘Know anyone in need?’ he asked Cat, glancing at= her in the mirror.

     ‘Well, there’s a charity my dad works with. They help barmaids –’= ;

     ‘Barmaids?’ Kobus loudly queried.

     ‘Girls from eastern Europe or Russia who went to Spain or Europe to work, who had their passports taken off them by the boss, many forced into prostitution.’

     ‘Sounds like a worthy cause,’ Kobus noted. ‘We’ll give you some m= oney to give them.’

     ‘A lot of money,’ Drake added, a glance at Kobus.

     ‘Yes, a lot of money.’

     They stopped at a hotel just short of the French border, another expensive hotel, and booked in. This hotel sat in the well of a curved hillside, a stream running along the edge of its grounds - beautiful and extensive gardens of = mown grass. Kobus paid cash for one night’s stay, fake IDs shown, the hote= l’s best suites booked. Bags were carried by porters in black waistcoats, Cat overwhelmed by her room. She placed on some of the new clothes and shoes, a= nd made herself look pretty for the evening meal.

     Drake changed clothes several times after his shower, Kobus starting to get fed up with offering advice. ‘You look fine,’ he kept saying.

     He and Drake opted for casual shirts for the evening meal, only to find that they would not be allowed into the posh restaurant without jackets. Kobus decide= d to eat out, Cat not fussed with the posh restaurant. They grabbed their casual jackets from their rooms and drove off, and into the town of Baden Baden. L= eaving the car at the edge of town, they took a gentle stroll as the sun dipped be= low the horizon, the evening warm. Many people were out and walking, bands play= ing, a few stalls on the side of the pedestrian precinct areas. It was all very pleasant, and a complete contrast to Prague.

     Seeing a church, Cat suggested that they donate something. Drake was keen, Kobus following them inside. A priest stood pointing out interesting features of = the stained glass windows, two ushers in dark morning suits greeting them in German.

     ‘We’d like to donate some money,’ Kobus said in German.

     ‘Of course,’ the men said, pointing towards a collections box.

     ‘I don’t think the slit in the box is big enough,’ Kobus told the = men, Drake handing over a wad. One of the men started to examine the wad, adopti= ng a heavy frown. Kobus handed over a wad, Drake a third. ‘That’s ab= out thirty thousand Euros,’ Kobus informed the two men, who now looked li= ke they’d been caught snoring in church.

     Cat led the gang out, the ushers stood rigid. Outside, she said, ‘It̵= 7;s good that the drug money will go towards something useful.’

     ‘A good feeling, to help others,’ Drake agreed.

     They strolled through the crowds, past a line of stalls selling paintings, others selling brass pots or crystal glass, the air heavy with the smell of onions, music now coming from several different directions. Seeing a colourful tent= and a sign, Kobus nudged the gang towards it, and inside. He handed the lady in costume ten Euros, Drake sat puzzling the function of the tent.

     ‘She’ll read your mind and tell you your future,’ Kobus said.

     ‘Ah, a travelling fortune teller,’ Drake realised.

     ‘What is your name?’ she asked.

     ‘Drake, but I’m called Paul Smith for my papers.’

     She puzzled that. ‘You are English?’

     ‘Yes, but I’m from Bulgaria.’

     She was now even more confused, Kobus stood staring down with a coy smile.

     ‘You have made a journey, for ... work, I believe.’

     ‘It is not work, it is a calling,’ Drake responded.

     ‘I see. You like fashion and clothes, and someday may work in fashion.’<= /span>

     ‘I do not believe so, and neither do you,’ Drake said. ‘Now, let me tell you something about yourself.’ She wanted to cut in, but Drake continued, ‘You cheat on your husband with a man named Rolf, but you = are not satisfied by his small penis.’

     Cat sniggered, a hand to her mouth.

     Drake continued, ‘You don’t like to have sex with the lights on becau= se of your arse, and you hide money from the government in a flowerpot.’=

     ‘Who are you?’ she demanded. ‘Get out!’

     Drake eased up. ‘Thank you for the reading,’ he politely offered, the woman glaring.

     Outside, Cat burst out laughing. ‘That was so cheeky. Still, it’s all nonsense isn’t it.’

     They walked on, Kobus and Drake exchanging coy smiles. At the coconut shy, Drake= won a pink stuffed elephant for Cat. Noticing a machine to hit with a hammer, a= nd to raise a metal striker to hit a bell, Kobus stopped. Drake turned, adopted a puzzled frown, and then focused on the machine. He stepped forwards, and pa= id two Euros, examining the large wooden mallet.

     ‘Drake, as hard as you can,’ Kobus instructed.

     With a shrug, and a puzzled frown, Drake hit the base. The striker shot up and bro= ke off the bell, the base collapsing and splitting, the mallet’s handle splintered. Drake handed it back to the man, in two parts.

     ‘Poor workmanship,’ Kobus loudly announced, in German. Others, nearby, agre= ed, the man left with a lump of mangled wood.

     Beyond the tourist trap, and leaving the crowded streets behind, they followed picturesque cobbled streets higher at a slow stroll, and found a Chinese restaurant in a back street. Shown to a table by a German girl in a Chinese dress, they sat, menus handed out and now studied, the only guests so far.<= /span>

     ‘Duck?’ Kobus asked Drake with a straight face.

     Drake stared back. ‘Duck would be acceptable, unless they serve badger.R= 17;

     ‘Badger?’ the waitress and Cat queried at the same time.

     ‘It’s a ... delicacy in Bulgaria,’ Kobus explained.

     ‘Errr,’ came from Cat, grimacing.

     Kobus lifted his gaze to the girl as she waited, pad in hand. ‘Enough duck = and pancakes for three, please. Oh, and a beer, a Sprite, and ... Cat?’

     Cat lifted her head to the waitress. ‘Beer.’

     ‘Same, please,’ Drake cut in with.

     The girl headed off, a lip curled.

     Cat faced Drake. ‘They eat badgers in Bulgaria?’

     ‘In mountain villages,’ Kobus quickly put in, a glance at Drake’s h= air.

     ‘So how long have you two worked together?’ Cat idly enquired.

     ‘Not long,’ Drake answered. ‘Tell me of Gibraltar, I have not visited.’

     Cat described the best and worst features of Gibraltar, the very unusual runway that had a working road across its middle, the mountain and its famous mischievous monkeys – the draw for the tourists.

     A small collapsible stand was soon placed next to their table, the duck cut u= p, rice pancakes handed over with sauce. When the duck was ready, the waitress withdrawing, Kobus took charge. He placed pieces of duck on three plates, D= rake then observing the ritual of placing the duck across the centre of a pancak= e, adding sauce, rolling up, and eating like a fat cigar.

     ‘A most agreeable taste,’ Drake enthused.

     ‘You talk funny,’ Cat noted. ‘Were you raised in Bulgaria?’

     ‘I was, yes, and learnt English ... after. Please, correct me if you wish.R= 17;

     ‘It’s OK,’ Cat insisted. ‘But a bit like people used to talk in old b= lack and white movies.’

     ‘He’s bright, and a quick learner,’ Kobus put in before sipping his beer. ‘He learnt English quicker than we’d learn Bulgarian.’

     ‘I grew up with the Spanish language,’ Cat idly mentioned as she rolled another duck pancake. ‘So it was easier. Tried to learn French in sch= ool, but I never got far. At sixteen I started to work for my dad’s compan= y; I used to work there in the holidays when I wanted some pocket money.’<= /span>

     They made small talk for half an hour, soon onto the main course, a few tables n= ow occupied. And Drake, he was on his third beer, Kobus keeping a careful eye = on the lad, not because he thought Drake might get drunk, but because of noxio= us gas emissions.

     By time they had finished, Kobus felt mellow, more relaxed than he had been fo= r a while. It was not to last. Drake turned his head and focused on a couple th= at entered, and who seated themselves near the toilets. When Cat was distracte= d, Drake tipped his head.

     Kobus clocked the couple, both in their mid thirties, conversing in German and appearing for all intents and purposes like a married couple. He placed more than enough money on the table to cover the meal, and suggested that Drake = pay the bill. Cat eased up and started for the door.

     Kobus bent towards Drake. ‘Wait thirty seconds, sit next to them, and ... l= et out some wind.’ Outside, he led Cat away, explaining that Drake would pay= and use the toilet.

     A minute later, Drake walked out, Kobus leading cat down an alley, Drake catc= hing up.

     ‘All OK?’ Kobus asked as Drake fell into step.

     ‘Yes, I gave the money, and more. They will be happy.’

     Kobus lifted his eyebrows as he walked.

     Stopping for Cat, when she peered into an antique shop, sirens could be heard.

     Kobus faced Drake, whispering, ‘What happened?’

     ‘I did as asked,’ Drake responded. ‘They were most unhappy.’=

     ‘They know about the hotel?’

     Drake nodded. ‘Something about numbers on the paper money. They follow from Prague.’

     Cat led them on, and back into the crowds, the music, and the smell of onions, = men in lederhosen dancing in the street. They negotiated the crowds at a leisur= ely pace, stalls glimpsed at, curiosities peaked at. With the crowds thinning o= ut, they beat a path back towards the car. Kobus used the key fob to open the c= ar from ten yards, no explosion spoiling their night. At the car, Kobus mentio= ned the tyre pressure. Cat jumped in, Drake and Kobus peeking under the car, nothing found. They started back to the hotel.

     Halfway back, Drake looked over his shoulder at a car some distance behind, Kobus getting the message. But Kobus had few options with Cat in the car. He drov= e at a steady pace back to the hotel, along lonely dark roads banked with thick trees. They made it to the hotel without incident, Cat tired after the meal= and the drinks and heading up to bed, waved goodnight by the men folk.

     As soon as Cat had turned the corner, Kobus moved at a jog, down the back stai= rs, Drake close behind. In the car park, Drake took the lead, Kobus checking his pistol.

     Drake pointed down the access road. ‘They wait, they ... try and talk with others, and puzzle why they cannot.’

     ‘How far?’

     ‘Two hundred paces or more.’

     Kobus pointed to the dark tree line, and ran across the mown lawn, past bright li= ghts sunk into the grass to illuminate the picturesque hotel, the lights now att= racting moths and insects. Just inside the tree line, they turned left and ran towa= rds the unseen vehicle, Drake leading the way. They leapt across the stream in = the dark, Drake’s effort more graceful, and approached the car from the s= ide, its headlights now out.

     Crouching, Drake reported, ‘A man and a woman, but not from before with the food= of China. They hesitate.’

     ‘We don’t need attention drawn to the hotel,’ Kobus suggested in a whisper. He stopped behind a tree. The road the car now sat on branched aft= er a few yards, leading into the hotel. ‘Could you pull a wheel off?’= ;

     ‘I can try. But why not push the car over? There, look, where the car sits - a brook is beyond it.’

     ‘Might look like a simple accident,’ Kobus agreed, but did not seem convince= d as he took in the straight road. ‘OK, go.’

     Drake leapt forwards through the dark, Kobus following as fast as he could through the trees, his pistol drawn. Drake reached the car unseen and unheard, and rushed to its side, grabbing the underside. In that instant the woman passe= nger turned her head and look straight at him, startled, even more startled when= the car flipped over. It rolled on its roof, the windscreen shattering, and lan= ded on its side in the stream. Water started to enter.

     Kobus ran across the road, checking for anyone about. Drake leapt up onto the car= as it lay on its side, and onto the car’s rear passenger door. The front= passenger door was forced open and upwards, the lady’s hand pushed through, gro= ping in the dark. Drake opened the door, and lifted her straight up by the arm, holding her with her legs dangling inside the car.

     ‘Who sent you?’ he calmly enquired.

     She punched him.

     In an instant, he lowered her into the cold water, shocking her, and back up. ‘Who sent you?’ he calmly repeated, the lady now trying to scra= tch his face. Drake grabbed her by the hair and let go of her arm, her hair now taking her weight. ‘Might I enquire … as to who sent you?’= ; He shook her back and forth like a rag doll, the lady now holding his arm with both hands to try and relieve the stress on her hair.

     ‘Johansson,’ Drake finally stated, having read her mind.

     ‘Johansson? When?’ Kobus queried from the road.

     ‘Four days before now,’ Drake stated as she struggled, dunking her in the rising water, very chilly water.

     ‘So it was before we killed him,’ Kobus realised. ‘How many others?’

     ‘She is aware of two others, in the town, no more.’

     ‘Is the man dead?’

     ‘He is,’ Drake confirmed.

     ‘Break her neck.’

     Drake lowered the woman, but yanked he hair to the side as he crouched, slamming = the door down onto her neck, a horrible sound produced. Kobus winced. Lifting t= he door, Drake released her, letting her fall into the cold water, the car door slamming shut. Jumping down to Kobus, he added, ‘The life leaves her.’

     ‘C’mon,’ Kobus urged, leading Drake back across the road and into the woods, a check= made of the dark road both ways. As they reached the well-tended lawn and the lights, they slowed and walked casually back to the hotel. ‘The other= two will be around in the morning, but suspicious of the lack of contact with t= his team. My guess is they’ll try and follow us.’

     They climbed the stairs to their room, Drake taking a moment with his head close= to the door before they entered.

     Inside, Kobus threw off his jacket. ‘Johansson hired them before he was kille= d, and there may be more out there. The boss of Johansson has been removed, but ... they may not know who else is out there.’ He paused, taking a deep breath. ‘We should think about putting Cat on a plane.’<= /p>

     Drake was concerned by the suggestion. ‘We shall part company?’

     ‘If she’s in the car with us...’ Kobus said, his hands wide.=

     ‘I can protect her,’ Drake insisted as Kobus kicked off his shoes.

     ‘She only needs protection because she’s with us! If she wasn’t with= us, she wouldn’t need protection.’

     ‘You believe her to be part of the alignment; I read it in your mind many times.’

     Kobus sat on the bed, taking a moment. ‘I do. But –’

     ‘But we shall save many, and we also= have a destiny.’

     ‘Do you like her, like ... Roxy?’

     Drake sat, suddenly saddened. ‘I like her more,’ he admitted.<= /p>

     ‘And if they kill her?’ Kobus posed.

     Drake lowered his head. ‘It ... would be a great madness in my head.’= He lifted his eyes. ‘We were meant to find her, and to be travelling companions. You believe her father is a piece of something.’

     ‘A piece of the puzzle, yes. But that’s a guess, and ... a leap of faith, not based on fact.’

     ‘I shall trust your faith and judgement, since I have nothing else. And if she= is meant to help –’

     ‘Then what? You’d accept her death, you’d sacrifice her? Roxy was meant to help, and look what happe= ned there.’

     Drake lowered his head again. ‘You don’t believe the bomb will come t= o us for many days, you think seven days or more.’

     Kobus took a moment. Quietly, he said, ‘It takes less time than that to fal= l in love.’

     Drake lifted his head. ‘You think that when the bomb comes we will both die, that I am destined to die.’ Kobus didn’t respond. ‘I have= seven days, Kobus van der Schule, seven days in this wondrous place.’

     ‘And when the time comes, will you step into the fire?’

     Drake stared back, and for the first time appeared tired. ‘If you give me t= hese seven days, I will step into the fire.’

     ‘That’s not my choice to make. If it was, then I’d give you your seven days.’

     ‘Then we shall pretend that it is your wish to grant.’ He waited.

     Kobus smiled. ‘Then I wish you well for seven days, as far as it’s wi= thin my power. I don’t think the universe could begrudge you that.’ = He paused, and stopped smiling. ‘But I’ll make you this promise: w= hen the time comes, leaving this wondrous world – and Cat, will hurt like not= hing has hurt you before.’

     Drake gazed at the windows. ‘It already hurts.’

     ‘Besides, she may not even like you.’

     Drake could not hide a coy smile. ‘She likes me.’

     Kobus stretched out. ‘Even with that stupid hairstyle?’

     ‘You said it was fitting! Tomorrow, we shall go to the girls who will make it better!’

     ‘What’s wrong with looking like a badger?’ Kobus asked, his arms folded, his = eyes now closed.

     ‘You are a circle in the rear for the passing of shit.’

     ‘Ass-hole. It’s called an asshole. And keep the damn sound down.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

17

 

Road kill

 

 

Kobus woke with a start at 2am, not sure why he was suddenly a= fraid. The window was open, the curtains moving slightly in the breeze. ‘Dra= ke!’ he whispered. No one answered.

     He let his legs down and pulled out his pistol, dropping to a knee between the bed= s, a moment taken to check dark corners of the room, the lights now out. A quick dash into the bathroom revealed no one, so he ran bent-double to the window= and dropped down, peeking out. He could see the lights sunken into the lawn, the black line that was the distant wood, a blue-grey night sky above, no stars visible.

     Easing his head forwards, the cool evening breeze now caressing his face, he peeked out and studied the gravel forecourt immediately below the window. Drake was gone, but where had he gone, and why?

     Cursing Drake, Kobus considered that the lad may be in trouble, but then dismissed = that idea; Drake could take care of himself. So where had he gone? Had the other= two people - from the Chinese restaurant, come to the hotel, and had the lad go= ne out to deal with them by himself?

     Kobus was now resigned to the fact that there was little point in running around = the woods looking for Drake, so he settled down next to the window. And waited. Fifteen minutes later, a light caught his attention. Easing up, he could se= e a car approaching, soon seeing that it was a police car. It did not bode well. The car halted near reception, two officers easing out, but chatting casual= ly and making a joke. They didn’t seem to be concerned, or in a hurry.

     Ten minutes passed, the two officers finally leaving, Kobus observing them driv= ing away. As the lights from the car diminished, Kobus stuck his head out of the window, suddenly scared rigid and knocked back by Drake bursting through the window.

     ‘Do I disturb you?’ Drake calmly enquired after landing quietly, now just= a dark outline in the room.

     ‘On several levels,’ Kobus said as he eased up, closing the window and the curtains. ‘Where’ve you been?’

     ‘I sensed the approach of the police, and went to see. I stood hidden, and observed.’

     ‘And?’ Kobus asked, knocking on a side light.

     ‘They believe that the car was not subject to duck play.’

     Kobus tipped his head. ‘Foul play?’

     ‘Yes, foul play. They believe that the man drank much wine. But another car visit= ed the scene, the two people from the place of food from China. They believe u= s to be here.’

     ‘Where are they now?’

     ‘They have moved to the town, but wish to return at the sixth hour.’=

     Kobus checked his watch. ‘At the fifth hour, go out and wait for them. Dama= ge their car, maybe ... throw something at it. They can’t follow without= a car.’

     ‘They know the number of our car.’

     ‘We’ll buy another tomorrow, or change the plates across the border. But, if they don’t have CIA backing, they won’t get to access the plates at = the border. And if they do call in they’ll realise that something is wron= g, or be told to stand down.’

     ‘The magistrate now favours us?’ Drake puzzled as Kobus returned to the be= d.

     ‘The magistrate ... can see that Johansson was a betrayer, but the magistrate is still not convinced about me.’

     ‘You told the magistrate that I could read the minds of others, and you believe = that they will value me greatly.’ He waited.

     ‘A bird in cage may be greatly valued by its owner.’ He folded his arms = and closed his eyes, leaving Drake with that image.

    

 

The White House

 

The President stepped into the situation room, the room already occupied by the security advisory staff. Everyone had stood as the President entered.

     ‘Thank you. Please, sit. And thank you for meeting at this late hour.’

     Everyone settled, now some twenty-six men in attendance, almost a full turnout. Notes were presented in front of the President as he sat.

     Turning to his National Security Advisor first, the President nodded. ‘Rick.’

     ‘Mister President, there’s ... no sign of the bomb. We fear ... it may be in Iran.’

     ‘Is there any hard evidence of that?’ the President asked.

     Looks were exchanged.

     ‘No hard evidence,’ the National Security Advisor admitted.

     The President turned to the Director of The CIA. He took a moment. ‘And t= he investigation into the incidents in Prague and Bulgaria?’

     ‘We’re trying to contain it as much as we can, but ... the unauthorised movement of assets has harmed us greatly, Mister President.’

     ‘I think ... that what happened to those men ... has harmed us greatly.’= The President left his gaze on the CIA director.

     ‘Yes, Mister President.’

     ‘And what further evidence have you uncovered?’

     ‘Little beyond what we originally knew, Mister President.’

     ‘And still no arrests,’ the President nudged.

     ‘No, Mister President.’

     ‘Someone kills twenty or more of our people, mutilating and decapitating them, and no arrests are made, not even arrest warrants for suspects on the run.’ = He waited.

     ‘Whoever was involved ... left little evidence behind, Mister President,’ the = CIA director reported. ‘Fortunately, the Czech authorities are cooperatin= g, since they don’t wish to harm tourism. It’s being contained, to= a degree.’

     The President nodded to himself. ‘As good as that containment is - to save your agency from looking incompetent and tarnishing us all – I’d like some answers. I’d like ... to know where the bomb is, and I̵= 7;d like to know what happened in Bulgaria and in Prague and, if I don’t = get some answers, then it will be diffi= cult to keep some of you in your posts.’

     The men exchanged looks.

     The President continued, ‘There w= ill be a Congressional Hearing, and we can only delay that for a certain time. = So I suggest, gentlemen, firmly suggest, that you find some answers.’ He turned to the FBI director. ‘Ted?’

     The FBI director collected his thoughts, both looking and feeling out of place = in this group. ‘Mister President. As far as we can determine, the freela= nce agent known as Kobus was assigned to try and intercept detonators in Bulgar= ia. He was performing that task when four Americans – listed as being pri= vate security staff in Iraq – tried to kill him.

     ‘Despite that fact, he continued with his assigned task, reporting in. But I must sa= y at this point that the man admitted to mutilating his attackers, torturing them for information. He proceeded to Varna, where – somehow – he ga= ined information about the hand-over of a detonator on a boat in a marina. He secured the detonator, recognised its sole function – that of detonat= ing the Pop-Dragon device, and withdrew before a bomb blast rocked the marina.<= /span>

     ‘He later turned up at a villa before it blew, and admitted that to his handler. Prior to the boat exploding, four freelance CIA agents were killed, two of = them ... stripped naked and thrown out of a hotel window. He admits to having ki= lled them. Kobus did, in his favour, report the discovery of the Pop-Dragon deto= nator, and he did so securely; he followed procedure. At this juncture, Mister President, all evidence suggests that Kobus killed just those trying to kil= l him – without seeming to agr= ee with what he did.

     ‘The villa that exploded contained many people, including a woman and child. Subsequent DNA evidence confirms that they were the family of Dr Kamil - the inventor of Pop-Dragon, being held by a Russian gangster. That Russian gang= ster had ordered the manufacture of the detonator – but it’s unclear= who gave him the design. There’s no evidence to suggest that he knew what= it was for.’

     The President cut in with, ‘A detonator outside of Iraq?’

     ‘It’s my firm belief that it was a red herring, Mister President,’ the FBI director stated. ‘Pop-Dragon never left Iraq.’

     ‘Go on,’ the President nudged.

     ‘Subsequent to the deaths and explosions in Varna, Bulgaria, we come to the gold coins.= A hotel in Romania was damaged, and an inspection of a stone wall by the hotel staf= f revealed gold coins in boxes that had been mostly emptied. The descriptions given we= re of Kobus and a travelling companion. The coins match those being sold ̵= 1; in the name of the CIA, and the boxes match the quantities. It’s not clear how Kobus knew about the hidden coins.

     ‘Kobus collected two million dollars in Zurich, down payment for the coins, at a h= otel where there was a subsequent gun battle, three Italian hit-men killed. A day later, Kobus and unknown others tangled with eight German men known to hire= out themselves to the CIA. All eight men were killed, some most bizarrely. Money was found at the scene, the serial numbers matching money paid by the CIA to Ramius, the Russian gangster blown up in a villa in Varna. Somehow, Kobus obtained money from Ramius, which we could consider a black mark, and a lar= ge question mark as to his loyalties.

     ‘Kobus then travelled to Prague, where he hired locals to watch out for any CIA agents, and is known to have directly paid to have Americans injected with morphine in the street. He also paid to have smoke canisters released at a hotel being used by a CIA unit in the city. I must state at this point, that the particular CIA unit seems to have been there to specifically find Kobus= .

     ‘What happened at the hotel isn’t clear, and statements from those that survived are still being examined. Snipers confirm shooting people, yet no bodies or blood were ever found. Inside the hotel, shots were fired after t= he smoke canisters were released, yet no bodies were found - from anyone other than the CIA unit present. No civilians were hurt in the hotel.

     ‘Twelve men were killed, another six injured, not including those drugged. Some of those men, having been drugged, had tattoos added to their faces. I must st= ate at this juncture that some of the deceased at the hotel had been tortured or mutilated. I must also state that there is no evidence that Kobus entered t= he hotel at any time, or took part in the deaths or mutilations.’=

     He took a deep breath. ‘Some of the detail from that hotel is contradict= ory, and ... quite fantastic. Six snipers fired off almost a hundred rounds on a rooftop, the firing of their weapons witnessed. Those six heavily armed men were then decapitated, carried to the Grand Hotel, and thrown off the roof, down onto cars below. Their heads were left= on another roof.’

     ‘Dear God,’ the President let out.

     The FBI director continued, ‘Subsequent to Prague, two CIA freelancers we= re killed in Germany, an apparent accident, their two colleagues injured ̵= 1; details unknown. The whereabouts of Kobus – and the money - are unkno= wn at this time, but Kobus has called in and provided useful evidence. There i= s no evidence of his involvement with other countries or agencies, although I’m informed that the British started asking questions about Pop-Drag= on after Prague.’

     The President faced the CIA director. ‘And the senior staff you suspended?’

     ‘Presently refusing to talk, Mister President. The senior staff, that is.’

     The President took a moment. ‘At this juncture, I’m ordering that Homeland Security and the FBI to jointly run an investigation into all curr= ent CIA operations, the FBI to head the investigation into Pop-Dragon with the cooperation of all agencies. And let me be clear ... when I say that people= will end up in prison.’

     He turned his head to the CIA director. ‘Given that your deputy seems to= be involved at some level, perhaps your resignation would be ... appropriate.’ The President opened a file and slid a sheet across to = the man.

     After studying the paper, the man stared back at the President for a few seconds.= He signed before he stood. ‘Mister President,’ he said, a quick bow of his head before he left the room.

     The President made eye contact with an Admiral. ‘Admiral?’

     ‘We’re checking all ships leaving the Gulf area, Mister President.’

     The President interlaced his fingers. ‘Gentlemen, this nation and its security services could be seriously tarnished and harmed by this episode.’ He faced the FBI director. ‘Send a team to Prague, and Bulgaria. Go over everything, leave no stone unturned.’

 

 

At 7am, Cat was awake, but was not hungry. They decided to mov= e on, the hotel a little posh for her taste; she felt out of place, Drake eager to please her.

     Kobus checked the car, and the underside, at length before they loaded up, the mo= ney having been taken into the room during the night – at least one holda= ll had, one left in the boot for any lucky car thief. Leaving the hotel ground= s, they found two police cars on the main road, a crane attending the car in t= he stream. Kobus eased to halt next to a bored looking police office. In Germa= n, he asked, ‘What happened?’

     ‘They drove into the stream, two killed.’

     ‘That’s shocking,’ Kobus offered.

     ‘Maybe drinking, it was late.’

     Kobus could see another car on the side of the road, further along. ‘Did th= ey collide with another car?’

     ‘No, that car hit a deer.’

     ‘A deer?’ Kobus repeated.

     The officer nodded. ‘Yes, smashed through the windscreen and injured two people. Busy night here last night.’

     Kobus eased off, a glance at Drake. ‘Hit a deer, eh.’

     ‘Poor thing,’ Cat said from the rear seat. ‘Car’s shouldn’= ;t be going so fast along this road if there’re deer about.’

     ‘It happens, sometimes,’ Kobus said with a sigh, another glance at Drake.=

     Finding a bright red sign for a roadside diner, they stopped for breakfast, Drake n= ow making an effort to eat normal food when in front of Cat. After a pleasant breakfast, the sun beating through the window, Cat headed back to the car f= irst.

     Drake seemed apprehensive. ‘I must sit on the ... thing for going after food.’

     Kobus looked over his shoulder, and pointed towards the toilets, then took a mome= nt. ‘Here’s some advice. Wipe the seat first with the soft paper you’ll see, put the seat down, sit on it, do what you need to do and flush – flush more than once if you can see anything ... left behind,= and open a window first if there is one. Afterwards, you use the soft paper to clean and wipe your ... you know. Then wash your hands.’

     Drake was deep in thought as he headed off, Kobus shaking his head. ‘This should be good.’ He paid for their food, but waited near the door, a = wave through the window at Cat.

     A full four minutes passed, Kobus stepping out for a cigarette. Back inside, raised voices caught his attention, diners now complaining of the smell coming from the toilets. Kobus turned, to see a man walk into the gents. But the man co= me straight back out. A male member of staff listened to the complaints, at length, before bravely stepping inside himself. He could not have been insi= de for more than a few seconds when he emerged, a hand to his mouth and nose.<= /span>

     Drake’s image appeared, coming around the outside of the diner, Kobus moving out to meet him. Kobus stood and waited.

     ‘You are greatly amused by this,’ Drake unhappily noted.

     ‘In our society, such things are fu= nny. But ... but Cat would not be amused by such things, and not in the car.R= 17;

     Drake seemed concerned.

     ‘Have you ... emptied what needed emptying, and expelled air?’

     ‘I have, and washed with scented soap, both my hands and ... other parts.̵= 7;

     ‘How did you get out?’

     ‘I ... broke a window, save facing those I distressed.’

     Kobus rolled his eyes. ‘If you need to let out air in the car, tell me to p= ull over.’

     They stepped towards the car, breakfast diners now evacuating the establishment.=

     ‘Do you suffer this problem?’ Drake asked.

     ‘Sometimes, after Indian food. I’d guess, I’d hope, that your insides would= get used to it. But, since you don’t produce stomach acid to digest food, it’ll always be a problem. Just eat small amounts in front of Cat.= 217;

     They got back into the car, Cat puzzling the mass exodus of the diner as they pu= lled off.

 

 

No.10 Downing Street, London.

 

The Prime Minister stepped purposefully into Cabinet Office Br= iefing Room ‘A’, known as COBRA. With him now was the Home Secretary, = the Defence Secretary, the Directors of SIS and MI5, the deputy head of the Metropolitan Police – responsible for terrorism, an SAS representativ= e, and a Colonel from the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. Everyone settled. The Pri= me Minister gestured towards the head of SIS.

     ‘Prime Minister, might I start by reminding all here that the subject matter is mo= st grave, and top secret; notes, should be sparingly used. We’ve complet= ed our preliminary investigation into Pop-Dragon, and we’ve spoken to our American counter-parts, some of whom were ... distressed and concerned as to how we obtained some of the information.’ He straightened, running a = hand down his tie. ‘But, we can now confirm much of the detail. First, Col= onel Blake here will brief us all on the technical aspects of the threat. Colone= l.’

     The Colonel eased forwards. ‘Before the allied forces liberated Iraq, an Iraqi scientist – a Dr. Kamil, a Kurd, accidentally made a discovery whilst experimenting with liquid binary explosives. That discovery blew up = his lab and killed eight people, wounding more. What was noteworthy was the sma= ll amount of chemical that was used. That chemical leaked, its smell detected,= and had been ignited by a naked flame.

     ‘Dr Kamil went on to experiment with the chemical, simple trial and error over several years, and found a formula that made a nice big bang when detonated= as a vapour. He lost thirty two members of staff, but Saddam Hussein wasn̵= 7;t bothered. Rather, he was encouraged, and funded further research, out in the desert.

     ‘After the invasion, Dr Kamil identified himself to advancing American units, and explained his discovery. A team of British and American ordnance officers w= ere assigned the task, at a time when we were looking for weapons of mass destruction. I was one of those officers, Captain Kobus van der Schule was another; my assistant.

     ‘We spent four weeks trying to re-create the conditions that Dr Kamil described, for a test blast. That test blast failed thirty-eight times, but succeeded = on the last attempt. That blast, Prime Minister, killed eight people standing = some six hundred yards away, for six litres of chemical used.’   

     They exchanged looks.

     The Colonel continued, ‘Close to the blast site was a stone bunker, as we= ll as several old cars spaced out, a line of street lamps. The cars melted, and street lamps up to three hundred yards away melting like ice cream in the s= un. Without knowing the exact science, Prime Minister, the binary liquid burns = very hot and melts steel - anything in its path catches fire. Our good friends in the American Army then produced a computer simulation, of what might happen= to a city if the bomb was detonated in a sky scraper.

     ‘That sky scraper would fall, the metal girders melted – as with 9/11. All = of the combustible material in the building would catch alight, the windows wo= uld blow out, and the windows of nearby buildings would blow out. The super-heated g= as would spread out, finding additional fuel in the paper and wood found in of= fices, cars bursting into flames as if a nuclear bomb had gone off next to them. A= s a ... self-fuelling system, the spread of flames could be total - across an a= rea a few miles wide.’

     ‘Dear God,’ the Prime Minister let out.

     Colonel Blake added, ‘If set off in Manhattan, they’d lose New York, the effect less in London or Paris; you need tall buildings, tightly packed.= 217;

     The director of SIS put in, ‘Might I state, at this juncture, that settin= g off the device is extremely hard – the conditions need to be just right, including no wind outside; they’d have less than a one in twenty chan= ce of making it work. If they did detonate it, it would cause a fire for certa= in – a building lost, but the main effect seems to be damned hard to reproduce.’

     ‘And if it did go off in London?’ the Home Secretary asked.

     ‘You could lose a mile radius, to buildings on fire,’ Colonel Blake answer= ed.

     ‘That covers most of central London,’ the Prime Minister pointed out. ‘And we don’t know where this device is?’

     The director of SIS replied, ‘Most likely in the hands of Iranian backed militias. But the Americans assure us that it will never get out of Iraq.’

     ‘If weapons can be smuggled into Iraq, they can be smuggled back out,’ the Prime Minister noted. ‘There’s also the Iranian border.’<= /span>

     ‘The Iranians may see Dubai or Bahrain as targets,’ the director of SIS suggested. ‘For the device to work, you need a cluster of sky scraper= s. Otherwise, you just set fire to a small area.’

     The Prime Minister stood, everyone following him up. ‘Iraq is a long way = off. Increase checks at ports if you like, warn the Dubai authorities, but let’s not make a drama out of this; the bomb will probably go off ins= ide Iraq, or be found. Thank you all.’

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

18

 

France

 

 

They crossed the French border without incident after a pleasa= nt drive through the hills, and headed southwest towards Dijon, the beautiful countryside enjoyed. Kobus pretended to be lost a few times, and circled around, Drake scanning for trouble. So far, no one was following them. Halt= ing for lunch, they found an old watermill that had been converted into a restaurant, numerous patient ducks and swans sat awaiting a little bread fr= om kind patrons of the establishment.

     The trio sat on rustic wooden benches, cheese and bread soon placed down, three cold lemonades arriving. Cat broke off bits of bread and threw them to the ducks, Drake copying. When he started to throw bits of cheese, a look from Kobus halted him.

     The day was hot, the sky clear, little sound other than the ducks squabbling ov= er the scraps. Cat wandered to the water with Drake, pointing and naming thing= s in English for him. They inspected the old water wheel – it still turned, and peered down at small fish in the shallows.

     After a very pleasant hour spent at the watermill, they paid up and drove off, following a picturesque canal lined with tall trees, ploughed fields beyond. The locals were out in boats, a few people fishing, a few cyclists passed a= fter slowing down, horses passed after slowing right down, waves given by their riders.

     Back on the highway, now heading south towards Lyon, they made good time, either= chatting away or simply looking out of the window at the wonderful scenery. North of Lyon they turned west, and found a castle set in rolling hills that had been converted into an up-market country retreat, the castle surrounded by magni= ficent tended grounds. Rooms were available, paid for in cash, Cat and Drake soon exploring the grounds as Kobus sat with a beer on an elevated patio, enjoyi= ng the view as the sun rested just above the far horizon.

     Glimpsing Cat and Drake in the grounds, he saw her hold Drake’s hand as they wa= lked, and she had initiated the move. With his beer in his hand, he stared across= at the young couple, suddenly both happy and sad, concerned, angered at the wo= rld in general, and at nothing in particular.

     Seven days, he considered; Drake deserved more, he deserved a chance at a life, d= emon or not. Alone with his thoughts, beer in hand, cigarette on his lip, he wat= ched the sun setting alight the distant hills with a fantastic orange glow.

     Half an hour later, a woman in her late thirties came and sat down without being invited. ‘May I join you?’ she asked with a French accent.

     It was an odd question, since she was already sat and making herself comfortable, = her drink placed down.

     ‘Sure,’ Kobus offered, eyeing the lady as she made herself comfortable. She was not unattractive, and she did have a large pair of breasts, a great cleavage exposed from a figured-hugging light grey dress.

     ‘British?’ she asked.

     ‘From South Africa originally. I’m Kobus.’

     ‘Kobus? An unusual name. I’m Marlene.’

     ‘On holiday?’

     ‘Of a sort. Since my husband passed away I spend a lot of time in places like t= his, trying to find something, some peace and serenity.’

     ‘This is a nice spot,’ Kobus agreed.

     ‘What work do you do?’ she asked.

     ‘Mining,’ Kobus made up on the spot. ‘Mines in Africa.’

     ‘It must pay well, if you’re staying here with your family.’

     ‘Family? Ah, no, the young man works for me, and the young lady ... we found in Prag= ue; she’d had her things stolen. We were heading to Spain, so we’re giving her a lift there.’

     ‘Very kind of you.’ She sipped her wine. ‘Do you ... rescue young lad= ies often?’

     ‘As often as we can,’ Kobus quipped. ‘Sometimes, we rescue cats from trees, and have been known to donate to churches.’

     She studied him carefully, not sure if he was taking the piss. ‘And is th= ere a woman waiting for you at home?’

     ‘No, no one is waiting for me. My life is ... just work.’

     ‘And nice hotels in the country.’

     ‘And nice hotels in the country, from time time. What ... do you do?’

     ‘I live off what my husband left me.’ She shrugged. ‘A woman of leisure.’

     ‘There must be a great many women who envy you.’

     ‘I find myself busy doing nothing.’

     ‘And there must be a great many men who would like to meet a rich and single woman.’

     She cocked an eyebrow. ‘I could not be with such a man.’

     Kobus took in the view, and sipped his beer. ‘Have you never been tempted to find a nice young man from Turkey who ... needs a few Euros?’<= /p>

     She took in the view, and sipped her wine. ‘I tried that once, but it did= little for me.’

     From where she now leant forwards, her elbows on the table, her ample breasts hu= ng down. Kobus lifted his hand, and caressed a breast for a few seconds.

     She slowly turned her head. ‘I don’t remember giving you permission= to do that.’

     ‘Ease forwards on your chair a little.’

     She stared back for moment, but then did as asked.

     ‘Open your legs a little wider.’

     She eased her knees wider, Kobus running a hand up her thigh unseen by the other patrons of the bar.

     ‘I have a room...’ she began.

     ‘That would be ... dull and unimaginative.’ He stood. ‘Let’s go= for a walk.’

     She downed her wine quickly as she stood, eyeing Kobus, a mixture of curiosity, interest, and caution. Hand in hand, they walked down the steps from the pa= tio, and onto sloping grass that had been well tended; it looked good enough to = play golf on. A carp pond was inspected, the white and red fish moving slowly ab= out their limited enclosure.

     At the edge of the grounds, they claimed a bench facing distant farmland, the hori= zon an orange glow beyond. Sat on the bench, Kobus eased his hand across to her thigh, and up to her knickers, starting to gently rub her.

     ‘We may be seen,’ she toyed, making it sound like she didn’t care.<= /span>

     ‘The risk ... is part of the fun.’

     After a minute of attention, Marlene was starting to breathe louder.

     ‘Enough for now, we wouldn’t want you to peak too soon.’ Easing up, he took her hand, and they strolled slowly towa= rds trim hedges. Inside of the parallel rows of a maze-like hedge, the shrub hi= gh enough to just about cover her shoulders, Kobus halted her, and eased out an ample breast, taking his time to examine it, to measure it dimensions in his hand, to weigh it. He finally tucked it away without saying anything, and l= ed her on.

     The small maze led to a fake water-wheel, no water anywhere nearby – now = or in the past by the look of it, the object examined. A path led them around = the castle walls, parts of the walls appearing modern day reproductions, other parts authentic – but with in-fills in places. Finding a bench beneath high walls, a well-trimmed waist high bush running past, he pushed her down onto it, and unzipped. Holding his firm dick, she opened her mouth, but he = simply slapped her cheeks with it for a minute, finally allowing her to suck it, a hand now inside her bra.

     Pulling out rudely, he lifted her up and turned her over as the light faded, soon thrusting in with little regard for any preparation. Thinking of many thing= s, such as damp slate roofs, books on taxation, the mortar used on the castle walls, Kobus held off finishing for long enough to know that she had achiev= ed an orgasm.

     ‘Money shot,’ he said. ‘Pulling out sharply, and eliciting a groan, he spun her around and sat her down. Masturbating quickly, he came over her fa= ce – whether she was ready and willing or not, grabbed her hair and thru= st into her mouth. She moaned, but from surprise and being choked as much as anything else.

     Pulling out, he zipped up, a glance around as she opened her bag, in need of a wet-= wipe or two.

     ‘We’d best get back, before they think we’re up to something,’ he told her with a grin.

     Walking back around, she continued to wipe herself down. ‘You’re a bad = man, you know that,’ she mock scolded.

     ‘It takes two.’

     ‘How ... how long are you here?’

     ‘Just tonight.’

     ‘I’m in room six,’ she volunteered.

     ‘I’ll pop by later, if I feel like it.’

     She glanced at the side of his head as they walked, but said nothing, soon glimpsing Drake and Cat walking hand in hand towards them. Both couples met= up below the patio.

     ‘Good evening,’ Drake formally offered Marlene, shaking her hand. ‘Did you have a pleasant walk?’

     ‘We did,’ she confirmed. ‘If you’ll ... excuse me.’ She glanced at Kobus before heading towards her room for a clean-up, Drake watc= hing her go.

     ‘Find anything interesting?’ Kobus asked Drake as he lit up.

     ‘The gardens are most splendid,’ Drake responded.

     They turned as a group and climbed up to the patio, drinks ordered. When Cat tro= tted off to the toilet, Kobus asked about Marlene; did Drake sense anything.

     ‘You had sex with her, in the castle gardens.’

     ‘Besides that,’ he urged.

     ‘She seeks a man with money, she has very little of her own.’

     ‘Ah,’ Kobus let out.

     ‘Cat now likes to hold my hand,’ Drake said, but did so as a discovery, no= t a boast of her growing affections for him.

     ‘You’re a nice looking young lad, you behave well around her – what’s n= ot to like?’ 

     ‘I make many a falsehood about my past,’ Drake reported.

     ‘Better than the truth, much better,’ Kobus urged. He carefully mouthed, ‘Don’t be tempted to tell her.’

     ‘Should you not tell me what to say?’

     ‘That would take a long time. Just ... try not to think of yourself, but her, discover things with her – don’t tell her about them, and let h= er take the lead. Tell her you have little experience of women, and definitely don’t tell her about brothels, about Roxy, or about women who take co= in. Be as innocent as we both know you are ... and you’ll be fine.’=

     ‘I am troubled. Should I not ... think as you think, and not desire a friendsh= ip with her because of what lies ahead.’

     Kobus placed the cigarette back onto his lips, and slowly inhaled, lifting his he= ad towards the dull purple glow on the horizon. He blew out. ‘Drake, enj= oy yourself, and to hell with what lies ahead. Enjoy yourself while you can, y= ou deserve it.’ He made eye contact. ‘You didn’t choose to h= ave the demon inside you. You battled it for ten years, and then you locked yourself away for a few hundred years - a brave and selfless act. And now, = now the universe conspires to make you suffer more. So fuck the universe, and e= njoy it while you can.’

     ‘When we stand before St. Peter, you shall have to account for such curses.’= ;

     ‘Buddy, when I stand before St. Peter he’ll hear a lot more than that. I have= a few things to get off my chest.’

     ‘You like this woman of the Gaul lands?’

     ‘It was ... giving in to temptation, but not really what I want. What I want ..= . is what you have, but that’s not available to people like me.’

     ‘Why did you take this woman?’ Drake puzzled.

     ‘Because ... it was there, and ... I have needs like any man. But, like most men the= ... short-term gratification is just that; short-term, fleeting, of the moment.= And afterwards, afterwards we wonder why we did it, and why such things donR= 17;t make us happy – truly happy. It’s part of the human condition.&= #8217;

     Drake nodded. ‘I laid down with a woman for coin, when I considered betroth= al. My father suggested I might ... be less of a fool on the wedding night.R= 17;

     Kobus made a face. ‘Practice makes perfect. And I’m still practising, trying to figure out what makes me happy. Unfortunately, the job makes me happier than the thought of family life.’ He heaved a heavy sigh. ‘I’m a lost cause.’

     With Cat back at the table, talk returned to castles, and interesting facts, Cat nosey about Kobus’s new lady friend. For the evening meal they drove = to another castle, this one even less authentic, and sat on a long table watch= ing dancing horses on the stage, followed by a troop of black disco stars from = the 1970s.

     Drake found the knights in armour and mock fighting to be a little off-putting; he’d been on the receiving end of a few of the weapons displayed. They sat at the bar till closing time, and chatted to a British couple down on holiday, finally driving back when the hall closed, their rooms reclaimed.<= /span>

     But Kobus found himself alone for the first forty minutes, tempted to go to room six for a visit, and to play with the large breasts again. Drake finally appeared, and now with a silly grin.

     ‘Well?’ Kobus knowingly asked.

     ‘We lay down, and I made her very happy,’ he proudly stated.

     ‘After all those hours watching porn in hotel rooms, I should damn well hope you k= now what you’re doing.’

     ‘I admit to cheating.’

     ‘Cheating?’ Kobus puzzled, wondering how anyone could cheat at sex, and did Drake have a vibrator hidden away.

     ‘I read her mind, and did what she desired at each stage,’ Drake reporte= d.

     ‘Lucky bastard,’ Kobus quipped, looking peeved.

     A smug Drake readied his clean clothes, and took a long hot shower. Fortunately, he didn’t sing in the shower, or put on a little soul music.

     Kobus checked his pistol, lay down fully clothed, folded his arms whilst muttering and cursing, and closed his eyes.

 

They skipped a formal hotel breakfast in the morning, and left= early - no sign of Marlene. They were soon on the road, the day promising to be c= lear and warm. Kobus pointed the car due south, and towards Marseilles, soon cruising down the highway at a steady 80mph, the BMW a smooth ride. North of Marseilles they turned west, avoiding the city, and glimpsed the coast afte= r an hour. Mindful of the few days remaining, days till Cat had to be back in wo= rk, they kept going, finding a hotel near Perpignan as the sun set.

     With two rooms again booked, Kobus found himself sat on a balcony after a lengthy meal at a local cafe, a private smoke now enjoyed whilst taking in the view= , a distant pearl-string of lights delineating the end of the darkened land and= the start of the darkened Mediterranean.

     Drake appeared an hour later, still carrying about him his silly smug grin. He jo= ined Kobus on the balcony, sitting without saying anything.

     ‘All well in the marital bedroom?’ Kobus finally asked.

     ‘All is ... very well, yes. We undertook a bath together.’

     ‘What it is to be young,’ Kobus quipped, staring out into the night sky. ‘Except that you’re not. You’re a ... living falsehood.’ He turned his head, and waited.

     ‘You are concerned ... for Cat.’

     ‘I’m concerned for you both. Cat, she’ll get over you quickly and find ano= ther man to interest her; never underestimate a young girl’s ability to mo= ve on quickly. And you, well, you and I will be dead soon enough. Or worse.= 217;

     ‘Worse?’

     ‘Worse, meaning they take you alive, and study you.’

     ‘I do not believe the magistrate to be strong enough to do this,’ Drake = confidently stated.

     ‘Don’t be foolish, they’ll find a way.’

     ‘But you have already sold my merits to them, and suggested a deal of some description.’

     Kobus took the cigarette from his mouth. ‘I was playing for time, buddy. I’d hate for you to end up working for them, or to be in their custod= y.’

     ‘You think dark thoughts.’

     Kobus took a moment. ‘I wish there was more I could do to help you.’<= /span>

     ‘Help me? And what of yourself?’

     ‘Of myself?’ He sighed. ‘I don’t think I have any choices lef= t. I’ve been shown a light at the end of the tunnel, but that light is y= ou; I just carry the torch. You ... have a destiny, a destiny to stop that bomb, and then ... then the universe will have little further use for the torch bearer.’

     ‘You believe the alignment to signal your death.’

     Kobus nodded, staring across at the distant twinkling lights. ‘Funny thing = is, it doesn’t bother me that much, and ... and part of me is delighted to see that the alignment is there to stop the bomb. And ... part of me would = have been delighted to know that there is a God, just ... not under these circumstances.’

     ‘These ... circumstances?’ Drake nudged.

     Kobus turned to face Drake. ‘Under no circumstances can you allow yourself = to be captured, and to be put on TV. If they get close, bury yourself somewhere deep, or swim down to the ocean depths, anything, just don’t let the world see that you really exist.’

     ‘If I exist - if the demon exists, then it is for a purpose.’

     ‘That purpose is, I hope, simply to stop the bomb, and nothing more, because if you’re discovered and known, then ... then all that you see around you will be in jeopardy.’

     Kobus took a moment. ‘Most people in the western world follow the basic Christian tenets - in practice if not in name, and their belief is just that – a belief. Faith ... needs a doubt, and that doubt keeps people goin= g to work in the mornings, and relying on technology instead of prayer.

     ‘But if they knew that you truly existed - and if they were convinced that God t= ruly existed, who would go to the doctor instead of praying, who would start to = believe that cancer is divine will? What police officer will shoot a bank robber and risk eternal damnation in hell, what soldier would raise a gun and shoot an enemy soldier for fear of going to hell? And what soldiers will start to ki= ll willingly because they believe it i= s God’s wish.

     ‘The problem ... will be a hell of a lot of people wanting to fulfil God’s wish, but what – exactly – is God’s wish? Do we follow the Bible, the Koran, or something like the Buddhist faith? Which guidelines are correct?

     ‘People working in offices might stop working for insurance companies and banks if = they thought the work might be slightly immoral, and husbands and wives would st= ay together even though they don’t like each other; because it would be a sin otherwise. And what of abortion? No, we’d go back to the dark age= s if they knew about you.’

     ‘Would not adopting God’s teachings be a good thing?’

     ‘In theory - yes. Problem is ... which of the teachings are God’s teachin= gs, and which have been concocted and altered over time? Would the church start= to exert political power? Would the Catholic Church take power in Europe and America, and would they then see the Muslims as unbelievers to be put to de= ath? Would the US President consult a cardinal before starting a war?

     R