She stepped from beneath the shadow of the trees at the edge of the compound without a sound, her footfalls barely seeming to make contact with the ground. Dressed in a dark grey flight suit, devoid of national emblems or insignia of rank, she wore no hat and sported soft-heeled, lace-up boots.
She was tall, around five feet nine, and slender. Her hair was cut short just below her ears and her eyes were hidden from view by a pair of tinted sunglasses, which would have seemed odd to any observer because it was the middle of the night.
She moved purposefully, yet without haste. Somewhere in the trees, an owl gave a curious hoot.
The heavy rain helped to deaden most sounds. It poured down all around her but she paid it no heed; she didn’t have time to worry about the weather. In fact it was quite a relief from the stifling heat and humidity of the day.
She crossed the worn, weed-strewn tarmac and made for a small, one-storey hangar nestled between a stack of rusted oil drums. Nearby, the twisted and broken fuselage of an old Cessna jabbed her propeller-less nose mournfully up towards darkened heavens where she had once danced.
The hangar looked deserted. Filthy, partially broken window panes spilled no comforting light out into the darkness of the soaked night and the flaking, peeled paint on the frames told her the place had been abandoned decades earlier. It didn’t look like there’d be anything to find but looks were meant to be deceptive in this game. As her ride had long since snaked its way back down the treacherous mountain track, she had little choice but to continue walking.
The doors to the hangar were closed but unlocked. The special heat-sensitive glasses she wore indicated no sign of life behind them – everything was cast in a cold shade of blue to match the chill rainwater sneaking its way down the collar of her jumpsuit.
She carried no weapon on this job. There wasn’t much point; it was a simple pick-up that benefited the other side, as much as her own. Her glasses did, at least, help her see who was about when the cloak of darkness had fallen. There was nobody to see but her eyes still scanned back and forth with practiced concentration.
She tested one of the doors and was pleasantly surprised to feel it slide smoothly aside on newly greased runners. She pushed open both doors and peered inside the dark building. Rain drummed noisily upon the curved, corrugated roof of the hangar and it was in better condition than it looked from outside, the space beyond the doors being quite dry. Inside, she made out a large shape covered by a swathe of heavy tarpaulin. Bingo.
A quick look around and the woman moved inside. She quickly walked around the shape, pleased to be out of the rain. Satisfied, she started to pull the tarpaulin free. The cargo was already stashed aboard, shielded behind lead plating within a concealed unit built into the nose. The woman didn’t bother to check the compartment. The aircraft was here and financial necessity dictated that the cargo had to be.
Hauling herself nimbly up into the familiar cockpit; the clear canopy was already slid back invitingly, she needed no urging to get going. Sliding into the pilot’s seat, she closed the canopy and dogged the latches. The other side was playing it straight with the aircraft. That should please the boss, she mused wryly.
Keeping all lights off, she ignited the Pegasus engine. It whined into life without argument. Disengaging the brake, she taxied the plane out into the rain, where even the sound of its engine was dulled by the deluge of water falling from the sky. When clear of the hangar by about ten feet, the woman checked she was buckled into the seat and slipped on a flying helmet she found on the floor.
Once the helmet was adjusted to fit comfortably, she vectored the engine thrust downwards through the four exhausts and opened the throttle. The whine grew to a banshee-like wail as the airframe slipped the bonds of gravity and rose into the darkness, still showing no lights, on a cushion of 18,000 pounds of thrust.
This particular Harrier was twenty years old, give or take a year, but had been well maintained and took to the air with the assured grace of a serving fighter. The airframe had been coated from nose to tail in specialist black paint. Operating at night, it made her practically invisible to radar and just as invisible to the naked eye, unless the moon was out and the skies were clear. You could hear her coming but she was hard to spot.
The woman lifted the aircraft in a vertical, hovering climb until she hit fifty feet. Adjusting the angle of thrust with the hands of an expert, she lifted the nose and powered away in a conventional forty-degree climb that pressed her into her seat with the reassuring hand of g-force. The stalwart old aircraft vanished into the filthy night, on a mission to deliver cargo over eight hundred miles away. What the pilot couldn’t possibly have known was that this flight was to be her last.
As soon as the aircraft disappeared, a figure emerged from its hiding place within thick vegetation just behind the hangar. Clad in motorcycle leathers, face obscured by a crash helmet, it was pushing a powerful trials motorcycle. Throwing one leg over the seat, the engine kicked over and the machine surged past the hangar and began a sure-footed descent of the slippery mountain road. Securely nestled at the bottom of the rider’s backpack sat a heavy, lead-lined metal cylinder.
A little over one hour later, both aircraft and pilot passed from the world in a brief flash of orange, noticed only by a pair of spider monkeys, startled from their slumber by the splintering of wood and the snapping of nearby boughs.
Then, as quickly as the disturbance came, it was gone. Unsettled by the intrusion, the monkeys moved off to find less exciting treetops and were soon snuggled up together in a high hollow, quickly falling asleep again.
Anxious eyes stared at watch faces as the hours crept by and no word came. Eventually, realizing that something had gone terribly wrong, somebody picked up the telephone and made the necessary call.
The bullet was on target. Unbelievable pain exploded across his chest in time to the gun’s thunderous point-blank discharge and he was flung onto his back. A scream echoed the gunshot as his mind reeled and he struggled hard for breath. Each gasp ripped at his insides.
Unlike every good book the man had ever read, a comforting darkness did not wash over him, nor did the pain fade into numb oblivion. Instead it kept right on stabbing him between his lungs.
There were more screams again, this time further in the distance, or were they close by? Were they his screams even?
An addled brain offered questions but no answers. His eyes remained open and the damp, curved roof of the subway tunnel looked the same, although seemingly dimmer than before; badly water-stained and dank on the nostrils.
The rest of the experience passed in a montage of fading images and vague sounds. He remembered hearing voices and sirens, and seeing faces swim in and out of focus at regular intervals. Soon he couldn’t tell the difference, as it all blurred into one seamless, meaningless image.
As he lay there, surprisingly still alive, he began to run through the seconds leading up to the shooting; his shooting. It hardly seemed real, despite the pain and the hubbub all around, but it was.
The subway tunnel was one of four that ran out from a central courtyard, near to the marketplace, to all four points of the compass. The courtyard itself was bordered with long concrete planters and paved with grey flagstones. Each planter was overflowing with a myriad of cheerful flowers, which served to brighten the drab surroundings and fill the air with a gorgeous scent of floral perfume.
The courtyard was open to the sky, in reality forming the centre of a large roundabout on the edge of the town’s one-way traffic system. Each of its tunnels dropped a few steps before running out beneath the road to its respective pedestrian destination.
It was a warm spring day and he was heading out of one of the tunnels; from the multi-storey car park, and moving into one he knew would lead him straight into the market, there to buy two things.
He needed a retirement gift for one of the cleaners at work and a bottle of his favourite Spanish brandy, for himself. The brandy would be easy enough. He always went to see the old man who ran the curtain stall; he also ran a great little line in dubiously cheap alcohol.
As for the retirement gift, he’d never been good at buying the right present, for anyone, and was grateful for the catalogue-store number a friend had scrawled hastily on the crumpled piece of paper he held in his hand.
Somewhere, he couldn’t remember exactly in which pocket, sat a small envelope stuffed with cash from the staff collection. You’re just the unlucky one who lost a coin toss and landed the crap, he told himself.
He tried to see if the note was still in his hand, but couldn’t. Though his eyes were open, darkness now edged his vision. He couldn’t feel his hand, let alone sense if it gripped anything in his fingers. The only sensation he had for sure was one of wetness across his crushed chest and around his groin. He couldn’t see the growing pool of crimson he was laying in, which was probably a good thing.
The man couldn’t move, even a little, to check himself over but strangely enough he didn’t feel fear; not a palpable terror he’d always assumed would accompany his own death. He just felt anger at the injustice of it all. He was only thirty-five years old and simply not ready to die.
It was broad daylight, a little after three in the afternoon. He had been hurrying to catch the curtain man at a quiet time. He’d come straight from work; one of several jobs that had covered the last decade of a life that now seemed to be draining away all around him.
He worked at a local hospital, helping to look after dangerously disturbed patients who were too risky for care homes in the community. He wasn’t a qualified nurse, just an auxiliary, but as a job it was okay. It gave him a small, regular income and a great deal of job satisfaction.
It did little to challenge his mind but it had allowed him to continue his policy of coasting through life until he finally decided what to do with it. His true calling, which he knew was still out there somewhere, remained elusive. Since leaving the Royal Air Force, one week shy of his twenty-sixth birthday, his employment record had taken a nosedive of near kamikaze proportions.
'It’s alright. You’re going to be alright,’ said the paramedic softly. She was a veteran of eighteen years with the Essex Ambulance Service and had a good nose for whether a patient would survive or not. Staring down at the man, eyes filled with sadness, her hands automatically worked to prepare an injection.
The man recognised the soothing nature of the tones but the words had little meaning. Something stabbed into his arm, truth at least that not everything was dead. He guessed it was probably a drug being given to him in a futile bid to deliver him alive to hospital. He was grateful but too tired to care.
‘Just hold on. We’ll have you out of here in a jiffy.’
If the woman hadn’t chosen her moment to scream with terror, he would have breezed right through the courtyard without paying the group any heed. It had seemed just like a knot of youngsters, hanging together in a crowd down the tunnel entrance to his left. Nothing strange about that.
But she did scream and he recognised real terror in the sound. Despite the warmth of the day, his blood had frozen.
Stopping in his tracks, he turned and looked more closely. As a small gap opened in the group he had seen the sinister truth. Half a dozen boys and three girls were robbing a couple in their early twenties, in broad daylight too. None of the children looked physically impressive but, as his feet ran him closer to the action, unbidden, he understood the male victim’s disinclination to fight, namely a large flick-knife being pressed against his throat; its blade gleaming dully in the half-light of partial subterranea.
The young woman was pinned to the tunnel wall by two boys while being stripped of all visible jewellery by a girl who couldn’t have been any older than twelve. Livid, and incensed by his own helplessness, the boyfriend’s eyes burned with hatred but he stayed still. The woman shrugged off the offending hand and received a punch to the temple from one of the boys for her trouble. Bleeding from a cut above her eye, his victim was too dazed to cry out. Knife at his throat be damned, her boyfriend bellowed his fury and tensed himself to fight. Before he could move, however, a passer-by acted first.
The stranger shouted at them to stop. Then there was a scuffle; brief and cold. One of the kids went down with an audible crack that told him his punch to his nose had done the trick. The second youngster crumpled as a foot caught him smartly between the legs.
Then, terrifyingly, a gun had appeared.
It didn’t appear in the hands of one of the boys either. To his amazement, it was plucked from a belt-pouch by one of the girls. He looked at the weapon, unsure of what to think. The chubby teenager, sporting two sweet pigtails, grinned at him as she pointed it in his direction. He remembered briefly forming the idea that it was a replica, a copy of a small calibre revolver.
‘We do what we want,’ she had smirked. Then, with eyes flinty and slightly breathless, she pulled her trigger.
Dragged back to the present by the deepening shadows, just for a second the man felt a pang of the missing fear. His mind, growing sluggish and cold, drew on stored images of the last time it had viewed children carrying guns; the old Bugsy Malone film. But those guns fired cream balls not real ammunition, it protested.
At least he changed his underwear every day and would retain some dignity in the mortuary. As everything grew darker around him, he found himself hoping that they would spell his name correctly in the newspapers the following day.
James Pace, deceased victim of baby bandits.