The Mute Bounty Hunter

She came down from the hills on a big bay horse with the two corpses rope-tied to the twin skinny pack mules she was leading. Blood had dried over the wounds and the corpses swayed as the mules stiff-walked down the dusty street. Some people watched from porches or windows. She rode up to the US Marshal’s office next to the Dry Goods Supply store and got down from her big horse, at least fifteen hands high, and looped the reins around the railing. The mules stood there in the cold, shifting a little. She didn’t hesitate. She walked up the creaky wooden steps, her boots clunking, and opened the door and went in. A bell on the door rang as she entered. Jack Ryles, the US Marshal, was sitting by the stove with his boots up on the desk, smoking a cigarillo. It stank of cigarillo smoke in the little office. The stove was giving off intense warmth. He looked at her evenly without blinking with his blue eyes as she came in. She touched the brim of her straw hat — it was a Mexican sombrero that would have looked silly on anyone but a beautiful black haired woman, which she was — and stood there returning the Marshal’s bold empty gaze with her own bold empty gaze. Aside from the sombrero and riding boots she was wearing a colorful serape thrown over one shoulder and a leather coat and a man’s white shirt under it and also a man’s riding trousers, and two Colt Navy pistols were stuck into the frayed black leather belt holding up the trousers.

-Well now, said Jack Ryles. What have we got here, young lady?
She took the folded wanted poster out of her coat pocket on the side that didn’t hold clinking rifle and pistol shells and unfolded it and held them out toward the Marshall, who didn’t move to take it but sighed, glanced at the wall where the exact same bill was posted (The Natchez Brothers, Extremely Dangerous, Wanted for Horse Thievery. Fifty Gold Dollars For Each Brother, Dead or Alive) and said, drawling his words a little:
-Where are they?
She raised her chin toward the window giving onto the dusty, near-empty street.
The Marshal swung his legs down until his bootheels touched the floor. He pushed back his chair with a squeak. He stood and crushed out his cigarillo in a clay dish full of ash and other spent cigarillos and went slowly to the window. He bent to peer outside through the warped and discolored glass panes. He saw the mules shifting in the cold and the bodies tied to them with lengths of rope, blood drying on the wounds. He rubbed his jaw. He hadn’t shaved that morning, and there were thick bristles, some frosted white by his advancing age.
-Well. You got them horse thieving fuckers. I’ll be twice god damned, he said.

Wearily, the Marshal walked from the window back to his desk. He pulled open a desk drawer and took from it a gray cloth bag that clinked when he set it down by his pistol. He opened the bag and counted out gold coins, placing them in a careful stack. Then he used the barrel of the Colt pistol to move the stack over the desk toward the silent woman. He tore a sheet of paper off a pad and scribbled a few words on it with a quill he plucked from a small jar of ink that sat open and pushed the slip of paper over next to the stack of gold pieces. He laid the quill on the paper. He said:
-Sign here to claim your bounty. I am content that you have earned every dollar of it.
She stepped up to the desk as he sank back into his chair and tilted it on its back legs against the wall. She bent over the desk, picked up the inky quill and signed in a rapid series of scratches. She slipped the quill back into the ink jar.
-Just leave the corpses of these poor sons of bitches lying there in the street if you like, and I’ll have the coffin maker come by with his wagon and pick them up later today or tomorrow after he’s made the coffins. It’s fiesta day for our local coffin maker.
The woman nodded. Then she picked up the stack of gold pieces and placed them into a yellow chamois pouch and shut it by pulling its strings. She tucked the pouch into an inside pocket of her leather coat as the Marshal looked on with one eyebrow cocked, his boots back up on the desk and his hands folded in his lap. She nodded to him and went out, down the creaking wooden steps to the cold and dusty street where she unroped the corpses and took them down from the shifting wide eyed mules. She dragged the corpses up close to the bare wooden sidewalk and propped their bloodied shaggy heads against its edge. Then she wound the rope tightly into a bundle and tied it together and put it in one of the big stained leather saddlebags hanging over the bay horse’s withers. Inside, the Marshal had tilted his chair back down and now bent forward a little to watch her through the window. She felt his gaze, glanced up and touched the brim of her hat in Goodbye, then she swung up on the bay and clicked her tongue and the bay backed up four steps, turned and set off at a jog, the mules giving a few dry bleats of anguished resistance then following meekly on behind pulled by the lead-rope. She was gone in a few seconds, turning sharply at the end of the street to head back out into the arid desert with her pack mules under the vast blue sky. In his office, the Marshal tilted his chair back again and rested his head against the wall and shut his eyes.
-God damn it all totally to hell, he said.

Iron Wall, Silver Mountain

For one night
she’d be his wife.
For one night only.
His name: classified.
She couldn’t repeat it.
She’d seen it once,
just once,
in a file folder.
M’s office, Vauxhall Cross.
SIS HQ.

In the windowless inner office,
as Elizabeth sat prim and pale
in a red leather armchair,
trying to appear offhand,
M had explained the task
in his usual clipped way,
his yellowed teeth clenched all the time
on the trademark ivory cigarette holder —
a Dunhill burning in it —
gazing off into space
through the cloud of blue smoke.

As if she didn’t exist,
as if her father, Alwyn Storm,
009,
has never lived
or died.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

It wasn’t, he said, a “wet” job.
Yet her training might,
just might be needed
if the thing went South, so to speak.
It was a simple hand off.
Robert Vaclos,
a Corsican drug kingpin,
was getting a briefcase
from this “David Blair” —
an undercover “00” man —
with a homing device in the leather.
The homing device was to track Vaclos,
so SAS commandoes might lift him
in a lightning ambush
somewhere on the roads
between his grand villa and San Remo.

The villa was too well defended,
and in San Remo he always rented a whole floor
of the Hotel Grand Regency.

-Vaclos’ bodyguards are ex-French Action Service,
all Corsicans. Hard men.
So it’s going to be a damnably hard operation as is.
But with the bug in place,
there’s a better chance of success.
We can pick the spot to take him
and thus minimize casualties to our people.
Get the picture?

Elizabeth cleared her throat slightly.
Bending forward, she licked her upper lip
with the point of her tongue,
and said clearly:
-Yes, Sir.

M glanced at her.
It wasn’t his habit to look at agents.
Instead, he usually just smoked, stared into space,
gave the clipped, tiresome exposition, and sent them off.
To live. To die. Who knew?
“Every field op represents a risk;
every secret foray can devolve into a life or death struggle.”

She felt the skin on her forehead prickle,
but she kept her face calm,
the lips smiling slightly.

M hadn’t glanced at her face.
He was a man, after all.
His gaze had gone to her chest.
She made an effort to keep still,
watching his lidded eyes
as he darted another hot glance at it.

Yes.
Breasts, not face.
She is aware,
Elizabeth Alwyn Storm is,
that her bust is sublime.
She’s heard it described
as perfect,
even as majestic.

She’s a legend in the Service
not for killing people,
which she hasn’t yet —
none confirmed, anyway —
but for her icy beauty.
And for those proud breasts
she carries before her so brashly.

She is shy, Elizabeth —
prone to blushing easily,
the color rising to her ears in a rush.
This used to torment her.
She had to master it.
She did master it,
during her training at the Fort.

She’s careful about her reputation. She never sees male colleagues outside.
At HQ, she dresses conservatively,
baring only the thrilling arms and white neck.
She’s even considered getting glasses,
so the men here won’t dream of making passes.

No, she thinks.
They’d dream of it anyway.
Just as she’s dreaming about this “David Blair”
after seeing just one photograph of the devil.
Handsome? Unbearably.
Slick as the action on a Luger.
“oo4” with twenty confirmed kills in the field.
Known to enjoy the company of alluring women.
All in all, the closest thing SIS has to a “Bond.”

-Sir?

-Yes, Agent Storm.

-Why do we want this man,
if you don’t mind my asking?

M. sighs.
He takes the cigarette
in its ivory holder
from his lips,
crushes it out,
puts it down with a deliberate click
and sits back
in the leather chair.

He fixes Elizabeth Alwyn Storm’s ice-blue eyes with his own.
M.’s are, as always, black and fiery.
She doesn’t flinch,
but it’s an effort not to.

-Vaclos is dealing with a warlord
in Afghanistan,
who goes by the name Sukhmet.
Sukhmet supplies Vaclos raw opium
in exchange not for money
but for specialized types of arms,
which Sukhmet then peddles
to the Taliban. Among others.
We need to know exactly
who Robert Vaclos works with
on the armaments front.
It’s not just a drug issue now —
it’s a matter of national security.
“The rest is silence.” Top Secret.
Satisfied, Agent Storm?

Elizabeth bows her head slightly.
The beautiful lips part.
She says:

-Yes. Thank you, Sir.

Tagged

The Sea

(This is a small excerpt from THE TATTOOED ASSASSIN — an Akiko crime novel in progress.)

It’s late afternoon when the ferry docks on the little island. Akiko crosses the wobbling gangplank. Then she’s standing on the volcanic soil of Kamijima. Gulls are skreeking. The cold breeze smells and tastes of salt. She doesn’t look around for the taxi. She’s already laced up her hiking boots while still on the ferry. She starts to walk. It feels good to be away from a city. There’s no car traffic on the narrow dirt road between low houses and shops — nothing but a few rattling bicycles. Soon she’s walking through thick green bamboo forest. The road turns steeply uphill. Sweating, she climbs, carrying the luggage bag slung over one shoulder. The sunlight is hot and blinding. She stops in the shadow of a big pine to drink water from a plastic bottle. Carefully, she screws the cap back on and sticks it into her bag. It’s a long walk up the mountain, colder and steeper with each step. Finally she’s there — at the base of the mossy winding steps to the temple. She can see the soaring wing-like eaves, the dull red lacquer of the walls and pillars dappled with sunlight, through black branching pine foliage. Home.

She climbs the steps slowly, her eyes shut.
At the top step, she opens her eyes.
There. The temple. The smooth black pillars. The green-tiled roof.

Takagi steps out onto the porch. He’s bearded. In blue jeans and a torn t shirt. He’s holding a wooden sword lightly. He stops and turns his head toward Akiko. His blind eyes look at her. His nostrils widen. He begins to tremble. He sits down on the smooth boards, like a marionette suddenly cut from its strings. Lays the sword flat.
Akiko strides forward in flowing steps. She lifts the bag from her shoulder. Sets it down on the thick pine needles.

Molly, he says.
Jiro.
Ah, Molly.
She goes to him. He takes her head in his hands. Kisses her brows, her cheeks, her lips. Smells her sunwarmed hair.
You’re here. Alive.
Hai.
I wondered.
Akiko smiles. He’s still kissing her. She shuts her eyes. His lips are dry and soft and the kisses cool and delicate.
Nothing kills me, she whispers.
I know that. I love you.
I love you, Jiro.
He’s shaking again, as if seized by panic. She helps him to stand, lifting him up by the elbows.

The sun is low. Almost drowned in the Sea of Japan. Cicadas buzz-buzz. It’s cold here in the shadows. Autumn. The great change of seasons that rebukes all vain human conceit and ambition. One finally feels it — the light is weak, the cicadas near-silent. Pine needles are falling. The small red squirrels jump in the thick foliage, their tails twitching. The few maples are a blaze of crimson. The oak leaves are edged with yellow.

She helps Takagi inside. Goes back out for her bag. When she comes in again carrying the bag, he’s lit a kerosene lantern. He replaces the soot-smudged glass chimney and turns down the flame. She sets down her luggage and kneels in seiza. It’s musty inside the temple. Takagi hasn’t bathed in a while — she can smell the layers of dried sweat under his clothes. The odor is not unpleasant. His beard is thick and his blind eyes, when she glimpses them under the sagging lids, look wild. It’s as if he’d aged a century. Then she realizes, no, he’s still youthful. His arms and shoulders are powerful — she doesn’t recall him being this muscled. He’s clearly been working out with the bokken every single day. She touches it with her fingertips. It’s stained dark at the handle by the oil and sweat from Takagi’s hands.

He hasn’t rolled up the bedding. It’s still disarranged from the morning. He tries to straighten it, feeling his way along the edges. Akiko, who has meanwhile unlaced and pulled off her hiking boots and wool socks, laughs, stands, and strips off her dark sweater and the t shirt under it in one movement. She drops these things on the floor, unsnaps her blue jeans and steps out of them. She goes to Takagi in her thin panties, kneels by him, and places his hands on her breasts. He begins, again, to shake as if with cold. She kisses his face, his hair. The kisses are like flames. Takagi groans. He sits on the bedding. Akiko bends forward, her hair covering his face. She unsnaps his blue jeans and wrenches down the zipper and takes him out hard and pulsating and she whimpers a little from her own desire as she kisses it and licks the swelling crown. Takagi moans. He lies back. Akiko’s head goes up and down. He feels her tongue playing with him, her warm saliva dripping on his balls. Then she takes him out of her mouth and goes lower. One by one, she sucks on and softly bites his testicles while holding his cock like a sword. Takagi feels the sensations begin to surge. Wait, he says. Stop. She stops biting him. Silence. He can hear her breathing. Also his own. They’re both breathing deeply as if in a sword match. Come up here, he murmurs. He hears the cotton rasp as Akiko tears off her panties. Throws them away. Then she climbs up his body, kissing hard and open-mouthed as she goes. She strips away his t shirt. He raises both arms over his head as she yanks it from him. His skin is silk-smooth, warm and sunbrowned. She straddles Takagi and inserts him in the searing heat and moisture underneath her bristling soft pubic hair. Takagi sobs. It’s so good. Ah, he says, beautiful Molly. She strokes his face with her long fingers as he holds her elbows. They’re a little rough, as always, from her constant practice with the wooden sword. She begins rocking. He’s trying to form an image of exactly what she must look like now. Above, below and around him is only darkness. His mind blazes, but there are no colors. Akiko is gasping. She shudders in her orgasm and he feels a surge of heat and thick wetness on his cock and balls. He’s cradled inside her, in the searing womb. He cries out — his semen shoots up into the all engulfing darkness.

The sea. Glittering. Infinite.

Night. Akiko opens a barrel of sake. It gurgles pleasantly into the earthenware jar. She sets down the full sake jar and takes out the cups, which she cleans out with splashes of water followed by a few wipes with a faded blue-striped dish towel — one of the ones she brought with her three years ago when she arrived on the island. She returns to bed with the jar and cups on a bamboo tray. The kerosene lamp throws her shadow — the intimate nudity of her shadow — hugely on the whitewashed wall. She picks up one cup and hands it to Takagi, who smiles and bows. He’s seated crosslegged, naked, on the futon. He holds out the cup. She fills it with a snap of the wrist, not spilling a drop. She fills hers next and sets down the sake jar. They drink. The sake is cold and subtly sweet. It’s refreshing, after the heat of the day and the almost painful joy of their lovemaking. Was it joy? Or pain?

Takagi took her three times. Akiko climaxed twice. Harshly and completely, both times. She almost came the third time but held back to fully appreciate the beauty of Takagi’s climax. As he mounted toward it, he fucked her more and more slowly — delicately, even. She shut her eyes to feel him shoot inside her — a flare of heat. He gasped and choked and his body went rigid. She held him around the ribs, tightly, and also embraced his legs with hers, crushing him into her, her bare feet stroking his white buttocks. Life is empty. A dead flower in the surf. An owl’s strange, insistent hoots in the dark pine forest of the mountain on Kamijima. She smiles as she drinks, her lips smiling on the rim of the cup — she sees that he’s erect again.

(For more like this, see 10th & Crime.)

Twelve Ans

Sabine, jolted in the back of the truck, was thirsty.
And sick.
She clutched her stomach.
Her dark hair hunging over her face.
Finally, she bent over further, grabbing her bare knees, and splashed vomit onto the steel floor.
Jolting and bouncing. The truck was moving fast.
She could see the road bouncing behind them through a gap in the canvas. The big summery oak trees as green blurs, and the pines as black streaks.
Telephone poles and wires. Crows flying, iridiscent black, letting out harsh caws.
They were in the country now. America.
Somewhere deep in the vastness of the country north of New York City.
She’d been flown in by cargo plane. Shivering, black-hooded, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.
Aix, Toulouse. The smell of wild thyme. Paris, freezing and foggy at two AM. A clasp knife with a serrated edge. Where was it all now?
And the Africans? And Jean-Pierre, the man who’d recruited her to cut glass with a diamond edged tool and slip into second story windows? She was small and lithe and could go into very small spaces. Maybe that was why he’d picked her off the street. He told her she was too young to whore. Too skinny. She’d attract the wrong type of men. The kind that would beat her up and cut her face with a razor.
Jean-Pierre was probably dead. The Africans, too. Sabine had killed two flics (cops).
She wasn’t sorry. The first one she took with the knife as he unbuttoned his fly.
Zip. His throat slashed in total silence. He staggered, the hot jet of blood hitting her brows. Then he fell over some trash bins, spilling bottles and cans.
The other managed to get his pistol out before Sabine, quick as a bird, stuck the knife in his heart.
Broke off the blade on a rib, twisting it as he sank to his knees.
Well, he was going to rape her, too, wasn’t he? Served him right. The magistrate, however, did not concur.
In New York, they’d taken off the hood but not the manacles. She’d glimpsed the skyline.
The Empire State Building.
She looked around for where the World Trade Center Towers had been. Nothing. Then they dragged her down a long, bare cement corridor and she was thrown into a room and the door clanked shut and locked behind her.
It was black inside the room. And cold. She crouched down, shivering in her parka. Thought about Jean-Pierre. Missed him with her whole body.
The laughing Africans. Their beautiful jokes and night-black faces. All dead. Killed by the flics in a movie-style downtown Paris shootout, outside a jewelry store. The flics had machine guns and body armor. The blacks just had some shotguns and pistols and knives. It wasn’t a fair fight.
Food came into the black room through a slot in the door twice a day. It was garbage. But Sabine ate it. With her fingers.
On the third day they came in and put more manacles on her and dragged her, twisting and biting, to the truck. They threw her inside and chained her to a ring set into the floor. Then the truck started with a gasp and a grinding roar and they were off, bouncing. Sabine could see bits of Manhattan through the gap in the canvas. A red fire hydrant. A fire escape. A delivery truck. A bridge strut.
Flashing by. This was life. It flashed by you in little bits. Gone before you knew it.
Sabine wept.

That was the day she arrived at the Ultra Facility.
Sabine Delonge. Twelve ans.

Scavengers

Along the road he found a blind girl. Four years old, maybe, smoke-blackened in a tattered and dirty blue dress, standing under a stunted oak.

He coaxed the little girl to come with him. She walked by his side, stumbling a little, clinging to the smoke-and-grease stained sleeve of his coat.

Sometimes over the next few days he carried her — fording streams, for example, or hiking up steep stretches of the mountain roads. He put her on his shoulders, and she clung with both fists to his hair.

He didn’t know what to call the blind girl as she didn’t speak. Mute, too?

Finally, he gave her a name: Helen.

*

He’d come up from the wide river valley, walking the back roads past the weed-overgrown and empty farms. Most of the farmhouses were burnt out shells, and those that were not burnt out he skirted anyhow.

He was going high up into the mountains. Maybe as far as the high desert country. His idea was to find a cave to camp in and wait out the next few years, which would undoubtedly be chaotic.

He carried a rucksack with some small camping pots and pans and canned goods and other things in it and two canteens of drinking water and an old bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle slung over his right shoulder. His knife was in a sheath at the back of his belt. A small box clinking in the left hand side pocket of his leather coat held the cartridges for the rifle. It was hot and sweaty work to walk all that way carrying all he owned.

At the University he’d taught philosophy. But he hadn’t brought along any books but for a thick pocket diary bound in leather with a pencil stuck in the loop. When the pencil ran out he’d have nothing to write with, so he filled the diary’s thin pages each night by fire-light slowly and sparingly.

*

It was only a few days after he’d picked up the girl that he turned a bend and saw three people sitting in the dust by the roadside cooking something on a fire. Too late to turn back or go around. He walked forward, raising his right hand.

One of the three — a teenaged girl, under the layers of dirt, he thought — got up and dashed into the woods. The two others, both men with thick beards in tattered and stained clothing, stood up slowly, one holding a stick.

He saw what they were cooking over the fire — it was a dog. Grease dripped and spat as the flames licked it. The smoke was pungent. He began to salivate despite himself, yet he was also nauseated. He wasn’t going to eat dog.

Evening, he said. The men didn’t reply. The one holding the stick grinned. The other came forward a few steps.

He could hear the girl moving in the brush, cracking twigs. It was near dark. Already, the owls were hooting.

She wasn’t going off, as he’d first thought, but moving around to flank him.

And when she dashed into the woods, hadn’t she been holding something?

His scalp went cold.

A bow, maybe.

And didn’t she have something lashed to her back? Arrows?

He stopped in the road, and swung the blind girl down to stand beside him.

Let me see that rifle there, the man who’d come forward said. His voice sounded wheezy, like an unused instrument.

He replied: No.

His ears were prickling. The girl in the brush had stopped moving. Right now she would be fitting an arrow onto the bowstring. His stomach turned to ice. He forced a smile.

This is all I’ve got, he said. I can’t hand it over to you.

The man said through his beard: Oh yes? We’ll see about that.

He shrugged the rifle from his shoulder and walked toward the man holding it out as if to put it meekly into his hands, but in the last few steps he broke into a run and, bringing up the butt, smashed the man’s chin. The bearded man grunted and fell in the dust.

He kept running and knocked away a blow from the other man’s stick with the barrel and stepped around him and, grappling in panicked silence, managed to get the barrel under his chin and drew the writhing body against him tightly, the shoulderblades pressing to his chest and top of the man’s head under his chin, and shouted: You, in the brush, come out or I’ll kill him.

After a few seconds, the teenaged girl stepped out, wide-eyed and cruel-looking. She was holding the bow drawn back. The arrow wasn’t pointed at him but at Helen, standing still in the road.

Let go, she said, or I’ll shoot this one.

He called out: No. Shoot her with that arrow and I’ll kill him then you too. Put it down.

She lowered the bow and dropped the arrow at her feet then dropped the bow next to it with a clatter.

The man he was holding to him had stopped grappling and was now just gurgling a little. He took away the rifle barrel and stepped back and the bearded man fell on his side, kicking and wheezing and trying to crawl.

He pointed the rifle sight at the teenaged girl and said: Back away.

She did.

He went forward and holding the rifle at ready one-handed bent and picked up the arrow.

Toss over the others, he said.

She took the other arrows — she had four — out of her homemade quiver and tossed them rattling onto the asphalt. He bent and picked those up, too. He stuck them into his belt.

Helen, he said. Come on, now. Helen stumbled forward and he took her hand and backed away. The teenaged girl was standing still, her arms hanging.

After he’d backed off ten paces or so he slung the rifle and swept up Helen and put her on his shoulders and walked off double-time. Up the road to the next bend and around it in the almost-dark, moonless tonight, starry and vast and ringing with those deep eerie owl-hoots.

Tagged , , ,

George Wetherby.
Down from Tunbrudge Wells.
Retired: “old soldier” for the Circus.
Handled Hong Kong for 15 years, ran the China networks.
Sent agents in and out of the People’s Republic. Lost some.
Had a few triumphs, too.
All in all, a “good run” for the old Cold Warhorse.

Now: plaid scarf and dull overcoat. Stooped shoulders. Gray hair.
Watery blue-gray eyes
bulging behind steel-rimmed spectacles.

Down to London, to a coffee shop.
Gazing out the rain-streaked window,
sipping his Oolong through a sugar cube.
Watching the Tube entrance, the exhaust-coughing buses.

Enter: an American. Tom Shlegel.
The usual brashness.
Prep school to Dartmouth College.
Asian Languages. Two years in Japan.
Seven years as a Senior Intelligence Analyst.
Now an up-and-comer in special ops.
A Langley man, fair haired, walks like a boxer.
Works out with a rope and free weights four times a week,
gets up a healthy sweat and sits in the sauna
“leeching the poisons right out of the old system.”

He shakes the water from his raincoat,
hangs it by the entrance,
smooths his hair back and heads to George,
raising one hand. George, self-deprecating as always,
draws his shoulders in and nods.
Tom drops into the seat across,
lays the big-knuckled hand on the table.
-Having a spot of tea?
He grins at his joke. Brits. Their cliched habits.
-Naturally, with a slice of lemon, George says.
They look at each other.
Tom is smiling widely.
George shows just a hint of amusement.

Pleasantries ensue. What else?
How’s the wife, offsprings’ recent accomplishments and so forth.
Playbook.

-So what’s the furor? Tom asks.
-It’s the assassin lady again, I’m afraid. Molly Vance.
-Killed some more hit men?
-Worse. Destroyed the whole Tokyo Section. Took down the Man in the Hat in Zurich. The Group is livid. Stirred up about the blue eyed apocaplyse.
-Shaking in their boots eh? Ha ha.
-They want her, stat. And we’re on the line. A working group’s forming. I’m to be control. They want you as my leftenant.
-What if I don’t want to get any dirtier hands than I’ve got already, old man?

George sips. Puts down his teacup. Thin china, it clinks on the blue-bordered saucer. Tom’s candid gaze is on him, seemingly unfocussed, taking it all in. Relaxed. The face expressionless but for a trace of appreciation at George’s wit. The old alertness always comes back.

-I’m afraid just as Whitehall has put the grip on me . . .
George shrugs. Pilate dunks his hands in the basin.
-Ah. You’ve heard it through the Atlantic grapevine, then. NIS is in the basket too. The old fogies are going to wind me up and make me stagger across the carpet.
-It’s Christmas morning. Once the wrapping’s torn off, Tom, the tin soldiers have to march. You know that.

Tin Soldiers


Victoria

Two days later.
He’s bent over the Olivetti.
Sweating, bare chested
in the roaring Mexico City heat.
Clack. Clack clack.

He’s typing with two fingers,
like Papa Hemingway.
The stack of typewritten pages has grown.
There’s a loud,
insistent knock.

He stops typing.
Sits up straight.
Listening,
he shuts his eyes.

One? Two?
He decides it’s one.
He knows, for some reason he can’t fathom,
it’s a woman.
He feels it’s her,
the near-raped rich girl
from the Club Papillion.

How did she find him? How?
Security cameras.
She’s rich and misbehaving —
and she has a father.

All this the blue eyed man
comprehends in a flash.

He picks up his blue shirt from the bed
and shrugs it on
before going barefoot to the door.
He unchains and opens the door a crack.
Sees a wide, gleaming eye.
An arched eyebrow.

She’s dressed today in a white blouse,
blue slacks, barely any jewelry.
She’s wearing flat white leather shoes
with star patterns cut into the toes.
Her hair is parted in the middle
and combed back shining.
She’s put on pink lip gloss
and a little eye-shadow, that’s all.

She looks very thin
and very prim,
as if stepping fresh through the gate
of a convent.

He opens the door.
Wide.
Gestures with his palm.
She steps in.
He shuts the door, locks and chains it.
She goes to the bed —
a liquid, strange, cutting walk.

Sits on the edge.
It squeaks as the springs settle.
Gazes up at him.

May I do something for you? he asks.

You already did. Two nights ago. I am Victoria.

Her English is perfect.

So he tells her his first name.
The real one.

Then:
How did you find me here?

She shrugs. Smiles a little.
My father. His men.

Obviously,
the topic of finding people is boring.
He’s found, that’s all.

The blue eyed man goes to the chair.
Turns it around.
Sits.

Looks at her.
At the wild beauty,
the youth.
The amazing youth.

At the green eyes,
the wild black hair.

For some reason,
she evokes for him Ilena Sanchez.
And so many others.

Are they downstairs?
Si.
All around the hotel?
Si.

He feels a little better.
It wouldn’t have helped to get a room with a fire escape.
Not since they’re all around the hotel.

I am to go with you?
Yes.
To see your father?
Yes.
So he can thank me personally,
and with the appropriate Latin warmth?

She smiles. A dimple. Dazzling teeth.
Si.

He says:
I will leave my own weapon here. But these —
he opens a drawer and takes out Bald Man’s pistol
and Cowboy Boots’ switchblade —
I should present to you as souvenirs.

She takes them, smiling
— this time her lips are pressed together,
as if in recognition of a secret joke —
from his hands.
Then, Victoria turns her body
as he studies her calm Latin profile
to slip them into her small white purse,
which she now zips fast.

She stands.

Are you coming?
Of course.

He stands.

They look at each other.
She takes two steps foward, then three.
She looks up at him,
her brows at his chin,
eyes great and shining.

He says,
You don’t need to —

She lifts herself on her toes,
ballerina-like,
and kisses his lips,
softly. Delicately.
It’s like the kiss of a butterfly
or a flower.

He shuts his eyes.
His heart is drumming.
She licks her upper lip
with the point of her tongue
and says to him,
And now that I’ve thanked you as I should,
shall we go to see my narco papa?

Intervention

He goes to the men’s room. He bends over the sink. Turns on the tap. Splashes cold water on his face with both hands. Rubs his eyes with cold water. Gasping. Straightens up, shaking water from his hands. Looks at his face in the mirror. At his eyes. Blue and blazing. Will you do this? Really? Yes. He dries his hands with a paper towel, crumples it and tosses it into the trash can by the door. He opens the door and goes back out into the flashing blue light. He makes his way toward the bar. Cowboy Boots and Bald Man are swigging from beer bottles. Glancing to the side, he sees the girls. One gets up, bends at the waist laughing, then straightens, tosses her hair and walks toward him. Sexy sexy. Lean and clean. He steps aside. She flashes him a smile as she strides past him, heron-slim, proud and sexy on her high heels, not even wobbling a little. He turns his head to watch her go toward the women’s restroom. Then he steps aside as Cowboy Boots and Bald Man brush past him in the booming heat and noise. He’s close enough to see the dirt in Cowboy Boots’ pores, the sweat glistening on Bald Man’s chest under the V-neck shirt. They go. They follow the proud beautiful non-wobbling girl. She goes into the restroom, pushing aside the curtain first that hides the short hallway. He sees her open the door; the brightness appears, vanishes. She’s let the door swing shut. It appears again. Vanishes again after the two men step inside. He wipes his face. He’s sweating more. He walks in a calm deliberate step toward the w.c. He steps through the gap between wall and curtain. The music is banging wildly. He glances back. People are dancing, twisting and leaping in a nightmare. The other girl is still at the table, bending to sip her drink, both boys leaning close. One has his hand on her bare copper toned shoulder and is rubbing it. He shuts his eyes. Now. Okay? Now. He puts his fingers on the knob. Turns it. Nothing. He touches the door. Presses it. It holds. Locked. He reaches behind him, slips the gun out of his waistband. Holds it pointed down at waist height. Takes three steps backward. Inhales. Kicks the door dead center. The lock snaps and the door leaps inward and bounces on the wall. The lock goes clanging across the floor. The beautiful proud rich girl is bent over one of the sinks and Cowboy Boots is holding her by the hair. Bald Man is wrenching up the gaudy silver dress over her hips to bare the beautiful white ass as she writhes and chokes and screeches. His cock is sticking out of the hole in his unzipped trousers. He and Cowboy Boots turn their heads at the same instant. The blue eyed man kicks the door shut behind him without looking at it. It slams. His .44 is covering the two men both. He drifts the barrel back and forth between them. They look puzzled. Bald Man tells him to get the fuck out. Cowboy Boots’ face shows scorn and outrage. Bald Man isn’t afraid — his prick is still hard. Cowboy Boots doesn’t let go of the girl’s hair. She screeches, he bounces her forehead on the sink. Above the bashing electronic sounds, the blue eyed man says clearly, in Spanish, to let go of the girl’s hair. Cowboy Boots looks at Bald Man, frowning. Bald Man nods. He lets go of her hair. The girl throws herself away from the sink, staggering, and runs to the blue eyed man, her eyes wide. He grabs her by the elbow and yanks her behind him. He then brings his left hand back up to steady the butt of the pistol. He’s still drifting it back and forth. Bald Man’s erection has begun to sag. He’s holding his hands apart at chest level. Cowboy Boots narrows his eyes. Thinking, thinking. Judging distances and angles. The blue eyed man can hear the girl whimpering behind him, in the corner next to the door. Get out, he says, and the door opens to screeching music and flashing blue light and then shuts on the boggling thumps of the bassline. He adjusts his stance slightly. He tells Bald Man to reach behind him with his left hand and take the gun out of his belt by lifting it straight up. Bald Man is sweating now. He blinks rapidly. Then he swallows saliva and with insolent slowness obeys. The blue eyed man watches the way his elbow bends. Raise it higher, he says. With some strain, Bald Man does. His penis is now flaccid. Open your hand and drop it behind you from right there, the blue eyed man instructs. The pistol falls with a crack of steel and spins on the floor. Kick it over here with your right foot, he commands. Bald Man does. The pistol spins a good ten feet and bounces on the shut door. Bueno, says the blue eyed man, drifting the sight back to Cowboy Boots. You, on your knees. Cowboy Boots’ knees bend. He sinks to the tiles. He’s staring at the blue eyed man’s grip on the pistol. To see if it vibrates even a little. It doesn’t. Take out your knife. Cowboy Boots hesitates. Now. He complies. He takes it out of his leather jacket side pocket. Another switchblade, shut. Set it on the floor, says the blue eyed man. Cowboy Boots does. The blue eyed man drifts the sight back to Bald Man’s dark haired, sweat-glistening chest. Kick the knife over here, he says. Bald Man does so. The knife skitters across the tiles, stops a few inches from the pistol. The blue eyed man reaches behind him. Touches the knob. Opens the door wide and kicks the pistol and then the knife outside, into the blasting noise and dimness. The door swings near-shut again — it doesn’t click. Then he tells Bald Man to kneel. Bald Man, with insolent languor and slowness, obeys. Silently. Both of you will remain here for the count of one hundred. If you step out this door before you have counted one hundred as slowly as possible, I will kill you. Do you understand this? They nod, in unison. Cowboy Boots is sneering. The blue eyed man again reaches back with his left hand and takes hold of the knob and pulls the door inward. He steps outside into the ranting noise and the lights as the door swings shut blotting out the two men on their knees staring at him with deadly scorn and rage. He sticks the gun into his waistband at the front and picks up Bald Man’s pistol and Cowboy Boots’ knife and sticking them into the side pockets of his jacket walks quickly to the exit, noting as he walks that and the two boys are now seated alone at the misbehaving rich girls’ table over four drinks looking glum. As he emerges from the club, he sees the girls get into the Lotus with grim speed as the valet parking boy holds his tip in his hand, watching in awe. The Lotus roars off.  The blue eyed man notes the Humvee — pulling out to tail the Lotus. He crosses the street, jumping over smashed beer bottles, cuts through an alley to another street, exhales a long slow breath and begins to run.

For One Night Only

She knew him at once. As soon as he stepped through the swinging glass doors.

Into:
A crowded bar serving tapas and half price martinis, noisy with screeching Europop music.

He was as wiry, dark and sorrowful looking as in his picture.

The one she’d been shown in London, at Vauxhall Cross.
Of course, he was wearing an SAS uniform in the picture. And a beret. And was a few years younger.

He was now dressed a light black wool suit and a yellow pullover. Light brown leather shoes, probably made in Spain.
She chewed the olive from her martini as he approached.
Looked, as much as it was possible for her to look, bored.

-Hello, he said. May I sit?
She nodded.
He pulled out a chair and sat. They were in a corner, far from the front windows.
Even the floorboards seemed to vibrate with the bass line of the pop music. But it was possible to talk almost normally. One wouldn’t be heard beyond a few steps off.
-You like places like this? he asked.
-Sometimes, she said.
Smiling.

-You have a winning smile, he said.
-Yes, she said. Better than losing, isn’t it?
This was the code. He seemed to relax all at once, deeply.
His gray eyes looked at her. What did he see?
An ice-blue eyed natural honey-blonde, with starkly pale skin, a thrilling beauty spot low on her left cheek just under the ear, sheathed in a clinging black knit dress. Bare armed. Bare shouldered. No wedding ring. Flush of blood high on the cheeks. Beautiful, full smiling-scowling lips. About twenty-six years old.

-That’s a beautiful suit, she said.
-And the shirt?
-Yes, I like it also.
-You like many things.
-So it seems. Do you mind?
He laughed.
-No.

The waiter came over carrying a dish of almonds. He set it down on the table and turned to the man. He ordered a martini. She said she’d have another. The waiter bowed and went away.

He picked up a salted almond from the dish. His fingers were long and slender. He chewed it, cracking it between his back teeth. He wiped his fingers on his napkin after unfolding it and putting the silverware to one side. She sat back smiling at him.

-Is this your first outing?
His tone was pleasant. The skin around his eyes creased slightly.
-It is.
-Anxious?
-Not yet.
-Good. Don’t be.

Why should she be anxious? She’d already auditioned. She’d got the part.
She was going to be Mrs. David Blair.
He was going to be Mr.

-You brought the rings?
-Yes.
-They’ve put you through all the paces? Back story and all that? Anecdotes and so on securely in place?
-Absolutely.
-Then it seems we’re on for this evening. Ten o’clock. The roof terrace of the Hotel ____.

The waiter brought their two martinis on his cork-lined tray. He sat them down carefully. The glasses were misted from condensation. She took a sip. It was so cold it had no taste. The waiter scooped up and took away her empty glass.

-I’m going to call you Anne from the get go, if you don’t mind.
-I don’t.
-Though Elizabeth suits you much better.
-Does it?
-I think so.
-I go by Alwyn sometimes, too.
-Ah. Yes. Alwyn — I recall a bloke named that. Renowned.
-My dad.

Silence.
-I saw him sometimes at HQ. In passing. He always recognized me. Knew my name. Had a friendly way about him. Always a greeting, always an anecdote to amuse us. He is missed in the Service, you know?
-Yes. I know.

She is suddenly somber in her tone and even more starkly pale. The paleness causing her black beauty spot stand out even more thrillingly.

-Well, here’s to the grand old man, “David Blair” says.

They raise their glasses. Touch the rims. Clink.
-May he forever enjoy the splendor of that Paradise reserved for men who do their duty with ruthless passion.

They drink. Deeply.

-As for yourself, David says.
She looks up. Alert. Eyes calm and ice-gray-blue.
-I’ve seen some of your scores. In the confidential file. It’s impressive. Pistol, rifle, knife tactics, close combat. All ultra-high. You graduated at or near the top of all your classes at the Fort. And on top of that, rumor has it you’ve mastered the semi-mythical hoda kur0su school of martial arts. “Naked Kill.” Signed and certified by a real Japanese sensei. So, as it happens, it seems you’re the only woman right now in line for the fabled double O status. You’ll get it, I’m certain. And, I predict, you’ll definitely find it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

She picks the olive out of her martini, glistening, and puts it in her mouth and chews it, looking directly into the man’s eyes.
Suddenly, she shudders.
He doesn’t see it. Or does he?
Just a twitch of the bare shoulders.
She swallows the olive. Then, smiling as if to herself, at some private joke or amusing memory, she picks up the cold martini by its fragile glass stem and drinks. It’s an even bigger gulp than before.
“David Blair” smiles at her. It seems he enjoys looking at a saucy woman who enjoys her martini. In his quiet and solid way he approves. She’s not just a killer, or a Service colleague. She’s a woman.

-But this isn’t a rough stuff mission. This is just a hand off. The target is getting a briefcase. In it is a homing device. C’est tout. Your role is to play your appointed part — the alluring and vivacious young wife of the up and coming London drug lord — observe, and get into the action only if and when something goes funny. I know you’ve got it, I know. I only repeat the boring details because I’ve been instructed to do so via Control by the suits in Whitehall. All right?
She nods.
-Say it then. For the benefit of the suits in Whitehall.
-Yes. All right. I mean, yes I fully understand.
-Good. Get the rings out now, and by the power vested temporarily in me by Her Majesty’s Secret Service, though without the proper pomp and circumstance, I’ll declare us man and wife. For the night only, of course.