Monthly Archives: September 1999

Something wrong with her contact

The countess woke up with a headache.

Disoriented, her ears ringing horribly, she tried to sit up. Failed. Laid back down.

She tried to piece together where she was, and how she’d gotten there. Then it all came back to her. She noted dumbly that it was the second time in as many weeks that she’d woken up this way.

She’d felt almost immediately that there was something wrong with her contact. She’d been so happy have anyone to help her that she’d ignored it when that feeling came. The woman had the code. She was wonderful. She was like an angel, a savior, and at that moment, she felt she would have killed or died for the woman. She almost did.

When they’d walked from the drop point, her hands in Tereshkova’s like old girlfriends, she’d been so reassuring. She spoke in her own native tongue, in her mind, she sounded just like her mother. She’d began pouring out her terrible story, babbling like a child, the tears she’d struggled to contain brimming out in tiny rivulets.

“There, there little one.” that Russian bitch had cooed, “now, where is the valise?”

She’d almost forgotten the whole purpose of the mission. “Oh, yes” she managed, her words punctuated by sobs, “The man . . . . .he told me not to bring it. . . he said it would be dangerous. He said to give it to him, but then they killed him . . . . . right there in front of me . . . . . they shot him with something . . . . . I was so scared . . . . . . .I didn’t know what to do . . . I was in a panic. . . . .that poor man . . .”

“Yes.” Tereshkova had said, more insistently then perhaps she’d intended “but what did you DO with it??” Her voice seemed now nothing like her mother’s. Had she honestly thought it so? She looked at the woman more closely. She had a certain look about her. She seemed lovely and at the same time . . . .predatory. And the nagging feeling that something was wrong would not leave her.

She hardly noticed the bicycle messengers pass them.

She looked down at their intertwined hands, Tereshkova’s so beautiful, and so strong, making her own seem small. She was missing something. What was it? She observed absently “What a lovely bracelet.”

Tereshkova smiled. It was a beautiful smile. That look of a savior had returned. “Valentina, you must concentrate, dearest. It’s very important. Where is the valise, little one?”

She smiled herself, and reached into her pocket to retrieve the locker key when it hit her. This woman had a look about her. This WOMAN. Her conversation young man with the blue eyes and the bad teeth began to replay in her mind: “We don’t think they know who he is, but they know that the drop is today. . .”, “. . . won’t be long before they’ll figure him out”, “We’ve got to get him out of there.” Who HE is. Figure HIM out. Get HIM out of there.

She’d not known anything about her contact at the start of this mission. But when things had started to go wrong, the agent had obviously not thought it necessary to hide her contact’s gender. She was supposed to be meeting a MAN.

The jewelry had told her the rest. She was in the hands, literally, of Svetlana Tereshkova.

Which meant her only hope of surviving . . . . was to stall.

She forced another smile which didn’t feel at all convincing and said “I’ll take you to it.”

“Where, my dear. It’s important that I know.”

She was trying to think of some brilliant diversion, something like they did in the movies, but nothing came to her. As it turned out, nothing needed to. As if to aid her in this capacity, all hell broke loose.

Svetlana was moving. A sharp whistle. Before Valentina could even register the sound, she was laid out flat, the wind knocked out of her. The key flew from her hand. She didn’t see it bounce down a sewer grate

At first, she thought it must be her father’s people. They’d come to save her. But the woman beneath her locked her in a sleeper hold, rolled and began choking her, and that pretty much blew that theory. Who were these people then? Not that it mattered much if she choked to death. She kicked wildly to free herself, but to no avail. The woman’s grip was like a vise. Then she’d felt a sharp sting in her left thigh. She hoped it wasn’t one of those blue darts. Then she felt the warmth of her own blood trickling out, and she realized she’d been shot. As if to add insult to injury, the woman strangling her jammed something sharp into her ribs.

Things started to swim out of focus. She struggled to maintain consciousness. Then Tereshkova was over her, lifting her under the arms. Svetlana looked like she’d taken the brunt of rather a tough beating herself. Good. Russian Bitch.

Things were slowing down now. Valentina realized she was dying.

“Where is the valise?” Svetlana hissed as she dragged her along.

Valentina tried to spit in her face. She wanted to do at least that. To die with that dignity. But she only managed to gurgle, which Tereshkova no doubt mistook for some attempt at an answer.

“Damn” Svetlana hissed, and hurled her indoors somewhere. Noise. Lots of broken glass. Her eyes closed. Someone on top of her. Rolling. Something shoved into her mouth. Taste of marzipan. Then darkness.

She woke up in a small room, the sound of Rachmaninov playing softly outside the door. The wound in her leg, and the smaller puncture under her ribcage were dressed. She was about to sit up, when the door opened.

“Ah, you’re awake child. I’m so glad. How are you feeling?”

It was Svetlana. She was suddenly glad she didn’t manage that spit after all. She knew that the only reason she was alive was that the Russian bitch needed to know where she’d hidden the valise. She thought the countess pampered and stupid, and that was good. She also thought that the countess still believed her to be the contact. Also good. Very good indeed.

She managed a smile. “I’m fine, other than a headache.”

“Yes, well. I gave you rather a large dose of anti-venom. I wasn’t sure how much you’d been poisoned. Your headache is one of the side-effects. Can you tell me where the valise is, pet?”

“I can take you there.”

Svetlana toyed with the rather ornate marquisette brooch on her left lapel. “Yes . . . . . well . . . . .it would be rather helpful if you could tell me where it is, though – dearheart.”

Valentina wanted to gauge her eyes out. Instead, she smiled, and tried to play dumb. “I’m so bad with directions. I get so turned around when I’m in a big city. I’m sure I could take you there.” She threw in a childish giggle for good measure.

Svetlana frowned. Then smiled again. “Very well. Let’s hurry. Then this nightmare finally be over for you.”

Yes you’d like that, wouldn’t you, you slutty pig dog, Valentina thought, and got out of bed.

Valentina favored her leg much more than she needed to, leaning on Svetlana heavily. She wanted the bitch to think she was much weaker than she was.

They got to the street, hailed a taxi, and Valentina feigned a dizzy spell.

“Oh my, can you help me into the taxi dearheart?” she said breathlessly. She thought her acting was improving.

Svetlana didn’t even bother to hide her irritation. “Fine.” She said, and turned the countess to face her. Svetlana took her under the arms, and as she lowered her into the cab Valentina struck, kicking her in the jaw. It was a good kick, but the bitch rolled away from it at the last second. God she was good. It was meant to knock her out, but at least it knocked her down (thank heavens for the element of surprise.) She slammed the cab door and screamed “Drive!”

The cabbie rolled away, just as Svetlana regained her feet and leapt for the car.

The driver gunned it at the last second, leaving Svetlana in a cloud of dust.

Valentina was so elated that she’d made it (Just like in the movies – she’d thought proudly), that it didn’t even occur to her to wonder why the driver would have helped her in that way. She was high on victory, and puffed up with pride.

It wasn’t until she saw the bicycle messengers fall in line alongside the car that she realized her folly.

Her heart sank. Not one of her father’s people. Not with Svetlana.

“Who are you?” she asked dully.

“The name, my dear, is Anders Inkling. I must say, you have been rather a clever little countess, haven’t you?”

“You’ll kill me then?”

“You know I can’t do that. You’re the only one who knows the whereabouts of a certain valise. Of course, I don’t expect you to offer that bit of information voluntarily. But we’ll talk more about it later.”

Then he turned, a small toy-like pistol in his right hand and shot her with a dart.

Her last conscious thought was: Yellow. Thank God it’s not blue.

the “no report” report

A Messenger

Lieutenant Commander Hessel of the Royal British Marines hated this part of the job: the “no report” report. Reports of success were easy, of course. Reporting a death was more difficult, but playing the sympathetic, dignified, yet compassionate messenger of ill-tidings was certainly a well-defined role and not so hard to muddle through. But the “no report” could only parry the recipient’s inevitible anguish with a feeble, and all so british, stiff upper lip.

It had been three weeks since the Countess had vanished without a trace. Three weeks since the day when seven covert operatives were found dead in London – well six found dead and one found dying. As part of his briefing Hessel was asked to read the report on the one they called “the Pencil”. When he read the description of the agent’s physical state when his almost-dead body was found, Hessel began to feel nauseous. When he saw the photos he threw up. But as he read on he was amazed – somehow despite the obscenity that had been performed to Armand’s body, the agent had managed to survive over 90 minutes as workmen and a constable worked to pry the elevator doors open.

Armand was essentially dead when the constable, choking back his own bile, leaned in to hear his last word – Armand just didn’t know he was dead. Or if he knew it he was refusing to let go of this world until he could deliver one last message. “Terror” is what he said to the constable before his body convulsed and expired. “Terror” – the constable thought it might be some wierd new cult, although he thought this was the wrong part of town for that sort of rot. But mostly he didn’t think about it – didn’t like to think about what he saw that day – didn’t talk about it with his mates or his wife…In fact he only talked about it once and that was when he gave his report and in doing so he passed on the single word that had given MI6 there only clue to unravelling this knot of murder and deceit.

The briefing went on: Three weeks ago the Countess did not report. But neither did her intercept, of course he had been accounted for (with a blue dart in his neck). She did not meet her taxi, but her driver had been accounted for (with a nasty bit of piano wire). She did not go to the safe house, but the house-matron had been accounted for (three days later under a dumpster) as were the two agents stationed there (or at least enough parts of them to make a positive identification). It went on. A grim business, thought Hessel, but in all this accounting two things were missing, a certain very important valise, and a young Countess – perhaps not important to the case, but certainly important to the man he was about to give “no report”.

Count Pirenzi, the man who was about to receive “no report” lived a life of deceit. To him lies were a reflex. He hid behind veils of lies and from behind that gossamer curtain he used his lies and other peoples to build a powerful shipping empire. He deceived and he lied and he used his position and his power to do favors for the British government, but it was only so that the British government would use their position and their power to do favors for him. Pirenzi had many governments, many allegiances, many friends, many deceptions, and only one daughter. He did not need to deceive to show the messenger, now crossing the clean, freshly scrubbed bricks of his courtyard, the anticipated and expected anguish when the strong chinned Naval officer brought him the latest “intelligence” on his daughter. In his life of deceit only two things were real: his balding head and his love for his daughter. Yes, his anguish was real, but he would have to pretend that he was hearing the news for the first time. He could not reveal that he knew more about his daughter’s whereabouts and her abductor than any maggot from British Intelligence. Information was a benefit of playing for both sides, but as Hessel was about to poignently remind him, every benefit has its price.

In the ring

In the ring:

As Anders Inkling finished his tea, he felt an electronic buzz from his pants cuff. He reached into his jacket pocket and adjusted the fountain pen. He spoke into the microphone at his sleeve. What looked like a tiny hearing aid conveyed the words of a nervous executive assistant. He made the Czech a brief promise it was unlikely he would have to keep. It was a shame, since she was highly qualified, but she might get lucky and survive. The optics built into the second newsstand – Inkling’s newsstand right outside the underground station – had identified the woman coming towards it with the Contessa in tow: Tereshkova. No wonder the Czech was nervous. Tereshkova had been stationed in Prague in her early days – for practice. Before sending the message down to his bicycle messengers, Inkling turned on the external camera and trained it on the scene. This encounter might be instructive to future account executives.

The bicycle messengers were in formation, Renate, the Viennese, deftly made her way through pedestrians on the right-hand sidewalk, showing her experience as a cyclist. The girls from Hong Kong followed behind on the same side of the street, their amicable Cantonese chat concealing precise watchfulness. The Kalmyk was behind them on the opposite side. Renate touched her ear and stopped. She put her finger to her lips as though puzzled and turned to the side as though to look at an address across the street. “So he wants it to happen quietly,” thought the Kalmyk “the bastard.” Wendy and Gen-Tze now coasted past the Viennese. Then one word came over the speakers in all their helmets: “T12″. It was Inkling’s voice. That was unusual, but then so was their prey. Now they all knew what they were up against.

The Sikh arrived to take over the newsstand. He was very tall and severe, wearing a lemon yellow turban of very high quality raw silk. He was carrying a case of lemonade in bottles. Two of the bottles in the front of the case had labels that were upside-down. That was the signal. Now the Czech moved fast, and thought hard. She looked at her watch and made a calculation. She would have to start running now. As she ran away from the newsstand she transformed. First she shed a false mustache, cap and sunglasses. Of course any operative would have spotted her but that didn’t matter now. Her mission was *all* risk. There was no time to be secretive. She tossed a jacket and chambray shirt into a garbage can, revealing a muscular upper body and a tight running bra top that compressed her breasts. From the pocket of slightly baggy chinos she drew out a nylon singlet with an athletic slogan on it in lavender letters. She put it on and drew a handkerchief from the other pocket. Now she tugged hard and the chinos came off like a shell as Velcro inseams gave way. Underneath she was wearing blue running shorts, Adidas running shoes on her feet. She wiped the false five o’clock shadow from her face and tossed the handkerchief away. Finally she passed her fingers through her hair and the square, immigrant man’s hairstyle became short lesbian-chic. Still, she debated with herself. Was this job worth it? Would becoming an account executive justify all the danger? She decided it would and sped up quickly. She looked at her watch. Although her 800 meters time in university had gotten her onto the Czech National team before Inkling had found her, even she would have to hurry if she was going to make the hit where they had planned. She estimated the distance and flashed a sign behind her back so the Sikh would see it through the newsstand’s optics. Then she flashed the same sign towards the forty-eighth floor of a building more than a mile away. She didn’t know, but she suspected Inkling would have the camera on, the bastard.

In his office, Inkling smiled when he saw the Czech in the image being projected onto the rear lens surface of horn-rim spectacles he had donned. He would let the Sikh transfer the information. It was getting close to nine o’clock and soon the regular employees would arrive. At nine-thirty he would have his first meeting with a client of his successful accounting practice. Throughout the day he would be taking copious notes. Even now he typed with blazing, professional speed. A close observation would have revealed that the words coming out on the screen bore no resemblance to what Inkling was typing, although the characters and spaces appeared with each of his key touches. He had typed this memo days ago. Inkling appeared to be typing on a QWERTY keyboard. He never used them. What he was actually typing would be appearing on a screen in another building. If he made mistakes that was all right. He had plenty of stenographers.

Wendy, in front of Gen-Tze, pointed up the street to a building. Gen-Tze took a deep breathe, got up out of the saddle and pedaled hard. Wendy followed and the women picked up real speed. Their hope was to pass Tereshkova with the minimum amount of time for recognition. Their destination was a Kinko’s about 300 yards beyond where Tereshkova and the Contessa were walking now. They would wait there for the hit and drag the two women into it afterwards. Wendy hoped there wouldn’t be too many people in the Kinko’s. GenTze would be just as happy if there were. Renate moved slowly through the crowd. She brought a water bottle up to her mouth and drank. The “water bottle” had a range finder in it, but she didn’t really need to use it. The Mossad agents who had trained her were always impressed with Renate’ ability to estimate distance and speed exactly. Anna, the Kalmyk, pedaled slowly past Renate, still on the opposite side of the street. She tugged the frame pump off the bicycle. She wet a finger and tested the wind. She would have to aim a little left.

Of course Tereshkova expected something. They had been careless to wear matching earrings, however small. Jade work like that wasn’t available west of Kowloon. As she saw the two Chinese women enter the printer’s shop she mused that Hong Kong girls that tall and leggy become currency traders, high-priced prostitutes or spokesmodels, not bicycle messengers. Tereshkova’s suspicions were confirmed a moment later when she heard the faint thudding sound, like someone closing a heavy book in a distant room, of low-velocity rounds fired through a silencer. The sound would have been inaudible to a rookie like Armand, but Tereshkova knew she would smell a hint of cordite when she came up to that Kinko’s. Her gut tightened in anticipation of the attack. The machine was on.

The Viennese held her track bicycle almost motionless in a ‘track stand” without real effort. She put a whistle in her mouth and, when the little boy moved to look into the shop window, she began to pedal hard down the sidewalk. She was four hundred meters away and the pedestrians in front of her looked to Renate as though they were standing still. Not obstacles, they were part of the plan. Anna had already sped up, anticipating a good position between the curb and a London cab. Now Tia, the Czech, began to pour on the speed. She had two hundred meters to go and she would do them in about 28 seconds. It was showing off but then even Tia acknowledged to herself that this might be her last race.

At first it looked like a typical pedestrian mishap on a busy London sidewalk. Then it didn’t. As Tereshkova came up to the Kinko’s, she was ready. She was focused on the plate glass window, waiting for the next few steps to bring her up to it. With the low-velocity rounds the Chinese bicycle messengers had used, the window would stop the first shots even if they simply meant to open up on her. She noticed a woman in athletic clothes running towards them. The machine calculated that she couldn’t be holding a weapon and Tereshkova simply kept her in her peripheral vision. Suddenly the machine made another calculation and alerted Tereshkova’s conscious mind. The runner was going very fast, remarkably fast. A quick, underhand motion and Tereshkova launched a poisoned pencil towards the runner. She would have made a direct hit had not, at the moment she threw, her mind been distracted by an intense whistle blast. She turned reflexively while throwing and the blue pencil sailed over the Czech’s shoulder as the Viennese hit Tereshkova at thirty miles an hour. Renate’s hit was perfect. The bike went left and she went right, nearly horizontal. Tereshkova was caught in a high-speed fork, Renate’s helmet was one prong and the speeding bike the other. The Viennese had even parried the blue pencil that Tereshkova extended with her right hand, and the two women collided under the arms, Tereshkova being launched off her feet and landing underneath the muscular account executive. At nearly the same moment, the Contessa, who had half-turned towards Tereshkova was hit full-on by the sprinting Czech. The Czech made sure to swing the Contessa on top of her, no sense in damaging the merchandise if you don’t have to. This was to be a “wet” hit, but it was also meant to be quiet, and it might mean extra brownie points with Inkling if she was able to bring the Contessa in alive, however brief that life might turn out to be. The Contessa was dazed from the collision but the Tia made sure, catching the Contessa’s neck in the crook of her arm and squeezing the sides in hard to cut off the blood supply to her brain. The Viennese, who had braced herself for the impact, snap-rolled off Tereshkova and whirled to face her only to realize, in her last moments, that the Russian had put a blue pencil in her jugular vein with the speed of a mongoose. There would be no more days of bicycle tours, cocoa mit schlagge and apres ski. The black mamba poison hit Renate’s central nervous system in two beats of her heart. Little good it did her that she had managed to inject Tereshkova in the left buttock with a neuro-toxin that would paralyze her completely in fifteen seconds.

Fifteen. Tereshkova spun and the machine flung three deadly pencils at the Czech who held the spasmodically-kicking Contessa. Fourteen. One hit Tia’s shoulder and she looked at the crumpled Viennese, then exchanged a glance with Tereshkova, who smiled. Thirteen. Tia drew the pencil from her shoulder, smiled at Tereshkova, and, twelve, jammed it under the ribs of the Contessa just before Tereshkova kicked in her larynx. Eleven. The Kinko’s window fell outwards like water and rounds began to whine off the sidewalk where Tereshkova had landed, one striking the unfortunate Contessa. Ten. A red dart appeared on Wendy’s collarbone and she looked across the street in disbelief where the Kalmyk cursed and reloaded. The wind had changed. Nine. Brown tweed kicked off Tereshkova’s shoulder as ‘Suelita’s rooftop shot fell victim to the same change of wind. Eight. Gen Tze went to jam another magazine in the slim machine pistol as Tereshkova launched herself into the space where the window had been, screaming like a panther. Seven. She would have broken more than a finger and the Orbit of Gen Tze’s eye but a purple dart hit her in the back. Six. In the moment Tereshkova turned towards the street to empty the machine pistol at the Kalmyk, Gen Tze plunged a dagger into Tereshkova’s thigh and, five, fell unconscious. Tereshkova leapt towards the Contessa, pulled the knife from her thigh and spun, hurling it towards the Kalmyk who peered out from behind the taxi to take another shot. The Kalmyk missed, four, as the dagger stuck into the tire of the taxi. Tereshkova felt the numbness begin in her lower body and looked up the street where a limousine was coming fast up the middle of the road. She made one motion to drag the Contessa and was lucky to have leaned over so quickly as another of the Argentine sniper’s rounds roared past her ear like a tiny jet plane. Three. A faint curse from the rooftop could be heard as Tereshkova made for the Kinko’s window, her legs feeling as though they were filling with Novocain. Two. Tires screeched, a door opened and a shotgun appeared behind a yellow turban, blasting into the Kinko’s where Tereshkova disappeared into the darkness. One.

The Sikh saw her outline fall as if struck. As he ran from the limousine he tossed an Uzi up in the air almost without looking and the Kalmyk was there to grab it. Curses from the rooftop continued and now they were echoing in Inkling’s earpiece. Anna and the Sikh went through the Kinko’s window on three, firing as they entered. Three corpses lay on the floor and one behind the counter, the handiwork of the girls from Hong Kong. Gen Tze was unconscious at their feet. Tereshkova was nowhere to be seen. The Sikh had seen her fall. He looked at the Kalmyk who said simply “Fifteen seconds.” and shrugged her shoulders. What the Sikh hadn’t seen was Tereshkova reach behind her ear and bring a dose of chemical eleven to her lips. Had the Kalmyk loaded another red dart on her second shot instead of a purple, Svetlana Tereshkova would be lying here among the corpses. The adrenal accelerator that had killed a man that none of them knew minutes ago had kept the machine going to fight another day.

Outside, a final curse could be heard from the rooftop as Anna and the Sikh exited the Kinko’s, talking quickly into small microphones. A target rifle was flung out away from a rooftop and began a graceful descent to the street. Forty-eight floors above that street, a thin film of sweat began to form on Anders Inkling’s lip.

Three weeks later.

Three weeks later.

Paros, Greece, Kalypso Suite, Hotel Yria.

“I don’t give a damn about your valise – I want my daughter found!” A heavy fist crashed on the hundred year old desk, taking its toll on the ancient cypress wood. At 1.9 meters, 120 kilos, Count Pirenzi was an imposing figure even when in a pleasant mood. And while ‘pleasant’ might be a word used to describe the jasmine scented breeze drifting in through the large window to the Count’s left, it would ill-describe his current demeanor.

The large window was glassless, as were many on the island. This morning the shutters had been thrown open, as they were every morning, to provide not only ventilation but also the daytime illumination for the white-washed room. Through the square opening poured the rays of crystal sunlight that also baked the pictaresque seascape of nearby Parikia. If one stepped up to the window and looked to the west one could see the throngs of sweating tourists and villagers who had flocked to the church of Katapoliani for the Feast of the Dormition of our Lady. If one looked north one would see the quiet solitude of a venetian castle, brought to ruin by centuries of salty air. Looking down one would see the brown-red brick of the courtyard and the broken heap of flesh that had been an elite member of the Count’s bodyguard – until he had caught the brunt of the low ebb of Pirenzi’s less than pleasant mood.

None of these sights, the August fete, the ruined castle, the unfortunate guard, nor the Count’s pulse-throbbing tantrum were of any interest to the slim figure who sat cross-legged on a straight backed wooden chair. The chair and the slight man faced the count from their position – one meter back from the quieter side of the desk. The man sat in his wool, chalk-stripe suit, holding his pale straw hat casually in his lap. Despite the August heat and his heavy clothing he did not perspire. He was quiet. His eyes were shut – not tightly, not in the fear one might expect from such a small man faced with the raging behemoth that was the Count. No the quiet figure was quite composed, and keenly listening. Listening beyond Pirenzi’s bombast, beyond the buzzing green insects that flitted and dipped into the spreading red stain that surrounded the corpse two flights below. His focus was 2.5 kilometers away at the steps of his beloved church. And then the sound his listening ears had been waiting for greeted him and he felt for a moment the touch of the Lady who brought him his only peace. The one that he knew would forgive him when it was time. And with the second peal of the bell, a new breeze graced the room – this time mingling a delicate hint of basil behind the heady scent of the jasmine.

Pirenzi did not hear the churchbell. He did not smell the jasmine. He did not see that the quiet, slender man had opened his eyes. He continued to stomp and slam and rage – demanding that his innocent, lost child be found, be rescued, be brought back to his arms. It was not until the thin figure stood, the grey-white lines of his dark wool suit straightening as he simultaneously placed his pale straw hat over his thick dark curls, it was not until that moment that Pirenzi’s storm ceased to bluster.

“You are a fool” – the first words to break the silence of the quiet man. “The valise is everything. Your daughter is nothing.”

With blistering red eyes the count sprang from his chair and heaved-over the 100 kilo desk which crashed down just a few centimeters from the tips of the quiet figure’s cordovan loafers.

“Need I remind you of your position, number seven?” If the slender man was agitated, nothing in his body-language or his tone gave any indication, but his words had made an impact – much the same as when a tightly rolled newspaper is struck across the muzzle of a barking dog.

“No, number three, I understand my position” the Count’s shoulders were slumped, his eyes would not meet those of his superior.

“Your daughter was taken by Tereshkova – she is most likely dead. Unpleasantly dead. If she is alive it is only because Svetlana thinks she can use her. She is a pawn, and pawns are expendable.”

The words were crisp, matter-of-fact, unemotional, but they made Pirenzi’s body physically shudder. Yet the larger man did nothing, said nothing.

“Now find my valise.”

The count continued to stare at the ground, but despite the obedience described by his posture he could not mask the hatred in his words, “Yes, number three.”

The quiet man stepped out into the crystal sunlight and thought that without discipline there is no order, and without order there is no profit. Then as he strolled across the courtyard, passing the corpse whose scent had begun to foul the jasmine laden air, he thought of the Lady and the time of forgiveness.

The puppet-master

The puppet-master:

Anders Inkling watched the two women meet at the newsstand forty-eight floors below. His range-finding binoculars showed him two things: First, the woman in the tweed suit had the code, second, neither of them had the valise. They were 1120 meters away and beginning to move, still just in range. He brusquely waved an Argentine account executive to the glasses. She dipped her head in front of him and her black hair smelled of Coco. That was coy. She drew her head back from the binoculars and looked at him. She frowned and shook her head. Inkling frowned. She shrugged. There was no point arguing. If they were out of ‘Suelita’s range, they were simply out of range. Anders Inkling cocked his head towards the door and she slipped out of it, striking in the Prada silk suit and shooting gloves with a Feinwerkbau target rifle over her shoulder. Possibly she could find a better vantage point.

Only four account executives remained in his office, lounging around, bored: a well-muscled Viennese, broad of breast and shoulder, two long, lanky Hong Kong emigrees and a Kalmyk who was neither broad nor long but was the deadliest of the four. Renate, the Viennese, was reading the Financial Times and absent-mindedly playing with the pearl necklace that lay across her curved bosom, One Chinese, Wendy, was massaging Gen Tze’s feet. The Kalmyk, whom everyone but her family (long buried in the cold ground of the steppe) called Anna, was filing her nails. Before he turned back to the glasses, Inkling noticed that Gen Tze’s skirt was a little higher than necessary for the foot massage. She gave him a sidelong glance. This weekend would be difficult to schedule.

Now Inkling watched the pair of women head down the London street towards the Underground station. Inkling stretched his arm behind him and snapped his fingers. The four women got up and began to undress hurriedly, except the Kalmyk who did things slowly until speed was necessary. Bra clasps in hand, they now waited, almost frozen. Anders inkling snapped his fingers twice and the Kalmyk hit a button under the lampshade. The four women were in the dressing room behind the fish tank in seconds, trailing business attire and fancy underthings behind them and emerged less than a minute later dressed as bicycles messengers, a little sexy perhaps, but still convincing. The Kalmyk was last, helmet in hand and still smoothing her jersey over a physique that seemed at once too thin and too loose for this kind of work, but held more pleasure than it showed. The four women arrayed themselves by the office door as Inkling looked through the binoculars a last time and spoke Czech softly into a microphone at his sleeve. He turned to see a young Dutchman with messenger bags over his shoulder peek his head into the slightly-opened office door and nod. A young Korean woman in a bright suit entered through a door that was nearly invisible in the far wall to bring Inkling a cup of green tea and then exit. She did not look at the four women, nor they at her, pointedly. When she had left all eyes were on Inkling. He finished a sip of tea, returned the cup to the saucer in his artificial left hand (The one a Mr. K. K. B. Bang had taken, the one he would take revenge for), looked at the women and sighed. Then he made a quick slashing motion across his throat with his index finger. The four “bicycle messengers”, each as well-honed, effective and dangerous as a razor, made to leave. The Kalmyk gave him a brazen wink as she snapped her helmet strap. In his organization that should have cost her two month’s pay and a demotion but when Stalin’s armies had driven her people from their homeland in the Caucuses, her father (she was the youngest of eleven) had personally killed fourteen Colonels in the Russian army, a record. That, and the fact that her love-making made him weep like a child.

The bicycle messengers blended well into the London street. Their outfits were varied and, except for the Kalmyk’s, unflattering to their figures (The Kalmyk never dressed down, self-conscious of even her excellent physique alongside her hard and marble-smooth comrades) . Their legs couldn’t be hidden but bicycle messengers generally have good legs. What one might have noticed, had he been watching carefully, was the way they seemed, almost unconsciously, to fall in and out of formations that were varied but definite. The expert observer would have seen that they were hunting as a pack, the Viennese in the lead and the Kalmyk watching their flank and looking for an angle to surprise their prey.

Serve and Volley

Serve and Volley

Svetlana was running – fast. Her breathing difficult to control – no doubt the effect of the trace of chemical eleven she had absorbed transdermally through her fingertip. Working with adrenal-accelerators was always dangerous, but she was certain that, unlike Charlie, her dose was minute enough that she would be able to ride out the surge – in fact it might give her an edge, if only briefly.

She rounded the corner by the conference room with athletic grace – grateful that Nancy Washington, CPA, had been a practical girl and always wore rubber soled flats.

Elevator bank, doors closing.

Could it be Wilkes? It didn’t matter. She knew where he was going. The signal was given, but the valise was missing – he would have to make contact – zero option.

Three sleepy suits stood chatting in front of the eleveators. Mindless nonsense about the annoying London traffic. The one on the right was large, but his balance favored his left foot – the machine knew it was the path of least resistance and Svetlana drove forward, shoulder low, taking the gap between the suit and the wall.

The impact spun the suit counter-clockwise, and dowsed his chums with a scalding tan splatter of double latte.

Svetlana tucked and rolled and was through the door to the fire stairs before the suits even thought to look for what had happened.

Seven stories, and a race against a London office building elevator – or lift as the natives called it. Down – it had to be down, Svetlana’s mind raced as fast as her body. The roof would leave him cornered, besides he had to make contact – its the only play Wilkes would have left.

Sixth floor landing – two – three stairs at a time – treacherous, but not enough time.

Fifth floor landing – fire hose, elbow – shattered glass – alarm. Svetlana grabbed the nozel wrapped the thick vulcanized canvas around her arm and vaulted over the rail into the airshaft encircled by the flights of stairs.

Freefall.

Punctuated by jerks and hiccups as the hose snapped off its pins in the shattered glass case.

Fourth landing, third, second. Full stop. Svetlana screamed as her body jerked. The canvas scorched her arm as the coil of hose relinquished its passenger and she crashed the remaining nine feet to the ground. But the pain of the burn was nothing – Svetlana’s left shoulder was dislocated. She wanted to cry. She wanted to stop. But the machine knew that to stop was to die – or worse. Besides she gained time – maybe even bought back Wilkes’ two minute headstart.

On her feet, squeeze her arm between the iron rails of the stairs and wrench her body forward. Another scream lost in the din of the fire alarm as Svetlana shoulder popped back into place.

Lobby. Confused commuters straggling in hearing the alarm. Sniffing the air. Some waiting outside the revolving doors. Security guard pre-occuppied on the phone – no doubt trying to verify the alarm.

Elevator two arriving. Svetlana smiled despite the searing pain in her lungs and the mindless agony of her left arm. I’ve got you Wilkes, she thought. Let’s find out who you really are. The doors opened and a women in a tweed Ann Klein business suit stepped out in an alarm induced rush – bumping Svetlana’s damaged shoulder and leaving a cloud of Chanel No. 5 in her wake. Sevtlana cringed but kept her cool. Dammit, she thought, he did go to the roof – then she caught it … over the Chanel…. the faint aroma of freshly shaved cedar and a hint of graphite.

Instinct said duck, and instinct was right. The pencil struck and stuck in the back wall of the lift as Svetlana rolled right. The lethal missile missed but Peter Wilkes’ knee slid out from under the tweed skirt and connected solidly with Svetlana’s jaw. Svetlana reeled into the back corner cowering in pain. The doors closed and Wilkes pulled the emergency stop.

“Nancy Washington,” he kicked her stomach cruelly “let’s find out who you really are…”

So, Svetlana thought, Peter Wilkes is Armand ‘the Pencil’ Perez. She had always wondered what he looked like. When she read his file she never expected him to be so slim, so oily, such a rookie.

Armand cocked his right foot to deliver another kick, but suddenly the whimpering long-lashed accountant was a blue and violet blur on the elevator floor. Her right foot moved in a low arc and connected with his left ankle. He pitched forward into the elevator wall as an elbow collided fiercely with his groin. He reached for the pencil stuck in the wall.

Tomoenage – sweeping hip throw. It was now Svetlana on her feet and Armand crumpled upside down in the rear corner of the still elevator.

“Well Peter, or should I say Armand, you wanted to know who I am. For your patience and for your skill in hiding all these months beneath my nose… for these things I will do you that honor… Allow me to intoduce myself I am Svetlana Tereshkova at your service.”

She bowed, a slight bow, almost regal in its dignity despite the bruises, the burns, the tattered mess that remained of her blouse and the riot that was her hair. Armand’s eyes rolled in his head – Tereshkova, they called her the Terror, he was beginning to see why.

“Now Armand, Peter, dahling I’m going to ask you a question. The first time I ask it you won’t answer – which will be foolish. The second time I ask it you will answer. And then I will need to borrow that lovely suit.”

Armand tried to lunge but from his position he moved like a fish that’s fallen out of a bucket. Something connected with his jaw snapping it shut and taking with it a tiny piece of the tip of his tongue – he didn’t even know if it was a foot or a knee or a fist.

Clumsy, thought Svetlana, so clumsy. “Now Armand, pay attention… What is the code?”

Armand’s bleeding mouth smiled and he spit as best he could. It was all he had left.

Then the machine did something. Something it had been trained to do. Something even Svetlana couldn’t accept, something that would be banished from her memory.

At 8:45am Countess Pirenzi lit her third cigarette when she heard something that nearly made her scream…

“Valentina” – The Countess turned and saw a kind looking woman in an ill-fitting tweed suit with long-lashes and dark hair.

“I have bought a new perfume, it smells of hibiscus, isn’t it lovely”

It was the code, it was all the Countess could do to prevent herself from collapsing into the woman’s arms.

“I’m Anya Del Mare, and Papa sent me to watch over you”, she spoke in Valentina’s native tongue in the southern dialect. The Countess marvelled at her saviour and could control her tears no longer.

“Not here little lamb, it’s not safe… come with Anya and we’ll dry your pretty eyes, you must be tired… so tired…”.

Seven floors up Charlie Dougherty’s aorta ruptured as the janitor, who had just found the key, shut off the fire alarm.

She was in way over her head

The Countess’ Story

Valentina Pirenzi was terrified. She was in way over her head, and she knew it. What she did not know, was what to do about it. She’d been flying by the seat of her pants for the last twenty minutes and it didn’t take an experienced agent to figure out that that kind of improvisation was dangerous. Very dangerous. Quite possibly deadly. She was not an experienced agent. She was only a Countess. All that was supposed to be required of her was that she be diplomatic and graceful and – when the time came – that she marry well. How did she end up here?

She’d stumbled upon what her father was doing on accident. She never would have suspected that her pudgy, balding, good-natured papa was actually living a double life. She’d always thought he was somewhat scatter-brained, in a loveable sort of way; just another of the pampered rich. But it was all a front for the operation. Even his marriage to her mother was merely a part of their grand designs.

His love for Valentina was real, however, and he’d flatly refused when his operatives suggested using her for the drop. He had never wanted her to know about any of this, he certainly didn’t want her involved. She thought it would be exiting. Of course, she never really understood anything at all. Only that her family, her country, her very way of life was in danger, and her father was trying to protect it. It all seemed very glamorous. She helped them convinced papa that she was the obvious choice for the job. Her knowledge of languages, her looks, and in the event of trouble with the British government, her diplomatic immunity, made her a perfect replacement for their previous agent. They were sketchy about what had happened to her, and naive as she was she did not question them on it.

She had wanted to be fully briefed – “Isn’t that what you call it?” she’d giggled. It all seemed like a game to her then. Cloak and dagger. They’d decided that her relative ignorance might actually work in her favor. In the end, they’d not even told her what was in the stupid valise.

The wig was their idea. “There will be too many people who would notice you in London.” they’d explained. Yes, she supposed even she could see the logic in that. She was no spy, and their enemies knew that, but her sudden appearance in London would be suspicious.

The plan was supposed to be quite simple: Take the Underground to the appointed station. Go to the newsstand. Give the signal. The operative would approach her. Wait for the code. Give him the valise, and leave. Be calm, be quick, do not draw attention to yourself. It all seemed simple enough, but it had all gone so horribly wrong.

She got on the Underground at the London City Airport station right on schedule. Everything seemed fine, but she’d started to get nervous the minute she reached the platform. Just nerves, certainly. She willed herself not to look around her, though she swore there were eyes peering out at her from every shadow. She was downright jumpy by the time she boarded the train and took a seat.

The car was full of business travelers, and she was somewhat comforted by the safety of the crowd. Surely nothing could happen to her with all these people – all these witnesses – so near by.

She pretended to read the paper, and had started to relax a bit, when someone took the seat opposite her. She lowered the corner of her newspaper, and sitting slouched across two seats was a lanky, dark haired man in a scuffed leather jacket and engineer boots. He smelled slightly of stale beer and cigarettes, and his unkempt head keened slightly to one side. Before she could raise the paper again, their eyes met, and he flashed a smile full of woefully neglected teeth.

“Hey there . . . ” he slurred pruriently.

Oh, terrific – she thought. Just what I need right now is some drunken git with a Romeo complex. She was about to get up, when he leaned closer . . . .and whispered the code.

She stiffened. Her mind raced – that was the code, but this wasn’t how it was supposed to go, what’s going on?

She took a deep breath; returned her eyes to the paper; tried to look relaxed.

“You were supposed to be at the newsstand.”, she whispered.

He slumped over a bit in his chair and appeared to be nodding off. “I’m not your contact.”, he said. “We have a problem.”

“What?” she said. A little too loudly. One or two eyes shifted.

“Be quiet and listen carefully.”, he said. “The operation has been compromised.”

“Abort?” she asked. Hoped. This was getting a little squirrelly.

“The drop is off, but we still need you. Our operative is in trouble. They’ve got an agent inside the operation. We don’t think they know who he is, but they know that the drop is today, and it won’t be long before they’ll figure him out. We’re not sure how they found out about the drop. We’ve long suspected that the stenographers were leaking information to the other side, but we’ve kept them misinformed. Or so we thought. We’ve got to get him out of there.”

“What do you want me to do?”, she asked. Squirrelly indeed, by God. . .

“We need you to go to the drop site as scheduled. When you meet our operative you’ll brief him on everything. The agent following him is one Svetlana Tereshkova. She’s one of their best. We’re not sure yet what name she’s using, or what she’ll look like these days. She’s known for her husky voice and her penchant for lethal jewelry. Watch out for her.

You’ll leave the valise with me. It’s too dangerous for you both if you bring it now. When you’ve briefed our operative, leave him. He’ll know where to go. We’re hoping they’ll follow him, thinking that the drop has been made. You just return to the Underground and lose yourself in the crowd. You’ll meet me again at precisely 11:15 am, and I’ll get you back home and out of this mess completely.”

He looked up at her then. Smiled. It reassured her. He really did have nice eyes. She smiled back.

“Where will I meet you?”

“A taxi will pick you up at . . . the . . .” his voice trailed off.

He slumped over a little farther. Forward this time. She leaned in and whispered “What?”

No answer. She was about to lean in even farther when she noticed the small blue dart lodged in the side of his neck.

She caught a scream in her throat, and managed not to leap out of her seat. What to do? Oh, my God they killed him! What do I do! She was panicking, and she knew it, but she had to get away. Get away, that was it. She ran to the doors just as they opened at the Stratford station. She ran. Bolted out onto the street and leapt into the first cab she saw.

“Drive!” she yelled, and thankfully, the driver complied.

She watched out the rear window to see if she was being followed. She didn’t think she was. But then again, She supposed that the unfortunate young man with the unkempt hair and nice eyes didn’t think he was being followed, either. She didn’t even know his name. She was about to burst into tears at this thought when the driver said “Where to, miss?”

It brought her back to herself. Think. She had to think, or she was in trouble, and she wasn’t the only one. What should she do? She’d have to go on with the meeting. There wasn’t really any other alternative. She didn’t know where else to find anyone who could help her. Hopefully the operative at the newsstand would know what to do. Right. Good. But what of the valise? The agent on the train said it would be dangerous to bring it. She’d have to hide it somewhere.

“Miss?” the driver said.

“Take me to the Highbury and Islington station, please.” That’s it. Back to the tubes. Because the operative would be expecting her to emerge from the Underground at the appointed station at the appointed time. She checked her watch. She would make it. Hopefully, she wasn’t being followed. It would be fine.

She locked the valise in a locker at the station and slipped the key into her trenchcoat. Hardly an ideal hiding spot, but it would have to do. At least it was a highly trafficked spot.

She emerged from the station right on time and went over to the newsstand. She tried to look casually at the magazines, but she was terrified, and her mind was reeling. She decided it might look authentic if she bought something, but she couldn’t concentrate on anything. The seconds stretched out. This needs to go well, she thought. Mustn’t be too obvious. Oh just pick one, dammit, and give the signal! she screamed at herself.

She was so preoccupied with the signal that she didn’t even realize she was purchasing a copy of Field and Stream until she stepped away from the counter. Appalled, she quickly folded the magazine and tucked it under her arm. Good God, what a mess she was making of this. She had to get a grip on herself. Calm down. Wait for the man with the code.

She struggled to keep her fingers from shaking as she lit a cigarette, and waited. . . .

Nancy’s story

Nancy’s story

8:26am Nancy’s is leaning over Charlie’s desk fussing over the box of jelly-filled and glazed donuts – fully aware that she is presenting her balding, pudgy lover with an eyeful of her ample cleavage as she chides him flirtatiously for not getting her favorite kind, bavarian cream. Charlie was entranced which was exactly what Nancy had in mind. Charlie was a horny little swine, but he was smart, and today she could not risk his interference – if he sensed the concentration, the intensity of focus with which she scanned and measured the office, the windows, every reflection, if he noticed these things his male-ego would erupt in faux-gallantry, a syrupy display of concern and sensitivity. It would call too much attention to her true purpose. Fortunately, she thought, men are such simple toys…

It had been a torturous seven month affair – not torturous for Charlie he was head-over-heels unable to believe his luck – somehow he had stumbled into a romance with a smart, charming, gorgeous women who did things he had only read about in magazines. But luck had nothing to do with it. Orders were orders, thought Nancy (or Svetlana as she was once known) and although she felt degraded and humiliated, not by the sordid peccadillos of her cover, but by the tedium of the assignment. She was a top field operative, trained since the age 5, fluent in 8 languages, passable in 7 more. Seldom did a mission require more than three days, infiltrate, seduce, dispatch – it was par for the course. But someone had blundered on this one – Charlie wasn’t the mole, Charlie was smart, but apart from a little tax fraud (and a few perversions) Charlie was as clean as they come. Svetlana wanted out, but HQ made it clear that until the valise was found there was no out, there was no Svetlana, there was only Nancy Washington — quick-tempered CPA and Charlie Dougherty’s floozy. Still, she mused, there are worse assignments, and worse alternatives.

She figured the gravitational pull of the little peek-a-boo game her breasts were playing under her blue silk blouse would keep Charlie’s attention for as much as 3 minutes. Besides Charlie there was only Peter Wilkes to worry about, but Peter never left his cube until 8:30 when he would pop out of the office for a quick smoke. Three minutes wasn’t long, but if her information was correct it would be enough. Then she saw it, the blonde in the black trench coat, Countess Pirenzi in a cheap wig and Gucci pumps – buying a fishing magazine – Clumsy, Nancy thought, very clumsy – and no valise. Still the signal had been given, the mole would have to play his hand, but who was it? Who?

Charlie brought her attention back to the room with a bold hand on the inside of her right thigh. She laughed the laugh she had practiced a thousand times and barely noticed when Peter went out of the office for his 8:30 smoke. Nothing unusal there. She’d have to check the tapes later of course, but with no valise, there would be no rendezvous – someone would be scrambling… someone would slip… Her focus wavered as she racked her brain for a clue. What should her next move be? Break her routine and run by the water cooler? .. the copy room?

Charlie caught the vibe… “What is it Nance? Something on your mind?”

THE PENCIL – the one that was always behind Peter’s ear – WHERE WAS THE ERASER? Something was wrong – was her cover blown? Could that bookish little weasel Peter Wilkes really be the mole?

“Nancy, honey, earth to Nancy..”

“Oh Charlie, I just remembered I left my compact in the lady’s room”

“Can’t you get it later – we only have a few minutes alone before everyone else starts showing up…”

Nancy flipped back her hair with her hand flirtatiously – casually picking up a trace of chemical eleven from the tiny vial attached to the back of her earring – and with the same hand as part of the same motion she plucked a jelly donut from the box and put it down in front of Charlie.

“You just eat this donut, honey…” as she smiled a wicked smiled and placed her finger between his lips so he could lick the powdered sugar off her tainted fingertip, “and I’ll be back before you’re through”

As she crossed the office doorway she spared one moment of pity for Charlie and the heart-attack he would be having in exactly 9 minutes – he wasn’t a bad sort, and she had to admit the candle game had been kind of fun, but the last thing she could afford now was to leave a trail, and at least for Charlie it would be swift.

One flash of regret, that’s all she would spare – and now the machine takes over. The training the discipline, all her skills, complete concentration. She was now two full minutes behind the mole, but Svetlana wouldn’t stay two minutes behind for long….

Pressed for time

At precisely 8:29am Armand turned his custom-made leather office chair to the window facing the street. At precisely 8:30am the blonde in the black trenchcoat emerged from the Underground station. She was right on time. That was good. She was not carrying the valise. That was bad.

“Continue?” Armand asked his own reflection in the glass. They had come so far. So much planning would be wasted if they had to abort now. But it would be more than futile to continue if the mission was compromised. Always smarter to be patient, and Armand was nothing if not patient.

He returned his gaze to the blonde, who had stopped by the appointed newsstand and appeared to be perusing the pulpy magazines. To the untrained eye, she was just another attractive woman, an aspiring actress or model perhaps – the cities were full of them – who has stopped to see what celebrities made the tabloid covers.

He was nearly certain that the mission was a bust, and was about to swivel his chair back to the desk, and resume the tedium of his “job” anew, when he saw it. The signal. His pulse quickened, but just a touch. Nothing that would be perceptible to the untrained eye. So it was a go.

He turned back to his desk, ready, but full of questions. Where was the valise? Why was the mission a go without it? Perhaps they had been forced to hide the contents somewhere else on her person.

No time to think of that now. He would find out soon enough.

He adjusted the drawing pencil behind his ear, stood and walked out the office door.

“Watch out for the stenographers.”, he said softly to the empty hallway.

Preparation

Armand sat as his cubicle in the windowless corner of the seventh floor office space. It was 8:15am and as usually he was the first to arrive. Charlie, who brings the donuts wouldn’t be there for another 7 minutes. Nancy, the accountant with the short fuse and the long lashes would follow exactly 3 and a half minutes later. Nancy had a sweet tooth, but it was more than Charlie’s donuts that she had in mind. An irrelevant observation, Armand thought, but a reflex nonetheless. Armand had been trained to observe, to watch. And to wait. But soon the waiting would be over thought Armand. The day of triumph was at hand. He was prepared.

Every day Armand’s pencil cup was filled with one dozen yellow-coated Dixon Ticonderoga 2b pencils with the faux copper metallic band encircling the standard 1/4 inch eraser. Every day, except today. Today Armand had replaced the 12 weak, soft-leaded pencils with one dozen blue-coated Faber-Castell 6h extra-hard eraserless graphite drawing pencils. Eleven now sat point down in his cup resting gently on points carefully honed to needle-sharpness. Were the tips visible, few would notice the glistening spectrum of color caused by the refraction of the light coating of black mamba venom. Armand would notice, but then Armand was trained to notice things.

But what of the twelth pencil? – why it was poised delicately behind Armand’s right ear in readiness, as was Armand – the delicate instrument and the patient agent both prepared for the long awaited signal…