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.

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