Authors: Andy McNab
A small man, lying on his stomach, frozen in the act of diving sideways, arms outstretched, making for the door.
He was wearing designer jeans with a carefully ironed crease and a cashmere pullover. The pattern on the cashmere matched the one on the upholstery: cream, with two big splashes of crimson. I couldn’t see his chest, but the two exit wounds in his back were the size and consistency of a Starbucks Strawberry Frappuccino.
It would take more than a quick wipe to fix the leather too. The rounds that had killed the passenger had ripped straight through it.
He had a big fuck-off platinum watch on his left wrist. I took a closer look. A Zenith Class Traveller. No jewels, no glitter, but loads of little dials. It had probably cost even more than the wagon.
I didn’t need to go to the trouble of checking his pulse.
I heard an engine.
I glanced up as another car appeared from the direction of the tunnel. It whipped past, right to left, without showing the slightest interest in this little drama. I did a three-sixty around the immediate area for good measure. The place was still deserted.
I could see only the side of the victim’s face – chiselled out of stone; precisely trimmed, swept-back hair, greying at the temples – but when I looked down again, something triggered the thought that this wasn’t the first time we’d met.
I reached through the gap between the seats and tried to lift his head. And realized that I wasn’t sharing this wagon with one corpse. I was sharing it with two.
I reversed out of the front passenger seat at warp speed and pulled open the rear door.
I wasn’t wrong. Hidden under Mr Cashmere there was another body.
A small one.
From this angle I could see a child’s head buried beneath the man’s torso. He hadn’t been trying to escape. In the final seconds of his own life, the man had tried to save the boy. Who would do that? He wasn’t a BG. Not with those clothes and that watch. He must have been his father.
The killer had been inside the wagon. Nothing short of an RPG would have given the outside of it more than a scratch. And there was no sign of forced entry, no scarring on the skin of the Evoque.
I tried to roll Dad back far enough to allow me to separate them. The kid was six or seven years old, max. He was wearing trainers and some kind of football strip. His torso was covered with so much blood I couldn’t tell what had killed him. I couldn’t even tell what club he supported.
I was about to turn my attention back to his dad when I saw a small red bubble form at the corner of the boy’s mouth, then burst. I gripped his arms and dragged his limp body from the car. It was still warm.
I carried him across the gravel and laid him down on a strip of turf behind the brew hut. More bubbles. I wiped the gore and snot away from his nose and mouth and cleared his airway. Then I gave him a rapid once-over to make sure he wasn’t doing any leaking of his own. He wasn’t. It wasn’t his blood. It was his dad’s. My palms were slippery with the stuff.
He grimaced and his eyelids fluttered. Then they opened wide.
He smacked my hand away.
It wasn’t the first time today I’d been called that.
‘How do you …?’ I didn’t bother finishing the question. It could wait. ‘Stefan?’ The name crept out of the muddle in my brain before I even knew it was there.
He gave the smallest of nods, but didn’t utter a word. Then his hand shot out and clung to me, like a limpet. I murmured some reassuring waffle and managed to unclamp his fingers.
My top priority now was to stop him going into shock. I knew this kid. There were things he could tell me. And if I lost him, we were both fucked. I had to make sure he didn’t go down.
I pulled off my bomber and wrapped it around his upper half. Then I opened my mouth and listened, scanning as much as I could see of the road in both directions.
I wiped my hands clean on the grass and went back to the Range Rover. We needed to make distance from it. But there was some shit I needed to do before we got out of here.
My first instinct had been to bundle the kid back into the wagon, try to start it and drive somewhere safer where I could sort out my options. But hot-wiring those things was virtually impossible now, and most of them had trackers. I also couldn’t go through either tunnel without running the risk of being caught on camera. And moving the thing would leave whoever had done this in no doubt that I was still alive.
My memory was shot to pieces, but I could still do the procedural stuff, if I didn’t think about it too hard. I shut the rear door so the corpse was out of sight and slid back on to the passenger seat. The clock on the dash read 13:27. The same as my Suunto.
I flipped open the glovebox. A bunch of CDs, a French chocolate bar. A pack of cigarettes. Marlboro. A picture of a guy in an oxygen mask. A health warning in Cyrillic lettering. A slim box of matches. Brown. Gold lettering. Five stars. Hotel Le Strato, Courchevel.
Beneath them, two spiral-bound map books. France and Italy. I chucked both into my day sack, along with the chocolate bar and the matches. I pressed the tailgate release. As the hydraulics worked their magic, I stepped out of the passenger door, closed it, and checked out the contents of the boot.
A neatly folded suede jacket was draped across two matching cases. They smelt of money. Gold and brown, with a repeating pattern of Vs and Ls. And a couple of big holes where the rounds had blasted through the back of the seat.
There was also a kid-size rucksack, containing a change of clothes, a washbag and a hand towel. I frisked the jacket and found two passports in crocodile-skin covers and a bunch of crisp euro and rouble notes in a gold clip. This guy obviously didn’t do credit cards any more than I did.
The passports were both dark blue with gold lettering and some kind of shield. The first bearer was from Ukraine. His name was Francis Timis. And he had short-stay visas for France, Italy and Switzerland.
Some more useful stuff clicked into place.
I did know him.
He had a job for me.
He needed my help.
He didn’t know who he could trust.
That was why I was there.
The second passport belonged to the boy, Stefan Timis.
I replaced the cash and refolded the jacket. I pocketed both passports, and undid the cases. Nothing useful. Just clothes, and in the smaller one, some books that looked more like homework than fun. One of the spent rounds had gone most of the way through a maths instruction manual. I closed them again, grabbed the rucksack and pressed the button to shut the tailgate.
I legged it back to the boy. He hadn’t moved a millimetre. He wasn’t even blinking. Just staring up into space. The lights were on, but nobody was home.
I was tempted to fuck off out of there and leave him where he was. But I knew that wasn’t an option. I had to find out why I was in this shit, and right now he was the only one who could help. For starters, he’d know who’d killed his dad.
He could also ID me. And being IDed was the last thing I needed. I had to stay dead for as long as possible.
I raised him to a sitting position against the brew hut, slung my day sack and his rucksack over my right shoulder and lifted the boy on to my back. I didn’t need to tell him to hang on. He’d locked his arms around me, his blood-wet arms soaking my hair, before I threaded my wrists under his knees.
I stayed in the shadow of the hut as a tour bus thundered past, left to right. Thank fuck none of the passengers was in the mood for a piss or a picnic. I gave it a count of five, then stumbled across the road and into the trees.
Small, bony arms slid up and tightened around my throat as the hill steepened and I hit a patch of scree. I grabbed the nearest trunk to steady myself and wrenched them down on to my chest again. I got some air back into my lungs. ‘Stefan, you’re going to fucking throttle me if you keep doing that …’
I carried on down, paralleling the stream. I had no idea whether I was heading for some
Sound of Music
mountain pasture or another fucking great precipice, but even with temporary oxygen starvation, I seemed to be capable of a bit of joined-up thinking.
After about thirty slips and slides and one tumble, the ground levelled out. I glanced back. I could no longer see the road. I couldn’t even see the stripy rods that told me where it was. The stream was flowing quite gently there. I moved to my half-right and crouched beside it. The boy’s arms unlocked and I helped him find his feet.
I plunged my hands into the cold, clear spring water and gave them a good rub, then rinsed Frank’s blood off my head. I dried them on the front of my jeans, opened Stefan’s rucksack and told him to get his kit off.
He gave me a look that was still part zombie, but I got the impression he wasn’t completely out of it.
I pulled off my jacket and grabbed a handful of his football shirt and mimed what I wanted him to do. ‘Off! The blood …’
All I got back was a blank stare. Maybe he didn’t speak much English.
No. He definitely spoke English.
And I’d seen that stare before.
It was the stare of a kid who’s no stranger to pain. Top-of-the-range wagons and designer luggage and the shiny watch I could now see on his wrist hadn’t sheltered him from some severe dramas in his young life.
And not just today.
Another image took shape inside my head.
A bearded mullah. Flashing eyes. Knife raised. His other arm around the boy’s throat.
We’re in a madrasa.
Afghan? No, Somali.
I feel my right index finger curl and take first pressure on the trigger of my Makarov. My target grabs a fistful of his captive’s hair and prepares to plunge the blade into his chest.
My foresight, ramrod straight, locks on to a bead of sweat a centimetre above the mullah’s left eye.
Then everything above the beard turns to mist, and I’m back beside an Alpine stream with a lad whose life I’ve saved before.
I took my bomber out of my day sack. Did my best to rinse the blood and vomit off the front and sleeves. Swapped my T-shirt for the clean one.
He finally got the message: pulled off his outer gear and his trainers. He had some kind of medallion on a chain around his neck. A St Christopher. It bounced around in the sunlight as he washed himself. Pretty soon the stream turned red.
I handed him the towel from his rucksack, then the spare shirt, a maroon polo with a crocodile logo, and khaki shorts. I filled the water bottle while he dressed himself and fastened the Velcro strips on his trainers. They each had a crocodile too. So did his socks.
I shrugged on my bomber. No crocodiles anywhere near it. It still had a pink patch about halfway down, beside the zip, but I reckoned it wouldn’t stand out once it was dry. It started to steam. I hoped the warmth of the day would sort it out before too long.
I picked up his football kit. The shirt was still covered with blood but I could now see a white badge on the front of it – a set of antlers, two pillars and a crown, and the words ‘
Città di Brindisi
Don’t leave a thing that betrays your presence
…’ The Jock voice again. I wrapped it in my T-shirt and shoved it in the side compartment of my day sack. Then I put a hand on each of his shoulders and looked into his troubled eyes.
‘Stefan?’ I gestured back towards the road. ‘The car … Your dad, right?’
His face crumpled.
I gripped him more firmly. ‘What about me? You know my name. Why am I here?’
I wasn’t getting anything back.
I showed him the Hotel Le Strato matchbox. ‘Have we been to this place? Did we stay at this hotel?’
I finally got something. A shake of the head.
I felt my teeth chew at my bottom lip.
In the movies, this is where the hero slaps the kid to bring him to his senses. It doesn’t work. Why did I know that? I knew that because when I was his age my stepdad did the slapping. It either triggered a major meltdown or just prolonged the silence.
I realized I’d asked the wrong question. The Le Strato had rung another bell because I’d driven past it. Not last night, maybe, but some time, on his dad’s business. I needed to broaden my target area.
‘So, not the hotel. But Courchevel, yeah? You’ve got a place in Courchevel? A chalet with a green room? A green room with no windows?’
A green room with a desk. And monitors. And photographs.
A green room where Frank had told me what was on his mind.
Stefan’s mouth stayed shut but I saw his jaw start to work like he was chewing something he didn’t fancy before swallowing it.
I was beginning to think I should go the slapping route after all when it opened.
For a moment, I thought he might be correcting my pronunciation. Then a strobe sparked up in my head. I pictured, in rapid succession, the sign for ‘Centre Village’, the Verdons ski lift, the entrance to Frank’s chalet.
We were in France.
Something else sprang at me, fuck knew where from. ‘And a pool, yeah? An indoor swimming-pool?’
For a moment, the tension seemed to leave his body.
‘I love … to swim …’
I sat him down and took out the French map and the Silva compass. After a few false starts and a bit of head scratching, I zeroed in on the Haute Savoie, then the stretch of road that seemed to match the reference points – tunnels, curve, waterfall, layby – of the killing zone. It would have taken us to Turin.
I reckoned Courchevel was fifteen Ks or so as the crow flew. But I wasn’t about to bring out the crampons and karabiners, even if I’d had some with me. So maybe three times that, if we went round the peaks instead of over them.
I was about to fold the corner of the page when the Jock voice came back into my head. ‘
Never mark a map. Why tell the enemy where you’re going and what you’re doing?
’ I buried the matchbook and put the map and compass back into my day sack. The passports went in there too. I looped the binoculars strap around my neck.