Authors: Andy McNab
It bought me enough time to struggle to my feet but not to aim my first kick. It didn’t matter. Finesse wasn’t the order of the day. Anything to slow him down. I went for his centre mass for starters, then moved on up. I didn’t want to permanently damage him. On the other hand, I wasn’t messing about. I needed to stop him thinking, and doing anything I didn’t want him to do.
He stayed on his feet, but started to droop.
I got a couple of blows into the side of his head and that was enough to make him come out with the white flag. He dropped like a sack of shit.
The locked door at the back of the barn was taking a hammering from the inside. The first carrot-cruncher sounded very concerned. He shouted, ‘Claude,’ once or twice, then hollered a stream of profanities. It didn’t take a UN interpreter to help me catch his drift.
Fucking let me out of here, you bastard
I didn’t mind. Nobody was going to hear. And as long as he was shouting, he wasn’t on a mobile phone to the police.
Claude wasn’t going anywhere fast. I let him lie where he’d fallen while I reclaimed the gaffer tape and the pistol from beside a pallet loaded with fence posts. The pistol went into my waistband.
Claude stirred when I got back alongside him. Maybe he’d heard the rasp as I pulled a length of tape off the roll. Maybe the door banging and his mate yelling had forced its way into the depths of his consciousness. Whatever, I had to kick into him a couple more times. I didn’t know if I was hurting him and I didn’t care. I needed him to be in no doubt that I was the top dog round here at the moment, so I could secure him. That boy could pack a punch, and if he regained control there was no telling what he might do.
The profanity kept echoing around the back of the barn as I rolled Claude on to his stomach, pulled his wrists together behind his back and wrapped the tape around them. I made it tight, very tight, so his hands would soon start to swell. I wanted him to focus on the pain instead of raising the alarm.
I tugged off his wellies and did the same to his ankles, then bent his legs back so I could connect the two sets of binding. He lay with his cheek on the floor, eyes closed, even when I plastered the sticky stuff across his mouth and looped it twice around the back of his neck. I wasn’t sure if he was unconscious by then or in denial. It didn’t matter much either way.
Finally, I fastened him to one of the legs of the feeding trough.
I stepped over the fence post he’d dropped me with and grabbed the bungee cords off the shelf on my way out. I padlocked the main door for good measure and threw away the key.
There was no need to push the Honda anywhere now. The shouts had mostly turned into whines, and as soon as I hit the starter button the engine noise drowned them out completely. I pulled up beside the bridge and clambered into the gully.
Stefan had finished the chocolate and most of the water by the time I got back to him. Other than that he hadn’t moved an inch. Either he trusted me completely, or he was still so traumatized he was frozen to the spot. His foot was obviously giving him some grief, but he’d kept it in the stream. As for the rest, only time would tell.
He took one look at me, opened his mouth and pointed at my temple. I touched it with my fingertips, still hoping that Claude might just have gobbed on me. They came away sticky and crimson.
I shrugged. ‘No time now. I’ll sort it later.’
He still didn’t say anything, but I saw a ghost of a smile when I carried him up the bank and he spotted the Honda. I settled him on the front of the saddle and strapped our bags to the rear rack with the bungee cords. I didn’t bother refilling the water bottle. Now that we had wheels, dying of thirst wasn’t an issue.
I climbed on behind him, and told him to hang on to my arms. When I turned the ignition key, even the cows took no notice. I aimed the machine directly across the slope towards the trees. The incline wasn’t too steep, but I didn’t go into Red Bull Extreme mode. Rolling it would really fuck us up.
Once we were twenty metres or so in cover I spotted a track, which was probably a ski run in the winter. I turned on to it and opened up the throttle whenever the gradient allowed. I knew this wasn’t the first time today I’d travelled downhill at speed through trees, but now I could see our route stretching ahead of us, and the further we got, the more confident I became that we weren’t going to launch ourselves into space.
I stopped every so often to scan the open ground below us, and to check the compass and the map. I wasn’t worried about taking a wrong turning: I needed to keep fixing the bearings of our journey in my head. It wasn’t leaking so badly now.
Shit from my past had started to bubble up through my brain. Maybe the drama in the barn had triggered something way beneath the waterline.
I knew I was ex-Special Forces.
I knew Frank Timis was a Ukrainian oligarch.
I knew I’d rescued his son in Somalia, back in the day.
I knew he had needed my help again.
I knew that whoever had killed him wanted me dead too.
But I didn’t know why. Maybe the Timis house in Courchevel would give me some answers.
The mountain air made everything ahead of me pin sharp. I was still a long way short of total recall, but the breeze against my face seemed to be blowing away some of my confusion. It was also drying off the bomber nicely.
Once we’d got well away from the body on the mountain and the flashing lights around what was left of my wagon, I brought the ATV to a halt. I lifted Stefan off and told him to take a piss while I unhooked the bungees and took my stained T-shirt out of my day sack, emptied the rest of the water bottle on to it and dabbed as much of the blood off my head as I could manage. There was fuck-all I could do about the wound itself right now, but at least I’d look a bit tidier.
Then I had a closer look at the contents of his rucksack. Under the hand towel and washbag there was a paperback the size of a small breezeblock. ‘You’re kidding me, right?’ My Russian wasn’t anything to shout about, but I recognized Dostoevsky’s
Crime and Punishment
when I saw it. Fuck, he was only seven. I hadn’t even managed
Jack and Jill
by the time I was his age.
He gave me the kind of look that suddenly reminded me of his dad. No, he wasn’t kidding.
I carried my bloodstained T-shirt and his Brindisi strip ten metres in from the track, scraped back some loose earth and leaf litter behind a tree and buried it. Being caught with Frank’s son would compromise me big-time. Having the dead man’s blood on my clothing and his would be even more difficult to explain.
We made it to the outskirts of Courchevel 1850 an hour or so before last light. The ATV had done what it said on the cowling; I’d managed to go the whole way without spending any more time on tarmac than we had to.
I pulled up beneath an empty chairlift on the high ground. We were still sheltered by trees, but had a clear view of the layout of the resort. Hotels and apartment blocks rubbed shoulders with cable-car stations and overpriced restaurants.
Further up the valley, the dying rays of the sun glinted off the canopy of a Bell Jetranger coming in to land at the Altiport, the airfield of choice for the super-rich that popped out there for the weekend. Snow still dusted the peaks that dominated the skyline behind it.
I’d seen Frank’s place before. But from the front, not the back. I asked Stefan to ID it and he pointed at the middle building in a row of massive fairy-tale chalets with gently sloping roofs and wide eaves a few hundred metres to our left.
I could see that he was straining to get in there, like a puppy on a lead. I steadied him with a hand on the shoulder. ‘Mate, we can’t rush this. Whoever fucked up your dad on the mountain might be paying it a visit …’
I swept the binos across the rear of the property. Massive picture windows on the top floor reflected knock-out views of the upper slopes. Most of the shutters on those below were closed, either against the sunlight or because nobody was home.
A party-size Jacuzzi took pride of place in a walled terrace that separated the back door from the granite hillside. The whole set-up had been built to repel boarders, but you could obviously ski straight in there during the winter, through a steel security gate set into an archway.
I couldn’t see any sign of movement, inside or out.
I’d definitely been to this three-storey slice of paradise, though I still couldn’t remember exactly when. Whatever, poor people obviously weren’t allowed in this part of town: we were looking at Oligarch Central.
Before hitting Frank’s place, I had to hide my day sack. If everything went to rat-shit in there I needed to have travel docs and cash securely in a place I could get back to. I tucked it behind the bright orange padding that surrounded the base of the nearest chairlift pylon, then parked the ATV behind the one fifty metres below. It wasn’t completely out of sight, but you’d have to be right on top of the thing before you pinged it.
I swung Stefan off the saddle. ‘How’s that ankle? Do you think you can walk?’
He nodded, and gave me the gritty, determined look I’d seen on the hillside. But after a couple of paces I knew it still wasn’t working. I picked him up and carried him back to our original vantage-point. He started to shiver. The temperature was dropping now. I hadn’t noticed.
I sat him down beside me and brought up the binos again. Nothing had changed. No big lads had emerged to enjoy an early-evening vodka on the balcony. I checked out the various approaches to the rear entrance for concealment and ease of access. A four-metre-wide alleyway separated it from the palaces on either side. They seemed to be empty too.
I wondered about leaping from the slope on to the top of the wall, but binned the idea almost immediately. A keypad was set into the stonework beside the security gate, with a camera above it. Two more cameras were mounted at each end of the rear elevation. Short of shooting them off the walls, all I could do was hope that if anyone unfriendly was inside they weren’t watching the monitors.
I turned to Stefan. He was following my every move, eyes like saucers. ‘We can get in through the back, yeah?’
‘Will there be anyone there? A maid, maybe? A cook? A bodyguard?’
He gave me something halfway between a shake of the head and a shrug.
‘Do you know the entry code?’
He nodded again.
I brought out the UZI pen and lifted my left hand.
He flinched like I was about to hit him. I went down on one knee, so we could get eye to eye. ‘Steady, mate. I just want you to write it here …’ I tapped my palm.
Concentrating hard, his tongue jutting out a fraction between his teeth, he drew a nine-square grid on my very grimy skin. Then he touched six of them in sequence and wrote the numbers below it.
‘Is there an alarm system?’
Another nod. The tongue stayed where it was as he added a second set of figures.
‘OK. Let’s do it.’
I lifted him on to my back. He wrapped his arms around my chest and I threaded my wrists under his knees; this was starting to feel more like teamwork. I shifted the pistol in my waistband so I could still draw down with my right hand.
We were able to stay inside the treeline most of the way, and drop down on to the ski track at the last moment. I kept eyes on the three buildings every step of the way, only stopping a couple of times to glance backwards and forwards along the path.
I put Stefan down and tapped in the code. The locking mechanism clicked. I pushed open the gate, then hid him behind the Jacuzzi before repeating the process at the back entrance. This time the door swung back automatically, on some kind of hydraulic arm.
I stepped across the threshold into a room lined with top-of-the-range skis in a variety of sizes, bright quilted jackets and matching helmets on a row of wooden hooks. The alarm panel was alongside one of those boot-driers with stalks that breathed warm air into your liners after a day on the
. I brought up my left palm, read the numbers and disarmed it.
I fetched Stefan and pressed the button to shut the door.
We moved through into an entrance hall that was more Manhattan penthouse than rustic mountain lodge. Frank had had a whole lot of fingers in a whole lot of pies, and judging by what was on display there, he’d cornered the market in grey marble as well. I wondered how much of this I’d paid for. He had once laundered a big chunk of money I’d stolen from a Mexican drug baron, and taken twenty-five cents on the dollar.
I felt a big stupid grin spread across my face. If I still knew that, there was hope for me yet.
I stopped and listened. The fact that the alarm had been set meant that no one was likely to be inside, but old habits die hard, even when you’re struggling. That was the whole point of them, after all.
Once I was sure no one was there, I could comb the place for clues to what the fuck was going on, and why I was in the shit.
I walked across the shiniest floor I’d ever seen and Stefan hobbled after me. The huge wooden front door ahead of us was firmly shut. I wanted to keep it that way. Another to our right was far enough ajar for me to get a glimpse of the corner of a brushed-aluminium four-poster bed. No surprises there. Most of these mountain homes were designed to save the best views for the living areas, not waste them on the bits where you shut your eyes.
The room was enormous but minimally furnished – mostly in suede and metal. The bed and a formal portrait of Frank with a dark-haired beauty above it told me this was where the master of the house got his head down. The bed was made, but the slight dip in the mattress told me that for a while only one person had slept in it.
There were two more bedrooms across the hall. One was pink and fluffy and untouched; the other was a shrine to Brindisi football club and Spider-Man. A couple of dinosaurs acted as bookends for yet more homework. There was no mess anywhere. It reminded me of Frank’s love of precision – and the seriousness with which he had been schooling Stefan to take over his empire. I told the boy to wait there until I came back.