Tuesday, 20 October 2009

JUDGEMENT

Fergus Bannon

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*****



Angels and ministers of grace defend us!

Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,

Bring with thee airs from heaven or blast from hell,

Be thy intents wicked or charitable,

Thou com'st in such a questionable shape,

That I would speak to thee

- Hamlet


And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free

- motto of the CIA



PART 1



Man


And at last, my perspectives newly minted and soaring free, I thought to ask: "Where did you begin?‌"

"Amongst strangers," she replied; and I saw pain in her eyes.


*****



PROLOGUE



The Amazon Rainforest, Brazil


Eighteen days into the tour, six Indian villages trashed, and still Tomas wasn't allowed to carry a gun.

Maybe that wouldn't be so bad if he didn't have to put up with Joao's relentless bullshit. Would the man never stop‌?

"Then, out the corner of my eye, I see this fat Mura coming at me out of the jungle. I whip round and...!" Unexpectedly Joao fired a burst at the nearest silk-cotton tree and yelled with glee as a section of the emaciated trunk disappeared in a cloud of splinters.

In the shocked silence that followed all the soldiers looked up. Then, splashing and cursing, they were running for cover. Stunned by the M-16's angry roar, Tomas froze. Someone cursed loudly behind him, grabbed a handful of collar at the back of his ragged jacket and yanked hard. Suddenly he was being carried backwards with a bone-jarring force.

The tree at first stayed upright, held up by the pressure of the tightly packed foliage in the forest canopy eighty feet above. Then there was a brief rustle and thud as the severed top section dropped to the ground, followed by a series of loud crashes as the tree started to topple.

Tomas knew it was going to hit him. He opened his mouth to scream but just then the seams gave in his ancient camouflage jacket. The collar jammed up against his throat, choking him.

The world telescoped into the kind of movie slow motion he had seen hundreds of times in the damp closely packed movie houses of Manaus. He could see some of the men nearby as they scattered like the fragments of a grenade. To the left the red glow of Ernesto's cigar caught his attention, the dark, fierce little man biting hard on the sodden remnant, too stubborn to relinquish it even in the face of death.

Somewhere in the eternity of pain and despair that followed the tree missed Tomas after all. Instead the top clump of foliage performed a slow, lazy swat on the scurrying Ernesto. Mud fountained everywhere.

The final crash made the world snap back into normal time. Tomas was hurled to the ground, struggling for air but with the searing pain in his neck causing him to retch at each precious lungful.

"Oh please, for God's sake, Ernesto. Don't...please don't hurt me. I'm so sorry, please forgive me. It was an accident!" He wailed like the Indian women, causing some of the soldiers to smile grimly. This was not the way to seek mercy from the Squad.

Belatedly Joao seemed to realise this. "Remember Senior Lisi. He's my second cousin ... he will be very angry if you hurt me ... Ayyyhh ... no contracts no money!"

Ernesto looked at Tomas. He was frowning so hard his thick black eyebrows met. The end of his cigar glowed and a plume of blue smoke billowed out from the corner of his mouth. "True?‌"

Tomas hesitated, relishing this sudden power. Joao had often boasted of the relationship between himself and the ranch foreman of one of their main paymasters. It was true that Lisi had foisted him on the Squad on the basis that he could provide the 'local knowledge' which the ex-guerillas had lacked when they first arrived in Manaus from Honduras.

But Joao's knowledge had proved to be illusory. He had shown them the worst brothels and drinking joints and had wasted their time with his empty bragging. And he kept making dumb mistakes, like with the tree.

All eyes were on Tomas as the only other Brazilian in the Squad. He furrowed his adolescent brow as though trying to remember, but really wondered whether he could get away with a lie.

"Well‌?" Ernesto's voice was so hard and sharp it made Tomas jump. He nodded rapidly but Ernesto still seemed undecided. Luiz made his mind up for him, as he did for everybody when the time came.

"Let him go!"

Still holding the knife to Joao's eye with one hand, Ernesto reached up for his cigar with the other and firmly ground out the glowing end on Joao's forehead a centimetre above his nose. Joao roared in pain and horror, struggling to keep his head still. Ernesto slowly withdrew the knife and rose to his feet, leaving the sobbing Joao to bring his palm up tenderly to his eye.

Luiz shouldered his pack and waited while the men shouldered theirs, then he headed off into the jungle on their original bearing. Looking over his shoulder Tomas saw Joao hang back for a few seconds then reluctantly follow, blood dripping onto his shirt.

Tomas felt no sympathy for the man, not after all the things Joao had put him through. But for the first time he did feel the faintest tug of respect. It had taken courage to stay and face Ernesto. Admittedly Joao couldn't have survived alone in the jungle, but even so... Ernesto was a savage. You never knew what he'd do next.

Tomas' shoulders had become chaffed then callused by the faded green straps of his backpack. Heavy affairs, they caused much complaint amongst the men. The packs got lighter as the time went by, after most of the Claymores had been laid and some of the bullets and grenades used. Nevertheless these sorties could last thirty days and even the minimal desiccated survival rations the men lived on weighed forty pounds at the outset.

This had been the third and final foray of the tour. They had left their launch hidden in the jungle close to where the Araca and Demini rivers met, then made north up the banks of the Araca. Ten miles north of the fork they began their sweep. Almost all the Indians lived within 500 metres of the rivers or tributaries and the squad had been contracted to clear the next thirty miles of the east bank. Rather than risk skirmishes with the alerted Indians by retracing their steps to the river fork, they had cut across country with the aim of reaching the Demini and heading south.

Trekking through the forest was a difficult business. The poor light reaching the forest floor kept the underbrush down and made the going easier, but the ground was very marshy with stagnant pools full of leeches, their surfaces swarming with mosquitoes. Luiz had hoped to minimise the time spent in the depths of the forest by following an unnamed tributary of the Araca east as far as it went. Then they had cut southeast, hoping to meet a tributary of the Demini. They had been in the forest now for seven days yet had not found it.

Luiz planned that when they reached the boat they would sail with the Demini south until it joined the dark tannin-stained waters of the Negro. From there it was barely a five-mile trek to Mosero's ranch and the two-hour flight to the civilisation offered by Manaus. The Squad were looking forward to two weeks of sleazy indolence before setting out again on a contract for a ranch further south towards Humaita.

Tomas was weary but still glowed with the excitement of his time with the men. They descended on the villages like angered Gods, killing and maiming. They burned down the hovels and set mines on forest paths. Always they left savagely mutilated corpses as warnings to the other verminous Indians who cluttered up the forest. Tomas' warmed to the ranchers' vision of the future, of this oppressive jungle after the clearances and the burning, when all would be grassland save for the herds of cattle being raised for the Yankee fast-food chains. Money would pour into the region and it would become like the America of the cinema screen, a place of heart-stopping affluence. The rancher's campaign had given his own life a sense of form and meaning and he had no wish to return to the torpid street corner existence of Manaus.

His part in the campaign had been menial. He boiled the water and rehydrated the food and performed all the other necessary but unpleasant duties the men would not perform themselves. He pulled off their sodden boots at night and dusted their feet down with powders to kill the myriad fungi that thrived in this saturated world. Every night he would smear ointment on the inaccessible bites of the pium flies and bandage cuts from the spiky palms and the blade grass.

Despite his efforts Luiz did not trust him enough to let him keep watch during the night, and had refused him a gun. The men made endless jokes about Tomas shooting them in the ass during an attack, and played many silly and sometimes spiteful tricks on him. On the first night in the jungle they had dropped a snake into one of his boots while he was sleeping.

He remembered how shocked he had been, not so much by the feel of the angry squirming thing under his foot, but by the mens' monumental indifference to his fate. They had not known whether the snake was poisonous or not. They had just wanted to see the look on his face. He came to regard this insight into the subterranean coldness in mens' hearts as his first real step to manhood.

The ruse had been taken up as a running joke by the Squad and his boots became a zoologist's treasure house, to be emptied religiously every morning. He remembered that Joao, with the coward's pack animal response to the disadvantaged, had been the main culprit. Only the dour giant Luiz had not taken part in his humiliation.

At least the ex-FARC soldier had promised him a gun on the next tour. He would be able to take part in the attacks, rather than having to hang back to witness only the aftermath. He relished the thought of handling one of the big heavy Colts and the dream of perhaps one day owning an M-16 made him squirm with pleasure.

Far above in the brightly coloured world of the macaws and spider monkeys it must have started to rain. The water, funnelled by the leaves, fell as big heavy drops onto the khaki caps of the men in the darker world beneath. The ceaseless dripping became painful in only a few minutes. They could not bear to wear helmets in the stupefying heat and humidity of the forest floor so they had developed a simple, if bizarre solution. They brought out the metal dishes they used for food and put them on their heads, holding them in place with one hand as they pushed aside the vines and air roots with the other. The noise of the drops falling on metal made a strange discordant tinkling sound like a child randomly hitting the tones on a xylophone.

They continued to trudge through the mud, the air heavy with the smell from decaying plant matter. By the dim green light seeping in through the canopy Tomas could just make out banks of mist. Sometimes there was the flickering of marsh gas. So faint was this that he could see it only on the periphery of his vision. It seemed to populate this underworld with phantoms that stalked their small group. Every now and then monkeys would suddenly scream and flee gibbering through their aerial pathways.

The forest was always a malevolent place. When the Squad were far from their targets some atavistic instinct would make them bunch together; when they were tracking they spread out in a V formation, ten men strung out across 200 metres of forest. It was a times like that, when for minutes at a time the men adjacent to him had vanished, that Tomas' nerve had been most tested. Alone in the heart of this remorseless green hell he had felt intensely alone.

Joao, still covering his damaged eye, had been straggling along behind the group. As the men began to leap heavily over a turgid stream he let out a tremulous moan. Ernesto replied with a loud, sustained fart. Laughter broke the sullen spell and for a while seemed to ward off the menace of the forest. The men started to talk and joke and even crusty old Luiz brought out the canteen of medicinal rum.

Three of the younger men had been nudging each other and whispering. They began to walk a little faster and soon caught up with Tomas. Juan Vasquez, the oldest, his fat face a multicoloured blotch from his sweat-smeared camouflage paint, slapped Tomas hard on the shoulder. "You ever had a woman Tomasito‌" he mouthed in a mock whisper that could be heard in Columbia.

"Of course, don't be ridiculous," Tomas waved a hand dismissively but felt his face grow hot under the war paint. The Squad roared and clustered round him, banging on his makeshift helmet and goosing his backside. Tomas flinched and was steeling himself for one more variation on this well-worn joke when Luiz came to a sudden halt, lifting a hand for silence. Everyone froze. Above the jungle's usual cacophony came the sound of a large body of flowing water.

The men whooped and struck off in the direction of the river, Luiz in the lead with Tomas following closely and intent on getting as much distance between himself and the others as he could. They had barely gone ten metres when Luiz suddenly stopped with a yell. He seemed to stiffen, then his arms flew out from his sides and he spun drunkenly, the back of his left hand catching Tomas across the cheek.

Tomas yelped with surprise. Luiz crashed back against the trunk of a Juari palm but stayed upright. Tomas heard the soldiers behind him scramble for cover and he dropped into a crouch beside the palm. Close up against Luiz he felt the spasms running through the man's legs. Looking up he saw the man's eyes open very wide and a red line appear across his throat just above the level of his shoulders.

Tomas blinked with surprise but the spectacle wouldn't go away. The line grew to about five centimetres long then it opened like a mouth and a loop of bright red tissue began to poke its way through. Finger wide rivulets of blood started to flow down Luiz' neck and he shivered hard but stayed stationary as though pinned to the tree. Macabre gurgling sounds came from his mouth and his face was turning a deep red. Tears were filling his eyes.

Fascinated Tomas watched as the loop got bigger, then one end came suddenly free and the top six inches of tongue flopped forward onto Luiz' chest like some obscene necktie.

Tomas jumped to his feet and stepped back quickly just as there was a sound of ripping material to his left. Turning he saw Vasquez stagger out from behind a hirtella bush. He was slit from neck to groin, the great mass of yellow belly fat pushing his skin apart. Then Tomas gawped in horror as a torrent of red and purple guts and lungs cascaded out to be caught in Vasquez' own cupped hands. The man seemed almost to be weighing them, his face a mask of disbelief, then he toppled forward onto the forest floor.

Shots rang out and men screamed. Tomas, looking dazedly round for the source of the gunfire, heard the unmistakable sound of the spring release on a Claymore mine coming open. Twenty feet away he saw Ernesto suddenly stand upright and jerk his head round to look in terror at his own backpack. Then, with what sounded like a great wet cough, Ernesto's chest exploded showering Tomas with blood and fragments of cartilage that stung his face.

Tomas fell to the floor whimpering. He cringed, waiting for the soft thud of a bullet tearing through his own head. It seemed to take years for the cries and moans of the others to die away to silence. When at last he lifted his head there were no signs of life in the crumpled bodies around him. Then he caught sight of the flies already swarming over the length of Luiz' exposed tongue.

He stifled a scream with immense effort and began to reach out, as stealthily as he could, for Ernesto's aged M-16 which lay just three feet away, muzzle impaling the mud where it had been thrown by the blast. He had just eased it out when he caught sight of movement on the periphery of his vision. Joao had poked his head out from behind the trunk of a banana tree. They looked at each other in mute horror then Joao lurched out from behind the tree and dashed off through the forest towards the river. Tomas tensed, expecting a bullet or bomb to bring the man down, but nothing happened.

By the time Joao had disappeared from sight Tomas had already made up his mind. He would risk anything rather than remain alone in this jungle with the dead.

Casting aside the weapon, he got to his feet and ran for his life.



*****



CHAPTER 1



Langley, West Virginia


Leith cajoled the MGB into what passed for its top gear and incautiously floored the accelerator. He gritted his teeth as the clutch spun with a plaintive whine. Balefully he watched the tinny little Japanese number he had had pretensions of overtaking as it accelerated painlessly away. He could imagine his mechanic, a dour little man who specialised in automotive exotica suck hard through pursed lips then whistle sadly. "I got news for you Bobby boy, and its all bad."

The clutch had been telling him its problems for months but he hadn't listened. Now he was stuck with an ancient foreign car with a top speed of 40 miles an hour and getting slower every day.

He swung off the George Washington Parkway and leisurely headed up the tree-lined approach road to the main gate. The trees were a breathtaking flame red in the mid-autumn sun, and so changed from the lush summer greens that Leith imagined for a brief second he was on another planet. If the MGB had been operating properly he would be hitting seventy at this point and more concerned with avoiding the crazed multitudes that jogged to work than admiring the scenery. Maybe this way was the way to travel after all, he reflected. Slow and regal. But halfway down the drive his fingers had begun to tap at the steering wheel.

The black guard looked disdainfully at the hood of the mud stained MGB - then brought his eyes up to look at Leith without making any effort to alter his expression. Leith wafted his pass at him with what he hoped was a condescending air and took great pains not to spin the clutch as he drove into the parking lot of the most recent building on the twenty-one acre site.

Prising his big six-foot frame out of the driver's seat he started out across the lot vaguely aware of the motion-sensitive security cameras swivelling to follow him. He tried not to think about these or any of the other security measures he skated through each morning but somehow he never quite succeeded. It was like getting into a plane; thoughts of a crash would always be there somewhere.

Hidden cameras would have picked up the number plate on his car as he came down the approach road. The images would have been digitised and feature extraction algorithms applied to identify the plates. By the time his car had reached the main gate the dedicated transputer would have downloaded his image onto the guard's screen.

Here and at the other security points, the card key scan at the door to his building would have been alerted instantly if his face had not matched the expected image: then a series of countermeasures would have swung rapidly into action. Anti-tank and anti-personnel mines on the approach roads and sidewalks by the parking lots would have been armed. If he had made it into the building, gravity shutters like guillotines for giants would have sliced down, isolating him. Building Security guaranteed that the subject of any ID mismatch could not gain a further ten yards, no matter how fast or hard they moved.

After entering the building he made his way along the drab corridors to room 1G3 in the section occupied by the Records Integration Division. Nancy looked up from her monitors, smiled sadly and shook her head. Leith's sartorial inelegance always seemed to be a source of concern for her and she leaned forward across the desk to get a better look.

"My God, Bob. That crappy old cord jacket I'd learned to live with, but jeans! Give me a break!" She held her fingers to her brow and laughed lightly to herself.

She was in her late thirties, and had a thin, rather pale face with high cheekbones under a rigid bell of strawberry blond hair. She seemed, like Leith, contented with her lot. Perhaps recognising a kindred spirit, she would often spring to his defence when he was menaced by the slicker denizens of Langley.

He tried not to show any disappointment, though he knew now he had gone too far. The jeans were the final step in a carefully judged and stealthily actioned one-year plan to relax his own personal mode of dress. Getting into the CIA required neatness in dress and a permanent gloss of eagerness. Exceptions might be made if you were earmarked for deep cover in Afghanistan but that was about it. Advancement was unlikely without toeing the same line.

Leith had made sure he was as spick and span as the others at the interviews and induction course and had maintained a high level of spruceness throughout six months of training and the subsequent eighteen months of probation. By then it had become clear that he liked his job a lot and that any advancement would probably take him away from the fascinations of the Dataface.

There were only two things lacking: one of which was comfort, the other peace of mind. His strategy for achieving the former was simple. Suits and ties were gradually relegated to the back of his wardrobe, to be replaced by more casual shirts and jackets. He allowed his dark blond hair to grow a little longer and reduced the frequency with which he trimmed his centimetre-long beard. It had taken just over a year but he had always realised that going from cotton trousers, no matter how casual, to jeans would be a quantum leap.

"Thanks a lot Nancy. And a good day to you, too." He turned into his section's open plan office. Slattery, Morgan and DeMarco were already in and drinking coffee. Slattery had one slender hip perched on the library desk while the other two were sitting flicking through the latest delivery of newspapers. Seeing Leith, Slattery did a stylish double take then punched a hand into the air. "Yeeehah!" she yelled.

Morgan and DeMarco looked up from their papers. Catching sight of Leith they began to moan and grimace.

Slattery held out a long, delicate hand and the two men reached for their wallets. They made a big show of reluctance but eventually both crossed her palm with twenties. She straightened up, automatically smoothing out her tight black skirt, and walked towards Leith.

"What the fuck is going on‌?" he said, slowly and clearly.

Slattery smoothed out Leith's collar and smiled. He regarded this less as a sign of attraction than a put-down, even though he knew that women did find him attractive in a big and cuddly kind of way. Nevertheless, he liked being physically close to her for whatever reason. She was almost as tall as him and willowy. He guessed she was getting close to forty, but despite the twelve year age difference and her occasional frostiness, there was something about her which roused him. Perhaps it was the heady perfume she always wore.

"You just made me some money, honey." She brushed her hand across his shoulder as though removing dust then walked slowly towards her desk, wafting the bank notes between middle and forefingers.

"Thanks a bunch, Bob, " Morgan picked up the London Times. "Now my old lady ain't gonna get her cataract operation after all."

DeMarco crooked a finger at him. "Come here you frigging bear." He activated the library terminal and tapped in the section keyword as Leith came and stood behind him. He typed in a short code. The screen cleared, then came up with: "Sweep. Jeans Implementation Date". There were three names and three time periods of four days each. Leith noticed with dismay that the total time spread came to less than 20 days.

"Hey, Leith!"yelled Morgan. "What's big and hairy and about to reach escape velocity‌"

"Your ass," cried three voices in unison.

The laughter had died away by the time he'd poured himself a coffee.

"The thing I've always admired most about you people," he tapped out some Morse code on a sweetener dispenser, sending six little pills plummeting into the harsh brown liquid. "The thing that I most respect, is your flexibility of mind. You're all free spirits, unshackled by convention, emancipated from the rigid confines of a deadening conformity."

"Tongue job, tongue job," DeMarco was chanting.

Shaking his head, Leith carefully carried his coffee across to his desk.

Each desk occupied one of the quadrants around the central coffee table and library. The position of the desk in each quadrant was up to the occupiers: the absence of windows and the Faraday screening in the walls prevented any possibility of hostiles reading the contents of the terminal screens. Leith had moved his desk into the corner, the centre of the room at his back and to the left. On the desktop was a keyboard and flatscreen, with a second high definition display to the right. A dedicated server hummed quietly in a cabinet tucked below a window. Yellowed tables of common password formats and critical memory addresses were stuck to the wall with peeling tape. He rarely needed these nowadays, but had somehow never gotten round to taking them down.

He had positioned several pot plants on a small table beside his desk, the restful curtain of green gaining him some privacy. It also allowed him to survey the rest of the room without being detected, unless the others looked very closely. Despite being the butt of more than his fair share of office jokes, Leith prided himself on living with a level of paranoia well below what was considered 'normal' for Langley. He used the central screen almost exclusively as cover when scanning Slattery's rear as she bent over the coffee machine.

The only other personal object was a computer-generated image, printed out on a high-def laser printer and held in place with blue tack. It had the high structural density and real colour spectrum that made it look like a photograph: yet it lacked any recognisable form. It seemed to drive the fiercely analytical minds of the others to distraction, much to his delight.

The other desks in the room were as neat and clean as their occupiers. The only personal objects were a few tastefully posed photographs of the people they loved: Slattery's husband failing to look warm and open, DeMarco's kids nosing out of a swimming pool like a couple of dolphins wanting a feed, and an heroic picture of Morgan ascending a rock face in the Alleghenys. The overwhelming sense of normalcy the pictures projected bothered him on some deeply visceral level.

He tapped in the section's code then his personal number, checking the text carefully before hitting the 'ENTER' key. An error at this stage would lock out his terminal until clearance was obtained, requiring an embarrassing consultation between Security and Nevis, his boss. The server was wired up to a powerful mainframe housed elsewhere in Langley that pillaged the files and databases of most of the major computer systems in the world, but it could only do so by being connected with the various global data nets, making it vulnerable to hacking in turn: to prevent any such attempts, one false password to their systems isolated the line and activated a software trace.

Other security measures had to be negotiated. When Leith had joined, he had been required to provide ten personal questions and answers. One of these questions was randomly selected each time he logged on. This morning the computer seemed particularly concerned to know the colour of the toilet bowl in his house.

He had just gained access when he heard the door to the reception area open. Stan Nevis walked in and gave a brief wave to the three staff he could see. He heard Morgan say: "Good morning Stan," then saw DeMarco get hastily to his feet and collar Nevis before he disappeared into his office.

Nevis was only slightly taller than DeMarco, who claimed his compact frame to be the result of Sicilian stock. The Section head was not much older than Leith but radiated a sense of maturity beyond his years. He wore spectacles that were steel-rimmed but not overly severe, the dense black hair of his beard neatly trimmed and his dark suit well tailored but not flashy. Like the desk photos, there was an aura of wholesomeness about him that Leith found strangely oppressive.

DeMarco smiled and flicked a thumb over towards Leith's corner. Nevis' eyes narrowed slightly and he nodded. They exchanged a few more words, then Nevis went to his office. DeMarco returned to his seat, glancing once more in Leith's direction.

Leith sighed. This is where it begins, he thought.

He swiftly scanned his personal memo pages. There were a few responses to queries he had made to other sections the day before. He also found a couple of messages targeted on him by other RI staff who had found something they thought might interest him, but most of the stuff was the usual administrative crud that landed up in every electronic pigeon-hole.

His section dealt specifically with the detection and 'tagging' of American nationals living in the US who were suspected of working for Middle Eastern terrorist groups. The work breached the safeguards originally built into the CIA's charter, which had forbidden involvement in domestic intelligence operations. But back in the day Reagan had made sure the company could operate covertly within the US. Every President since had seen no need to rectify the situation, and 9/11 had sealed the deal for good.

Once the suspects had been unknowingly 'tagged', the full panoply of surveillance methods was brought into play. These ranged from communications interceptions by the NSA to eyeball observations by intelligence agents, or 'humint' as it was known.

Immigration would let in the occasional known or suspected terrorist and use him like a bait to catch the otherwise undetectable US cells. If the terrorist had connections with the Middle East all information regarding contacts, telephone calls, and every item of mail the suspect posted was intercepted and analysed and sent to Leith's section. Morgan dealt with the communist-backed terrorists, DeMarco the groups that could be clearly delineated as Muslim-run, Slattery with the Israeli and Christian groups. Leith, the new boy, got the Libyans who nowadays contributed pretty much zero to the overall terrorist actions originating from that part of the world. He also acted as a sweeper, getting the data on subjects operating in the nether regions of the terrorist realm, whose affiliations were not clear and whose motives remained a mystery.

He was listing his suspects for the day when he noticed Morgan sidling up to him. Nearly forty, he was of medium height with a weathered complexion from all his outdoor activities. He had removed his charcoal grey jacket and had rolled up the sleeves of his striped shirt. He placed a hairy forearm over Leith's shoulders and leant down to speak in his Iowa refined New England tones.

"Feel a burning sensation around the rim of your ass‌"

"Shafted. I know. What is it with that vicious little prick‌"

They both peered through the plants at DeMarco who shifted uneasily in his chair and glanced in their direction. The carefully greased curl which hung over his forehead twitched a couple of times, then DeMarco turned his brooding little face back to his work.

"Haemorrhoids," diagnosed Morgan. He slapped Leith on the arm. "Its something that could happen to you too, what with your sedentary lifestyle."

Leith nodded his head. "Yeah, yeah. The climbing contest this weekend. I already told you I'm coming."

"And climbing‌"

"I'm there to watch."

"But you said..."

Leith held up a hand. "I know what I said, but it's been so long. Something gentle maybe. And low. Low is important."

"Fine. I'll pick you up at six."

"Six‌?"

"A.M," Morgan said over his shoulder as he walked away.

Leith groaned, already regretting the moment of bravado when, after a number of beers, he had agreed to go climbing. He turned back to the keyboard and chose a name from the list at random. "Avril Perlman, This Is Your Life," he murmured as his fingers flickered across the keys.

The IRS and Social Security databases had been unofficially available to the NSA, and hence the company, since 1968. Criminal records could be got from the FBI computers and from police departments at state, city and county levels. The CIA already had a database on virtually all US nationals, almost all the information culled from these sources, its own investigations adding only marginally to the knowledge store.

But this could provide only a basis for a full search. The IRS and Social Security rarely yielded more than background or corroborative support once a cell member had been identified. Criminal records were only useful for known criminals. Recruiting grounds for terrorist groups were usually in the colleges and universities, in the restaurants and bars, and at the high school dance. It was amongst the unsuspected, those who had no police records and had belonged to no political party, that the terrorists searched most avidly for support.

The NSA had recognised this problem early on in the Electronic Revolution and had started to recruit battalions of graduates skilled in the then-burgeoning art of information technology. Leith knew that people like him had dramatically widened the company's scope for searches. In theory, all information in banks and credit houses, airline travel computers and even hospitals could be obtained under the catchall cry of 'national security', but the process was time consuming and had to be justified at all sorts of judicial levels. So much noise got generated that the suspect was often alerted.

Any form of data storage that used a computer and was connected to a telephone line could be hacked. Security codes were cracked with a wide range of techniques, and trapdoors planted in the operating systems so that access could be facilitated in future. Over the years his job had become easier, as the company infiltrated the larger hardware and software manufacturers, planting secret access identifiers inside their products.

He rarely came across a non-standard computer or operating system that had never been breached before. On those few treasured occasions he would bring out his own software tool kit to hack his way in. The tools, small programs that attacked the system directly or eavesdropped on other users accessing the system legitimately, were known affectionately by the IT professionals as 'dataworms'. Unfortunately, in the early days this piece of information had been verbally hacked from one of the IT staff by some old lag of a field agent. The tag had become forever associated with the hackers themselves.

There was little love lost between the two groups. Hired as scientists, the Information Technologists were better paid and didn't have to undergo the Junior Officer Training Course. They had never had to experience the horrors of Camp Peary out past Williamsburg, the notorious 'farm', tales of which were recounted with relish by company staff who would never have to suffer it again.

The hackers were always encouraged to broaden their perspectives by keeping up to date with news and politics. Internal CIA updates gave succinct summaries of national and international events, all in the hope of jogging memories into correlating apparently unrelated events.

In his few years with the CIA, Leith had seen the organisation shift like some ponderous leviathan, its sights realigning on the problems posed first by the drug cartels and then by Arabic fundamentalist terrorists once the threat from the Soviets had diminished. A fresh series of airplane bombings and wave of assassination attempts against Drug Enforcement agents and their families within the US had recently become a major focus.

A beeping sound told him that the automated sweep on Perlman's public files had borne fruit. She was the fourteenth contact of his present target, a Lebanese diplomat called Hammad. The two had met at a Washington dinner party. All the guests were being tagged.

Just as the first text started to appear, the phone rang.

"I'd be grateful for a minute of your time, Bob," Nevis said, his voice calm and measured.

Nevis steepled his fingers together and brought them up to his face until his chin rested on his thumbs, his nose against his forefingers.

It was a pose familiar to Leith: something the man invariably adopted when deep in thought. It gave him an odd, almost votive appearance. The man was an active Christian in a solid but thankfully undemonstrative way, and Leith wondered what had happened to his values and perspectives when he came to work. They were maintainable only so far, after which patriotism mandated a much more earthy pragmatism.

His staff broke laws and abused civil rights, yet Nevis seemed to be able to reconcile this with his Christian tenets. Leith was fond of remarking to the others that Nevis probably spent each night so locked in the horns of multiple moral dilemmas that he must toss and turn, desperately trying to construct a convoluted rationale for his actions, like some hellfire-damned eighteenth century preacher caught abed with the servant. But privately, Leith was sure this grossly underestimated the subtlety and complexity of Nevis' mind. He also wondered how many of his own problems he was projecting onto the man.

Nevis' office was spacious but austere, with the inevitable photographs of his family in studied poses outside their church. The files and papers on his desk were regularly spaced, without any overlap and with all their sides within two degrees of the vertical or horizontal. He was sitting forward in a high-backed black leather swivel chair. Behind him, rimmed by a thin frame of gold-plated metal, hung a black and white photo of McCone, the Director appointed by Kennedy who had first steered the company's emphasis away from the clandestine and towards the analytical.

Nevis waved a hand at the chair in front of the desk. "Take a seat, Bob. How's things‌"

Here we go, thought Leith. Nevis would always start reprimands obliquely, then suddenly change tack and zoom right in.

"Fine. How's Joan and the kids‌" Leith heard himself reply and instantly regretted it.

Nevis told him. Leith didn't listen.

"I hear you've been having problems with your car."

"Its the clutch. Shot to hell."

"The car's pretty old. Ever thought of getting a new one‌"

"I never felt the need. Besides, it still works."

Nevis pursed his lips. "Not really."

"Look, you wanted to see me about something," said Leith irritably.

Nevis smiled, but only slightly and without humour.

"You're something of a problem to me, Bob."

Good, thought Leith, who always relished piercing Nevis' aura of rectitude. Despite the man's emotional control a tiny hint of smugness sometimes managed to sneak its way out.

"For your sake, Bob, I'm going to do some straight talking. I want to make it quite clear where I think you stand, so that you'll understand my decisions regarding your future activities." Leith at Sup a little. It seemed a heavy start for what he had assumed would be a mild reprimand.

"You're a smart guy, Bob. Your latest virus is a work of art. You're a good hacker and you've led the way in automating search protocols." Nevis paused and Leith's heart sank. Nevis had given him the upside first, as any professional man-manager would. He decided to try and preempt the more painful downside.

"Hey look, Stan. If it's about these jeans ..."

Nevis waved a hand dismissively. "I'm not worried about the jeans, Bob. They mean nothing to me. But they are a symptom of how you feel. Rightly or wrongly, neatness is considered significant in this organisation and a kind of unstated dress code has sprung up. But if you were a real hot shot, frankly, nobody would give a damn how you dressed." Nevis shook his head sadly.

"Trouble is, I see no ambition in you. You don't dress well and you make no other attempts to impress senior staff. Your actual searches are adequate but uninspired and, let's face it, the project work may be interesting and ultimately useful, but it's the searches that are the main reason for our existence."

Nevis hesitated. Leith knew from experience that the length of Nevis' hesitation was in direct proportion to the seriousness of what he was about to say. Leith swallowed, waiting.

"I also sense a certain ... uneasiness in you. As though you find the work unsettling in some ways."

Leith shifted in his seat, feeling like a schoolkid. He stared at his scuffed loafers and suddenly felt conscious of the hair creeping over his shirt collar, of his unkempt beard and his ancient jacket. Then he rallied.

He stared Nevis directly in the eye. "Are you telling me I'm canned, Stan‌"

Nevis waved his hand. "Relax, Bob. Like I said -" was there perhaps a gentle reproach in the emphasis on the last verb‌ "- even at your worst, you're still adequate. But I think you're capable of a lot more, and it behoves me to get the best out of my staff. That's what management is all about.

"I'm going to give you my assessment of your work attitude. You can rebut it if you wish. After that I'm going to detail what'll happen next."

Nevis picked up a pen and tapped it lightly on the desk a few times. "What it comes down to, Bob, is that you regard the work you do as a kind of intellectual game, something for which you do occasionally show real passion. But you've led a sheltered life ... " again he held up a hand to still Leith. "Sure you broke a few windows as a kid, smoked dope, dropped the occasional tab of acid, but other than that kind of minor stuff you've spent your whole life in safe institutions. First school, then college and then graduate school. You came straight from there into this rarefied environment. You've come face to face with nothing really bad in your life, and I think that's the problem. Your work here impacts hard on hundreds of people out in the real world. For the sake of national security, it has to." He gave a little smile. "I'm sure you appreciate what I'm saying in an intellectual sense, but I don't think you really understand what it means on a deeper level."

Leith was lost for a reply. He hated arguments that implicitly undermined the validity of any response he made. It would sound like a man blind from birth arguing that sight wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

"You need to broaden your perspective, Bob. What I'm suggesting is simple and not without precedent. I want you to start following through on some of the cases, not from a terminal screen but from out there in the field. Find out what your work really means. I'll authorise your expenses." Nevis smiled. "Up to a point, of course. It can come out of the training budget. We'll start the next time one of your cases looks like leading somewhere. I'll even help cover your work while you're away from Langley."

Leith raised his eyebrows in surprise. Maybe this didn't sound so bad after all. Travel ... Fieldwork ... it could make a pleasant change. Nevis was not underemployed, so his offer of cover was a generous one. On top of that he'd have to do a lot of wheel greasing with the law enforcement people. Against such a sacrifice, a refusal would appear churlish.

"I appreciate what you're trying to do Stan and, in an intellectual sense," he smiled, "I understand why you're trying to do it. I think you're wrong but I'll try anything once."

"I think you may be in for a surprise, Bob," said Nevis, smiling and looking a little relieved.



*****



INTERCUT 1



Las Vegas, Nevada


Scipio's hired Lear jet began its descent over the Painted Desert, the Twin-turbofan's reassuring hum changing for the first time in several hours. Bari watched the desert as it sped by below them, its myriad colours washed away by the approaching sunset. The low light made the desert appear tiger-striped as small ridges blocked the garish red rays of the sun, casting deep black shadows.

His eyes darted quickly to the door to the cockpit as it opened. The stewardess carefully manoeuvred herself into the cabin, then began to collect up the glasses and food trays.

She smiled at Scipio who had paid her scant attention despite her obvious charms. He's getting old, thought Bari: too comfortable, too mellow. The Stew leaned down towards Scipio, her pert little ass almost in Rossi's face. Rossi turned and grinned back at Bari.

"The captain says we'll be landing in five minutes time, Mr. Scipio," she said in a drawling Southern accent. "You should get a clear view of Boulder Dam out the port side."

Bari watched Scipio turn his head with some difficulty to the window. Weighing nearly three hundred pounds, multiple chins made his neck seem impossibly thick. The back of Scipio's head always reminded Bari of an albino hedgehog, the way the hair was short and white and spiky.

He smiled to himself and glanced across at Rossi. The big, homely man, his smile as wide as a knife-slash, was still ogling the Stew as she strapped herself in. Bari wondered how he could manage to be so relaxed with the big Colt Python rucking up under his armpit for the last few hours.

Bari had laughed at him back in Pittsburgh when the Lear had been rolled out of the hangar. The burly man had had trouble bending down to kiss his kids good-bye because of the length of the gun's barrel. Hope, Rossi's amiable broad-beamed wife, had smiled regardless, but Frances had been embarrassed and had punched Bari's arm to try and keep him quiet.

Bari always managed to embarrass her, which was gratifying; it was something he worked hard at. Their mutual irritation was something they both hated but perversely missed when they were separated. After he had laughed at the airport she had tried to annoy him by suppressing her own aggravation, and even managing a reasonable facsimile of a smile as he waved good-bye.

He wondered what kind of monkey business she would try and get up to while he was away. She was an attractive woman, her girlish face, ample breasts and slender hips making an irresistible combination. Even before the plane had started to move she had turned back to the cars, her walk already changed so that her ass was swinging like a pendulum. He had gritted his teeth but had taken some comfort from the difficulties he knew she would face.

Nobody they knew would touch her. They wouldn't dare.

Bari's own Smith and Wesson snub, also a .35 but smaller and lighter and with an awesome muzzle blast, had become uncomfortable enough during the flight. After the first hour he had decided to take it out of its shoulder holster and lay it on the seat beside him, but Scipio had seen him reach under his jacket.

"Hey, what the fuck you think you're doing?‌" he had asked in his heavy muffled tones.

"The damn things chaffing me. I was just taking it out."

Scipio was not a seasoned traveller. Both he and his large family seemed to find all they needed out of life within a twenty mile radius of Pittsburgh. "Just leave it the fuck alone. I ain't gonna be sucked out through no tiny hole if one of the damn things goes off," he'd pointed at Rossi's armpit, "especially that fucking thing. What d'ya need a howitzer for anyway‌? There ain't no elephants in Vegas."

Rossi's broad peasant face had taken on a comically aggrieved look. "Hey come on, Mr. Scipio. You've been trying to frighten the shit out of us for weeks," he tapped his left armpit, "and this is the heaviest piece of artillery we're allowed. Believe me, it isn't called the Rolls Royce of Revolvers for nothing. Besides, my nephew wouldn't let me borrow his slingshot." He had smirked back at Bari.

"Shut the fuck up," Scipio had turned away, but Bari could imagine him chewing his lip and frowning like he always did when he was nervous.

Bari looked back out the window and saw the lights of Vegas. They were spread out like a galaxy of stars below the descending plane with the two supernovae of Downtown and The Strip dominating the view. Closer he could resolve the individual buildings into towers and domes and minarets bathed in false starshine.

The landing was smooth and without the stacking delays so common at larger airports. A stretch limo was waiting for them as the Lear taxied up to the private hangars. While Scipio and his adviser, the ancient but dapper Carlotti, boarded the limo, Rossi supervised the loading of the suitcases. Bari checked out the driver, inspecting the man's covering letter from Bonham. He looked up when he heard Rossi cursing.

"Jesus Christ. It's like a fucking oven." This was Rossi's first time in the desert. "It must be in the fucking 90's."

Bari returned the driver's credentals and walked back round the car to Rossi, clapping him on the shoulder. "You should try it at midday," he said. "The place has been cooling down for hours!"

Rossi shook his head and glanced across at the back seat of the limo to check the window was down. He looked back at Bari. "I never seen Scipio so nervous. It worries me."

Bari lightly touched the area round his armpit to check that the bulge of the gun wasn't too apparent. It was a natural gesture for him, like checking his zip after taking a leak. "You're getting soft, soldier," he patted Rossi's stomach and mimed finding soft yielding fat. "Too much pasta."

Rossi knocked his hand away and made an obscene gesture. Bari laughed, and they climbed into the limo's air-conditioned embrace.

The limo left the airport and took them the short distance to the first maelstrom of light. Rossi stared open-mouthed at the garish neon displays that were scarcely diminished by the limo's tinted glass. A couple of hundred yards after Caesar's Palace the limo took a right into Springs Drive, then after a few yards turned right again into the driveway of the Crusader.

Bari had heard a lot about The Crusader but hadn't visited it before. It was the sixtieth and most recent major casino to be built in Las Vegas, though it was not due to open to the public for another month. Rising ten storeys into the black night, its neon tapestry as yet unlit, it was made up of two hotel wings flanking the central gaming area which was built into the bullet-shape of a huge Crusader's helmet. The base of the helmet occupied an area the size of a baseball field.

In common with two of the other casinos it had been constructed, rather exotically, with Australian racket money, and was owned by a character called Bonham. Bonham had taken it upon himself to act as the host and mediator at the forthcoming meeting. If necessary he had the resources to act as its policeman.

A makeshift security gate had been positioned across the drive and the guards took great care in checking out the four men, before waving them on to the entrance thirty yards further up. By the time they reached it Bonham was waiting to meet them.

The man was tall and slender with sun-bleached hair and a heavy tan. His dark suit was immaculately tailored, the face above it heavily lined but handsome. Bari thought he could have cut a distinguished figure but for his relaxed, almost slouching pose. To Bari it seemed too casual, too studied.

"Good to see you, Mr. Scipio, my name's Bonham," he said as he shook Scipio's hand, his face breaking into a broad grin. "Welcome to Nevada's newest and most splendid casino." He nodded quickly at the others and took Scipio's arm, leading him into the helmet's mouth. The three men followed, leaving an army of uniformed flunkeys to unload and search their luggage.

A golden portcullis marked the entrance to the casino and the start of the heat screen. Hidden blowers blasted the entrance with cold air and made Bari shiver as he crossed the abrupt boundary. The 'mouth' was a circular room about twenty yards across, with two exits at the rear separated by twenty feet. Guarding each exit were two twelve foot high Crusaders, immobile with hands resting on sword hilts. Covered in chain mail, they both wore white tunics decorated with the red cross and some heraldic symbols. Bari, smiling at such a prime example of Las Vegas kitsch, tugged at Rossi who had stopped to gawp.

Bonham had his arm round Scipio's shoulders like they were already pals. Seeing them from behind, the contrast was unsettling. Bonham, tight and neat, besides Scipio's dough-boy figure, the broad expanse of his light brown jacket a mess of creases from the flight. Bonham shepherded him towards the entrance to the main gaming room which was blocked off with sumptuous plum coloured drapes.

As Bonham and Scipio came within ten feet of the drapes the statue to the left drew its six-foot sword in one smooth motion and turned to look at the two men. Its mouth began to move.

"Nay gentlefolk, do not enter here. 'Tis a garden of filthy heathen delights, ripe with forbidden fruit." The rich theatrical tones echoed in the sudden frozen silence.

The other statue waved a hand dismissively then said in a broad Texan accent: "Don't you worry none about this old fuddy-duddy folks. You go right in and have yourselves a ball." At this the first crusader sheathed his sword and the drapes parted. Scipio stood stock-still, and it took Bonham a second or two to get him back up to speed, but he finally got him through.

Bari stayed close enough to hear Bonham explain about the statues. Motion sensors, voice synthesisers, stuff like that. He said the Laurel and Hardy dialogue was the best, and perhaps they might catch it later.

The main gaming area was carpeted in a vast sea of yellow, and decorated in the Las Vegas conception of a Turkish harem motif. Amongst several warehouse loads of drapes and cushions, a series of animatronic grottos depicted lurid little scenes of wickedly grinning saracens and weeping slave girls. Bari could imagine when the floor would be full of bleak-eyed gamblers being served by comely wenches in filmy harem trousers and truncated shifts. And the waiters and croupiers, would they be dressed like eunuchs?‌ How far would they let the illusion go‌?

Above, in the huge vaulted space below the crown of the helmet, was a child's version of the heavens. Thousands of five-pronged golden stars, like something straight off Marshall Dillon's chest, hung interspersed with a few larger rotating planets. Now and again a comet would streak across the sky, leaving behind a tail of smoke and flame.

Something wasn't quite right, but it took him a second or two before he realised the planets were a little too evenly distributed. He guessed these held the 'Eyes in the Sky' intended to monitor the gamblers.

Most of the ornamentation was on the peripheries, below the mammoth video screens, some of which had been turned on for the benefit of the present guests. They showed sporting events beamed live via satellite from all over the world. At the moment several screens showed horse races, one showed a Sumo bout, another a kick boxing event and another an Irish shinty game. Superimposed in the bottom left hand corner of the live ones were a list of odds and form data for each event. In the centre of the circular room was a raised dais with a hundred or so terminals where gamblers would insert their credit cards to place their bets.

Fanning out from this central island was one-and-a-half acres of gaming tables and slot machines, all of them unused. The video screens had their sound turned down and a heavy silence hung over the man-made cavern.

It reminded Bari uncomfortably of a cathedral.

"Have you ever seen anything like this before‌?" Rossi whispered in awe.

Bari smiled and nodded his head. "This is par for Vegas. Check out Circus Circus or Caesar's Palace if you get a chance."

Bonham kept Scipio at the top of the staircase and they talked for a few more minutes, Scipio laughing occasionally. Then they turned to the others who had held back at a respectful distance. Scipio was smiling and appeared relaxed for the first time since Pittsburgh.

"Mr. Steiner will show you to your rooms now," the flunky beside Bari bowed. "Las Vegas is at your disposal but if you don't want to leave the hotel, room service will be glad to provide you with anything you wish."

His smile broadened slightly. "Now I'm sure your lieutenants will want to inspect the security arrangements at some stage. Just get reception to bleep Steiner when you're ready."

"What about the Scumbos‌?" Rossi clearly hadn't succumbed to Bonham's charm.

Bonham's smile was tighter this time. "Our Hispanic friends are staying in the East Wing, you and the other participants in the West. There are secure entrances in each block. You won't see a sign of them until you all meet tomorrow at ten."

He shook Scipio's hand. "Pleased to meet you, Frank. I hope your stay here is enjoyable and fruitful, but if there are any problems don't hesitate to contact me."

The drapes parted again as Bonham led the way back into the lobby.

Scipio and his entourage had two corridors on the fifth floor to themselves. His suite was central with a suite for Carlotti on one side and one for the bodyguards on the other. After they had swept the rooms for bugs and explosive devices, Bari left Rossi to take the first watch while he went to check the security arrangements in the rest of the complex.

Each wing was well guarded and strictly isolated from the other. The floors of the wings consisted of four corridors but all the fire doors at two opposed corners had been welded shut, effectively splitting each floor into two separate compartments. The doors to the fire stairs on each level were electronically monitored and alarm bells would alert the bodyguards on all the floors if any were opened. There was a bank of three elevators in each of the compartments and an additional electronic display had been hard-wired into the elevators control panel. Now a bodyguard, stationed where the two corridors met, could tell from a distance of thirty yards the positions of all three elevator cars. By turning his head he could check the corridor where his charge was residing as well as getting a clear view of the exit to the fire stairs.

There was a second reason for the elaborate security, other than to keep the two sides apart. It was to minimise the chances of old scores being settled within each camp. After all, the heads of the ten major families would all be staying under the same roof: some carried more than three generations of bad blood with them.

Steiner had shown Bari the arrangements for the next day's conference. It was to be held in the antechamber to the casino's strongroom, which lay directly beneath the dais in the centre of the main gaming floor. This would be where the money was counted when the casino was up and running. It had only one entrance.

Bari was allowed to inspect the conference room. Tomorrow morning, one of the bodyguards would be allowed to accompany his boss and would take up residence in the approach corridor while his boss went into the conference room with his consilieri. All would be searched. Only the bodyguards would be allowed a single non-automatic weapon. Once the conference room door was closed, the bodyguards would stay in the entrance corridor. Four TV cameras monitored the room and displayed the scenes without sound to the corridor. Nobody knew how long the conference would last, but few expected it to take less than a week to agree even on the basis of a deal. Breaks would occur every four hours to allow the bodyguards to change over and the bosses to have private consultations and get something to eat.

The security arrangements were about as good as they could be in the circumstances. Bari at last nodded his reluctant approval and returned to his room.

*

The next morning Bari stared blearily at his reflection in the mirror. Scipio had insisted they stay in the hotel and had not allowed them any company - much to their displeasure. Instead of a pliable Vegas hostess, Rossi had drawn the back shift and had spent the night on guard at the corridor junction.

Despite the sumptuous bed, Bari had not slept well. He brushed back his thick black hair and applied aftershave to his cheeks. He narrowed his dark brown eyes and checked out a lop-sided grin and a few other slightly vulnerable expressions that seemed to turn the chicks to putty. Not bad! He was about six foot two and weighed just under one hundred and eighty pounds. He moved slightly, getting a better perspective: broad shoulders, narrow hips, hard little ass. Women had never been a problem.

There was a single rap at the door and Scipio entered without waiting for a reply. He waddled over to one of the Arab motif divans and flopped down on the thick lilac cushions. His bulk sent two tsunamis rolling out across the surface of the divan. Bari looked at him in the mirror and Scipio stared right back. Bari continued his ablutions.

Scipio grimaced. "Boy, you love that fuckin' mirror, don't you‌?"

Bari cast a weary eye over at him. "Only thing worth looking at round here." He started to put on his tie.

Scipio smiled indulgently. The man had always been his godfather and uncle. But when Bari was ten, their relationship had changed.

It came back to him in his dreams, regularly, inexorably. Sent back to fetch a toy for his baby sister, the car exploding, tumbling him, his back hard against the sun and melting in the heat. Scipio, always there in the weeks that followed, holding his hand, caring and cajoling in turn, until the burns and his other agonies began to heal. The dream always reminded him of the unspoken vow of loyalty he had made on the day his adoption became official.

The bombing had been a long time ago and the people who had been responsible had been his own kind. Matters had been sorted out internally, privately. Not like this.

Scipio shifted his bulk and picked at a nail. "You reckon the arrangements are O.K?‌" he asked for the fourth time since they had arrived. Bari didn't mind. He adjusted the knot of his tie.

"Ordinarily, no. We're not in control of this and that makes me very nervous. But I just can't see how it could have been arranged otherwise. All of us packed into that room and corridor ... It's like a grenade with the pin pulled out, one uncool move and it'll be a bloodbath but ..." he didn't bother to finish as he pulled on his jacket.

" ... but," Scipio finished for him, " we have our hostages so nobody's gonna do anything."

Scipio would be thinking of Frank Junior, at present under guard in God knows what dive in Pittsburgh, while Cartago's kid languished under the care of Bernie and his men in a lonely cabin ten miles out of Williamsport. Scipio hadn't liked it at all, but there had been too much pressure from the other families.

Scipio's and Cartago's people had been blowing each other away for a decade now. There had been uneasy truces for brief periods, but always disputes about territory would brew up another shitstorm. Bari had often been in the thick of it, carrying out a couple of hits on Cartago's key people, planning others. Helping Scipio when one of his other sons was lost in reciprocal action.

Bari knew this kind of thing had been mirrored in big cities throughout the States. The Mafia had had a virtual monopoly over organised crime for more than a century, apart from the first small incursions from the blacks and hispanics back in the sixties. These had been more or less tolerated because they were insignificant, and strictly confined to their own ghettos.

The Columbians had started to become a force in the Seventies but had not seriously infringed on Mob territory until the Eighties. Even that business in Columbia, when half the world had sent in troops to clear out the bandits, even that hadn't worked. The Scumbos had just switched their operations to the surrounding countries. Columbia had once been theirs and it had made life too easy for them. Then, when it had been taken away they had had to become smarter and that had made life difficult for the Families. The war between them had been relentless, weakening both sides and losing them ground to the Triads and the newer Hispanic and West Indian groups.

The ruthlessness of the Columbians was legendary but the Mob had nonetheless been unprepared for the response to an altercation over supply rights to the barrios of East LA. In one fierce, long night, three generations of LA's top Family had been wiped out. Only one granddaughter, a seven year old, had survived as a paraplegic after surgeons removed a .38 calibre bullet from her shattered spine. Twenty-two men, women and children met their deaths in four heavily guarded houses spread around the Greater LA area.

The heat generated had been immense, initiating a massive law enforcement initiative against the Columbian gangs. It seemed to have brought them to their senses. They had sued for peace. At the Vegas meeting, the Columbians and the Mafia were to settle territories and coordinate actions against the other groups.

Bari finished dressing and checked his watch. They were due at the conference room in ten minutes. Arrival times had been staggered over thirty minutes to minimise contact between protagonists from the same city.

Scipio looked up at Bari and sighed. Cartago and his men had become a solid force in Pittsburgh and it was likely that Scipio would be pressured into surrendering both territory and scope of operations for the sake of a greater peace. Scipio might hold his own against the Mob or the Colombians, but not both together.

Bari took one last look check for lint on his dark blue sports jacket and black cotton trousers. He made one final adjustment to his tie and opened the door, waving to Rossi who returned the sign for OK. Carlotti blue veins visible under the greying flesh of his temple, joined them as they walked towards Rossi. Bari tried to smile encouragingly at Scipio.

By the time they reached the strongroom area almost half the delegates had arrived. Bari watching from the doorway saw Scipio take his seat with Carlotti standing in attendance behind him. Then he turned to find his own seat amongst the other capos.

The corridor was not wide. The two rows of men sitting on either side left little room for newcomers. Passing by in single file they had to dip their heads to avoid the bank of TV monitors that hung from a gantry just in front of the conference room. The corridor looked fresh and new and smelled of paint.

He recognised some of the others on his side of the corridor. He nodded to these then turned to stare at the scumbags. Cartago and Vaupes had not yet arrived.

Everyone sat in silence for another ten minutes, glancing frequently up at the monitors. Cartago and Vaupes entered at 9:55. Cartago reminded him of a cornerstore Hispanic, the kind of unassuming businessman who would walk ten miles on an ice-cold morning to avoid trouble. Which just showed how wrong you could be. He shuffled between the two lines of soldiers without raising his head.

Vaupes didn't look the part either. Columbians were supposed to be languid and indolent, with lazy eyes that needed a sinus full of powder before they would light up. Especially those from the Caribbean coast, blacker with a funny kind of slurring accent. But not Vaupes, Barranquilla boy that he was, not that vicious wind-up toy who strutted and marched like something out of a bad martial arts movie.

Bari found the little stick- man absurd and he hated him. In common with most of the Mob he had no great respect for other races and was not used to being shown contempt by them. Yet this filthy little spic looked at him like he was a nigger.

After Cartago had been safely installed, Vaupes came back to sit opposite Bari and immediately locked eyes with him. Bari's stomach churned and he burned to get his hands on Vaupes' bird-like neck, but instead he beamed and waved. Vaupes jerked back and whispered a few harsh syllables under his breath. Gratified, Bari reached into his inside pocket, seeing Vaupes stiffen and jerk a little monkey arm to the jacket of his grey business suit. Bari casually withdrew his cigarette packet and smirked. Vaupes looked like his arteries had imploded.

Bonham, his back to the corridor, was saying something to the meeting. Then he backed out, closing the door behind him, leaving it unlocked. He nodded to the soldiers and made his way quickly to the exit. Some of his men, armed with automatic weapons, would wait outside, ensuring no one else got into the basement area.

Bari checked the screens and noted a vacant seat on the Mob side of the long table. He didn't need to catalogue all the other faces to work out who was missing. Firï from Chicago was a fiercely proud and independent man. He was never going to make a deal with anybody. It was a brave gesture, but also stupid and a waste.

The meeting started. He could hear nothing but he guessed that the New York contingent would be spelling out the meeting protocol. It would be either this afternoon or tomorrow, when they got down to specific cases, that things would start to liven up.

Coffee was brought in at eleven o'clock. The Scumbos kept a wary silence, but one or two of the white guys struck up guarded conversations with their neighbours. Bari exchanged a few words with the dark little man called Fredericks on his left. Baseball and fishing, nothing important.

The morning wore on until nobody was bothering to hide their boredom. Nails had been inspected, rings toyed with, trousers smoothed, legs crossed and uncrossed, again and again and again. A crushing sense of gloom and frustration seemed to descend and Bari started to count down the minutes to the two o'clock lunch. He stopped thinking about life and work because it was all tainted by the man opposite who had spent the last two hours trying to psych him out with his baleful stare. Memory just brought more of that anger which was agony to contain.

With an almost palpable sense of relief he saw a speck of dust on his trousers down by the knee. He pounced on it, pincering it between thumb and forefinger, lifting his forearm like a crane, swivelling it until it was well clear of his body, then dropping the speck into the void between him and Fredericks.

He sighed. It had been over too quickly. He glanced across at the sneering Vaupes then up at the monitors.

To his surprise he saw Cartago rising to his feet, speaking and gesticulating angrily. He swept one arm round to indicate his side of the table then, teeth bared, he stabbed a finger out to point at Scipio. Instantly, as though by magic, a round little hole appeared in the middle of Cartago's forehead and he flopped backwards onto his chair, his head hanging loosely to one side.

Bari blinked once and felt all the air whoosh out of his lungs. He looked quickly across at Vaupes who, probably alerted by gasps from the others, was turning to look up at the monitor.

Time went weird, seconds wracking out into hours. Bari's hand seemed to be pushing its way through treacle as he shoved it into his jacket, groping for his gun. Tipping the safety catch with his forefinger, he felt the roughness of the hammer nudge against his thumb. The Scumbo's eyes were widening like something out of a cartoon, then he was grabbing for his own weapon.

Bari's options evaporated. Cartago's shooting had come as a big surprise but that was too much information to convey in a few hundredths of a second. He drew the gun, cocking the hammer as it cleared his lapel, and fired point blank into Vaupes' chest.

The little man jerked back as though startled by the gun's terrible noise. But there was no blood, no spatter across the wall behind despite the full power load.

Alarmed and unsatisfied, Bari controlled the bouncing gun and brought it down to fire at the centre of Vaupes forehead. Snatched too quickly, but it didn't matter. Vaupes caught it in his left eye, half his head vanishing in an instant.

The corridor reverberated with the blasts from the Smith and Wesson. Everyone was on their feet. For a split second, Bari felt naked and vulnerable as his cupped hands were jerked up above head level by the gun's recoil. The Columbian opposite Fredericks already had a gun in his hand. The Spic took one quick step forward, shoved his gun under Bari's raised arms and fired twice into his chest.

It was like being hit by ball bearings the weight of medicine balls. Staggering back, he tripped over his chair and fell to the floor but had enough sense left to roll on to his front. He closed his eyes as the war raged over him, the loud crashes of discharging firearms echoing off the walls in an almost continual roar. Several times he felt liquid spatter across his hands and face. His chest ached like hell and he was grateful. It meant his vest, hi-tech chainmail, had held.

The fusillade of shots continued, the corridor becoming thick with the reek of gunsmoke. Centuries came and went before the last sporadic shots died away. Hating the time it took, dodging thoughts of Scipio, Bari slowly cracked open his right eye. He was facing down the corridor away from the conference room. He saw only twitching, moaning bodies tangled up together like for a full-dress orgy.

A fraction at a time he rolled his head to the left, opening his eye in a narrow slit. Only Fredericks was still standing. He swayed slightly and Bari saw three powder burns across his jacket. Vests had been standard issue, he thought.

Fredericks' eyes were wide with shock and terror, and he was back hard against the wall. His knuckles were bright white against his olive skin as both hands clenched his gun.

For a second Bari was perplexed. If he so much as opened his mouth Fredericks would shoot him out of reflex. How long before Bonham's men burst in?‌ Minutes, if they had any sense.

Just then, fast as a cobra striking, a Scumbo lying at Fredericks' feet jerked up his gun hand and fired into the man's groin. Fredericks yelled, a muscle spasm lifting him a foot into the air. The Columbian flicked up his second hand to steady the first, firing up at where Frederick's jaw met his neck.

Fredericks, suddenly boneless, collapsed like a rag doll onto the Columbian's legs; blood and brains dripped from the ceiling onto both of them. The Columbian kicked and scrambled his way out from under, flicking his gun around the room looking for signs of life.

Bari counted to thirty. Maybe someone else was playing possum. Then he waited until the Scumbo stole a glance at the monitors: thanking God he was left handed, he raised the gun and fired into the back of the man's head.

Even before the Scumbo had hit the floor, Bari was up and running. No time for the monitors, or for anything bar rushing the door and smashing it open with his momentum. Rolling, he came up into a firing position.

Bodies; piles of them, covering floor and table. No sound, no movement. He shuffled back to get a solid wall behind him. Dropping down to check under the table, he saw only death.

He gulped hard when he made out Scipio's spiky white hair resting in a pool of blood under the table. He sagged against the wall and felt like he was going to vomit.

When it came, the shot was so loud it felt like it was in his ear. It seemed to catch him a glancing blow, whipping his head round on his neck, suddenly making everything dark. 'Up' and 'down' shifted and stretched. There was no surprise when his face hit something hard and flat.

As if in a dream, he struggled to bring up a spastic hand to feel the back of his battered head. Instead of a carpet of thick hair, he felt a rim of something hard and jagged enclosing a soft, wet centre.

Hazy puzzlement gave way to the pleasure of strange and vivid dreams. He felt his life ebbing away, but it hardly seemed to matter any more.



*****



CHAPTER 2


The Allegheny Mountains

Five miles northwest of Harrisonburg the road became a deeply rutted track and was hard going even for Morgan's four-wheel drive Mitsubishi. At one point, jouncing over a section where two tracks met, Leith's head hit the roof with a sickening thump.

Morgan's wife, Eve, turned round in the front seat holding her head. "Oohh, I felt that myself," she said, all overbite and mischief.

"Oh, no you fucking didn't," moaned Leith holding the crown of his head, elbows touching.

Eve and Morgan laughed. She ran a hand through her boyishly cropped hair and turned back as Morgan swung the jeep in a tight turn round a clump of pine trees. He slipped the jeep down into first as the upward incline of the track sharply increased.

The telltale signs of civilisation had vanished miles back when surfaced roads had given way to freshly churned tracks. Morgan had struck his chest with his fist then flung his hand out to indicate the way ahead. "Many four-wheel drives pass this way, one, maybe two days, Kemosabe." Leith could only shake his head sleepily, still not recovered from the early start.

Weekends were usually sacrosanct. That meant unconsciousness until midday, a leisurely browse through the papers, then an amble down to the local bar. He felt he needed that kind of downtime to recharge his batteries. His work at Langley required, and got, total concentration. Intricate and challenging, it seemed to suck his consciousness in, trapping it until he was suddenly released blinking and muzzy, the afternoon or morning gone.

He knew it was the same for the others in his section. Intense, analytical minds, when faced with complex tasks, were easily consumed by them. Lively and garrulous at the beginning of the day, by the end they were often shadows operating on autopilot. Most of their minds would still be engaged with the structures and models and cascading permutations their work had revealed.

They all had their own ways of dealing with the pressure. Morgan went climbing or backpacking or sailing, physicality and fresh air serving to blow the crud out of his neural pathways. DeMarco submerged himself in his family. Slattery warred with her lawyer husband: their weekends were like campaigns, with friends and colleagues marshalled for support and covering fire during their fabled dinner parties. Stimulating and imaginatively acrimonious, these affairs were unfailingly interesting, usually initiating delicious little melees amongst the guests. People thought it was fun, though few put in regular appearances. Leith had gone once and resolved never to do so again. He found nastiness, however wittily tailored, unpleasant to witness.

He rubbed his rumbling stomach and looked out at the woodland. The day was still mainly overcast and the autumn colours of the trees were subdued but still beautiful. The trees were spread higgledy-piggledy over the untamed ground, here dominated by oaks, there by larches. He imagined the woodland on a kind of botanical fast-forward: roots and branches splitting, stretching, multiplying to stake out their worlds of air and soil and exclude their rivals. Failure meant starvation over decades. Woodlands, he reflected, were war-zones, made peaceful only by mankind's frenziedly compressed time frame.

His stomach rumbled again. He leaned forward between the front seats. "God knows, Ted, I'm not trying to be rude. I appreciate you inviting me along and everything, but do you have any idea where the hell we are?‌"

Morgan glanced across at Eve. "I think he's on to us," he sounded sad.

Eve shrugged. "So what, we'll just do him here. Did you remember to bring the chainsaw, hon?"

Leith sat back. "Laurel and Hardy and a chance to break my neck? My cup runneth over."

He had done some climbing back in Denver while he was at college, but that was back in his younger days before he'd developed a central nervous system. In retrospect, he realised he'd got more fun out of the robust company of fellow climbers than he ever had from grasping a wet and crumbly rock face. Everything had been soured when two close friends were killed in the Sawatch Range: He hadn't climbed or even followed the sport as an observer since.

Morgan had caught Leith off guard the weekend before: he had been staying over at their apartment in Georgetown after an unhappy time at a mutual friend's engagement party. He often spent weekends with them, or they with him. He'd long since guessed there had to be money in Morgan's background: the apartment was big and in a good neighbourhood, and would have been beyond his salary. Eve, big boned with the same ruddy outdoor complexion as her husband, worked as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian and so earned a pittance.

Leith had been hitting the sauce, and had unaccountably started boasting about his climbing experiences.

"You never mentioned you could climb, not in all these years." Eve had put her arm round Morgan's shoulders as they lounged together on the sofa. They were almost the same height and shape and made a pleasing symmetry. Eve, big for a woman, had mannish hips and unpronounced breasts.

"Oh sure," said Leith expansively. "And that was in the Rockies, not those pissy little Appalachians you scramble over."

"And where did you learn to talk through your ass?‌ That's quite a trick," Morgan asked big-eyed. He always looked relaxed and comfortable, whether in a smart suit while facing down a disgruntled point man or stomping up a mountain in shorts and a baseball cap while Mother Nature tried to blow him off.

Leith ignored him. "Around here we're really talking only hillwalking. - a stout pair of boots and a good breakfast, that's all you need."

Eve and Morgan were looking at each other. Morgan was pushing his tongue into his cheek. Eve looked back at Leith.

"Perhaps you'd like to show us, teach us poor dumb hillwalkers a thing or two?‌ In fact, there's a solo contest this weekend. Up in the mountains, sorry, hills."

Oh shit, thought Leith.

"It's okay," Eve was giving him a disingenuous smile. "We're not suggesting you go solo. We'll bring all the gear and do it old style after the contest is finished."

"Sure." Offer someone the chair, he thought, and a life sentence suddenly doesn't sound so bad.

A sudden bump brought him out of his reverie. Clearing another incline they found themselves confronted with an almost vertical limestone cliff rising out of a dark green meadow dotted with cars and tents. Several small marquees had been set up, and he could see smoke rising from cooking fires.

Morgan pulled into an empty area of grass and they eased themselves stiffly out of the vehicle. Leith's eyes narrowed as he gazed up at the rock face. It was about five hundred feet high with an overhang at two hundred feet making a small ledge. A couple of spindly trees had managed to get a precarious hold here. They grew out diagonally from the rock for the first few feet of their lengths before curving upward. The cliff flared out into a final forbidding overhang as it reached the top.

Leith furrowed his brow and looked at Morgan, who nodded his head.

"Yup! That's what they're gonna climb."

The climbing was to be free. Back in college, climbing had been more conventional: ropes, pitons and stout boots had been de rigeur. Even the hardened mountaineers who would think nothing of hanging upside down over a one thousand foot drop had dismissed freestyle as absurdly dangerous. He'd had a taste of it himself on indoor practice climbs, hauling himself up walls with manufactured holds bolted into position and cushioned matting at the bottom. Trivial stuff, compared to this.

Morgan had heard through the climbers' grapevine that an unofficial freestyle event was about to take place. Secrecy was important: it helped discourage the kind of ghoulish onlookers who feasted on death and disaster. Freestyle was banned as too dangerous in this and other National Parks.

While Ted and Eve unloaded their two-man tent, saying they could put it up just fine without his help, Leith wandered across the meadow to the marquees. The weather had been sunny and dry for several days but it was starting to get a little cold in the evenings as autumn drew to a close. But right now the temperature was rising, the sky was clearing and the light wind had a bracing feel to it. Suddenly invigorated, he leapt a small stream in one clumsy bound, not quite making it. When his leading foot hit the stony shallows, icy water sprayed up his leg.

An entrancing smell of steak barbecued on an open fire wafted across from a green marquee over to the right. He checked his watch. It was only 9:45 but he'd had an early start. He changed course towards the tent, heading past a row of U-haul trailers. At the end of these, several tents were pitched in a disordered fashion. A woman was bent over, tugging at the zipper of a tent flap and displaying a dainty rear.

He stopped. "Need a hand?‌"

The woman straightened and turned. She looked barely five feet tall, slender framed but with a good muscle tone. She wore a tee-shirt cut-off at the midriff and ragged denim shorts. Hands on hips she stared up at him with a pinched little face.

"Bite a fart!"

He smiled. "As long as you're OK." He turned to go.

"Hey look, I'm sorry," One hand was off her hips, palm open. "I didn't mean to snap at you, but no -" her hand came up as he opened his mouth to speak "- I don't need a hand, thanks all the same."

Nodding, he resumed the pilgrimage to the barbecue, more weighty matters on his mind. Twenty or a hundred feet, it didn't matter. One look at that cliff had told him his climbing days were over. As he waited for a steak sandwich he wondered how he was going to get out of it.

Climbing had been exciting, with a tremendous thrill when you got to the top, sweating and exhausted and suddenly relieved of the fear that had dogged you for hours. Hours during which a single false move could kill you. He had come to suspect that climbers had a very poor short-term memory for everything but the transcendent moments. Some of them actually needed the fear, savouring it to make life so much more precious. Fear made the mundane glorious.

Having made up his mind, he was suddenly released from his own fear and he vigorously attacked the sandwich when it arrived.

He was easing his way into a beer when he noticed Ted and Eve watching him. Eve's freckled face broke into a broad grin. She nodded at the beer. "Now that's what I call preparation. I hadn't realised you took climbing so seriously."

Leith reached round to hold the area over his kidneys and arched his back. "Climb's off. Went for a pee and forget my doctor's orders. I wasn't supposed to lift anything heavy."

"Hardy har har," said Morgan grimacing and reaching for a can from Leith's six-pack. "What the hell, it's been a hard week." Eve looked as surprised as Leith felt. Perhaps Morgan was beginning to slow down: it was about time.

More cars gathered over the next hour and soon a small crowd had gathered around the marquee. The Morgans knew a lot of loud and healthy people and a party atmosphere was developing rapidly. Leith got into a conversation with a rugged blond guy called Bill Stevens; they'd met several times before at parties. Both easy-going people, they'd always got on well. Bill wasn't drinking as he said he intended to climb later on.

"Free?‌" asked Leith.

Stevens laughed. He bent one thick leg and a mountain of muscle rose out of his thigh, pushing back the leg of his shorts. "Too much beef. Fingers can't take the strain of it."

His fingers looked plenty strong to Leith. He started to ask about this but Morgan suddenly clapped them both on the shoulder.

"Heads up, they're starting."

They walked over with the rest of the crowd to the centre of the cliff face. Morgan had brought their binoculars from the car in a carryall. As he handed them out he said:

"Apparently there are five of them. They'll be judged on time and quality of climbing style." He pointed at the sky, now clear but for a few scattered clouds. "Weather's okay at the moment, but it could change, which is probably why Carter's elected to go first. He's the present champion."

Leith looked up the rock face, marvelling. It looked sheer and smooth from here. There were a few widely spaced crevices but these were too small for a climbing boot. How could anybody climb this without pitons, rope and a hammer?‌

Suddenly the girl he had talked to earlier ran through the crowd making for the cliff. He couldn't see her face but he recognised the denim shorts and cut-off tee-shirt. She was wearing a pair of thin, low-backed training shoes and a small bag bounced by her side as she ran. He knew this contained the only climbing aid allowed. She ran with a beautiful ease and grace, vaulting over an irregular wall of rock at the end of the pasture in one fluid movement.

Stevens pointed to her. "There goes Carter. Get ready for some vertical ballet!"

Carter reached the rock face and paused briefly to thrust each hand into the bag. They came out covered in white powder, making a sharp contrast with her tan. She placed both hands on the rock and began to climb.

"What the hell is she holding onto?‌"

Stevens shook his head and fingered his sun-bleached moustache. "Boy, I've seen this a hundred times but it still knocks me out," he spread his hands out with the fingers curving inward very slightly. "This is about what she holds onto. Any slight convexity in the rock or any tiny crack she can get a fingernail into. There'll be pits in the limestone but too few to count on. If she can't find anything for her feet she presses them flat against the cliff, bending her feet as far forward at the ankle as she can. By pushing down she gets some friction. The balance of forces is critical, any residue will push her out from the rock."

Carter was swarming over the cliff face in a motion that was so smooth it could have been choreographed. Occasionally she would pause for a fraction of a second to consider her next move. Suddenly Leith had a feeling of terrible vertigo: it was as if he was the one on a cliff, looking down to someone crawling on the flat ground below.

He shook his head to try and clear it. "When does the men's competition start?‌"

Stevens laughed. "There's only one competition, Bob. Lot of men think there should be one for each sex, though. It's about the only way they could win. The best climbers in this game aren't sides of beef like me but small, slender types with strong fingers and arms but skinny little legs. Lola's the best in the States but the best in the world are also women, like Destivelle from France."

"Why skinny legs?‌"

"Because heavy legs can be just dead weight. Watch!"

Carter had already scaled nearly two hundred feet of cliff and had come to the first overhang. Just above her it supported a tiny ledge before rising in a wall of unbroken rock. The ledge started to broaden four metres to her left. Reaching up she grasped the top of the overhang and swung out so she was hanging by her fingernails, legs well clear of the rock and momentarily useless. She paused for a fraction of a second: then she was swinging hand-to-hand along the ledge.

Pulling herself up so that her chin cleared the ledge, she checked to make sure she was in the right position. Then she dropped herself back down again.

Leith was entranced. This was so different from the heavy, cumbersome way he had been taught to climb. Laden down with weighty equipment and hesitating over each move he guessed he would barely have covered a tenth of her climb by now. He watched as she swung up her right leg, hooking the toe of her thin shoe over the lip of the ledge. Expecting her to pull herself over and onto the ledge, he was surprised when she froze in this awkward position. Then her right hand seemed to fall away from the rock.

There were gasps and startled yelps and Leith's stomach felt suddenly heavy and greasy. But instead of plummeting helplessly through the emptiness, Carter flipped open the flap of the bag and plunged her hand into it. Withdrawing the chalked hand, she grabbed the rock and in one single liquid motion was standing upright on the ledge looking down. She waved.

"Oh, for fuck's sakes, Lola! You are so bad!" Stevens put a hand to his brow.

Carter started to jog easily along the short ledge, vaulting confidently over the diagonal trunk of one of the trees. Beyond this, the ledge got narrower until it disappeared into the rock at a point where it fell away noticeably from the vertical for the first time. Stooping and turning so she was facing into the rock, Carter pushed off hard with her right leg, her body arcing through space, and landed spread-eagled onto the steeply sloping and featureless surface. There was another gasp from the crowd.

"I can't watch much more of this," said Leith. But he couldn't look away.

For someone who could scale the vertical, the sloping face was clearly a luxury. Carter went up it almost at walking pace. After another hundred feet the cliff went vertical again, and she slowed down slightly - although maintaining her fluidity of style. Leith whistled softly as he tried to imagine her strength and stamina, and the power in those little hands and arms.

Carter came to the last overhang, grasping hold of it with both hands. She swung her body back and forward in an increasing arc then pushed herself up and over the ledge like a pole-vaulter clearing the bar. She landed upright, facing out and then bent her torso forward in a quick bow.

The crowd went crazy: and it wasn't until his hands started to sting that he realised he was whooping and clapping as wildly as the rest. Here and there, people with flushed faces were flopping down onto the grass like they'd just climbed the damn thing themselves.

Leith knew how they felt. His legs were weak and shaky, and his armpits were damp with sweat. Only Carter seemed untired, and now she was jogging easily down the sloping wings of the cliff, jumping from boulder to boulder in her seamless style.

The crowd clustered round the point where the descending trail reached the meadow and gave Carter a wild ovation when she got to the bottom. She raised both hands above her head and waved and was immediately surrounded by well wishers.

Stevens grabbed Leith's arm. "Come on, I'll introduce you."

Stevens pushed his way through the crowd, Leith in tow. "Hey, Lola," he yelled. She looked up and smiled. The tight, mean little face Leith had seen earlier was now open and serene. She gave Stevens a warm smile.

People parted to let Stevens through, and as he got to Carter he started to shake his head and smile wryly.

"I'm sorry, Lola, but you're crazier than the proverbial shithouse rat!"

Carter laughed and put her arms round his neck, reaching up on tiptoe to give him a gentle kiss. He put his huge hands on her waist and kissed her back. Leith felt a confusing rush of emotions: embarrassment and jealousy coupled with an almost voyeuristic thrill. He felt relieved when Stevens pulled back, firmly but with obvious reluctance.

He put his hand on Leith's shoulder. "Lola, I'd like you to meet Bob Leith. It's the first time he's seen you climb but I think he's impressed."

Leith had a dazed impression of clear blue eyes, a hint of golden down above an open smile, then a handshake barely below the pain threshold. Before he knew it, he was mumbling: "I'm sorry. I guess it was really presumptuous to ask if you needed help. I just thought ..."

She shook her head. "It's ok. It was nice of you to ask."

She looked at something over his shoulder. "The judges want me, I'd better go." She nodded at Leith and ran a hand across the top of Stevens' arm; then she was moving quickly and easily through the crowd which closed behind her.

"Wow," he whispered.

"Wow is right," Stevens said, but he wasn't smiling. When Stevens had introduced them Leith had gained a fleeting impression of surrender, or maybe renunciation. But he knew this was wishful thinking, so he steadfastly turned his attention back to the climbing.

Two more attempted the climb in the morning and two more after lunch. None of them came close to Carter's time. They were all good and very confident, and one of the three men even had the same fluidity of style as Lola, but by the end of the day she had won easily.

For the rest of the afternoon, people attempted sections of the cliff either singly or in small groups. Only one three-man team tried the full cliff, and that had been with full climbing paraphernalia. Lola's climb made their efforts look clumsy and artificial.

Later on and fortified by drink, Leith and Morgan tried to free-climb a twelve foot end section of cliff. There was a lot of shouting and cursing and falling. It seemed impossible to get any kind of grip on the limestone, and Eve spent a lot of the time convulsed with laughter. Leith completed the entertainment by making a mess of pitching his tent.

Darkness fell at six o'clock. By then the party was well underway, with people sitting in groups round a big central fire. Leith luxuriated in its heat, savouring the woodsmoke and relaxing amidst the talk and laughter of the others. Campfires had always given him a feeling of comfort, the primitive ease of huddling in a small circle of heat and light, which protected you from all that lurked beyond.

Ted and Eve wandered off to talk to friends. Sitting alone and entranced by the sight of the flames licking up into the darkness, he almost missed Lola as she walked by towards the marquees. His heart gave a little lurch, and he felt a flash of the shyness that had plagued his adolescence. But as suddenly as it came it was gone, melted by the warmth of the fire and the people and the drink. He got to his feet and followed.

"You were brilliant today," he said when he had gotten her a drink. "I've never seen anything like it. I used to do some climbing back in college but this ... " he indicated the cliff, a wall of phantom white in the darkness.

Her smile seemed a little too relaxed and he realised she had been drinking. "Don't I ever get scared," she said.

"I'm sorry?‌"

"That's what people always ask me next." She sat back on a boulder a few feet from the marquee and Leith took a seat beside her.

"And‌?"

"Nope, never. The only scary thing is that it doesn't scare me, if you see what I mean. Even when I make a mistake." She smiled at his frown. "And it has sometimes happened."

She took a huge gulp of beer then wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. "Stimulated yes, frightened no. Climbing's as natural to me as walking. Just one of those things, I guess."

"You acted a little tense when I first met you."

Carter waved a hand dismissively. "I was just hyping myself up for the competition, but yeah ... maybe I do get a little scared before a climb. But not during, and certainly not after."

"How long've you been doing it‌?"

She leered, then struggled to be serious. "My folks say I started before I could even walk, but I think they're having me on. Parenthood for them, they say, consisted in trying to get me to come down from the trees."

"They must be proud of you."

"They don't know I do this. It's better for their peace of mind."

She ran her eyes over him: he had changed into shirt and jeans. Slightly embarrassed by the frankness of her stare, he asked:

"How much training do you put in?‌"

She pursed her lips. "Lots. Mainly on climbing walls. But I do a lot of upper bodywork. Got to!" She smacked a leg. "Don't bother so much about these. I jog, sure, but only a couple of times a week."

"Ever been to Provence?‌" One of the few things he knew about the sport was that this was regarded as its home.

"Buoux?‌ Sure! Destivelle, Patissiere, Labrune, Hill, I've seen them all. Remarkable women!"

"Ever competed yourself‌?"

"Not in Provence. I'm good but the sport isn't my life. I'm happy with amateur stuff like this; it's therapy. Everyday cares and worries get put into a cleaner perspective. There's no time for self-doubt, no time for second thoughts. When you're climbing, there are only three things in the universe..."

"Fear, terror and despair‌?"

"No," she smiled wryly, "I was going to say rock, gravity and me, but I'm sure you'd consider it pretentious."

"Not at all," he said solemnly. "Gravity can be a total bastard, you don't have to tell me."

"Asshole!" She punched him lightly on the shoulder.

She went to take another drink but found her paper cup was empty. Reaching across, she tugged his from his hand, shifting her legs quickly to avoid the splash of beer as it came free. She took a sip of the remainder. She looked up into his eyes and smiled again. "And what does a side of beef like you do for a living?‌ Except hang out, of course."

She found this riotously funny, and he realised she was now a lot drunker than he was. Then he wondered if it was more than just that: her spirits looked like they were still soaring from the climb, so much so that he had the impression she might suddenly burst into song at any moment.

He started to talk because she had asked him a question and because he felt she needed anchoring to some sort of reality. But she had asked The Question. Well rehearsed, he slipped effortlessly into bullshit mode, describing how he collated crop yields for the Department of Agriculture, how he liked working on computers but that what he produced was pretty boring.

She wasn't much interested, but if she had been he could have gone into considerably more detail. All members of his section had the same cover story and each had carefully specified roles in the fiction: if Carter had closely questioned Morgan later, there would have been no conflicts with Leith's version.

As soon as he reasonably could, he turned the spotlight away by asking her what she did for a living. She turned out to be a professional lobbyist for Lawrence and Watts, one of Washington's larger firms. She finished two more beers as she described with relish the fearsome world of influence peddling and the greed and betrayals that were her daily lot.

"In my job," she said, her tones made portentous by the alcohol, "in my job you need total commitment, total assertiveness and a skin as thick as a reactor's."

He reached out to stroke the firm flesh of her arm. "Doesn't feel thick to me."

She looked up at him for a few seconds then took his hand and rose, pulling him up after her. "I've got to check on something," she said.

She led him across the meadow until they reached the trees. When he saw where she was taking him his heart started to hammer in his chest. The light from the campfire was faint but his eyes soon adjusted. About ten feet into the trees she stopped and pushed him against the trunk of one of them. He blinked with surprise as she grasped the leather belt of his jeans, pulled it back and freed it, then flipped the button at his waist and pulled down the zip. He sucked his breath in as she pulled down his jeans and briefs and cupped his testicles in one of her night-cold hands.

She leaned in to him and bit his neck lightly. Then she whispered: "It isn't true, what I overheard you saying to Bill."

His mind wasn't working. He didn't even try to remember, but she was clearly expecting some response.

"Uh, what‌?"

"You know. When I was collecting the trophy. You were standing away to the left. You told him I had more balls than you did. It just isn't true. Check for yourself!"

Putting one hand round her waist, he brought the other up between her legs, slipping one finger under the leg of her shorts. Crooking the finger he felt the warmth and wetness between her thighs. He leant down and their mouths met in a deep, urgent kiss. He felt the buttons pop from his shirt as she tore it open.

She slid one hand across the thick hairs on his chest and grasped his penis with the other. Feeling like he was in a dream he moved his hand up from her waist, pushing up her tee shirt and grasping a hard little breast. He rolled a protuberant nipple between thumb and forefinger and she moaned softly.

Pushing him against the tree again, she stood back and took off her tee shirt and shorts while he struggled out of his own clothes. He reached for her, but again she pushed him back; and this time he felt the rough bark against his skin.

Bending down, she took something from the pocket of her shorts where they lay on the ground. He heard a faint tearing sound and caught the glint from the silver paper as she tossed it aside.

Then she was kneeling down in front of him. He gasped and reached up with both hands to grasp the branches of the tree as she gently unrolled the contraceptive along the length of his swollen penis. He felt her hair against his thighs as she leant in to lick around his groin.

Standing up she put her arms round his neck. He reached down and took the firm cheeks of her bottom in both hands and lifted her up. She grasped the branches of the tree as he pushed his head forward to kiss her breasts. Then her legs came up, wrapping around his thighs and the tree. She eased herself down onto his penis with a grunt then pulled hard with her feet, trapping him between the tree and her. He felt her strength as she increased the pressure - the muscles of her thighs tensing and relaxing as she pleasured herself. Then her hands were behind his neck and she arched her back away from him into the horizontal, her rhythm now urgent and spastic with desire.

It felt like his neck was being pulled off. He grabbed at the branches of the tree, trying to haul his back upright.

He guessed she came at least twice. Not a sexually passive man, he felt somehow unmanned, not in control: his orgasm would not come. Getting a good purchase on the tree he waited until she had exhausted herself. When at last she let go of the tree, he dropped to his knees and pushed himself forward on top of her, thrusting deep and hard until at last he came with a single relieved groan.

He struggled to bring his breathing under control, aware that she was already breathing easily.

Later, in her two-man tent, her lovemaking was less fearsome, though not entirely gentle. They struggled for the dominant position like a pair of tenderhearted wrestlers. When at last they were both exhausted he asked her if she was always like that after one of her climbs.

"Yeah," she said,"Life's the sweetest then. Everything feels so intense. Simple needs become overwhelming."

He kissed her shoulder. "And Bill Stevens?‌ Was he another conquest‌?"

There was an uncomfortable silence. "You're not getting heavy about this, are you‌?"

"No," he stroked a lazy hand across her stomach. "Just trying to figure you out. Just trying to work out why he isn't here tonight‌?"

She sighed. "Because he likes me too much. It's what always happens. Men can't stand me climbing free after ... this. And I won't stop. Not for anyone."

Within seconds she was asleep. Leith, unused to sleeping out in the open, had an uncomfortable night. At three in the morning he heard someone moving about outside. Then he heard Morgan's hoarse whisper.

"Hey, Bob. You in there?‌"

He crawled out of the tent as quietly as he could. Blinking in the harsh light of a torch, he disentangled himself from the guy ropes and stood up. Morgan took his arm and led him away from the tent.

"How'd you know I'd be here?"

Morgan snorted. "I saw you and Lola heading off into the bushes. I made a wild guess. God, you're a lucky bastard!"

Leith stopped. "Is that what you woke me for‌? To tell me that‌?"

Morgan shook his head. "Naw, it's the cellphone. It woke Eve and me. You're wanted at Langley." Morgan seemed even more impressed by this than finding him in Lola's tent.

He was confused for a second, his talk with Nevis half-forgotten. Then he remembered.

Behind them a muffled snort came from inside the tent.

"Oh Jesus. A spook! I've just screwed Casper the friendly Ghost."

"My! What sharp little ears she's got," said Morgan, shining the light to show them the way.



*****



INTERCUT 2


Turkmenabat Missile Defense, Turkmenistan

When Stolypin awoke, the stiffness in his limbs made him grimace with agony. He slowly opened eyelids still heavy with fatigue. Struggling to focus, he saw and felt the huddled white forms of the other men pressing against him. They lay like sacks of flour cast carelessly down in a heap. Some breathed audibly, but the others lay in a silence which Stolykin feared was that of death.

Pain flared up from his hip and seemed to radiate through his frozen body. He slowly put a long, gaunt hand down to the ice-cold floor and tried to push himself off the wall, taking the weight off his hip and shoulder. The movement disturbed the bodies round him and produced a series of feeble moans.

He felt sure he would die unless he increased his circulation. Feeling as stiff and feeble as a centenarian, he pushed weakly at the bodies until he could squeeze his way out. The pain from his ageing knee joints brought tears to his eyes as he rose to his feet.

He hobbled over towards the square of blue that marked the single barred window. Exposed now, he felt the needle-sharp wind rushing in where the soldiers had smashed some panes the night before. The remaining shards reflected back an old man's face. He looked out on a clear blue sky and a ground glistening with hoarfrost. To the right across the crystalline grass he could just see the beginning of the Command Centre where he had once worked long ago as a Senior Scientist. He watched grimly as another squad of soldiers entered his field of view heading towards Yuzkuduk, the nearest town some twenty miles north east of the missile base and the desert.

He tentatively stamped his feet, fighting the irrational fear that they would snap off like icicles. He hugged himself hard as he watched the soldiers dwindle into the distance. Like so many Turkmenstani soldiers, they were hayseeds, peasants: he could imagine their fear and distrust of the radiation monitors they each carried. A weak smile crossed his face as he imagined them bolting for cover at the first flurry of clicks from natural radiation. If they really stumbled across what they were looking for, there would be no such ambiguities.

"I'm glad you find something amusing."

He had not heard Khitrivo come up beside him. The man was smiling, but his face was covered in livid bruises from the beating he had received from Goremykin's men. He stood in his longjohns hugging himself to keep warm and doing a strange little four-step shuffle. It was all so absurd, so surreal, that Stolypin felt momentarily dizzy. Like Stolypin, Goremykin was an old man, long past the age at which he should have been comfortably retired. Stolypin touched a hand lightly against his own bruised ribs: not having been struck since he was a child, he had reacted more with shock than pain when the soldier had kicked him.

He glanced at the soldiers, then back into Khitrivo's dark blue eyes. The man was short and stocky and vigorous, despite his advanced years.

"I don't think I could survive another night like that," Stolypin confided.

"We'll be lucky if we get the opportunity to try," said Khitrivo, sourly.

"Yesterday was just a light shower compared to the shitstorm that's heading our way." He looked out the window, eyes narrowing after the dark of the garage. "I don't blame you for this, old man, but when you made your little discovery you put all our backsides on the line." He hesitated for a second. "I doubt whether I will live through the day."

"And what about me?‌" Stolypin was ashamed to hear the weakness in his voice.

Khitrivo smiled. "Ah, I forgot. You were never a military man, were you?‌ This must be quite an eye-opener."

Stolypin dropped his eyes to the floor then glanced back up at Khitrivo, at his sparse white hair and deeply lined face. The man who had been Commander of a missile base much like this one, back in the old days, had been beaten, stripped and thrown onto the floor of a dirty garage to spend the night in sub-zero temperatures, yet he still managed to exude an almost tangible air of authority and calm. Stolypin felt like a child, wanting to be held and comforted by its father.

"Why are they treating us like this‌?"

Khitrivo rubbed gently at one of his elbow joints through the grimy cotton. "They're softening us up. They hoped the weaker ones would go tits up and tell them everything. The beatings and abuse yesterday were merely shock tactics. When that didn't work they tried this," he indicated the garage. "And today, now that we're nice and tender, they'll start to get serious."

"You knew all this would happen?‌"

"Scientists can be so naive!" Khitrivo shook his head again and smiled. "In fact, if I remember correctly from what you told me, you didn't even do national service. What was it again‌?"

"A perforated ear drum," Stolypin's hand came up automatically to touch his ear.

"Do you think Yakovlev is responsible for what happened to the missiles‌?"

"No. In fact I don't think ..."

They both turned their heads towards the sudden extra daylight as the two garage doors were yanked open.

The jet of cold water took Stolypin full in the chest, smashing him back against the concrete wall. Panning left, it hit Khitrivo, the pressure twisting him round and hurling him to the floor. Then the two soldiers holding the hose trained it on the mound of huddled bodies.

Stolypin, gasping like a fish out of water, felt hard hands grasp his upper arms, before being jerked to his feet. Struggling to keep up, he tripped over a body and was dragged across the floor of the garage and out into the brilliance of the sun. Dropping him onto the concrete apron in front of the line of garages, the soldiers then proceeded to kick him about the back and legs. He huddled up as protectively as he could.

Within seconds the other prisoners had been dumped around him and his beating stopped. Looking up carefully, he saw about twenty uniformed Turkmenistani with their automatic weapons trained. Goremykin, who was responsible for smuggling the fissionables into Turkmenistan in the first place, was standing back and to the side of a dour faced man wearing an expensive black wool coat, the very model of the modern Russian capitalist.

Stolykin didn't need to remember the insignias and decorations that would have once decorated the man's chest to work out who this was. Once, Marshal Zurabov had been head of the whole Strategic Rocket Force, his face often appearing on television and in the newspapers before the fall of the Soviet Union. He must have come straight from Moscow on hearing the news, flying fifteen hundred miles in his private jet before landing at the ageing landing strip at Ashgabat. From there it was a long drive, eventually winding round the gone-to-seed gun batteries installed in the days before independence. But little had really changed since then: Niyazov was still in charge of the country, and clearly he'd had no problems with the Soviet way of running things, judging by the absolute authority and complete intolerance of opposition which were the mainstays of his rule.

Stolykin heartily approved.

When he had been here as a younger man, the missile base had been one of the USSR's best-kept secrets. It could not be found on any map, and although the Americans were undoubtedly aware of it, Niyazov had done an excellent job of making it appear as if nothing at all of importance were happening here.

Zurabov looked at the men in silence for many seconds. Then he put his hands behind his back and cleared his throat.

"We're going to shoot you all today," he said in a deep, even voice. He waited, letting his words take root. There is nothing I will not do to find out how and why you stole the fissile material from the warheads."

Some began to protest, but Goremykin's uniformed thugs twitched their guns at them and they fell silent.

Despite being dressed like a civilian, Zurabov had the sleek, well-manicured look that Stolypin had always associated with high-ranking military officers, soldiers whose battles had rarely taken them further than the walls of the Kremlin. His beautifully tailored coat stood in sharp contrast to the coarse ruffled uniforms of the Kazakhstan nationals who flanked him uneasily, their hair badly cut and their faces pasty and spotty.

Zurabov shook his head sadly. "My men have inspected the warheads and the seals appear to be unbroken. They assure me that immense technical expertise and a great deal of time and manpower would have been required to remove the plutonium triggers, let alone reseal the warheads afterwards. This place must have been as busy as a beehive for weeks. And all, regrettably, outside of my attention. Until now."

He nodded at a soldier to his right. Stolypin heard the click of the safety catch and watched as the soldier brought the gun up to his shoulder and aimed it over the heads of the men on the ground. Then, in a single sweeping motion, he brought it down and fired into the nearest man. Deniken, who had been hired to take care of engine maintenance, jerked back from his sitting position. The soldier took aim again and, with the Kalashnikov in semi-automatic mode, relentlessly fired shot after shot into Deniken's twitching body.

It took an eternity for the clip to empty. Some tiny, robotically fearless section of Stolypin's mind counted out the thirty shots. Someone behind him began to cry with great tearing sobs. Someone else gave an abrupt nervous giggle. Otherwise there was only silence. Stolypin glanced down at his crotch, which was suddenly bathed in unexpected warmth. He realised dully that he had pissed himself.

Zurabov looked down with distaste at the shattered body, then continued in the same emotionless tones. "In other words, this was a major operation that must have required the dedicated cooperation of almost everyone involved in this operation." He held up a small hand and began to count off the points on his stubby little fingers. "You were brought here because like me, you believed in the values of our beloved departed Union. You were prepared, at considerable cost to myself, to repair, upgrade and maintain these weapons on behalf of the Turkmenistani people and their forward thinking leader. And now, you have betrayed me, and thereby the memories of the men and women who once made the Soviet Union great. All of you." At last there was anger in his voice.

One by one Zurabov looked into the eyes of the twenty-two men. They had almost all been high-ranking personnel in similar facilities back in the old days, but now they glanced away fearfully. Stolykin saw that only Khitrivo stared steadily back.

There was shuffling as some tried to draw back from the spreading tide of Deniken's blood. "Stay where you are," roared Zurabov. Stolypin watched in silent horror as blood started to soak into the fabric of the mens' longjohns.

"I'm going to keep on setting examples like this every five minutes for the next -" he consulted his watch in the needless way people do when calculating time - "one hour and fifty minutes. Or until one of you starts telling me what I need to know."

Another thought seemed to occur to him. "Oh yes: Goremykin informs me that all he heard yesterday was feeble excuses like -" his voice became suddenly weak and frail - "'the people who acquired the warheads must have had them secretly switched for dummies', and 'I don't know, I was only ever an administrator/soldier/scientist'.

"Let me make this quite clear: there are a dozen missiles on this base, each one of which took at least eight years to repair, re-equip and arm without the Americans, the idiots in the Kremlin or anyone else being any the wiser. At every step along the way, the missiles double-checked by my most trusted men. If anyone tells me it's not their fault, or maintains they knew nothing about what was going on, they will be shot. There and then. No chances for another lie."

Zurabov consulted his watch again then pointed suddenly at Stolypin. Soldiers darted in towards him. He had barely time for one surprised gulp before he was pulled to his feet and dragged out of the group. Shoving at his shoulders, the soldiers spun him round to face the others. Wide, frightened eyes looked back up at him. He felt the muzzle of a gun dig into the point where his skull met his spine. Not daring to move, he glanced to the right at Zurabov who was about twenty feet away. The ex-Marshal held up five fingers but said nothing. Instead he reached into his coat and brought out a silver cigarette case.

He remembered when Zurabov's men had first approached him, in his dingy retirement flat in a part of Moscow now overrun by drug addicts and gangsters. They needed his expertise, he said, in one of the few remaining parts of the world where a semblance of the old Soviet Union still existed. The people of Turkmenistan weren't even really Russians: none of them had even been allowed on the base back then, but Stolypin hadn't cared as the details of Zurabov's plan had gradually become clear. They were Soviets at heart, however they might refer to themselves now, and that was all that mattered.

Stolypin became aware of the thick wet fabric of his dirty longjohns where they clung to his body. His nipples felt hard against the cloth and it felt like every wet hair was pushing flat against his chest. The moans and crying around him faded away and he heard only the mournful sound of the east wind as it washed over the base. He saw the soldiers around him, etched against the clear blue sky, and above them a flock of birds wheeling round and round, using the wind to gain height. He thought of his daughter and his grandchildren far away in Kiev, and of his childhood in a tiny village in the eastern foothills of the Urals: the farm, the animals, the ancient creaking, heavy carts, the cheery villagers with their teasing and their poor peoples' gifts and treats. It had been a warm and happy time and he had tried to make life like that for his little girl, his beautiful, precious Anna, now long passed away. He remembered his scholarship to Moscow University, standing awe-struck in front of the soaring building. In one sweet, languid seamless memory he relived meeting Anouska, their courtship and marriage and ... then, to his right, something moved.

It was Zurabov. He was holding up a single finger.

The world crashed down on Stolypin. His knees wobbled and he started to fall. Hands were thrust into his armpits. He smelt the milky sourness of the soldiers' breath as they struggled to keep him upright.

"This ... isn't ... fair," he wailed.

Dimly, through his terror and dread he saw the soldiers behind Zurabov part and a lieutenant in the Turkmenistan army stride up and whisper in Zubarov's ear.

Zubarov froze. His jaw dropped open in leaden surprise. He spun to face the man, whispering urgently. The lieutenant nodded repeatedly. He looked scared.

Zurabov put a hand to his brow, pushing his cap up, looking suddenly sick and hunted. He stood immobile for a few seconds then turned on his heel and marched back towards the Control Building.

Goremykin looked about in puzzlement. Then he too turned and shouted in his rustic tones after Zurabov's retreating back: "Comrade Zubarov. What shall we do with these people?‌"

Zubarov waved a hand dismissively over his shoulder but did not stop or look back.

"Lock them up. We may still need to talk to them."

The gun's muzzle was withdrawn from Stolykin's neck and he was pushed towards the garage. Legs paralysed, he fell forward onto the apron. The soldiers dragged him the rest of the way.

He was still weeping one hour later when the soldiers brought them the first food and drink since the nightmare began.



*****



CHAPTER 3


Langley, Virginia

It took Leith a bleary four hours to cross Virginia in Morgan's borrowed Japanese jeep. The early start and Lola's ardour had left him little time for sleep. Navigating the track back to the road had focused his attention, but once the going got easier he found it difficult to stay awake. It had helped when the sun came up in a clear sky, shining painfully in his eyes.

It was 8:30 when he arrived at Langley. Pulling up at the main gate for about the thousandth time in his career he stifled a yawn, then he flashed his pass at the guard before flipping it closed and sliding it into his inside pocket in one smooth automatic motion.

The guard smiled.

Automatically returning the smile he took his foot off the brake pedal and moved it to the accelerator.

He froze.

Reapplying pressure on the brake he slowly brought his hands up so they were in full view of the guard.

"I am unarmed," he said as clearly as he could. "Please do not shoot."

The guard raised his hand by a few inches, revealing the squat, black barrel of the Mach 10 machine pistol that he had been holding just below the level of the guardpost's window.

"My name is Dr. Robert Leith and I am an Information Technologist with the Records Integration Division working in the section headed by Dr. Stanley Nevis. This vehicle I am driving belongs to Dr. Edward Morgan, also of the RID. It is his face that has appeared on your terminal screen. He has let me borrow his jeep because my vehicle needs repairs."

"My name is Mr. George Carlyle of Gate Security and I will blow your fucking head off if you so much as move a muscle," replied the guard in equally measured tones. "Sir."

It took a half hour to sort it all out. Security had had to contact Nevis. They said he had not been pleased to be woken so early on a Sunday morning.

Leith spent the time cursing his own stupidity and the mindset born of years of the same routine.

It being Sunday he was escorted into the building and told he would be locked in until he called Security to be let out.

He was surprised. The only time he came in on Sundays was if there was a crisis, in which case everyone else came in as well.

"Suppose there's a fire?‌" he asked.

"Then you burn,"replied the escort, his lined face crinkling in laughter. "Naah, I'm kidding. This lock can be opened by our computer. Mind you ... " he stopped as he was about to close the door and stroked the thick white hair of his beard, "it'd only do that if the fire got really bad. You'd have to run pretty fast." The closing door cut off his snickering laugh.

The silence descended like a smothering blanket and for a second he relished the strangeness.

Langley never slept, but the acute stuff, things that needed unremitting attention like the monitoring of the eighteen current wars, was confined to the main building: a seven storey affair of mundane appearance which dominated the site.

Here in the North Annex things were less exciting, but there was usually the steady comforting background hum of people and machines talking to each other. But now, like some great beast, the building slept.

He checked his personal memo dump for Nevis' message.

'Bob re our discussion of the 25th,' it read, 'one of the internals you tagged has shown up dead in Woodhaven, Long Island. Name Paul Middleton, tagged as a possible contact of Dr. Tariq Cole. I think this one sounds promising. I'll clear your expenses to New York and back and perhaps any other trips from there, but check with me first. Full data follows in sub-file. I look forward to your report,

Good luck,

Stan '

*

Leith called up the file on Cole. It had only been a few months but already he'd forgotten the details.

Despite the European surname the man was a Lebanese national, born and bred in the cauldron of Beirut. Weaned to the thunder of Israeli shelling, he had become one of the thousands of urchin snipers blasting away from the ruins at anything that moved.

Or so he said.

Cole and his like had been the target of numerous charities that well realised the violent legacy these brutalised children would carry with them into the future, and the warped values they would instil into future generations. A Swiss foundation sponsored his education in Europe in the Nineties, culminating in Cole being awarded a medical degree from the University of Berne.

Cole had travelled a great deal and had been to the States twice before, once on a two-month trip whilst still a student, and then on a two-week vacation in Florida after graduating. Someone with Cole's history would certainly have turned up in a series of CIA files but at a relatively low level of perceived threat. However, Cole's slight association with the nephew of a Libyan counter-revolutionary leader whilst in Berne had raised his profile. Further digging by the External Threats boys had revealed Cole's name on numerous flights criss-crossing the Middle East.

Leith sighed with disappointment. It was hardly strong stuff. He'd run his search on Cole during the man's third visit to the States for a skiing holiday in Vale. Cole wasn't even on Immigration's blacklist so he had been let into the country without trouble. The request for a surveillance scan had been routine.

Leith walked over to get a coffee at the library desk and cursed when he found the pot empty. Of course, Nancy didn't come in on Sundays.

He yawned and gently stretched his back. It had started to become sore on the drive to Langley and he wondered if he had damaged something during Lola's acrobatics. He gingerly sat back down on his seat and pulled the file on Middleton.

The connection between Cole and Middleton had been tenuous. Both had stayed at the YMCA in Denver on June 15th. Cole had stayed overnight before catching his connecting flight to Aspen and Middleton had been en route to his home in Columbus, Ohio from a tour of California. Leith had hacked the registration computer in Denver and had run standard searches on all the fifty guests at that time. Several had something slightly unusual about them, which was to be expected in any group that size, but Leith tagged them anyway.

Middleton's unusual feature had been his religion. All Muslims regularly attending Mosques in the US now had their own company files, and one had been opened for Middleton. Leith remembered pulling Middleton's photograph from a passport application made five years before when the man had been in his late twenties: light-haired, with freckles and blue eyes, he had hardly been the picture of a stereotypical Muslim. Leith had considered it sufficiently weird to warrant a tag, but he had taken the matter no further than to make a token effort to find how Middleton had got to Denver. That had turned out to be easy when he cross-checked Middleton's name with the reservations lists on the Y's central computer: the man never seemed to have stayed anywhere else when he was travelling.

So big deal. Two Muslims stay at the Young Men's Christian Association in Denver.

"Feeble, feeble," said Leith to himself. He dumped Nevis' data files onto the laserprinter, tore off the hardcopy and rang Security to be let out.

Five minutes later Leith heard the lock turn and the grizzled face of the escort poked round the door.

"Do you smell smoke?‌" it asked.

Leith licked his forefinger and reached round to touch his backside. He made a hissing sound and nodded. "Yeah, too much deskwork. Get me out of here fast."


Leith stopped off at his house in Prester to collect some clothes for the trip. Prester was a small country town west of Washington, out past Fairfax and a fifty-minute drive from Langley. Friends said he was crazy living in 'Hicksville', but somehow they didn't mind dropping round for lazy evenings on the porch of the large clapboard house to smoke dope and listen to the crickets. Washington was becoming too crazy, and Prester made a comforting change.

The house was set back a little from the country road and was surrounded by oaks and sycamores. The nearest houses were a couple of hundred yards away. in Prester proper. The town boasted two bars, three churches, a supermarket, and about a dozen businesses selling or repairing farm equipment. Washington was only thirty miles away, but it existed in a different universe.

The house itself was much too big for him and had got pretty filthy before he found someone with a sufficiently strong stomach to give it its first major clean. Since then Margaret had come in once a week to swill out. She was continually trying to marry him off to spinsters in the county.

He had gained a certain raffish reputation when his description of his job at the Dept. of Ag. Failed to hold up to close questioning by some of the local farmers. He had tried to further this reputation by suddenly leaving his local bar when a short item on the FBI's Witness Protection Program appeared on a news program playing on the TV. He thought he was being clever at the time, but soon realised what an asshole he'd been.

Leith stared at his image in the full-length mirrored door of the ancient wardrobe. "Would Robert Leith, Field Agent, wear a corduroy jacket and jeans?‌" he asked himself before reluctantly changing into his plain grey suit and black shoes. He packed a couple of shirts and some toiletries in a green tartan holdall, grabbed a strong cup of instant coffee, and hit the road.

The MGB was too messed up for a long journey so he left it behind, hoping it would spontaneously combust. He had intended to hire a car in Irvine, which he had to pass through on his way to Interstate 66, but the whole country town looked closed. He decided to take the Mitsubishi all the way. Morgan would not be happy, but Eve could drop him off in Langley on her way to the Smithsonian tomorrow. Leith was sure he would be back before Morgan finished work.

Settling down to the 250-mile drive to New York, he tuned in to one of the local music stations. After twenty minutes of a surprising range of musical styles, from C&W to heavy metal, an announcer came on to give two minutes of highlights from syndicated news sources.

"WTZB coming to you on a delightful October morning here in Irvine County. And the main news today is from Nevada where a major gangland massacre has taken place in the recently built Crusader Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. Las Vegas Sheriff Thomas Arpeto was questioned at the scene." There was a slight deterioration in sound quality as the recording came on.

"What's it like in there Sheriff?‌" From the background sound, Leith could imagine the flustered lawman surrounded by the pack of savage newsmen.

"Its like a goddamn slaughterhouse," Arpeto sounded genuinely shocked, "I have never, in my twenty years of policing this town, seen anything even close to this. There's bodies everywhere, all shot to hell. No survivors."

"Can you give us the names of the victims?‌"

"No, but I can say that some major underworld figures are losing temperature fast right now."

The newsmen started firing questions all at once, but one piercing female voice won through.

"Can you tell us how many bodies there are, exactly?‌"

"No, we're still searching the hotel wings, but we've found nearly eighty so far." Pandemonium. Twenty reporters had their birthdays come simultaneously.

Leith whistled in surprise as the announcer started on some local news. Leith lived only fifty miles away but it would be farming stuff mostly, meaning nothing to him. He laughed as he thought of the thousand or so company people who worked on Mob intelligence. Their lazy Sunday had just finished prematurely. He was just about to hit the autotune to get more news about the incident when the announcer said:

"One item of World News now -" expecting an update on the latest coup attempt in China which seemed to have failed before it had barely begun, he was surprised to hear - "Reports are coming in of an Indian uprising in the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil. Scores of ranchers and hundreds of agricultural workers have been murdered and their bodies savagely mutilated. President of Brazil, Rupert Amero, has declared a state of national emergency and troops are being rushed to the regions involved. Now back to Craig Halliday here on WTZB."

Serves the bastards right, he thought. The decimation of the rainforests in Brazil and in other places like Madagascar was a savage global joke. Twenty thousand square miles of carbon dioxide absorbing rainforest had been lost every year for the past twenty years in Brazil alone: increasing international pressure on the culprit countries had not been matched by the money needed to offset the loss of income from the ending of the deforestation programs. It was like cutting out your lungs to pay the rent.

The Beltway was almost empty as he made his clockwise circuit of Washington, heading towards 66. He station-hopped for the rest of the morning, each newscast getting longer as the enormity of the horror in Las Vegas became more clear. By the time the death toll topped a hundred, a note of hysteria had begun to creep in.

Despite being morbidly interested in the demise of a substantial proportion of gangland leaders, his thoughts kept returning to Lola: even though their night together had shown just how human she was, he still felt in awe of her and her hard, demanding little body. She had given him an open invitation to her apartment in the suburbs of Washington. He felt an appealing mixture of anticipation and trepidation, and decided to call in on his way back from New York.

Traffic was light as he got to the New Jersey Turnpike and started driving through mile upon mile of industrial wasteland. He had always hated this road; it felt like a nightmare version of Lang's Metropolis. His spirits lifted when he finally got onto the Staten Island Expressway that took him across to the greener charms of Long Island. Travelling North on the Cross Bay Boulevard, he watched the big jets from Kennedy gaining height and circling to the north west.

He pulled off the expressway after crossing the Woodhaven boundary post and drove into the first gas station he could find. He filled the tank and bought a street map.

"Looking for a church?‌" the bespectacled young attendant asked as Leith paid. This puzzled him for a second until he remembered he had put on the jacket of his suit when he got out the car. He shook his head.

"You ought to, man. We all need Salvation." The boy looked at Leith intently and seemed to be waiting for a response.

Leith got into the car and drove away.

*

The apartment building where Middleton's body had been found turned out to be only a couple of blocks away. It lay southwest of the town's centre and abutted on to a busy shopping mall. Leith figured he might as well take a quick look, before making for the local police department.

He parked the jeep in the mall's lot and walked across the grass in front of the apartment block. It looked only about twenty years old, but was tattered and downmarket compared to the rest of Woodhaven, with its well-heeled aura of quiet contentment. He counted ten storeys and estimated each floor was wide enough to hold five apartments front and back. Thirty feet to the right of the graffitti-covered blue entry doors, four bright red cones squatted on the concrete. Streamers of yellow tape with 'Police: Do Not Enter' printed on them hung suspended between the cones.

He walked up to the demarcated area and looked in. The concrete paving slabs were cracked and moss-stained, except in the centre of the marked-out square where they looked like they had been attacked with a sledgehammer. The smashed area formed two depressions, each about six inches deep and about six feet long. The other ends of the smashed paving slabs were tilted into the air to form a jagged stone thicket. The stones had been recently hosed down, but looking closely he could still see traces of dark red in the cracks between the uptilted slabs.

"Thrilling, ain't it?‌" said a deep voice very close to his ear. He jerked round and found himself eye to eye with a black cop.

"Let me show you my ID." Leith fumbled his wallet out of his jacket pocket and flipped it open.

The cop's eyes opened wider for an instant then he stepped back a little and cast an appraising eye over Leith. The cop was a big man with coarse, heavy features and a hard, dead look in his eye. He flicked a hand at the ID.

"Is that for real?‌"

Leith took Nevis' hardcopy out of his jacket pocket and unfolded it.

"Is Lieutenant Lundt here?‌ I'm supposed to liaise with him."

The cop looked at him steadily, as though trying to work out whether he was being given a hard time. Then he unclipped the radio from his belt.

"Hey Connor, it's Davis!"

"Yeah," the radio crackled back.

"Got a spoo-" the cop glanced at Leith. "Got a guy here called Leith. Wants to see the Lieutenant."

There was silence for a few seconds, then: "Yeah, send him up."

Davis looked at Leith. "Top floor. Apartment 1008."

Leith walked away as coolly as he could. When he got to the entrance he looked back and saw the cop still watching him.

The elevator and the corridors of the building were dirty and smelled of exotic cooking spices, but at least the graffiti in the hallway did not extend to the tenth floor. The place was seedy, and no doubt set many tongues in Woodhaven wagging, but on the global scale it hardly qualified as a slum.

A tall thin grey man in a worn tan suit was waiting for him by the remains of the apartment door. It had split from top to bottom, probably from where the lock had been hammered out. There were other jagged holes near the top and bottom of the door.

"Leith?‌"

Leith flashed his ID. The man took it and waggled it between thumb and forefinger. "Its amazing," he said gruffly, "The way you can just come out with this. In the old days you had to get the FBI to do your dirty work. It's getting worse than Russia used to be." He shook his head then crooked a finger. "Follow me."

The furniture in the room was old, cheap and worn. Comics, beer cans and dirty ashtrays littered a carpet that looked like it had not been cleaned for a decade or two. Patches of damp darkened the corners of the ceiling and several posters hung forlornly, corners flopped over where the adhesive tape had come away from walls. As Leith was led into one of the bedrooms he caught a glimpse of a garbage-dump kitchen.

"Hey, Lieutenant. This is Leith."

Lundt was a small man, with short white blond hair receding markedly at the temples and a thin face with clear, pale skin. He was neatly dressed in a light plaid suit. His intense little eyes darted up and down, taking in Leith's hair and beard and his scuffed shoes.

"Mind if I take a look at your ID?‌" he asked, finally.

He checked through it carefully. "Just back from vacation?‌"

Leith nodded. It seemed the simplest thing to do.

Lundt tapped the ID against his palm before handing it back. "You worry me."

"Why's that‌?"

"I don't see what this has to do with you." The detective indicated the room with a wave of his hand. The glass panelled door from the filthy bedroom led directly onto the cramped concrete balcony. The apartment was north facing and the light was poor, adding to the overall air of dinginess. The block was the highest building around and looked over a vista of single and two storey houses set in ample, well-kept gardens. A passenger jet noisily struggled for altitude somewhere beyond the window.

The detective walked round the bed: Leith followed him round until he could see the white tape marking where a body had lain. Lundt looked up at him. "Its some kind of weird fag menage a trois - big fight blows up, jealousy probably. It's a common thing with gays. 'A' knifes Middleton then, overcome with remorse, does a nose-dive off the balcony." The detective led him onto the balcony and pointed down to the shattered slabs below.

" 'B' can't believe that both the people he loves most in the world are dead so he joins 'A'. This leaves me with only two questions," Leith had to look away from the intense little eyes, "Firstly, was it Tim Garner or Terence Guin who was 'A'‌? Secondly, where the fuck does the CIA fit into all this‌?"

"How do you know nobody else was involved?‌"

Lundt sighed. "The door was locked and bolted with heavy mortice jobs, top and bottom. We had a hell of a time breaking in."

Leith reached up to touch the floor of the next apartment.

"Possible," Lundt clenched his jaw, "but the apartments below, above and to the sides were either occupied at the time or had their balcony doors locked. There's no sign that anyone got in or out that way."

"How do you know they were homosexual‌?"

Lundt licked his lower lip. "They made no secret of the fact, according to the neighbours. And some of the toys we found in here ... " Leith opened his mouth to ask another question but Lundt interrupted him.

"Ok - I've answered three questions and that about fulfils my instructions to 'Liaise with the CIA observer'." he wiggled fore and middle fingers to signify quotation marks. "Now you can answer my question, which I've asked twice already but you never answered. When I left here last night, I figured that would be just about it, except for several hundred reams of paperwork. But when I heard you were coming I figured I'd better come back and check I hadn't missed something. You see, the CIA isn't normally interested in run of the mill stuff like this. So tell me why you're here."

Leith shrugged. He knew he was supposed to keep tight-assed about these things, but Lundt didn't look like the kind of man who could be fobbed off.

"Middleton may have had an association with a guy who may be a Middle Eastern terrorist. Did you know Middleton was a Muslim?‌"

The detective shook his head. "Well if he was, I don't think he practised it with all his heart. The place is up to the rafters with empty booze bottles. But I guess we'd better bring in dogs to check for drugs and explosives."

"How did these guys get by?‌"

"Temporary jobs: barmen, cashiers in supermarkets, that kind of thing. Neighbours reckoned they ran a mobile disco. They certainly had plenty of equipment. Check it out for yourself, it's in the second bedroom."

Lundt led him into a room that had been emptied of bedding and furniture. It seemed to have become a communal dump full of broken bits of electrical and electronic equipment, but was dominated by a monstrosity covered in peeling decals of stars and planets and a painted sign saying 'Whirling Dervishes Disco.' Two turntables rested on what had probably been a desk with a couple of large amplifiers lying overturned on either side. Various pieces of esoteric Army surplus equipment had been bolted to the desk in an attempt to give it a nightmare cyberpunk feel. Leith recognised a large siren that had been painted in metallic phosphorescent colours, forming the nose of a large construct looming over the back of the DJ's swivel chair. The eyes were made from satellite dishes, and the mouth was a large rusty bear trap. Scaffolding, supposed to represent metal arms sprang from either side, one ending in a chainsaw, the other in a mock up of a ray gun, the end of which Leith recognised as a microwave dish.

He scraped his hand across the top of the desk and it came away dusty. "Looks like they didn't get much business," he stepped back to get a better look at the whole thing, "but then I can see why."

"I had the dogs in to check this crap for drugs. I guess I'd better get forensics to check this stuff thoroughly."

Leith walked round the desk to take a closer look at the microwave dish. He found a painted-over power cable hugging a support clamp. The cable then dived straight into a hole in the scaffolding. He followed the scaffolding down to where it was welded to the leg of the desk.

Lundt had come up beside him. Leith glanced up. "Mind if I take off this panel at the back?‌"

The detective looked at where he was pointing. He shrugged.

It took a while, and Lundt eventually had to send a patrolman down to his car to fetch a toolkit, but finally Leith managed to undo the four assorted screws that secured the dusty panel. A stack of old amplifiers, dirty and covered in grease, filled the space behind the panel where the drawers should have been. He eased a screwdriver between an amplifier and the side panel and managed to prize them apart by a few millimetres. It was hard to see, even with a police flashlight shining in, but it looked like a cable came out from where the panel touched the desk leg, and went into one of the amplifiers.

"This doesn't make sense," he mused. "The dish isn't just for show. It looks like it's actually hooked up to these industrial power amplifiers." He reached across and began to undo the panel on the other side of the desk.

"This is a transformer," he poked at the metal box which was revealed. "The dish really could put out microwaves."

"You mean it's some kind of weapon?‌" There was a new intensity in the cop's voice.

"No, it's not like a microwave oven or anything like that. Too low powered even with these." He touched the amplifiers then started to check the equipment more carefully. "These things are used for communications by the military and sometimes in civil applications where a lot of data is being shunted around."

He poked around for a while longer but found no more surprises. By the time he had finished, Lundt had gone to speak to one of his men. Leith found him in the kitchen.

"I think I'll ask some NSA people to have a look at that set-up. It could just be that the kids were frigging about with the equipment. Maybe they thought the 'magic waves' would enhance the music. It's worth getting checked out."

The lieutenant took him through the rest of the apartment. There were very few personal possessions, most of them in Guin's room. Guin Shad rented the flat two years before, Lundt told him, and Garner had taken up occupancy a few months later. Middleton had been an infrequent visitor.

"I guess you'll want to see the bodies," Lundt said suddenly, as they were searching through Guin's bedroom.

Leith couldn't think of one good reason why he should but Lundt seemed to think it was expected of him, like it was some kind of formality.

"Sure," he replied.

Two fruitless hours later Leith was following Lundt's grey Oldsmobile along the five miles to the public mortuary that served the eastern section of Long Island. He had an impression of streets full of conservatively styled houses as they sped by on the raised freeway. He was still puzzling about the microwave transmitter when Lundt suddenly pulled into a parking lot in front of a single storey brick building set back from the street. There were no signs signifying the building's purpose; perhaps the neighbours had objected.

By the time he had parked and gotten out of the car, Lundt had already disappeared into the building. Joining him in the drab grey entrance hall, Leith found that the cop had already squared things with the mortuary guard. Lundt took him by the upper arm and steered him through the 'Staff Only' door and into the vault room. Four banks of four vertical stainless steel doors were set into the apple green walls. He became aware of a heavy, cloying smell that was barely disguised by the overlay of disinfectant and air freshener.

A short, thickset guy in surgical greens came through one of the other doors. He wore black spectacles and his face, when he removed his disposable mask, was rosy-cheeked and cheerful.

"Hi there, Vic. Life been kind to you?‌"

Lundt gave a twisted little grin. "As always. Doctor Wills, I'd like you to meet Dr. Leith. Doctor Wills is our pathologist."

Wills' handshake was firm and sustained. "A medical man?‌" he asked.

Leith shook his head. "No, Phd. Computer Science."

Wills seemed a little taken aback. "Oh, I'm sorry, were you a relative of the deceased?‌"

"No, Doctor Leith is here as an observer from ... a government agency... you know what I mean," Lundt tapped a forefinger to one side of his nose and closed one eye, which Leith figured was marginally better than spelling it out in neon.

Wills' eyes narrowed a little. "That's interesting," he said.

Lundt didn't miss a trick. He shifted his stance as though trying to resist straining forwards. "How do you mean, Doc?‌"

The pathologist pursed his lips. "Yeah, well, there's a couple of little things that puzzled me about these cadavers. Take the guy who was stabbed, for example: theory I heard was, this was some kind of gay crime of passion, but the guy was stabbed only once and in a very clinical way. Straight down between the third and fourth ribs, piercing the myocardium. Just how I would do it in fact, but probably not if I was in a rage. The guy would have had to be totally immobilised, of course." Wills shook his head and took off his green cap. The bald crown of his head reflected the light from the fluorescents.

"When it comes to knifings, people seem to have learned a lot from TV. The natural impulse is to grab the handle of the knife in your fist, like this ... " he mimed an overhand stabbing action, " and to stab down. But you'd keep bouncing off the ribs, so it's not often effective. But like I say people have learned from all the cop shows. So, even when they go berserk they usually cradle the handle in their palm, thrusting up and under the ribcage, into the diaphragm and heart. Much better. But straight in, like in this case - I don't think I've ever seen that before. It's not even as if the victim was comatose or drugged. The bruises show the guy was held tight, and I mean really tight."

Wills looked at Lundt. "Another thing. All these guys were supposed to be gays but there's no sign of anal dilation. Not that that means anything definite, penetrative sex amongst gays is pretty passe but it's something that most do try at least a couple of times." He walked over to the safes. "And check out the other two."

He stepped over towards the bank of doors, then hesitated. "Hey, Vic, you know that Las Vegas thing?‌ Queens already been on to me."

"Yeah‌? What for‌?"

"They want me on standby. They'd already cleared it with the county so's I can moonlight. We could be talking serious fees here. Just as well with Christmas coming up."

"'Its an ill wind', as they say. Glad I moved out of the City." Lundt looked at Leith. "You guys know anything more about this?‌"

"About what‌?"

"The Vegas thing."

"I only know what I heard on the radio this morning. What's it got to do with Dr. Wills and Queens‌?"

Lundt and Wills exchanged glances. The cop looked back at Leith.

"Power vacuums. The guys who were killed in Vegas, they kept things stable, kept all the factions in check. Now the lids off they'll be hacking each other to pieces. Queens is where the Columbians hang out. There'll be some heavy business, which is why they want to draft in the Doc."

"Does that mean you're pleased about the massacre?‌"

"I'm not going to cry myself to sleep, if that's what you're suggesting. In the short term it's a bad thing, and a lot of people are going to get killed. In the medium term ... who knows, it might even calm things down a little. But in the long term it don't matter a shit." He turned back to Wills. "You were going to show us the others."

Wills nodded and reached across to one of the doors on the right hand column. He flipped the steel locking lever anticlockwise, opened the door and pulled out the steel tray. A large opaque green plastic bag lay on top of it. Wills started to pull down the zipper.

"They're covered in white sheets in the movies," said Leith, absently.

Lundt's eyes flicked up to look at him. "You ever seen a leaper before, Dr. Leith?‌"

Leith shook his head.

The detective started to reach out for Wills. " Hey, Doc, maybe ..."

But it was too late.

"Feeling better now, son‌?" Wills was easing a glass of iced water into his hand. Leith lowered the cold compress from his forehead and took a swig from the plastic cup.

Wills turned to look at Lundt. "Its always the big guys," he said happily. "I get nurses and policewomen, little girls straight out of school, and they take this kind of thing, no problem. They don't like it but they can handle it." He looked back at Leith, "Then I get some big hairy-assed rookie and he drops like a sack of shit. I should have seen it coming but I was too preoccupied." He put a hand on Leith's shoulder. "Sorry, son."

"My fault, " mumbled Leith. "My fault entirely."

He took another swig from the cup and tried to frame a question without summoning up a vision of the horror in the green bag.

"I guess I realised that the body would be badly damaged, but that ..."

Wills nodded his head and turned to Lundt. "He's right, you know. That was another one of those little problems I was talking about."

Lundt's brow knitted up, pulling his widow's peak forward. "Come off it, Doc. I've seen leapers like this God knows how many times. They all look like an explosion in a slaughterhouse." He held a hand up to Leith who had gulped loudly. "Sorry." He looked back at the pathologist. " But so what‌"

"And where was this, Vic‌ Manhattan‌ How far did they fall‌ Four hundred, five hundred feet‌ Now, these guys fell less than a hundred according to your own report."

"Yes, but onto concrete. What did you expect‌ A bad graze, some light bruising‌"

Leith put the cup down. "What about terminal velocities?‌"

The pathologist nodded. "Yeah, I had to check up on that," he looked back at Lundt. "Objects reach a steady speed if they drop from high enough. It's the air resistance that balances the force of gravity so they can't go any faster. But they have to be doing about 120 miles an hour before that happens. That's the terminal velocity. The books say an object has to drop from at least 500 feet to get up to that speed. A body falling from the tenth floor of an apartment would be doing 50 miles per hour, tops, by the time it hit. There is some doubt in my mind as to whether this would be enough to shatter every bone and rupture every organ in these bodies, even if they did land on concrete. I reserve my judgement until I can get someone with more experience to take a look."

Lundt exhaled heavily. He put his hands on his hips and stared down at his feet. "You're crazy. I mean, what are you trying to tell me‌ That these guys were dropped from some tall building, then all their bits and pieces carefully scraped off the sidewalk, that they were transported back to Woodhaven and dumped onto some cement blocks which were smashed up to make it look like they fell from their own apartment‌ Jesus Christ. Am I really hearing this‌"

Wills shrugged. "Yeah, its crazy. Maybe these injuries were sustained from a hundred foot fall onto concrete, but there's doubt in my mind. Vic, so I've got to follow it up. Sorry."

Lundt turned to stare at Leith, saying nothing.



*****



CHAPTER 4


Woodhaven, Long Island

The day had seemed endless. Once he felt better he went with Lundt to Police Headquarters to check out a pile of useless statements from the mens' neighbours. Lack of sleep, lack of food and the delayed effects of Lola's lovemaking seemed to hit him all at once. The statement he'd been reading blurred and shifted, and he dropped it back onto the heap.

He soon found the Days Inn Lundt had recommended. It had a bar. He sat there alone for two hours, drinking scotch until he thought he might have a chance at some rest. The room they gave him was quiet and comfortable enough but always, just as he was on the hazy verge of sleep, that single snapshot vision would spring unbidden to his mind and he would sit bolt upright, sometimes too late to stifle the shocked cry.

Finally at three in the morning, unable to bear the room's air-conditioned limbo any longer, he got up, showered and dressed and checked out.

He drove back to Langley without stopping. The sun came up into a cloudless sky as he crossed into Virginia. It was going to be another nice day.

He took a lot more care at the main gate, pulling over into the parking bay by the guard post and walking over to explain things. By the time he got to the department it was 9:30.

"Bob, you look awful!" Nancy's brow knitted with concern.

"Yeah, right," he said as he walked by.

"Robert Leith, Special Agent returns from assignment," he heard DeMarco say as he entered the office.

Morgan looked up from his desk. "Where the fuck's my jeep‌"

Leith jerked a finger back over his shoulder. "Out in the lot." He tossed him the keys and headed for his desk as Morgan hurried out.

"Leith strode manfully forward despite his shattered thigh, still aching from Chenkov's bullets.'"

"Hey, come on, Bob," Slattery pouted at him from the library desk, "What's been happening?‌"

"I don't want to talk about it." Leith was already logging on.

"Ooooh hev ...vvyyy," DeMarco winked at Slattery.

Their chatter slid out of his mental focus as the familiar feeling of immersion came over him. Sometimes he thought of his work as an intellectual swamp, sucking him in, becoming all of his universe. Today it had an even greater pull.

Garner's name drew a blank but Guin did show up as tagged because he had worked for two years at Sydell Aerospace. Sydell handled a few military contracts so all their workers were tagged automatically. Guin had left the firm nearly a year ago.

Leith checked Social Security and IRS databases and downloaded the data into a buffer file. He initiated an autosearch through all the criminal records databanks, then started to read through the files he had already retrieved.

Neither men had ever claimed off Social Security and only Guin had ever paid any taxes. That had been during his time at Sydell. Guin was twenty-five and had got married when he was twenty-one, divorcing less than a year later. He had one child who was in the custody of the mother, a Caroline Mendoza who lived in Syracuse. Garner had never married.

He accessed the CIA's US graduate directory and found that Garner had graduated in Politics from Ohio State, and Guin in Electronics from Case Western Reserve. Then his terminal beeped and he saw the autosearch had returned with a big zero.

"You've put nearly a thousand miles on the clock. Where the fuck've you been, Mars?‌" Morgan looked angry but curious.

Leith turned away from the screen. "I'll make it up to you. I promise. I need to do some work right now but I'll tell you all about it later."

Morgan stared for a few seconds then walked off.

Leith sighed. He'd hoped to get more meat on the first scan. Now he would have to leave the well-beaten paths and investigate the data backwaters of school, medical and municipal records. It was going to take a while.

Hesitating, thinking that maybe he should check in with Nevis, he suddenly had an idea. He laughed because it was such a long shot and he knew he was just searching for some displacement activity. The debriefing with Nevis was sure to be intense and uncomfortable, and he wanted to put it off for a little longer.

Faking up a standard IRS request probe, he slipped into a Sydell payroll port in Cambridge, Maryland. The data was read-only in case energetic employees took it into their heads to hack a pay increase, but that wasn't his intention. In the few seconds the port was open for an apparently legitimate read, he exposed it to 'Trojan Horse' Version 12/3.

The worm fired in a series of responses, trying to tease out an error message that would identify the operating system. It took three goes: each time the system timed out after two seconds when the phantom IRS probe could not come up with a mutually recognised password, but if finally gave itself away.

The name of the operating system came as no surprise to him. It was one of the most common and had had a trapdoor inserted right from the time it was created. He didn't need the worm to tell him the access code.

He initiated one more access using the trapdoor, and the system rolled over like a puppy and waited for him to scratch its belly.

Sydell's computing was performed on a distributed basis with periodic data backup to a central depository. That could only be used for reconstituting the whole system after a crash, and was not open to access. He would have to flip around the network to find the information he wanted.

Individual workstation nodes usually always gave priority to local tasks. That prevented someone from the other side of the country bulling in and screwing up the data and software. But electronic mail was always allowed in and dumped into a low priority buffer where it would wait patiently and uncomplaining until it was read.

The mail Leith sent was much more aggressive. It contained a worm that fired interrupts which broke it out of the buffer and into the core, paralysing the local system and locking out operator input. The paralysis lasted for a couple of seconds while the worm looked for any mention of Guin: relevant files were mailed out to one of Langley's isolated data dumps in case the worm returned other potentially infective worms or viruses. The data was finally dumped out as hard copy onto Leith's printer.

It turned out Guin had spent all his time at Sydell employed at the Cambridge cabin refurbishing facility. Leith reaccessed the system at Cambridge to find out more about the place.

"Want a cup of coffee?‌" asked Slattery, laying a cup down by his elbow.

"Yeah, thanks," he smiled up at her. She leaned close to look at his screen, the smell of her perfume cutting through his preoccupation.

"Mmmmm, Margaret, did I ever tell you that you smell gorgeous‌?"

"Every Christmas party, without fail." She laid a hand on his shoulder. "What's so interesting about Sydell?‌"

"Just a hunch. Follow on from the weekend."

"Hey, don't look so unhappy. What did happen at the weekend‌?"

His expression must have conveyed a lot. Her eyes blinked wide. "Don't tell me it really was rough," she sounded incredulous. Maybe Nevis was right, he thought: maybe they had it too soft.

He nodded miserably. "It was for me."

She looked like she was struggling to contain her excitement. "Want to talk about it‌?"

"In a while. Not right now."

She nodded but seemed reluctant to go. She bent down until her head was next to his shoulder. "Whenever you're ready," she whispered, then she was gone.

Distracted, he glanced back at the screen trying to remember what he had been doing. The worm had found ten files in the main management directory with either 'cabin' or 'refurbishment' in their titles. He chose one that had both, and got what looked like a sales document.

The text was ripe with bullshit, but said essentially that the Sydell facility in Cambridge was devoted to undercutting aeroplane manufacturers in fitting out the interiors of aircraft. They installed or replaced seats, hand luggage lockers, bulkhead mouldings and all the other aspects of cabin decor members of the travelling public could dirty up.

Guin had a degree in electronics. Why had he been pissing about with upholstery‌ Leith felt a tingle of excitement.

Data from worksheets more than a few months old weren't kept in the core memory of the local system. They were downloaded monthly to a commercial firm that sold encrypted-access storage space on multi-terabyte servers: security would be a lot more stringent.

The company's name was Telenetto, based in Seattle. But every time a company like this one started looking to the banks for money to set up a system, the NSA would start to ease its way in with money from its own astronomical budget. Communications engineers, like most other engineers and scientists, were relatively poorly paid. Ten million dollars could buy just about any of them, especially if it was said to be in the interests of national security.

So there were trapdoors built in, and the NSA had already leased several address nodes. All he had to do was fake up a transfer via Telenetto's Vancouver facilities and insert the trapdoor code as part of the input address. The system would open and he could send in the appropriate worm.

But there was a big problem: the switching system Leith needed to gain access had been carefully designed so that it could not read more than the first small section of any stream. The customers would have it no other way. Under the circumstances, all his worm could do was redirect the data for a fixed time to Leith's dump. He could then search through all the captured data until he found Telenetto's code for Sydell in Seattle, provided it had been accessed during that time. He could use that for his own access request. But while the data was being redirected ...

"Oh my God! You're not going to do what I think you're going to do‌?"

Startled, Leith swivelled round in his chair. DeMarco was gaping at the screen, his light brown eyes flicking over Leith's command set. To skilled eyes it was all there. Leith hit the screen clear button but it was way too late.

"Do what‌?"

"Take Telenetto Vancouver down! You've got to be crazy!"

Leith hesitated. "I'm on to something here."

"What?‌"

"I'll let you know."

"Hey pal, I'm senior to you."

"Only just."

"Maybe, but with Nevis at Division I'm in charge."

That was a break. DeMarco was going to squeal on him, whatever happened, but it would take time to get in touch with Nevis. The monthly Divisional Committee meetings were considered sacrosanct.

"How long‌?" DeMarco's voice was getting louder.

"Hey, quieten down. Ten seconds at the most."

"JESUS!" Out of the corner of his eye he could see Morgan and Slattery looking round.

The tip of DeMarco's forefinger was now just an inch from the tip of his nose. "I forbid you to do this!"

Leith stood up so he was towering over DeMarco. "Eat shit and die!"

DeMarco whirled and strode quickly to his desk, shoving aside Morgan who was wandering over to see what the fuss was about.

Leith knew he hadn't long. His fingers were flickering over the keys even before he sat down.

All the data redirected would be lost as far as Telenetto's legitimate customers were concerned. He could have set up another circuit and sent all the data on a merry-go-round of satellites, cables and ground stations all the way back to Vancouver, but that would have been fatal to Telenetto's credibility. Data streams were timed to the fraction of a microsecond and the extra delay, the mismatch between transmission and reception, would be clear evidence that the data had been tampered with.

Better to let the customers think there had been a system failure, that the data had genuinely been lost. But Telenetto couldn't put up with too many losses like that. It might go out of business and customers might go to one of the nets inaccessible to the NSA. And that, in intelligence eyes, would be a crime.

DeMarco was right. He was crazy, blinded with an obsession that had blown up out of nowhere.

He should be trying for clearance from the NSA boys, though he knew they would refuse. His idea was too far-fetched, too dependent on coincidence. The information would have to be sought through conventional means. Court orders for data access would have to be served on Sydell and it could take weeks.

He fired off the initiating transfer and started to pray to the god of data pirates. He was taking Telenetto Vancouver down for ten whole seconds; if Seattle was not accessed in that time by a legitimate user, or if it turned out the place was only a small, little-used reservoir of data rather than Sydell's main dump, then he was lost.

The buffer overflowed just before the datastream was switched off. He sent in a worm searching for the name Sydell.

"What's going on?‌" he heard Morgan ask, but ignored him.

It was there - a request from a Sydell subsidiary in San Antonio, Texas. He copied the passwords, quickly changing the return address to the Cambridge plant and inserted a request for all the jobs on which Guin, Terence, Employee Code G2/398 had worked during his time at Sydell. Then he hacked back into the Cambridge mainframe.

When the answer came, the Trojan Horse directed it through a network node at Cambridge and out onto another commercial data link. The worm then eradicated itself, erasing behind it all the tracks it had made. Its final act before disappearing into oblivion was to update the IT department's directory of trapdoors so that access would be faster if the CIA wanted into Sydell again.

Leith took one look at the list and felt wonderful. The name Taurus Airlines appeared seven times out of the twelve jobs Guin had been involved with: the company had come about after a government sell-off in the late 90's - just one of many measures introduced to clip the Defence Budget.

The army had originally run its own transportation service to take soldiers and their wives out to foreign postings, and to this end bought a variety of jets from several major manufacturers but never put them to full use. The fleet had been identified as a loss-maker, and it had been sold as a job lot to a newly founded company called Taurus. Taurus then contracted Sydell to convert the interiors of the aircraft to make them attractive to its civilian customers.

DeMarco shouted across from his desk. "It's Nevis. He orders you to leave Telenetto alone!" Looking over, Leith could see the telephone held out in DeMarco's hand.

"Too late," he yelled back.

Taurus' identification with the US military had made it the favourite target for terrorists. Three of Taurus' widebodies, a 747 and two DC10's had fallen out of the sky over the Atlantic within the last three months. Telephone warnings had come through five minutes before radio contact had been lost with the jets. The calls said a bomb had been planted at their last airports, two at Kennedy and one at Chicago, as a response to Americans meddling in the Middle East and South America. They were calling it the worst air disaster since 9/11.

"He's on his way, Leith." DeMarco sounded triumphant.

Leith tapped into Langley's central distribution mainframe, which was mainly for the benefit of field agents and embassies. It was strictly read only and gave out unclassified data that could be obtained in any public library. Leith ran through the help menu until he got to unsolved terrorist acts, then keyed his way through the branching sub-directories until he got to the Taurus jobs. All three planes' ID codes showed up on Guin's work list.

Leith put his hands over his eyes and thought furiously back to his college physics courses. Microwaves weren't like radio waves; they were strictly line of site transmission/reception. They had short wavelengths and didn't need big receiver set-ups. Something only a few centimetres across would do: It was conceivable that Guin had built a receiver, perhaps even some kind of focusing reflector arrangement, and hidden it in the cabin mouldings. Signals coming in through the cabin windows would be sent back to a small antenna built into the opposite bulkhead. They could trip a relay to close a timer circuit, giving the plane enough time to get out over the Atlantic. Hermetically sealed plastic explosive welded to the bulkhead or even within the plastic cladding would be undetectable. Bomb detectors worked by setting up resonances in the timing circuits, then detecting the radiation sent back. They never worked too well on planes with all the background emissions, and in any event these circuits would be open in the microwave bomb.

He clapped his hands loudly together, just as the room door flew open and Nevis hurried in red-faced and breathing hard.

Leith stood up and spread his arms expansively. "Stan," he cried, "Am I glad to see you!"



*****



INTERCUT 3


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The heavy scent of the single red rose in its long stemmed crystal holder wafted over Calisto as the maid set the tray down. She placed the coffee pot and the plate with the croissants on the exquisitely veined white marble of the table top, positioning the rose slightly to his right near the starched napkin. The air in the tower, filtered and de-ionised until it was a perfect medium, brought to him untainted the perfume of the fresh flower. He always insisted there should be one flower; it had more of a stimulant effect than his first coffee of the morning.

He sipped the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and listened to the genteel chords of a Bach harpsicord concerto. Through the mirrored glass and far below, Rio farted itself into life before going about its squalid business in the humid, clinging air of late spring.

The tower's air was always slightly chilled, because he liked to wear thicker clothes. Kitted out in his alpaca and worsteds he thought of himself as looking European, like an Englishman in the days before they had lost everything.

But Calisto's skin was dark, a hint of the favellas and a source of shame. He avoided the sun, scorning the Copacabana and the more exclusive beaches to the north. The growing awareness of the link between sun and skin cancer had been a godsend, allowing him to give full reign to his obsession. The Guardador relentlessly lambasted the sun-worshippers, trying to raise Rio's abysmal tone, but few paid attention; darkening bodies still glistened on the beaches.

The maid, whose name he had never bothered to ascertain, returned and placed the day's last edition of the Guardador onto the table. She curtsied and left. Calisto set aside his coffee and picked up the newspaper. It was in a tabloid format, with colour available on all pages. When Calisto had taken over as publisher almost twenty years ago, he had invested in modern printing technology, scrapping the older Rohanson presses that needed hordes of sweating men on expensive overtime to set and load. Now, everything was controlled from a network of terminals. Editorial commands were translated into hard metal by automation, and only a few specialist engineers were needed to tend the machines.

In large print and with many pictures, the Guardador was an easy paper to speed-read. Calisto's eye skimmed through the murders and rapes, the pictures of bare breasted women and the stories of multiple births. The content mattered little, so long as it was not controversial or 'political'. The Guardador would mercilessly flay any minor government official suspected of corruption, giving the rag a crusading flavour. Nosy lefties maintained that the paper was scrupulous in avoiding any investigations into the scandalous lives of the elite. They were right, of course: this was a business he was running.

He paused as he came to the eight page special in the centre. The large picture under the headline "Massacre in the Amazon" showed a pile of dead bodies. He smiled.

He had lost many useful friends in the massacre, and had used the Guardador to attack the Indians with crusading zeal. He had not been alone; others who controlled the media had similar business interests. So great had been the resulting public outrage that the government had obligingly suspended squatters rights and ordered a clearance of the Indians from the area.

He could not remember specifically ordering Barcelos to run another special on the massacre, so this was a nice surprise. On reflection, his editor had probably been right: a couple of weeks had elapsed and perhaps public anger at the Indians was beginning to subside.

He read the caption beneath the picture. "Innocent Indians slaughtered by 'Agricultural Workers.'" His smile locked into a rictus.

Calisto's finely manicured hands clenched around the cheap paper as his eyes scanned the text. The first three pages listed a series of so-called massacres on Amazonian Indian tribes and gave casualty figures as well as describing some of the more grisly deaths. Interspersed with the text were pictures of soldiers bayonetting or shooting helpless Indians. The following pages listed the dead ranchers and Agricultural Workers, or mercenaries as the paper now called them. Beside each it detailed their parts in the Indian deaths.

His eyes flicked down the alphabetical list, searching, until he found: 'Mosero, Luco. Rancher. Responsible for the decimation of Indians in the Maraca region. Hired mercenaries through Lisi Manual on four separate occasions to scour the region on ..."

Just for a fraction of a second, he thought of trying to stop it. Then he remembered the earlier editions, and the thousands of street urchins still aching from their nights sleeping on pavements and park benches, queuing at dawn for the hundred or so papers that were their meagre living. Too late, already far too late.

Still holding the paper with one hand, Calisto reached across to pick up the mobile phone that lay on the tabletop.

"Get the car ready. Now!"

The final page of the eight page segment was a single picture of a dead Indian child, the body so mutilated it was impossible to ascertain its sex or age. There was a heavy line under the article marking its end, but under that were twelve column inches of text with the heading, "Orpheus Calisto: The Facts".

Suddenly, the rose's perfume seemed oppressive, choking. Gasping for breath, Calisto read the choicer details of his own life story. He read of his humble origins in the Rio favellas, the shantytowns high on the hills, of his recruitment by some displaced Colombians, of the money that boosted him to power and respectability. He read of his corruption and intimidation of officials, and then worst of all in this macho country, of his homosexual predilections. The article even listed the bank accounts in false names, describing in detail the final resting places of those he had had disappeared during his years of struggle.

His mind reeled with incomprehension. How could anybody possibly know all this?‌ Then he saw the one small picture nestling in the poisonous text. It was a side-view of Calisto, his dark-skinned stomach pressed into the back of a small crying boy. Both were naked. Even though the photo had been cropped so that neither could be seen below the waist, it was clear from the expression of ecstasy and anguish on Calisto's face exactly what was happening.

The paper dropped from his fingers and he sat hunched and shaking for several seconds as the anger boiled in his guts like acid. Sweeping the breakfast crockery off the table, he rose and strode quickly into his bedroom. The gun was in his bedside drawer. He paused for a second, trying to remember where he kept his shoulder holster, finally remembering through the white heat of his anger that he had not worn one for years. Roughly shrugging on his white wool Armani jacket, he thrust the heavy gun clumsily into the inside pocket.

He took his private elevator the twenty floors down to the lobby. Moving so fast that the doorman and chauffeur could barely get the doors open in time, he was through the five metres of unconditioned Rio air and into the bulletproof Mercedes before Broca his bodyguard, had even put down his paper.

"Move, you fat cunt!" Broca looked startled and meekly avoided the blazing hatred in Calisto's eyes as he scrambled into the car beside his boss.

"Sorry!"

"The paper. Fast!" Calisto yelled at the chauffeur.

Calisto glared furiously out of the car's window but saw nothing of the streets as the Mercedes sped through them. The building was only a few blocks away. Styled on many North American newspaper offices which Calisto had so admired, the bottom floors had big windows all round so that the public could stare in at the mighty presses at work. But as they pulled up, the print run was finished and the presses were still.

The chauffeur got out to open the passenger door but Calisto was already out of the car and heading fast towards the building, Broca running after him. Calisto, not bothering with the elevator, took the stairs two at a time until he got to the third floor. He raced down the corridor ignoring the respectful bows of the staff, and into the pressroom. The place was noisy and already filling up with the day staff at their terminals, but the noise faded as he crossed the floor. He made for the editor's office set against the far wall.

He could see Barcelos on the phone, and as he drew closer he watched as the fat little man glanced up, no doubt tipped off by security about his arrival. Barcelos scurried out from behind his desk rubbing his hands together very rapidly, back bent and neck low in a posture of submission.

"Please, " he was saying, "Please, this was not my fault. Let me explain."

Calisto was now barely five metres from his editor. As he took the last few steps he yanked the gun out, tearing the five thousand-dollar jacket.

"You've ruined me," he roared, bringing the gun to bear on the centre of Barcelos' head and jerking the trigger, all gun lore washed away by his fury.

Broca cannoned into Calisto's shoulder and gun arm in the split second before the gun discharged. A wave of fire and flesh washed across Barcelos's left cheek as the muzzle flash and blast caught him. The bullet scorched by his ear, shattering the glass in his office door and dislodging several files from a shelf on the far wall. Barcelos staggered back clutching his cheek as Broca wrestled Calisto to the ground.

"Hey boss, calm down!" Broca kept his arm locked tightly about Calisto's head until Barcelos recovered his senses enough to kick the gun under a desk. Barcelos knelt down so that he was looking into the publisher's eyes. His cheek was black and red from the powder burns and his brow was creased with pain. Calisto stopped struggling. Broca loosened his grip but did not relinquish it entirely. Calisto realised through his fury, now cold and subterranean, that the man was not as dumb as he looked.

Barcelos was talking "... and we checked the paper like we've always done. I checked it, Benjamin checked it, the four line supervisors checked it. Those two centre sheets just weren't there. We've checked the plates, there aren't any for those pages. Look ..." he stood up and rushed to his desk and returned with a brown clipboard, "... the press bookings." He held the clipboard up so that he could read it but Calisto kept his unwavering gaze on the editor's face.

"I'm going to slaughter you," he whispered.

"But we just didn't have the time," Barcelos' voice was rising into a wail. "I can account for each press for the entire run. We just didn't have time to print the damned things. Here, look for yourself."

Calisto spat a gob of yellowing phlegm onto the worksheet.

Barcelos put the clipboard down and brought his hands together in a pleading gesture. "I swear to God this newspaper did not print those pages. I know it sounds impossible, but we did not do it."

Calisto's voice was getting very hoarse. "And I'm going to torture, rape and kill every single member of your family!"

Calisto saw Broca look across at the editor. He shook his head and raised his eyes towards the exit. That will cost you dear, Calisto thought. Barcelos gave one last pleading look at Calisto then made off as fast as he could on his thick little legs.

Broca waited a little longer before letting the publisher go, then quickly stepped back, hands clasped together in front of his groin.

"I couldn't let you shoot him, boss. Not in front of all those witnesses."

Calisto had not got up from the floor. Instead he just sat with his head resting on his knees, his hands against his temples, his anger suddenly abating.

"What would it have mattered‌?" he whispered.



*****



CHAPTER 5


Washington D.C.

The Grindstone squatted like some huge toad in the middle of an acre of grey-walled parking lot. Apart from a few tufts of grass that had breached the pitted tarmacadam, the place looked devoid of life. There were no windows in The Grindstone and its only sensory organ, a satellite dish, was painted the same fading green as the building.

Headed by Leith's MGB, the cars entered the lot like a funereal motorcade. As they peeled off to park DeMarco gunned his sparky little Toyota, managing to produce a spray of gravel as he skidded it into a bay.

Leith felt mortified. Leaving Langley the MGB hadn't been too bad, but they'd barely gone a mile when its speed plummeted. He was the guest of honour, so the others must have felt duty bound to hang back, unwilling to overtake him as the three-mile drive had stretched into an odyssey.

Leaving the car unlocked in the forlorn hope that some crazy would torch it during the night, he walked over to the entrance where the others were waiting for him.

"Deader'n a witches tit," he said with a shrug.

"Wow! I guess I must be psychic after all!" They turned to look at Morgan who'd brought his left hand up, three fingers touching his forehead. "I mean a while back, months ago at least, I just knew this was going to happen."

"Yeah, why don't you just trash the damn thing and be done with it‌? Why'd you buy it in the first place?‌" DeMarco's irritability was becoming trying. Leith opened his mouth to reply but Morgan beat him to it.

"He didn't. It was a graduation gift from his parents. But you're going to get a charge out of his rationale for keeping it." Morgan's voice went gruff in what Leith was sure was a poor imitation of his own tones, and he began to wag a forefinger. "'More fossil fuel goes into the production of a car than it will ever use in its lifetime.' In other words he suffers all this embarrassment and inconvenience for the sake of the environment!"

Slattery was smiling wryly. "Yeah, but think of all the tow trucks they've had to make because of him."

"Look," Leith opened the door, "Are you going to buy me a drink or what‌?"

Inside, the bar was cold and Spartan and deserted of customers. A thickset, balding barman regarded them balefully across a filthy bartop as he wiped desultorily at a glass with a grey dishcloth. As they got nearer the man suddenly smiled in recognition and nodded.

Following Nevis, they veered off towards a side door which had a sign saying "Private Function Suite. Guests Only." Once through this they were into the warm, noisy atmosphere of another, larger bar. Fitted out with wooden panels in walls and ceiling, it had a huge gas-effect fireplace at one end. Around this were all the traditional irons for stoking, loading and ashing the thing out. The owner had sprayed these and the fireplace with carbon-effect paint in a determined effort to further the disguise: big black moulded plastic beams ran across the ceiling and down the walls, which were decorated with nineteenth century hunting prints.

Nevis took their orders and went to the bar. The Grindstone's favoured customers preferred not to have waitresses hovering around. Leith and the others found seats round one of the big, thick oaken tables that looked like the only genuine article in the place.

The Grindstone was one of two unofficial Langley watering holes and was run by an ex-agent. Its exterior and the bar at the entrance had been designed to discourage casual clientele. The owner periodically swept the bar for listening devices and made sure people he didn't recognise remained in the front bar. Company people still wouldn't risk talking about really classified material, but at least they didn't have to pretend they were something they weren't. That could be unbelievably wearing when an acquaintance came across a spook in a huddle with other spooks: group lying quickly became an absurdity.

Nevis brought a tray of martinis to the table then went back to get Leith's beer. When he returned, he raised his glass.

"To Bob, for a fine piece of work!"

"To Bob." Only DeMarco wasn't smiling.

There was a meditative silence as they took their first sips. Drinks after work were Nevis' idea: he seemed to look on it as a way of building a sense of cohesion into his workers. They came out for a drink once a month, and also occasionally to mark individual or group triumphs. Leith's coup had been a really big deal.

Shouldering responsibility as ever, Nevis was the first to break the awkward silence.

"Well, Bob, I never expected these kind of results when I sent you out into the field."

DeMarco looked surprised. "So you were out playing Dick Tracy? I thought you were just ... look, what's going on here‌?" He'd been told Leith had predicted the aircraft where the five bombs would be found, but perhaps he'd assumed that had come through standard searches. Leith had said nothing about what had happened at the weekend.

"Yeah. I thought Bo was getting a little too loose there for a while. Guess I was wrong." Nevis held his glass up again.

DeMarco looked up quickly from his drink. "Oh no, you were right about that!"

"Come on, Bob. Tell us about it!" Slattery was sitting next to him. She leaned across and rubbed her shoulder against his.

"Yeah, and don't leave out the bit about the jeep," added Morgan.

Leith told them of his trip to New York, carefully avoiding details about the state of the leapers or the debacle in the morgue. Two days had passed since he had seen the shattered body, but any thought of it still made his stomach churn.

"You lucked out," said DeMarco at last, "that's what it comes down to, right‌?"

Morgan shook his head vigorously. "Sounds pretty smart to me."

"Yeah," Slattery held up a hand and began to tick the points off on her fingers. "Bob recognises the microwave set up amongst all the junk they used for camouflage, he finds the disguised cabling which showed it could be powered up, he checks out Guin's work record and makes a connection with the apartment's proximity to the Kennedy flight path. And saves maybe a thousand lives in the process. Not bad for a day's work."

DeMarco shook his head. "Without Guin and the others, who was going to activate the other devices?‌ You only stumbled across this because they all died!"

"Cole may have the full details of the operation. He could have started it up again whenever he liked," said Morgan.

"No way. Middleton was the cut-out. Cole was just the international messenger boy. If these guys were pros only Middleton and Garner would have known about Guin and his bombs. The secret would have died with them and the bombs not found 'til the day the planes were trashed."

"Do I detect a hint of sour grapes, Jim‌?" Nevis raised his eyebrows.

DeMarco was looking pretty steamed up. "Well I don't get it, Stan. How come Bob gets the chance to do field work?‌ I'm the most senior. I've been in this Section for nearly six years now and you've never given me that kind of opportunity."

"I never thought you needed it. Besides, I think you're overstating things calling this little episode 'field work.' I sent Bob out to get an idea of the real street level implications of his work; it wasn't as if he were running a string of agents or checking out a military base. I felt he needed the experience and I didn't expect anything concrete to come out of it."

Nevis took another sip of his martini. " But it's been such a spectacularly successful exercise that it may be worth trying again. Not that I'd expect this level of results, because, all due respect here, Bob," he looked across at Leith and smiled, "there was an element of luck."

Leith nodded and spread his hands. "I agree. I never said otherwise," he looked at DeMarco, "but perhaps we make our own luck."

DeMarco grimaced. "You mean like keeping the MGB. How much luck has that brought you‌?"

Leith gave him a big smile.

"And Telenetto, Vancouver," DeMarco seemed determined not to let it go. He was looking at Nevis. "He gets away with it, right?‌"

Nevis shook his head. "Not quite. I had to reprimand him. Officially. But it won't look too bad, not in the circumstances. And he's promised never to do anything like that again, right Bob?‌"

"Right, Stan." He'd sailed too close to the wind before but what he'd done at Telenetto was a whole new ballgame. Looking back, now he'd had some sleep and the Woodhaven memories where becoming less sharp, less intrusive, he realised just how crazy he'd been. He'd tried to explain how he'd felt to Nevis and the man had seemed understanding, even forgiving. He'd always be grateful for that.

Slattery stirred at her drink with a cocktail stick which had an olive impaled on the end. "What now, oh environmentally-friendly one?‌ I assume you've done in-depths on all three cell members."

He nodded. "Yeah. I've already found the point of connection between Garner and Guin. They shared an apartment when they started college in Ohio. I still haven't worked out where Middleton fits into the picture, so clearing up the loose ends may take a day or two."

"Frigger'll probably probably stumble across the Yellow Brick Road and find Jimmy Hoffa's body buried under it," DeMarco muttered.

"Well in fact I think there may be more to this than just the bombings."

Slattery's eyebrows rose. "Like what?‌"

Leith winked but said nothing.

"Robert Leith. Man of Mystery," Morgan intoned.

"And how is Robert Leith, Man with no Wheels going to make it home?‌" asked Slattery."How can we possibly lever his cojones into one of our little cars?‌"

Morgan dropped Leith off at the restaurant in Alexandria. The sky was overcast and it was already getting distinctly cool.

Alexandria had been a tobacco port in the old days, and many of the buildings were original. He kidded himself he could smell the waters of the Potomac though he knew it lay a couple of hundred metres to the east.

Nevis' soirees never lasted more than an hour; everybody had such busy social lives they could never stay longer. Or, so they said. It was barely seven o'clock as he entered 'The Spice of Life.' Lola was sitting on a high cane barstool in the anteroom to the restaurant. She was dressed in loose red slacks, a large white rose pinned to her blouse. He noticed with secret amusement that the red shoes on her tiny feet where dangling at least a foot above the first rung of the stool.

He walked up and kissed her on the forehead. "Been waiting long?‌"

She shook her head. "This long," she indicated the slightly depleted level of her martini, "But the table's ready so we might as well go in."

Getting off the stool could have been difficult and even comic for someone of her size but Lola made everything look easy. Draining the martini, she grabbed his hand and started to lead him towards the dining area but he held back.

He looked at the barman who was staring after Lola. "A bottle of your finest champagne at our table, please." It was supposed to sound like Noel Coward but came out more like Daffy Duck.

The waiter gave a quick nod and dived through a door at the back of the bar. Leith turned back to see Lola staring up at him.

"Something to celebrate?‌"

"Yes, but hardly something I could discuss with a civilian like you."

"I warn you, I'm not good with bullshit. I get too much during the day to want to wallow in it at night."

"Security ... National Interest ... Strength of the dollar." Now he was trying to sound like Dubya or Nixon. Why was he using these stupid accents like some schoolkid, he wondered. Was he really that nervous?‌

"I'll get it out of you," she leaned closer, "One way or the other."

He felt his loins give an involuntary twitch. Meeting women on a date after he had first made love to them could sometimes be embarrassing, but Lola had already bulldozed her way through the awkward stage.

The roof above the restaurant was a single slope of glass facing south. Inside was a riot of sub-tropical plants, with pride of place going to a large palm at the far end where the roof was highest. The walls were covered in vines with niches where small, flowering plants grew, and in the centre of the room a tinkling fountain cascaded into a deep pool. As they passed it he stopped to peer into the jade depths.

"Jesus Christ! There's a frigging great octopus down there."

"That's Su Shi!"

"Very funny!"

She shook her head. "Su Shi, not sushi. The guy was a famous Chinese poet: 'Without meat a man can grow thin. Without bamboo he will grow vulgar,' that sort of thing."

"That certainly throws my life into a harsh perspective!"

The door to the kitchens suddenly opened and a troop of waiters marched out, carrying plates of steaming food. Above the humid plant smells, and the salty smell from the pool, he was caught in a delicious slipstream of garlic and ginger and capsicums as the waiters passed by. His mouth began to water.

"I love this place," she said as the waiter showed them to their table beside one of the vine walls. The napkins and tablecloth were sky blue, the chopsticks black lacquer painted with exquisite designs.

She looked up at him. "You did mean it when you said you liked Sichuan?‌"

"Well, my experience is limited to the Crispy Fried Beef you get just about everywhere. I like that a lot!"

"As long as you don't mind hot food. They say the food is so heavy in spice and chilli because the humidity in the Province dulls the appetite."

"Its certainly pretty humid in here."

"I told you it'd be authentic."

"How do you know all this?‌"

"Climbing. Sichuan is about a quarter of a million square miles of mountainous territory, rising up to the Tibetan Plateau to the west. My climbing club organised a trip out there some years back. The place was magical, thousands of tough little hills to climb topped off with mist-shrouded Buddhist monuments. Down on the plains it's like a patchwork quilt of tiny fields, with little houses nestling in bamboo groves. That was just about the best two weeks of my life."

He smiled, imagining what the local Chinese had thought when they had seen her climbing. It must have done wonders for the reputation of the white devils.

"You'd better help me out then, in case I accidentally order chilli fried cockerel's testicles."

"Why?‌ Don't you like them‌?"

"Too salty."

"Ok, I'll order."

When the waiter came she ordered Sour and Peppery Soup for him and Braised Croaker in Chilli Sauce for her. Main courses were to be something called Double Cooked Pork and Dry-Fried Beef Flavoured with Aged Orange Peel.

He screwed his face up at the last order. "Couldn't we at least order sweet and sour as a fallback position‌?"

"No way. I'd die of embarrassment!"

"You do get embarrassed then. That's a relief."

"Speaking of which: what are you celebrating exactly‌?" she held her hand up as he started to speak, "And be careful!"

He sighed. "I can't tell you much. We're pretty secretive at the Dept. of Ag. We could be talking destabilisation of the wheat futures market here."

She whistled. "Heavy. So really, what did you do?‌ Assassinate a democratically elected South American leader, smuggle arms to some right wing fascist group somewhere, poison Nicaragua's coffee crop, again‌? What‌?"

"You take a jaundiced view of the Intelligence Services."

"I can't think why."

He hesitated. "I really can't tell you. I just done good. Can't we leave it at that‌?"

She shrugged, but her eyes didn't leave his. "Let's speak hypothetically for a moment. Let's pretend you're in the intelligence services. If you were, do you think working for them would bother you in any way‌?"

"Speaking hypothetically I don't think it would, much. A few years back it would have been different. The CIA were more active in destabilising unfriendly regimes -"

"And propping up friendly ones, no matter how vicious they were. El Salvador, Guatemala. It still goes on."

"Yes but even in intelligence circles I think there's a realisation of the need for comprehensive land reform, particularly down south. I don't think they're as willing to turn a blind eye to the death squads and mass evictions that they were. Or so I've read."

"Or so you've read. What about domestic surveillance?‌ That's a more recent development, at least officially."

He'd always hated lying. He hoped his discomfort didn't show. "Why shouldn't we all be more open‌ If we haven't anything to be ashamed of, why should we care if someone looks into our affairs‌?"

"I'm trying not to get angry but you're making it difficult. Sure, I agree that in a fair, liberal society with a fair, liberal government, that would perhaps be ok. But we have neither. Instead we have a government that won't tolerate real dissent. Dissent that can't find its voice in the narrow political choices offered by the Democrats or the Republicans. God knows I'm no Communist, I believe whole-heartedly in democracy, and that's why I support the rights of people to hold dissenting views."

"But they do have those rights."

"Yes but they can't get decent jobs, because our domestic intelligence people make sure their employers get to know about their politics. Not overtly perhaps. They have all those 'privately funded' vetting agencies that do that for them, but that's just one of the more obvious examples of political repression. There are many, far subtler ways of causing these people trouble."

"I accept what you're saying, but you must agree we need domestic surveillance. Drugs, terrorism, that kind of thing. Isn't it so much better to stop violence and other crimes before they happen?‌"

"I'm told the CIA has files on hundreds of millions of US nationals. Are there hundreds of millions of terrorists and criminals in this country?‌"

"Does it matter, keeping files on innocent people‌ I don't know what people know about my life. Ask me any question you like."

"But if it's about your work, it has to be hypothetical, right‌?"

He smiled.

"Ok: hypothetically, if you did work for the CIA, what would you find most attractive about the job‌?"

"I graduated in Information Technology. Computers have always fascinated me and I seemed to spend most of my adolescence hacking into them. I like to find things out. I think, to get to the truth. I guess if I was in the CIA, I'd get to indulge myself in that way."

"I see. You just dig out the data on people and let the CIA do with it what they will. That would be quite a cop-out."

"But perhaps not so great as someone with a liberal conscience who worked for a firm of influence peddlers in Washington. Someone who was paid, and rather well I'd guess, to fight for causes she might find repulsive."

She nodded, smiling. "I wondered how long it would take you to catch on. I haven't even got the excuse that I'm interested in the truth. I'm sorry. I guess I was just taking my own troubles out on you."

"Did it work?‌"

"Not really. I guess everybody has some moral scruples about their jobs. Everybody keeps their heads down to some degree. Maybe we just keep ours further down than others."

"Perhaps."

The food arrived then. Lola's chopsticks were poised even before the waiter had put her plate down.

She dipped a flake of fish into the thick red sauce and tasted it, her eyes glazing over.

"Mmmmm. Hot and spicy. So delicious it's almost sexual."

Leith took a sip of the soup and felt his taste buds go nova. He sat bolt upright on the chair, his eyes widening.

"That's for lying to me. Dep. of Ag, my ass!" said Lola between mouthfuls.

He drained his champagne glass, closing his eyes and using his napkin to mop away the sweat that was suddenly pouring out of his brow.

"Thass...thass...kinda hot!" he managed, then grabbed a couple of cubes of ice from the champagne bucket and crammed them into his mouth.

"You're so sophisticated and articulate, Bob," she said, taking a sip of champagne, "It can be quite intimidating sometimes."

Leith sucked the cool night air into his lungs as they stepped from the taxi. The meal had turned out to be exquisite once Lola had revealed the antidote to the soup. A grinning waiter had brought him a glass of ice-cold milk to quench the fires. Lola explained that many of the spices were fat-soluble, and milk was a better way than water to get them off the tongue.

But he had to admit that even the normal strength soup they had brought, after a waiter had comically arrived with a pair of tongs to take the first plate away, had still been a little too fierce.

Lola's apartment block was in Cabin John in Maryland, just across the river from Langley. The building was eight stories of brown sandstone blocks with chintzy little windows looking out onto streets of older buildings in the process of renovation or demolition. In the latter, walls had been torn away to reveal peeling wallpaper in bedrooms and lounges, and broken fittings in kitchens and bathrooms. Cabin John was said to be an up-and-coming suburb so he supposed she had bought the place as an investment. He turned away from the sad spectacle to look at Lola's relaxed, dreamy face.

"You can't send me home like this. If the police caught a whiff of my breath they'd shoot me."

"So I've got to invite you in as some kind of humanitarian gesture?‌"

"Of Gandhiesque proportions."

"That's good then. I've always prided myself on trying to help the disadvantaged." She bent and took off her high-heeled shoes.

Leith's brow creased in puzzlement. "Are you expecting me to carry you up to the eighth floor‌?"

"No," she said handing him the shoes, "I've locked myself out. I always do. Weathered mortar. Its one of the reasons I bought this place. See you up there. Apartment 62."

He opened his mouth to ask her what she meant but she was already by the wall on the right hand side of the entrance, hooking the tips of toes and fingers into the half centimetre spaces between the sandstone blocks. Then she was climbing fast, faster than at the weekend when the points of purchase had been fewer and less regularly spaced.

He was fine until she got to the second floor, then nausea and dizziness hit him hard. Knees trembling, he made it the few steps into the building's vestibule. She wouldn't be able to see him now if she looked back. He rested his head against the gritty surface of the sandstone and desperately struggled to keep the image out of his mind. It took a minute or two but eventually he felt better and took the elevator to the sixth floor.

She was waiting for him at the door.

"Are you ok‌? You look a little pale."

He bent down to kiss her forehead. "I walked up the stairs. Guess it was too much exercise."

She pulled his head down again and gave him a soft warm kiss. She seemed so small and vulnerable as he engulfed her in his arms.

"Er...Lola."

"Yes, Bob."

"You will be a little more gentle with me this time, won't you‌?"

He woke sometime in the early hours, his face wet with tears. Lola lay sleeping beside him amongst the black satin sheets.

He had dreamt he was back in the mortuary, but it had been very hot and the air thick with the foetid stink of freshly opened stomachs. All but one of the fridge lockers had been opened, the bodies hanging out like frozen blue rag dolls.

Lundt, dressed in black like an undertaker but wearing snow-white gloves, had led him to the closed locker.

"Were you a relative of the deceased‌?" he asked in sepulchral tones.

"No," Leith mumbled, "Just a friend."

Lundt flipped open the locking lever and pulled out the pallette. He unzipped the bag but held the sides together so that Leith couldn't see in.

"Have you ever seen a leaper before?‌"

Leith shook his head and with a flourish Lundt threw the bag open.

His eyes seemed under the control of someone else. He struggled to keep them still but they were already panning past the feet and up the body. He began to weep as his focus of vision shifted over the jagged whiteness of the protruding bones in the lower extremities and onto the multihued jelly of the abdomen. Clenched jaws now aching with effort, eyelids prised apart as though by something hard and transparent, he could not stop his eyes in their inexorable shift towards the head of the corpse. He had seen the shattered xylophone of the ribcage, the compressed and impossibly angled neck.

And then Lola's face, perfectly preserved.



*****



INTERCUT 4


Queens, New York

Wills had first seen the fires from the Queensborough Bridge. Now, still eight blocks away, he heard the Ford's tyres crunch over rubble and glass.

The cops were struggling to keep access open for the emergency services. Crowds had formed on either side of the street, hemming in the two lines of policemen. He caught glimpses of peoples' faces as he drove through the narrow gap. On some he saw slack-jawed curiosity, but on others there was genuine fear and dread. Eventually he got to the line of policemen across the road. He flashed his ID and they let him through, the line splitting. He was waved through the maelstrom of flashing blue lights. Fearing for his tyres he pulled over soon after and, taking his bag from the trunk, began to walk towards the inferno.

It was hard to take in. He'd been just the right age to miss the wars: too young for Vietnam, too old for the Gulf. But he doubted anything could have prepared him for this. Soot-grimed ambulances passed by constantly, threading their way in and out of the unsteady stream of casualties, bleeding and in their night clothes, being assisted by the paramedics away from the flames.

Nearer now he could see what was left of the buildings on either side of the road. It was as though giant feet had stamped down, crushing all five storeys to the ground.

He felt the misty droplets before he could make out the fountain of water arcing up from a huge crater in the middle of the road. Through the acrid smoke he could just smell the heavy pungency of raw sewage.

A man wearing the uniform of a Captain of Police was smoking a cigarette and staring fixedly at the flames leaping out of the apartments on either side of the crushed buildings. Wills tapped him on the shoulder. The cop seemed to have trouble tearing his eyes away.

"Yeah‌?"

"I'm Dr. Wills. I'm a pathologist. I..."

"You want to see the bodies‌?"

"Yes, I..."

The cop was already walking back towards the roadblock. Wills hurried after him, but the cop soon stopped and was pointing ahead at something on the sidewalk. Wills struggled to see but without streetlights, and in the inconstant light of the flames, it was difficult to pick anything out amongst the rubble.

Wills jammed his eyes shut and took a deep breath. Then he slowly opened them again. Vivid memories of airliners crashing into skyscrapers burned images into the backs of his eyelids. He'd hoped he'd never have to see anything like the things he'd seen that day again.

It was not rubble that was strewn over the sidewalk but the remains of people. He must have walked right by them, without realising. Blackened by soot and covered by burns and congealing blood, which looked dark in the flames, they lay in rough lines. Most were naked; few of the bodies were intact.

"How many?‌" he whispered.

The cop's voice, when at last he answered, seemed cold and remote. "We haven't matched up all the bits and pieces. That's your job. Maybe thirty. These're just the ones from the street. The ones caught directly by the blast. God knows how many others there are, crushed under the rubble, or burnt to death in those," he pointed at the buildings.

"Gas‌?" Wills asked, almost hopefully. An accident would've been easier to bear, somehow.

The cop looked at him as though he were stupid. "Sure, it was the gas that started most of the fires. But what ruptured the gas main, what brought the buildings down, was a truck with a few thousand pounds of explosives parked where that big hole in the ground is now."

Wills shuffled his feet. He felt so angry he wanted to scream, to roar his anguish and incomprehension. But when at last he managed to speak his voice too sounded distant.

"Deliberate then‌?"

"I'd say so, yes. That apartment block over the other side of the road, the one that's history, a couple of heavy Columbian drug families lived there. They owned the whole building, place was supposed to be like a palace, though the rest of the district," he nodded his head to indicate the street, "was a shithole even before the bomb went off."

"Were there many Columbians in there at the time?‌"

The cop shook his head and sighed. "And just how the fuck am I supposed to know?‌ You do the jigsaw puzzles, then you tell me."

Wills looked at the pile of rubble where the block had been. Flames licked out from between the lumps of shattered masonry.

"How could someone do this‌?" he asked, but was hardly surprised when he got no answer.



*****



CHAPTER 6


Langley, Virginia

Leith bent down to pour himself a coffee and gasped. Far down in his lower back a complex series of muscles had begun to party.

"What's the matter‌? Having a stroke?‌" DeMarco had come up behind him. He grabbed the coffee pot that Leith had been reaching for and filled his own mug.

Leith slowly began to straighten his back, his teeth clenched. DeMarco tossed his head back and roared with laughter. His single carefully greased kiss-curl flipped over then whipped back with millimetric precision to its position above DeMarco's right eye.

Morgan and Slattery left their desks and came to the coffee table.

Slattery put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Are you in any pain, honey?‌"

Leith didn't answer.

"Errr... I'm not sure I should tell you this," Morgan glanced around conspiratorially, "but old Bobby-boy had a heavy date last night."

"Post Coital Shock Syndrome," she said, "I should have guessed."

She looked across at Morgan. "Who was he shafting, anyway?‌ King Kong‌?"

"Naah. Lola's small but very strong."

"Lola!" DeMarco rolled the word lasciviously. "She sounds really French and sexy."

Leith turned carefully and without a word walked back to his workstation.

His back had felt only slightly painful when he had gotten up. He had used a vanity mirror to check his reflection in the full-length mirror in Lola's plant-festooned bathroom. There were two livid bruises on either side of his spine just above the hip. They reminded him of the way she'd dug her heels in during moments of particular urgency. It had felt incredibly sexy at the time, but the gallons of adrenaline sloshing through his veins must have been masking the pain.

Checking for other injuries he had found a series of red welts going down his back and he was thankful that Lola's sport precluded long sharp fingernails. He was a little disturbed to find two coin-sized black bruises on his chest, just below his collarbone, where she had pressed her thumbs as though hanging on for dear life. It was with some trepidation that he had looked and found the eight impressions of her fingers across the back of his shoulders.

He had looked into the wall mirror, at the drawn face and bloodshot eyes.

"Was it worth it‌?" he had asked.

His reflection had nodded back vigorously.

Endorsement or not he had been very careful not to wake her while he dressed. Making love to Lola was like the mountains she climbed: not to be attempted by the weak or fainthearted.

He'd taken one more look at her sweet little face as it peeked over the sheets, then left, leaving a note saying he would phone.

The evening with Lola had taken his mind off his strange and growing obsession about Middleton's death, but now he was back at Langley it returned with even greater urgency. Intuition played a role in all science; real progress was rarely made by the dull methodical approach. Over the years he had come to appreciate the capability in himself. At college it had manifested itself in learning; either he would understand some aspect of theory instantly, or he would need to spend hours poring over his books, slowly building up the sequence of ideas that underpinned it. In his work for the company, where potential lines of investigation could multiply by the minute, hunches were often the only means of discriminating between the fruitful and the useless. And his hunches, once they came, were usually too strong to resist.

But his intuition about Middleton, that there was more to his death than some simplistic tabloid version of a gay killing, was coupled with a new feeling: it was something that hinted at darker possibilities, something that made him uneasy.

Taking a deep breath, he logged onto the system and called up the man's dump file.

The file was a n accumulation of all references to Middleton's entries that he had hacked out of the standard systems during his first search. According to these sources, Middleton was Mr. Blameless. He paid his taxes, had no police records and had never left the shores of the US to be corrupted by evil foreigners.

That Middleton had stayed at a YMCA on the same night as the shadowy Dr. Cole warranted no more than the cursory search Leith had already done; Middleton had been tagged and would never have bothered Leith again until he died or was arrested or turned up, however peripherally, in another investigation.

Things were very different now. Leith's search on Guin had only been a taster of the kind of scrutiny he was about to start on the three terrorists. He had started on Middleton because he was the courier: there was a possibility he could lead them to other cells.

He started right at the beginning. The IRS records had given Middleton's time and place of birth. He hacked into Ohio's Central Registry of Births - held in a mainframe in Columbus - and hooked his birth certificate out of the database.

He smiled with pleasure. Too easy! He'd budgeted maybe a day to figure out Middleton's connections with the Middle East, and here it was already. The birth certificate gave the full names of both parents and the maiden name of his mother. Annette al Jowf Crosby had married Peter Courtland Middleton in Dayton on November 3rd 1969. Paul had been born two years later in the same town.

Still in the Registry, he pulled the mother's birth certificate in the hope of getting a handle on granddad, then logged onto Immigration's mainframe in Washington.

Muhammir Al Jowf had emigrated to the US in 1948 from Haifa in what had been, until May of that year, Palestine. He had been only twelve years old and had been brought by his father, a doctor, to escape the widely anticipated problems of the founding of Israel.

Middleton's later actions suggested that grandpa Al Jowf had managed to keep the grudge running through successive generations. Leith tagged the whole family then switched back to Paul himself, but resolved to return for a closer look at all of them.

Municipal records quickly revealed the schools Middleton had attended. Most of his schooling had been in the days before extensive computerisation. Only the last three years of report cards were available from the server at Parkes High.

Leith jerked as a hand was clapped on his shoulder. Nevis looked concerned when he grimaced with pain.

"Oops, sorry! Didn't mean to startle you. How's the back?‌"

"Better," Leith tried to tamp down his sudden burst of anger.

"Errr ... good," Nevis hurried on, "And what about the search?‌"

"I've just started on Middleton. As the courier, he's the most likely to lead us to other cells."

Nevis nodded but looked unconvinced and Leith knew why. It was unlikely that Middleton was the courier for any other cells. Probably even Cole, the international liaison, wouldn't have been told the details of any others.

Nevis placed his hand lightly on Leith's arm. Leith noticed the thick black hairs on the backs of Nevis' fingers and the big gold wedding band flattening some of them. "Let me know if you need any help. DeMarco, perhaps. He hasn't got much on at the moment."

It was tempting but Leith shook his head. "No, I want to see this case all the way through. Thanks for the offer though, Stan."

He returned to Middleton's school files as Nevis headed for his office. A couple of sentences into the first report and he was already shaking his head. 'Disruptive', 'antagonistic', 'devious', 'a liar' - these were heavy words for a report card, especially as Middleton had been a competent student. 'Paul could go very far, and in normal circumstances this school would be privileged to help him scale the academic heights. However, his malicious nature and the negative effects he has on the other students cannot continue. Paul must learn to behave properly or he will be expelled. Please consider this the final warning.'

Middleton had managed to toe the line, just, and had made it to college, winning a not inconsiderable scholarship in the process.

Leith spent a few hours paddling around in the college records. Almost everywhere he looked he found evidence of Middleton's political activity. He had joined various Muslim and Arab societies, and had even organised student demonstrations against US involvement in the Middle East and its support of Israel. It was amazing the guy hadn't been tagged years ago. Every campus had at least one company man: mostly they spotted talent, but they were also charged with picking up the rogue players early on in the game.

He made a note to report this to the co-ordinating committee on college surveillance. Someone had not been doing their job. Already Leith had tagged nearly thirty individuals from just one superficial sweep, enough to keep him going for a month.

The Health Centre's main server was a sturdy and ancient old Vax that should have been carbonising in some pre-Unix fossil layer. The Centre treated students both on and off campus and he could imagine the medics getting a high-tech thrill out of using their portable terminals and modems to access the central computer. Trouble was, nearly one thousand kids at the college took some form of computer course every year. The system was shot through with more overrides than a Chinese reactor.

He set up a worm to intercept the next authorised call to the system but in the meantime he tried out a few override passwords, based on his knowledge of the limitations of undergraduate humour. 'Death' was his third and most prosaic attempt but it got him into the system: he wondered how many enterprising students had set up their own databases of medical records, for that rainy day when fellow alumni were rich and respectable.

Middleton had kept good health throughout his college career except for one visit in March of '92. In his introductory medical questionnaire he had claimed to be totally abstemious of drink and drugs, but his injuries on that day suggested a less healthy lifestyle. Someone had carved the five letters A, B, A, B, and Y a quarter inch deep across his back.

Medical confidentiality was always a tricky business. Gunshot wounds and certain other injuries were automatically notifiable in most States. Middleton hadn't been able to convince the staff that it had been a 'joke that got out of hand', but left them in no doubt that his family would sue if word got out. The medic, writing that he thought the student had been the victim of a revenge attack by an irate father or brother, had given him some leaflets on contraception and had left it at that.

The depth of the wounds seemed to have been finely judged. Not quite deep enough to warrant stitching, even if Middleton had sought attention immediately, but they'd started to go septic. One of the nurses had dosed him with antibiotics, strapped him up and sent him back out into the wild world. It had been his last visit to the Health Centre. His notes ended with the doctor's prediction that the scars would be gone within a year or two.

He felt his stomach tense with excitement. Later events showed that Middleton was a master at bearing grudges.

He accessed the police computer again. Middleton had not shown up the first time, but that did not preclude his involvement in anything criminal.

The college town of Thurson had a population of less than a quarter of a million and was rural enough to avoid spillover from any of the major conurbations: nevertheless, there had been thirty murders during the time of Middleton's stay. Twenty-five of these had been solved to the satisfaction of the police. Of the remaining seven, two had clearly been drug related, one had happened during a mugging, one during a burglary. One bore the hallmarks of an as-yet uncaught serial killer.

The sixth victim of an unsolved murder had been a young woman whose mysterious and brutal death had clearly made a very great impression on the local police, judging by the wealth of files generated. He checked through them avidly but there was nothing to connect her with Middleton.

The seventh victim, however, was just what Leith was looking for.

Kevin Whitehouse had had it coming. A redneck among rednecks, he appeared to have spent his short life stirring up as much trouble and hatred as he could. He had been arrested several times for disturbances in shops and restaurants owned by blacks and Asians. He and his friends were suspected of numerous off-campus beatings of foreign students. Nothing had ever been proved, but the local police seemed convinced.

Whitehouse had been murdered seven months after Middleton's visit to the Health Centre. Too long to suggest hot-blooded vengeance, but just about soon enough for medical memories to grow dim about the bloody message on Middleton's back.

Particularly, Leith guessed, when Middleton had got one of his own friends to add the 'Y' and change the original 'R' into the first 'B'.

Unlike the murder of the young woman, the police clearly hadn't given a shit about who killed Whitehouse. Under the data field for suspects one detective had typed 'blacks, Asians, democrats, women.'

A feeling of light-headedness crept over Leith. He knew exactly what he was going to find next, even though it made no sense. He felt as though he had spent the last few days slowly approaching the lip of a chasm and now he was about to step over the edge.

With mounting trepidation he accessed Whitehouse's autopsy report. Bruising round the limbs and neck had suggested the boy had been very firmly held. He had died from a single knife wound between the third and fourth ribs, which had penetrated his myocardium. The wound itself had been perpendicular to the body's long axis, suggesting that Whitehouse had been held down flat while the knife was pushed down vertically. Below a depth of an inch the entry wound was discrete and unambiguous: above this, the wound was ragged. The pathologist had speculated that the knife had been pushed in very slowly, perhaps over the space of minutes. Whitehouse's struggles had dislodged the knife several times until the blade had gone deep enough to get a proper 'bite.'

Leith took his hands of the keyboard and put them onto the edge of his desk. He closed his eyes and began to think hard. He was not aware that he had started to drum furiously against the desk until the others yelled for him to stop.

*

Nevis didn't look happy.

He took off his glasses and laid them on the desk, then pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and middle finger.

"Let me get this straight," he put the glasses back on and seemed to regain some of his composure. "You're telling me that some kind of maverick offshoot of the intelligence community is going round murdering terrorists."

"More or less."

Nevis pursed his lips. "A little far-fetched, you must admit."

"Not necessarily. The CIA's done plenty of wet jobs over the years. Even a few in the States."

Nevis lifted a quizzical eyebrow. "You'd have a hell of a job putting flesh on that last statement. But even if it were true why would they do that in this case?‌ There was no shortage of hard evidence. In fact, whoever caught them would look good." He began to tap the edge of his desk with his pen.

Leith sighed. "Why would these people commit suicide?‌ It's not because they feared imminent capture. And this crap about a 'Gay Love Triangle' ... there was no evidence that they were gay or even bisexual, none at all. That was just cover. As for Middleton's death, that wasn't part of any suicide pact." Leith had contacted Wills, who confirmed the similarities between the deaths of Middleton and Whitehouse. Wills had sounded strangely subdued, but Leith had been too busy to ask why.

Nevis nodded. "Yeah. I agree Middleton was murdered. Maybe the shock of what they did drove the others to suicide."

Leith snorted. "The bastards had happily wiped out six hundred innocent people. Why should they give a shit about a rat like Middleton‌? Another thing ... why kill him in exactly the same way he killed Whitehouse?‌ How did they know?‌"

"Maybe they helped him do it."

"They were both high school kids and a couple of states away when it happened."

"Middleton had probably boasted about it to them." Nevis' glasses were off again. He wiped a palm across his forehead.

"OK, maybe. But how could they actually do it?‌ Sticking a knife in that way takes time. You've got to find the space between the ribs. Then you've got to push down hard on the knife, maybe even lean all your weight on it so it can go in cleanly. And what's Middleton doing while all this is happening‌? Having a quick snooze, taking one last draw on a cigarette?‌ Of course not! He's kicking and jerking around like hell. Remember; there were no traces of alcohol or narcotics in his bloodstream, no signs of blows to the head that could have knocked him out. Do you really think just two men would have been strong enough to hold him immobile enough?‌"

"Yes."

Leith shook his head impatiently. "You're reaching."

"I don't think so. And even if I was, would you blame me?‌" Nevis was beginning to look angry rather than just irritated. It was an unfamiliar sight and Leith felt the first flickers of self-doubt, but he decided to press on while Nevis was still on the defensive.

"Don't you think there's some heavy coincidences in the way these guys died?‌ Garner made the bombs and Guin planted them. They both die like they've been dropped from a height, just like their victims. But Middleton was a courier, not directly involved at all. Instead he winds up dead in the same way as the guy he almost certainly killed years before."

Nevis was gripping the desk now with both hands. "I don't believe I'm hearing this! For a start there's no evidence that Middleton killed Whitehouse. All you've got is that they died in the same way. If you'd studied the murders in any town over three years you'd have found lots of people knifed like that."

Leith shook his head vigorously. "Absolutely no way. Wills, the guy who did the autopsies, checked the records in New York. Stabbings like that are almost unheard of even there, never mind in Pissantville, Ohio."

"Coincidences like that do happen. Anyway, like I said, Middleton probably did some crowing about what he'd done. He would have been proud of it. Maybe they thought it would be fitting to waste him in the same way." Nevis hesitated as though struck by a sudden thought. "Wait a minute. While we're on the subject, what happened to your weird ideas about the state of Guin and Garner's bodies‌? You thought they'd been dropped off something higher than the apartment, then their bodies moved and planted outside. What happened to that wonderful line of reasoning‌?"

Leith bit his lip. "They hit the ground outside the apartment, all right. Wills had the sidewalk slabs examined and it turns out the fracture points were consistent with being impacted by two things the size and shape of bodies. But there was some question about the momentum of the falling objects."

"What do you mean‌?"

"Both the bodies and the slabs were shattered," Leith swallowed, "perhaps more than would be expected from a drop of only a hundred feet or so."

"Perhaps?‌" Nevis replied mildly, sensing weakness." Can't they work it out accurately?‌ Surely it's a straightforward problem in mechanics‌?"

"It's not something the forensic people have studied before, " Leith answered miserably. "After all its hardly been a problem. If you find a squished-up body it's usually pretty obvious where it's fallen from. The only way they could work it out would be by dropping bodies from various heights onto a series of surfaces. I can't see relatives of the recently deceased letting their loved ones' remains get used like that. Professor Murchison from the Newark labs has had a lot of experience with leapers, but all he'd say was he was surprised at the extent of the damage to the bodies. He said if he hadn't known otherwise, he would have reckoned the damage consistent with the bodies reaching terminal velocity - about 120mph."

"But he was only surprised. Not flabbergasted, or devastated, or so convinced by the evidence that he supported your crazy idea."

Leith kept quiet. The acid tendrils of doubt were growing stronger.

Nevis smiled. "In other words you were talking bull."

"Ok, maybe on that point. But I'm still sure they were pushed. There's just no reason to suppose they jumped of their own accord."

"You think." Nevis made it sound stupid. "You think. And on the basis of what you think, you want to start a witchhunt."

"If we make the assumption all three were murdered then I can't see any other alternative. I can't see why other intelligence services, even Mossad, would go to the trouble of wiping out a cell that was going after American nationals. If the terrorists were killed by their own group, then why did they die in such unusual ways‌? Bullets would have been so much simpler. Even if by some chance some of the victim's relatives had tracked them down, which might make some sense out of the style of the executions, then why didn't they toss Middleton out of the window too?‌" Leith realised he had been rolling and unrolling the end of his tie. He let it go, but the end stuck out a few centimetres. He brushed at it distractedly.

"The killers must have had the kind of resources which were available to me, otherwise how would they have found out about Whitehouse?‌ They must also have been able to call on considerable expertise to wipe out three fit young men like that. The eye-for-an-eye style of the deaths are maybe indicative of some kind of Judeo-Christian right wing cabal," he added, but it sounded weak even to him. Then paradoxically, as his uncertainty grew his anger flared. "Sound familiar?‌"

Nevis' face reddened. "Oh, thanks!"

Leith quickly held up his hands. "No," he said. "Stan, I'm sorry. You got me a little mad that's all. I don't believe you would be involved in something like this, not even for a minute. If I hadn't felt that I wouldn't have confided in you. My point is that certain intelligence personnel do take that kind of extreme view."

Nevis looked at Leith for several seconds. "So what do you expect me to do?‌"

Leith was surprised. "You're the boss. I've passed on my suspicions. You run with it."

"Forget it."

"I've given you evidence of a conspiracy involving our intelligence services. It's your duty to pass this information on."

Nevis gritted his teeth. "Let me spell this out for you: there is no real evidence to connect the deaths of Middleton and Whitehouse. It's true there isn't any direct evidence that the three cell members were gay but some kind of triangular murder/suicide pack makes the most sense. It all hardly constitutes grounds for a conspiracy. The most likely explanation is that you've been working too hard, or your success with bombs has gone to your head - whatever. You are way, way out of line."

Part of him was telling him to stop, to give in as gracefully as he could, but Leith heard himself saying: "Then I'll go find someone who'll listen."

"Like who?‌"

"Hudson, Peres, Carver, whoever. I'll just take the elevator to the third floor over in the main building and buttonhole the first mover-and-shaker I see."

"What if they're part of your conspiracy‌?"

"I'll take my chances."

"Wait a minute!" Nevis stood and followed Leith over to the door. "Since you insist, I'll talk to Spencer." Spencer was two echelons up from Nevis. Long-serving, easy going and fair, he seemed a reasonable choice.

"What'll you say‌?"

"I'll tell him exactly what you told me, but I'm going to be distancing myself totally. I'll make it clear that I do not in any way support your views."

He knew Nevis was just trying to contain him, to minimise a source of embarrassment. But he was satisfied the man would keep his word. He'd never let him down before.

Leith opened the door. Before he could step through, he felt Nevis' hand on his shoulder and he smelt the man's expensive aftershave as he leaned in close.

"You had to push it too far, didn't you Bob‌?"



*****



CHAPTER 7


The Outskirts of Prester, West Virginia

Sleep wouldn't come. The cosy bedroom with its creaky weathered pine bed tonight held no comfort for Leith. Even the country silence, normally soothing, seemed oppressive.

The scene in Nevis' office played on an endless loop in his brain. What an asshole, he kept thinking. How could he have been so stupid?‌ Of course Guin and Garner killed Middleton. Maybe their far-away masters had let them down in some way and they had blamed the messenger: Middleton must have told them how he wasted Whitehouse, so they did him in the same way just out of spite. Perhaps they were strong guys. When they'd done it, when they realised they'd become terrorist targets themselves, suicide probably seemed the only way out.

OK. As an explanation it was pretty glib, but it was streets ahead of some of the crazy stuff he'd been thinking. What had possessed him?‌ What would Spencer say‌? What would he do‌?

Tossing and turning, he managed only a few brief intervals of rest between the waking and the fever dreams.

Coming out of one dream filled with loss and despair he saw dark shapes looming over his bed. Muzzily thinking them the residue of nightmare he tried to blink them away.

They didn't go.

He opened his mouth to yell, but the hard cold muzzle of a gun was shoved into his mouth. He felt its front sight scrape painfully across his upper palette.

His hair was yanked hard and then the lights blazed. He jammed his eyes shut then opened them slowly; desperately fearful of what he might see. One man was standing back from the bed, his gun levelled. Another was grasping Leith's hair with his left hand while holding the gun in his right.

Pulling his hair tighter the man leaned close so that his mouth was next to Leith's ear. "Say one word and I'll kill you," he whispered.

For emphasis he shoved the barrel deeper into Leith's mouth. As soon as it touched the back of his throat, Leith gagged. The gunman snatched the gun back quickly, the gunsight cracking against a tooth. Leith turned his head and vomited across the duvet.

After the paroxysms subsided he lay rigid in this wretched position. When no one shot him he slowly turned his head. Both men had their guns trained on him. The one who had spoken lifted a gloved finger to his lips, then beckoned him to get up.

Naked, he climbed out of the bed. The man gestured to lift his hands above his head and turn to the wall. Leith felt a push at his shoulders, and he leaned forward, his hands pressed against the wall.

Trying not to move his head he glanced down to his right. He could see the top part of the bed. The second man was feeling the bedclothes and pillows with one gloved hand while waving a small black device across the bed with the other.

The faintest of sounds came from his left and Leith automatically turned his head. He just had time to make out a third man entering the bedroom carrying a large suitcase, then a hard, warning cuff across his neck made him turn back to the wall.

Glancing down to the right again he saw part of the opened suitcase. Behind him he heard the wardrobe being opened, then some clothing was thrown into the case. The black device was run over the crumpled clothes.

Leith closed his eyes. They're not going to kill me, he thought. At least not right now.

He watched as they filled the suitcase then closed it. He heard the third man move, over to his right by the bed. Straining his eyes he saw him lay out some pants, underwear, one of his old college tee shirts and some socks. Leith nearly jumped out of his skin when the first man spoke directly into his ear. He wore no aftershave nor had he used perfumed soap or toothpaste recently. You couldn't even smell him coming.

"Get dressed and keep quiet." The voice was so low it was impossible to make out any accent.

Leith dressed as quickly as he could but his hands were shaking badly. Finishing, he turned to look at the first man.

The guy was about five-ten with broad shoulders and hips. He had swept-back blond hair and widely spaced blue eyes. His face was unmarked and not unhandsome, but was devoid of expression. He kept his gun levelled at Leith's midriff.

He heard the suitcase being closed and then the man moved the gun in a circle. Leith complied by turning round. He noticed the second man's gun was trained on him. "Put your hands behind your back," he heard the first man whisper in his ear.

Leith felt metal hard against his wrists then heard two snaps as the cuffs were closed. These were the loudest sounds since the men had entered his bedroom. The third man carried the suitcase out. Leith could hear his heavy tread as he descended the stairs. The second man crossed to the door and at the same time the first man started to move round in front of Leith.

"Down the stairs, out the front door and into the car. Do anything stupid and you're dead."

Leith walked to the bedroom door. The second man was already at the bottom of the stairs, covering Leith with his gun held in both hands. As Leith walked down the stairs he heard the first man following. He saw the second man take a couple of steps to one side. Leith guessed this was so if he had to shoot there would be no danger of the bullet hitting his colleague. After it had passed through Leith's body, of course.

The comfortable old house seemed alien now, something from his past he felt he would never see again. The laughter of friends around the big kitchen table, the soft low moans of a woman in his bed, were echoes from another dimension. It was his past, and warm and friendly though it was it could not help him now. The house had become a frame, a cold and uncaring backdrop against which he had played the last few years of his easy life.

He hesitated on the porch. The night was chill and clear. With no city lights to drown them out, the stars shone down in their full glory. He thought of their timelessness in contrast to his own transitory existence and it made him want to cry.

He made his way carefully down the short drive until he got to the large dark car parked at the end. He couldn't tell the make but he could discern the deeper blackness of the opened trunk.

"Get in," the first man had crept up on him again.

Leith climbed in with difficulty and flopped down. Twisting round he looked back up at the man now framed by a powdering of stars.

"You're not going to kill me, are you?‌" he heard himself ask.

The lid of the trunk came down, blotting out the night sky.


He tried to work out their heading from the movements of the car. He was confident that they were following the road to St. John and tried to picture a map of the county. They should cross three bridges before getting to the small farming town. The bridges should have come at approximately one and two mile intervals. He had just worked this out when the car did a series of rapid manoeuvres that felt like figures of eight and zigzags, tumbling him around the trunk, confusing his sense of direction.

While rattling around he lost count of his pulse and hence the time. When he eventually remembered, it was too late.

The car kept going for what seemed like a very long time before finally stopping. He waited for the trunk to be opened.

And waited.

The engine noise had long since died and he expected to feel some movements from the passenger compartment, but there was nothing. He became aware of the pounding of his own blood and a trickle of sweat rolled down his brow and into his eye. His bowels started to feel loose.

Maybe they were just going to shoot into the trunk. Just kill him there and leave him.

He seemed to wait forever. Crazy thoughts chased each other across his mind. Maybe they were just trying to frighten him and had already left and gone home. Maybe they had gone but had left the car parked across a railroad track. Perhaps this was all just a horribly realistic dream.

Panic attacks alternated with dumb acceptance, and by the time the trunk was flung open he had worried himself into state of near exhaustion. He was unable to assist them as they pulled him out.

It was already light and he guessed it must be at least seven o'clock, maybe a lot later. They were parked on a junk-filled lot surrounded by fields of burnt stubble. Five yards away was an ancient pay phone. They unlocked the handcuffs and led him to it.

While the third man dialled, the first dug his gun into Leith's ribs. The man spoke normally now but still there was no trace of an accent.

"You're phoning in sick. You ate something bad and you've been puking all night. Use the phrase 'life's hard' and your brains'll be all over the phone booth."

'Life's hard' was the company's code for trouble. Leith nodded agreement. Able to glance at his watch he saw that it was only seven thirty. They had timed it so he wouldn't have to lie to someone he knew. His colleagues would all still be at home or travelling to work.

Personnel took maybe one hundred sick calls a day, so Leith was disappointed but not surprised to have his accepted without query. The men put the handcuffs back on and he got back into the car. This time, they blindfolded and gagged him.

By the time the car started again he had given up all hope.

Next time out of the car he was kept gagged and blindfolded. He smelt newly cut grass and heard a door open. Stumbling over a step, he was pulled into a room reeking of antiseptic.

When the blindfold came off, he saw the room was small with only a wooden framed table and a wooden partitioned cubicle. A second glance at this revealed that the wood was only a veneer on both faces, sandwiching a centimetre thick sheet of dull metal.

"What the fuck are you going to do?‌" he asked the first man who was covering him with a gun.

"Shut up." Leith noticed how the men were dressed for the first time. Subdued sports jackets, dark grey trousers, like three sombre professional men on their day off.

The second man undid the cuffs and stepped away to Leith's right, drawing his own gun.

"Take your pants off!" The second man had dark, crewcut hair over a thick, unattractive face. Like his colleagues, he was keeping expressionless, but Leith could detect the faintest trace of excitement in his voice.

Leith, confused, didn't move for a second.

Then he figured it out. He remembered the small country hospital he had been taken to as a boy, with its cramped x-ray room and its technicians with their big heavy aprons. They had shown him crystal clear pictures of the break in his collarbone, and he remembered clearly the revelation that he was, after all, only a bag of flesh and blood.

"You're going to x-ray me. Why?‌"

"Take your pants off," said the second man again, bringing up a second hand to steady the gun.

Leith did as he was told.

They got him down on the table, which was very cold. The second man busied himself positioning the gimballed arm of the x-ray generator. He seemed to know what he was doing but he wasn't slick at it. Taking x-rays was clearly not what he did for a living.

Leith guessed the third man was outside standing guard. The first man just kept his gun trained on Leith all the time. Every time they fired off a burst of x-rays he and the second man would retreat behind the lead screen for maybe two seconds, before quickly emerging again.

He thought about using one of these brief moments to try to escape. The one door to the room was on the same wall as the controls behind the screen. He figured he would be dead even before he could grab the door handle. Even if by some incredible chance he made it through the door, he'd be cut down by the man waiting on the other side.

Seeing the two men retreat behind the screen did help him, though. It showed they were afraid of something. It showed they were human.

The second man came back after every shot to readjust the position of the tube. It was being done in a systematic manner, Leith realised, to scan every cubic inch of his body. Leith began to look at the man more closely and began to notice the tiny imperfections. The man had a small erratic tick under his right eye and he had missed a few beard hairs under his chin when he had last shaved.

After the twelfth x-ray the man did not reappear. Instead he heard a humming sound from behind the screen. Leith guessed they were developing the films. He glanced across and saw the first man pointing his gun at him.

There was a sudden bright flickering from behind the screen and then the sounds of hard films being shoved into viewing slots. It was a sound he had heard in a thousand hospital scenes on TV.

Inspection of the films seemed to take forever. He was growing very uncomfortable on the hard bed and his back was starting to hurt again. It made him start to feel angry.

The breaking point came when the second man returned and pulled the x-ray tube clear of the bed.

"Get up," said the first man, who was still the only one who had spoken.

Leith didn't move. The second man reached down and, grasping him by the upper part of his right arm, dragged him upright.

He tried to pull away. "Get your fucking hands off me."

The man's grip remained firm. He looked at Leith without emotion.

Somewhere to the right the first man said: "Damage him."

The wind whistled through his teeth as Leith was lifted several inches into the air by the blow. Then he was on the floor, clenched up into a ball and nursing his gut.

He was barely aware of the cuffs and blindfold being put back on, but he was very aware of the gag. Breathing had become difficult enough as it was.

The next time the trunk was opened, Leith became aware of the far away traffic sounds and general acoustic buzz of a city.

They helped him roughly out of the car and then dragged him backwards. Two short steps banged painfully against his heels. They stopped and Leith heard a key being turned in a lock and a door being opened. He was dragged along what he assumed, from the faint echoes, to be a corridor, then through another door that had to be unlocked. He was dumped backwards onto a chair, which tilted alarmingly before returning to its equilibrium position. The blindfold was removed.

He blinked up at the first man who stared blankly back.

"Now what‌?"

Nothing.

He looked round the small room. There were no windows and the walls were bare, apart from a number of broad shelves supported at their ends by brackets bolted into the wall. It was obviously a storeroom, probably for stationary. The damp powdery smell of new plaster hung in the air.

The door opened and a wiry little man with a smart, almost military bearing marched in. His tanned face and hands were deeply wrinkled and his hair was blond but turning white. His light blue suit was carefully tailored with the corner of a yellow handkerchief peeking over the top of his breast pocket.

He folded his arms across his chest and looked down at Leith. He pursed his lips as though in thought, then his eyes narrowed.

"We're not here to fuck about, Leith. We want information and we haven't got much time. Two hours, in fact. We can't allow ourselves the luxury of standard interrogation techniques. We're going to torture you. We're going to start cutting you up and we're going to continue until you answer our questions. We'll try and space it so that you're still alive until the two hour deadline, but don't count on it. Blood loss is difficult to predict."

Leith realised his jaw was hanging open and he shut it with a snap. Just then the door opened and the other two men entered carrying chains and a number of large bags. They were wearing surgical greens. He tried to struggle to his feet but the first man punched him in the chest.

Short lengths of chain were put round his arms and legs and the sides of the chair. More disposable clothing was brought out of the plastic bag. The other two men quickly put them on, then the small man pulled out a leather bag from a sack. He undid the flap, which folded out to reveal a selection of knives each secured through two slits in the leather. He smiled at Leith then laid the unfolded bag down on one of the shelves. Removing one of the knifes he came over to Leith and grasped the front of his tee shirt, pulling it out. Leith gave a little cry as the blade arced up through the material, emerging in front of his eyes.

The man jerked back with the knife ripping the shirt open. He kept hacking away until the whole thing had come off.

There was a sudden whirring sound to his right. Leith jerked his head round and saw that the second man had plugged in an electric drill and was testing it. The man appeared satisfied that it was working properly, then turned to look expectantly at Leith.

Leith looked back at the small man. "I will tell you any fucking thing you want to know," he said as loudly and as clearly as he could.

The small man looked genuinely sad. He finished putting on the surgical cap. "You see. I haven't even asked you a question yet already I don't believe you."

"For Christ's sake, ask me anything!"

"Ok. Who are you working for‌?"

"The CIA." Leith was trying to speak so fast he stumbled over the initials. He drew a breath. "I'm sorry. I work for the Central Intelligence Agency."

The man's brow wrinkled even more. "And..."

"And what...‌?"

The man leaned forward so that his nose was almost touching Leith's.

"I've told you once already. We're not here to fuck around," he said softly.

Leith swallowed hard.

"I work under Dr. Stanley Nevis in the Records Integration Division, which is situated in the most recent annex at Langley. Dr. Nevis is immediately responsible to Carl Neuman, who in turn is responsible to Ted Spencer, Eastern Hemisphere Co-ordinator, then up to Emma Forbes and..."

The man was shaking his head. "You really are a stupid shit." He nodded at the man who was holding the drill.

It was brought forward. It was just a hand held job, the kind you could obtain from any hardware store. The man holding it thrust it up in front of Leith's face so he could get a good look at the drill bit.

It's the type for wood, he thought, and almost giggled.

Then it was pointing at the upper part of his left arm. Despite the chains he managed to shift out the way a centimetre or two. He felt himself grabbed by strong hands.

The drill whirred into life then was slowly pressed home.

He saw but did not feel his skin tear. He saw the spatter of blood appear across the forearm of the man holding the drill, then a coil of white tissue wound up around the drillbit. In his shock, in some small oasis of calm in the maelstrom that was his mind, he guessed it came from the layer of subcutaneous fat under his skin.

His scream almost drowned out the sound of the drill but the man didn't stop. He pressed harder and this time a red cloud spurted out as the drill reached the more plentiful supplies of blood in the muscle.

Leith's world became full of burning pain and he wished he would black out. He felt and heard the grating of the drill as it glanced off his bone. He heard the men behind him step rapidly backwards and he guessed the drill had suddenly appeared out of the back of his arm.

The man withdrew the drill and took his finger off the trigger. The whirring sound died away and the man put the drill down, then reached into the plastic bag to get out a towel. He rubbed it across one cheek where he had been caught by some of Leith's blood.

The small man stepped forward again, kneeling down slightly so that his eyes were level with Leith's.

"Who are you working for‌"

"Mossad," said Leith miserably.

The man's cheeks puckered and he shook his head again.

"You bastards," Leith whimpered through his tears, "You bastards."

He did black out a couple of times in the eternity that followed. They drilled a couple more holes in the same part of his arm and seemed no happier with his answers. He told them he had come across signs of a cabal only by chance, that he had told nobody else but Nevis, that, for God's sake, he agreed with what they were doing. If anybody deserved to die it was Middleton and his men. Could he join their side?‌ Please!

Nothing worked. The question was always the same: who did he work for‌?

After the fourth hole the small guy seemed to grow impatient. He caught the first man's eye and gestured to the shelves with the knives. The drill was put away and a single small knife was again displayed in front of Leith's eyes.

"Please don't. Oh God, please don't."

Like a butcher carving off a prime cut for a favoured customer, the man shaved off a half centimetre thick slice of skin and fat and muscle from just below Leith's left nipple. He held up the bloody circle of flesh for Leith to get a good look at then reaching down he cut open Leith's trousers and underwear until his genitals were exposed. He looked up at Leith and grinned.

Leith started to scream and wouldn't stop until the small man took a syringe out of a metal tray and injected him in his undamaged arm. While one part of Leith's mind watched the men stand up and put away their tools, a second part slipped away into another world of nightmare.


Leith at last began to wonder how long he had lain like this, his eyes wide open and staring at the featureless, freshly painted ceiling. He turned his head slightly and felt the soft pillow yield under his head. He moved his hands between the smooth sheets until he felt his legs, then he moved them up across his body. They stopped at the rougher surface of a bandage on his chest. He began to remember.

He felt fear, but the drugs dulled it. He pushed with one heavy arm until the sheet and blankets were lifted clear. Pulling himself up painfully he inspected his body and was relieved to find himself intact. Apart from the bandage on his chest, and his well-strapped left arm he appeared uninjured. Then he ran his tongue across the roof of his mouth and found a chunk missing from a front tooth.

The time since the torture seemed impossibly hazy. He remembered warped faces and the never-ending chanting of the same question. How many days this torment had lasted he could not say. He still felt very weak and his head spun every time he moved.

He lapsed into another drugged reverie until the door opened and the small man came in. He came across and knelt down by the camp bed.

"How do you feel‌?"

Leith edged away against the wall, wringing his hands.

The man nodded to himself. "Come with me. There's a room down the corridor where you can shower and dress. I want you neat and tidy. You're going to meet some important people."

"You're going to kill me, aren't you‌?" The voice was so weak and slurred that Leith could hardly believe it was his own.

"No. You're going to be fine. Do you need a hand to get up‌?"

Leith did but he wouldn't accept it. After a few seconds of ineffectual thrashing about the little man went to the door and opened it.

"Halliday, Nieman! Come here!"

Two of the kidnappers came and pulled him gently to his feet, then they helped him to the door. After the first few steps Leith got the hang of walking and even managed to take some of his own weight.

The shower was good. He noticed some of his clothes draped over the back of a chair. He put them on when he had dried himself and walked over to the washhand basin and the mirror above it. The face that stared back at him was deathly pale, and the eyes were small and frightened.

The first kidnapper had not moved from his place by the door where he had been keeping a watchful eye.

When he had finished brushing his hair Leith looked at the man's reflection in the mirror.

"How long have I been here‌?" he asked.

The man said nothing for a few seconds then shrugged.

"About twenty hours."

Leith turned to face him. "Is that all?‌"

The man nodded.

Leith shook his head in disbelief.

"Ready to go‌?" asked the man.

Leith walked over to the door. It was opened for him.

"You're going for another little drive," the man smiled. He looked almost friendly. "No cuffs or blindfold this time. You even get to sit up front."



*****



CHAPTER 8


West Washington, DC

Heavy rain overnight had given the streets a dirty, oily sheen. The car sped through featureless suburbs huddled under a slate grey sky.

He was beginning to feel a little better. The huge breakfast had been good and the first man had very gently and professionally redressed his wounds. His chest hardly hurt at all but his arm gave him a dull ache, leavened only by a much sharper pain when he moved it in certain ways.

Still slightly woozy from the drugs, he had nevertheless identified the city as Washington, even before the car eased its way onto the neon-lit Beltway. The early morning traffic was light and moved in a restrained manner on the rain-black road.

Stanley, the small man, was driving with Leith bedside him on the front seat. John, the cold-eyed blond, was behind on the back seat, a heavy presence whose every movement made Leith want to flinch.

Perhaps they weren't going to kill him, but he couldn't help thinking this was just another stage following the torture and the drugs.

He watched glumly through the side window at the blur of the road and wondered if he'd have had the nerve to jump, even if John hadn't so ostentatiously demonstrated the childproof lock fitted to the front passenger seat.

An off-ramp took them into a small unfamiliar section of Alexandria called Chilton. The car slid by street after street of expensive houses. It seemed deserted until they came to a private security car parked at the kerb. Stanley nodded to the men inside and one of them waved back.

A couple of hundred yards later the car swung into a large Georgian style house fronted by a circular drive. It was set in grounds dominated by a variety of established trees, brilliant with autumn colours even in the dull light. Several expensive cars were parked in a square offshoot of the drive and the car nosed in to a space between a Mercedes and a Saab.

"Get out," said John.

Leith waited until Stanley had walked round to his door and released the catch. As he got out Stanley laughed as though Leith had made a joke and clapped a hand gently across his uninjured arm. The rain had started again as a fine mist, which accentuated the heavy sweet smells of loam and cut grass. They walked back to the stone stairs, which led up to a flat area in front of the main door. The ornamentation of the balustrades was old and worn by the weather, like the house itself, but managed to retain a feeling of ancient and enduring wealth.

A man in a dark suit already had the doors open. Immediately the doors were closed, he frisked Leith, who noticed John raise one quizzical eyebrow. Leith winced as the man ran his hand over his wounded arm.

Finally satisfied, the man led them across and to the right of the large darkwood entrance hall to a large panelled door. He knocked and waited. After a couple of seconds there was a faint buzzing sound and the man opened the door, standing aside to let Leith enter.

The room was a library; each wall was set with ornate bookshelves full of old and expensive looking books. A large rosewood table dominated the centre of the room. The only jarring notes were a couple of military-grade Panasonic notebooks and a large flatscreen monitor on one end of the table.

Hearing the door close behind him, he glanced round and realised that none of the men had followed him into the room. That meant that the people in the room were confident they could handle him. Turning back slowly, he saw the reasons why, sitting at the end of the table nearest the screen.

"Please take a seat, Dr. Leith." A grey-haired man sitting in the middle indicated a chair on Leith's side of the table. "Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?‌"

Leave me the fuck alone! he wanted to yell, but instead:

"Coffee. Black." His voice came out so weak he had to repeat it. When he finally caught it the man nodded as though this was a particularly wise choice. His thick grey curls and aquiline nose would have looked fitting on an ancient Roman coin, but there was an air of politeness about him, almost a deference. He quickly poured out the coffee from a silver pot and leaned right across the table to put it in front of Leith.

"I hope it's to your taste." He gave Leith a pleasant, open smile.

Leith took a sip then paid closer attention to the other two people.

The woman was Emma Forbes. She was Chief Co-ordinator for the Records Integration Division's Western Hemisphere operations, though she looked not much older than Leith. Her face was set in a hard, searching expression but she was conventionally attractive with light, almost blond hair and grey blue eyes set in a narrow face. She was wearing a severe-looking brown pinstriped jacket over a white blouse, but there was no jewellery, even on her small fingers, which she tapped lightly against the desk. A workaholic, she was reputed to have little time for a social life.

The final person in the room was bad news by any standards. Leith stole a glance at him just to be sure, but the man was staring right back, so he looked quickly at his coffee.

It was Durrell all right. Point man par excellence, and the stuff of company legend. Leith had seen him only once before. He'd been with Nevis at a meeting several years ago. It had been held to set up an operation against some Chechyen narco-terrorists. The group had been intent on wasting a DA who was moving against their pals. The Company had lacked hard evidence, and what they did have had been obtained illegally through Nevis' section.

There'd been at least fifteen people round the table that time, but Leith had noticed Nevis staring at one in particular from beneath a darkening brow. Leith knew Nevis could be precious about violence so he'd paid attention.

Sure enough, 'Tom' had been given the job of tidying things up. Nevis had supplied the surname later.

"If people like us are the brains of the company, Durrell's the bone in the fist. The man's a throwback to the sixties," he remembered Nevis fussing at his shirtsleeves as he had said it. "But necessary, I suppose. " He hadn't sounded convinced.

Durrell didn't quite look the part. He was big, though not much bigger than Leith. His features were handsome, with soft brown hair cut short above a broad, urbane countenance. The lips, though not pronounced, seemed a little too sensuous, a little too full to tally with the coldness of the dark blue eyes.

He was dressed in a navy blue blazer with a white handkerchief protruding from the breast pocket. With his healthily tanned and weathered skin and his refined looks, he could have come straight off the Ryder Cup committee.

"I think introductions are in order," said the grey-haired man, rubbing his hands together. "The charming lady on my right is Dr. Emma Forbes, as I'm sure you know."

Leith looked frankly at her but didn't acknowledge the introduction. It was little wonder they'd got onto him so quickly. Nevis' section was like one strand of a web, with this lady lurking right at the centre.

"And this rather intimidating gentleman to my left is Tom Durrell. It's his job to keep us all alive in the troubled times ahead." Neither Forbes nor Durrell bothered to acknowledge the introduction, though neither took their eyes off Leith.

"And as for me," the man said with a faint air of bashfulness, "my name is Michael Stallard. I'm Comptroller of Western Hemisphere Intelligence."

Great, thought Leith numbly. He'd expected maybe a few lower echelon mavericks on a warped crusade against the Forces of Darkness. The feeling of hopelessness returned more strongly than ever. Escape could only be a temporary respite from these people. They had the resources to find him anywhere. Worst of all, they might send Durrell after him.

Stallard looked suddenly rather sad and penitent. "I realise that I can't begin to apologise for the horrors we've put you through," he seemed to brighten up a little bit, "so I'm not even going to try. Believe it or not, we've almost certainly saved your life!"

Leith said nothing.

"I'm quite serious, Dr. Leith," Stallard hurried on. "There's something which you don't seem to have worked out," he stopped for a second then spread his hands out, palms up. "We're not the conspiracy you think. In fact we're the only people in the intelligence services whose good faith you can be sure of."

Leith shook his head. "So why put me through all this?‌"

Stallard smiled again. "Come on, Dr. Leith. You of all people must be familiar with the concept of the stalking horse. You and your colleagues use it all the time to flush out your targets. The conspiracy you've stumbled upon is very widespread indeed. We were afraid they were after us."

It did make a kind of sense. They had x-rayed him to make sure he was not carrying any homing devices and they had tortured and drugged him to get him to admit he was working for the conspiracy.

"Why bother‌? Why didn't you just leave me alone?‌"

"It was to both our mutual advantages. It was to ours because we're very few and they are many. Your assistance could be very useful. It was to your advantage because they'd have sought you out and killed you."

Leith shook his head again. "There doesn't have to be many at all. You'd need only a handful of people to blow away Middleton and his gang."

"That's right." Stallard was so good that Leith could almost believe his distrust was hurting the man, "but you've found only one piece of the jigsaw. Dr. Forbes, if you would be so kind..."

Forbes reached across to the terminal and pulled the keyboard closer. As she tapped in a few commands she began to speak.

"The Woodhaven incident was only one of many," she looked up at Leith, "in fact it's arguably the least significant. On the continental US the worst incident occurred at Las Vegas four days ago. I presume you heard about it."

Leith remembered it vaguely. It seemed like a lifetime ago. "Yeah, dead gangsters, right‌?"

They all looked appalled.

Stallard cleared his throat. "Really, Dr. Leith. I must confess to being taken aback by your lack of knowledge. This was one of the greatest mass slayings outside wartime that has occurred in this country. On the ground at least. The death toll was an order of magnitude greater than the St. Valentines Day Massacre. The Agency pays you to be aware of these things."

Leith felt his face get hot. "I've been busy. Solving mass terrorist slayings, being kidnapped and tortured. That kind of thing." He was shouting.

Stallard put up his hands and looked abashed. He seemed to be about to apologise but Forbes started to speak:

"In fact some one hundred and thirty 'gangsters' were killed, Dr. Leith. We have a security video showing what happened. It was taken in a corridor below the Crusader casino. The corridor led to a room where there was a high level meeting between narcotics syndicates - the Mafia and the Colombians specifically."

The flatscreen monitor lit up to show black and white freeze frames of a corridor from two camera angles. The corridor was crowded with men, seated in two rows facing each other. Leith heard Forbes tap a key on one of the notebooks, and the video began to run. One second the men were sitting peaceably, the next World War III broke out. He watched in horror as men died.

"We'll come to the precipating cause in a minute but, for now, note two things. Only one man got out of that corridor alive." In synchrony with her words a man leapt up and disappeared past the camera. The view froze: "yet there were originally twenty men in there."

She looked at Leith again but this time there was real intensity in her gaze.

"With that many people, even in a gunfight at short range, you'd expect some survivors. At least for a while."

She tapped a key and the picture unfroze. "We got teams of ballistics people to match the scores of bullets fired and the guns used. It turns out nearly half of these men were 'finished off' by guns that weren't accounted for." She fast-forwarded the video. The bodies lay unmoving, then the screen went black. "But the tape ends before that bit.

"Now let's check out what happened next door."

This time the men were older and they had a long expensive table separating the two sides. They started out prosperous and menacing, but ten seconds later they were all dead. Soon after that to the top left of the one camera's view a man burst into the room, gun drawn. Then he, too, toppled forward and was still. The gun he had carried was the first one Leith had seen in the conference room.

"None of the forty men in the main room were killed by any guns that we have recovered since. There were at least six weapons used in these executions, ranging from something like a Saturday Night Special up to a heavy calibre machine gun."

"I can't see where the shots came from."

Forbes nodded. "Neither can we. Most of the room isn't covered by the cameras: it seems the people who set them up were just interested in monitoring the bosses for the sake of the bodyguards outside, and vice versa. We can't understand why these people would let anybody else into the room when they left their bodyguards in the corridor."

"Are there any other entrances to the main room?‌"

"No, and I know what you're going to ask next. The cameras were turned on just before the meeting started. Nearly everyone, including the killers, had arrived."

"Maybe it was a three way meet: Mob Colombians and perhaps the Triads or the Yakuza, even the Yardies. Maybe the third party wanted all the action."

"That was our first conclusion. But there's problems. Why didn't this third party bring its own bodyguards, why were they allowed into the room with guns when nobody else was, why did the bodyguards shoot each other and not burst into the main room to protect their bosses from this supposed third group‌?"

She shook her head. Her perplexity seemed to make her angry. "Another fifty-four corpses were found in the rest of the hotel. Most were the 'hometeam', the local gangsters who seemed to have been refereeing and policing this little social. The other twenty dead were the backup team of bodyguards who were off-shift in their rooms or in one of the bars. They were all taken out, most on a one-by-one basis. Perhaps Agent Durrell would like to comment on that."

The big man cleared his throat then spoke in even, almost mild tones. "You'd have needed a whole SWAT team just for one of those animals. They were spread out through the whole hotel. There'd have been a lot of noise; the others would have been alerted. The team's work would have got progressively more difficult. It would have taken hours but forensics says that wasn't so. All the targets were taken out more or less simultaneously."

He paused and looked ruminatively at the ceiling. "In my opinion you'd need at least sixty or seventy highly trained combat personnel to mount that kind of operation. Stuff on that scale just isn't achievable by any criminal or terrorist groups. Nor by any foreign intelligence services.

"People like the Israelis could mount that kind of thing but only on their own soil. Not here. It was just too big." He shrugged. "That just leaves us with the domestics. Military Intelligence maybe, but they couldn't have handled the foreign jobs Forbes is about to outline. It just leaves us with the Company." He looked back at Forbes.

"Thank you, Mr. Durrell," she smiled slightly.

*

It was this last little civility, on top of all the horror of his last twenty-four hours, that made him blow. His outburst before had been but a premonitory rumble, now the fear that had held back his anger was swept aside. He hammered his fist down hard on the table. The silver spoon jumped out of his saucer and skittered noisily across the table.

"Pull yourself together!" Durrell's flat tones filled the sudden silence with deep menace, but it was not enough. Leith was already on his feet.

"Pull myself together!" he roared. "Four fucking great holes drilled in my arm and a slab of flesh butchered off my chest and you tell me to pull myself together!" His hands clawed into fists and he felt the heat of blood in his cheeks.

Durrell moved slightly, leaning his left shoulder back against the chair, his lapel falling clear of his armpit. Leith saw the dark stubby handgrip nestling there and wondered if he was going to die. Fists raised impotently to shoulder height, he froze.

He became aware that Forbes and Stallard were looking across at Durrell. When Durrell realised this too, his broad brow creased.

"What did you expect?‌ You said to be sure."

"Your men mutilated him‌?" Stallard's voice had become harder.

Durrell shook his head in disbelief. "With all due respect Comptroller, I don't think you realise the problems of interrogation, particularly when there are severe time constraints. I..."

"Never mind," Stallard cut him off. "We'll talk about this later."

He looked quickly away from the glowering Leith.

"We really are sorry, Dr. Leith. Please sit down again. I'm sure I speak for Dr. Forbes when I say that we're shocked by your treatment," Forbes nodded. "I must nevertheless take full responsibility. It was at my behest, although I never suspected that your 'rough treatment' would have permanent effects."

Fear of Durrell made Leith sink back in his chair.

Stallard kept looking at him, his concern apparently genuine. He waited a few more seconds but when Leith said nothing he cleared his throat and continued.

"The important point, Dr. Leith is that there have been numerous incidents like this. There are also, on the face of it, marked inconsistencies, politically speaking.

"In your own verbal report to Dr. Nevis you implied this was a right wing conspiracy. Incidentally, that took a remarkable conceptual leap on your part, bearing in mind the tenuous nature of the evidence. Can you wonder that we were suspicious?‌

"But to get back to the point, it's certainly inconceivable that a left wing conspiracy of this magnitude could exist within the Intelligence Services. The Woodhaven and Las Vegas deaths are indeed consistent with right wing death squads operating at home. But when working abroad they seem to take a more catholic political remit. Dr. Forbes‌?"

She nodded. "You must understand, Dr. Leith, that with this level of conspiracy it becomes almost impossible to separate paranoid fantasy from reality. There are brutal and unpleasant incidents going on all the time somewhere in the world. Even so there has been a perceptible increase in this background level of violence and mayhem. Much has been in Central America and seems directed against members of the right-wing death squads," she hesitated, her lips pursed.

"It's no secret that the CIA previously had close contacts with these people and gave them a lot of covert aid. Foreign policy has shifted since then, but the Agency still considers these people major sources of intelligence. They do not seem a likely target for a right-wing cabal, yet more of them have been assassinated in the last month than in the previous three years put together!"

She turned and typed something on the terminal and a series of images flashed across the screen. "Crippling acts of sabotage have also shown a major upswing recently. Supply dumps, armaments factories, oil refineries have taken a hammering across the world. These incidents occur almost exclusively in countries with repressive regimes, but otherwise they can be found across the whole political spectrum. China, South Africa, Sri Lanka. If this is the responsibility of just one group then we haven't been able to get any kind of ideological fix on them." She looked back at Stallard.

Stallard was looking quizzically at him. "You don't seem impressed."

Leith tried to dredge up the energy for a reply. "There's maybe something here but I think you're going way over the top. These kind of things do happen all the time."

Stallard smiled and nodded his head enthusiastically. Leith was astonished by the amount of effort the man put into being polite.

"I think you may be right but could I possibly be allowed to emphasise one point‌?" He actually waited until Leith at last felt duty bound to nod his head. "If this conspiracy is behind even only a fraction of these operations, then they still have more than ample resources to silence every one of us."

He paused and tried to look severe. "When you first arrived I said we had almost certainly saved your life. Perhaps you're beginning to glimpse the truth of this. Even taking the best-case scenario, the intelligence services are permeated by a powerful conspiracy whose motivations and affiliations are unclear. Power like this - especially one which places such a low premium on human life - poses a major threat to this country. There can be no doubt that they would eliminate us if they perceived us even as any kind of threat."

Stallard picked up his pen and put it into an inside pocket in his jacket. "Clearly we must tread very carefully as we compile more evidence. We daren't take this to anyone else in the company. The conspiracy must extend up to the level of at least one Deputy Directorship."

Forbes and Durrell nodded sagely, and Leith knew then they were all crazy.

He realised Stallard was still talking. "... interested, it was Dr. Forbes who first hypothesised the existence of a conspiracy. She and I have worked closely together over the years and I am pleased to say she trusted me," a nod and a smile. "I brought Tom in. All sorts of things could happen and it's always best to have him on your side right from the beginning.

"You'll stay here for the rest of the week and the weekend. You'll have access to our files," he pointed vaguely in the direction of the computers.

"Are you secure?‌" an obvious question but too important not to be asked.

"Our systems here aren't even connected," Forbes answered. "They're totally isolated from the outside world. Any relevant stuff you come across at Langley, you take out as sneakerware."

"Risky."

She shrugged. "What else can we do? If we tapped into any company computer it would give them a bridgehead into ours."

Leith folded his arms and sighed. "So you are going to let me go."

Stallard looked crestfallen for a second, then smiled broadly.

"I'm sorry if I didn't mention that little point, which I see is of some concern to you. Yes, we will let you go, but I must insist that you look through the data we have collected so far. I'm confident it will convince you. Don't talk to any of Durrell's men who you see about the house; they know little of what's actually going on."

"What will I tell the people at Langley on Monday morning‌?"

"I'll handle that," said Durrell with arrogant assurance. "You've been to stay with a friend while you were ill with gastro-enteritis. I'll arrange the friend and the medical certification."

Stallard stood up. "I'm afraid I must leave you now. Dr. Forbes will show you the computing facilities then Tom will show you your room. He'll assign one member of his staff to make sure you're comfortable," the slight emphasis on the last word managed to convey the concept of supervision. "Good day to you all."

Stallard made for the door, his stride energetic and jaunty. He didn't attempt to shake hands, perhaps realising Leith would ignore the proffered hand, perhaps realising that there were limits even to his charm.



*****



CHAPTER 9


Chilton, Washington

He woke from the muzziness of a half sleep to find 'John' standing over him. Blond hair, wide forehead, cold, cold eyes. Memories of ill treatment rammed into his consciousness. He sat bolt upright in the bed.

In the gorgeous, Tudor-style, four-poster bed.

Shaking his head in bewilderment he started to remember.

"Good morning," said John, laying a tray of coffee down on the bedside table.

"Yeah, thanks." Leith lay back against the pillows as John left and waited for his heart rate to return to normal.

The house and Stallard's implacably polite manner both reeked of a fortune in old money. Even Leith's bedroom, one of the smaller ones in the house, was bigger than most New York apartments. Large south-facing windows let in enough light to stop the wealth of dark seasoned wood making the room look gloomy. A notebook was perched incongruously on top of a mahogany and green leather desk. A Panasonic toughbook, the kind the military used in combat situations; they were hardy as fuck, but cost several grand.

Stallard's predictions had proved true. Far from being a prison, his house now seemed like a place of sanctuary. Out in the real world malevolent forces were undoubtedly at work.

The coffee was delicious. Dark and full-roasted, it eased his passage into the day. He savoured it, concentrating on the taste to the exclusion of everything else. Then he had a shower in the en suite bathroom and dressed. While he finished his coffee he turned on the TV at the foot of his bed.

The early morning news was full of the bombing in Queens, and several other mass slayings throughout the country. All seemed to be linked with the Las Vegas incident, power struggles just like Lundt had predicted. In the rest of the world a few of the countries with spicier regimes were under martial law; Turkmenistan, Israel, China. Just about all points south, in fact. All being brought slowly but inexorably to the boil.

He dreaded the thought of leaving. Stallard and the others had left him pretty much alone over the last few days, letting him browse at will through their database of clippings and reports. It had taken only a few hours to convince him of the frightening and widespread powers of the conspiracy. Manpower intensive operations, which must have been logistical nightmares, had been mounted all over the globe. Each country laid the blame on local terrorist groups who, after years of general ineffectuality, were suddenly supposed to have got their act together. It was only by looking at the picture as a whole that the real scale of the nightmare could be glimpsed.

He'd come to doubt that he'd make it through the day. Durrell's cover story was good - he'd had a chance to speak to the newfound friend who had 'nursed' him - but there was one central and potentially disastrous flaw. Whilst Spencer, the man to whom Nevis had reported Leith's suspicions, was one of Stallard's cognoscenti, Nevis was not. If Nevis had even hinted to anyone else about Leith's weird ideas or even, God forbid, that he was part of the conspiracy himself, then Leith was a dead man.

Durrell seemed to be equally short on confidence. He had stayed with Leith on the Friday. Durrell was pretty much the same height and width as him, but the difference between them was like night and day. With Durrell everything was directed, thought out beforehand and carried through with precision and commitment. The only thing about him that was not lean and finely calculated was his anger. Perhaps with people like Stallard he could keep it under control, but with Leith he made no such effort. The poison pill had been the last straw.

"What?‌" Durrell had almost shouted.

"There is no way on God's green earth that I'd swallow one of those."

A finger as hard as a shotgun barrel thudded into his chest. He fought the urge to bring up a hand to protect the sore spot. Durrell was leaning in close.

"Look, you asshole, that thing with Halliday and Sears was just a fucking gag compared to what the bastards'd do to you. Knitting needle up the hole in your dick, boiling oil in your ear, your eyeball scooped out with a..." Leith tried hard not to listen.

"No fucking imagination, that's your trouble," Durrell said when he'd finished his catalogue of horror. "If the time comes you'll think I was a saint."

Leith sat unprotesting as Durrell glued the tiny flesh-coloured pellet inside the fold of skin just above his right earhole. He was assured that the glue was saliva-soluble. He thought he'd try a different tack.

"But if these guys are CIA too they're going to know about the pill."

"Right! So if you're smart you'll swallow it as soon as you suspect capture. Otherwise you'll be spilling your guts, and I'm not necessarily being metaphorical. Halliday says you weren't exactly Iron Mike Tyson."

"Would you swallow it‌?"

"Sure." Durrell said it in a way that made any expression of doubt both inconceivable and perhaps terminal.

The final conversation with Stallard had taken place the night before at dinner. The food had been sumptuous but Leith had had little appetite. They had taken brandy in front of a roaring fire in the study. Leith had glumly rolled the amber liquid around the bottom of his balloon glass while Stallard had told him his fortune.

"You have no choice, Bob. You do realise that don't you‌?" Stallard lounged in the deep leather chair, his eyes never leaving the burning logs.

Leith nodded to himself. "Sure. And I can't tell you how good that makes me feel."

"I'm sorry son, but there's nothing else I can do for you."

Leith took a taste of the brandy and looked across at Stallard's classical profile. "You could give me money for plastic surgery."

Stallard's brow creased slightly. "Be serious! The CIA knows the colour scheme on the walls of every nip and tuck set-up in the Western Hemisphere."

"They think they know!"

"Of course we know, " he looked across at Leith, "and I wish you'd get it clear in your mind that we are the CIA. They aren't." he looked back at the fire. "And the reason we know is that we have people like you keeping tack of such places. How do you think you'd go about that, Bob?‌"

It didn't take long. "The records of medical supply companies," said Leith dully.

"Quite," Stallard paused then looked across at Leith again. "Bear in mind it'd be people like you who'd be set on your trail. Even if you ran away to a commune in the wilds of Washington State, for example. How long do you think it would take to track you down?‌"

Leith pursed his lips. He had a college friend who lived in just such a commune up from Spokane to the South of Washington State. They'd done the job on him. He shouldn't have been surprised.

"Running men are quite common in our line of work. Mean time to capture is less than a week." Leith had been involved in such things and knew it was true.

"I still think my sudden transfer to Forbes' section is going to look suspicious." They had been through this many times. Leith knew he was after reassurance.

Stallard finished his brandy and put the glass down on a table by the side of the chair. "Forbes' section is genuinely short on staff at the moment. Your apparent success with the Woodhaven business would make you a good choice for a temporary transfer. Being groomed for higher things so to speak. We need you there."

"What about Nevis?‌"

"That's up to you, dear boy. If he's part of the conspiracy the game's up right away. If he isn't, then he must be stopped from telling anyone about your allegations. If you don't think you can guarantee his silence then have a word with Durrell. You know the dropcodes." These were codes to an answering machine, which could be accessed regularly by Durrell from a payphone. They served to insulate a potentially compromised Leith from the rest of Stallard's group.

"You'll put him through the same process as me‌?"

The firelight cast the lines on the older man's face into greater relief, making his look of regret almost comic.

"Perhaps not. We've limited resources and not enough time. Forbes tells me others are becoming suspicious like you. They must be protected first. Remember, Nevis dismissed your objections out of hand."

Leith looked at Stallard in disbelief. "You can't have him killed just for that!"

"No," there was real impatience in the man's voice now. "You'll have him killed. For God's sakes, Bob, the minute you step through that front door you're taking big but necessary risks. Don't foul things up by taking a whole bunch of unnecessary ones."

Leith went to take a gulp of brandy but found he had already finished it, so made for the tea instead. The delicate handle of the bone china teacup made his fingers seem like sausages. He took a sip of the strangely perfumed liquid and carefully replaced the cup in the matching saucer.

The breakfast room would have put most dining rooms to shame. The heavy wood table with its sturdily sculpted legs could have accommodated eight comfortably. Each wall, like most in the house, had at least two paintings. They looked very old. The Stallards had kept mainly pastoral scenes, and the occasional New England seascape for the living area, relegating what looked like severe family portraits to the less frequented hallways and rooms.

Old houses usually oppressed him, the dark wood and heavy furniture seeming to absorb so much light, particularly in rooms poorly served by windows. But in the breakfasting room, as in much of the rest of the house, artfully placed lighting triumphed, making it bright and airy. It must be a great pleasure living in this house.

The gardens too looked wonderful, though he was only allowed to observe them from within the house itself.

Stallard had left for work early, so there was only one other person in the room.

Lotte Stallard smiled shyly at him as he buttered his toast. Her pleasantly plump face was soft and unlined and her carefully styled auburn hair was luxuriant in its colour and body. The overall effect was of a woman in her early forties. Only her hands belied this: they looked thin and fragile like the china. She had also spoken of a grandson working for one of the hydralike DC law firms. Did he know that some of them had four hundred or more partners?‌ Wasn't that incredible‌?

He had nodded politely, privately reflecting that this fitted with his conception of lawyers as tapeworms in the gut of society. They, too, had a high fertility rate and could block up and even kill their hosts if allowed to spawn uncontrolled. A four hundred partner law firm was a telling indication of a critical infestation.

"Were you able to get much work done this weekend‌?" Her voice could be a little high, a little querulous at times, but like Stallard's was short of a recognisable accent. Her questions, though oblique had begun to get embarrassing. Stallard had warned him not to discuss business with his wife, and that in any case she would not want to know. He had been wrong. Perhaps in normal times this was so but now, with armed men always around and strange people coming to stay for days at a time, she was clearly concerned.

"Some," he said and tried to change the subject, "but this is such a beautiful house, it makes it difficult to concentrate. The gardens are gorgeous too."

She nodded and smiled wryly. "Bought with slave money, of course. Just like all the other big old houses on this side of the DC boundary. It's a subject that doesn't crop up much at cocktail parties nowadays, although it's something our black mayors try not to let us forget.

"My side of the family, I'm afraid. We had a virtual monopoly for supplying Virginia with 'product'. What's worse is that mine's the first generation to see any problem with that."

She went quiet, and he guessed that talk of the bad old times had found some sort of resonance with her present problems. She seemed about to speak, but hesitated, and he was afraid she would say something embarrassing like a plea to take care of her husband.

"The garden must need a lot of work," he rushed in, "What do gardeners charge nowadays‌?"

She gave a little nod, as though in acceptance, and told him.The sky was as grey and dull as the day he had arrived at Stallard's house. The tyres of Halliday's car made a faint but continual squishing sound as he drove Leith to pick up the MGB from the garage where it was being repaired. Halliday dropped him a couple of blocks from Sammy's garage, turned the car round and drove back in the direction they had come from.

Sammy, his bald pate gleaming in the light from the fluorescents, had been taken aback when Leith had paid the huge bill without comment. "You OK, Bob‌?" the ferret eyes had given him the once-over and there had been real concern in his voice.

Leith had tried out the gastro-enteritis story and Sammy had seemed to buy it.

He had driven the now perky car to Langley, dread tainting every mile of the way. If they were onto him they'd probably stop him at the gate. Either he would be forced to wait until he was collected and taken elsewhere or there would be an 'accident' as he drove up.

He sighed with relief when he was let through with the usual cursory nod - but he couldn't rid himself of the feeling that eyes were watching. Then he remembered that in Langley, they always were.

Nancy looked very concerned when he got to reception.

"How are you feeling Bob, honey?‌" she asked solicitously.

He gave what he hoped was a brave little smile and gently rubbed his stomach. "Still a little shaky. The world fell out of my bottom."

She laughed. "You can't be that sick if you're back to making tacky jokes."

"Nevis in‌?"

"Yeah. He said he wanted to see you as soon as you arrived."

The others were already busy working. Morgan looked up when Leith entered. "Ho, Bob! How's it going‌?" he yelled.

Leith held a hand up, palm down, and waggled it gently.

"Hey, Bob," DeMarco was smirking at him, "Must have been someone you ate."

Leith gave him the finger and headed for Nevis' office. Looking queasy now took no effort. Nevis couldn't know it, but if he said the wrong thing in the next few minutes, Leith would have to contact Durrell. The sudden power gave him no pleasure at all.

Nevis was all concern. He almost helped Leith into a chair.

"Feeling better?‌"

"About my guts?‌ Yeah, much better. About what I said to you last time, not at all. I feel so stupid. I guess so much happened last week, it kind of wound me up inside. I started to see shadows where there weren't any. I hope I didn't cause you any embarrassment!"

Nevis gave him a big smile. "Its ok, Bob. I reported it to Spencer, as you insisted I should, but he was very understanding. I must admit though, when you didn't come back the next day it made me wonder if perhaps they'd got you," Nevis gave a little chuckle but Leith thought he saw a trace of uncertainty in his eyes.

He tried to look suitably abashed. "Please, Stan! Don't even joke about it." He swallowed. "This must be bad for my promotion prospects."

"Not at all," Nevis seemed relieved, "in fact your prospects never looked better. They want you on the first floor. Seems Emma Forbe's section is short of a couple of people. They want you to fill in as best you can. This is a great opportunity, it'll give you a better perspective on the work of the whole department."

"Wow, but why me?‌"

"The Woodhaven job of course, what else‌" Leith looked and listened closely but Nevis seemed genuine.

"I'm flattered, but there was an element of luck involved."

"You're too modest, Bob. You should be proud of what you've done."

"How long is this transfer going to last?‌"

"They say no more than a couple of weeks, but who knows‌?" said Nevis archly.

"You could've refused permission. You'd have had every right after what I said to you last time. I hope it can all be forgotten."

Nevis nodded vigorously. "Both Spencer and I agree that it doesn't even have to go in your assessment. Your secret's safe with us!"

Afterwards, while winding up his affairs on his terminal, Leith mentally replayed the conversation with Nevis over and over again. It still sounded fine but whichever way you cut it Nevis was no fool. He would be suspicious.

But no matter how dangerous that might be, Leith knew he could never bring the hammer down on an innocent man.

Later on in the day he went up to Forbes' section and pretended he was meeting her for the first time. He was shown around the spacious offices with minimal ceremony and introduced to the people he would be working with. Enthusiastic, neat and squeaky clean they seemed typical company clones, but he knew that in a few days he would begin to appreciate and probably curse their quirks and eccentricities.

Forbes herself turned out to be a surprise. On the surface severe, he soon saw her other side; her kindness and concern for her staff, and the wry humour with which she cajoled them to greater efforts.

He wondered how she had lived under the pressure. By mid-week he was a wreck, starting at unexpected sounds, always checking to see if people were looking at him. Yet Emma had known for almost a month, had lived with her fear all that time. Better than anybody, she knew the world was going mad.

He'd returned to his home only once to get more clothes. The place had felt unsafe and defiled and he hadn't managed to sleep there. He took a cheap motel not far from the Grindstone.

Early on he realised they wouldn't kill him at Langley, nor at the hotel where he was waiting for them every restless night. They'd get him out on the streets, when he was most vulnerable, where accidents happened most.

Day by day the horror grew. He'd been assigned to identify members of the conspiracy by correlating the worst outrages with the availability of personnel. It soon became clear the same team couldn't have been used for all the jobs, that the sheer volume of incident implied a penetration of the Covert Actions Group that must be virtually total. And of course they'd have needed vast logistics and intelligence backup as well. It was like lifting a floorboard and finding a house eaten away by rot.

By Friday he could take the fear and loneliness no more.

Pressing the button, Leith faintly heard the gentle chimes sounding in Lola's apartment, and then a strange thing happened. Time seemed to stretch out away from him and it was like he was going backwards, reviewing his life. Myriad images flashed into his mind in an accelerating profusion until he came to the morning when the men had woken him. The tunnel of time grew hazy, dissolving him, killing him.

Feeling dizzy, he supported himself against the door frame and rubbed his eyes. When he opened them he saw Lola standing looking at him, her brow wrinkled with concern.

"I hope this won't go to your head, Bob, but you look like shit."

He nodded dumbly. She stepped aside and he walked past her then turned back as she closed the door. She was wearing a red silk Chinese robe and her face was slightly flushed and without makeup.

"Did I interrupt your shower‌?"

She shook her head. "No, your timing's perfect. I'd just finished drying my hair." She shook her head to show him and her short hair bounced obligingly like she was doing a shampoo commercial. Leith, his sense of humour skewed by weariness and despair, had to suppress a childish giggle.

"Bob, are you OK‌?"

He opened his mouth to speak but could think of nothing to say. Instead he put his arms round her and crushed her tiny body to his, burying his head between her neck and shoulder. Her fresh smell flooded into him and he was comforted to feel passion again. Stepping back he undid the belt of her robe, then grasping the lapels he pulled them slowly and deliberately back exposing her small breasts. Her tawny nipples hardened under his scrutiny and he bent down to take one in his mouth, rolling it around his tongue. Then he felt her hands on his hair, pulling him off. He looked up into her puzzled face.

"Please," he whispered.

She hesitated while her eyes searched his then she nodded slightly. She took his hand and led him into the bedroom before letting her robe fall to the floor. He stood motionless for several seconds until she became uncomfortable under his hungry gaze. She brought her arms up to cover her breasts. Stepping forward, he pushed her gently back onto the bed, then parted her thighs and brought his head down between them.

Later, when he was purged of the demon that had driven him, she placed a firm little hand on his shoulder.

"What was that about‌?"

He looked at her. Her cheek was still wet from his kisses. A lump came to his throat. "I can't tell you," he said miserably.

"Are you in trouble?‌"

He nodded.

"Big trouble?‌"

A tear rolled over the side of his nose and dripped softly onto the pillow. Lola seemed as alarmed about this as he did. She reached across and cradled his head against her breasts. He watched in addled wonder as the tears rolled down the tanned skin and started to form a pool in her belly button. She stroked his hair.

"Spy-stuff‌"?

"Yeah," he croaked.

"Something to do with these‌" She touched the bandages and plaster on his chest and arm. When he didn't answer, she pulled his head off her so she could look into his eyes. "Are you in physical danger‌"

He swallowed hard so that he could speak clearly. "I shouldn't have come to see you," he realised he was whispering, "but I made sure I wasn't followed. I was desperate to see you."

She smiled. "So I noticed."

"But it's OK... I figured I owed you one after raping you at the climbing contest." She hesitated then continued in more earnest tones. "I know a cabin in the Allegenhys..."

He shook his head sadly. "I can't run away from this."

Her concerned expression made her eyebrows flatten out into almost perfectly straight lines. He laughed.

"Can't I do anything to help?‌"

He smiled and touched her breast.

This time he was in Middleton's flat. Nevis was clawing wildly at his hands but Stallard and Durrell were managing to hold him down.

"I'll tell you any fucking thing you want to know," Nevis shrieked. His glasses were cracked and had slipped down below the ear on one side. Leith numbly pushed Nevis' tie aside and ripped open his shirt. Running his hand down over the thick black hairs, he counted out the first three ribs.

"No! God no!" Nevis was sobbing now, but Leith's hands were not his to control. Nevis managed to jerk a little as the knife cut through his skin, but then it was firmly into the muscle and couldn't be dislodged. Putting all his weight onto the knife, Leith felt the flesh yield easily. Then, through the handle he felt the deep thudding vibrations as the blade pierced Nevis' heart.

Nevis screamed, then Leith was going backwards, Stallard and Durrell at each shoulder, pushing him out onto the balcony and over into the void.



*****



CHAPTER 10


Langley, Virginia

Leith wolfed into the hamburger, uncaring of the ketchup and mustard drooling out onto the tabletop. His appetite was back with a vengeance, and he was making up for a week of abandoned meals.

He slurped at his thick chocolate shake and cast a happy eye down over the slate grey waters of the Potomac. The autumn sun had already dipped down below the red plastic parasol above his table, but its light was weak and didn't bother him. The fast food joint was filling up with commuters fresh from work. When he had parked his car the lot had been empty, but now the MGB was hidden from view by other, bigger cars. He put down the milkshake and sighed with pleasure.

It was as though a curtain had suddenly been thrown open, the cleansing light washing away his hopelessness and despair. The sleepless nights, the dodging of shadows, the conviction he was being followed, had all turned out to be paranoid delusion.

He laughed quietly to himself as he recalled how morose and withdrawn he had been at work, how he'd gained a reputation as a grouch among his new workmates. For this and his sporadic bursts of nervous anger, he had gotten disapproving looks from Forbes.

Ah, Forbes. Did he have good news for her!

His remit to track down those company people in on the conspiracy hadn't gone as planned. It had started out okay and the information had certainly been there. Forbes' section had high-level access to just about everything, including gate records, work logs, and vacation and sickness listings. The company employed nearly 40,000 people, but numbers trained for covert action nowadays was little more than one thousand.

He'd used Stallard's database to identify fifteen incidents he was confident were the work of the cabal. To differentiate these from run-of-the-mill terrorist outrages they had to be large scale, carefully targeted acts of violence aimed at a specific goal and producing an unexpectedly high degree of success. The fifteen he had chosen had all taken place over the past two months, and should have given him plenty of data to work on. Stallard had stressed that all they needed was one member of the cabal to be clearly identified. Durrell and his men would do the rest.

It wasn't until the conspiracy had mushroomed into thousands, and despair drove him to look for something to take his mind off the horror, that he checked something that had been bothering him. A weird idea from the Las Vegas incident which just wouldn't go away.

And he'd made the discovery that had changed everything.

He finished the hamburger and wiped its remnants off his face with a napkin. Checking his watch he saw that Forbes' was due any minute. He'd taken a memo to her at lunchtime, giving her the coded message signifying he wanted a meeting. It seemed wiser to defuse this thing quietly. The company would have to be alerted so that plans could be drawn up, but Stallard was better qualified for that.

At the table next to him a Japanese family were sitting down. One of the kids said something in a high-pitched petulant tone, instantly stilled by one fierce look from the Nikon-bejewelled father. The little boy cast his eyes down and started to unwrap a hamburger.

Impressed, Leith smiled to himself and turned back to see Forbes striding towards him. Her breasts jiggled nicely under her grey blouse; and her black skirt, though not tight, didn't disguise the comely shape of her hips.

"You're looking very attractive toady, Dr. Forbes," he said as she sat down.

She looked at him in amazement. "What‌?"

"I said..."

"I know what you said. I just want to know why," she held up a warning hand, "and don't dump that corn on me again. You've spent the last five days skittering around like a whipped puppy. Now suddenly you're all smiles and come-ons!"

Leith beamed at her. "I've got some good news, and I want to tell the others. We've got to arrange a meeting with Stallard and Durrell and..."

"SHUT UP." Forbes' eyes were blazing. She leaned forward, speaking in a hiss through clenched teeth: "This place isn't secure, you idiot. Don't mention any names!"

Leith spread his hands and chuckled. "Its ok. You see," his face split into a broad grin, "there is no conspiracy!"

Keenly interested in the effect of his words, he watched as her jaw dropped slightly. He sniggered, satisfied at the response. Then he stopped. She wasn't looking at him but at something over his shoulder.

"Don't move. Keep your hands in full view or we'll shoot."

The voice sounded hard, its owner hyped-up.

Leith did as he was told. Rough hands pushed under his jacket, feeling for a gun. Meanwhile a slender black man dressed in a grey suit walked round behind Forbes, gun in one hand. He ran his hand over Forbes' body, even up under her skirt and between her legs. Behind him, Leith could hear the Japanese coughing up their hamburgers in surprise.

"Put your hands on your heads and stand up." The voice was a little less tense this time. It sounded like the speaker had stepped back a little. As he stood, Leith had to step around his chair and this gave him a chance to look at the guy. The man had a similar business suit to the black guy but looked older and bigger. The jacket bunched slightly at the thick muscles on the upper arm.

The man jerked his gun towards the parking lot. "Start wa..." he began, but was interrupted by a chattering sound from somewhere back in the lot. Something rippled up the man's chest, then red holes appeared suddenly in his neck. His gun discharged, the flash burning across the back of Leith's hand, and the man staggered back into a table taking it to the ground with him.

Leith spun round to see the black man in a crouching position with gun aimed towards the lot. Following it, Leith saw a man weaving towards them. Then the chattering sound started again, something in the man's hand flashing. Leith could hear glass shatter behind him and people started screaming. Forbes pulled him to one side just as the black guy's head snapped back and he started to fall.

"Follow me. MOVE." Leith belatedly recognised 'John' and hurried after him towards the lot. Forbes was in front and barefoot. He found himself wondering when she had ditched the high heels.

They ran onto the rougher surface of the lot. A screeching sound to the left stopped Leith in his tracks. A car leapt forwards towards John. He levelled his machine pistol and swept it to the left. A line of spiders' webs appeared across the windscreen then it imploded onto the occupants.

John started to run to his left but the car altered its course towards him. At the last minute John dived back towards Leith, and Forbes but the radiator caught his legs and his body jack-knifed round to crunch into the front wing of the car. He hung there for a split second before being flung to the side. The car screeched to a halt and the back doors flew open, men with guns scrambling out and seeking cover behind other cars. On the ground John was still alive but he'd lost his automatic weapon. He reached into his jacket but then started to twitch as bullets slammed into him.

"RUN!" he heard Forbes yell, and then he was stumbling after her away from the lot and back towards the restaurant. Someone yelled at them to stop, then there was a single shot and Forbes lost her footing. Going too fast to avoid her, Leith's legs caught her back as she fell sideways and he crashed onto the gravel surface.

He felt the skin on one side of his face scraping against the road. By the time he managed to sit up the men had reached them. He looked across at Forbes who was bent double clutching her stomach, her face white with pain. Blood was already beginning to ooze out from between her fingers.

Leith looked up stupidly into the barrel of a gun and wondered if he'd feel the bullet smashing through his skull.

Back at Langley, Durrell was getting into his car. It was a 4WD Volvo, turbo powered and with the heavy impact strength he always liked to have on his side.

Today had been hard, a never-ending bombardment of reports and other trivia. He wondered if they'd designed it that way, to prevent him recognising the signs. If so, they needn't have bothered, he thought grimly. They trained him to be paranoid. He saw signs everywhere, all the time.

Pulling out of the parking bay, he turned right onto the feeder road at the end of the section. It was getting late and the only cars in the lot were the compacts of the cleaning staff. Fifty yards from the guard post he saw Carlsson in a blue jogging suit, with a 'go-faster' white stripe across the shoulder and down the sides of the legs and arms.

Durrell's wide brow twitched in puzzlement. What the fuck was he doing back...‌?

And then he knew for certain.

Durrell jammed his foot down hard on the accelerator but the landmine blew even before the turbo could cut in. The Volvo inverted instantly, crashing down onto the trunks of a line of cars. The whole front section seemed to leap at him, the steering wheel buckling under his chest but taking some ribs with it. Blood splattered the dashboard and he felt the safety strap cutting into his throat, choking him.

Fumbling now at his chest, trying to find a way past the buckled wheel to the Ingram, he was showered in glass as the side window was kicked in. An arm clad in blue with a white stripe along its length, pushed the muzzle of an automatic into his eye.

"Don't try it, Tom!"

It didn't come out well: it felt like his windpipe was caving in, but at least it was understandable.

"I'll kill you, Carlsson!" he screamed. "I'll fucking kill you!"



*****



CHAPTER 11


Drake Federal Penitentiary, Maryland

The cell was growing dark, but Leith didn't mind. It made it easier to think. He sat quietly on the bunk, his back against the coarsely plastered wall, mentally twisting and turning the complex conceptual structure that he had built up during his incarceration. Clad in the rough prison clothing, in this Spartan cell he had begun to feel more monk than prisoner. And he felt his contemplation had been rewarded.

The air was suddenly filled with the penetrating clanging and clattering which heralded the opening of the door. Maybe this time, he thought, or perhaps its just more questions.

The big black guard called Elphinstone who was responsible for this wing of the isolation block sauntered in. Eyes brimming with merriment shone out of a big hard face, which split into a wide grin as he stared down at Leith's slumped form.

"Heads up, men! It's show time!"

Leith regarded him balefully. "Can't I just be left alone for a few hours?‌"

Most of Elphinstone's face took on a very stern look, but the eyes gave him away. "Not in my isolation wing you can't!" he said, striking an heroic pose, hands on his hips, and stared out of the window at a sheer cement wall which separated the unit from the rest of the prison. "Besides, this ain't your CIA pals. This is more R&R. Entirely for your own benefit," he added, waving a hand at Leith "It's OK, you don't have to thank me."

Leith was surprised. "A visitor‌?"

"Not a visitor. Not as such." Elphinstone indicated the door. "After you."

Leith heaved himself to his feet and slouched out onto the landing, his hands thrust deep in his pockets. The landing was deserted. He'd been considered such a security risk that all the other cons had been moved out. He followed the directions Elphinstone had given him, walking through long stretches of featureless corridors filled with the ever present prison smell. Two parts mansweat to three parts tomcat piss, he estimated. All the time he could hear Elphinstone padding along behind him.

They came to a door, which Elphinstone unlocked. Leith heard him lock it again after he had ushered him inside. The room was painted in a drab yellow and was bare but for a wooden table, two chairs and a single occupant.

"Stallard!" The man looked reduced in his prison greys but he got courteously to his feet and forced a smile as they shook hands.

"It's reassuring to see you again, Bob. I'd begun to think I was the only one they'd left alive." He sat down again slowly and carefully, Leith guessing the sleep deprivation was making him giddy.

"Are you all right‌?"

Stallard smiled wanly. "No, to be honest. Brings back uncomfortable memories. Not the sleep deprivation, they weren't that sophisticated in Vietnam. No, its the four walls ... the helplessness." His voice tailed away.

"Vietnam?‌"

The older man nodded. "The Ho Chi Minh Trail. It's true what they say, you know. The Cong beat us with bicycles. They just loaded them up with the supplies and wheeled them round the bomb craters the B-52s made. Delayed them a little but never stopped them. I was the first intelligence officer to discover that but before I could report back they caught me. I was shut away for nearly two years. They did things to me I can't begin to describe."

His eyes met Leith's. "That's why I was genuinely upset to discover what Durrell had had done to you."

There was silence for a few seconds as Leith tried to think of something to say.

When Stallard was looking at him again, Leith mouthed the word: 'Bugged‌?'

The older man looked at him for a few seconds, disbelievingly. "Of course it's bugged," he said in normal tones. "We know it's bugged and they know we know it's bugged. They know everything, though they don't seem convinced they do. Do you have news of any of the others?‌"

"Halliday's dead," Leith replied flatly. "Emma Forbes got shot through the back while we tried to make a run for it. Nasty exit wound in the stomach. I don't know how she is."

Stallard put his head in his hands. "Poor Emma," he said softly.

"And you?‌" Leith prompted after a few seconds.

Stallard shook his head. "They picked me up at Langley. I was alone. They just walked into my office and arrested me. When they drove me out of Langley we passed some wrecked cars in the lot. A big Volvo was upside down on a heap of others, and there was a small crater nearby in the road. My guess is that's how they got Durrell."

"My God!" Leith blinked in astonishment. "The bastards!"

Stallard shook his head. "On the contrary. That demonstrates remarkable courage and restraint. The crater wasn't big enough for an anti-tank mine: that would have turned even a Volvo to confetti. It must have been one of the anti-personnel variety; just enough to flip a car over. They clearly had hopes of taking Durrell alive. They must've been desperate to question him."

"You don't sound hopeful."

"Durrell isn't the kind of man you can disable with shock. It just isn't in his genes. As long as he's alive and conscious he's bad news. I admire them for taking such a risk. If I'd been in their shoes I'd probably have had a couple of snipers take him out from long distance." He smiled, then must have seen the look on Leith's face.

"You look shocked. You've got to understand that Durrell's a highly trained nightmare. You can't afford to take chances."

Leith realised belatedly how the man's manner was confusing, perhaps deliberately so. It made you confuse gentility with being gentle. A new thought occurred to him.

"John appeared from nowhere when I met Dr. Forbes. That's when the shooting started. Was he tailing her‌?"

"Sure. He was Emma's protection."

"Didn't I warrant protection‌?"

Stallard shrugged. "Not enough manpower, dear boy. Sorry." He stopped. "If John was there you must have been meeting Emma outside Langley. Why‌?"

"I had something important to tell her. And you."

Stallard looked puzzled. "I don't understand. They picked you up, then ... Why didn't they wait for you to lead them to me and others‌?"

Leith lowered his head. "It could have been coincidence but I did mention your name at the meeting place just before all hell broke loose. I guess its possible they were using a long-range listening device."

Stallard sat back in his chair. "You've killed us all!"

Leith shook his head. "No I haven't. That was what I was about to tell Forbes. OK, it did shake me when they came down on us like a ton of bricks, but when they brought us to this place..." He gestured around then looked back at Stallard. "Kind of odd, locking us up in a federal penitentiary. Rather public, wouldn't you say?‌"

"Maybe. The company has many resources."

"Wouldn't it have been a lot less embarrassing to use other resources for our interrogation like a warehouse somewhere?‌ Speaking of which, as interrogations go, it was rather mild." He looked hard at Stallard, knowing he was being mean, knowing he was just trying to shift his own guilt. Stallard had hit the nail on the head. He'd been feeling sick for days, blaming himself for the deaths of John and the two other men, and for Emma's shooting.

Stallard, probably because he was weakened, took the bait. His pallor lifted slightly. "Constant questioning coupled with sleep deprivation can be just as effective and mentally destructive as physical torture."

"Rather that than mutilation," Leith said firmly. "The fact is that these guys have treated me a lot better than you did. And there's a simple reason for that."

Stallard remained silent.

Leith leaned forward trying to convey the truth by the force of his words. "There...is...no...conspiracy!"

Stallard laughed.

Leith continued. "The guys who took us aren't part of some massive cabal. They're from the Office of Security, just doing their job of internally policing the company. They must have become suspicious about a group of people who were acting the way you were. You and Forbes, and God knows who else you haven't told me about, have been stealing information from company databases. On your instructions, and with Forbes approval I've been accessing the names and work histories of all the point men. Then, to top it all we've been meeting clandestinely out of work to discuss the data."

Leith sat back and folded his arms. "They think we are part of some conspiracy, spying on our own employers. That's why they arrested us. That's why they've placed us in a Federal penitentiary, because it's all official. That's why they took a softly softly approach to Durrell's capture. That's also why they keep asking us who we work for, not what we know about them. Just like Halliday and co. when they abducted me."

Stallard shook his head. "I should have realised you were part of this. Everything has collapsed since you joined us. I must congratulate you for the way you stood up to the...troubles... we put you through."

"I'm not lying, Stallard. Can you explain all this any other way?‌ Why we're not dead already?‌"

Then he realised Stallard was only playacting. His accusation had seemed almost part of some routine; it lacked the venom which real belief should have given it. Leith guessed he'd worked out a lot of this for himself. He was probably just trying to make sense of it.

The older man brushed a hand through his curly white hair. He looked away for several seconds. "If it wasn't the company then who was it‌? Who would have the power to do all those terrible things?‌"

"Well," Leith hesitated, "...I have a theory, but you're not going to like it..."


It took another week. He told his story again and again to a series of CIA interrogators, sticking doggedly to his interpretation of events despite levels of ridicule ranging from the deadpan to the histrionic. Eventually they wore him down to the point where he had desperate thoughts of telling them what they wanted to hear. They seemed to sense it too and immediately decreased the frequency of his interrogations, allowing him precious periods of sleep. Their questioning also underwent a sea change, the focus shifting away from supposed treason towards his crazy ideas.

On the thirteenth day Elphinstone brought Leith's civilian clothes to his cell. "I'll be sorry to see you go. I'm a student of human misery and I figured I could've got a Masters out of you at least."

"They're letting me go?‌"

"Oh, I doubt it," Elphinstone chuckled. "It probably just means you're being arrested officially. They'll be taking you to another prison elsewhere. We just want to make sure we get our clothes back."

But it wasn't a prison van that was waiting for him: it was a limo. The men who accompanied him weren't wearing uniforms. The drive took about fifty minutes and brought them to the Parkway and the obliging sign above it pointing to the right saying 'CIA'.

The flaming red of the trees had dulled a little in the three weeks since Leith had finished living a normal life. His eyes hungrily devoured the scene, a familiar sight made strange by his time in jail.

The guard at the gate waved the limo through. There were no signs of the explosion Stallard had described. The limo swung left towards the main building, pulling up at a service entrance at the back.

One of the men opened the door for him. "Please follow me, Dr. Leith." Tiny though this politeness was, it spoke volumes. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity Leith began to feel at ease.

The conference room they took him to was at basement level. Two of the walls were covered in plain heavy drapes, perhaps to try and convince people they were above ground. It was a wasted effort: the material of the drapes and the thick grey carpet muffled all sound, making the room seem closed in. A large conference table was positioned at the far end of the room with a video projection screen to one side. On the table was the inevitable notebook.

Really powerful men exude an intangible sense of their authority: Leith, callow though he knew himself to be, recognised this. Inherited power may endow similar properties, but it is a shallow thing compared to power which has been earned. These five men had had to work to get where they were. Little would worry them. Little was not within the sphere of their control. The CIA was often said to be a young man's firm but that was true only up to a certain level, above which seniority was associated with age and experience. None of these men looked under fifty.

They were all ranged along the far side of the table opposite the single vacant chair. Despite their air of confidence, the men were not relaxed. They sat stiffly, hands clasped in front of them on the table.

The man at the centre was very slim, his hair greyed to the point of whiteness. He had blue eyes in which Leith read a trace of the arrogance that power almost inevitably brings. "Please take a seat, Dr. Leith," he said, gesturing to the seat next to the notebook with a thin hand. Leith noticed with surprise that the two outer fingers were missing.

There followed several seconds of silence during which Leith felt himself being weighed up like a suspect Rembrandt. "No introductions?‌" he asked at last.

The thin man shook his head. "Who we are doesn't concern you, at least for the moment." The man paused as though choosing his words carefully.

Leith didn't give him a chance.

"You all believe me, don't you‌?" he said, and was gratified by the reaction. The men seemed to draw back very slightly and even glanced at their neighbours. All except the thin man in the centre who showed no reaction at all.

"That's certainly an overstatement," his tones were cold and precise, "But yes we are ... interested in some of the things you've been telling your interrogators." He pointed to the notebook. "We brought you here to try and prove what you say is true. We have access to copies of all the data you used on your last day in Dr. Forbes department. If you want more data from the net then we can get it for you. Our suspicions aren't sufficiently allayed to give you direct access to the net, however."

"How's Forbes?‌"

The man nodded. "She'll recover. The bullet missed her spine."

"Durrell?‌"

The man smiled grimly. "Bombed, crushed, garrotted. I'm told it was nothing he couldn't handle."

"OK. Now tell me why I should cooperate with you. Have you any idea what I've been through?‌"

"You were party to the unsanctioned removal of data from the Langley net. That was treason." The man clearly felt no need for further justification.

"I was under the orders of Comptroller Stallard."

The thin man shook his head. "No good. You knew Stallard was working outside of his authority - in fact outside of the CIA - altogether. Don't waste our time."

Leith regarded him silently for a moment or two then checked the sheet of paper placed next to the notebook for log on instructions. "OK. I'll play it straight - though it's a strategy that's done me no good at all so far. What put me onto this was the very specific and often strange way people were being killed." He looked up at the men. "Do you know the details of the Middleton case‌?"

The thin man nodded.

The notebook was set up with the same command set he was used to. He soon found the sequence he wanted.

"The deaths of the three men were strangely fitting considering the crimes they'd committed. Real eye-for-an-eye stuff. People who I've talked to put it down as a slaying/suicide gay thing, and I don't blame them. They'd just about convinced me I was wrong when Durrell's men kidnapped me. Stallard showed me stuff shot by a security camera at the Vegas massacre. It was to show me that the 'conspiracy' was involved in more than the Woodhaven thing. Instead it reminded me of some other unpalatable facts that had already got me in trouble."

He ran through the full Las Vegas sequence, then clicked back through the final few frames in the conference room until the mobster Bari had just backed against the wall.

He pointed. "This guy was capo to the Pittsburgh boss. The capo's called Bari, the boss Scipio. Bari was the sole survivor of the shoot-out in the outside corridor." He ran the video frames of Bari's last few seconds.

"The autopsy showed Bari was hit by one peripheral shot which took off the back of his head. It blew out most of his occipital lobes." On the screen Bari moved and his hand came up to feel the wound.

There were expressions of distaste from some of the men. Leith waited for a few seconds then continued.

"Bari had spent fifteen years working his way up through the ranks of the Mob. He was Scipio's nephew so he had his patronage from the start. Pittsburgh police have linked Bari with a series of underworld hits, most recently of several Colombians." He called up a digitised frame from a second file. Front and back pictures of a dead Hispanic male appeared on the screen. Most of the back of the man's head was missing.

"The dead man was called Cesar Torres, one of Pittsburgh's Colombian fraternity. He was the most recent casualty of the narcotics war between the two gangs. He was the victim of a car-to-car hit." His throat felt suddenly dry and he poured himself a glass of water from a carafe placed by the terminal.

"Seems Torres had been waiting at some lights when a car pulled up beside him. Either the assassin was a bad shot or Torres started to pull away just before the gun was fired. The bullet didn't hit him dead centre, but caught him towards the back of his skull.

"There was one witness who managed to pick out Bari's face from the mugshots. But she withdrew her statement when she found out who it was. There was no other evidence against him. The car he used was torched, leaving nothing for forensics. The gun was never found."

He looked back at the men. They were all looking at him closely. He began to feel nervous. Things which had seemed certainties in Drake were losing cohesion. It was such a crazy idea. He cleared his throat.

"What I'm saying is, Bari was killed in a way closely resembling the way he killed Torres." He hit another key and the scene flipped back to the conference room before the massacre.

"Was this sort of thing true for the other Mobsters too‌? Trouble was these guys were very active, the killings they were suspected of involvement in soon mounted up.

"But Mob killings are fairly standard, usually involving shots to the head or heart, and usually directly from the front or back. The only other variables are the type of gun and the range of the shot. Bari's death was easy to correlate because it was so non-standard. All I can say about the others is that as yet there is no inconsistency with the eye-for-an-eye hypothesis. Assuming of course that it transfers up to those who gave the orders," he indicated the gang leaders, "because some of these, particularly the ones who inherited their empires, probably never killed anyone directly in their lives."

He turned back to his audience. "I won't waste your time with more details but basically the same modus operandi applies to a number of other incidents, as least those where the background is checkable." He started to count off on his fingers. "The murdered mercenaries employed by ranchers in the Amazon - most were ex-FARCs; the piles of dead Real IRA and Loyalists found in Dungannon; the massacre of the drug army in the Shan states of Burma; the elimination of two Israeli counter terrorist squads; the destruction of at least four Central American death squads. I can show you the details, but perhaps you'd prefer a summary‌?"

There were a couple of nods. Leith noticed the man on the far left gave the crispest, most severe one. Leith guessed he was military.

"The CIA's files are probably the most comprehensive intelligence files in the world." He saw the thin man raise his eyebrows."Or maybe the KGB had bigger files back in the day, if our own figures are to be believed.

"Anyway, I obviously couldn't trace the past histories of all the victims. All I can say is that in the thirty or so case histories which I was able to check properly, there were no inconsistencies with this kind of tailored-revenge hypothesis."

The thin man interrupted. "Wait a minute. Getting back to the Mafia chieftains. They must have had men killed in all sorts of ways. It could be chance that their deaths matched so closely."

"Agreed, though the Mafia aren't usually that bloody nowadays. No, I didn't include the dead Mafia or Colombians in the figure of thirty I just gave you."

He looked for reactions but found none.

"I'm sure you've already grasped the most important point but I'd better state it explicitly." Leith paused and looked at each man in turn." I found all this out retrospectively. Even in the case of Middleton I only looked because he was dead in suspicious circumstances. How did the person who was responsible for all this know that Middleton was involved in terrorism in the first place?‌ It's the same story with the Irish, the Israelis and so on. Retrospectively they appear guilty as sin, but there was usually nothing to alert us to their true affiliations before they died."

He put his hands flat on the table. "OK, that's all bad enough. It implies that the mysterious people behind all this, let's call them System X for want of a better name, have access to a lot more information than any single intelligence service. But there is a second and even more incredible factor demonstrated by the Las Vegas killings. It's something everyone has shied away from," he sighed and glanced at the man on the right. "The fact is that these actions are so effective that they just couldn't have been done, at least not by any means we're familiar with."

He called up the video from the casino. Like a sleazy circus act brought back for an encore, the mobsters did their dying again. While this was going on he continued speaking. "Over a hundred and thirty Mobsters were holed up in the hotel, some remaining in their own rooms which were spread throughout the two wings. They had neither been drugged or gassed before they were killed. There were no chemicals in their bloodstreams inconsistent with the usual range of narcotics or pharmaceuticals men like that would be expected to consume. Within the ranges of error inherent in estimating times of death, all these men died more or less simultaneously."

He looked again at the military man. "Durrell was pretty impressed by this operation and claimed that at least eighty men must have been involved. But he was bullshitting; he just couldn't bring himself to recognise the facts. No counter-terrorist or military commando team is that good. Delta Force, SAS, you name it. It just couldn't be done.

"It might be tempting at this point to give way to superstition. Powers beyond our understanding: an almost Biblical form of punishment. At first sight there seems almost no other explanation. Divine retribution - what else could it be?‌"

He stopped and studied the men. The thin man waited a few seconds then asked: "Well‌?"

Leith smiled. "I've had a lot of time to think while you kept me in prison. I've been working things out. Let me run one thought by you. Its an idea which might explain why you," he turned to the military man, "are here."

He paused for effect. "Something's gone wrong with a few, or even perhaps all, of our nuclear weapons, right‌?"

The sleek, relaxed, powerful individual suddenly paled dramatically. Leith almost whooped with exultation as he felt that heavy, greasy thing called power come his way.

He noticed that two of the company guys were looking at the military man expectantly. They clearly hadn't been told but the realisation was dawning and they couldn't hide their surprise.

Leith leaned back in his seat and fastened his angry gaze on each man in turn. He smiled but without humour. "I know and understand things that you're desperate to find out. What's happening is the most important thing the world will ever face in our lifetimes, but you haven't got any sort of handle on it at all." He started to take off his jacket as he talked.

"Throughout this whole miserable time I've acted in nothing but simple good faith." Now the jacket was off he rolled up the sleeve of his shirt to reveal the bandages. Despite the pain he began to tug the plaster off. It made a loud ripping sound.

"For acting like a boy scout, for working for the sake of the CIA and, indirectly, the American people, I've been kidnapped, threatened, interrogated, shot at and mutilated." The plaster came away to reveal the four stitched holes and the massive purple bruise covering his upper arm. Leith was gratified to see it looking so horrible. He glared back at the men. They stirred edgily in their seats.

"I'm not very happy," he said just before the eruption came and he was on his feet yelling at the top of his lungs, "In fact I'm fucking furious!"

The thin man's face pinched up and he looked sourly at Leith for a few seconds, then he nodded and gestured for Leith to sit down again.

"You're right, Dr. Leith. You've been treated abominably. I'd like to apologise on behalf of the company. My name, by the way, is Niedermeyer. I'm Deputy Director, Intelligence. Before you judge us too harshly bear in mind that we thought we too were acting in the interests of the nation."

"No more prison?‌"

Niedermeyer shook his head. "We'll also make financial reparations for the pains you've suffered. Your career record will remain unblemished. Now will you help us‌?"

"I want more, Niedermeyer. I've had enough of being the fall guy. If you really want to find out what's going on then you need me. But I'll have to run the show, not Nevis, Forbes, Stallard or whoever you put in their place. I'll be the boss."

Niedermeyer clearly did not like the idea. Leith felt his cold eyes flicking over him. Leith smiled.

"But first we'll start with some introductions."

Niedermeyer nodded. "The gentleman on the end is General Cauthen, he represents the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The next gentleman along is Gordon Williams, our presidential advisor. The gentleman to my left is Stafford Holm and next to him is Edward Lauthe. They are Deputy Director, Support and Deputy Director, Plans respectively."

Leith studied the backs of his nails. "That's unfortunate."

"What is?‌" Williams asked sharply. He was heavily built and almost bald. His voice was high, almost childish.

"You're all dangerously senior. System X has access to all our information sources. If it thought we were on to it I suspect we would be eliminated instantly. We've got away with it so far because the suspicions have filtered up from people at relatively junior levels like myself and Forbes."

Niedermeyer cut in. "This room is perfectly secure, I assure you. But more importantly, getting back to the warheads, how did you know‌? And do the Arab nations or China or anyone else know‌?"

"I wouldn't worry too much about the Chinese. My guess is they've got exactly the same problem."

Cauthen sat forward. "I'm glad you said that. I'd thought perhaps I was being optimistic in my interpretation of some of our intelligence reports from China. It's a difficult business tightening security while at the same time struggling to maintain the appearance of normality. It produces odd tensions that manifest themselves in unexpected ways. Why are you so sure the Chinese or anyone else for that matter are in the same position?‌"

Leith shook his head. "No. I want some assurances before I start answering questions. I head the team that works on this. That's my minimum condition. I report to you, Niedermeyer. I never meet any of you others again, at least until this is resolved. The reports that you make to the people who manage you," he looked at the presidential advisor, "must also be purely verbal. Nothing we say must ever be encoded on a database or electronically recorded in any way because System X has access to it all. They musn't be alerted."

He looked at Niedermeyer." You will temporarily promote Dr. Stan Nevis to run Forbes' department. Stallard will go back to work as though nothing has happened. Both men will report directly to me. The same applies to Durrell; he's my man from now on. Forbes' department is too central to divert its resources to investigating System X. It'd be too obvious. You'll put me in charge of my original section. They're what we'll use to continue the investigations."

"Even in an overt sense, that jumps you up two levels of promotion, covertly it's more like eight, if you were to become senior to Stallard. That kind of career leap is unheard of."

"And it still will be. None of this goes on paper. My pay and conditions change only to accommodate my overt promotion to Nevis' position. Only you, Stallard, Nevis, Durrell and Forbes, if she returns before this thing starts to get nasty, are going to know what the chain of command really is."

"Why do you say 'nasty‌'?" Williams narrowed his eyes.

Leith ran his fingers across the keys of the terminal but didn't press any. "System X has devoted a vast amount of resources to its project, which I think amounts to a kind of social engineering on a global scale. The trouble is..." he sighed," the trouble is that it hasn't worked. They're going to have to try something else."

When Leith didn't continue Niedermeyer shook his head. "You've got to explain why you think that!"

"My conditions! Do you accept them or not‌?"

Niedermeyer looked unhappily at the other two Deputy Directors. They stared back blankly. Niedermeyer pursed his lips then turned back at Leith.

"I guess we have to," he said evenly.



*****



CHAPTER 12


Chilton, Washington

"The fourth dimension?‌" Stallard swirled his brandy. "And they bought it‌?"

"What else could they d?o‌"

Stallard looked across at Durrell. "Don't let this man sell you anything, Tom old son. He's a devil when it comes to marketing."

Durrell looked angry. He had done since his release from prison, when he'd been informed that a man he'd had tortured was now his boss. He'd kept very quiet.

The report of his capture had made interesting reading. His partial crushing by the Volvo's steering column had proved fortuitous for everyone concerned. He'd been unable to get at the Ingram submachine pistol he kept in a holster under his left armpit. Nevertheless, he had managed to account for the top two joints of a security guard's finger. The man had been trying to remove the poison pellet before Durrell could get to it.

They had finally clubbed him with the butts of their weapons until this, or the asphyxia brought on by hanging upside down by a safety strap, had rendered him unconscious.

Leith had forgotten about his own pellet until one of the arresting officers had spat copiously into his ear. He'd taken it as a gesture of contempt, until the man had started poking industriously at it.

A big purple bruise discoloured the point man's skin just forward of his right temple. His top lip had been split by one of the blows, and the medics said he'd probably cracked a couple of ribs. Despite this he showed not a hint of pain or discomfort.

The blazing fire cast huge inconstant shadows across the high moulded ceiling of the lounge. The faded embroidery of the chairs seemed to gain a new life under the light from the flames. Old but still comfortable, the armchairs were arranged in an arc about the burning logs. Stallard would occasionally select an iron from a Torquemada's assortment in a rack by the fireplace. With it he would perform arcane operations on the log, which never seemed to burn quite so well after. It looked like fun though.

Leith had moved in with Stallard at the man's insistence. His own house in Prester was too far out and too vulnerable, as Durrell's men had shown.

Stallard rolled back the sleeve of his silk dressing gown and poked at a log with a three-pronged iron. He was wearing a white shirt open at the collar and plain black trousers under the gown.

The log disappeared in a cloud of sparks. "Naturally I'm familiar with the concept of the fourth dimension. I'm a big fan of the Twilight Zone, you know," Stallard said, "but perhaps you'd care to refresh my memory."

Leith couldn't help laughing. He stretched out luxuriously and ran a hand across his chest, the fabric of his new white sweater still cotton wool soft. He'd treated himself. He felt he'd earned it.

"People shy away from the idea of a fourth dimension, but they forget that in reality we live in a world of scores of dimensions."

"Scores," said Stallard, his eyes sparkling, "I see."

Leith laughed again. "It's true. Dimensions are just ways of measuring where you are. Right/left, up/down and front/back. But what about hot/cold, light/heavy, happy/sad. What about the colour of something, or even how much it's worth‌?

"All these things are variables that can be represented graphically, just like the position of something on a map. Just to describe this..." he touched a lamp beside him, "I need to give not only its position, but all the other things I've mentioned, requiring a graph with six or seven axes, six or seven dimensions. And that's just the ones I could think of off the top of my head. There's others like reflectivity..."

"No, no, no," Stallard chuckled, "I know I'm just a dumb old Comptroller of Hemisphere Intelligence but I don't think these things are quite the same. Light/heavy and all the rest aren't spatial dimensions. That's what we're talking about here!"

"Ok, so you're hung up on this spatial business. I'd just like to suggest that in an absolute sense the others are equally valid, equally meaningful." He took a sip of brandy and felt a rivulet of rich fire course across his tongue.

"I guess the Flatland analogy is the best one to use. I can't show you where the fourth spatial dimension is. I certainly can't point to it. But perhaps I can give you a hint of what it means by talking about what a third dimension would look like from the viewpoint of a two dimensional creature."

He ran a palm over the drinks table that lay between his and Stallard's chair. "Imagine the surface of this table as forming a two dimensional world called Flatland. This tissue is a two dimensional creature who lives there. The creature, we'll call him Bush, is without depth or height. He only has length and breadth. If Bush comes across a closed building in Flatland ... have you got any pens or pencils‌?" Stallard, ever obliging, hurried to a bureau at the far wall and brought back with him a handful of fresh pencils. Leith laid four together end to end to form a square. "He can neither enter it nor look inside. Happy so far‌?"

"Never more so," replied Stallard. Durrell nodded and sat forward, the right side of his mustard-coloured cardigan bunching up around the Ingram. Does he ever disarm‌? Leith wondered.

"But we're three dimensional creatures. We can look inside the building without any trouble because we have access to the higher dimension of 'up'. We can also cause any mayhem to poor old Bush that we like, and he can't even see us coming." Leith crumpled up the tissue.

"Now try extrapolating that up, with us as the 3-D equivalent of a Flatlander and System X as a four dimensional hyper-observer."

Stallard waved his brandy glass. "Hang on a minute! What about time‌ Isn't that supposed to be the fourth dimension, technically speaking‌?"

Durrell cut in before Leith could reply. "No. Space and time are inseparably linked. What Leith's talking about is a real fourth spatial dimension. Its not a new idea, Einstein's General Theory regards mass as warping space in a fourth spatial dimension. Nowadays they actually need nine dimensions for theories on superstrings but the higher ones are compacted over distances smaller than a hydrogen nucleus." He looked at Leith and must have caught his blank expression.

"I majored in physics at college. It's kind of a surprise to find it applicable in these circumstances."

"Right," said Leith," I guess life's full of surprises."

"What I don't understand ... " Stallard reached over and pointed his finger vertically down at the tissue, "... is that if I fired a gun like this, the bullet would pass through Bush and leave Flatland. The Flatlanders would never find it."

"Yeah, but we did. I get your point. The answer is that the Flatland analogy breaks down because their universe is the surface on which they live. But we have access to an extra dimension so we aren't necessarily bounded by such surfaces. Using the Flatland analogy, our 3-D universe would seem to a 4-D observer like the two dimensional world with a permeable surface to us. We could lay the barrel of the gun in the plane of the table and fire into that dimension. That way the Flatlanders wouldn't suspect our presence."

"I guess that's how System X could eavesdrop on us." Durrell pinched the end of his nose. "They just hot-wire a data bus, it wouldn't matter where it was or how secure the facility. As long as they made sure the current they took out was the same they put back in, they'd be undetectable."

"Exactly, but that raises another point we've got to be aware of. We've concentrated up to now on the idea of electronic interception but someone from System X could be here right now, listening to us, seeing us, getting a good look at the insides of our coronary arteries if they liked, and we wouldn't know a damn thing about it!"

"Sorry." Stallard was shaking his head. "You'll have to run that last bit by me again."

"Its like the 'closed' building in Flatland. It really is closed to a Flatlander, but completely open to us as 3-D observers. Again, by extending the analogy by a further dimension, our 3-space bodies may be 'closed' to us, but to someone in 4-space they're open for inspection."

Stallard laughed. "A Peeping Tom's paradise."

"Also an assassin's paradise," said Durrell more soberly.

Leith nodded. "Right. They can do virtually what they like. They can kill anyone they want, no matter how well protected. And they have surveillance powers that would make Big Brother look like the Three Blind Mice. These people must be stopped and their power brought under control.

"In the meantime we've got to keep contacts to a minimum and be very careful what we say. We can only hope they're not already on to us. That's why we've got to use coded communications," he touched the three sheets of paper which he'd prepared. They were destined for the fire when they'd finished.

"How can we be certain it's not the Chinese or someone else?‌" asked Stallard, absently trying to smooth out the crumpled tissue.

"Without our nuclear weapons we're defenceless. Conventional forces would be powerless against this sort of thing. If it were the Chinese I think we'd have heard by now."

"So what next‌?" Durrell took a sip of brandy. It was still his first glass, though Leith and Stallard had got to their fourth. Stallard seemed to get a lot of pleasure in submerging people in his hospitality. Durrell had been adamant in his refusals of refills.

"Obviously we've got to track these people down. I don't believe anyone has suddenly stumbled on a way into the fourth dimension. It must have taken a lot of research expertise and resources. Even if we could step ana out of our world..."

"What was that‌?" Stallard sat forward.

"Sorry, that's the 4-D equivalent of 'up'. Ana and kata are like up and down, right and left, front and back," Leith found he had forgotten what he was going to say. "Anyway, even with access to 4-space, jobs like the Las Vegas massacre would still have needed quite a few personnel. One hundred and thirty four men couldn't have been killed almost simultaneously any other way. Remember each shot had to be carefully set up if it was to match a previous murder. I think Durrell may not have been far out. Maybe it took about a hundred or so."

"I'm sorry about that," Durrell shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "That was a dumb thing for me to say."

"Dumb but understandable. When the mind comes across something which it thinks is impossible, it usually manages to avoid thinking about it." The grandfather clock chimed. Leith automatically checked his watch, then remembered he hadn't answered Durrell's question.

"We start by finding out if anybody has been doing research into this kind of thing. That means primarily maths and physics research groups. Scientists working with high-energy particles, or perhaps cosmologists or topologists. A breakthrough could conceivably have come in any branch of science, but I think those are our best bets for now.

"We can also keep an eye out for new incidents which System X may be engineering. Like I told the committee, I don't think their plans are working out. Take the Vegas thing again. It seemed like a blow against gangsters and drug pushers, but look what's happened since. Terrible acts of violence throughout the country, like all those poor people killed in Queens. Has it made any difference to the level of crime or the availability of drugs?‌"

He shook his head. "It's the same abroad. System X cripples the military capability of North Korea. They blow up arms dumps, wipe out strike teams, and so on. Do the regimes become less oppressive as a result‌? On the contrary. There's a backlash and things get worse. It doesn't make sense."

"It sounds like standard terrorist theory to me," Durrell spoke with lazy confidence. "Drive your enemy further and further to the extreme, until they alienate their own supporters."

"Maybe, but whatever they're up to, we'll only find out if we examine carefully the incidents they engineer." Leith suddenly felt very tired. It was one pm and he'd had little rest in nearly forty hours. "I need sleep. Are there any more questions‌?"

"Millions," Stallard smiled, "but it's best we get some sleep. But there is one thing you haven't mentioned. Why are they so keen on this 'eye-for-an-eye' type of retribution?‌ It's such an inefficient way of going about things. After all, as you've suggested, they could just as easily block an artery in their victims' hearts or brains. Why the guns and knives and strangulation and so forth‌?"

"Maybe they are religious fanatics. Cranks who've somehow found a way into 4-space. I don't know," said Leith wearily.

"Maybe they just enjoy it," said Durrell, straightening. "Maybe they just like doing it the messy way," he gave a faint little smile, "perhaps they think it's fun."

They all clustered round the library desk. Only Nevis and Leith remained standing. DeMarco looked like he'd bitten into a hot dog only to find it contained a rat. "I don't fucking believe it," he moaned and put his head into his hands.

"You'd better!" Nevis had never liked obscenity, which was just about all he ever got from these highly-strung anal types. He rubbed his hands together as though they'd been dirtied by the bad language and looked across at Morgan and Slattery who were staring back open mouthed.

Slattery recovered first. "Just one frigging minute, Stan. DeMarco's the most senior, then me, then Ted. Maybe you'd like to explain how come Bob's the one who gets the promotion?‌"

Leith figured now was the time to assert himself. Twenty hours of sleep had done the trick and he felt like flexing his ass-kicking muscles. "I'm not standing in for Stan," he took his time looking from one to the other, confident Stan wouldn't interrupt. Stallard had left him in no doubt about the new status quo.

"I've been unofficially promoted. Above Stan. From now on Stan reports to me. Principal Collator Forbes, if she were well, would be reporting to me. Even the Comptroller of Western Hemisphere Intelligence is responsible to me. Stan's taking Forbes' job just to keep things ticking over while we do the real work." Out the corner of his eye he could see Nevis nodding his head.

"This is kind of sudden," Morgan was rolling his eyes and reeling his torso around. Leith had to smile. "How about some background?‌"

Leith nodded. "You'll get it, in all its nasty detail but right now I'll just summarise it. What it comes down to is that someone's fucking with the world. It isn't Al Qaeda, or North Korea, or even us." He smiled grimly. "Up to now these people, System X we call them, have used assassination and sabotage to get their way, whatever that is. We're pretty sure they've slaughtered at least three thousand people in the past couple of months alone."

DeMarco still had his head in his hands. "Pinch me! Pinch me! I wanna wake up now."

"This all started with Middleton, didn't it‌?" Slattery was looking intently at him. He smiled appreciatively.

"Yeah, for me it started with Middleton, but that was only one strand of the web. It's going to be up to us to find the spider, and I don't think we have much time."

Lola stood at the threshold of her flat still dressed in her light grey business suit. It was 6:30 and she'd just got back from work. She looked him up and down.

"You're looking well, Bob." She stared him hard in the eye and her mouth tightened in a flat, mean little smile.

"I believed you, you know. And I worried when I didn't hear from you, and couldn't get in touch with you, I figured you were dead. At least I did for about three days. Then I worked out you'd just given me a truly heroic brush-off."

He laughed and took her in his arms and hugged her but she did not respond. It was like hugging a statue.

"It hurt me, Bob. More than I expected," her voice was muffled by his jacket.

"No," he said, "It wasn't a brush-off. I swear I missed you so much!"

"Then what happened?‌"

"I can't say. Things didn't turn out the way I expected."

"So it was all paranoia?‌"

"Yeah," he said, his head on her shoulders where she couldn't see his face, "all paranoia."

She seemed to hesitate, then she put her arms round him. It felt great.



*****



CHAPTER 13


Long Island, New York

Swinging out over the Atlantic, and banking to the left, the jet began its approach to Kennedy. They slanted through the dense cloud until grey waters became visible below. Just for a second Leith thought they were landing in the sea, then it suddenly gave way to grass and the blackness of the tarmac and the plane was down.

The pilot taxied her straight to the private hangars where a helicopter was waiting, its rotors already in languid motion. Durrell, shouldering the steward aside, was quickly out of the plane, checking right and left before sprinting to the chopper. After a quick inspection he motioned to Leith who quickly followed.

Manhattan was hidden at first in the fine autumnal rain and the early evening gloom. They were over Queens before they caught the first glimmers of light in the sky, like a lone galaxy trapped above the island. The Queensboro Bridge slipped by below them, then they were amongst the crystal stalactites of Manhattan.

Leith had seen film clips of helicopter flights across Manhattan, but even so was unprepared for the complex beauty of the new universe it revealed.

The pilot circled the chopper round what looked like a brilliant string of pearls atop one skyscraper. He took it down in to the middle. Water whipped up from the surface billowed out like a skirt around them.

Outside it was cold and windy. By the time they got to the elevator Leith's fawn raincoat had been darkened by the rain. He ran his fingers through his soaking wet hair as the elevator fell towards the street. Durrell was in front of him as the doors opened, his hand beneath the left hand lapel of his bulky grey coat. Rush hour was over but stragglers were still crossing the lobby, umbrellas mushrooming as they surged out of the revolving doors.

"Follow me," said Durrell tersely and strode quickly across the lobby. The revolving doors seemed to concern him and he restrained Leith from entering.

"I go through first. When I signal, you move, and fast." Durrell's paranoia was catching. In the few brief seconds of vulnerability when Durrell was on the other side of the door checking the street, Leith glanced nervously over his shoulder at the lobby.

A loud bang made him jump and he almost lost his footing. Jerking his head round he saw Durrell's heavy palm flat against the glass. Durrell gestured angrily and Leith guessed he'd missed his signal. He dived into the first chamber of the door, irrationally afraid any hesitancy on his part would make Durrell smash his way back in.

Outside a dark sedan was waiting with the engine running. It moved off as soon as Durrell, hanging back to let Leith in first, slammed the door shut.

Leith watched the commuters scurrying through the streets, coats and hats held tight. New York's concrete canyon walls worked aerodynamic wonders, amplifying gentle gusts of wind into cyclones that inverted umbrellas and sent people skidding across the greasy sidewalks.

As other cars flashed by with minimal clearance it occurred to him that the company driver must have trained on the Yellow Cabs. Either that or he'd been severely brutalised as a child.

A ten block drive, another dash through the rain and they were at their destination. Leith shrugged off his overcoat as the elevator took them to the third floor. He had expected to see a bustling, open plan newsroom with excitable people in shirtsleeves shouting at each other and chewing on cigars. It turned out that the advertising manager of 'The Independent News' lived in an office well away from any hustle.

It was well furnished and the curtains had been drawn, giving it a cosy atmosphere. Saunders wore a dark business suit and had a 'Thank you for not smoking' sign on his desk. He looked younger than Leith but about ten times better paid. The gold cuff links and signet ring he wore must have doubled his weight.

After giving them a firm handshake Saunders indicated the free chairs. Leith had quickly learned to let Durrell decide where he was going to sit first. Not surprisingly the man took the most peripheral of the three well-padded leather armchairs in front of Saunders' desk. This gave him the best view of the door as well as of Saunders himself. Saunders mistook hesitation on Leith's part as a sign of deference and, looking expectantly at Durrell, asked:

"So, what's all the fuss about‌?"

Durrell gave him his long-dead zombie chainsaw killer look but said nothing. Saunders visibly recoiled.

Leith cleared his throat and the man seemed grateful for an excuse to look anywhere but at Durrell.

"I'd be grateful if you'd bear with us, Mr. Saunders." Leith reached down and pushed the slide-switch in the handle of his briefcase. Inside, the signal generator worked through the frequencies. The electronic display in the design logo of the case showed positive. Durrell was out of the chair in one smooth motion and unplugged Saunder's terminal from the power socket in the wall beside his desk. Saunders raised an eyebrow but said nothing. The red light went out and this time remained unlit as the generator swung again through the frequencies.

Leith looked back up. "Mr. Saunders, we're here on a matter which has grave national security implications. I must warn you that any attempt to record or report this conversation will inevitably be construed as an act of treason against the government and people of the United States. I must ask you to sign this declaration which says that you understand this."

Leith took a form from his breast pocket. He was discovering that the CIA had stuff to cover all sorts of eventualities.

"I'm sorry gentleman," Saunders sat back in his seat, shaking his head, "but I'm signing nothing. I'm as patriotic as the next man, old fashioned as that might sound, but I'm not gullible enough to let you knee-jerk me into doing anything you want."

"For someone who professes such patriotism you've acted in a surprisingly contradictory manner. You've already given your services to an enemy of the United States, to someone who is responsible for the most damaging acts against us since Pearl Harbour..."

Saunders laughed incredulously. "For selling some advertising space. Come on! And what 'damaging acts'‌?"

Durrell turned to look at Leith and raised an eyebrow. The well-tailored clothes jarred with the smashed face and the brooding malevolent expression.

Leith pretended to hesitate, to give the impression he was considering his options.

He turned back to Saunders, just in time to see his Adam's apple bob up and down as he swallowed.

"We've little time to spare," he said. "It's not as if we're demanding to know the identity of a source, of someone who might have tipped you off about some Capitol Hill scandal. Journalistic ethics might be a problem in those circumstances, and I would respect your stance. But this isn't some whistle blower or victimised citizen we're after. Quite the reverse. We need to know who placed that advertising copy.

"Let's make this clear. You either sign this paper and tell us all you know about the person who placed the ad or we arrest you for treason and take everyone in the building in for questioning. We can do that quite legally, and can hold everyone for up to seventy two hours. How many editions would you miss?‌ Four, maybe five?‌ How much advertising revenue would you lose?‌ And even if you do beat the charge, what kind of job will you have to come back to?‌ An advertising manager who blew several million dollars of revenue just because he wouldn't help agents of the government to prevent grave damage to his country."

"We'd sue for lost revenue. And win!"

"We don't care! By then the terrible thing we're trying to prevent would've happened and your paper's name would be shit."

Saunders blinked, then pursing his lips he picked up the paper and read it. "Look, I'll tell you all I know, but I'm signing nothing!"

"We have your assurances that all we discuss will remain confidential, that you won't communicate any information to journalists from this or any other media?‌"

"You have my assurance. As you say, I'm an advertising manager, not a journalist, I don't want to know what's going on."

"Let me make it clear that your verbal assurance is binding. We have taped this conversation. Do you understand?‌"

"Yes."

Leith nodded. "Just tell us all you know and we'll leave you in peace."

Saunders smiled at the thought. "If you're lucky, I may be able to do better than that."

The woman was red cheeked and full faced, almost as though she'd taken the stairs instead of the elevator, but the security camera had clearly showed her emerging from the elevator doors.


The woman waddled her way across the lobby of the Independent News. In the lower right hand corner of the screen little white letters showed the time as 3:15 PM and the date was just four days ago.

"Can we zoom and freeze?‌" asked Leith, peering at the keyboard.

"Sure," Saunders eased his way in. His hands caressed the keys. "According to this there are just 190 digitised frames covering her appearance. I'll load them up and you can flick through to get the best shot."

The video was in colour. It was slightly grainy and not best lit, but there were a couple of good frames as the woman hesitated briefly, apparently reading the interior signs. Durrell took up position by his shoulder as Leith rapidly mastered the keys.

"What do you make of her‌?" Leith asked.

Durrell was silent for a second or two. "Female, late forties, high blood pressure or very excited. Medium height, 150 pounds, fat legs, wide hips. Eyes grey-blue. Tan calf length overcoat with broad padded shoulders, brown business shoes, and two-inch heels. Shoulder length auburn hair, greying. Matching brimmed ladies hat: fifties style. Straight out of the 'Philadelphia Story.'"

Leith looked round at him.

Durrell narrowed his eyes, unsmiling. "I could take her. A couple of 9mm between the eyebrow pencil and she'd be tits up before you could say 'Abu Nidal.'"

"Something on your mind?‌"

Durrell stared back at him, not answering.

OK, thought Leith, maybe she doesn't look like a major terrorist, but then it was unlikely Saunders would have accepted her advertising copy if she had.

He turned back to Saunders who had returned to his desk. "How did she talk, what kind of accent did she have?‌"

"I couldn't place it. Boston maybe‌"

"But definitely American."

"Probably. Maybe mid-Atlantic. I'm not good on accents."

"Did she seem to know what she was talking about?‌ Did she give you the impression she'd placed copy before?‌"

"Very much so. In fact she seemed able to anticipate most of the things I needed to ask her."

Leith looked back at the screen and the florid face. "Don't you ever check the veracity of the people you do business with?‌"

"Of course we do! We checked the address she gave, a telecommunications company in Geneva, as well as their offices in New York. We also checked with her bank to make sure her credit was good."

"Let me have copies of everything she gave you."

"And the copy itself‌?"

"Yeah. Forensics'll want to go over every inch of it."

The rain was heavier now and it was night. From four hundred feet up and through the bottom of a martini glass all the bricks and mortar of the buildings had disappeared leaving only a fairy tale kingdom of light. He thought of the little lights as torches, each carried by a Lilliputian as they clustered round, all looking up expectantly at him.

"Well‌?" Durrell said.

They had stopped off in the dimly lit bar a couple of floors below the helipad, waiting for the weather to break so the chopper could take off. Durrell had wanted to get the driver to take them out to Kennedy but Leith had told him to forget it.

He didn't try to answer Durrell but took another pull at his drink instead.

Looking up he saw the anger on Durrell's face. What was it with this guy‌ He'd never shown any regret for having him tortured, never mind remorse. As for respect, that was clearly out of the question.

"Well‌?" said Durrell, louder this time.

"Yeah," he said, putting the drink down, "That's the one."

Durrell snorted.

"What did you expect‌ ? An AK-47 and a sweatband‌?"

Durrell shook his head. "No, she was just what I expected. She's what I said she was from the beginning. A fundamentalist nut, who wants to peddle her brand of brain rot to a gullible public."

"Even if she is, that might fit. It's possible some kind of rich religious foundation did get their hands on the technology to breach 4-space."

Durrell shook his head but this time added a sigh of disgust.

Leith sighed. Why do I put up with this, he wondered?‌ I'm supposed to be in charge here. He looked around. The bar, festooned with ivy and tropical plants, was almost empty of customers. A red-waistcoated barman wiped industriously at a glass.

He took the section of newsprint out of his wallet. He unfolded it and smoothed it out. One edge touched a splash from his martini and a crescent of moisture started to slowly expand across the paper. The full-page advert had a bold headline promising 'The Truth.' Below it the text read:


Relax.

Everything is under control.

The world is full of lies and propaganda,

but all is about to change.

From the 4th of October a new satellite network will be transmitting information worldwide on eight channels. Transmissions will reveal new information about past events about which there has been deliberate secrecy. The information will be totally authentic, its source unprecedented.

Channel contents will be subject to change but will generally follow this form:

¥

Political

1. Western Hemisphere

2. Eastern Hemisphere

¥

Historical

3. Western Hemisphere

4. Eastern Hemisphere

Criminal

5. Western Hemisphere

6. Eastern Hemisphere

Current Miscellaneous

7. Major events of immediate global attention

Directory

8. Rolling list of items on other channels.

24 hour notice of items given on all channels except 7.

On the first day of transmission items covered will include definitive revelations concerning the assassinations of:

JF Kennedy

D Hammerscholdt

M Zia

S Allende

¥

Channel 5 programs will include the identification of the present ten most prolific serial killers in the United States.

On October 4th Tune in to The Truth.


At the bottom of the page the satellite positions and transmission frequencies were listed.

*

It had been DeMarco who had first spotted the advert in the Independent News. The guy was still a pain in the ass but Leith was beginning to appreciate just how hard the little fart worked. "Maybe this is what we're looking for," he had said with a smirk, dumping the paper down triumphantly on Leith's desk.

Leith had read it and nodded slowly. "Yeah, perhaps. We know their intelligence is good, phenomenal in fact. This would be a really smart way to put out their own propaganda. Lard in a few real truths and, hey presto."

"Hey presto what‌?"

Leith pursed his lips then looked back up at DeMarco. "I don't know. Maybe they're trying to start up a new political or religious movement. Look at the Bible. Few hard facts, virtually no corroboration, yet it's still in press and selling like hotcakes."

DeMarco pointed to channels 3 and 4. "See this 'Historical' category. Maybe they're going to give us their low-down on the late JC."

"Mmmm. Maybe! The Second Coming. That could be quite an angle. With access to the fourth dimension they might even carry it off. Appearing out of nowhere would be quite a trick."

"And what about the assassinations - wasn't it us who offed Allende?‌"

"We probably offed them all," said Leith miserably.

He wondered for the thousandth time why he'd got into the intelligence business in the first place. He'd always wanted to feel he was doing some good, but sometimes....

"And this stuff about serial killers. I don't see how any new perspective they'd get from some weird extra dimension is going to help them there. Even plugging into FBI databases wouldn't tell them anything. Nobody has the faintest idea who these killers are!"

Leith rubbed his hand across the tough hair of his beard. How long had it been since he trimmed it, and shaved the stubble from his throat and cheeks‌? He couldn't remember. "Perhaps they're going to frame someone. Find someone who hasn't got an alibi for when a set of killings occurred..."

"Or maybe it was System X who organised the killings in the first place just to establish their credibility." DeMarco was getting excited.

"Wait a minute," Leith held up his hands, "before we get lost in fantasy, let's check these satellites are there."

They were. By the time NORAD had confirmed it copies of The Times and La Stampa, faxed daily from Europe, had been carrying the same advertisement.

All this ran through Leith's mind as he looked at Durrell's contemptuous expression. "Yeah, I admit it's possible this is just a religious scam. Maybe it is a coincidence that something strange like this should happen now, just when we're looking for the unexpected."

"Let's go back over this. Why are you so positive that System X is about to change their policy?‌"

Leith looked out of the window. The wind had changed direction and the rain was sluicing off the glass. "Well ... on the face of it things don't seem to have worked out as they might have wanted. They wiped out all those mercenaries and their paymasters down in Brazil, presumably to save the rainforest or the Indians or both. But instead the government saw it as terrorism on the part of the Indians and mobilised the troops against them." A sudden fierce gust of wind rattled the glass and Leith wondered for a second whether he had actually felt the building sway.

"That's only one example. Lets take what happened in New York after the Crusader massacre. Did it stop the Mob or the Colombians, are there less drugs being dealt, people being killed?‌ On the contrary; it created a power vacuum which amplified the normal internal struggles. Look at North Korea and Israel. Economies and military might crippled by monumental acts of sabotage. It's made them go crazy, made them even more repressive."

"But you're making one basic assumption and I'll be damned if I can see why," said Durrell, shaking his head. "You're assuming that System X has the good of the Palestinians and the Amazonian Indians at heart. Why should they?‌ Maybe they wanted to increase the upheaval, make us turn against ourselves. Have you thought about that‌?"

Leith tapped his empty glass against the top of the glass table. "Maybe. But there's two things against that. First off they took all our really dangerous toys away..."

"The nukes. Sure. But maybe only because they didn't want us shitting up the Earth with radiation."

"You know, sometimes I wonder if you secretly agree with what they're doing."

Leith blinked.

"You're a liberal, aren't you Leith?‌" That was still a bad word, at least in the company.

"Yes, I am! And yes, I'm glad to see those scummy company-run death squads get wasted. And those mercenaries in the jungles, the drug runners, a curse on all their houses! Tell me, and this is my second point, if System X is so bad why do they only kill people who are murderers themselves‌?"

"Come on, Leith! Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of innocent people have died from what they've done. Israeli reprisal raids, anti-government riots in Turkmenistan, the uprising in China, the bombing in Queens ... just a couple of miles from where we are now. Are System X so dumb they didn't see this was going to happen?‌ They've killed lots more innocent than guilty. Only not so directly."

Durrell fell silent then glanced out the window, perhaps checking to see if the storm had vanished within the space of a couple of minutes. Disappointed, he turned to the barman and gestured with two fingers.

Leith waited until the barman had put down their drinks and Durrell had crushed the olive to make sure there wasn't a listening device in it. Leith was too tired to make up his mind if that was a crazy thing to do.

"You've got a point, particularly when it comes to the intelligence services. We've all turned inwards, consumed by paranoia. Mossad, SIS, Dieuxieme Bureau, and the rest. All doing what we did, all suspecting traitors in their own organisations, all going through the same baseless purging." Leith absentmindedly rubbed his arm. It seemed to ache more in wet weather. "I do know one thing for certain. The Truth is the closest to a lead we've got. We're got to follow it through."

Durrell said nothing but poked at the lemon floating in his mineral water. The displaced ice clunked against the side of the glass. Leith sipped at his drink and thought of the stack of computer files they'd built up over the last couple of weeks, from the scuttling of a Japanese whaling fleet to the firestorm over a Liberian arms dump. Some would be coincidence, but most would be the work of System X: yet there was nothing to lead them any further.

"So what now?‌" said Durrell at last. "Check with the firm in Geneva and the branch in New York, I guess."

Leith had already checked with Langley. There was no one in the US called 'Gabriela Ross' who matched the woman's description. He nodded his head. "Sure, but I bet they'll never have heard of her. All System X had to do was intercept any calls Saunders made to check her authenticity." He took a hardcopy of the woman's image out of a side pocket of his jacket. The videotape was in his briefcase, as was the original advertising copy. He'd let Langley do what they could with those.

"I'll start a search through passport records. We know it's a woman, so that cuts it down to only about seventy million other photographs we've got to compare it with."

"Assuming she is a US citizen who has applied for a passport. Maybe she's a European. Maybe she hasn't got a passport at all."

Leith smiled wearily. "Thanks," he said," I don't know where I'd be without your encouragement." He picked up the photo and peered closely at it.

"We'll have to assume this is a genuine US citizen they recruited. And that she's got a passport. I'll start an electronic comparison, get some pattern recognition going. Classifications based on eye separation and head width ratios, that kind of thing. We know the age is from thirty to sixty, and that she's white. We can't assume eye or hair colour, they're too easy to alter. That probably cuts it down to twenty or thirty million.

"Trouble is, pattern recognition algorithms are notoriously time consuming. The damn thing's got to recognise where the eyes and the other features are, even before it can classify them. Any major network activity in that area might show up on System X's monitoring set-up at Langley."

"You could be lucky. You might get a comparison in the first thousand you try."

"You're right. We will pick her out in the first thousand. And the next thousand after that. We'll pick out about ten thousand who match our criteria. It's a coarse technology. After the computer analysis it'll be up to us to eyeball the rest."

Leith sighed. "That's going to take too long! Maybe we could farm some of the work out to private number crunchers."

"It'll still take up to a couple of weeks to narrow things down. And if that doesn't work - foreign passport records?‌"

Leith shook his head. October the fourth was only eight days away.



*****



CHAPTER 14


East St.Louis, Missouri

Beside an abandoned MacDonalds on a lot that was a wasteland of fast food wrappers and burnt-out cars, a man was being kicked to death. Blood streamed from his nose and mouth: his cries for help were liquid and bubbling.

"For Christ's sake stop!" yelled Leith. Spears, the local FBI man, turned his head round and looked back at him with open contempt.

"This is an undercover operation. We're not supposed to draw attention to ourselves!"

"There's a man being killed out there. Stop the fucking car!"

"This is East St. Louis, not the Court of St. James." Nevertheless, Spears turned to the driver. "Pull in."

Leith grabbed the handle and wound the window down furiously as the driver braked. He stuck his head out even before the car had quite stopped.

"Hey, you. Stop!" The stocky black man doing the kicking looked up and saw four shabbily dressed white men in a beat up old car. One of them, a young guy wearing a filthy baseball cap was yelling something at him. He replied with the finger and took another kick at the guy on the ground.

"Stop or I'll shoot," but even as Leith said it the gun he was pulling out snagged on the thick material of his working jacket. He watched goggle-eyed as the black man flicked a hand into a side pocket and brought out a revolver. With a terrible sinking feeling Leith realised how stupid and vulnerable he was; his head stuck right out of the car like a target in a fairground. The man brought the gun up two handed and Leith found himself staring right into the barrel.

Something cold and hard pushed across the side of Leith's face from behind. The man's eyes widened: then he turned and ran. Swivelling his eyes hard to the side, Leith could just make out the barrel of Durrell's Ingram, so close he could hardly focus on it. Looking back he saw the guy who had been kicked suddenly spring to his feet and start to hobble off towards a block of burnt out apartments at the other side of the lot.

"Masterful," said Durrell right in his ear.

The FBI man was glaring at him. "You're the one who wanted a native guide. You need a native guide. So in future why don't you listen to what the fuck I have to tell you!"

The car started up. The dirty, boarded-up and smoke-blackened buildings again began to troop wearily by. Only a few people - mainly black and all poor - were to be seen. Some lay in the street, others hung around on corners checking out each passing car very closely. Every time they paused at an intersection kids would be rapping at the windows trying to sell them drugs.

At one point a road on a slight incline crossed the boulevard they were travelling. A great brown tongue of slurry lay across their path.

"What's that‌?" asked Leith.

"Guess," replied the FBI man as the car ploughed through it, the slurry arcing out in dirty fountains on either side of the car. The stench hit Leith like a fist.

He struggled not to gag. "What's going on here?‌"

The FBI man didn't bother to turn round. "Try and think of it this way," he replied, "That big golden arch we passed by. 'The Gateway to the West'. Think of it as a massive teleport device, like in Star Trek. On one side we have Middle America, all hogs and corn and apple pie. On the other we have the third world - all AIDS and crack and smack. Hell, in other words."

"What happened?‌"

"It was a slow thing. Stockyards and the associated industries started to close in the 70's. Unemployment rose so there were fewer people to pay city taxes. So they had to raise them, so the people still in work got jobs elsewhere. Tax base fell by nearly 80%. No taxes, no money to pay teachers or cops. No money to fix a fucked up sewer system, collect the garbage or kill the rats. This is Rat City. It's been this way since 1990. Check that out!"

They were passing an intersection gummed up by a long queue of cars. Leith was surprised but he couldn't figure out why at first. Then he realised that on their drive he'd seen hardly any cars, which was very unusual for any city, never mind one in North America.

"They're all queuing up to get to Broadway and Fifteenth. We call it the Market. Maybe you can guess why."

"Don't the police do anything about it‌?"

"The money the city can afford, you don't get good cops. You don't even get enough of the bad ones. They won't come into this part of St. Louis at night. Your target lives just two blocks from the Market. That's why we're going in so heavy-handed."

At this moment there would be three other cars converging on the block where 'Martha de Meer' was supposed to live. Each car held an FBI agent from the small local office and three 'Good Men' supplied courtesy of Durrell.

The passport files had listed her under the 'de' and not the 'Meer', which was lucky. The computer systems had only taken two days to find her. The search was continuing, in case there were more close doubles. With so many millions of other faces to compare it with, that was bound to be the case, but somehow he had known that this was the woman who had placed the ad in the Independent.

Taking a left they passed over an older, harder river of shit. On either side dirty grey blocks five stories high hulked over the road. Windows were either boarded up or smashed. The boarding was loose on one or two windows and artificial light peeped through the cracks.

"People live here‌?"

"Sure, maybe a quarter of the apartments are inhabited, some even officially."

"It's kind of dark. What happened to the street lights?‌"

"Shot out by the drug dealers. I doubt if there's a single light left in this part of town."

The car turned a corner and coasted to a stop. Without benefit of normal traffic noises the place had an eerie silence.

They stayed in the car. It would be ten more minutes before all the men were in positions to seal the tenement block.

"You're a smart guy," said Durrell suddenly. After the deadening silence his clear, hard voice blasted through the car like a breath of freezing air. "You're such a smart guy. Lots of degrees, plenty of clever ideas. Tell me," he was talking so hard Leith wondered if it would leave a bruise on his eardrum, "Tell me. Do you sense anything strange about this situation‌?"

Leith gritted his teeth. Strange yeah, plenty strange. Why would a woman working for something as powerful as System X live in a place like this?‌ But this was the address on her passport application and she collected her benefit cheque every week at the office three blocks away.

"This is the only lead we've got. I'm always open to any better suggestions." He tried to keep the irritation out of his voice.

Durrell snorted. "There's something I'd like very much to share with you, Bob. It's a weird idea but it does make some kind of sense. All this..." he gestured round at the buildings, "all this is a trap. Designed to catch us. And we're walking right into it.

"See, we stick out like sore thumbs. We're not black and we're not poor. Sure we can wear these raggedy-assed old clothes, but we don't look poor. Not really. They're going to see us coming, like we were carrying neon signs."

"I realise this could be a trap. That's why we're not carrying any ID. That's why the FBI took all our references out of their files. That's why we no longer exist on any major databases any more. That's why we've got these damned things stuck in our ears again. All so they can't trace us back."

Leith looked at him. It was getting dark now and he could hardly see Durrell's eyes, but he felt them drilling into him.

"I'm still waiting for a better suggestion," he said icily.

"You've got it all wrong, Bob. You see I'm supposed to provide the muscle. You're supposed to provide the suggestions."

"I haven't got any other suggestions."

"Wonderful," for a second Durrell's big face was weakly lit from the light on his watch. "Zero hour. Let's all go and get killed!" He opened the door and got out.

"Wait a minute," said Spears loudly. "I'm going nowhere 'til you give me some idea what we're up against."

"You're right," said Durrell. "You're not going anywhere."

"How long should we wait‌?" the man was trying to keep his tone even and professional.

"For ever," said Durrell slamming the car door.


The entrance to the buildings was dark but all five men had flashlights.

"Stay behind me," Durrell opened his coat and pulled the slide back on his squat, lethal little Ingram. Somewhere in the gloom behind them Leith heard the metallic snickering sound as the two other CIA men did the same. They would stay to guard this exit. The agent who was going up with them drew a heavy calibre revolver.

The smell was bad. Not the urine and cabbage smell of lived-in but ill-tended blocks, but the smell of old ordure and death. Not even bothering to try the elevator they made for the doorway for the stairs. The door itself had been removed, like everything else with any possible resale value.

A scuttling sound made Durrell shine his light round at the well beside the stairs. Something cat-sized vanished through a hole in the skirting boards. Then with a gasp of shock Leith caught sight of the remains of a dog laying in the stairwell, its stomach open and teeming with maggots. The rats had already started gnawing at the face, exposing the teeth in a final snarl.

"Hey," Durrell said soto voce in the darkness, "they've burnt off the stair rails. Try and grab one and you'll join the mutt."

The uncarpeted concrete stairs were wet with black slurry a centimetre deep. The sound of dripping liquid echoed around the stairwell and grew louder as they climbed. They found a broken soil pipe on the second floor landing around which a pile of still wet matter had accumulated. "Someone does live here," whispered Leith, his voice laden with disbelief.

One floor up there was less outright filth but the stairs were still awash with trash. At one point Durrell signalled to them, pointing out a rats nest of syringes on the landing. On the fourth floor he signalled again, this time to get them to hold back on the landing while he gently stuck his head round the corner and cast his beam along the corridor to the apartments.

"OK," he whispered and moved off. Leith followed, Alpert staying behind.

The door of apartment 418 was unusual because it was still there. Passing other apartments, shining his flashlight in, Leith had seen only tangles of newspaper and cheap smashed-up furniture. The door to 418 was clean and devoid of graffitti. A small neat plastic sign below the spyhole said 'de Meer.'

Durrell looked at him. Leith shrugged. Durrell pushed him back clear of the door, then positioned himself on the other side. Reaching forward he rapped the door once, withdrawing his hand rapidly in case the response was a stream of bullets. There was only silence and then the sounds of unhurried footsteps coming towards them through the apartment.

The door opened, revealing a woman of medium height and build. It was difficult to make out much else in the weak and flickering light from within the apartment. Durrell shone his light directly in her face. She squeezed her eyes shut and brought up her hand to shield her eyes. Durrell shifted the beam so that it wasn't shining directly in her eyes. She lowered her hand and her features seemed to relax. He saw that she was very pretty. High cheekbones, full mouth, with perhaps a little too much strength in the jaw. She was wearing jeans and a dark shirt.

"Come in. I've been expecting you." The accent was American but not from the mid-west. She turned and walked back into the apartment, Durrell following. Leith saw the black shadow of the weapon held down at his side.

The apartment was cold and smelled of damp and filth. Several candles resting on a shelf along one wall lighted the hallway. Two rooms led off the other side. Following Durrell's example, Leith shone his flashlight in. The first had probably been a bedroom but was now empty: the second was a kitchen, seedy but relatively intact.

The woman led them into the lounge, which had one large sofa and two padded chairs. A man wearing a checked shirt, jeans and heavy work boots, was lounging on the sofa. A woman Leith recognised as De Meer sat upright on one of the chairs.

"Drop your weapon," drawled the man on the sofa.

Durrell spun round bringing the machine pistol up to point at him. The man, still unarmed, didn't move.

"Freeze or your kidneys are history." The woman's voice sounded suddenly hard. Glancing back, Leith saw she was tight up against Durrell, a machine pistol in her hand. Where had it come from?‌ he wondered. Then he realised that both Durrell and the woman were looking at him expectantly.

My gun, he thought, at last.

"I can kill you both before you could reach it," she said.

"I've still got your pal covered," said Durrell tightly.

"He's expendable," said the woman. "Are you‌? Drop your weapon."

Durrell did nothing and Leith held his breath. Then the big man looked back at him. "Thanks a fucking bunch." He tossed the gun onto the empty chair.

The man on the sofa reached casually behind him and brought out another automatic weapon. He got up and pushed Durrell against a wall and began to search him. It took a while, a small mountain of hardware building up at his feet.

It was Leith's turn next. The man's hard little hands wormed their way into all the crevices of his clothing. His gun was lifted from its holster. Then he was searched again, the man apparently puzzled by the contrast between his and Durrell's armaments.

"On the sofa, both of you." The woman didn't look so pretty now.


Sitting on the lumpy cushions, he could tell Durrell was staring at him but he couldn't bring himself to look round. He watched instead as the man leaned against the far wall, covering them and the door to the hall. The woman walked over to de Meer and crouched down to look into her eyes.

"Wel?l‌" asked the man tensely. He was small with very dark hair and heavy lidded, widely spaced eyes.

"Nothing," replied the woman. De Meer was staring unblinking at some point very far away. She hadn't moved since they'd entered the apartment.

"Is she dead‌?" The woman put one hand to the neck, feeling for the carotid pulse.

"Yes. Cold as ice. Must have been dead for hours." She withdrew her hand, coming out of her crouch and swivelling round in one smooth movement to aim her gun at Durrell. "Time for some answers," she said gravely.

"Not him," the other man flicked his gun at Leith. "Him."

"Why?‌"

"He doesn't fit. I don't think he's even seen a wet job before, never mind done one. He's shit scared and it shows. Not like Boulder Dam over there," he indicated Durrell with a nod of his head.

She aimed the gun at Durrell's chest but looked across at Leith. "Start talking or I blow your friend away."

De Meer moved.

Her head tilted to one side, then her neck turned slowly, or so it seemed at first.

Then Leith saw that the whole right side of her face was peeling off and separating. The smooth skin was revealed as some kind of tightly woven fabric. He twitched in shock as her eye and cheek exploded silently out into hand-sized puffballs. The gossamer spheres boiled out as they swept across the side of her head, growing at the expense of scalp and hair, revealing a matt black space beneath. Sweeping into view from the other side came another puffball, a second planet orbiting the ravaged face.

Ice coursed through his body as he saw that each coned down into coarse threads of flesh being stripped from her unwinding face. The threads split into finer and finer filaments, which sustained the blossoming puffballs. It was like two tornados circling round and round, unravelling the woman's head.

Then de Meer's head was gone and her torso started to disappear fast, the puffballs spinning faster and faster, making the air in the room turbulent, and causing the candle flames to flicker.

Only the legs were left now and the puffballs were each a metre across. They were spinning so fast that he could no longer focus on them. Just as the shoes and feet were consumed he saw that the two threads were joined. Then the puffballs flew apart, exploding out in a lightning-fast unfolding until one huge square of material blanked out half the room. Leith just had time to see the surface alive with myriad waving cilia, then the square was gone. The room seemed suddenly empty.

Leith felt himself drop a few centimetres. He looked up in surprise as Durrell, having leapt up from the sofa, was already at the other chair and grabbing for the automatic. A sickening heaviness filled Leith's stomach. Durrell could never be fast enough. The man and woman had already recovered from their shock. Crouching they brought their guns to bear. He tried to scream a warning even as they tensed to take the recoil.

He heard two clicks then the fire from Durrell's machine pistol washed over them. Their bodies twisted, their arms flailing back against the wall, before they crashed to the ground.

Durrell had scooped their weapons up in an instant. Still covering the man and woman he risked a glance at Leith and opened his mouth to speak.

There was one more bright gunflash from near floor level. The roar of the shot was much louder than the brutal stuttering of the machine pistol. Durrell screamed, jack-knifing over. Leith watched open-mouthed as he thudded to the floor, his hand holding his groin.

For a brief second there was only silence then the front door smashed against the wall. Leith tried to struggle upright but already another man was in the room pointing a pistol at him. He saw the heavy phallic bulk of a silencer on the end of the gun.

Keeping the gun on Leith the man knelt down by the woman. "Boruch?‌" he said in frightened tones.

He remained crouched over the woman for several seconds, his eyes off Leith, giving him time for ponderous thoughts of going for his gun, placed on top of Durrell's stockpile by the TV. He'd just decided not to when the man stood upright, pointed his gun at Leith's head, and pulled the trigger.

There was a single metallic click.

Leith had no conscious thoughts now. He lurched over to the TV: then the gun was in his hand, and he was pointing it at the other man.

The man was still pulling the trigger and being rewarded with a series of clicks. Leith could see how young he was. With a single shout of rage he hurled the gun at Leith, narrowly missing his head, then he turned and ran. Leith kept the gun trained until the man was gone.

Leith heard his echoing footsteps recede down the corridor, then hunted around for his flashlight. He found it over by the wall where he'd dropped it when he was searched. Walking over to the man and the woman, he played it across them.

Durrell must have started to fire even as he brought the gun up and across. A trail of spreading patches of blood led diagonally up across the man's chest. One on his left side was pumping hard. The man's eyes flickered and his head shook with a fine tremor. Leith could find no weapon.

Durrell's burst had continued diagonally upwards, several bullets passing through the woman's neck, almost severing it. Leith gagged at the sight of the ragged wounds. She, too, couldn't have fired that last shot.

Durrell was curled up in a ball like a foetus. A bloody conical shaped hole just below his coccyx steamed in the cold of the room.

Leith touched him lightly on the shoulder. "Are you OK‌?"

"No."

Leith was running. He stumped down the hallway and out of the door. Sticking his head through the broken windowpanes in the corridor, he looked wildly around the street below.

"Help!" he yelled. "Help!"

The coffee was good, the best thing he'd ever drunk. He cupped it in his hands for warmth and shivered a little. It wasn't cold in the hospital, so this must be the beginning of shock. He struggled to suppress the horror and for the moment succeeded.

They'd carried Durrell down to the car and Leith had sat with him as Spears drove them out of East St. Louis to a private hospital in Ladue. Leith had watched dully as the deserted streets gave way to roads full of BMW's and Cadillacs. Such disparity, he had thought, and all so close together.

Durrell lay hunched up beside him, often moaning in pain. Carrying him down the stairs Leith had seen the blood marker of the entry wound in Durrell's groin. At one point Durrell turned his pain-creased face to Leith. "Nobody else knew," he said urgently. "Nobody!" Then he'd passed out.

Leith took another sip of coffee and looked at the door to the operating theatres. Durrell was in surgery, but they thought he'd survive. The wound was bad, but the bullet had just missed the bits Durrell probably held dear. He'd still be able to father a child.

Leith wondered if Durrell was already a father. Was he even married‌? They'd never talked about anything but work.

He saw Spears striding towards him. The man flopped down in the seat next to him. "How's Durrell‌?"

"Better than I expected considering where he was shot. What about Alpert‌?" Taking Durrell out of the apartment they'd passed the prone figure of the CIA lookout.

"Alive," said Spears. "Not a mark on him. We figure it was one of those gas guns the Swiss put on the market recently. Want to tell me what happened‌?"

Leith shook his head. "What about the man who did it, the one who tried to shoot me?‌"

Spears shrugged. "There was a rope tied up ready in one of the other apartments. He must have abseiled down." Spears got out a packet of cigarettes despite the 'No Smoking' sign and offered him one. Leith shook his head.

"And Durrell. Why did he say: 'Nobody knew?'‌"

Leith shook his head again. He saw his coffee cup was shaking very badly now.



*****



CHAPTER 15


Ladue, Missouri

The image in the mirror was unflattering. It showed a puffed face and two dazed, bloodshot eyes. His beard had turned fluffy with untrimmed hair.

His body felt heavy, but at least it was alive. He finished dressing, the sedative from last night making him a little unsteady on his feet when he tried to get into his pants. He looked in the mirror one more time, muggily checking to make sure his dick was zipped away, then opened the door of his private room and headed for the reception desk.

A nurse was working at some notes. She looked up and gave him a happy smile. "You're looking a lot better this morning, Dr. Leith. Can I get you anything?"

"You can tell me how Mr. Durrell is?‌"

"He's awake. The anaesthetist says she's charging double. She says take him to a vet next time, they're used to dealing with the larger mammals." She laughed so nicely he found it difficult to be affronted, but he doubted she'd be long in this job.

"Yes, but how does he actually feel‌?"

"Relieved. It could have been a lot worse!"

Leith nodded. Durrell relieved and maybe still a little high from the anaesthetic: this was definitely the best time to face him.

Durrell was flat on his back with just a single pillow under his head. His eyes swivelled as Leith entered the room.

"Well hello there," the tone was not jovial. "I'm glad you dropped by. Gives me a chance to thank you for all your help. You must be hoarse from all that shouting."

Leith sighed and sat down in the chair next to the bed. Durrell stared unblinkingly at him. Even in his jammies the man could radiate menace.

He sighed again. "I'm sorry, I really am. You knew I wasn't James Bond, so what did you expect‌?"

"I didn't expect you to be totally fucking useless. Why didn't you draw your gun‌?"

"I did draw it!"

"Sure, but by then two people were dead and my balls had been shot off!"

"They weren't shot off. And the truth is I forgot I had a gun, it's not something I'm used to. I guess I stopped thinking clearly when the woman drew hers."

Durrell grunted. "I suppose I'd be wasting my time asking you what that thing was?‌" Leith nodded again. "What about the two men and the woman‌?"

"So you were conscious when the second man came in."

"Sure, I heard everything, though I was pretty busy clutching what was left of my balls to pay much attention."

Leith grimaced. "Spears brought in a pathologist's report this morning, which is all we've got to go on. They had no form of identification. The pathologist reckons they were of Eastern stock, Mediterranean, that sort of thing. The man was circumcised, but then most men are nowadays."

Durrell shook his head. "They were Israelis. MOSSAD."

"Why?‌"

"Boruch," said Durrell impatiently. "It's a Hebrew name. Israel's been given a particularly hard time by System X. They had dark complexions. The man was circumcised. Give me a break, OK‌?"

He'd forgotten about the woman's name. It was time he pulled himself together.

"I was right, wasn't I‌? It was a trap to smoke us out. We're blown and we can't go back."

Leith nodded. They had to be careful now. System X, with its access to 4-space, was probably eavesdropping on them right now. They couldn't afford to lead System X back to Langley. They were out of the game for good.

He swallowed. " You realise none of their weapons was loaded."

Durrell shrugged. "We didn't know that at the time, and sure-as-shit they didn't know it either."

"System X. They must have plucked the bullets out of the chambers and magazines. Lifted them right out of our 3-D world," he looked at Durrell who'd at last looked away. "That brings us to another point..."

"Who shot me in the balls and why."

"You weren't shot in the balls," he couldn't help feeling irritated.

Durrell turned burning eyes to him. "No, but I'm probably gonna have to shit in a little plastic bag for the rest of my life!"

"Probably not. They told me all about this earlier. They took out a few inches of burst bowel so they had to bypass the join to avoid infection while it healed. Chances are you'll be using your ass again in a couple of weeks."

"Eighty percent chance, that's what they said. They have to tell you everything, to make sure you give informed consent. They have to cover their asses," Durrell groaned in exasperation, "... they have to protect themselves from possible lawsuits."

"I don't get this. Back in that room you went for your gun even though you knew you'd no chance of getting to it in time. Now you've got an eighty percent chance of coming out of this undamaged and you're miserable. I just don't get it. What's really bothering you, and why did you say 'Nobody knew' when we were bringing you here?‌"

Durrell's jawbone worked beneath his skin. After a couple of seconds of silence he seemed to come to a decision. "I'm not proud of this, but I figure I'm duty bound to tell you about it. This whole thing makes no sense to me. Maybe you can explain it."

Durrell looked at the ceiling and fell silent for a while, marshalling his thoughts.

"Back in 1988, I spent some time in Afghanistan. The Soviets hadn't caved in just yet but they weren't having a happy time. Our very best friends at that time, the Mujahaddin kept sending in reports straight out of Disneyworld. Kill ratios exaggerated by a factor of 10, that kind of thing. Langley needed some kind of quantitative grip on what was going on." He reached across for a glass of orange juice, and had some difficulty in drinking it in his prone position.

"They sent people like me in. Strictly secret, we weren't to be taken alive under any circumstances. I was up at Panjao, which is about fifty miles west of Kabul, checking up on the Soviet garrison there and getting some feel for the situation. I was resting up in a mountain village called Oala, getting ready to head back to the border, when a Soviet gunship appears out of nowhere and takes a run at a pasture just above the village. There's a kid up there riding his horse and the Sovs are after some target practice. They got the horse but missed the kid. A band of Ranifa Lel's men, he was a local guerilla leader who happened to be resting up in the village at the time, took out the gunship with a Stinger. Blew off the tailfin, so the chopper whips round a few times and crashes into a ravine. By the time we got down there everyone's dead but for one guy. And what a guy!"

He coughed and winced with the pain. "God, it feels like someone's shoved a red hot poker up my ass. Wanna see my bag‌?"

Leith shook his head. Did Durrell think a horror shared was a horror halved?‌

"So it turns out this is the garrison leader at Koh-i-Baba, on his way to visit Panjao. This makes the rebels' day and they're very keen to kill him slowly. They didn't give a shit about military intelligence. They were crazy that way. I guess when you don't care whether you live or die, in fact when you get an afterlife brownie point for getting blown away in combat, you aren't going to care less about troop strengths.

"It took a lot of arguing, nearly the whole two hours it took us to get him back to the village, but I convinced them to let me have him for a while. Then they could kill him. They always needed arms badly, and they thought I could get them some, so they agreed.

"They tied him down in a barn and left me with him. I speak Russian, which was lucky as he couldn't speak Afghani, or at least claimed he couldn't. I hoped he hadn't understood what the rebels had said they were going to do to him. I fed him a line about trading him in for a few prisoners but I don't think he bought it. Human rights aren't big things in that part of the world. As a garrison commander he'd have seen what happened to his men who had got lost or who'd fallen victim to a rebel honeytrap.

"He had guts, though, and a fine command of abuse. I hadn't liked what he tried with the kid. He got me so mad I shot him through the perineum," he must have seen Leith's look of puzzlement. "That's the soft bit between your balls and your ass. Where the vagina is in woman. It's an old El Salvador trick. You pretend you're aiming for their balls and miss. If that doesn't unnerve them, nothing will. Shoots out some gut but misses all the arteries and stuff. Provided they get medical attention they usually survive."

Durrell suddenly sighed. "But there was no medical attention in the village. I'd killed him, though he'd take days to die.

"I'll never know if he'd have talked because at that moment I heard the rumble of a shit load of Backfires coming our way. The dirty, battered bloody little guy looked up at me. 'You've killed me and now I've killed you,' he said and smiled. I don't know how it happened. He couldn't have had time to radio his position. Maybe they'd lucked out and had given their position out of routine just before the Stinger hit. Maybe he knew he was being covered by a Moss, which is like a Soviet AWAC. I'll never find out."

He ran a hand through his short hair. "I'm big but quick on my feet. I was out of the door and running down the hill before the first bombs hit. There were rebels and villagers all over the place, heading for the air-raid trenches the rebels had dynamited out of the rock for them. Me, I knew there was like a little cliff a hundred yards from the village. Sheer rock but only about twenty feet of it. I was gonna jump down it anyway but I was helped over by the first blast as the five hundred pounders started to land. Damn near broke my ankle but I was up right away and trying to squeeze myself into tiny cracks in the rock while the world fell in on me.

"I guess they dropped three loads of bombs on the village. One lot went wide and blew some rocks to shit but the rest hit the village. I dug myself out and went to help but there was nothing left. Where the village had been there was just fifty or so craters. Those trenches could take whatever a gunship had to throw at them, but not the stuff from the belly of a Backfire."

"You didn't actually kill him then," Leith felt unmoved by the suffering of others so many miles away.

"Technically, no."

"Ever killed anybody‌?"

"Sure, you saw me."

"Apart from last night."

"Yeah, Grenada, El Salvador, Panama. I've been in this business a long time," he spoke as though that excused it.

"Have you ever killed anyone who was unarmed, who was not trying to kill you at the time?‌"

"I don't do wetwork. That doesn't happen now anyway, at least not very often. Would have done if I thought it was necessary and if I'd been asked, but no, the situation has never come up."

Durrell licked his lips thoughtfully. "You think System X punished me for what I did, right‌? But that's my point ... they couldn't have known. The only person who knew what I did to the Soviet was the Soviet himself, and he's dead along with everyone else in that village. That's what I can't understand. Nobody knew, nobody could have known."

"They could," said Leith softly to himself, "they could."



*****



CHAPTER 16


Langley, Virginia

There was a loud noise from off camera and the portly little bespectacled man looked up. Kindly eyes, now heavy with sadness, looked at some point behind and to the left. Someone not visible said something rapid in Spanish. The portly man took off the army helmet he had been wearing and placed it on the top of the desk. It had looked out of place against his civilian clothes, the charcoal grey jacket covering a jumper with a chevron pattern. Then he stood up straight and proud.

The camera held this view for a couple of seconds then swung slowly round, always keeping the little man in shot, to reveal who had spoken. Three armed men stood by the door. Two were in battledress and were covered with camouflage paint. The third was dressed in a fawn safari suit and was lighter skinned than the others. He had fair hair where theirs was black.

The two soldiers trained their automatic weapons on the little man but seemed to hesitate. They glanced at the fair-haired man. He shrugged and stepped forward. Without any expression he raised his gun and fired, shutting the door on democracy in Chile for twenty years.

"Oh my God," said Stallard running his hand through his hard white curls.

"Nasty," Leith was growing accustomed to death, "but surely not news. I thought all this came out in Church's Senate investigations years ago."

"Not quite. It was established that the CIA helped to depose Allende but not that one of our agents actually shot him. That was denied, as it was with with the assassination of Schneider. Allende was supposed to have died from 'self-inflicted wounds' at the time of the coup."

It was like holding a conversation in a bar when a TV is playing. Your eyes were always drawn to the screen. But the TV was attractive now to Leith and Stallard not because of some residual atavistic sensitivity to motion, but because it was giving out pure information, and information had always been the lifeblood of the company. Throughout Langley people would be clustered round imported monitors. The sense of shock was almost palpable.

Here in Nevis' room, which was Leith's now, he had four screens of his own. He tried to drag his eyes away, trying to focus on Stallard who was partly camouflaged in the darkened room by his black suit. Only his face and hair diffusely reflected the light from the screens.

"Well, at least I can't see many of the great American public having had the attention span to follow it this far."

"Indeed."

It had taken three hours to get to the 'punchline'. Right at the beginning the text on the screen had read: 'US involvement in the destabilisation of Chile and the assassination of its democratically elected leader Salvadore Allende.' It had started with a meeting between Nixon and CIA director Richard Helms, which had lasted only fifteen minutes. Leith had now seen enough of these meetings between statesmen and high-ranking government officials broadcasted by The Truth to no longer be surprised by the hesitancy, disjointedness and downright unreason which seemed to be the lingua franca of such occasions. The concept of destabilisation was worried at but never faced directly, but at least the program had been given a name: Track II. This was the followup to the unsuccessful and so far unscreened Track I. The financial contributions to the program from US companies who had interests in Chile were also enumerated.

Leith had never liked the look of Nixon before, but at least then the man had always known when he was on camera. Relaxed and unknowing, Nixon made the flesh crawl.

The film had followed this meeting with a series of shorter edited segments as the responsibilty for the operation devolved. Helms' briefing of his team leader was terse but a good summary of Nixon's diffuse rambling. The most important point seemed to be the budget, set at ten million dollars. Helms, too, hadn't wanted to know the details of how it would be done. This however was soon fleshed out as three more sets of briefings took it down to the lower level operatives, the ones who would actually do the job.

Allende had not as yet come to power but the then government of Christian Democrat Eduardo Freï, and its intended nationalisation programs, was giving the US companies cause for concern. The plan was to help Robert Viaux, an ex-Brigadier General, to reach power through a coup.

The big problem was the Commander of the Chilean Armed Forces, Rene Schneider, who was committed to democracy. Two failed kidnapping attempts were shown. The men involved were Chileanos under CIA direction.

The rising disgust of the CIA operatives was evident from edited highlights in subsequent meetings. The election was getting close so they had sent in one of their own, an agent identified by overlaid text as Hector Mendes of San Antonio, Texas who, during a third kidnapping attempt, killed Schneider with his bare hands.

The briefing of Lars Henderson, Allende's assassin, by the Track II Chileano team leader was very explicit, as were the snippets shot at Langley to establish Henderson's identity as a CIA staff member.

The film had been timetabled on Channel 3 as having one more hour to run, but already Leith had guessed what was coming next. Scenes of torture and death from Pinochet's prisons were now being shown. Pinochet was the army man who'd deposed Allende and ruled for many years after. He'd had thousands of his opponents tortured and killed in Chile and even a few abroad where some had escaped to. Leith was relieved when Stallard switched back to the timetable channel.

He looked across at the older man. Secrets, which were the CIA's substance, were leaking away at a frightening rate. Langley had become a manic place since The Truth had started to broadcast, its staff ricocheting from mania to depression and back by the hour.

"What do you think‌? Is it all true‌? Is the footage real‌?"

Stallard sighed. "That was Helms, sure enough. I worked with him on several occasions, although not on the Chile business. I also recognised some of the operatives involved. I've even used Henderson on occasion myself so it won't be long before I'm on screen too."

He hesitated and leaned his chin on two fingers. "This has got to be real. All these people can't be doubles, and even if they were I can't see how they could've got the mannerisms so right. The same applies to a CGI mock-up which is one obvious theory I've heard, but I'm no expert in that."

Leith shook his head. "It would take a score of programmers a year to produce that level of realism for just one five minute scene. Perhaps it would be possible with more advanced technology, but your objection to the accuracy of speech patterns and mannerisms still holds. There seems only one conclusion."

"Time travel?‌ Good Grief - it's taken me two weeks to begin to come to terms with the fourth dimension, and now you throw this at me."

"It's not so much time travel perhaps, as time viewing," Leith stroked his beard. "General relativity introduced the idea of time-lines. It's like everything that has happened is embedded in a block of time. Section it across the time axis and you get an instant in this universe. Focus on a point in space within this section and move through the block, and you have a movie replay of a past event.

"It's got to be something like that. It certainly can't have been shot at the time, the cameras would have been impossible to disguise. People would have been tripping over them. They'd have known they were there."

"I thought you said time wasn't really a dimension in itself‌?"

"Well ... space and time are really indistinguishable so it's not a dimension like the three, rather four, spatial ones. You understand?‌"

"Of course I don't. And neither do you!"

Leith smiled wearily. He glanced back at the timetable. This was only the second day of the broadcasts but their effects had been catastrophic for the CIA. The assassination of Zia, all that stuff with Trujillo, Lumumba, Arbens and Sukarno, the deliberate slayings of unarmed civilians in Nicaragua. None of that had surprised him. The blowing up of a Soviet oil pipeline in '82 to take out a double agent who was passing by on a train: that had been a shock. Hundreds of innocent people on the train had died.

And Hammarskjold: They blew him away just because he wanted to make peace in the Congo‌ It was crazy. What revelations would there be tomorrow‌ How long would The Truth broadcast‌

Stallard interrupted his train of thought. "The pedantic, almost academic nature of the broadcasts. The time they take to establish the identities of the protagonists, it really would be dull viewing for the average viewer. That is in our favour, as you so rightly point out."

"Yeah, that and the abysmal filmic style. Whoever makes these is always so diligent about getting as many of the participants as possible in the same shot, no matter how big the meeting or event. I guess it's to try and avoid any claims of intercutting scenes from different places and times..."

"You can do anything with film."

"Yes, but not on this scale, as we said before. Anyway, it makes for a distracting and uninteresting viewing. It makes it look amateurish, in fact. But the people don't have to watch it anyway, the rest of the media are doing it for them, summarising the day's viewing to make it palatable for the public."

"The media doesn't seem to know what to make of it yet, but with information of this quality, I can't see that lasting for long."

"Yeah, the murder channel was a masterstroke. What better way to get the attention of the man in the street," he looked across at the other monitor screens. At Stallard's insistence they showed the outputs of the three big networks and the global news channels. Stallard had to judge how far the secret information was being disseminated. Leith could guess how shocked and helpless he must feel, though Stallard hid it well.

One network was still keeping to its program schedule but the other two had already abandoned them in favour of non-stop reporting of The Truth's broadcasts. There was as yet little to worry Stallard in terms of political and intelligence implications. It was upon the 'Murder Channel' that the media were focussed. Three of the top ten serial killers had already been arrested. Genetic fingerprints had been taken and the results would take a day or two: but Leith now had no doubts they would prove positive. Clinically and without comment The Truth had shown the murders, nearly one hundred of them dating back from 1992, which the ten had committed. It had established the identities of the killers and their real-time locations. That seven had not been apprehended was probably due to them watching the broadcasts as well and high-tailing it fast. They would not get far.

That had been yesterday. Today, the channel was concerning itself within some of the tastier unsolved murders round the globe.

On impulse Leith picked up one remote control and switched to the Murder Channel. It was blank but for some text on the bottom of the screen. 'National police forces may use The Truth in the following way: place advertisements in your highest circulation national newspaper listing unsolved murders or other serious crimes you wish The Truth to investigate. The results will be broadcast on this channel.'

"Christ. They're even doing requests now," Stallard's voice was disbelieving.

Leith flicked back to the timetable. The Kennedy assassination was still running. Surprisingly it had been shown that Oswald was indeed the lone assassin, but the photography used to ascertain this had placed even greater strain on credibility. Leith had seen enough of the other broadcasts to realise that it had probably been true, but thought it a mistake by System X to show it at such an early stage.

At a rate of what must have been tens of thousands of frames a second the camera had seemed to follow the trajectory of Oswald's bullets as they left the gun. Time and spatial resolution was so good you could even see the lead spinning from the effect of the rifling. Even though the camera must have been moving almost as fast as the bullet, Kennedy and his entourage were in sharp but apparently frozen focus as the slugs continued their inexorable approach.

The camera at least hadn't followed the bullets into Kennedy's body but hadn't needed to. From the shockwaves that distorted his flesh as the bullet ricocheted internally, no doubt was left about its trajectory. One slug was seen to enter Kennedy's body not once, but twice, after a series of extraordinary ricochets.

That had taken a morning to establish. The next afternoon and this morning had been spent analysing Oswald's motivations. Leith hadn't bothered to watch the morning's broadcast, but had read the precis from the 'National Intelligence Daily', which was the CIA's internal newsheet. This had a circulation of less than a hundred of the most senior officers. Its normal thirty-page size had been suddenly increased with reports of internal problems in foreign intelligence services. Imprisonments, disappearances and assassinations: just like us, he thought.

Today's 'Daily' had expanded to over two hundred pages. According to the agent who had viewed the Oswald footage, it consisted largely of the man's conversations over many years with a variety of people. The identities of these people would then be established using scenes from other places and times. Oswald's trajectory through life seemed to have been as weird as 'The Magic Bullet', and he'd met a lot of strange people who'd wanted Kennedy dead. There had been Cubans who had worked for Castro's Direccion Generale de Inteligencia, who spoke angrily of the numerous assassination attempts on Castro by the CIA (three hours were then spent in establishing that the CIA had had a hand in only nine, ranging from botulism contaminated cigars to a car bomb. The lame and absurd 50's figure of Dr. Stanley Gottlieb, the CIA's technical specialist, in his exotic lair across the Potomac in Rosslyn, had dominated this section).

But there were also Mafia people who seemed offended at Kennedy's apparently traitorous attitude towards them. They'd been approached by the CIA to kill Castro, then Kennedy had rewarded them by cracking down on organised crime. There were also CIA men opposed to Kennedy for the same reason.

So far, the agent reported, nobody had been shown actually telling Oswald to kill Kennedy. Perhaps Oswald had just been trying to impress a lot of these people.

Like the CIA, the KGB had almost a whole channel to themselves, with Mossad, BOSS and others making occasional guest appearances.

Nearly half of the 'National Intelligence Daily's' pages were devoted to analyses of the KGB's internal and external operations before the Soviet Union fell apart. Leith's profound reservations about the CIA's long history of covert actions in Central and South America paled into significance with what the KGB had got up to on its own soil. Two hours were spent showing edited film of the use the KGB had put to the inhouse crematorium in its Latvian headquarters. Text on the lower right of the screen gave the time and identities of the 159 bodies burned there over the five years from 1980 to 1984. The 'Daily' confirmed that twenty-two of these had indeed been working for the CIA.

And the revelations seemed endless. Pollution, drug running, the influence multinational corporations had on world politics. The channel devoted to recent history was running an almost unedited replay of the Yalta conference. Yesterday it had gone through the real reasons leading up to the American use of atomic bombs on Japan.

He noticed that Stallard was looking at him. The Comptroller made the sign of the cross. "I forgive you."

"What‌?"

"I'm sorry I got so upset when you appeared back here after the St. Louis fiasco. I thought you were playing Judas."

"When you already know everything, who needs a Judas‌? No, I guessed System X had this capability when Durrell told me about his Afghanistan experience. It explained how their intelligence was so good. How they knew things which were only obvious to us retrospectively, like with Middleton and his crew. With Middleton they must have looked back to one of the explosions on a Taurus aircraft, then stayed with the aircraft, moving it back through time, until they saw Guin planting the bomb. Then they just followed him forward to Middleton and Garner. I presume they followed it all the way to Cole which explains why he hasn't been heard of since."

"But I don't deserve your forgiveness because I did screw up. The St. Louis thing was an even bigger trap than I suspected. They know about us now."

Stallard smiled sourly. "I can hardly blame you, Bob. You couldn't have been expected to predict this. We had to investigate. No matter who we sent, no matter how many intermediaries and 'cut-outs' we used, they could have tracked us back. We never had a chance!

"We've got to assume that they're always listening to us, but I can't see that making a difference now." He spread his hands. "So what are we up against?‌ What's your best guess?‌"

Leith shuffled some papers. "This isn't going to be comfortable to say. It's going to sound crazy, but then every step that's brought us here has been crazy. Each time we learn something about them we try and explain it in our own terms. They kill half the hoodlums and Durrell nods his head sagely and says: 'An 80-man SWAT team.' We realise they have access to 4-space and I say: 'Let's check through the universities and research centres.' But I think the time has come where we can't fool ourselves any longer.

"The thing that was de Meer clinches it as far as I'm concerned. It wasn't human. It was an alien. That's what we're up against. We're undergoing some kind of ideological invasion. And this -" he lifted a finger towards the screens "- is just a way of softening us up, of demoralising us. Durrell tells me it's a trick our 'good old boys' used a lot in South America. Apparently nothing saps a man more than being made to bathe in his own shit."



*****



INTERCUT 5


'Bucket O' Nails', 22,300 miles above Nairobi

Africa swung by below. The tip of a boomerang of dense cloud was passing over the southernmost tip and the tropical rain forests were covered in clouds like freshly forked mashed potato. Further north all that could be seen was the scorched brown of the North African deserts contrasting with the cobalt blue of the seas around them.

Bucket O' Nails was completely unaware of this as it crossed Africa heading for the Americas. Its miniscule intelligence was concerned with more important things like the surface temperature on its reflective carapace and the power levels of its batteries. For five years now it had patrolled this lonely orbit hearing only the periodic diagnostic probes from Fire Command making sure its silicon brain was still operating within acceptable limits.

But suddenly there were new commands and things started to change. By the time it crossed a flat white pancake of thunderclouds over the Amazon Basin its orbit had altered slightly. Attitude jets nudged it into a spin then nudged it out again. Now its square funnel assembly pointed just out of the orbital plane.

A steel claw slid aside the frontplate from the first square box. Linear induction motors tickled the box forward along four guiding rails. As the box eased its way out of the funnel, its side plates were gently sheared away by electromagnetic forces.

It was like a metal flower opening.

Out from the centre of the steel petals came a close-packed cubic matrix of nickel steel ball bearings, kept in place by a fine network of thin rods ending in the back plate. The electromagnetic forces tugged playfully at this, slowing it down so that the steel balls started to roll along the guiding rods until they trickled out into the void.

The cube of steel balls moved slowly out from the satellite, but managing to maintain their shape. It was only when the satellite had left the Americas behind that the cube started to blossom.

The packing rods attached to the back plate had been carefully machined to diverge microscopically from the parallel. The cube seemed to grow, uniformly at first, and it wasn't until the satellite was several miles behind and below that the effect of the balls' slightly different 'launch' times became apparent. The cube was warping as though a hand was pushing it from one side. It seemed to be toppling as successive planes of bearings shifted sideways, so that by the time they crossed Africa again the drifting cube had become rectangular in aspect and covered nearly 100 square metres.

ESA's Meteosat 6 was not the target, but it was the first to contact the net. Where ten of the ball bearings touched the leading surface they left perfect little circular holes, but when they emerged from the other side, they took with them huge gouts of metal and silicon vapours.

The satellite began to spin rapidly, its almost untouched face alternating with something that looked like a swiss cheese.

Bucket O' Nails had by now already launched three other cubes and had lapsed back into its former state of minimal activity. Bucket O' Nails, or USN JK8 as it was officially known, had been launched by cooler heads during Reagan's Star Wars euphoria. At that time 100 billion dollar orbital battle stations had been envisaged that would direct particle beams and rail guns to blast approaching enemy missiles as they nosed their way out of the atmosphere.

Crazy days.

For staff in the White House and Pentagon it was a 'King wore no clothes' situation. It would have taken a brave man indeed to point out the practical difficulties in ensuring even a 50% effective 'nuclear shield'.

One such brave man, a prominent scientist who knew he was risking his livelihood from the almost certain withdrawal of his military grants, had tried to illustrate one of the many absurdities. Asked onto a chat show to pontificate on such matters, he had asked the host what he thought it would take to destroy a 100 billion dollar battlestation.

"I don't know. What‌?" said the interviewer, perfectly prepared to play the straight man.

"A bucket of nails," replied the scientist triumphantly. The host mugged surprise. "Take for example a battlestation in geosynchronous orbit, that's one about 22,000 miles above the Earth's surface. The satellite travels a path of nearly 180,000 miles every 24 hours, keeping its position above the Earth's surface pretty constant. It manages that by travelling at about 8 miles per second in the same direction as the Earth's rotation.

"Now suppose you send up an astronaut but you launch his space craft so that it's in the same orbit but travelling in the opposite direction. Then you get him to throw a bucket of nails overboard. The bucket of nails will be travelling at 8 miles per second, but in the other direction. That means that the nails will hit the battlestation at a relative velocity of 16 miles per second. Do you know what would happen then?‌"

"No," said the interviewer.

"Neither do I," said the scientist. "It's only in the vacuum and huge distances of space that you can get macroscopic objects like that up to those kind of speeds. We can't run tests like that on Earth, so the physics of it really haven't been fleshed out. All I can say is that the effect wouldn't be ... constructive." The chat show host had liked that and so had the audience, but strangely the scientist had never been invited back onto the program.

The people who worked on the Star Wars program weren't dumb. It was a tremendous source of finance and was seen as a way of boosting technology, the way the space program had done with the silicon chip. The Bucket of Nails argument was a good one. Unlike other arguments, such as the inconceivable amounts of computer power required for real time systems control, the swamping of the shield by decoy missiles and so on, the Bucket of Nails argument could be answered to a degree. The US itself would launch a whole bunch of anti-satellite satellites using the bucket of nails approach. They wouldn't need astronauts of course: that had just been part of the scientist's fanciful illustration. Just a few automatic satellites and the high tech equivalent of birdshot. They would use their buckets of nails to destroy the Soviet's buckets of nails before the Soviets could use their buckets of nails to destroy the surveillance satellites and the battlestations, they said. Somehow this had made sense to their government paymasters.

Bucket O' Nails' first target, the System X satellite almost directly above Panama City, was now less than a thousand miles away. Its position had been determined to within one square metre by radar scans from NORAD. There was some consternation that the thing was so small, presenting a profile to the incoming buckshot of less than three square metres. The Navy scientists calculated a one in ten chance of the satellite passing through the net without being hit by a single bearing.

This didn't worry them because they'd get another chance when the net and satellite met again on the other side of the Earth in twelve hours time. And again, twelve hours after that. With the net continually expanding the chances of a miss would grow and grow, but they calculated at least twelve meetings before probability levels fell to less than 10%. It was a shame that the net would take out so many other innocent satellites in the process.

So they weren't worried when the satellite wasn't destroyed at the first meeting, not worried at all.

The unscheduled loss of the Chengdu reactor from the Sichuan power grid was the first warning sign. The loss was gradual and well compensated for. Programmed rumours about cracked fuel rods were already circulating and medical services in the nearby towns had been put on standby.

As Chengdu's power to the grid decreased, its contribution to the military site on the sloping foothills of the Jiuzhai Gou Mountains increased exponentially. Thousands of pumps laboured to drain the last few molecules of gas from the already near-vacuum along the 30 kilometre length of the buried ring. Thousands more pumps lowered the temperatures of the electromagnets that would constrain the beam to the ring.

A tunnel, thrown off at a tangent from the ring, bored upwards for 10 kilometres through the mountain before emerging from the other side at a height of nearly fifteen thousand feet. Titanic forces were already at play within it as power to the compression plates was slowly ramped up. Scientists making final adjustments to the steering gradients heard the steel reinforcement skeleton creak as it took the strain. They cast nervous glances at each other and hurried to finish their work.

On the near side of the mountain several hundred chambers full of hydrogen and fluorine were being powered up. The chambers were connected via a series of right-angled tunnels drilled into the rock. They emerged finally into a single tunnel, which opened out into the side of the ring tunnel at a height of 10,000 feet.

In the control room at 1500 metres below and 18 kilometres to the south, a forest of red indicator lights seemed to catch fire as the myriad systems came to readiness. On one wall three screens each showed a picture of the System X satellite over Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. The pictures in visible, infrared and ultraviolet were being taken from an internal resources satellite commandeered from the Ministry of the Interior. The satellite was in a geostationary orbit, five hundred miles to the north.

Even the appearance of the System X satellite troubled the Chinese scientists. It had no obvious features: no solar cells, no receiver antennae and, worst of all, no dishes to transmit the signals. It was just a grey featureless cube, visible only by reflected sunlight, adding nothing even in the infrared.

But that was the least of their worries. The Sichuan facility was new and had not been fully tested. It had begun as a relatively low-key military research effort in the 50's, but had received massive support during the height of the Reagan years and his Star Wars initiative. In the years since, things had got a lot better politically, then started to get a worse again. But throughout, financial support had been substantial. Star Wars would never have worked as intended but it was considered a Pandora's box, capable of spawning a whole series of unexpected technologies. The Chinese had not dared to be left behind. In the free markets of the world, they had long since learned, knowledge was the most precious commodity.

In the Chengdu control room General Guang had watched once again as the satellite flicked out of existence for sixty seconds, before reappearing. Over the last twenty minutes it had done this three times. The scientists had made a move to check the satellite link but Guang had waved them away. Only he knew about the three blasts of American buckshot directed at the satellite. The buckshot had been moving far too fast to be visible to the cameras on the resources satellite.

He wasn't surprised therefore when the direct line to Beijing gave its shrill summons. Neither was he surprised to hear the single word. "Fire!"

Taking a deep breath, he turned to the scientist at the fire control. "Fire when ready."


The scientist could hardly hide his glee. Grinning from ear to ear he began the firing sequence.

Bells and sirens started up and lights began to flash. Guang regarded this as pure theatre, the generation of the two beams being totally soundless. He smiled to himself as the scientists began their votive dances over the controls.

As the time approached Guang looked at the monitor on his desk which showed the cloudless sky above the nearby dam. Beside him he heard the scientist yell: "Fire!"

The photons in the tanks of hydrogen and fluorine lased and the beam flashed through the air above the Sichuan province. As it emerged from the mountain the beam was narrow, barely a foot across, but was subject to the subtlest of divergences. In its centre it was plasma hot, fading at its periphery to temperatures barely above the melting point of steel. Atmospheric atoms, many of them instantly ionised, were blasted away down the huge pressure gradient. For a microsecond a column of vacuum stretched right through the thin atmosphere above the mountain.

The ring discharged. Protons accelerated up to near light speeds were flung off it through the high-density fields of the compression plates, then out of the mountain. Lancing up through the column of vacuum and out of the atmosphere, their repulsive charges began to cause the beam to diverge. By the time it hit the satellite its energy density was reduced by many orders of magnitude. But it was more than enough.

On Guang's monitor the clear air above Chengdu glowed with a purple line of Cerenkov radiation disappearing into space. The scene from the resources satellite was more dramatic. Camera filters had been increased as a precaution, so much so that the System X satellite was no longer visible. When the beam hit it appeared again, climbing into incandescence on all frequencies before vaporising. By the time filters had been reduced there were only stars.

Guang smiled to himself and nodded. The scientists cheered.

He sat back in his chair, put his feet on top of a dark green wastebin and lit a cigarette. Bottles of Maotai, no longer so frowned on, appeared like magic and the talking got louder as the tension eased. Guang was starting to have amorous thoughts about one of the scientists, a striking woman with long dark hair, when he was suddenly deafened by a hell's chorus of alarms.

"My God," someone shouted, "The pressure seals have gone!"

Guang scrambled out of his chair and pushed people aside in his hurry to get to the containment monitors. A line of digital readouts gave pressures at forty points on the ring. He watched aghast as two low-pressure waves worked in from the peripheral readouts in a pincer movement towards the opposite point on the ring. For a second he imagined the corrosive gases blasting into the vacuum of the ring, filling it and condensing out as hydrofluoric acid on to its surface.

The control room floor kicked under him and he had to grab the monitors for support. Then he heard the far away bass rumble of heavy ordnance. He fumbled at the shutter control and the heavy plates lifted, flooding the room with harsh daylight. Blinking hard and squinting, he saw the ring and the tangential fire tunnel etched out on the barren ground. How was that possible?‌ It was as though he had x-ray vision, seeing these systems as they lay deep underground. Then he realised that what he was seeing was dustclouds from detonations every few hundred metres along the ring's length. Every single alarm in the room started ringing.

"For God's sakes turn those things off," he shouted into the pandemonium.

Ten minutes before the destruction of Chengdu, explosions had ripped through anti-satellite control stations at Vladivostock, Sakalin, Vandenburg, and San Diego. All the anti-satellites vanished as one.

At the same time the beam weapon facility under construction on the slopes of Santa Blanca in New Mexico was buried by rubble. Only the sections containing base personel were spared. The few staff who had been in the trashed sections were later found confused and retching several hundred metres from the explosions.

Nobody was killed by the blasts, although one elderly scientist in Vandenburg died from a heart attack.

Above Dhahran, a new System X satellite appeared.

Whilst in space the remaining superpowers concentrated on the destruction of the satellite chain, on the ground they and other nations tried more conventional means of suppression. Satellite dish factories and warehouses were impounded or destroyed. Campaigns of refutation were launched in other media.

In the democracies these tactics immediately backfired. The public had for the first time seen the people they elected in a light unfiltered by the sophisticated machinery of public relations. They saw sleazy deals being struck, petty vendettas arranged at great public expense. They saw waste and negligence at the highest levels. Worst of all they sometimes saw politicians in their private moments, talking to their cronies, perhaps after a drink or two. The prejudice and narrow mindedness of these unguarded moments was appalling.

Most of the space in newspapers became filled with condensations and analyses of The Truth broadcasts. A couple of editors and publishers who resisted and instead published anti-Truth propaganda got the same treatment as the Guardador's publisher.

Paradoxically, the effects in developing countries, where there were far fewer receivers per head of the population, were more marked. Whilst individuals rarely owned a receiver, most villages had a communal dish. During one lengthy piece on corruption at the highest levels in the Indian government, the Minister of Internal Security ordered the army to smash every satellite dish on the sub-continent. Within an hour Channel 8 had shown the man issuing the order, then launched into an eight hour precis of his corrupt life. Before the sun had set other high officials were falling over themselves to rescind the order, lest through any inaction the blinding light should fall upon them too. Besides, high-resolution downloadable videos of The Truth's output were already clogging the internet to the point of widespread breakdown.

The story in Russia was similar, but most of the population had long since given up any notion of non-corruptibility on the part of their leaders. In China, memories of Tiananmen Square and many other atrocities resurfaced to haunt the goverment. The Minister of State had felt confident about finding and destroying the majority of satellite receivers, and the fact there was only one, state-controlled internet provider made blocking access easier. Besides, he was little concerned about his own life and record being examined in minute detail. A communist zealot, he wasn't ashamed of any of the things he'd done, brutal though they often had been.

Together with the generals he issued an order that all citizens who had watched The Truth should be judged as counter-revolutionaries and subjected to summary execution. Financial incentives were offered to citizens who could direct soldiers to owners of such receivers.

By the next day nearly 10,000 men, women and children had been executed throughout the provinces of China. Most executions took place in Peking and Shanghai, causing major problems when it came to disposing of the corpses. Large trenches were dug in publc parks. The bodies were doused with petrol and cremated until huge clouds of black soot hung over the crowded cities.

Within an hour of the first death the Minister of State was found in his office, his hands tied behind his back and his feet bound. He had been shot through the back of the head. A message had been written in the minister's own blood across one wall. It said that unless the minister's subordinates rescinded the order within the hour then they too would be executed in the same manner.

By dawn of the next day another 8,000 citizens contaminated by The Truth, or at least having had access to a receiver, had been executed. So too were the deputies of the Minister of State. Their bodyguards maintained they had literally vanished, only to reappear within seconds bound and shot. In public places messages appeared repeating the threats, though extending now to the deputies' deputies. Similar messages appeared on State TV and could only be stopped by shutting the whole system down. In the face of this communications blackout, rumours flared unchecked and the power of the government waned as their control began to disintegrate.

It was only after three devolutions of responsibility, and the deaths of seventy-two of the highest ranking goverment officials and military, that the decree was rescinded. By then nearly 25,000 people had been executed. The only receivers left were scattered around the far-flung provinces where their presence was much easier to hide.

In China at least, System X had failed. For now.



*****



CHAPTER 17


Chilton, Virginia

It was like Christmas, though that was still months away. The streets were deserted but for a few scurrying people and the occasional car which raced by. Even the weather was conspiring in the effect, the chill beginning to bite and giving the first intimations of the snow to come.

Lola was impatient. She tugged at his arm and laughed with frustration when he resisted. Strong though she was, he was stronger and bigger. Her laughter was infectious, causing the first hint of a smile to twitch at his grimly set mouth.

"Come on, you big stiff. I want to see what's happening."

"Ever thought that ignorance really might be bliss?‌"

"Not in your case. You've been about as light and carefree as a grizzly's asshole. Anything'd be better than that."

The bars of Penn Avenue were full to bursting as they passed. A drink seemed to be the thing people needed most right now. A man hurrying towards them suddenly turned right into a bar called Henry's. Lola redoubled her efforts to push him to it, but he dragged her away. As he did so the streetlamps flashed into yellow and began the slow climb to white.

She grabbed the lapels of his expensive wool overcoat and started to pull. When he resisted she pulled harder until the coat threatened to undergo a cataclysmic devaluation. When he bent forward she smiled and bit him hard on the end of the nose.

"Jesus," he staggered back clutching his face. Blinking his tears away he found Lola giving the finger to Edwards, fifty feet behind, who was slowing back down to a walk and taking his hand out of his coat.

"Your pal's pretty jumpy."

"Perhaps he's afraid someone might hurt me." Gingerly he touched the end of his nose which was now stinging in the cold.

"Look pal," her thick little forefinger jabbed into his chest, "I've had enough of this mournfulness crap. What's the problem‌?"

He tried to crank up a smile. Lola raised one corner of her lip in disgust. She glared up at him, hands on hips, her small body buried within her thick black dufflecoat, white bobble hat and long white woolen scarf.

He found himself laughing. "You look so cute," he said and ran like hell before she could catch him. He'd got barely forty feet when a weight landed on his back. Staggering to a stop he felt both his ears grabbed.

"Shit! Just because I'm only four foot ten every silly bastard calls me cute!" then she was off him.

"Sorry," he said, chuckling and holding his hands forward, palms spread to show he wasn't armed, that he wanted to be friends.

She looked steadily at him for several seconds then strode by him into the nearest bar. It was an ersatz Irish pub called O'Reilly's, all lettering and decor in green.

He sighed and followed.

As he got to the door he looked back and saw Edwards grimacing and shaking his head, Leith's immersion in a crowd of strangers being just what the bodyguard didn't want.

The pub was genuine enough to reflect the less egalitarian class system of Ireland and the United Kingdom. It was split into two sections: one a 'Public Bar', the other a 'Lounge'. Leith, having been to Europe, knew that the Public bar was for the workers, to keep the vulgarity and commonness of people who actually used their hands for a living away from the precious middle classes. Lola, like any good American, headed for it right away.

It hardly mattered. Inside it was just one big room with a circular central bar. In the far corners two television sets were the only sources of illumination. Both showed the Channel 8 logo.

Lola was already ordering a pitcher of beer. The mass of people was clustered around the two sets, glasses in hands, and she had no trouble getting served.

She glanced at him as he leaned on the counter beside her. "What are you afraid of anyway‌? The Truth?‌" she snorted.

"You bet," he toyed with a beer coaster advertising Guinness.

"'And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free'. Hawthorne, wasn't it‌?" She poured some beer into his glass.

He knew she hadn't made the connection between his mysterious disappearances and The Truth. His work had kept them apart for almost a week. Their reunion had left little time for anything but joyful, and this time tender, lovemaking. He'd been relieved to find she'd missed him. She was the only good thing in the nightmare that was his life.

"What d'you think about this business‌?" he pointed a finger at the nearest screen, "What's it all about?‌"

She shrugged. "It seems to be about what it says its about, namely The Truth. I can see why you aren't too happy about it. You fuckers at Langley never could leave anything alone. Now all your sleazy little covert actions are being revealed for all to see."

"Are you sure it's all true?‌"

"How can you doubt it‌? As far as I know, and I've been reading the newspaper analyses pretty carefully, it all checks out. Christ, if it was just ten percent true that would be a major improvement on what passes for news nowadays."

He nodded. "That's probably right, but where's the information coming from?‌ How was all this footage shot‌?"

"That's a mystery, no question. I've read speculation that a lot of the stuff is from intelligence sources. After all, most intelligence services probably bug their statesmen, and with cameras being so small they can just as easily film them as well. Maybe some kind of pan-intelligence community has sprung up, with 'moles' in all the major agencies ... CIA, MI5, Mossad and so on."

"What about the Kennedy thing‌? The way it followed the bullets."

"Sure, that had to be bullshit, special effects ... that kind of thing. But again, when they analysed it, it did made some kind of sense. I don't mind the broadcasters being illustrative like that, but it would be better if they made it clear what was happening. Like on TV when they re-enact a crime, they put 'simulation' on the bottom of the screen."

Leith remembered his beer and took a long drink. When he put it down he looked at her. "You don't think," he wiped the foam from around his mouth, "You don't think that maybe, just maybe, you're being a teensy-weensy bit glib about all this."

She took a deep breath and stopped smiling. "Yeah, OK, but you know I'm not religious. I prefer to look for rational explanations, but I've got to admit that it does take some explaining. Like that business about the murderers. Spooky.

"But then I've heard people talk about all those surveillance satellites up there. How it's just a matter of retrospectively analysing their data. I mean, you hear about how satellites can read number plates. But how could they see into rooms or when the crimes were at night‌? They show them too.

"But that's why everyone wants to see this broadcast. An important message, due in... " he saw the silvery flicker of lights reflecting off her watch as she pulled back her sleeve, "... in five minutes. Like I say I'm not religious, but if this is 'Jesus Christ: The Sequel' then I wouldn't be sorry. Religion must be a big comfort and it's my loss that I could never convince myself it was true. I wouldn't be sorry to find out I was wrong."

He nodded and raised the glass again. Lola was at least trying to face things, albeit in a sneaky way. Everybody else, particularly the press, was still reacting to the revelations, more concerned with corroborating them than trying to figure out where the information was coming from. Perhaps it was understandable. Answers were being given to things that had bothered journalists for years. Maybe they were afraid that by looking too closely they might kill the Golden Goose.

The average man in the street tended to take a different viewpoint. The whole thing was either denied as a trick, a product of Hollywood special effects, or the start of the Second Coming. The world was slowly going crazy.

He looked across at the screen. The text had been there for the past twenty-four hours. It said:


'A message of the deepest significance to all mankind will be broadcast on this channel at the following time:

A list of times in the various zones followed. The Eastern Standard entry was for 9:00 p.m.

As he watched, new text began to roll up the screen.


'Everything is under control.

You are safe but only for the moment. Mankind faces a difficult and dangerous future and must change its ways to survive. The Truth is designed to aid you in this but is being wantonly disbelieved or ignored, despite clear evidence that it is being brought to you with technologies beyond anything possible on the Earth.'

*

He heard the first mumblings of surprise from the other customers.

"This is not the preface to an invasion from extraterrestrials. The Truth is brought to you by only one being, and that being is human. Her name is Verity.

Verity will explain everything and will answer any questions from an invited audience. She will appear at the main satellite broadcast studio of the United Nations General Assembly building in New York on Novemeber 8th at 3:00pm EST. She will take questions from:

Terence Nkobe, UN Secretary General

Professor Tod Keneally of NASA and Cornell University

Brent Valeur of TransPac Satellite News

'As evidence that The Truth is not a fraud perpetrated using Earth technology, an unequivocal demonstration will be given. A rainbow will gird the Earth, passing over every point between latitudes 60 north and south at the following times: *

Leith automatically looked for Eastern Standard then checked his watch. One hour. He turned back to his drink.

"What the fook was that all about‌?" said an Irish voice.

"I haven't the faintest idea," said another, "but good or bad it's worth a drink."

Leith pulled Lola away from the bar as the crowd surged away from the TV's.

"What the fook was it all about‌" she said, managing to grab the pitcher of beer before she was out of range.

"Seemed self-explanatory to me."

"You don't seem overly surprised."

"No and to be honest," why not, The Truth was letting it all hang out anyway, "these guys have been up to a lot of other things. Stuff which really isn't so nice."

She gaped at him. "You mean it's true?‌ That it's all down to aliens or something‌?" She gave a nervous little laugh.

He shrugged. "Frankly, it's about the only explanation I can think of. Their technology, at least what we know of it, seems to involve two major advances over anything we can do. The first is access to time, to a record of all that's happened before. That's where The Truth comes from. The second is just as unbelievable. Maybe it's still all Earth technology and tricks, but I guess we'll find out in an hour."

"The rainbow?‌"

"Yeah. A rainbow that could gird the Earth. That would be magic. Let me take you home. Langley'll be coming back to the boil and I guess I ought to be there."

They decided to walk back, even though Lola's apartment was several miles away. She'd made it plain she would't let him out of her sight until he'd done some explaining. That would take time, she'd said, so they may as well walk. She had been very firm. He would've needed Edwards' help to get away from her.

He started to tell her but she wouldn't believe him at first. Only when he told her of his torture, and he heard his own voice go small and uncertain, did she change. She stopped and put a hand on his chest. He opened his mouth to tell her he was okay when he heard her gasp.

He followed her gaze round and heard the quiet awe in her voice. "Here it comes."

Buildings four and five stories high surrounded them, but they were at an intersection. To the east, between breaks in the skyline, he could just make out a brilliant violet band edging its way above the horizon.

Lola looked at him but said nothing. They turned and hurried on, the buildings temporarily obscuring the sight. Every east-facing window seemed crammed with faces. By the time they turrned into Lola's street the last of the colours had become visible.

"My God, it's so bright," he muttered. It was as though a huge and splendid arch was being hauled up over the world.

"What a brilliant symbol," Lola's voice was hushed. "So peaceful but so glorious. Its like we're crossing a threshold."

Arm in arm they watched in silence as the arch continued its slow clim upwards. Once it was clear of the skyline he lost the sense of its motion.

It was only when the arch was a quarter way up from the horizon that Leith checked his watch and realised how long they had been standing immobile and silent. He glanced around the street, at the particoloured shadows cast by buildings and bushes and cars. Then he saw he too was casting a rainbow-rimmed shadow.

"Its like acid," he mumbled.

"What was that‌?" she asked softly.

"Its like an acid trip. Multiple colours in your shadow that move when you do." He swept his arm slowly to his side, faint double rainbow sweeping across the sidewalk. He noticed the cigarette ends in the gutters and even a skidmark on the road. "It's as bright as full moonlight."

"How's it done do you think‌?"

He exhaled. "I guess some kind of high powered laser. On one of their satellites perhaps, or maybe even on the moon," he hesitated, "No, not that far away. The broadcast said the rainbow would be restricted to 60 degrees north and south, so it's got to be closer than that. Yeah, it's like any communications satellite in a geostationary orbit. But ... then it would be stationary ... the arch is moving faster than the Earth's rotation." He gave up. "What the hell. Someone at Langley'll figure it out. Speaking of which," he put his arm round her, "I'd better go."

He kissed her but she only barely responded and he noticed that her eyes were open wide, staring at the spectacle over his shoulder.

"Right," she said, "I think I'll head up to the roof. Get a better view."

"You're not gonna..."

She held a hand up and the blankness in her gaze suddenly vanished. "I told you not to give me that shit."

"OK, I'm sorry. It's just ... I like you so much."

She kissed him but this time with such spirit that he put his hand under her coat and touched a hard rising nipple through the thin cotton of her shirt.

"Whoa, boy," she pushed him away. "That'll be waiting for you."

Then she was off, stopping only at the foot of the building to kick off her flat-heeled shoes and cram them into the pockets of her dufflecoat. Opening her coat for more freedom, she began the climb.

She swarmed up the side of the building like a monkey and he had to smile despite his unease. He would just have to get used to feeling like this. If he could secure for himself even half the love she had for climbing, he would be a privileged man.

The light from the arch seemed to be making it even easier for her than before and she was soon past her window and within twenty feet of the edge of the roof. As she was passing the highest flat, a movement to his side caught his eye. He turned and saw a man ten feet away smiling at him.

Leith started to smile back, thinking it was Edwards, when his stomach turned to ice. It was the Israeli, the one who survived St. Louis. The man seemed to have waited for the recognition to show in Leith's face because immediately he brought something out from under his coat.

It was a gun, some kind of rifle.

The muzzle swung up, Leith's stomach shrinking away as it passed across it, then it was past him and describing an arc up the building.

His scream of horror was lost in the crashing sound of the gun's discharge, his eyes dimming as the muzzle flash shrunk his pupils. Still screaming, he could just make out the figure on the building as it jerked in a hailstorm of mortar and brick and bullets. For a moment it hung there as though suspended by the pressure of high velocity lead. Then it was falling, the coat billowing around it like the limp wings of a bird killed in flight.

With the sickening sound of impact came the anger and the fleeing of thought. Roaring with animal hatred he rushed forward, his hands clawed like talons, hitting the man with the force of his charge, taking him down to the floor. The man's body felt so light, so small, so easy to smash. With one hand round the man's throat, he raised his other to crush his skull.

"No, Bob! Don't!

And he saw it was Lola.

He froze, arm still raised, wildly scrutinising her shocked little face as she prised open his paralysed fingers from her throat. She started to cough. "You're crushing me! Get off!"

Gently he got off her, then stood up and walked like a zombie over to the huddled dark thing by the building. It was dead, its skull opened by the fall, but its face though bloody was preserved. Leith wondered, dazedly, whether they would ever find out the Israeli's name. Numbly, automatically, his hands began to search through the man's clothes for identification.

He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. She was still breathless. "I don't understand, Bob. What happened‌?"

He rose and took her in his arms, his tears making a soft padding sound as they dropped down onto her coat. He looked up at the rainbow. It seemed as good a place as any.

"Thank you," he said. "Thank you so very much."


Later, when the rest of the world had arrived and Edwards' corpse had been found in a lot two blocks away, Leith got a moment to himself. Lola, despite his protestations but greatly to his admiration, had repeated her climb and was on the roof looking at the arch, now directly overhead.

He sat on the hood of a squad car looking up. The voice when it came was female. It was soft, urgent and from behind and to the right of him.

"Be at the UN meeting on the 8th," it said.

Leith turned, but wasn't surprised that no one else was there.

The supermarket lights were bright and dazzling. The man pushed his trolley through the cereals section. Dressed in jeans and a casual jacket he seemed somehow uncomfortable, uneasy, out of place.

Apparently spotting the cereal he was looking for he made towards it, gently swerving to miss another man pushing a trolley in the opposite direction.

"Verity," he whispered as the other passed by.



*****



CHAPTER 18


Midtown, New York

It was hot and noisy in the studio with too many people clustered into too small a space. Feeling claustrophobic, Leith turned and rested his forehead against the cool glass. The General Assembly Hall, majestic in its emptiness, lay below him.

"She's not going to make it." Carlsson's dogmatism was already beginning to grate. The guy talked like everything he said should be written down in stone for posterity.

"Would you please move behind the cameras!" The harassed floor manager was shooing the Chinese and Russian observers away from Kennealy and Valeur. Studios in the UN seemed to have been designed for little more than one-to-one interviews, not for panel discussions. The harsh glare of the additional lights erased the studio's grubbiness, but exaggerated every break and hole in the old style acoustic tiles.

Valeur's makeup woman hovered round him like a gnat, dabbing away the imperfections. Gauntly good looking on screen, he'd appeared unexpectedly raddled in the flesh. But then he'd been going for years, serving his time on West Coast stations, then the nationals, before finally fronting up TransPac News when it began broadcasting in the late eighties. The permanent air of wounded sensitivity he brought to his special reports on global horrors had won him predominantly female adoration throughout the Pacific Rim. Nobody could report a good famine like Valeur.

Unusually for a journalist, he'd had a good grounding in science and technology. An intellectual who had carved a niche in the decerebrate world of satellite broadcasting, he was an interesting choice as an interviewer.


Keneally was looking at Valeur's primping with faint unease. A veteran of innumerable chat shows and science specials, he'd never managed to seem totally at ease with the medium. He was a short man, dressed in the kind of dark green corduroy suit Leith had once favoured, before he'd been introduced to the social advantages of really good clothing. Despite the Celtic name, Keneally was darkly tanned. His deeply set brown eyes flickered nervously around the studio.

Nkobe had scorned the makeup. There was little chance he'd look pale under the studio lights. Corpulent, with hemispherical cheeks and several chins, he mopped repeatedly at the perspiration that glistened on his brow.

"How come that guy Nkobe looks so nervous‌? He must be used to cameras by now."

Carlsson turned to look back. "He's Secretary General of the UN, for Christ's sake. They all look nervous. I mean, think about it: hundreds of the most powerful people in the world , twisting your arm for this and that, every day of your working life. No thanks!"

The floor manager held up his hand. "Three minutes. Quiet, please," he yelled above the hubbub. The other obervers, huddled in one corner of the studio, fell quiet for ten seconds before the noise level began to rise again.

"No show," said Carlsson with finality. Tall as Leith but more slender, he had the build of a marathon runner. Every pose he struck was like something out of a fashion magazine, though his clothes were unfashionably baggy enough to conceal the point man's usual panoply of horrors.

"Don't be so sure."

"So where's she going to come from‌? Thin air‌? Look at that." Carlsson was pointing through the glass to the adjoining studio, where a bank of TV monitors had been set up. They showed internal views of the studio approaches, and scenes shot from cameras on the roof overlooking the East River. Other cameras pointed up and down Roosevelt Drive, and down the long perspective of 45th Street. Everything looked bright and crisp in the clear autumn sunshine. Huge crowds clustered round the UN, most come to get an adoring glimpse of Verity. The rainbow had struck a deeply resonant chord in mankind's collective soul.

"No way could she get through the crowd. As for the airspace, it's locked tight!" Carlsson turned away in a gesture clearly signifying 'end of story' in his rather abrupt body language. He put a finger to his ear to listen into the security communications.

The UN had its own security team and they could handle security within the building, but Verity attracted a level of threat they'd never had to deal with before. Too many people wanted her dead. The company, through Leith, had made it plain they were willing to take up the slack.

An AWAC was monitoring the airspace against incursions, and anti-missile batteries had had to be set up on strategic positions in Manhattan and Queens. All points on both sides of the river that had a vantage point on the General Assembly were being guarded.

"Sixty seconds," the floor manager was almost wailing. "Quiet everyone!"

"I told you," said Carlsson, "It's a no-show."

The slats of the wooden bench pressed hard into his almost fleshless backside. The room was boiling hot, only the metal of the locker door feeling cold against the back of his bald head.

A small window set high up against the ceiling revealed a rectangle of bright blue sky. It formed the screen on which he was replaying the film of his life. Appropriately enough, because the sky had always permeated his existence, beckoning him on to ride blazing trails of flame into the stratosphere. Life had seemed sweet and endless and triumphant.

He sighed deeply and closed his eyes. The fever suppressants were cutting out, and soon the pain relief would diminish. The first intimations would be dull and diffuse, the pains referred to chest and legs.

Rouse had even insisted he stop the steroids. The slight twinges he always felt in neck and groin and armpits would get worse, the lesions bulking out and becoming red hot foci of pain.

The roar of a jet flying low overhead shattered his reverie. He started to put on his flying suit.

With barely fifteen seconds to go, the chair reserved for Verity became suddenly occupied. Even Nkobe managed to struggle to his feet. The three men stood round her gaping.

"Jesus!" Leith was gratified to see the look of shock on Carlsson's face.

The floor manager was the first to rally. "No time for introductions. Quiet please, we're on!" He signalled wildly.

Portentous music swelled up in the background and the three men resumed their seats, struggling for composure. Verity gave them each a little smile.

Durrell, trussed up in his hospital bed, must be loving this, thought Leith. If de Meer had looked like Margaret Dumont, this one looked like Minny Mouse. Short and slight, she had to sit on the edge of her seat so that her broad heavy shoes could touch the ground. Her thin bony hands were clasped together in the lap of her dark skirt. A bracelet and ring caught the harsh studio lights, her only other jewellery being a string of indifferent looking pearls resting across the front of her plain white blouse.

"What the fuck's going on‌?" he heard Carlsson say, but ignored him.

Verity glanced around the room. She seemed nervous. The flesh in her eye sockets had retreated with age, making her look slightly pop-eyed. She kept looking at each of the three men in turn, almost as if she was seeking reassurance.

"She looks like a schoolteacher," said Carlsson. "Were you expecting this?‌" but just then the music stopped.

"Welcome to what may conceivably be the most important TV broadcast of all time," Valeur was speaking to camera. "All the world..."

"Oh it is. It really is." Verity's marked overbite made her voice sound plummy. It also made her accent difficult to place.

"I'm sorry," Valeur easily, as though being interrupted in front of bilions of people was the most natural thing in the world.

Watching a studio monitor, Leith could see that this time the camera caught her when she spoke.

"This is the most important broadcast of all time."

Valeur smiled again and the camera was back on him. "I'm sure it is, but for the benefit of the viewers I think a little recap might be in order. Less than two weeks ago a ring of satellites..."

The decals and warning notices were badly scuffed, betraying the F-15B's age. Fitting, he thought. A fucked-up plane for a fucked-up man.

The Eagle's shape, normally sleek and deadly with the sharp tips of air-to-air missiles protruding from the wings like talons, was now marred by the heavy mass of underslung ordnance. It made the plane look heavy, almost pregnant. He laughed at this disturbing thought, wanting to go out riding a rampant stallion, not a gravid mare.

The hard, thickened glands in his crotch chaffed and caught as he struggled up the ladder. The technicians had to push him up by his ass before he could heave himself into the cockpit. One followed him up to hook him into the systems. The solid sounds of interlocking connectors made it seem like a kind of robot sex, an act of coupling between man and machine.

He laughed again at the confused imagery, and the technician's eyes narrowed. Then, tapping once on Logan's helmet, he was gone.

Logan started through the checklist.


"...and finally we have Verity herself," Valeur was finishing his introductions. "I imagine you took your name from the Latin veritas, meaning truth."

"Obviously," she raised her eyes as though she were chiding him.

"She even sounds like a schoolteacher," said Carlsson disbelievingly.

"Verity, The Truth broadcast indicated that you would make an extremely important announcement. Do you wish to make that now?‌"

"I think it'll emerge as I answer your questions."

"As you wish. Perhaps I could get the ball rolling by asking you to confirm the existence of extraterrestrials."

"Definitely."

"But you are a human being."

"Yes."

Keneally lifted a finger and the camera shot changed. He leaned forward excitedly. "The technology you use is of extraterrestrial origin‌?"

"Obviously. The rainbow arch, access to past events, how else could I have done it‌?"

"How can you access the past‌?"

Verity nodded her head. Her lifeless dark hair, shot through with grey hairs, hardly moved. "It's not possible by mankind's technology, but our science does indicate something like it. Perhaps I can use an analogy.

Earth's geological history is recorded permanently in the rock strata, and it's like that for the whole universe, but its record is embedded in spacetime, left behind by the wavefront which is 'now'. Everything, and I mean absolutely everything, anybody has ever done is recorded somewhere in the spacetime block. That's an Einsteinian concept, nothing new. The actual mechanism by which my data is stored is actually very different, but the idea shouldn't come as a surprise."

Carlsson was right. She did sound like a schoolteacher.

Nkobe had made no move to speak. Looking nonplussed he kept mopping at the perspiration on his forehead. Valeur signalled that he wanted to cut in but Keneally pressed on:

"If you have access to the past, can you alter it‌?"

"No. To pursue the analogy, paleontologists can inspect the rock strata, but they can't change the Earth's past."

"Verity, you..." said Valeur but Keneally bulldozed through:

"And the future‌? Can you see that‌? Does it, in a sense, already exist‌?"

"I don't know. I certainly can't access it."

This time, before Valeur could speak, the rich and resonant tones of Nkobe cut in. "Is that where you get your justification?‌ Justification for the punishments you mete out so freely‌?"

"Yes."

Leith's pursed his lips and regarded Nkobe with new interest.

The African's eyes were suddenly hard. "You have used your 'judgement' on many people recently, have you not‌? Judgement, sentence and execution."

The UN had always seemed a weak, ignorant, strife-riven organisation, kept deliberately in the dark by its own member states. How much did Nkobe know‌?

Verity looked unflinchingly back. Her face, with its small chin looked naturally weak, but now there was something about the mouth, something harder.

"Yes," said the pompous little voice.

"Mass slaughter, in fact," said Nkobe, his voice loud and deep with anger. "Politicians, policemen, doctors and nurses. Murdered!"

"Yes," said Verity.

"But why‌?" asked Valeur, so taken aback he forgot to signal he was about to speak. The camera shot flicked to him too late, then changed back to Verity.

"The Secretary General is using the most emotive examples. But yes, I have executed doctors and nurses, specifically the medical personnel who aided and abetted the torture and murder of victims of right wing death squads in Central America. I executed them by precisely the same means they executed others, by injecting air bubbles and hydrochloric acid into their veins."

"By what right did you do this‌?" Valeur's attitude seemed to be undergoing a sea change. The man must have relished all the information provided by The Truth, and must have come expecting to eulogise rather than deplore.

"By what right did they kill others in the first place‌? And remember those are the most emotive examples. Others include mercenaries, drug warlords, gangsters..."

"The Las Vegas massacre!" Keneally interjected.

"Yes. All..."

"I don't believe this," Keneally had a hand to his forehead, "you control technology beyond our imagination and you use it to kill gangsters!"

Verity stared back at him unperturbed.

"I can justify every single execution. I can show you every sordid act those people committed. I am in a position to judge better than any court, because my evidence is absolute and impervious to doubt. In fact I am constrained by the solidity of this evidence. I can only inflict on people what they have inflicted on others."

Nkobe was shaking his head. "And what about forgiveness?‌ What about the possibility of rehabilitation‌? What about mercy‌?"

"There is no time, Secretary General," she looked sad. "I would've done all this in another way if I could. But radical changes were required."

"Such as‌?"

"Well, for a start I've taken away all your nuclear weapons."


He took it easy at first, testing his swollen body with a gently increasing climb. As the G's rose the flight suit inflated around his legs and abdomen, preventing blood loss from his head, but chaffing at his armpits and groin. At 20,000 feet he levelled out and savoured the blue of the sky and the vivid reds of the Maryland autumn.

This time it was for the pain. The needle of the green altitude display was whirling like a dervish before he began to pull her out of the dive. Suddenly it was like being trapped in a tight cupboard with a lifejacket that had instantly inflated. Breath hissed from between his teeth as his ribcage contracted. The suit chiselled its way into every crevice of his body. Breathless, he could only yell soundlessly.

Plateauing out at ten thousand, he then took her gently down to five hundred, before levelling off again. He waited until he was breathing normally then:

"Alpha Foxtrot Baker to Fort York control."

"Fort York receiving you, Alpha Foxtrot Baker."

"Request clearance for intromission."

"Permission granted. God speed, Major Logan."

The greens and reds of the landscape began to be displaced by greys and blacks. Soon he was over Trenton and his heads-up radar display showed the flyswarm of stacked jets over Kennedy. To the left of the green dots a pulsating red light marked the beacon on Jersey City's Century Tower.

He brought the Eagle round and tracked in towards it.

The program's director, not an employee of TransPac news, switched to the camera viewing Valeur. Valeur was caught, slack jawed and wordless.

Surprisingly, it was Keneally who recovered first.

"Say that again?‌ Once more, please, to make sure we understood."

Verity nodded. "I have removed every single warhead from all the nuclear weapons in the world."

"But there's over 40,000 of them." Valeur was recovering.

"Thirty thousand, three hundred and twenty six to be precise, Mr. Valeur," her overbite made a nonsense of his name. "Even after all the so-called arms reductions over the past few decades, there were still nearly 27,000 warheads on ICBMs. Plus all the nuclear landmines and depth charges, the artillery shells, as well as all the short-range tactical stuff. Oh, and sixty-five suitcase devices, one of which was in the hands of the Abu Nidal group. Plans were underway to plant it in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington," she looked across at Nkobe.

"But how could you do that‌? How did you even get access‌? Even then... thirty-six thousand warheads ... it would've taken you years."

"It took me a week. The dislocation of each warhead took just a fraction of a second..."

"What do you mean by dislocation?‌" Keneally asked sharply.

"Well Professor, I'm sure you're familiar with the concept of the fourth dimension..."


The five mile arc round Century Tower took him low over Jersey. He could imagine the frightened people below rushing to their rattling windows, or ducking down instinctively to cover their heads with their arms.

A bright pinpoint sun was rising out of the broken skyline. He jammed on the power, banking harder. Just before Union City the light split into two green and one yellow dot.

He glanced at the larger red dot circling at fifty thousand feet above Newark. Thanks, he thought. The AWAC was translating its own fix on the intromission markers into the reference frame of his display. The reflections of the three beams, projected across the Hudson into Manhattan, would otherwise have been undetectable.

Out of the arc now his flight suit deflated slightly, bringing some relief. Ahead the apartments and office blocks, malls and parks could be seen sharply for an instant as they surged over his horizon before being consumed in a visual smear.

Just as he cleared the last building, the plane shuddered once and the mounting roar of the engines crashed into a heavenly silence.

As the Hudson streaked by below he focussed on the three points, automatically making the final adjustments. Two of the points framed a break in the Manhattan skyline. The third lay much deeper in. Easing the rudder until the point was central, he flicked the switch on the joystick. Below him the twelve one thousand pounders, the usurpers of the Sparrows and Sidewinders, silently came alive.

By the time he came in above Hells Kitchen he was doing Mach 1.2.


"But why‌? Why are you doing all this‌?" Nkobe was bearing up the best. Valeur and Keneally, perhaps because they were more scientifically literate, seemed stunned into silence by Verity's casual description of her 4-space manipulations.

"Why have I taken away all the warheads?‌ Why have I killed all those people‌? Because I had no choice. Because mankind faces extinction. And I don't mean nuclear war or anything like that. That wouldn't cause real extinction. What I am talking about is a far greater threat. Total species death. And within three generations."

"Wait," Nkobes fists were clenched, "Are you saying that you intend to kill us all?‌"

"No," Verity sighed loudly, "I'm trying to stop that happening. In fact I'm the only one who can. I'm mankind's last hope!"

There was no sound, no warning.

The shockwave, which had merely hammered at the buildings up to 9th Avenue, now swept along the rest of 45th Street like two continuous explosions. Windows crystallised into shrapnel, hailing splinters into shops and houses and offices. Compression forces slammed into moveable objects, turning rooms into maelstroms of wood and metal that scythed down the blinded inhabitants.

On the street below the pressure wave punched holes in eardrums, tumbling pedestrians along like sagebrush. The decompression followed, twisting the debris into crazy vortices that hoovered the street. Pedestrians still on their feet were lifted into the air, the lucky to fall back quickly, others to become debris themselves.

On board the F-15 Logan was already almost unconscious. At 900 mph he was travelling too fast to be hit by his own rebounding shockwaves. But New York was windy, and unevennesses in his trailing vortices tugged at the aircraft, tumbling it and hammering him around like a pea in a whistle.

A wingtip struck a building and sheared off instantly, whipping the Eagle round with terrible force. The last thing Logan heard was all his ribs snapping at once.

The last thing he saw was the flat wall of the General Assembly building streaking towards him.

Leith caught the movement of an agent by the security monitor. Peering closer, he could see the image of 45th Street on the screen. It looked strange. The Street seemed full of something. It was like two little clouds each growing rapidly bigger, billowing out like two explosions. Behind him he heard Nkobe's cynical laugh. "That's grotesque! How could you save us‌?"

Then he saw the pimple between the two clouds and the world turned to quicksand.

Shoving people aside, lurching like a drunkard, arm outstretched, he found himself inside the hard circle of the studio lights. He opened his mouth to yell his warning.

Then all was light and sound and death.

The dome atop the Assembly fountained into shrapnel as a huge fist of flame punched its way out. Tons of rubble rained down on the crowds along Roosevelt Drive. The nose section of the Eagle smashed its way out of the back wall, forming a hundred metre finger of smoke and flame which drooped over into the East River. Where it hit a cloud of steam rose, followed by a thousand smaller splashes as more debris landed.

Meanwhile the Assembly's four sides had disintegrated into grey-white waves. They washed out from the Plaza, obscuring the river and trees and buildings under a choking, deadening shroud of dust.

The reverberations from the blast finally died away, leaving a dreadful silence


PART 2


God



*****



CHAPTER 19


A Hair's Breadth ana Manhattan

I guess I was born then in that inferno of exploding munitions. You could say I rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the General Assembly.

A phoenix that was very busy throwing up at the time.

Truth to tell I thought I'd died and gone to hell. And hell, it seemed, was to be an eternity of nausea and vomiting.

4-space affects people like that. Some, like the very young, can handle it but only just. Most take it badly. To appreciate 3-space you need two flattish retinas stuffed with nerve endings. For 4-space spherical retinas are a must, otherwise you drown in a warped acid nightmare.

Closing your eyes doesn't help. Not unless you've got 4-dimensional eyelids.

Fighting the tidal waves of nausea, I struggled to realign my shattered senses. My vision dipped and soared, focussing in and out as though under the control of a wild thing. For a while it was much too much and I lost myself in the convoluted perspectives of a new infinity.

Then something touched my face and I felt the familiar indentations of my ring against my cheek. Trying to fix one point in the perceptual vortex, I attempted to focus on my hand. At first it was unrecognisable in its mind-numbing complexity and mercifully indistinct. Then I moved my head slightly and it flashed into focus. It was suddenly open, more grotesquely open than any luckless rabbit pinned out on a dissection table. I saw the blood vessels worming their way through my flesh before exploding out into fine capillary webs and suffusing my meat. I must have jerked my head back, for then my hand was covered in a white glove of fat, barely hidden by a fine haze of skin.

I thrust the revolting alien artefact away and by chance found myself looking directly along the axis of the new dimension. I saw the tiered infinities of stars, whole universes opened out like my hand and I roared my terror.

The restructuring was instantaneous. I felt something solid beneath me and grasped it for dear life. I sucked in a vast lungful of air and closed my eyes and this time, to my infinite relief, everything went dark. I slowly opened them again.

The woman was sitting in a chair, her eyes wide with concern as she looked intently at me.

"I'm sorry, Dr. Leith," she said, "I had planned to help you prepare but events overtook me." She indicated a door to my right. "Perhaps you'd like to clean yourself up."

I realised I was lying on a well-carpeted floor, my fingers clawing into the thick pile. The whole room was luxuriously appointed with a huge picture window through which sunlight streamed. I must have still been in shock, for the next thing I knew I was looking through the glass, down onto Central Park a hundred feet below.

Then I was in the bath, the soothing warmth bringing my scattered wits back together, healing me, making me loath to leave. Finally, after what seemed like hours of shameless wallowing, I reluctantly climbed out. There was a blue robe hanging on the back of the door. I noticed the Walton crest on the pocket, then became aware of it on all the packets of soap and shampoo and razor blades. The Walton was one of New York's most exclusive hotels. A suite of rooms like this must cost a fortune, I remember thinking.

I glanced once at the white, stricken face in the mirror then looked quickly away.

By the time I got back the room had changed. The bunched drapes had been lowered and the room was dark but for what at first I thought were TV's, twenty or thirty of them arranged in four banks.

As I approached I saw that the screens weren't flat but three dimensional, like tanks of luminescent water. Several of the tanks shimmered then cleared, filling with scenes I eventually recognised as the UN Paza - though little of it remained. Flames licked from the rubble where the General Assembly had been. Roosevelt Drive was dotted with the sparking lights of ambulances and fire trucks. The buildings facing the Plaza looked gap-toothed where glass had shattered. One view showed firemen and police heaving at some rubble.

Verity cleared her throat and I realised my mind had begun to drift away, lost in the smoke and blackness and pain. "It must have been a terrible shock to you, Dr. Leith, it certainly was to me. But you're quite safe here. You're literally invulnerable, as far as mankind is concerned anyway."

"Here‌?"

"Here is a micron higher than the 3-space you're used to. A cigarette paper's thickness from mankind's reality, but as unreachable as the furthest star."

"Just us or the hotel room‌?"

"The whole floor. In case you feel like some exercise."

I pointed to the viewtanks and raised my eyebrows.

"High-D perspectives, flattened out into 3-D representations. I can't handle the real thing either!"

In one viewtank I saw a woman crouching over the body of a man in a wrecked and smoke-blackened room. I guessed it was from some other building in the Plaza, maybe the Secretariat. As I watched I began to pick up the faint sounds of her weeping.

"What happened?‌"

Verity nibbled at her lip. "Assassination attempt, obviously. If you hadn't nearly been blown away too I would've suspected you, or some of the rest of your friends."

She shook her head. "You know I've seen so much of this sort of thing, yet still the perfidy of mankind can take me by surprise."

"What about Carlsson, Nkobe, Valeur?‌"

"They're all dead I'm afraid. Killed instantly. You were the only other survivor from the studio."

"Thanks," I said, thinking: why‌?

She indicated one of the chairs, a plush well-padded cream-coloured number, and I realised I'd been standing dithering. I sat down, decorously arranging the bathrobe to cover as much as possible. Stll in shock, I had some crazy ideas about what she might be after.

"Who did it‌?" I asked. I didn't sound angry. I didn't even feel angry. Shock is a strange thing.

"Let's find out for sure," she looked towards the central column of tanks. The light cast by them made her eye sockets, already deep, look like pits.

The images on the screens froze. Then like a film being rewound, they started to move backwards.

A cloud formed over the East River then, as though under the action of a grossly amplified gravity, it collapsed back in on itself. It crash-dived into the water where a maelstrom of ripples coalesced and projectiles of brick and mortar shot into the sky. The river spat out the wreckage of the jet. Inhaling flames as it arced above the water, the wreckage ate its way along the huge finger of smoke.

Meanwhile rubble was dropping from the sky, condensing out to form the roof. Everything from the river converged on the huge conical hole in the back end of the building, then it was suddenly whole again. Another tank was showing the wreckage, which I now realised was the nose section of the fighter, reversing through wall after wall, Spushing a cloud of smoke and flame behind it. Out of this people emerged unscathed.

Now the flames vanished, leaving the jet complete and incongruous inside the building. Its speed and momentum had been so great that it had been carried well into the building before its armaments had had a chance to explode.

I noticed then that the backward pace was being slowed and realised with a sinking feeling that Verity wanted me to witness the death of those near me.

The jet was retreating so slowly now that I could make out the crazy reflections rippling along its burnished flanks. Even as I watched the ripples, the premonitors of the fuselage breaking up, were starting to subside. A plume of debris materialised behind the jet and was pushed back into the studio. Valeur, Keneally and Nkobe were magically reconstructed out of the rubble. As the plane disappeared behind a rapidly sewed up wall, I saw the look of puzzlement appear on Valeur's face. Then, expanding out of nothing, I saw myself appear in the spot that Valeur had been looking at.

"How did...‌?

"The Cloud, my - colleague - that's where it pushed you out of 3-space."

"The Cloud?‌"

"We'll save that for later."

"What about you‌ How did you survive‌? Did the 'cloud' push you out of the way too?‌"

She continued to look at the tanks but I could see the furrows as her brow knitted. "No," she said tightly, "that's the real irony. I was never there. What you saw was just a shadow. A three-dimensional shadow cast from 4-space. I've heard you use the Flatland analogy before. Think of a mirrored sheet penetrating Flatland at 45 degrees. You could project an image from outside the Flatland universe into it, a kind of transdimensional Pepper's Ghost." I saw her hands twisting around the arms of her chair. "So you see they murdered all those people, just to kill a phantom."

Another tank was showing the jet, intact but for a sheared wingtip emerging backwards out of the building towards 45th Street. Verity sat forward in her seat. "Let's take a closer look at the pilot."

Four peripheral tanks filled with the cockpit. 45th Street could be seen shifting wildly through the cockpit window and I realised the jet must have started to spin before it hit the Assembly. Then one viewpoint shifted, almost as though the camera were climbing into the cockpit with the pilot. The viewpoint plunged through the blackened visor, dissolving it and revealing the pilot's magnified face. It was pale and very thin and the eyes seemed empty, uncaring even in the millisecond before his death.

"Recognise him?‌"

"No. He looks sick."

"Look at the neck. Those lumps below the jawbone, yet his face is so thin." The man's clothes faded away and his body flattened out as though subject to unthinkable torsion, organs and bones sliding out and across one another. For a brief moment I tasted again the terrible vertigo of the high-D perspective. Gagging, I looked away.

"Sorry," Verity's tone sounded genuine, "You can look again."

The cockpit was already receding as the viewpoint panned back.

"Tumours," Verity sat back in her chair and ran a finger down the bridge of her nose. "He was riddled with tumours."

"Was it curable‌?"

"Not with human technology."

"And with yours‌?"

"It's not mine, but yes, The Cloud could probably have fixed it."

"Some of the wonders you're bringing to mankind?‌"

Those dark, deep-set eyes regarded me coolly. "Don't bet on it," she said.

I glanced back at the screens. The plane seemed to be pushing back two unravelling spirals of vapour and debris. Where the outlets of the vortices touched the sides of the buildings, instant reconstruction was taking place. Windows were reglazed; blinded office workers had their sight miraculously restored. Visual display units, which had imploded under the initial pressure wave, reassembled themselves out of the ether.

I looked back at the woman. She seemed so unthreatening, rather like I remembered my mother in fact, though older and smaller.

I sensed a tiredness and resignation about her. The deaths/resurrections we were watching seemed to leave her largely unmoved. That was not the case with me. As you will remember from the fiasco at Woodhaven mortuary, I didn't have a strong stomach. I turned away from the tanks to look at her, concentrating hard on her features.

"Do you mind if I ask some questions?‌"

She kept her eyes on the tanks. "Go ahead."

I waved a hand at the tanks. "Firstly, how can you really look back like this‌? The Earth is spinning, it's orbiting round the sun, the sun orbits round the centre of the galaxy, the galaxy is moving at ten miles per second from its nearest neighbours. An event that occured only a few seconds ago happened hundreds of miles away. To be able to show things from as far in the past as some of your broadcasts have done you'd have to travel billions of miles in space as well as going back in time."

Verity nodded. "I shouldn't have made any reference to Einstein when Keneally asked me about that. I just confused the situation. We're not accessing the spacetime block itself. In fact, this is all just a recording and the things that do the recording move through space and time with the Earth."

"But then if you record everything ... every person on the Earth and even... " I swallowed as I remembered the pilot," ...what's happening inside them..?.‌"

She smiled for the first time, her overbite making her look positively goofy. Although not joy, it was a start. There was something vulnerable about her.

"You can forget teraflop stores for a start. This is literally out of this world."

As she began to speak I noticed the jet was flying backwards across the Hudson towards the Jersey City skyline.

"The resolution of the recording devices, both spatially and temporally, seems incredible. I've tried zooming each image, taken it down to about the size of a bloodcell. When I get down that far the image does begin to blur. I lose detail but I still don't see the individual image elements, like you would if you magnified a computer image. It's the same with time. I can slow it down as much as I like and still not see the individual frames."

"So what's actually recorded?‌"

She smiled dreamily. "Just about everything. I've never found anything missing that I really needed. When I take the viewpoint upwards it usually blanks out about twenty feet above the Earth's surface. But the scanning systems, and I reckon there must be at least a couple of thousand of them, are pretty smart. They follow any planes, and even birds, whenever they go higher. Like this."

The contents of the tank to her left seemed to balloon out until it filled with a cute child's model of a plane carrying a dinky little parasol.

"An AWAC," I said dully. Airborne Warning and Control.

"Yes." More tanks filled with the interiors of the fighter and the AWAC. The communication between the two was played forward.

I began to feel afraid again. The damned AWAC was supposed to be there to warn us of approaching hostile aircraft, not to guide them in.

I cleared my throat, spread my hands and tried to look honest. "This is all news to me, really!"

"We'll just make absolutely sure of that." The fighter resumed its travel back through time.

"Back to your original question. Let's assume a spatial resolution of one hundredth of a millimetre, and a temporal resolution of a thousandth of a second, in a six metre shell round the Earth, that would generate about ten to the power of thirty two bits of information every second. Which is about the equivalent of a billion billion Libraries of Congress."

She stopped like she expected me to say something intelligent. I was unable to oblige.

"I guess using binary electronics to describe this is probably like using an abacus to model a rainbow. Digital technology is no doubt just a phase technological civilisations go through. Like printing by carving letters in a wooden block. Storage isn't by any solid means, silicon chips or even biomolecules, but by astronomical numbers of atom-sized energy matrices. A large section of one of the universes stacked kata, that's 'below' in the superspace sense, has been set aside to contain the necessary standing wave matrices."

She waited again but all I could do was gawp. I suppose I'd been imagining some kind of little black box, or magic wand, something neat and tidy that let her do all this. Instead she was giving me a glimpse of the vast but hidden machineries that sustained her. It was crazy stuff but I believed her.

My easy acceptance should've warned me. The Cloud was already manipulating me, massaging my biochemistry in its own inimitable fashion. But I didn't know that, not then.

While we'd been talking Verity had speeded up the film so that the plane was near the beginning of its flight. The pilot must have taken off at quite a rate of climb because the fighter seemed to be tail-diving straight into the runway. At the last minute it bottomed out to land backwards on the airstrip.

"Why go to these lengths‌? Why are these aliens so interested in us‌?"

"They're not. Think of the owner of a large mid-west wheat farm. How interested would he be in one particular grain of wheat‌?"

"Then why bother‌?"

"The knowledge base wasn't for their benefit, it should've been for ours. It still could be."

The pilot was now in civilian clothes and retreating rapidly backwards through his life. Day became night then day again. I saw a bar then a house. Everywhere, whenever he talked to people, he went through a pecking manoeuvre, bobbing in and out like a woodpecker. I wondered if it mirrored his feelings, perhaps he could only rid himself of the knowledge of his death for brief seconds at a time.

It was only when darkness descended again that I caught on. The replay was way too fast. Any one of the score of people he had talked to could've been the one who instructed him to kill Verity.

"You already know who's behind this, don't you?‌ This is just for my benefit."

She nodded. "I reviewed the man's full time sequence within a few seconds of the explosion. I thought I'd show you it all, in case you suspected I was fabricating it."

But I trusted her. I thought at the time it was her schoolmarm manner, or what she'd done for Lola. I just didn't understand why she was going to all this trouble for my benefit. What had I to offer?‌ I was still too scared to ask.

Night and day reversed several more times and I felt a new unease. "You reviewed days of this guy's life in seconds‌?"

"Yes."

I swallowed, not wanting to push the questioning further, but unable to resist. "Are you really human, Verity‌?"

"I was," she said and my stomach did a flip-flop.

I remembered the changes in the display tanks. The zooming in, the speeding up, the slowing down. She'd worked no controls or even voiced her wishes.

"You're interfaced directly with the knowledge base, aren't you‌?" My voice sounded croaky and dry.

"Right. Well, since you're so willing to believe me I'll go back to the interesting bits."

Then the pilot's life was going forward at a normal speed. Lolling in a chair in a small harshly-lit office, he was laughing hard and humourlessly. Another man dressed in the uniform of an Air Force Colonel was sitting on the side of a desk. He was flushed with anger.

"You have got to be fucking joking," the pilot laughed again but his eyes were hard with fury.

The Colonel, one hand clenching into a fist closed his eyes like he was counting to ten. "Logan, if you weren't..."

"If I wasn't dying you'd kill me. Right‌?" Logan's bitter laugh made my flesh crawl.

The Colonel took a deep breath. A well-tailored uniform showed the spareness of his tight, hard body to good effect. "There's nothing I can do about your ... problem. But I can help your family by making sure they are very well off. Life wouldn't be so easy for them. Not on an Air Force pension." The Colonel hesitated, then added: "You'd also be doing your country a great service."

The pilot snorted. Leaning back in his chair, he put his hands behind his head, wincing slightly as he did so.

"I never saw myself as a kamikaze. What would I have to fly?‌ A Zero crammed to the gunnels with high explosive‌?"

"An F-15B, with full bomb load."

Despite himself, the pilot was unable to hide his surprise. "Down a city street?‌ Christ, do you know how windy New York is, how narrow the streets are?‌ I'd be cleaning the windows before I'd gone a hundred yards."

"Not at Mach 1.5 you wouldn't."

Logan's laughter sounded genuine now. "You're crazy. I'd never..."

"Right," now it was the Colonel's turn with the bitter smile, "We'll take that as read. You definitely will not 'make it'."

He picked up a folder and threw it onto Logan's lap. "I've had some aerodynamicists check this out. They say if you were going fast enough it wouldn't matter about crosswinds or updrafts. Momentum would keep the ordnance going for the last few hundred metres. You will be knocked off course and there's no way you could correct for it in time. The plane will hit, spin and start to break up, but with ordnance correctly fused that won't matter. The trick will be in making sure you enter the street on the right trajectory. It'll have to be plum centre or you'll take out the wrong part of Manhattan. But we can use enhanced bomb run markers for that. They'll be steadier and more accurate than usual because we can base the lasers on firm ground, not on a moving plane."

"Why don't you attack from above. get a B-52 to drop a gutful of bombs?"

"Because we figure we wouldn't stand a chance. The technology this thing is using is just too high for words. The beam-weapon that made that rainbow was many orders more powerful than any we have. It could vaporise anything in mid-air. We figure our only hope is a surprise attack. Attack from inside the city. You wouldn't be picked out in all the radar clutter from the buildings, if your run was low enough."

"Suppose it's got something better than radar‌?"

"That's a chance we've got to take. Look," the Colonel paused as though trying to marshal his thoughts, his tense little body bunching up with the intensity of his feelings. "It stole our whole nuclear arsenal. Every single warhead we had. It's killed thousands of people, many of them friends of this country. We can't just roll over and play dead. We've got to fight back, do whatever we can to try and stop it, or at least make it think again."

Logan seemed to have forgotten his own predicament. He looked interested but bemused.

"Yeah, but suppose there's more than one of them‌ Suppose they go out for revenge. They could cauterise the Earth with that beam weapon!"

"It said different. On the broadcast. It said it was alone. It even claimed it was human and perhaps it is. But alien or alien stooge, it doesn't matter. We've got to assume it's alone, and if we're lucky and we do wipe it out, then it'll take them years to send reinforcements. We don't know where it came from but the nearest star is light years away. We'll have time to prepare our defences."

"Maybe they've got some kind of faster-than-light drive."

"This isn't Star Trek."

When Logan said nothing the Colonel leaned forward. "Try to imagine it: The whole world working together, united against a common foe. We'd be ready for them when they eventually returned."

Logan waved this last thought away. Whatever happened, he wouldn't be around to see it.

"What about all the people in the UN‌ Thousands maybe. They'll die too."

"It's war. The most important we've ever fought. There will be casualties, but not thousands. The session will be suspended, for security reasons. There'll probably be less than a hundred people in the building."

"Couldn't you just plant a bomb or something‌"

"No. This 'Verity' has surveillance capabilities you wouldn't believe."

"Then maybe she's bugging us now."

The Colonel shook his head firmly. "No way. We've taken precautions."

"And they had," said Verity sadly. "These people are crazy but smart. I won't take you through the rest. It takes about another hour for Rouse, that's the Colonel, to convince Logan but he succeeds in the end."

"They were right about the radar clutter‌?"

"I didn't use radar at all. Just had The Cloud check the East River and the airspace above. Plus Roosevelt Drive, of course. I never expected anyone would be crazy enough to fly a fighter through a city street. And they were right about planting a bomb. I ran a time scan on the whole UN site from the day it was built. There were a couple of bombs, believe it or not. Kept in reserve, I suppose, by intelligence and terrorist organisations. I got rid of them of course."

She sighed. "If I'd been more careful this carnage would never have happened."

I didn't feel inclined to contradict her. It occurred to me that this wasn't her first screw-up.

"That's what de Meer and St. Louis were all about," she continued, "I had her place the advertisements in all the major papers. Each time I made sure she left some clue leading to St. Louis. Nothing too easy, though: only people who really suspected something would've gone to all that trouble to identify her. I did it so's I could pre-empt violence like this. I failed. Rouse wasn't a maverick. Let me show you."

Rouse's life spun crazily backwards. A busy man, he seemed to attend meeting after meeting. "He heads the covert operations side of Air Force intelligence. He fixes everything from politically embarassing air intercepts to the news suppression of broken arrows. Remember that H-bomb that fell out of a B-52‌? The one that broke open and scattered the plutonium trigger all over the airstrip at Fort Sumner in Maryland‌?"

"No."

"Good, isn't he?‌"

Rouse was pushing an almost empty trolley through a supermarket. He stopped and intently scanned a counter stacked high with nappies.

A man passing by muttered something. His forward progress froze then reversed, the viewpoint swinging round until his face was visible. The man stepped forward and this time the sound was amplified.

"Verity." Then he was moving off.

"Stallard!" I couldn't believe it.

"I'm afraid so."

"But you must have known about him after St. Louis. Why didn't you know about this‌?"

"Because there are limits to what I can do. Sure, I was able to follow your time-line back to Stallard and Niedermeyer and the rest. I could then follow them all forward, listening to what they said to other people."

A thought occurred to me and I had blurted: "How can you hear like that‌?" before I realised there were more important things to talk about. But Verity, like any good schoolmarm, humoured me.

"You've got to understand that everything in 3-space is illuminated by light from all the stacked galaxies ana and kata in superspace."

"Superspace is the same as what I call 4-space, right‌?"

"It's more than that. I suppose there may be higher spatial dimensions than just the four, but four's all I can access. Anyway - sound is reconstructed from doppler examinations of the light reflected off surfaces in 3-space. The surfaces vibrate with the sound waves, minutely altering the frequency of the reflected light. If I want to find out exactly what someone heard I just examine the doppler relections from their eardrums.

"But why didn't I know what Stallard was up to‌? He's clever. Very clever, and very imaginative. He was smart enough to recognise the truth of what you were telling him, and imaginative enough to work out the corollaries. He must've guessed he'd soon be under close surveillance and that from that point on his chances of doing anything effective would be severely curtailed. He had to construct an attack mechanism as early as possible, one that was capable of being easily and surreptitiously activated if the need arose.

"You need to know more about the augmentation that I've gone through to understand. Painless but profound, it allows me to access the database the scanners have laid down.

"Modern medical scanners are pretty good at looking at the brain but the resolution is coarse. 4-space gives you immediate access to all the parts of the brain, lets you see exactly how it's configured. You can trace out all the individual neurones and their interconnections and determine the 'on' or 'off' status of each. You can use these as a blueprint to set up an exact model of the brain's processes in a computer.

"Similarly, a perfect replica of my brain can be set up in one or more computers. They can be activated when needed to multiply the tasks I need to do."

"But when you don't need them and you turn them off aren't you killing yourself‌?"

"No. The models are only partial. Self-awareness is like a feedback loop in the brain. It's a survival trait, a behaviour modifier. The loop monitors the brain working, but as the feedback loop is also part of the brain it monitors itself. Cut out the loop and the model remains just a mechanism because it loses all sense of its 'I'ness."

That sounded way too glib. I swallowed. "How do you cut out the self-awareness loop‌?"

Verity smiled. "Nothing messy. All I have to do is one task, for example track a person's timeline through the database and recognise when he does something significant. The computer checks all the changes in neuronal state in my brain as I compare the visual and auditory stimuli. If I can do it just once without at any stage being 'aware' of myself doing the operations, then a model can be built which will repeat the process without a new 'me' being created."

I was gaping. "But just perceiving the stimuli will itself change the neuronal states. Each stimulus will have a different effect. How can the computer tell which is pure 'analysis' and which is just the brain recording the event‌?"

"The computers that construct the analogues are extremely sophisticated. The beings who provide all this technology regard the study of self-awareness as a whole science in itself, as complicated and profound as physics or mathematics. What makes anybody an 'I' has to be, when you think about it. So they can handle most of the problems but they're far from perfect. For example, I might set one analogue to check a time-line and it'll get hung up on an unusual chair the subject has sat on. And other things which might have escaped my sometimes rather naive viewpoint are not picked up at all."

"Is that what happened here‌?"

"Sort of. But there are other limitations. I have to review the results of the analogue's deliberations. That takes time, though I've had my brain souped up."

I must have looked as horrified as I felt. She smiled again.

"It's OK, really. Think of my neurones as being hot-wired through 4-space with optical cables. Impulses are transmitted at light speeds. I must admit that living life at breakneck speed can get a little boring. This conversation, for example, seems to me to be taking an eternity. The only way I can handle it is to ramp down my neuronal signal speeds.

"The point is that even augmented I can monitor no more than twenty partial analogues of myself. And all those analogues have the same intellectual limitations and cultural biases as myself. In all you told twelve people about your theories. Each of those met on average fifty-four people between then and the assassination attempt. Coded messages could have been passed to over six hundred people. My analogues checked Stallard and the other eleven for any written messages or any clearly significant verbal communications. They drew a blank."

A look of disbelief appeared on her face. "It turns out Stallard passed the data onto his wife, and it was she who passed it on to Rouse. She put Rouse on standby for 'executive action' against the person or organisation that Stallard would indicate at a given time and place."

"The supermarket‌?"

"Yes, at 8.30 pm every other day for an indefinite period."

"You didn't hear Stallard pass this information to his wife?‌"

"That's where my cultural bias came in. He whispered it in her ear while they were making love. I'm a little prudish and anyway I take no pleasure in voyeurism. My analogue naturally felt the same way. It skipped over the audio-visual analysis of their lovemaking. Of course the full information is still there in the database. We could listen to their conversation now if you like."

I shook my head. "I guess I have the same cultural biases."

Verity looked at me reflectively. "There are certain other cultural biases I've had to overcome."

I suddenly felt very cold. It scared me that she was willing to tell me so much. "What others?‌"

"Killing," she said. "The execution of the guilty. And that's what I must do now." She turned to look at the tanks, at the frozen and defenceless figures of Rouse and Stallard.

"But that would be murder," I heard myself say.



*****



CHAPTER 20.


Ana, kata and in New York

The fabulous beast lay open, ready for finer dissection. My eyes the cutting edge, I moved them a fraction and the layers shifted, revealing huge arteries and veins through which tiny red and white bodies sped, stopping and starting in time with the pulsations of its great electronic heart. Another minute movement and I saw the labyrinthine convolutions of its bowels, filled with the slow moving slurry of millions, which was finally bleached and scalded by chemicals and pushed sluggishly out into the river.

I looked deeper now and saw the billions of tiny neurones permeating every fibre of the creature, bringing it warmth and light and information. This time the beat was faster, suffusing the city with energy sixty times a second.

Finally I looked in the interior crevices, in the nooks and crannies of the creature. There I saw them in their millions, the teeming parasites that cannibalised the beast, tearing it down and rebuilding, always changing. Like a fat caterpillar, stung by a wasp that had laid its eggs deep in its nourishing flesh, the city was undergoing ruthless exploitation.

"It's hard not to think of it as alive when you see it like that." Verity had returned at last. In an instant the viewtanks had reassembled into their discrete units. She indicated a coffee pot and cups on a side table. I had not noticed them appear. Again the hotel's logo was evident.

I sipped the coffee. Ordinary. Thank God something was.

"And in a sense it is alive, you know. Put in any kind of feedback loop and you open the door to the possibility of consciousness. The city has a network of computers that monitor all types of things, from traffic flow to weather and fuel and power stocks. It's quite sophisticated."

I put the cup down and wondered what was coming next.

She'd left me alone for quite a while. Verity had made no secret of her shock at the assassination attempt. I guess she'd let her analogues run unexamined for too long, while her core being, made up of optical cables though it might be, had sought succour by talking to me. Powerful, but hurt and lonely, she had needed to talk to someone.

The viewtanks had been rejigged for my education and amusement. The tanks had coalesced, enfolding me in a 3-space tableau. By moving my head I could change not the 3-space, but the 4-space perspective. Movement would always be necessary because of my retinal limitations, but my brain would automatically integrate my changing viewpoint, giving some meaning to what I saw.

I had naturally shied away at trying this but she had assured me that this time closing my eyes would shut it all out. If I wanted it gone for good all I had to say was 'Stop'.

I had held my head rock steady for a long time, and indeed had felt more than a tinge of nausea when at last I dared to move it a fraction. But it wasn't long before the information junky in me had triumphed over the wimp. This was knowledge in its purest, most total form.

"Can you imagine what the city thinks about, how it feels about its world?‌ What it imagines the Great Scheme of things to be‌?" Verity had so far shown no propensity for smalltalk. This was leading up to something.

"No."

"Life is really all a question of perspectives. Everbody and everything has a different viewpoint, some of them breathtakingly different. It's like religions. On Earth there are perhaps a thousand different religions, with maybe several thousand more subsets, like catholicism and protestantism are subsets of Christianity. All are struggling to get some kind of handle on the greater issues, the whys and wherefores of existence. Perhaps by integrating the perspectives, building a whole out of the mess of beliefs, then it's possible a meaningful and enriching new philosophy could be constructed."

That I could appreciate. "Sure. Whenever someone's tried to turn me on to religion, Jehovah's Witnesses and that kind of thing, I've always tried to ascertain their attitudes to other religions and philosophies. I figure the more tolerant they are of other viewpoints the more truth there may be in theirs."

Verity nodded vigorously. I couldn't help noticing how difficult it was for her to close her lips over her upper teeth. It made the skin tighter over her cheekbones, making her face look gaunt. I blinked the thought away, trying to concentrate on what she was saying.

"Religions are notoriously intolerant. Each arrogantly asserts that their viewpoint is the truth. Everyone else is deluded."

"You're pretty intolerant yourself, it seems. Why must you kill these men?‌ And why have you already killed so many others?‌"

She nodded glumly. Reaching across to the table, she poured herself a cup of coffee. She really is here, I thought, not reflected from somewhere else. Maybe I should try to kill her myself. Was she good‌? Was she evil‌? I really didn't know.

In two nests of viewtanks behind her I could see Rouse and Stallard going about their lives. Rouse was lecturing about military intelligence to some Air Force recruits. Stallard was preparing his budget for the next year.

Both must have considered the possibility that Verity had escaped the blast and had tracked them down, but neither showed fear or trepidation. That The Truth was continuing to broadcast could hardly be conducive to their peace of mind.

As I watched, a young Langley apparatchik in shirtsleeves entered Stallard's room. Stallard, ever polite, raised his eyebrows and smiled despite the interruption. The sound suddenly swelled and I could hear Stallard say: "Yes, David‌?"

David, who looked like he was fresh out of college, almost came to attention as he said: "It's Channel 3 of The Truth, sir. It's broadcasting something which concerns you, sir."

Stallard closed his eyes for a second, then tapped at his keyboard. As he did so the viewtank split in two, the new segment spinning round to show the broadcast from over his shoulder. I realised with a jolt that one of the figures on the screen was me. Battered and haggard I was explaining things to Stallard in Drake Penitientiary. I had thought the week in jail had chilled me out and so was surprised at the stridency in my voice. Stallard, apparently disbelieving, kept trying to calm me down.

As the scene in the tank then changed to what was presumably his own bedroom, the colour drained out of Stallard's face. After one wide shot to give the scene some context the viewpoint changed so that the camera seemed to be looking up out of a pillow at the two magnified faces which filled the screen. Stallard's instructions to his wife, interspersed though they were with the noises of their lovemaking, were clear. I felt sick.

"It had to be done," I heard Verity say. The scene changed again and I was watching Lotte Stallard, now in another bedroom, pass on his message to Rouse. In the viewtank which showed Stallard, I caught the horror on his face just before he pressed his hands to his face, covering his eyes.

"My God," I gasped.

As Stallard put his arms on the desk and lay his head down on them, I turned to Verity. "Why has he got to die‌? He was only doing what he thought he had too, what he thought was right. What he made his wife do was awful, but it worked and it was probably the only thing that would have worked!"

"He's too dangerous to be allowed to live and we've no time to rehabilitate him."

"I don't understand."

She put the coffee cup down and sat back in her chair. She looked down at her hands resting on her lap. "I was trying to tell you earlier with my clumsy metaphors. Only by absorbing all viewpoints can we glimpse the real truth, cosmically as well as in simple human terms. The beings I've mentioned, the ones whose technology I use, have been doing just that for hundreds of millions of years, on a pan-galactic scale. Integrating all the viewpoints of all the different species.

"And just imagine the viewpoints they can share. Cloud beings on gas planets, whole weather systems with a consciousness, beings of crystal and rock, wind and water. Even worlds themselves can be conscious to a degree. And all these billions of species of animals and plants and myriad other lifeforms, all brought together in a fusion of perspectives."

"Fusion‌? How do they fuse‌?"

"By transferring duplicates of their neural systems onto huge conglomerate computers. Like the model of my brain used for constructing analogues. Except self-awareness isn't left out. But it goes much further than that. The viewpoints that are assimilated aren't just from individuals, but are themselves the integration of all the members of their species and perhaps all the other species on their planets as well."

I thought I was beginning to understand. "Are you saying these supercomputers or whatever they are, want us to fuse with them‌?"

"No. That's the last thing they want. In fact they would much rather destroy us altogether."

"They can't do that!"

"Why not‌? They created us."

"Says who‌?"

"I'm not saying they joined up the actual atoms that made the first biomolecule. That would be counterproductive, considering as they're after new and unexpected viewpoints. They would be programming in their own biases. But they did help things along when the ecology got too stable."

"How‌?"

"Mass extinctions. Five of them in the last 600 million years."

"Jesus Christ!" I was out of my seat and pacing round the shagpile. "How could they do it?‌"

Verity's eyes went hard. "Not as quickly and viciously as us, that's for sure!"

"How do you mean?‌"

"I'll come to that. The fourth extinction was 250 million years ago. It wiped out 90% of species. The fifth, 66 million years ago destroyed 75% including the dinosaurs. Each time the process took nearly five thousand years."

"But who actually did it‌? You couldn't have been around then."

"The Cloud."

"Was that the thing in St. Louis‌?"

"A part of it." I couldn't help shuddering. "The Cloud is what does all the physical work for me. It's like a robot, although it's actually more complex than most lifeforms. And infinitely more flexible than any of them."

Tensing, guessing what would happen next, I opened my mouth to tell her 'No', but the thing was already there. I stepped quickly back as it loomed above me like towering cumulus, coruscations of colour sweeping across its surface. Try to focus on its rippling surface and all you saw were millions of tiny hairs, some of them caked with dirt.

One side billowed out, narrowing into a pseudopod that enveloped the coffee pot, leaving only the spout. It gave me a refill.

"Touch it," Verity said.

"No."

"Touch it!" I could tell she wasn't kidding.

Cautiously I leaned forward and the cloud shifted some of the dirty bits out of the way, like it was cleaning a patch for me. The clear white surface I touched was soft and yielding and just like...

"Cotton wool!"

"Yes, but it can also be diamond hard or razor sharp. Whatever it wants."

"It or you?‌"

"Me up to a point. Then it." The way she said it made me think she wasn't so pally with the damn thing either.

"Think of it as a multipurpose tool and weapon. A really smart machine gun say. It'll let you use it for doing things its programming allows. If not..."

"It could turn on you?‌"

"Yes but it'd give me warning."

"And you're saying this ... Cloud caused those extinction?s‌"

"Yes. I think if you look closely you can see what look like fine hairs on its body, but it goes much further than that. It's like a branching structure, each splitting into finer and finer sections. Each tiny section has its own little computer. The intersections keep branching past the microscopic levels down to molecular limits. The Cloud can split into semi-autonomous units to perform its functions. The smaller the unit the faster it can move. At its lowest level are the molecular assembly factories. These have miniscule arms which move back and forth up to about a million times a second."

"You mean nanotechnology?‌"

"Yes. Parts of it are scavenger systems that pluck its raw materials out of the air, atoms of carbon and oxygen and so on. Or it can get them out of the ground by extending its tiny arms through the spaces between molecules. It reassembles the molecules to form copies of itself or make up just about anything it likes. That stuff that looks like dirt is just the component parts of whatever it's building. It eats real dirt."

I was familiar with the concept: build one tiny molecular factory, which then builds another, and so on until you had millions of them, which then all suddenly changed over to the construction of something else. Hey presto, vat-grown cars.

"How did it cause these extinctions?‌"

"It didn't actually kill anything. It assembled thousand of virus-sized, self-replicating machines that could get into the bodies of all the plants and animals. The machines entered the germ cells, attaching themselves to the DNA strands and pulling their way along it until they got to the sections covering potency. Those it reduced. Not totally, but just enough to ensure elimination of a species within a couple of hundred generations."

"How come they left man alone?‌"

"They'd only do their stuff if the sequence matched their target descriptors. In this technology, even the viruses are smart!"


"This reduction in reproductive capacities, is that what's going to happen to us‌?"

"I'm afraid not. The Cloud could afford nothing so leisurely. I think now we are talking mass killing. Perhaps another tailored virus, with a time delay of a year or so before it became lethal. That way it'd be very widely spread before anyone knew it was there. The Cloud would then go in to mop up the survivors in a more macroscopic way."

"Like it did with those Mob people in Las Vegas‌?"

She nodded.

"But why?‌ Mankind can't be that bad. At least we don't kill as readily and on such a scale as it does."

"Yes we do. That's the problem. There's a sixth extinction going on at the moment. And it's man-made. Nearly half the species on Earth've become extinct over the last two hundred years, and the rate is increasing. Half the plants'll be gone by the end of the next century the half that've survived the last couple of hundred years, that is.

"And then there's species like the dolphins, or the gorillas - they're the ones we should be protecting, learning from, integrating with. And we kill them. None of the relatively gentle potency reduction techniques the Cloud uses."

"So that's why you're going to kill us."

"I'm not going to do it. But yes, that's why the Cloud has to act quickly. Gorillas and dolphins are some of the front-runners in the next evolutionary round. They don't have much time left.

"But the Cloud has other motives." As Verity shifted her position I glanced at the tank showing Stallard. The man was alone in his office and there were tears in his eyes. Verity, following my gaze, hesitated. "We'll deal with him and Rouse in a minute. The only difficulty will be in choosing which way they die. Fire, blast, asphyxiation, impact. All would be appropriate.

"If we were left alone we'd probably destroy ourselves, but we'd take lots of species with us. Nuclear war, a runaway greenhouse effect, algal blooms, whatever. But we've already messed up in so many other ways.

"For example, overpopulated though the Earth is, it's still possible to support all life. Nobody has to starve or die of thirst. Eleven million children die each year from preventable illnesses. Two million alone from the dehydrating effects of diarrhoea. Each treatable with a sugar and salt solution costing about twenty-five cents. Five hundred thousand dollars to save two million little lives. That's a fraction of the cost of a single jet fighter."

For the first time there was colour in her cheeks. "The global spending on weaponry in just two weeks is enough to eradicate starvation for a whole year. And it isn't just the indifference of governments that's the problem. Look at the West, at the States for example. There's over ten million dollar millionaires here."

"But Africa, places like that. They're so far away," I found myself forced into the position of an apologist for something for which there was no excuse.

"But everybody knows about it! How many news pictures have you seen of starving people‌? You and everyone else choose to ignore it. Man seems infinitely capable of suppressing identification with the suffering of others."

"We can't help it. It's a simple failure of imagination. Maybe that's just the way we are."

"Exactly!"

"But we're getting better."

"Are we?‌ Foreign aid is decreasing as far as I'm aware. And they're spending even more money on weapons. It's more conventional than nuclear, but it's still weapons. Tens of millions of people, the vast majority of them civilians, still die every year in wars."

I wondered if anything I said would change things. In a way I hoped not. Mankind should have had a better advocate than me.

"Just looking after our own kind would have been a start. Caring for other species would have been a good sign. Even the most basic of things, like making sure the ecology of the planet wasn't running out of control, we haven't attended to.

"Instead we're indifferent to the suffering of our own kind, we hideously exploit all other life, we regard even intelligent creatures like other primates as inherently inferior, to be at best patronised and at worst killed as vermin. And of course we treat the world like an industrial toilet."

Verity looked across at the tanks and the scenes from New York cleared. She sighed. "Imagine what could've been done if all the effort and expense that'd gone into the technology of warfare had gone instead into constructive things. Do you realise that over half of all scientists dedicate their working lives to developing military technology?‌ And the money ... millions of dollars every minute.

"I showed you the Cloud and, sure, that came originally from a technology very far advanced from our own, but it demonstrates the potential. The food we eat is just molecules constructed from carbon and oxygen and hydrogen and a few others. Tastes are just molecules, smells are just molecules. If the money that'd gone into military technology had gone into the technology of food, then we could've built food machines. Machines that could have produced perfect replicas of meat and plant material. We'd never have had to kill another animal or a plant again."

"We could change. I'm sure if everyone knew the menace we faced, we'd call a halt to killing dolphins and monkeys at least. That'd be a start."

"Its not as simple as that. Man has reached technological maturity without the moral maturity that should've come with it."

"So what?‌ Our technology is light years behind the aliens. How can we be any kind of threat to them‌?"

"We're no threat to them, but we are to other species in the stars around. We're like an infestation in a garden. A parasite that has to be killed before it can infect and destroy other plants."

"There is life on nearby solar systems?‌"

"The universe teems with it. We're surrounded by fragile, delicate cultures that've taken millions of years to develop. Where technology has been applied carefully, if at all. Societies existing within intricate moral and ethical structures which shine compared to our tawdry law and order systems."

A tank behind Verity cleared then showed an oil-blackened junkyard filled with disemboweled trucks and piles of tyres. To the right was a huge compactor and beside it, like some sleek waterfowl crouching in a swamp, were the grey swept-back lines of an F-15. The cockpit was open and empty of controls, but full of bare wires and torn upholstery.

Verity continued as though oblivious to what was happening behind her. "How would these communities fare when they came into contact with man?‌ Technologically less advanced, they would automatically be regarded as inferiors. And their ways of living, alien beyond belief, would seem disturbing and even malign.

"Beings who dwell in and glorify their own shit. Who see it as the most potent symbol of life and renewal. How filthy and despicable they'd appear to our eyes.

"Or beings with the richest cultural aesthetics, who are nightmares of talons and mandibles. How would we cope with them?‌ Surely not with tolerance. Look at what difference a black skin makes.

"Or creatures so sensitive, so kind, who when faced with what to our eyes would appear to be the most trivial of moral dilemmas, immolate themselves. How weak they'd seem, how beneath contempt. How infinitely malleable and exploitable!

"Already the cosmos for thirty light years around is polluted with the transmitted sleaze of our TV and radio. Planets where violence has been eliminated, even down to microbe levels, suddenly find themselves next door to a ravening tiger which seems to delight in killing even its own kind.

"And amongst all the violent and evil images broadcast they see a planet made ugly by its inhabitants. Lesion-like cities cover its face, its atmosphere and oceans are corrupted and its precious cargo, its wealth and diversity of life, is being exploited and abused by the dominant species. And they see the space technology."

She sighed again and relaxed back in her chair. "They see us coming and it frightens them."

For a second the clouds over the desert opened, and the junkyard was flooded with sunlight, gleaming dully off the few remaining polished patches on the airplane's fuselage. Then the Cloud was there, appearing at one side of the plane between wing and tail. For an instant it appeared as a compact cube, barely a metre on a side then it expanded out like an explosion in slow motion. Rising to a height of three metres it arced out sideways like a hand thrown net, obscuring the wing. Then it started to billow across the fuselage.

"It's got to be spectacular. The execution, I mean. It's got to be seen to be justice." Verity turned away from me to look at the tank.

The Cloud was coming back now, finishing its clockwise tour of the plane, flowing over the tailplane before pouring itself back into a cube. Then it was gone.

The plane seemed unchanged. Wires still hung loose and the cockpit cover was still missing.

"Why'd it do that?‌ What was it after‌?"

Verity didn't answer but in response to my question the viewpoint in the tank altered, spinning round clockwise and down so that the plane was in profile. I found myself sighting down the port wing. It looked odd but I couldn't quite figure out why.

I was about to admit my ignorance but Verity was talking again. "The Cloud monitors this stellar cluster, about two million stars in all. It has access to all the temporal databases for all the planets. It checks them periodically in case intervention is required. Clouds are extremely intelligent but they're carefully constructed to avoid any sense of self. They have no feedback loops: they're just machines. The criteria they use for deciding on intervention are broad: they have to be, to cover the diversity of creatures they must deal with. The main ones concern interstellar communication, because that could result in an homogenisation of perspective. Sort of like what US TV does to the rest of the world."

I noticed Stallard leaving his office. His secretary was saying something urgent to him but he was waving her away. I saw him smile sadly and faintly heard him say goodbye.

In another tank it looked like Rouse was being informed of the broadcast. The guy who told him was knocked aside, as Rouse charged by him into the corridor, gun in hand. The viewpoint followed Rouse as he barged through the fire door and ran down the stairs, taking four at a time. Travelling so fast he was almost out of control, he could only change direction by grabbing the bannister at each landing and whirling round.

"What's he doing?‌"

Verity didn't bother to answer. A sign Rouse rushed past said: 'Sub-Basement. Records and Bomb Shelter'. He sprinted along a brightly lit corridor at the end of which sat a uniformed guard reading a paper. Looking up with a jolt, the man began fumbling at his holster.

"Freeze," yelled Rouse, skidding to a halt, his gun levelled at the centre of the man's chest.

"It's OK," whispered Verity. "The Cloud extracted all his bullets hours ago."

"Hands on your head and back against the wall!" The voice was diamond hard and filled with such ferocity the guard seemed to be moving involuntarily, banging his legs against desk and chair in his hurry to comply. Rouse darted forward towards a single heavy door to one side of the desk and jabbed hurriedly at the electronic code lock. The door swung open and Rouse was through, pulling it closed even before the guard could get his hand down to his holster.

Rouse's movements were rapid, his hands blurring over a series of controls. I could hear the sounds of heavy bars slotting into place.

Rouse leapt towards a corner of the room. Pressing his back hard against the join between the walls, he slid down until he was in a crouched position. The gun was now held in two hands and he was pointing it out into the room. "Come and get me you fuck!" he snarled.

"Oh, I will," said Verity.

I looked back at Stallard. The man was in his car, heading out of the main gate. A guard saluted and Stallard smiled back.

On the screen showing The Truth broadcast, the final holocaust was approaching as Logan's F-15 arced over Jersey. As it did so the tiny figures of Rouse and Stallard vanished from their tanks.

I opened his mouth to ask a question just as the grey mistiness of a tank to my left started to clear. A house emerged, or rather a cabin that, it became clear, had been long since abandoned. Ivy's caked its flaking timbers and its window frames were edged with shards of broken glass. As the tank cleared the space behind the house opened, and I was looking down a small hill to a meadow. At the end of this was the red-brown of a forest.

Tanks around began to clear, showing the raddled interior from several viewpoints and views forward from the house. The place looked like something out of a fairytale, a deserted little cabin on a hill surrounded by dense woodland.

On the tank by Verity, which showed what The Truth was broadcasting on Channel 7, Logan had begun his flight down 45th Street.

I winced at the severity of the blast, watching as the contents of the UN followed the remnants of the plane. I saw the billowing cloud that condensed out and fell into the East River like volcanic ash from a cinder cone.

The viewpoint then shifted, touring the devastated Plaza, showing graphically the death and destruction that Logan's plane had wrought. Text began to appear on the bottom of the screen.

'One hundred and sixty two people have died in this outrage. I have survived. The assassination attempt was planned by Colonel Rouse and initiated by Edward Stallard of the Central Intelligence Agency. This kind of action, and anything else which hurts your fellow men, will not be tolerated in future. For any such aggressive or violent action there will be a reaction against the perpetrator to an exact degree.'

The screens shifted to an aerial view of the cabin in the woods. As the camera moved in I checked the internal tank views and saw Stallard and Rouse, pale and vomiting on the filthy cabin floor.

Rouse was the first to recover from the ordeal of 4-space. His eyes looked wild. "What the hell's going on‌?" he yelled.

While Stallard gasped for breath, Rouse was up and moving, checking doors and windows, the barrel of his gun jerking round dementedly in a desperate search for sources of threat.

The text message continued. 'Stallard's and Rouse's victims died in many ways. Their deaths will be the fastest and most merciful of all those they meted out to others. This is neither for punishment nor for revenge, but from necessity.'

The screen split, the right hand side continuing to show the two men in the cabin, the left hand a woman at a control console. She was young and dark, with shoulder length black hair and naive but eager eyes. I vaguely recognised her but couldn't place her for a second. As she worked the controls, cueing in music tapes and titles, someone walked by and she gave a shy little smile, casting her eyes down quickly to her work.

More text appeared: 'Inez Herman, a 19 year old Production Assistant at the Main Studio of the UN General Assembly. You see her sixty seconds before her death.'

I groaned. The girl was smiling to herself, perhaps thinking of her plans for the evening. To her right Rouse was shouting angrily at Stallard. "I'm not taking the rap for this." Stallard's hands were up, trying to calm him. I thought I saw resignation.

On the second screen the view was down 45th Street, away from the General Assembly, with Logan's Eagle frozen in the centre. Then another plane appeared in the tank showing the woodland.

Suddenly Logan's F-15 flashed towards the viewer just as on the right the other F-15 accelerated, fuselage confined by what appeared to be fine strands of wire.

Belatedly I recognised the strands as part of The Cloud. "No!" I yelled, but I was too late. I lurched out of my seat trying to reach her, to do God knows what.

Instantly it was like I was encased in transparent cement. Although I could just breath, I was otherwise paralysed, unable even to close my eyes.

I just had time to make out the four rolling waves along the wires, propelling the right hand plane, then the viewpoints backed off rapidly and in synchrony. When they stopped we were looking over Inez' shoulder on one screen, and out of the window between the arguing forms of Rouse and Stallard on the other.

The planes had been lost in the rapid backwards movement but not for long. I saw again the vortices of debris coming towards me along 45th Street. To my right I saw the other plane as a speck in the otherwise flawless sky.

"The Cloud took the precaution of flattening the lift out of the wings," I heard Verity say. "It makes it so much easier to control."

Immobilised though I was, I was able to suck in a lungful of air as both aircraft seemed to fly out of the screen at me. At the last minute the scenes froze, then started to progress but in very slow motion.

In the right hand tank the girl, perhaps experiencing a premonition, was in the process of turning her head to look back into the cavernous Assembly Hall. She would never complete it. The plane was already in there with her. Like a huge white shark it closed in.

Both views synchronised and scaled to perfection, I saw the wings of the planes slice cleanly through the bodies of all three people, just before their remnants were obliterated by storms of debris.

'Justice is done, and is seen to be done,' read the screen text. I felt my tears, flattened by the transparent restraint, smear across my cheeks.

"Its one of the constraints I work under." Suddenly free to move I slumped back in my chair. "I can't inflict anything on anybody unless they've already done the same thing to somebody else. The Cloud makes sure any execution is finely calculated."

"Middleton," I muttered, "I guess that explains it."

"Yes. It was even the same knife. The Cloud tracks the weapons down if they exist. If they don't it just mimics them."

"It seems so elaborately ... perverse."

She looked at me almost tearfully. "I'm not evil. I'll save who I can, if I can afford to. Like your lover, when the Israeli fired on her. I would've saved Edwards, your bodyguard on that night, but you were the focus for my analogue. He was killed two blocks away."

"How did you save her‌?"

"The Cloud just pulled her ana as the Israeli fired, then pulled him ana as well and switched them round. It took about half a second, too quickly to suffer that terrible vertigo, but she had to undergo considerable acceleration and braking. That's why she was so breathless afterwards. The Cloud kept on firing after the Israeli had been substituted."

"But had he killed anyone like that before, to justify such a death‌?"

"No. In fact Edwards was the first person he ever killed. If that hadn't been so I would have had the Cloud execute him in St. Louis.

"Real intent is enough. The Cloud could only act after he'd fired the first shot, and after it'd calculated the trajectories to ensure that the bullet would have hit Ms. Carter. Similarly with Stahl and her crony. The Cloud pushed the bullets out of the magazines in the microsecond after they pulled the triggers. If they hadn't tried to shoot Durrell, it would've been his ammunition that would've been removed.

"Think of The Cloud as millions of tiny filaments, hovering ana a scene in 3-space. It can affect any point almost instantaneously."

"And Durrell. That was nasty!"

Verity pursed her lips. "He's a bastard. Check it out if you like," she pointed to the tanks. "What he did to that Russian soldier was unforgiveable. That was a lie about the Russians shooting at the child and the horse. The helicopter just happened to be passing, taking medical supplies to the garrison.

"Those bombers saved Durrell's life, for otherwise the Russian would have died from Durrell's gunshot, and I'd've killed him the same way. Point men leech out the violence, their very presence precipitates it. A lot of innocent people have been killed, yet never directly by Durrell's hand. He deserved it."

"You sound like you wished you could've done more."

"Yes. And that's why these constraints are so necessary, to make sure I don't abuse my power. Try and realise that the aliens don't understand us. If they could understand us, they wouldn't need their integration computers. And in any case there are far too many different types of lifeform in the universe for them to attend to. The ear of wheat analogy is in fact quite inappropriate. There are ten billion trillion stars in the universe, and most apparently have indigenous lifeforms. Far too many for The Integral to shepherd personally. That has to be left to machines like the Cloud. Killing is its last resort but it can do so without compunction. It does need guidelines, however.

"In some cultures killing, in certain circumstances, is both desirable and a good thing. Even on Earth voluntary euthanasia is practised in some countries.

"That's something that's easy to understand. But imagine a culture whose members underwent dangerous changes in later life. Perhaps the biological desire to produce offspring becomes so great that it overcomes moral and ethical restrictions. Then murder would perhaps be justified, the method perhaps considered an important part of the ritual. In such circumstances an Interface should not be allowed to kill in any way she wished. That wouldn't be justice.

"There are many kinds of death for many different types of organism. Who could say which was really the best‌? Mirror-image retribution is the simplest solution, it certainly prevents me from indulging myself. It's also highly instructional. Nothing modifies behaviour better than knowing action and reaction will be equal and opposite."

"Interface?‌"

"Yes, that's what I am. The interface between the rest of the cosmos and us."

"Are you still really human, Verity‌?"

"Yes. Physical changes have been small, at least in 3-space. A few dormant viruses removed here, an arterial plaque removed there. It could be a kind of immortality. The Cloud could keep me alive for thousands of years, if both it and I wanted it to. But the mental changes have been too great and the responsibility too much."

"What is your responsibility‌?"

"To save mankind if I can. To rein our technology back while encouraging moral and ethical development. If all goes well mankind could be out of quarantine in a couple of thousand years."

"And if it goes badly‌?"

She sighed. "I can't hold the Cloud off for ever. There must be signs of a turnaround within eight generations, two hundred years. That's when we get the attention of The Integral. We've been spared a few microseconds of its time. If we're found wanting, the monkeys get their big chance."

"It can't be done."

"Not by the way I've been going about it. There are no guidelines in this job, each species is apparently too different for that. I had no help," she looked down at her hands, clasped in her dainty little lap, "and I haven't done a very good job so far."

I took a deep breath.

"Why you?‌ Why did they choose you in the first place?‌"

"I don't know. The Cloud wouldn't or couldn't say. I have no idea what alien criteria I passed. Its true I never deliberately did anybody any harm. In fact ... I was quite gentle once. A schoolteacher, believe it or not. One day The Cloud just appeared, scared me rigid, but left me no choice, as I think you'll come to understand."

And now the most important question of all. More important than aliens or clouds or species death.

"Why are you telling me all this. Why me?‌" At last it was out.

She said nothing for a second while my guts went into freefall.

"Because I need your help," she said at last.


*****

CHAPTER 21.

The South China Sea and Elsewhere

The Kyoto Maru's rust-stained bow cleaved easily through the listless grey waters. Misty rain was falling, making the superstructure glisten and rendering indistinct the figures on the deck.

On the foredeck rivers of blood gushed down specially designed gulleys, foaming up as they dashed against the gunwhales. The men, covered from head to toe with green rubber, worked in silence as they ran the flensing knives through the blubber made yielding as butter by the razor sharpness of their implements. Above them gulls wheeled in huge numbers, filling the air with unholy shrieks.

One man, shouting hoarse clipped commands, leaned against the port side of the deck near the forward mooring winches. Pausing to light a cigarette, he took one deep puff then turned to throw the match over the side. In doing so, he was just in time to see the first tentacle flop onto the forecastle, barely two metres from his left boot.

meanwhile

my consciousness moved through a binary universe of stygian black and dazzling white. Ever changing with the ebb and flow of data, star clusters would blaze into existence, filling their once dark firmaments with pointillisms of light.

Concentrating, I made the representations change until I recognised Conrad's files. Reading them, I wondered if he had any inkling of just how much data the bank kept on him. Perhaps they too distrusted customers who were arms dealers, no matter how rich or legitimate they might be.

I found the interlaced star clusters that recorded the amounts in each of his accounts, the largest a long line of lights interspersed with the blacks of zeros. Thirty eight bits long, it decoded to a sum of just over a quarter of a billion dollars.

I made a motion with one hand and a wave of blackness washed over the stars, extinguishing them.

meanwhile

The Cloud entered the room and shook the man's hand then sat down in a wide and very deep leather chair. I had it demurely tuck down the hem of its skirt.

"I realise you're a very busy woman Ms. Allman," the man was saying, "so I'll try and get this over with as soon as possible. Really, all it requires is your signature here ... and here ..." The man, a South Korean, stood back and held his hands together over his chest. I could see him hold his breath: this deal was the answer to his troubled prayers.

I subdued the urge to wait until he had to gasp for breath. Instead I moved my own hand so that The Cloud picked the ornate pen out of the holder. I switched to the file which held the signature of a woman long dead.

The Cloud signed the contract.

meanwhile

I couldn't help but marvel at the tiny machine's intricate shape as it chewed its way relentlessly up the double spiral. Clusters of atoms, colour coded in this simulation to show different elements, disappeared into its maw. Inside, between the molecules that made up its body, I could glimpse the DNA chains being diassembled by a molecular hammer. Its ionising forces moved back and forth, shattering the bonds. Caught by assembly molecules in the creature's mid-section, the original bases were keyed into new sequences before being excreted from the creature's rear.

Riding piggyback was its partly-assembled replicant. Its waving molecular arms plucked atoms and molecules out of the cell's cytoplasmic fluid to feed this offspring. Soon it would be finished and its odyssey in search of fresh DNA would begin.

meanwhile

I flexed my hand and the tentacles tightened. There was a satisfying sound of breaking wood, then the deep tortured groan of bending metal. Jabbering with fright the bosun turned and ran.

I started to massage and the forecastle crumpled, sparks flying as metal ground on metal. As I kneaded, the bow of the ship became a twisted mass.

Where the distress frequencies lay, the faintest of sounds tickled at the limits of my hearing. Satisfied that the message had got out safely I recommenced my work in earnest.

meanwhile

From 4-space the safe could hold no secrets. Conrad's share certificates and bearer bonds filled most of the spacious interior, each tucked away in its own carefully marked leather folder.

I reached out and the Cloud lightly touched them, giving them the faintest of impulses. It was more then enough to remove them from Conrad's universe entirely.

meanwhile

Immensely wealthy following the addition of very long binary strings into several financial databases, The Cloud was now owner of all it surveyed. It toured its assembly line. Thousands of notebook computers filled the factory which was loud with the low chattering of several hundred assembly workers. Here and there quality control personnel checked component placements, whilst twenty Koreans sat at massed banks of sets inspecting the pictures. A small team of engineers clustered round one point on a silent assembly line.

Nervous that The Cloud might get the wrong impression, even though the ink was dry and the contract safely locked away, the man rubbed his hands together.

"There are many machines and some are bound to break down now and then. But I assure you uptime is better than 98%"

"Of course," I had The Cloud say. "Very impressive."

meanwhile

Even with the timescale slowed a thousandfold the gene changer swarmed up the DNA chain, periodically shooting versions of itself into the cytoplasm. As they parted from their parent, pseudopod-like grappling hooks were fired out. If unsuccessful, they were retracted then hurled out again. It happened so quickly it was as if the copies were constantly exploding and imploding. When at last one grapple caught the cell membrane the copy wormed its way up through until it was out into pastures new.

meanwhile

The ship was already in danger of sinking. I had the Cloud drop a tentacle 500 metres to the sea bed then, locking its million or so joints, I had it become a firm support to hold the ship above water level.

The last lifeboat cleared the Kyoto Maru, the men sculling frenziedly. Sending a tentacle round the stern of the boat, I brought my arms together. With a crack like a heavy artillery shot the ship's back broke, sending fragments of metal showering into the air. I kneaded and compressed until the ship was a ball only 20 metres in diameter.

Cradling the ball in one tentacle I shot another out, thinning it down to a high tensile strand only atoms wide. Arcing down through the waters it split into millions of tiny molecular filaments which suffused the molecules of the sea bed, forming an unbreakable anchor.

Then I contracted the arm and I was flying over the sea at supersonic speed. I fired out a second tentacle to form the next anchor point. Striding over the ocean a league at a time I was at the coast of Japan in minutes.

The Head Office of the whaling fleet was deserted. A Cloud fragment had already plucked out all the workers and deposited them safely, though horrifed, unwell and confused, safely out of harm's way.

I gently deposited the ten thousand tonne ball of compressed ship on the roof of the office and watched with pleasure as the building collapsed under it. Then I checked to make sure that the only uncompressed section of the hull, the part with the letters Kyoto Maru painted on it, was visible. It was.

I smiled to himself.

meanwhile

Conrad, his mouth hanging open with shock, was looking down stupidly at the two halves of his credit card. The waiter had cut it up in front of eyes. Then Conrad's mouth closed like a bear trap and his eyes blazed with hatred. "I'll get you for this. I'm a wealthy man and I'm going to ruin you."

I smiled to myself.

meanwhile

The man, still wringing his hands, was talking rapidly. "Of course you'll want to arrange meetings with our main customers, the retail chains. It would be best to assure them supplies will be continued."

"They won't," said The Cloud. "All the computers along with the modified modems, every single one of the millions this group produces, will be sent to China."

I watched him blink and open his mouth. Just as he grasped it I hit him with the punchline. Hand-wringing man had already expressed his great and deep concern over the suite of software loaded onto every machine: more than enough to bypass the firewall blocks I was anticipating. "For free."

Mr. Lan's shocked expression was so comical I had to smile.

meanwhile

I watched as the Cloud, still under simulation, split up into hundreds of fragments, each clutching samples of the fertility reducing nanomachines. The fragments set out for their destinations throughout the globe. I knew even this small reduction in reproductive capacity meant the misery of childlessness for countless millions of couples.

I wept.

So that's how I spend my days, my consciousness flitting like a honey bee from one exotic flower to another. Like Verity I still shy away from allowing myself more than the occasional glimpse of 4-space. No amount of adaptation and fine-tuning, no amount of hotwiring neurones is ever going to make me comfortable with that.

I leave all that to the Cloud. It operates effortlessly in 4-space, tailoring the views and perspectives into formats I can handle.

The Cloud's operating style had been painless. It'd penetrated my body, sending in armies of tiny warriors to fillet out all the pathogens. In doing so it had cleared all the gunk from my arteries, tweaking my ciliary muscles so my eyesight is as good as anyone's, and generally made me into the healthiest human being on the planet.

As for my neural hotwiring, that huge 4-dimensional hypercube of optical pathways that hovers ana my head, that does indeed condense days of thought into seconds. My clumsiness, which brought me so close to death on several occasions, and which caused the death of others, is gone. There is little now that I can not anticipate.

It was the past that caused me the real pain. No more could I hide behind convenient forgetfulness or carefully edited memories. Verity made me review my life, made me track down the consequences of my actions through the lives of those I affected. Just as Nevis had wanted me to do, but at an agonising level of veracity.

The worst case had been a family of refugees from Beirut. Palestinians who had made it to the States by an expensive and circuitous route, they had settled in New York in the late Eighties. The father had been engaged in politics and peripherally with terrorism. The rest of his family had been entirely innocent. Several years on, in a couple of uncaring and rather tedious hours, I had been the one who tracked them down and downloaded their data to the section who'd made the search request.

I had forgotten them then, turning enthusiastically to some mathematical modelling of a new computer virus. The Israeli hit team had been sloppy and indiscriminate. A lot of clearing up had been necessary. To the world the family had simply disappeared, but I know where they lie, deep in the heart of woodland to the north of New York State. There will always be flowers there, no matter the time of year.

The anguish and depression had paralysed me. Verity said later she thought she had lost me. She comforted me as best she could, showing how the harm done to others had always been through a failure of my imagination. True evil is rare: we are simply bounded machines of flesh and blood with very limited empathic capabilities.

Later I wondered how Verity had survived her own life review. The Cloud seemed uncomprehending of the concept of sympathy.

"But why me‌?" I had asked those many weeks ago. "I'm not the most ethical or moral man in the world."

"Correct."

"Then why do you want me to become like you‌?"

"Because you are like me, though hopefully more imaginative than I am. Anyway your life is actually pretty blameless. You always avoided hurting people if you could. When you did hurt them it was through carelessness, or because you put too much faith in the CIA."

"You want me to sit in judgement and be your executioner‌?"

"Exactly. We have to change the world, and very quickly. Even with the computer extension I can handle barely a score of analogues. There's far too much work for me to do alone."

"How many others do you intend to recruit‌?"

"There's a limit. I can superintend you the way I do my analogues. That would allow me only twenty judges."

I shook my head. "That's too limited. Twenty judges with twenty personality clones means only four hundred analogues at most to judge and guide six billion people. That's fifteen million each!"

"The depopulation program will help eventually, I suppose." She sounded tired. "I doubt it will fall below a billion even in a hundred years. The virus will reduce potency levels by nearly eight percent, but really determined people trying harder could raise the levels above the fifty percent target. If they resort to technology, in vitro fertilisation, that sort of thing, it could be as bad as ever. Part of our job will be to stop them." A stable, caring ecology was impossible at present population levels.

Fertility clinics had always seemed to me to be so worthy. Now, when everyone would be classed as infertile by the standards of the previous generation, I would be spending a lot of my time making sure such places could not function.

Why me‌? Why her‌? What strange alien criteria had we met‌?

Religions are traditionally supposed to spawn 'good' people, or at least people who follow some prescribed moral code. But blind belief does not seem to be what the Integral is after. Maybe that's not surprising when you consider how much trouble religion has caused.

We're certainly kind people, so far as we're able nowadays. Neither of us is tough or ruthless. It would help a lot if we were.

Both of us are rather naive. We both think intuitively.

Are those the reasons enough for choosing us for such power‌? I think not.

I've paid a heavy proice for my godhead, naturally. In the Garden of Eden the Apple was Knowledge, but never did it taste sweeter, more satisfying than now.

Too satisfying. I cannot stop no matter how tired or lonely or depressed I become. I cannot close down my analogues, slow down my neuronal speeds or cut myself off from the database. The intellectual blindness and claustrophobia of being only a man again would be unbearable.

I have had to pay in another way. A way that has emptied a part of me that can never be refilled. I should never have looked at Lola with my new eyes. No life can stand such scrutiny. I know that well enough now, having seen the weakness and deceit laid bare in countless lives.

But at the time my love for her was still strong. I thought that by knowing her more I would love her more.

Perhaps at first sight her courage seems admirable. But I can see the despair that fuels it. I loved what I thought of as her independence but now I see the nights of lonely tears, the worry and self-doubt that i guess are her constant companions.

Independence, in any event, is an illusion. Scanning through her life I can see all her actions and unconscious reactions. I see the way that she, lobbyist and arch-manipulator that she is, can be so easily manipulated in turn. By friends, by newspapers, by governments, advertisers, numberless fads and fashions. Everyone has pretensions of independnence, but every hour they live by countless rules and conventions, legal, civil, and social: stated and unstated. It is cooperation that has made man what he is. How else would we have got to the top of the food chain?‌

In other words Lola is only human, just like all the billions of others. She eats, lives, loves and will die in more or less the same way as everyone else. She has so much in common with humanity when viewed under my all-seeing microscope that there is so little about her which is different or special. A person who stood out in my life, the sight of whom would lift my heart, is now as undistinguished as one amoeba from another.

I could love you all or I could love none.

If only you were not all so weak!

I have never been a forgiving person. Perhaps forgiveness is something The Integral does not hold dear.

In my newfound loneliness I tried talking to The Cloud, but it has such difficulty communicating. Humans are so monumentally stupid, so breathtakingly ignorant, so far away in understanding that it can not even talk down to us. How would a farmer set about communicating with a stalk of wheat?‌ Even if he understood its language, its conception of the universe would be so very strange and so very limited that communication would be impossinble.

The Cloud tries and so do I, but I rarely if ever understand what it is telling me. As long as I can just tell it what to do, as clearly as I can, and it shows me what it is doing, then everything is fine. But ask it a question like: 'Describe the beings who built you', and the limitations of English soon become apparent. It starts to run through every adjective in the dictionary.

It would help a good deal if the damn thing could express by analogy, but it's not good at that either. Everything in the Cosmos is a special case as far as it is concerned. That much I have learned.

I don't think Verity can take much more.

She had set out to change the world covertly and it had degenerated in to a shambles. Everything backfired, everything became worse. At last, in desperation at a world getting more and more out of control, she had gone public and got many more people killed in the process.

At least the gloves are off now.

Mankind is reacting predictably to Verity's benign despotism. Like fundamentalist Christians, who lived with the idea that God was constantly watching and judging, self-consciouness, paranoia and neurosis has gripped almost everyone. Some have rebelled, committing terrible acts of defiance against what they regard as unjustifiable interference in the affairs of mankind. Verity and I search such people down and dispose of them in clinically perfect mirror images of their own crimes. When you see what they have done ... it makes it surprisingly easy.

In fact i always want to do more, to cause them even more pain than they caused their victims. Of course that way lies tyranny. I have grown to appreciate the Cloud's constraints on killing.

The media is still a problem. They have plenty of legitimate things to complain about. Economies are collapsing, chaos and anarchy break out sporadically. We don not stop them reporting that. The truth is something with which we can not tamper. We only stop the lies. Plates in printing presses are easy to change from 4-space and its is no problem making sure the copy checkers get the unchanged version. Broadcasts can easily be overridden with stronger signals. People who tell lies have, by definition, something to hide. It is my pleasure to expose them.

Deception still goes on as usual. Such petty dishonesties will take generations to breed out, if at all. But on the more macroscopic level, in governments and multinationals, there is new openness being bred though, admittedly, through fear.

Verity still checks on me: I sometimes sense her looking over my shoulder, sharing the viewpoints of my Cloud sections. At first the checks were every few seconds, but now I suspect she leaves me for many minutes at a time. She is burning out. I think she will kill herself soon.

Then I will take her place.

This is a war against ourselves. Who would you prefer to wage it‌? Stallard?‌ Durrell‌? Any politician‌? They are the ones who got us into this mess in the first place.

The power I have would allow me to indulge in almost infinite savagery and cruelty. We have all done something to some other creature, something we would not like to have happen to us.

But you see I am a wishy-washy, neurotic liberal. I am one of the few people who would not apply retribution indiscriminately.

So be grateful.

I have not got long. In two hundred years mankind will be granted a brief time-window into the consciousness of a God. I am going to make sure man will not be found wanting.

I do not care what it takes.


THE END

Copyright 2009 Fergus Bannon

All rights reserved.


Cover design includes public domain images attributable to NASA/NSSDC.

Detail of New York skyline taken from creative commons photo by William Warby.


Cover design by Gary Gibson


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