1: The Price

 

A single bullet killed us all. It was a rogue 9mm ricochet, a lump of mangled lead that was already out of the fight. Or, it should have been. It should have screamed harmlessly into the air, the way it happens in movies. But it didn’t. The God of Chance decided to give it a second crack of the whip, placing Rashid Amadi directly in its path.

And a heartbeat after Amadi went down I knew we were all dead.

Short of killing him instantly – which would have been a blessing - that damned ricochet had done the worst it could do. Spinning like a Ninja Star, it had shredded his spine, low down in the small of his back, carried on through and ripped out his stomach. The front of his battle dress was a distended mess of something I didn’t even want to think about. But you can carry a man with even the worst of stomach wounds. You can’t carry a man with no spine. Certainly not without a stretcher. We had no stretchers, and the bastards out in the scrub were not about to give us time to improvise one.

Amadi was still breathing, but in the world of real things he was already a dead man. And he was dead because this enemy did not take prisoners. He was dead because he was still alive. And we were all dead because it was down to me – the outsider - to deliver the coup de grace.

Adomo Vasi, his blood-stained hand shielding Amadi’s eyes from the white-hot glare of the sun, shot a glance over the mangled landscape, beyond which the opposition were pumping themselves up for another attack. The blood on his hand was his own. He was hit somewhere. His leg, I think. It was unremarkable; every one of us had a wound of some kind. Some of us, probably, more than one. We were a sorry bunch of mercenary soldiers. Vasi looked back despairingly at Amadi, and shot me an agonised frown that said it all. A retreat was the only way to fly, and Rashid Amadi wasn’t going anywhere. Not in a hurry. Not even at a snail’s pace. From a static battle with at least an outside chance of success, to a complete and utter fucking disaster. In an eye-blink.

 “Sorry, captain,” Amadi grunted though his pain. For once his English was totally without blemish or inflection, which led me to believe that speaking the language hadn’t been such a problem after all.

I groaned. He was apologising for dying! And, at that moment, as the dominoes tumbled in my mind, I hated him. I had never liked him that much as a man in any case, and for the same reason I don’t like cats; too damned independent. He didn’t need anybody. But, deep down where it really mattered, I had always respected him as a commander. Envied him, even. Now I hated his guts. How fucking dare he put me in this impossible position?

“Ni nini basha!” he hissed, through gritted teeth.  Roughly, in his native Swahili, What a fucker! If he was ever going to swear, he would always do it in his own language.

I shook my head. All the cursing in the world wasn’t going to change this one. I said, “Shut the fuck up, I’m thinking!”  But I wasn’t thinking; I was observing.  My thought processes, having reached the inevitable conclusion, now seemed to have hit a brick wall. And it didn’t help that the bullet in my shoulder was making its presence felt. I could still move the arm readily enough. But it was hurting like fuck now. I couldn’t spare the time or the brainpower to check it out.

Amadi dragged a taut smile up from somewhere. “Kilomita kumi, Bwana ... hakuna zaidi kuliko hayo.”  He inclined his head to the east.

I looked at him. The bastard was even testing the limits of my knowledge of the language. I think he’d said, Ten kilometres, boss…no more than that.

He was telling me that we could still make it out of there if we used the jeep and headed east. We, meaning the rest of us, not him.

He’d be thinking in his own language now, of course, not trying to please me. The time for that was long gone. Besides, I had always tried to make it seem as if I spoke Swahili better than I actually did. As you do.

A thin trickle of blood; the dark, fatal kind, seeped from the corner of his mouth. The dirt beneath him was a bloody quagmire of his own making, the viscous pool widening by the second. He tried to cough, but didn’t seem able to. He just gurgled. And he was trembling. Not because of the pain of his wound. Well, not entirely, I was fairly certain of that. He was trembling because he knew beyond doubt that he was finished, and he was scared shitless. Hell, who wouldn’t be? Nobody wants to die. No sane person anyway. Whatever face you put on it, however much you think you’ve prepared for it, however fucking brave and macho you are, or think you are, dying is the end of everything. The ultimate truth. Probably the only truth on the face of this godless planet.

I wondered if there was a small miracle wandering around close by looking for a home. We needed one. I needed one. And I needed it now.

Adomo Vasi glanced out at the killing ground. He warned, “Ten minutes, Cap’almer. Prob’ly.”

Behind his back, I called Vasi “Smiler”. Not because he was always smiling, but because a birth defect made it seem as if he was constantly grinning. How harsh is that? To judge Vasi’s moods correctly you had to look into his eyes. There was only pain in his eyes now.

To my face, the Askaris called me Captain Palmer, but with their limited command of the English language it mostly came out as a single Cap'almer. Which was close enough. And good enough.  I was damned sure they called me other stuff behind my back. And most of them spoke my language a damned sight better than I spoke theirs.

I followed Vasi’s glance on auto-pilot. I wondered what he could see that I couldn’t. He was guessing, of course. But based on recent history it was probably a good guess. Their last assault had failed and they had disappeared back into cover, but the cost to us had been significant.

We were left with six guns. Against at least thirty. And those people were surprisingly well led; organised and motivated. We had prevailed so far, but it was a last-ditch thing now. Our guys’ motivation was lying in the dirt with half a spine and a tunic full of stomach.

But whatever happened I had to pull something out of the fire. And quickly. It was my job. Morale should have been my job, too. If anyone deserved that stray bullet, it was me. I had allowed Amadi to assume the role of Morale Officer and all-round role model without either of us being aware of it. That account, along with several others, was about to be settled one way or the other.

A familiar voice drifted thinly over the super-heated air. High-pitched and urgent. That would be their Mullah again, urging them to new efforts.  I was beginning to loathe that man and I had never as much as clapped eyes on him. He would be promising virgins by the truckload to last them through all eternity, in exchange for one final push. And that was the rub. They believed it. They wanted to die fighting their cause. It was what they did. What they were all about. So they howled their Allahu Akbars in chorused response. Let me die fighting the unbeliever! And they were dying; the mangled landscape around the crater was littered with their dead and dying. But the sheer weight of numbers had always been on their side. Still was.

And I had been within a spit of ordering a tactical withdrawal when that single ricochet had changed everything.

I looked down at Amadi. “For fuck’s sake!” But I did not have the first clue where that remark had come from, where it might lead, or what I had meant by it.

Amadi nodded, his teeth gritted against what could only be a flaming agony. “Ndiyo, bwana,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper. Something vaguely like a chuckle squeezed from his bloody lips. “Wakati unakuja!” The time comes. His voice rasped like a cinder under a door, and I could have cried for him. I could have cried for all of us.

Vasi, smiling his broad smile, looked down at him. “Kwa sisi sote, ndugu.” For all of us, brother.

Amadi looked up at him and nodded briefly. Nodding was just about all he could do with his body. I wondered where his chocolate colouring had gone. Then I looked again at the bloody bulge of his battle dress and I stopped wondering. Amadi was already dead.

If only the bastards out there contented themselves with shooting inconvenient wounded out of hand. That would not have presented half the dilemma. Such was commonplace in mercenary warfare. Un-noteworthy. More pertinently in this case; even merciful. But Kangatzi fighters are anything but merciful. Theirs would be a martyr’s death, leading to eternal glory with a permanent hard-on. The last thing they wanted was to afford their enemy those same privileges. So the first thing they removed from the guys unfortunate enough to get left behind alive was the object of their manhood. All of it, balls and all. Then the feet and hands. A quick slice, and four practiced blows with a machete. If they had time, the eyes would be next. And the nose and the ears. Tongue, even. They were not fussy. Just so long as their victim eventually reached his Valhalla as an incomplete item, unable to enjoy the pleasures they themselves were promised; were dying for.

And even then it wasn’t over.

If the victim had not already died from the sheer trauma of it all, he would be left as he lay, in a kind of agony that none of us currently alive can even begin to imagine. Eventually, of course, he must die. If only from the loss of blood. But in some cases the merciful release of death could be a long time coming.

Amadi had already put the numbers together in the correct order, with most of the possible outcomes noted in the mental margin. I was sure of that. He was an experienced soldier with more than his fair share of combat experience under his belt. He also knew what mercenary warfare was all about. And he certainly knew what the Kangatzi were all about. But I wondered if he knew the way things really were. In fact I doubted that. The Ascari mind works at a different level to ours; utilises different criteria. That was the epiphany that struck me the moment he fell.

I say “ours”. But there was nothing “ours” about this situation. There was “theirs”, and there was “mine”. The only other non-Africans anywhere in that broiling valley were still trying to reach us. “Sapper” Morris and Clem Garcia, with their contingent of Ascaris, were still somewhere between us and the distant mountains. Andrew Danvers, with his fucking binoculars, was somewhere up that mountain watching it all go down. Not that he could see a great deal, not with haze coming on so strong now. None of these people were anywhere close enough to do us any good.

So I was smitten with indecision. Not indecision about Amadi’s death, because he was already dead. In question was the manner of his death. Specifically, whose finger would actually pull the trigger? And there was the time-scale to consider. And, more importantly, the effect it would have on the men.

His men.

Because in barely more time than it takes to boil a kettle they would be on us again. And there was no way we could hold them. Not as we were. Not this time. Not again.

And I was damned if I did, and damned if I didn’t.

I knew that, even if Amadi himself didn’t.

Vasi ducked instinctively as a burst of .automatic M60 fire tore into the bushes. The fire had come from somewhere on our right flank, over beyond the wreck of the Bedford truck. The shooter had to be Jamil Kijani, the man I had flogged almost senseless with a length of wire. I wondered what he was shooting at.

I yelled, “Save it, for fuck’s sake!”

Kijani’s voice, muffled by distance, called a reply in his own language. I couldn’t make it out. But Amadi had it pegged.  He actually smiled and grunted another wet, bloody chuckle. “Wao ni watu tu!” he hissed through his pain.

Something about them only being men.

He was referring to the opposition. But the Kangatzi were not on this earth to be men. They were on this earth to be killers of men.

“Nini?” queried Vasi, his smiling, dirt-streaked face creased in a new frown.

Amadi shook his head slightly, then clamped his eyes tightly as another spasm ripped through him, his face contorting with agony. Through it all, in English again, he hissed, “They are only men.” This was obviously for my benefit.

And that was the thing about Rashid Amadi. He had already apologised for dying; from an accident that possessed no personal malice whatsoever. Well, no human malice. Now, on the extreme edge of oblivion, he was thinking about his comrades. And he was thinking about me.

Vasi looked down at him and nodded sadly.

Amadi opened his eyes and seemed to relax as the spasm passed. He stared at me. His eyes took on a new expression and he seemed momentarily free of pain.

“Sasa, bwana!” he said with finality.  Now, sir. Then, in English, he added, “Please!” His gaze dropped to the pistol in my hand, and then he closed his eyes.

So he didn’t know. He would not be going down that road if he did.

I hated his fucking guts!

I looked at him. But I still couldn’t pull it together. Any kind of coherent thought seemed a million miles away. I was watching a movie; waiting for the story to unfold. I did know that if things had fallen differently and the man with his insides filling his battledress had been Sapper Morris, I wouldn’t have hesitated for an instant, and none of the guys would have batted so much as an eyelid. It certainly would not have been the first coup de grace I had administered. I was their commanding officer, but this man was their leader, and always had been their leader. He was hard, yes. But it was an older-brother type hardness; the kind you kept in the family. And there was still a fight to be won.  Or lost. And with the odds stacked the way they were, the deciding factor was always motivation. Morale. How could I rob my rapidly diminishing command of that?

On the edge of my vision I saw Vasi shake his head in a lost sort of way. He hesitated briefly, then he took back the hand that had been shielding Amadi’s eyes from the sun. I guess he’d figured it out. Over to you! He raised his weapon and rested it on the rim of the crater, aiming loosely in the general direction of the sermon. A sermon which would soon be an attack.

I knew that it was down to me. But that’s all I knew. I guess this was one impossible decision too many. My Beretta was aimed at Amadi’s head, but my finger was hesitating on the trigger.

The Mullah was almost screaming his message now, and the Allahu Akbars were at fever pitch.  Without turning, Vasi breathed a resigned, “You must decide, Cap’almer.”

And he left it at that.

 

*

 

It all became inevitable long before I knew any of these people existed.

The point of no return.

Any and all situations have one of them. The point at which, with the gift of prophecy, we could avoid a nasty situation completely, simply by doing something slightly differently. Beyond that point everything is history.

My own point of no return occurred when, in simple terms, I shot a man in the back. Some people called it an act of cold-blooded murder. Others hailed it as justifiable homicide. A few, a very select few, bought me beers because of it.

Taken at face value, and sitting in a comfortable chair in a far-off country several months after the event, what I did could easily be seen as murder; the cold-blooded kind. I was not so naïve that I didn’t appreciate that. But it was one of those situations where you had to have been there. You did not need to know the facts and the history of the situation; you simply needed to have been there.

With that gift of prophesy under my belt, I just might have let the bastard walk away.

But I doubt it.

His name was Joshua Mtomo.

And he was not just any man; Joshua Mtomo was the prime minister – if only by default - of the eastern territories of Bazingue; once called The Republic of the Congo. And he was not even the enemy. In fact, he was the man who paid my wages. And he wore the uniform of a brigadier-general. I had played a major part in his rise to power. And I had been well paid for my trouble. My kind of work does not come cheap.

Then I had shot him in the back without provocation, and without a grain of conscience, either at the time, or since.

Those are the simple terms.

I could not even begin to explain the complex terms. So I never bothered to try. Certainly not to myself; which was my error, because if I had I might have seen the next bit coming.

They say there’s no fool like an old fool, and they – whoever the fuck “they” are – are right; eventually – and inevitably -  it all caught up with me in Dubai. Specifically, in the rooftop bar of the Al Jazeera Hotel. Perhaps I should also have remembered that when things seem perfect, that’s when you should most be on your guard. There’s probably some kind of a cheap clichéd quip to cover that too.

 And things had seemed perfect.

Jose “Pancho” Santana, looking every inch the tourist in the casuals he had bought in the lobby boutique, emptied his glass and smacked his lips noisily. “Bloody hell, Marty” he breathed contentedly, settling himself back in the expansive recliner, “If this aint the life, then I don’t know what is.”

Santana was a Mexican/American, and - certainly in a working environment - he liked to think he was an incarnate Pancho Villa. He wore a moustache like Villa’s and would carry holstered handguns on each hip, slung as low as the belt would allow. Except that his handguns of choice were Peacemaker Colts, not six-shooters. He would also carry his ammunition in bandoleers crisscrossed over his chest. Back when B-Company existed, the roots of his nickname carried more than a small measure of sarcasm. He knew it, and he didn’t seem to give a damn. I suspect he even liked it.

But where Pancho Villa was purported to be a big man, Santana was small and wiry. He was a hurry-man, full of nervous energy. If he was ever forced to sit in one place, some part of his body would be constantly on the move. Either a foot would tap, or fingers would drum, or he'd be shifting in his seat like a man with haemorrhoids. Sometimes it would all happen at once. I don't think he suffered from haemorrhoids. Tactical briefings were a nightmare. Ten minutes in the same room with Jose Santana and you could yourself end up a nervous wreck.

Off duty, however – and this was the first time I had ever been in that kind of an environment with him – he seemed a different man. Relaxed, easy-going company.

I nodded. I wasn’t drunk, but I was on the road to that comfortable place.

Sixty floors below the huge, triple-glazed windows of the penthouse bar, night time Dubai stretched away into the distance, a fairyland of twinkling lights and things that weren’t dangerous, the panorama broken only by the snaking black line of the invisible Dubai Creek. The plush bar was cool, sparsely if elegantly lit and smelt vaguely of new leather. A piano trio was playing softly in a corner; the sound mingling with the even softer mumble of conversation and the background hum of the state-of-the-art air conditioning. I was wearing a lightweight safari suit that hadn’t seen the light of day in eons, and, for once, I felt comfortable to be out of uniform. That didn’t happen very often. In fact, I hadn’t been out of some kind of uniform for several years. And I hadn’t wanted to be. They –  them again! - maintain that you don’t know what you’re missing until it’s gone. They’re definitely right about that.

As a description, perfect actually fell some way short of covering it.

And we had 72 hours to kill.

I had a feeling that this low, ornately-carved table, in an alcove window of the bar, ringed as it was by the huge reclining chairs, each big enough to accommodate an orgy, might be where we would spend the entire stopover. A pleasant thought.

Santana said, “The silly sod’s gonna be pig-sick.”

He was talking about Sweeney Graham. Graham, nicknamed Sweeney because of his close-quarters skill with a blade, had opted to hitch a ride to Sri Lanka on a military flight. Direct. I guess he had his own reasons for not waiting.

I said, “He’s probably saying the same about us. “

Santana waved his empty glass at a passing waiter and held up two fingers. “No bloody way. He just didn’t think it through.”

I grunted. “Like we did?” I delivered that line the way they do these days. So it was something of a steal.

They had given us business-class tickets. Open-ended. Final destination Sri Lanka, where Spiro Murdock, our agent, would arrange to get us on to Libya, where the job was. All we had to do was get to Djibouti airport in time for the flight. If Santana and I hadn’t buggered about in Mozambique we would have made it. I texted Sweeney to tell him we’d be late but had no response. Santana tried calling him a couple of times, but all he got for his pains was the not-available message. It was fairly typical of Sweeney that he’d either let his phone run out of credit, or had forgotten to put it on charge. Either way, when we eventually arrived in Djibouti there was a message waiting for us at the Daalo Airways flight desk telling us that he’d gone on. We eventually took the Dubai Business-class stopover flight. Seventy-two hours in civilisation sounded like a bloody fine scheme. Especially since the tickets also took care of the hotel accommodation. Business people exist in a world of their own. And damned good luck to them.

Santana lifted a shoulder and smiled a contented smile. “Whatever,” he breathed, proving that he wasn’t above stealing from modern society either.

It was one of those rare moments when I wondered why I didn’t simply rejoin the world. This world. The one that smelled of expensive leather upholstery and furniture polish - not of raw sewage, gun oil and blood - the world that just sat there being the world until you told it to be something else. But life is never that simple, is it?

I’ll tell you what is simple: death is simple.

The waiter delivered the drinks. He was Asian, and his smile was anything but a smile. He had beads of sweat on his forehead and half-moons of grime under his fingernails. I smelt the stale sweat of his armpits as he leant over my right shoulder to do his thing. I had smelt like that myself, sometimes far worse. I realised that the nice thoughts were just so much booze-induced crap. The world only seems benign when you’re sixty floors above it. Drop below the fairy lights and rub shoulders with the common man, and the ambiance resorts to form. Here, and especially in Dubai, you could smell the greed and the ambition that kept people like Graham, Santana and myself in well-paid work. And there is little intrinsic difference between a waiter and a sheikh. Or a traveling salesman and a mercenary soldier. Everyone has an angle; all working towards their own end. And that end is always money.

The bottom line.

Unexpectedly sober again, and one thought leading to another, I said, “Let’s talk a little shop.” Prolonged relaxation was evidently not one of my strong points. That conclusion wasn’t a revelation; it was a recap.

Santana, rattling the ice in his fresh drink like a maraca, pulled a disbelieving face. “Oh, for chrissakes, Marty!”

I guess, right there, was why Santana was content to be an Indian and I was content to be whatever the hell it was I called myself at the time. I ignored the grumble. “Let’s start with the numbers.”  Maybe I was just thinking out loud.

“Ah!” said Santana, a faint smile pulling at his mouth. He sucked some errant whisky from one wing of his moustache. “Always a good place to start. I fancy something up in the quarter mil region.”

He would, wouldn’t he? I said, “A week’s work, Pan. A simple mop-up job. We probably won’t even get to fire a gun. Let’s get real here.”

He treated me to an old fashioned look. “When was the last time a week’s work actually ended up a week’s work? And this is Libya we’re talking about. Plus a load of rag heads who don’t know one end of a gun from the other. It’ll take us that long just to get them to point the damned things, never mind pull the fucking trigger.”

He did have a point. “Fair enough,” I admitted, “But we’ll make that option a clause. Let’s start at a basic seventy grand plus expenses.”

Santana pursed his lips as if he was thinking about it. He glanced at me under his thick, jet-black eyebrows. “I was thinking more in the region of a ton.”

I smiled. “You were thinking more in the region of a quarter mil, you greedy bastard! I said let’s get real. They’ll be thinking fifty.”

He shrugged and took a slurp at his drink. “If that’s what you reckon, boss. You know best.” Committee meeting over. He closed his eyes and eased himself deeper into the recliner, his glass held loosely on his chest.

I looked out the window just as a shooting star scratched a bright line though the sky. I wondered how many people would take that as some kind of an omen. I don’t believe in omens, if I believe in anything at all. What it was, was a chunk of rock hitting the atmosphere at a rate of knots, burning up in the process. Omens are for people who don’t want to work it out for themselves. Or who can’t.

I felt a presence at my shoulder and glanced up, expecting to see the waiter back again. It wasn’t the waiter. It was a tall guy in a pin-striped, double-breasted suit. He was definitely overdressed for these parts. I waited for him to go away, but he didn’t go away. He just stood there smiling down at me. I offered, “Can I help you?”

“Mister Palmer?” He had an American accent. Cultured mid-west. Soft and even toned. And I had never seen him before in my life. I wondered how he knew my name. But there were no alarm bells ringing in my head. He could be the hotel manager, or someone to do with the airline.

I said, “That’s me.”

I felt rather than saw Santana push himself upright in his seat, the ice in his drink tinkling like a Tibetan prayer chime.

The man shot Santana a glance then came back to me. “I wonder if I might have a private word.”

Santana chuckled. “Confidential’s a private word. You can have that one, if you like.”

We exchanged grins like a couple of school kids.

The stranger did not seem amused. He tried a smile on us but it didn’t come off.

I took pity on him. “Whatever you have to say, you can just come out and say it. We’re all friends here.”

He was not finding it easy to hold the smile. Despite that it wasn’t one. He shot another glance at Santana, then came back to me. “Perhaps I should call you Captain Palmer. Would that make a difference?”

It did. And I wondered who the hell this man was. I said, “You were right first time, it’s Mister Palmer.”

He sighed a small sigh. “Really? And how do you make that out? You were a captain when you decided to abscond from the 75th Ranger Regiment operating out of Kosovo, and, thus far, you have not been discharged of that commission, either honourably, or  - “ He smiled a crooked smile – “or otherwise.” Then he lifted a shrug. “An arguable point, perhaps. But a fact nevertheless. Even so,” he went on, his expression hardening. “I repeat, I’d really much rather this conversation was between you and me.”

Santana, who knew very little about my past life, seemed to be enjoying it hugely. He said, “Don’t worry about me, sonny, I’m a gatepost.”

The man kept his eyes on me. The smile, or his excuse for one, vanished. He seemed to be weighing things up in his mind. But no more than they were in my own. What the hell was this all about?  I said nothing, because my brain was too woolly to connect the salient thoughts into a meaningful response. At length the man shrugged, but it was a facial shrug. A be-it-on-your-own-head kind of twist.

“As you wish.” He stepped around the table and sat himself in one of the spare seats, his back to the magnificent view. “My name is Paxton.” He pulled a face that could have been mistaken for an apology. “And it’s Colonel Paxton.”

I said, “Bully for you…Colonel.”

Whatever this was, it wasn’t likely to be good. And I wished I hadn’t had so much to drink. I wasn’t feeling exactly on top of my game. And when a stranger demonstrates an advantage you need a clear head.

Santana, his tone dripping undisguised sarcasm, breathed, “Wow…a real colonel!”

I was proud of him.

The man ignored him. “Just so you’re aware of your options, Captain, I want you to glance over your right shoulder.” He smiled and added, “If you would be so kind.”

I didn’t. I kept my eyes on the man. But on the edge of my vision, I saw that Santana did. He said, “Three guys, Marty. Heavies, by the cut of their jib. Over by the door. They weren’t there before.”

The man chuckled and deigned to swing his eyes on Santana. “I’m sure they would be scandalised to hear you call them that…Mister?” His tone rose to the question.

Santana placed his glass on the table with exaggerated care, while treating his moustache to another cleaning job. “Fuckface’ll do.”

I had to smile.

To his credit the man didn’t seem fazed. “Well, Mister Fuckface, I suggest you keep your opinions to yourself. This doesn’t concern you.” And he added a slightly menacing, “But it could…so very easily.”

I said, “Can we get to the point?” Over his shoulder, I glanced at the window, trying to sort out the reflections of the bar behind me from the swathe of lights beyond. But it was impossible. The bar wasn’t that well-lit and there were too many shadowed areas.

The man casually unbuttoned his jacket and deliberately lifted it away from his side an inch or two, so we could see the shoulder holster. He murmured, “This is in no way a threat, Captain. I just need to be sure we understand each other.”

Of course, if it wasn’t a threat he wouldn’t have showed it to us. I said, “It’s illegal to carry arms in this country. Or hadn’t you heard.” It was a temporiser, nothing more. And not a desperately clever one at that.

He said, “Well, Captain, if anyone should know about matters illegal, it’s yourself.”

“The point,” I reminded him, not unkindly.

He rebuttoned his jacket and made sure it was sitting right on his frame. “All in good time.”

Santana leaned forward over the table. After flashing another glance back at the bar area, he said, “Now’s a good time…Colonel.” The tone he applied to that last word was an indication of how much he was not impressed by high rank.

The man opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a faint sound of orchestral music. I glanced around at the trio, expecting to find them augmented by a string section. But they were still a trio. The stranger reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out a mobile phone that was flashing, and playing a fugue. He seemed annoyed as he flipped the lid open. He held up a just a minute hand, murmured a polite, “Excuse me,” and placed the phone to his ear.

Santana frowned over at me and mouthed a silent, “What the fuck?”

I shrugged. I didn’t have an answer for him.

The man listened for a moment, still appearing annoyed. He shot a puzzled glance back into the bar, at one of the men, I guessed, then shifted his gaze to Santana. He seemed impressed by something he was hearing. “Sort it,” he said briefly. He flipped the phone closed and returned it to his pocket, his eyes still on Santana. He said, “Now, there’s a thing.”

I said, “What’s a thing?”

To Santana, he said, “It seems you may just have written yourself into the script after all, Mister…ah, Fuckface? Was it?” His smile was ironic.

Santana said nothing. Neither did I.

I was concerned, but not desperately so. Paxton’s reference to my military history was essentially correct; I was actually AWOL, and had been for some years. But in most official records I was aware of I had been designated M.I.A. – Missing In Action. I was certainly in action when I went missing. So he was probably embellishing the facts on that point. And I was indeed a captain when that had gone down. I still utilised that rank now, because it was convenient to do so. No, scratch that; I held on to the rank because it paid more.

And I was not illegal in Dubai. Neither was I wanted for anything. Here, or anywhere else in the Gulf area, for that matter. There were some countries in the world where I was illegal. Radically so, in some cases. But not here. I didn’t know about Santana, because I’d never probed that deeply into his past. Besides, he wasn’t the prime target here. At least he hadn’t been before the phone call which, it seemed to me, was from one of the guys by the door. Which had to be a clue to something or other.

I glanced back over my shoulder.

You couldn’t miss them. They weren’t drinking. They were just standing there. They could have been clones of Paxton. Big and beefy. And overdressed. It would not have surprised me to learn that they had been in route to London, or some other cold city, until someone or something had diverted them here. One of them nodded, smiled broadly, and raised a hello hand.

I turned back to Paxton, who raised his eyebrows at me in a matter-of-fact sort of way. “Get the picture?”

I didn’t know. It was a poser, certainly. But it was a poser with a worrying side to it. If Paxton really was a serving officer, then he wasn’t serving with the colours. He would have to be in the Intelligence branch of the service. S.I.S., maybe. Black Ops. These people roamed pretty freely throughout the world, frequently with local sanction. I’m a fighting man, not a cloak and dagger merchant. And I was realist enough to know that I could be out of my depth. Caution was needed.

On impulse, I said, “Is that your own weapon? Or did you borrow it?” I was not expecting an answer. Certainly not a truthful one.

But Paxton knew exactly where my mind was. He pulled an impressed face and patted the slight bulge of the shoulder holster. “Very good, Captain,” he nodded. “But this is my very own Colt. Bought in Fremont, Nebraska.” He pulled a thoughtful face. “Cost me something like seven hundred dollars and change, as I recall.” He smiled. “Does that answer your question?”

I felt like pointing out that he could be lying. But I didn’t. Because I didn’t think he was. I said, “Okay, so you’ve got the local constabulary at your elbow. Where does that leave us? And what the hell is this all about?”

He paused for a moment, as if making up his mind about something else. Then he performed a quick parradiddle on the table top with both hands, all business-like, as if he was now mentally where he wanted to be.

“Okay,” he began in a new tone, “Remembering that the only armed people in this room, and possibly in the entire building, either directly or indirectly, work under my command, I’m here to inform you, Captain Martin Palmer, that you are under arrest. You do not….” And he went on to read me a truncated version of my rights as directed by American law.

I was staggered. It was unbelievable. Crazy.

“…and if you cannot afford an attorney,” he concluded, “one will be appointed for you at no cost to yourself. Do you understand all that?”

Santana had sat back in his seat. He was wide-eyed and had his mouth open. He said, “You can’t do that. Not here. Even if you’re God all fucking mighty, you can’t do that! What the hell are you trying to pull.” It wasn’t a question.

I lifted a hand. “Hold on, Pan. We’re still short a few facts here.” Then, to Paxton, “Just what, exactly, am I under arrest for? Specifically!”

Paxton regarded me gravely, but I detected a hint of amusement in his steely eyes. “Did I leave that bit out? Careless of me!” He smiled openly now. “Well, you’re under arrest for murder, of course.” He pulled a face and added, “In the First-Degree, I’m afraid!”

 

 

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