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Authors: Mick Herron

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Down Cemetery Road (26 page)

BOOK: Down Cemetery Road
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Howard drifted back in. ‘Are you staying here forever?’

‘If that’s how long it takes.’

Crane’s desk was a junkyard accident. He’d already broken the phone, for ringing when he wasn’t ready. Splintered ends of pencils formed a tepee-shape on top of his computer casing: you had to do
something
while you were waiting for the bastard to search a database. And a shredded polystyrene cup, little white flakes of it, adding the impression that Crane was having a bad hair day: Howard looked at all this, but made no comment. Which provoked Crane more than anything.

‘Haven’t you got papers to shuffle? Chits to sign? We need more pencils round here. Isn’t it you who buys the pencils, Howard?’

‘We’re a Government Agency, Amos. We don’t operate for your sole benefit.’

‘Govern-Ment-A-Gency. I can just
hear
the capitals when you speak, Howard. Did you learn that at university?’

‘Your brother fucked up. I’m sorry, Amos, but that’s what he did. Now we can draw lessons from that, which would be a
useful
thing to do, or you can sit here steaming, planning your revenge. It’s a job, Amos. And it needs to be done. But it needs to be done properly. You go off the deep end and fuck this up too, I’ll hang you out to dry. Believe it.’

Amos whistled through his teeth.

‘I mean it. You go solo and spill unnecessary blood, your days here are over. You might as well book the plot next to Axel.’

‘Unnecessary blood?’

‘You know what I mean.’

He laughed. ‘You ever wonder what it’s like at the sharp end, Howard?’

‘Don’t start. I had enough of that from Axel. Laugh at the desk man. Who knows nothing about anything. But you tried driving a desk on this one, Amos, and look what happened. Your brother’s dead, there’s civilians
this close
to official secrets, and you’re looking for a needle in a haystack so you can go do the John Wayne bit. Very bloody impressive.’

‘I’ll find him.’

‘So you said. You also said Axel could handle it.’

‘Careful, Howard.’

‘Don’t threaten me. You’ve no friends in the Ministry, Amos. Downey may be the target, but there were a few sighs of relief when he bagged Axel.’

Amos jabbed him in the throat with his forefinger.

It was curious, he thought, as he watched Howard drop to his knees and scrape at the air for a breath, how stress brought out the best in some people. Here’s Howard, a man born to be office furniture, learning to speak his mind. Probably been having shit poured on him from above. Once a month or so, poor Howard was summoned for a bollocking from a bloke whose
name
he didn’t even know: now that was sad. Crane knew the name, of course, but that was because he believed in making the effort.

He leaned forward now and breathed in Howard’s ear. ‘I will find him, Howard. If not now, later. When he comes for the girl. And when I find him, I’ll kill him. And if I have
any complaints
from you on the matter, I’ll drop you from your office window. Clear?’

There was little point in waiting for an answer.

He patted Howard on the cheek. ‘When you can breathe, get up and leave. Don’t talk to me any more.’

And he turned to his screen, already thinking: Big hotels. Chains. The kind of places with a network he could break into. He didn’t hear Howard leave. That was because Howard left very quietly.

They had fought all day, Michael said, though ‘fought’ wasn’t the word, not really – the boy soldiers had fired a shot or two, but nothing that came near causing danger, then tried to dig themselves in at the top of a dune. It was easy to see they were scared witless. Screaming at each other, probably about whether to surrender or not; one of them stood up at the end, stretched his arms skyward; babbling in obvious prayer. Tommy Singleton shot his knee off.

‘They were kidnapped. Brought there. For you to practise on.’

Michael said, ‘I think so. Yes.’

She couldn’t believe it, or wished she couldn’t. Wished she couldn’t see it in her mind, either, helped along by images on the TV screen: the scared boy standing, screaming at the world to leave him alone. The bullet picking him off like a tin duck at a fairground.

After that, Michael said, they all folded. Threw their guns down the hill, and waited to be captured.

‘So you didn’t kill them.’

‘No. We didn’t kill them.’

He closed his eyes then, as if deep in the effort of remembering, though in fact, Sarah suspected, trying to forget.

They had a truck and they’d marched the boy soldiers to it, single file, the way they’d been taught. Piled in the back, with Tommy and another up front.

‘We thought that would be the hard part. Finding the way home. But Tommy said he knew. He was good at directions, Tommy. He hardly ever got lost.’

‘Even in the desert?’

‘You trust your mates. That’s what it’s about. He said he could find the way home, so we believed him.’

But they’d not been driving half an hour before they heard the helicopter.

‘We were trying to talk to the boy soldiers,’ he said. ‘Two of us were. But they didn’t speak a word of English. Except “cigarette” and that. The kid Tommy shot, he was lying on the floor of the truck. We bandaged his leg up, but it was a right mess. It didn’t make a difference, though.’

When the helicopter came, it opened fire.

‘We were expecting it, kind of. The rest of it, it was too easy. They were just kids, they weren’t soldiers. Not really.’

‘It shot at you?’

‘To the side of the truck. Trying to knock us over, I guess. So Tommy hit the brakes, and we all piled out.’

. . .
Sand crunched under his feet as he fell from the truck, and the whine of the chopper above was the loudest noise in the world
. He shuddered. Sarah almost reached out to him: just to let him feel her touch, and know he wasn’t back there, however vivid the pictures in his head.

‘Have you ever fired on a flying target?’

She didn’t even bother: he was talking to himself.

‘You see it in films and that and it looks dead easy. It’s almost impossible, though. It buzzed us again, and we emptied most of our weapons, then it flew far off, and turned, and came back in.’

The light was creeping from the room now. She had no idea how long they’d been there: time was an intruder in this place. Reality was happening elsewhere.

‘We could see him hanging off the side. Wearing a harness, so he wouldn’t fall.’

‘Who?’

‘Doesn’t matter. He was whoever he was. He was like us, just doing his job.’

There was no bitterness in his voice. Probably, Sarah thought, he believed it: that if you were just doing your job, all manner of things were forgiven.

‘And then he dropped it. Just a small thing, about the size of a tennis ball . . . There was a ’chute attached, so it drifted down, and we all stood watching like we were hypnotized or something. The boy soldiers with the rest of us. And we knew we were dead. We all knew we were dead. It can’t have taken more than a dozen seconds, somewhere round that, but that was plenty of time to work it out. When you know it’s your last twelve seconds it seems like forever, but it passes too fast.’

He fell quiet. She didn’t push him. She was remembering her own bad moments: hanging on to life in her kitchen, while Rufus – who’d called himself Axel – tightened his rope round her throat. It had felt like she’d spent half her life there, waiting for death, but it was over in a blur, too; had all happened between one breath and the next.

‘But it wasn’t a bomb.’

He stood abruptly. She reached for the water, poured him a glass, and handed it to him without a word; he took it the same way, and drained it in a single flourish. Then tensed his fingers round the glass, as if he were searching for its shattering point.

‘Michael.’

He looked at her.

‘Tell me.’

He told her. ‘It wasn’t a bomb. Or else, it
was
, but not a conventional one. They were testing us. Painting us. That’s why we were there. We were guinea pigs.’

‘What happened?’

‘It went off. There was a sound like glass breaking, and the air went muzzy. That sounds stupid. I can’t describe it better. And then . . . it was like I was burning. There was this incredible pain. I thought, it shouldn’t be like this, it was a
bomb
, I should just die, it shouldn’t keep hurting, but the pain went on and on. I think I was screaming. I guess we all were.’

He put the glass down, very gently, on the floor.

‘I remember someone grabbed me, it must have been Tommy. He was screaming too. He kept yelling
Don’t look. Don’t look
. And I’m half dying with this pain, it’s like my skin’s being scorched off, and there’s this tiny part of my mind going
What’s he on about? Don’t look at what?

Sarah felt her own mouth dry up, but didn’t reach for the water.

‘And then I saw. I looked up.’

He closed his eyes.

‘He was talking about the boy soldiers, Tucker. They weren’t screaming. They were melting.’

Each time Howard tried to swallow, he could taste his own gristle. It was as if his throat itself were a lump he couldn’t get down: making a rattle of his breath; blurring his vision. Six years working for the Department had left him inured to many forms of violence, but a very big exception was any kind involving himself. On paper, he dealt with it. Had always found it regrettable, but he didn’t brood. Amos Crane, though, had never left him crawling on the floor before; for several moments, he’d thought he was going to die. Instead of a vision of his past life flooding before him, he’d had a sudden clear picture of the amount of paperwork this would cause somebody else.

He was standing by his window now, on the floor above Crane’s office. He held a jug of water in one hand, a glass in the other.

Twice in the past hour he’d lifted the phone to call Security: Crane’s attack hadn’t simply been a breach of conditions of service, it had been criminal goddamn assault. But twice, his nerve had failed him. If Crane didn’t feel like co-operating – and he wouldn’t – it would take more than Security to subdue him. You didn’t train a Crane, then expect him to go quietly. That was the whole trouble, of course. Pit of snakes, this job. It had been true what he’d said to Amos, and Howard himself had been among those feeling more than a twinge of relief when Axel was cancelled. It didn’t take genius to see that the day had anyway been coming when somebody, probably Howard himself, would have signed the paper authorizing an executive accident for Axel Crane: something quick and easy – he’d been a servant of the Crown – but definite. He was glad the decision had been taken out of his hands. Not because he’d have hesitated to sign (he wouldn’t), but because if he had, and the accident had gone wrong, he’d have had Axel Crane paying him a visit. And even if it had gone right, he’d have had Amos doing the same.

His hand strayed to his throat once more. There was no telling whether there wasn’t permanent damage there: something ruptured, fatally bruised. The rest of his life he might spend taking soothing drinks every half-hour. Show him the paper on
Amos
Crane, he’d sign it without a blink.

. . . There was paper on his desk now, the file on Michael Downey. The one on Thomas Singleton had been red-ribboned, which didn’t mean he’d never have to refer to it again, but did mean it was pretty conclusively closed. Not the way he’d thought it would happen, six-seven months back, whenever it was. Downey he’d marked as the weak link, Singleton the danger. From right back on Crows’ Hill, Singleton had been the leader: that was the way Howard read the files.

Crane had said to him, ‘They’ve tasted blood. The files don’t mean shit.’

Howard had demurred. ‘Some things are fixed. People don’t change, not as quickly as all that. Character’s a constant. Like Blackpool through the rock.’

‘Look in your files there,’ Crane said. ‘Tell me where it says he’d take three prisoners, shoot them dead. If the army had known that from the start, they’d never have taken him.’

Howard shuffled paper.

Crane said, ‘But that’s the army for you.
We’d
have taken him like a shot.’

And maybe Amos had had a point. The records marked Michael Downey as a dog soldier: he’d follow orders, then lie down. But he was on his own now, and he’d already aced Axel Crane. Who might have been borderline psycho, but was hardly what you’d call a soft target.

Amos was better. Always had been.

Howard poured another glass of water.

Amos was better than Axel, and the pair of them had been the best field agents the Department had ever had.
A happy worker is a good worker
, Howard’s predecessor had told him.
That pair like their work
. Some parts in particular, Axel had liked too well: his specialized tastes had got him into trouble more than once. The Department’s function was to clear up other people’s messes, Howard had frequently had to remind him. Not make our own. Axel, then, would become petulant, and seek to lay the blame on whoever else had been involved – a useful choice of scapegoat, as they were rarely alive enough to object. Howard, frankly, had been sick and tired of him, though he’d been careful to pretend amused affection.

Amos, the elder, had been more controlled. Not today, of course. And his record was far from spotless. But of late he’d been prepared to adapt: unlike Axel, he’d realized that the days of guns and roses were numbered, and if he’d wanted his career to last, he’d better be prepared to take up a more executive role. Not that he was suited for it, but experience mattered. He had a calm head. Nothing flustered him. He accepted the outrageous at face value. Axel, though, he’d always indulged, which had been fatal to the current op, and alone gave Howard enough of an edge to give him the chop, even without the assault. Howard rubbed his poor throat once more, and painfully sipped his water. Amos was making things personal: well, he wasn’t the only one.

He studied Downey’s file again. The man had been a good soldier, once. His bad luck, really. If he’d been a worse one, he’d never have made it past Crows’ Hill. As it was he had Amos Crane on his case, not something you’d wish on your enemy, and had somehow managed to involve the woman, Sarah Traf-ford, too. She
definitely
came under the heading of Bad Accidents. The mess afterwards was going to take weeks to red-ribbon.

BOOK: Down Cemetery Road
8.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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