Divine extinction, p.16
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       Divine Extinction, p.16

           Hylton Smith
 
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  Empathising with someone in distress had always made Pierze feel inadequate in the past. He didn’t experience such negativity on this occasion. “Maxi, please sit even if it is only for a minute. I’ll drive you back to the hospital, as you need all your concentration on getting Emile and your wife through this awful time. As far as your work here is concerned, put it out of your mind. You don’t need to quit; your presence here will always be appreciated whatever you decide. You have an unofficial contract that only you and I need to know about, and it is valid as long as I’m here. If it turns out that we are only to be friends, then great. Now have a coffee and we’ll go back to Emile. I will make some enquiries myself about his prognosis. Sometimes this job of mine can have influence.”

  Duarte sank into the nearest chair and could no longer hold back his self-criticism. “I’ve pushed him too hard for his age. My wife warned me, and only now can I see it.”

  Ricardo Pierze had never got anywhere near contemplating Maxi Duarte as a friend. This sudden predicament of the Duarte family brought into sharp focus his lack of any real friends. He had no relationship which could be described as close. He had constantly buried the offhand family life in which he went to boarding school at the age of ten. He was always distant from others, especially his father and mother. They didn’t seem to need him to be there. The irony of his normal sarcastic mental attitude towards Duarte and the overflowing need of this man to declare his love for his son, scratched deeply into the sad assessment of his own father. He actually felt he was needed by Duarte. It was not the same as his job; it was best not to confuse the two – that was merely being in demand.

  Having left Duarte at the hospital and squeezed the consultant taking charge of Emile, Pierze left in a depressed state. The prognosis was actually worse than they had told Emile’s parents. He wasn’t expected to recover consciousness; the consultant feared that it may come down to switching off life support at some time. He contacted the Madrid club and asked what they were doing about the young man’s case. The reply was very woolly and annoyed Pierze intensely. “Yes I realise you have medical insurance and he is in a very good hospital, but I also assume you haven’t pressed the doctors too hard on the boy’s projected chances of recovery. I’m personally going to seek out the foremost authority on such coma-inducing trauma and find out if there is a second opinion and recommendation which offers more hope. I really think you should be pursuing this as one of Iberia’s leading clubs. It wouldn’t help your academy’s reputation if you were seen to be intransigent in the face of such tragedy; the press will be at your door. Let me know if you need my support.”

  *

  Back in his office Pierze found it difficult to concentrate on matters in hand, however he needed to inform Manuel of Duarte’s plight and check whether he had more information on Silva. He was about to initiate the sequenced offer of disclosure from Johann De Boer. Manuel had heard about Emile on the sports bulletin and had already made contact with Maxi Duarte and his wife. “Elle and I are on our way to see them. There’s probably nothing we can do other than help share the worry, but there is certainly nothing we can do from here. I do have an interesting angle on Silva but that should wait until we are face to face.” Pierze respected the need for a secure debriefing and told Manuel that he was about to twist the knife into Johann De Boer.

  “Does what you’re going to tell me suggest that I hold back on that?” Manuel was quite adamant that Pierze should delay this until he arrived.

  “What I have also directly involves Johann De Boer. I don’t think we should say any more. I should be there with you tomorrow afternoon after seeing Maxi. Elle would like some time alone with Maxi, they go back a long way.”

  *

  The code breakers were now pretty certain that their perceived discrepancy between the diagrams involving Phobos, and the separate group of symbols, was actually a reference to the moon and not some set of cosmic calculations. They were convinced that the symbols were narrative, and whatever this was describing could apply to Phobos. There was a distinct difference between these symbols and those which fascinated the cosmologists. They couldn’t agree on what the description was trying to say; there simply weren’t enough of these ‘modified’ symbols to produce anything better than educated guesswork. It did have the effect of getting the probe launched.

  Zara took a call from Russia. It was Boris Krasnic. “Hello Boris, I see you and Alexei have been overwhelmed with offers to publish the ‘Cradle of Tunguska’. You must think carefully on the temptation they contain, and I know you’ll concentrate on authenticity. Anything less would be unfair to Stepanov’s great-grandfather.” Krasnic was not calling for that reason.

  “It is Alexei I’m calling about. He is very sick. I can only imagine that the expedition has resulted in more exposure to radiation, despite the precautions we took. He was in close contact with the object more than any of us. If you want to see him again I advise you to come quickly. He does talk about you a lot. He isn’t afraid, he knows his time is short and he, sorry I should say we, will never forget your unwavering belief in our assertions. I hope you still feel the same connection.”

  This acceleration of Stepanov’s demise injected emotional paradox into Zara’s world. He wasn’t able to grasp how something which was expected was such a mind-crumbling shock.

  “No, no Boris, surely not, there must be some mistake. We mustn’t let this happen. Of course I’ll come immediately. Please set up appointments with the best experts in your country. I’ll underwrite their participation. If there is nothing they can offer I have contacts here with all kinds of cutting edge medical people, including genetic specialists. Tell Alexei I’m on my way.” There was a considerable pause.

  “Maybe I did not convey the gravity of Alexei’s situation. He may not survive until you get here. I suggested to him that I should ask you to come last week, but he didn’t want to inconvenience you with a further request. He said we both had to concentrate on building your name into our making of history, even though there might be no history to reflect upon in a few years from now. Here it has been cited as our expedition, but we agreed it should embrace the constancy of your encouragement. It will therefore be known as ‘The Stepanov-Krasnic Expedition (Zara Project)’. I hope you will make it in time.”

  Zara was in meltdown; he couldn’t function. He shouted garbled instructions to nobody in particular to hire a private aircraft, if it wasn’t possible to get him to Moscow within the next twelve hours. He collected his photos of the expedition and picked up a heavy surplus of cash. He didn’t even change his clothes or take a shower. He left for the airport clutching a printout of a booking confirmation, given to him by a subordinate. On touchdown at the airport he contacted Krasnic to give him details of his arrival and apologised for not making accommodation reservations. “Tell Alexei I’ll be there soon. Please make sure he knows I’m coming.”

  *

  When Manuel was greeted by Pierze it was muted. They talked at length about how they might help. It didn’t amount to much as they really needed the second opinion which Pierze had eventually set in motion. There had been quite a bit of evasiveness – unease at stepping on toes of the original consultant’s diagnosis.

  When the conversation finally drifted to Andreas Silva, Manuel asked for coffee. “It all comes back to Nelson Ortega. If you recall the information I got from Raul Ibanez, he said Ortega was the target of the sniper. My source who must remain anonymous, confirms this. The reason Ibanez gave me also seems to be correct, insofar as Ortega was perceived as discarding his loyalty to the Southern Iberiana he knew and prospered from. It then gets a bit messy. The people who were after Ibanez for screwing up on the sniper rifle, wanted Sanchez to be replaced with a more friendly President and they had been assured it would not be Falcorini. Ortega had apparently indicated his support for a particular obscure candidate who would have been welcomed by the Southern Iberiana mafia. However, he later argued that it couldn’t be achieved i
n time for the election that would have been triggered by Sanchez’ demise. Ortega needed the sniper to be seen to shoot Sanchez and be taken alive, to fulfill his scripted role as the patsy. If the security guards on the rooftop had shot the sniper without Sanchez being terminated, Ortega was in serious trouble. He would have had you delivering him to the wolves about the insecure venue you warned him of, and if his career was wrecked with Sanchez still in power, the mafia would be obliged to terminate him. Without knowing of the bomb he effectively did one part of the mafia’s job for them. These people however expected the bomb to take out Sanchez and Ortega. They are still unhappy.”

  Pierze shook his head vigorously. “I know most of this from what you got from Ibanez, and although it is all still quite confusing, I don’t see the relevance of Falcorini or the mystery candidate.” Manuel smiled at Pierze’s impatience.

  “Maybe you would if you knew that Andreas Silva and Johann De Boer fired the RPGs into the studio. They were working for you but loyal to the barons of Southern Iberiana. The rocket launchers were procured by Freema Anwar. Does that help?”

  Pierze looked at Manuel intently, and raised one eyebrow. “You don’t have any proof of this do you?” Manuel was astonished at the reaction.

  “You don’t get proof with such conduits which can precipitate sudden death Ricardo. What it does offer you is the opportunity to evaluate what these three moles are fabricating to ‘leak’ to you, as a means of limiting their own exposure. Changing their identity or trying to secure their protection won’t prevent them from being tracked down. It’s more beneficial for the mafia to figure out you have been given a false trail by these three people. At the very least you will get an interesting reaction from them, but it may be prudent to let them lead you to the false trail first. If my source is right about this, and I’ve never known him be wrong, they’ll give you the false trail even without your promises. Time isn’t on their side. What I have to worry about is the relative ease with which I was able to extract this from this particular source; it is extremely unusual.”

  Although they spent the rest of the day picking through the permutations of conspiracy, they both admitted that the gentleman was missing from the equation, and if the three moles were so directly implicated in the assassination plot, then he had to be – even more so. He did exist. They had pictures of him and Freema. “Manuel, I’ll follow your suggestion, but in the meantime, can you get your source to comment on our mystery guest before Johann De Boer leads me indirectly to him?” Manuel nodded hesitantly and left.

  *

  Zara was shaking as he entered the private room in which Stepanov was being treated. His anguish was complete when he saw the grey hue of his skin, dotted with blotches of angry red and dark brown. His breathing was laboured and his skeletal form was distorted. His eyes miraculously remained bright. Zara couldn’t formulate any words coherently and slumped into a chair, unable to prevent his friend from witnessing this distress. “Lionel, I did not expect we would meet again. This is a wonderful surprise. You mustn’t be so sad, we knew this was going to happen; it is just a little sooner than we thought. We all have to go sometime, that is inescapable. We should rejoice that I can soon be at peace, now that we conquered the riddle of Tunguska. Although I never really knew my great-grandfather, I feel so exhilarated that this frustration I shared with him is now at an end. Boris and I have one last favour to ask of you.”

  Zara was still struggling to say anything but managed to nod in affirmation. “As you know well, Boris has the same fate awaiting him, but for now at least he will be the custodian of our rights for TV, films and publishing. We want to ensure authenticity in all of this. I have signed a side document of my will for my part in this to pass to you. My family will be taken care of financially, but this kind of thing is beyond them, I fear they would be exploited. Boris no doubt will tell you in his own time that he wants to do the same. We have given a significant part of our lives to this, and we would like that to be respected.” At last Zara managed a smile and he squeezed Alexei’s hand.

  “Of course, I will take care that both of your families are kept safe.”

  The three of them re-enacted the expedition from the train massacre to the moment the human race was informed of final proof of extra-terrestrial life. The reminiscence was cut short by Stepanov’s wife and children entering the room. They had been summoned, and Alexei had waived the presence of a priest. “These are the people to whom I want to say my farewell.”

  Zara motioned to leave the family together and was halted by Stepanov wagging his finger. In a reflex reaction he turned and amazingly felt it was quite natural to hug the children and their mother all together. Only afterwards did it seem disorienting. The doctor arrived with the requested morphine and whatever else was going to help Alexei Stepanov on his way. “I am sure you all understand that I’m in terrible pain, and as I only have a few hours, this seems more dignified.”

  His two children were lifted alongside him and he explained his desire to go to sleep. They kissed their father and were beginning to wonder what was going to happen. Boris Krasnic’s wife entered the room and tempted them to go with her for an ice cream. Zara couldn’t help but notice a haunting expression behind her smile, that it could soon be Boris saying goodbye. Alexei rambled on while the morphine took over and the others stood in silence, eyes fixed on his heaving chest. Without any facial contortion it suddenly stopped. The man whose persistence proved we were not alone was gone. In the same instant Constantin Boniek’s brief summer of belonging went with him. He began to hyperventilate and the doctor was called. It was several hours before he fully recovered. Boris was still there and insisted that his hotel booking was cancelled.

  “You must stay with us. You should not be alone tonight. I am sure you will be staying for the funeral, he would want that.”

  *

  Pierze had spent sleepless nights after failing to find any medical consultant to disagree with the pessimistic original prognosis. He was told by the best that it was too early to be certain about Emile’s predicted paralysis, or whether his cerebral condition would stabilise sufficiently to foster new hope. Duarte knew of his efforts via Manuel and Butragueno, but his wife simply refused to accept that he was actually helping in such a tense situation.

  He told Manuel he was ready to proceed with the grilling of the two alleged grenade launchers. “As your contact has denied any knowledge of this gentleman, it strikes me that either his disclosure to you is the false trail or you are correct - that I am to be fed some feasible bullshit. I’m going to test your assertion that Johann De Boer will give me the name of this ghostly figure without getting any assurances from me about anything. Do you want to be present?” Manuel was keen to match up the offerings with those of his contact.

  “Snr. De Boer,” said Pierze, “let me introduce a colleague who has helped me in the past.” No name was offered and De Boer did not betray any concern at a third party being present. Pierze shuffled some of his piles of papers while fiddling in his jacket pocket for his expensive fountain pen. “Yes, where was I? Ah-ha, having considered what you requested previously about a particular stepwise process of disseminating information, I have decided to reject such a proposal. I don’t need his name – as it is likely to be false. I don’t need you to get me into the apartment, as I have an appropriate warrant. Finally, once I’m in there, I do have high calibre people who can get me the information in his laptop which you claim Freema and Silva aren’t even aware of. So, if that is the extent of what you have I’m afraid it is what I would usually term as makeweight. I’ll visit you again when I have what you claim to have. If the two match then I’m duty bound to charge you and the others.”

  For the first time De Boer looked Manuel up and down, as he hadn’t uttered a word. He thought he must be one of the high calibre people who were going to crack the laptop of Atlas. As they got up to leave De Boer said it would be better if he told Pierze what he would find. “That way it wil
l prove that I am genuinely in a position to help you.” They sat down again.

  “Go ahead,” said Pierze switching on the recorder.

  “The person whose name is on the lease is Stephan Fagor. I have a safe deposit box, I’ll write down the details of where it is and the entry code. Inside there is a key to the apartment with the alarm code and also the second password, plus the memory stick with a general description of what I saw on Atlas’ laptop during the fire alarm chaos. If that proves of interest I can provide the entire content.”

  Manuel was now not so sure he had been given solid information from his ‘absolutely reliable’ contact. Pierze thanked Johann De Boer and said he would be back soon. The only thing he had worried about in breaking in was a call out message to either Atlas’ mobile or the alarm company.

  *

  The presence of Elle Butragueno in the vigil helped to bridge the silence between Maxi and his wife. Duarte had ‘adopted’ the blame for the entire sequence of events – from his decision to retire and live his dream through his son. Despite Maria reminding him that it was Emile and her who persuaded him to live in Madrid, he wouldn’t concede. “Elle, you know him better than anyone, he can be so obdurate. Because there is nobody to blame, he can’t deal with the loss. He has to have a villain to arrest. I think it would help immensely if you could get him out of here for a while. He thinks my silence validates his feeling of guilt. I can’t seem to get him to understand that I am unable to assign responsibility to a person, an event, or utter the old cliché – ‘it was meant to be’. It’s just so unnecessary, and all I can concentrate on is Emile, and the fervent belief he may pull through. I will deal with the grief if and when that time comes. I fear this may drive us apart if we need to be at Emile’s bedside for a long time, and that seems likely. Will you help me?”

 
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