Divine extinction, p.7
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       Divine Extinction, p.7

           Hylton Smith
 
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  Zara was completely thrown by this gesture. He had never experienced respect for another individual in this way. His entire life had been set out on the premise of driving down the cost of getting what he wanted. What others would deem as ruthless, he clearly and unemotionally saw as logical leverage. People only figured as a minor variable in this equation, expendable or an indirect form of currency. This man was not feeling sorry for himself – which did register with Zara – but there was something else. It was a cause in which he wasn’t going to let anything, even death get in the way. He realised slowly that what really shook him was that it was an unselfish cause. Zara excused himself to wash his face and rid himself of this debilitating experience. He felt better now and returned to thank Stepanov. However, his discomfort returned when he conceded to himself that his gesture was motivated to make Stepanov feel better. He felt physically sick.

  *

  In the dead of night Pierze and Manuel found the watchman snoring in his swivel chair in front of the cameras. Pierze tapped his shin with his thick brogues and the man was startled, then profusely apologetic. “Just exactly what do you suppose are we paying you for?” He professed his utter regret but Pierze was unrelenting. “Give me your keys and your accreditation. Call your supervisor now.”

  The man knew his boss would really appreciate a call at this time of night. When it was answered Pierze grabbed the handset, and the supervisor recognised the voice. “I’ve just discovered your subordinate sleeping soundly as I paid an unannounced visit to the laboratory section. I could have been anybody. What do you think the press would make of this if I had been someone connected to the recent assassination attempt? Is it just me or do you think this is a time for extra vigilance? Well, feel free to interrupt at any time.” Trying to make sense of the conversation when still only half-awake, the supervisor inadvertently made things worse.

  “I’m sorry Director - I will take severe disciplinary measures first thing tomorrow.” Pierze jolted him with a demand to get to the office immediately to suspend the watchman, pending a check by the departmental staff to see if there was any evidence of intrusion by unauthorised personnel.

  “You had better get a replacement here otherwise you will be expected to cover the rest of the shift yourself.”

  The resigned acknowledgement was followed by Pierze stating that he was going to conduct a cursory check of the premises himself. The handset was replaced and the watchman was told to go to the canteen and await the supervisor. Pierze wiped the CCTV camera recording from the start of the shift, which would imply the watchman had forgotten to set the new disc to record, and ensure he and Manuel would have total privacy in examining the rocket launcher and the rifle in the Laboratory. This stroke of fortune had avoided Pierze having to concoct a convincing reason for the watchman to let them into the lab.

  *

  The clips on the rocket launcher did indeed have serial numbers and Pierze conveyed to Manuel what the Sukahara technical man had implied. “Most users of this equipment in Orient were military personnel and government security people. It was strictly illegal for civilians to own them. However, any which fell into the hands of the populace via criminal organisations were almost certain to know of the clip identity markings, and their requirement to match the barrel. It’s not proof, but does require us to cast a wider net.”

  The rifle was a different matter. Manuel said it was a model frequently used by mercenaries employed by drug barons. “This is relatively easy for me to check out, but it is in my opinion unlikely that these people would leave markings on a gun which would lead you directly to their door. I’m beginning to agree with your theory that this is a stage-managed attempt to throw suspicion away from the real source of those who paid for the hit.”

  Pierze was conscious of the impending arrival of the supervisor. “Well, Manuel we are agreed then, we must be open-minded about what the evidence really means until we have solid links to individuals. It’s unfair to cast aspersions upon a nation because of the source of manufacture. It would be considered ludicrous if we were drawing such conclusions from a Kalashnikov.” They locked the laboratory complex and went to the canteen to await the supervisor.

  *

  The train from Stalingrad to Irkutsk was distinctly second class compared to the previous one. The three men had just about exhausted their range of common interest, and the never-ending number of stops at tiny hamlets was infusing mind-wipe into their growing restlessness. It was therefore a cause of relief, mixed with concern, that a delegation of soldiers boarded the train at a stop about 200 miles short of their destination. Stepanov listened carefully to the questions they asked some of the local travellers. They were looking for a particular individual who had left a trail of dead bodies in a place they had passed through some hours ago. He explained to Mohammed and Zara that there would be a delay for a couple of hours while they questioned everyone. They weren’t allowed to alight from the train and visit the station cafeteria or sanitary facility until they had been accounted for. The boredom had been temporarily fractured by the heavy presence of the inquisitors. Stepanov asked why soldiers were involved, rather than police. He was told that the suspect was a soldier, so they were assisting in the manhunt. “You will probably be stopped by the police between here and Irkutsk. We are trying to close the net before he slips through.”

  Stepanov whispered, “The soldier had let slip that this man was an animal, and should have been kicked out of the army a long time ago. He had apparently killed a fellow recruit a few years ago, but had managed to convince the brass that it was a tragic accident, while on a tour in Georgia.” The train departure was announced and they drank the awful coffee from the cafeteria down to the dregs, and then hurried aboard. Another fifteen miles down the line the train slowed dramatically when it reached an upward incline which twisted and turned as if it made the climb easier for the engine to gather breath. The dusk provided sufficient cover for a figure to leap from the top of the walled tunnel and remain motionless on the carriage roof until he was sure he had not been detected. The creeping darkness prompted him to take the next step of locating the heavy luggage and cargo carriage. He waited again, and then climbed carefully down into a position where he could open the door and gain entry. A few minutes later, after some superficial grooming, he confidently took an empty seat with his newspaper. There had been about a dozen stops in these fifteen miles, with people getting on and off the train, so he went unnoticed. He was seated across the aisle and down two rows from the trio heading to Tunguska, and he reached across to a man and his wife sitting opposite for a light for his cigarette. They struck up a conversation and it gradually got around to the manhunt. The man’s wife expressed her opinion that such a callous murderer should be executed, no amount of rehabilitation or faked remorse could even begin to atone for the indiscriminate butchery he had dealt out. Her husband joined in and said that the bastard would probably get away with an insanity plea, and be assessed by egocentric psychologists who had the arrogance to believe they could cure this kind of amoral retard. The stranger laughed and said he was a psychologist.

  “I take no offence. My profession has, in some ways, become hostage to its own theory. It took me years of practicing the ‘science’, if I may call it that, to accept that when the victims are displaced from the central argument about the death penalty being barbaric, the killer becomes the victim.” This made the couple feel better about their outspoken views. The husband said it was extremely refreshing to hear this analysis from a psychologist. The stranger asked if they would, in theory, be prepared to execute the subject of the manhunt themselves. “Or would you expect someone else to take care of this, you know, in a paid capacity?”

  The couple squirmed a little and made it obvious that they didn’t want to continue the conversation. The stranger kept going. “You say things you don’t mean. People like you always want others to take care of their whims – no questions asked. That would suggest that the executioners could
be as devoid of intellect as you are.”

  The strain in the conversation was beginning to percolate to the locals, and Stepanov. In the middle of the carriage, the couple rose to head for the refreshment car, and others shuffled in their seats. Stepanov was explaining to his friends that the scene was becoming ugly and they should go to their cabins. The stranger had the final word as he blocked the couple’s path. “You people are amongst the non-contributors in society, with your quick judgement and solutions, washing your hands of any cause and effect. You are precisely the weak-willed specimens who would never survive in the real world, the one without welfare safety nets, wealth-related medical care, and scavenging for your own survival without supermarkets.”

  The husband drew on his small reservoir of dilute courage and began to protest. In a flash his head was blown off. His wife took the next two rounds in the chest. The shock precipitated the other passengers to run for cover, but it was futile for those in his sight line. A second automatic pistol joined in the carnage and seven more innocent souls were shot at frighteningly close range. It was fortunate that Stepanov had alerted Zara and Mohammed in Iberian, they were behind the madman, and they were first through the adjoining carriage door. By this time the gunshots had spread panic throughout the train and fighting spread amongst the passengers. Some even dived out of the train, accepting the risk of death as opposed to certain death. It was a gruelling effort to get to Stepanov’s cabin, but once inside, he opened his case and retrieved a powerful Taser he had brought along to demonstrate to the others ahead of arriving in bear country. He was nervous, but pushed his two colleagues behind him.

  “If the door opens I’m going to fire, stay down.” They sensed the train stopping. Amongst the muffled voices they continued to hear sporadic gunshots, which were actually getting closer. There was eventually a short period of silence, then footsteps and the chilling sound of a new magazine being loaded. The door of the next cabin opened and several seconds later it was closed. Stepanov braced himself and his eyes were incredibly focussed on the door handle. As soon as it started to move his attention was switched to the latch mechanism. He moved fractionally to the hinged side. He grabbed the handle and pulled it as hard as he could. This gave him a crucial element of surprise. The gunman’s balance was temporarily shifted, and in the gap of the half-open door he discharged the Tazer. The shock delivered the knockout blow but also triggered muscle contraction which resulted in a ‘reflex’ squeeze on the trigger of the pistol. Mohammed slumped to the floor. Zara stood in a petrified frenzy while Stepanov yelled at him to help in getting Mohammed out of the cabin. It culminated in the Russian slapping him about the face, after which he complied with the order. The melee outside the train was unaware of the gunman’s incapacitation until Stepanov informed a guard, and said he had better hurry to the cabin and recover the weapons before tying him in some restraining cord or rope. Mohammed was bleeding from a shoulder wound and was already unconscious. Stepanov told Zara to follow the guard back to the cabin and recover their luggage. Not being used to taking orders, he didn’t respond. Stepanov yelled at him again and he re-boarded the train. As the news spread of the neutralisation of the gunman, many others followed suit. The train driver was trying to tell everyone that the police were on their way after the emergency call had been picked up. This provoked a quick assessment of the situation by Stepanov. He made the call to his friend and summarised the situation. He told him to divert the helicopter to the region, and they would make their way to a point some distance from the train. “I will transmit the exact GPS coordinates when we find an acceptable landing spot, with some cover.” Stepanov didn’t want the project to become mired in police business, and him emerging as the hero who stopped the killing. They would have to deal with Mohammed later. Zara was updated, and for the second time he was slightly in awe of the Russian’s single-mindedness. Horror was added to the chaos as the dead were being brought out of the train, and there were many. This provided the chance for Mohammed to be carried out of sight at the rear of the last carriage. They hauled him over the embankment and proceeded to look for a suitable ‘helipad’. The luggage was fortunately not excessive, and the two of them clambered over a grassy rise into the hollow behind. They left their belongings there while they returned to get Mohammed. His supple unconsciousness made him infinitely more difficult to carry than the luggage. They were both in severe oxygen debt by the time they reached their hideaway. Stepanov made another call and said he would transmit coordinates shortly, as they were not far enough from the train.

  Chapter 7

  With Manuel working on tracing the registration of the assassins’ weapons, Pierze called in Duarte. He knew of many eccentricities the ex-DCI had, but this was a new one. Duarte turned up after having been to see his son, Emile, going through his paces with the first team squad. There always seemed to be a significant number of fans in attendance for these practice sessions; there was also an unhealthy sprinkling of fast food vans. Duarte had developed a penchant for trying everything on offer, as long as it sat on top of a burger. Today was beetroot day. He had come directly to Pierze’s office and attracted some attention from the staff as he strolled through the corridor of desks. Pierze looked at the perfect application of purple lip-liner, and his normal suppression of repulsion for once gave way to a smile, then a bout of controlled laughter. He had to sit down in order to retrieve some notes from the bottom drawer of his desk, and this gave him a chance to contain wave after wave of this strange sensation. “Are you alright Ricardo?” This made it worse and the repetitive rush distorted his speech.

  “Yes, mm, of c-course, plee-ease take a…sorry Maxi, I er, excuse me…ee.”

  Duarte’s mouth movement, coupled with his genuine concern was the final brick being removed from the dam. Ricardo Pierze fled to the restroom. It was a first. While in the shelter of a locked cubicle, he regained control, and mused that during this serious threat of losing the President, some things just had to go on. Maxi Duarte was a perfect example. Pierze took some tissues back to the office and handed them to the dumbstruck, retired policeman. “You have never called me Maxi before – Jesus, this must be serious.” Pierze kept control this time and pointed to a mirror on the office wall.

  “Oh,” said Duarte, “yeah, I look like a clown on his way to a kid’s party.” He wiped away the source of mirth which had by now spread through the entire office floor. “What’s so urgent? I thought you’d be submerged in this attempted assassination.”

  Pierze pulled down the blinds in his office. “I am, but there is also the problem of managing the day-to-day stuff which would have gone to Sanchez. I’m helping to babysit Falcorini. I have Manuel on the weapon side, and I would like your help in simply trawling through events in this department in the days or weeks leading up to the broadcast.” Duarte threw the used tissues into the waste bin and stared directly into Pierze’s eyes.

  “You mean you suspect you have a mole?”

  Pierze handed him the file which had, amongst other information, a summary of his meeting with Din Chow Zen. “I can’t rule it out, but before you ask, I still do not believe this is Sidonia. However, we have to keep an open mind, and I can’t be certain. There is good reason to connect the attempt with the subject matter of the broadcast. This wrangle over space exploration is what caused the breakdown in relations between Orient and Iberia last time. I would dearly love to find solid evidence that Orient isn’t involved in this plot. Making such a conclusion public would go a long way to stabilising the situation, thinking rationally about who should follow Sanchez if he doesn’t make it, and allowing us to resume our watch on Sidonia. Will you help me Duarte?” The response was typically acerbic.

  “Of course Pierze, as long as you don’t continue to call me Maxi. I don’t want people to think we are friends. I have my reputation to think about.”

  *

  Mohammed had recovered consciousness and was informed by Zara that he had taken a bullet to his shoulder fro
m the madman on the train. The relationship of the entry and exit wounds indicated that it had been deflected by a bone. Mohammed began to wonder what he was doing here in the first place. “Why am I sitting in a field? I should be in hospital.” Zara explained that a helicopter was on its way to do exactly that. “Where is our Russian friend?” Zara was evasive.

  “He’s looking for a suitable place for the helicopter to land.” This didn’t match up in Mohammed’s mind.

  “Where is the train? And where are all of the other passengers?”

  Zara decided to level with him. “This is a very remote place and the police will take some time to reach the train. The rescue service may take even longer. Stepanov called his colleague to despatch our helicopter to pick you up. We needed to get away from the train to avoid others trying to board our transport; it could have got ugly. Stepanov managed to stun the gunman, but not before you were hit. He sent the guard to secure this madman and didn’t want to be identified as the hero who ‘saved the day’. So, we are out of sight of the train. There were so many people killed and wounded that it will take some time before they realise Stepanov isn’t there. We would have been held up and you need medical attention. You are losing blood even though we have a primitive first aid kit and have tried to staunch the flow. We need to get you to Irkutsk.” Mohammed felt tired and lapsed into semi-consciousness again.

  Stepanov had found a large clearing amongst the trees at the bottom of the hollow. It was the best compromise between total obscurity and the distance they would have to carry Mohammed. He sent the coordinates to the pilot and decided to wait for him to arrive before attempting to carry the injured Egyptian to the landing site. He returned and began carrying the luggage and equipment to the rendezvous point while Zara tried to keep Mohammed awake. After fifty minutes they could hear the changing pitch of the rotor as it approached. Stepanov ran to the proposed drop point and waved his arms furiously. He backed off as the descent was carefully negotiated. The pilot was asked to switch off the rotor while he was acquainted with the plan. It was a painful transfer for Mohammed but once back in the air he concentrated on trying to avoid passing out by rambling on about his new laptop programme. The trip to Irkutsk was shorter than the outward leg of the chopper and the pilot was able to set down within a mile of the hospital, which he knew well. An ambulance which had advance notice of their arrival screamed toward them, with its siren blasting, and in less than 10 minutes Mohammed was admitted, and being prepared for surgery. Stepanov smiled at Zara.

 
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