helan had requested Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System, specifically. It was faster than rappelling and she was in a hurry. The chopper banked, sweeping in over the crescent of a little bay, and she ran a hand up and down her torso going through last minute checks. Always in a hurry, she thought, slowly stroking the coiled rope.
“One minute,” said Whelan.
Most of the kit was going down first on a separate line: her rifle (an L115a4 chambered for Lapua Magnum .338’s with night sights and a sound suppressor, disassembled in its case), Nolan’s guns, smart phone, cash.
She took up the ready-to-exit position and Whelan slapped her back.
Leaving the aircraft and rotating her body ninety degrees, she placed the rope between the arches of her feet and dropped. About two thirds of the way down her grip tightened to slow her descent, but she hit the ground on a steep bank of earth in the darkness and had to steady herself with the braided cord, looking up as she moved away and Nolan emerged from the Apache AH 64D. In a few seconds he was with her. They took one handle of the heavy kit bag each and made their way almost doubled over to the road. At its side there was a stream in a gully where they took up position and waited while the Apache rose to surveillance altitude.
The mark would probably be moving now, alerted by the noise. They would hang on here though—no point in trying to cover this ground on foot. Target could have been here for days getting to know the short cuts and rat runs. She was already familiar with the terrain (she knew, for instance, that they were behind the Giametti house) but it was for the most part forest and farm land: large flat fields separated by hedgerows that constituted a network of concealed ditches and water ways. A little to the south it got hilly and covered with dense scrub. There was only the one aircraft for support. Better to wait for visual.
She checked her Tresor P8686. The watch distinguished itself with its tritium-illuminated second hand which allowed her to carry out precision timings in total darkness. Tritium light is modest so there is no tell-tale glow.
“Two minutes twenty seconds,” said Nolan, “and we’ll have UAV.”
His hand was feeling around in his Mülle compression bag and emerged holding a neat aluminium foil parcel which he proceeded to unwrap. “You have the thermos.”
She ripped open the side pocket of her black c122 tacticals and pulled out the contoured carbon-fibre flask.
“Is it tea or coffee?” asked Nolan.
“Tea,” she replied. “I put sugar in.”
“Good. These are boiled ham.” He put the sandwiches—on the little tin foil tray he had fashioned—down on the ground between them and took one.
“Who’s the RP?” asked Phelan.
“Dolan,” said Nolan.
She checked her watch again. “One minute thirty. What have we got? Reaper?”
“Salamander. High altitude, heat sensing. Dolan’s a dab hand with it.”
“We have voice?”
Nolan indicated the encrypted smart phone.
She took a sip of tea, her mouth full. “Lovely taste of butter.”
Nolan nodded vigorously. “We can’t risk detection on foreign soil, so we’d better get on it quickly and identify target inside a minute or two, I’d say. A vehicle we can use will be along soon.”
This wasn’t foreign soil for Phelan but no matter. Nolan was the details guy and she trusted him with them; it meant she could keep her eye, and her mind, on the prime.
He was very particular about the light, yes. Magical was the word he kept coming back to.
“It’s gotta be magical!” he’d say. “Can you gimme that?”
Well of course I could. It’s what I do, isn’t it? Problem was I wasn’t sure what he meant. He had this way with words. Bit cryptic.
“I want everything illuminated,” he said to me this one time. “Can you do that for me, Sparky?”
Well, yes. Problem was I didn’t know what he meant. So anyway, I had to come up with something, especially for the crossroad scene which was so key for him. Then it occurred to me—tritium.
A neat tie-in. We fed tubes of it through all the hedges and fastened some beneath the eaves of the house. It sort of gave everything this kind of border, you know? It separated things. Nothing so crass as standard fluorescent strips, or neon. A lot more subtle than that. Gave everything this heightened, unreal appearance. Like stadium lighting or something, but you know, subtle. I was very pleased. I think he was too. He seemed to be.
“Your brother is gone,” they’d told her when they’d gotten back to the compound.
It was the second time her world had come to an end.
The first had been the day she’d learned, as she played in the sand pit out behind the latrines, that a .300 Win Mag sniper round had entered her father’s head just above his right eye and exited, along with her innocence or any shot she would ever have at a quiet life, at the back of his neck. The injury hadn’t been all that easy to find, apparently, on the charred corpse. Nolan, who had been there forever, had been the one to tell her about her father with his customary attention to specifics and it was Nolan now, looking her straight in the eye with his hand on her shoulder as she knelt in the vegetable patch, telling her she didn’t have a brother anymore.
“He’s gone,” he said, his voice controlled, “and that’s it. We can feel sorry for ourselves once the job is done. It’s very much down to you now, Phelan. We’re utterly dependent on you.”
The job. Her job, now.
She looked from Nolan’s face to Mullen’s, to Whelan’s, then at the ground. The world wasn’t spinning—her training had been too thorough for that—but it wanted to. A few of the breath cycles that Cullen had taught her and she was ready to ask the question.
Nolan took his hand away and averted his eyes. He clearly didn’t wish to talk about it, but he had to know that she would never let it rest. “On foot.”
She bit her dirty nails. It took a couple of seconds to register. “Excuse me?”
His hand was back on her shoulder, squeezing. “Don’t bite your nails. And don’t worry, Phelan. He’ll be fine.” He was pacing a little, still withholding eye-contact. “We weren’t too far from the 33A bus stop. That line runs approximately every fifteen minutes at peak times, as you know, and the Vale & Valley Bus Company has an excellent track record for punctuality. I checked—”
“Wait a second…sorry, I just thought you were telling me my brother was dead.”
“No not dead, you silly bean,” chortled Mullen. Then he frowned. “Just kind of… deflated, I suppose.”
Whelan lit a cigarette. “Yes, there was a visible sagging wasn’t there? Poor chap. I guess he just wasn’t up for it anymore.”
He swept his arm through an arc that took in the latrines and barracks, the Apache, the 4 x 4’s, the 1942 Dodge WC-56, the 8.8cm Flak 41, the Ostwind, the Kugelblitz, the D-30 Lyagushka howitzer, the ARTEC Boxer, a pallet of AA mine dischargers and the M777 UFH, two Type 4 AA 20m machine cannons, the BTR-3, the BTR-4, the BTR-94, the Cloud Leopard, the Oshkosh, the Pindad and his own meticulously arranged row of Jatimatics.
“You know,” he said from beneath the smoke halo that rose as he put the packet back in his pocket. “This.”
An amazing, amazing person.
Not a very effective communicator, in my opinion.
I’ve worked with the greats, as you know.
Taking instruction from him was… it was as if he didn’t know what he wanted. What he was trying to do.
“Phelan is a hundred percent focused on her mission,” he would say “A thousand percent. What she herself refers to as the prime. It’s crucial that we see that.”
He’d pat each word into my back as I stepped on set.
“At the same time I would like us to get a profound sense of preoccupation from her, if we could.”
At which point it was Action! And away I’d go…
I mean, what am I supposed to do with that? You tell me somebody who can do focused and preoccupied at the same time and I’ll shut up.
I will shut up.
The people I’ve worked with.
I bluffed it, in the end. Tried to look as blank as possible throughout. Seemed to work for him. Still these are the pitfalls aren’t they?
An amazing person. Truly wonderful.
Joyful experience for me, the whole thing.
Squatting on the lip of the gully. The unlit road stretching out ahead of them and behind. Whelan paying close attention to the phone, the screen illuminating his face.
“OK, we have UAV.”
A moment later. “And target.”
Phelan bent over the screen.
Dolan was keeping the drone trained on the crossroads. The imaging had that centrifugal near-wobble of a camera mounted on something high up and circling. She could see the football ground and the brambles.
The orange roof.
The fields behind.
A garden wall ran along one corner of the intersection. Behind it an anomalous and somehow familiar mass of brighter light.
She knew that wall. It was low. He was desperate. “He’s going to bolt. This thing keep up with him when he does?”
Uproarious laughter from Nolan, and Dolan over the phone
“This is Salamander, Phelan,” said Nolan, “a high altitude version of Chameleon. It’s got everything. There isn’t anything, in other words, that it doesn’t have.”
Fingertip to fingertip he tapped through the specs.
“Fully integrated airlectrics.
“Error-permissive triple-helix flight deck tech.
“It’s Tcas ready.
“Ermp,” said Dolan.
“Yes. This thing could hang around up there for over thirty hours if it needed to.
“It’s electro-optical and infra.
“It’s got INS.
“It’s Ocelot SOR capable.
“And it’s fully Gnu SITCOM compatible.”
“OK,” said Phelan. “Good.”
When Crampton Electrivans (a part of the Hiker Siddleton group) introduced their D-range Battery Electric Urban Transport Vehicle, they were entering an arena that had been dominated for many years by that colossus of the battery powered urban transport sector—the Scotland & Harris Roadfinder. It was an audacious move but nobody could accuse Crampton of not having done their homework. Where the Roadfinder had plied its trade for years with a steel-housed hypoid reduction array on a semi-floating rear axle, the D-range boasted a triple augmented spring bevel (fully floating) and introduced optional ratios.
That had to have stung at Scotland & Harris, especially since Crampton clients could still choose hypoid reduction if they wished—an unprecedentedly customer-centred approach. And it wasn’t just the rear axle. As D-ranges began showing up everywhere with their magnetic blow-outs (for rapid curve extinction), upholstered driver seats and carbon-fibre covered cabs, the Roadfinder began to look like yesterday. A design classic by all means, but a bit of a period piece—Neanderthal to the Homo Sapiens of Hiker Siddleton.
If there was one aspect of battery powered urban transport and delivery systems that the D-range didn’t revolutionize, it was speed. Its vastly improved payload capacity—at just under two thousand kilos—was a mixed blessing; the vehicle’s ability to handle gradients was hampered and its top speed limited to around twenty-three kilometres per hour, barely quicker than the older Scotland & Harris.
It’s failure to contribute in this area had consequences for both the D-range itself—just a few years later it was superseded by Firebird Engineering’s Trailblazer, an upstart with an unheard of top speed of sixty-five kilometres per hour—and for Phelan, who had been keeping her eye on the tiny pair of headlights in the distance for a couple of minutes now. They didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Without turning her head she held out a hand in Nolan’s direction and waved her fingers.
Hesitantly, Nolan handed over his Leopold Mark 3 Field 10x50’s. They were a high-performance pair of phase-filmed binoculars housed in a shock-absorbing gunmetal grey armour, and they had a very special feature—a rotatable mildot, optimal for ranging any object that wasn’t perfectly horizontal or vertical, thus allowing the user to determine range without tilting the entire binocular. They’d come in a felt-lined, soft leather pouch. Phelan took a good long look at the lights. Keeping her eyes on the road, she handed the Leopolds back to Nolan, who wiped them.
“Quick question for you, Nolan.”
“Asked in the spirit of enquiry, and only that.”
“With an open mind. It isn’t a loaded question.”
“It doesn’t constitute criticism, is what I’m saying. I wouldn’t want you to think that.”
“Why would I?”
“Well it could, I suppose—the question—be taken as a challenge. The expression of a wish, on my part, to revisit a decision of yours.”
“Robust exchange is fundamental to the way we work, Phelan. To the team.”
“OK. Good. Well—”
“Timing is important, of course.”
“There’s no point in revisiting spilt milk, for example.”
“Absolutely. And the analogy is apt.”
“OK, so the question is this. Is that our vehicle?”
“Because it looks like a milk float, to me.”
“More specifically, a Crampton D-Range Four Forty, yes.”
“Oh, is it the Four Forty? A classic of course. You wouldn’t have considered the VXA30, which now holds the land speed record? Or even a vamped up Mulberry? They can be quite nippy. I’m just thinking of the pursuit element in what we’re trying to achieve here, today.”
“Had to go with what was there, old chap,” said Nolan, popping the Mark 3’s back into their pouch. “Oh, you won’t need that.”
Phelan had drawn her Hochler & Kick MK40, a semiautomatic pistol with a 16-round magazine, sound suppressor and laser aim. Loaded with Minus-T multiwadcutter-type truncated cone cartridges, at close quarters it was her weapon of choice.
“We’ve had two of our own embedded with the dairy for weeks now,” said Nolan, “so the float is already ours. We can just hop on.”
“Logan?” asked Phelan.
“And Hogan, yes,” said Nolan. “So you see as well as the pursuit thing, we do need to get everybody’s milk out this morning. At least until the job is done.”
The great advantage for me of course is that very few people know what I look like. I can walk right down the street. Buy a newspaper. Whatever I like. It really is marvellous. I don’t read newspapers though.
It’s well documented now so I don’t suppose there’s any need to go over it again. But briefly: I started out as a circus act. Back end of a horse amongst other things. Made a bit of name for myself as a gorilla—a lot of people at the time were totally convinced. There isn’t any footage of the incident, but I’ve spoken of it extensively. I continue to do a lot of work for gorilla charities and I see no reason to continually apologize.
My big break was the hugely successful Larry Labrador franchise for Silver Screen Studios. A modern classic. My motion capture performance was the obvious solution—if you aren’t going to go down the traditional animation route—to that age old cinematic problem: the talking dog. It was actually very emotional for me because I was channeling a childhood pet. The critics have been very kind. Absolutely marvellous, in fact.
Performing as a turd, or a stool or whatever you want to call it, presented me with a whole new set of challenges. A lot of actors wouldn’t have gone anywhere near this. Post-evacuation, it is of course an inanimate object, but that isn’t why I was brought in. My brief was to bring the colonic, pre-evacuation stage to life—the squeezing, slipping motion, with some bending.
I was very fortunate to be invited along to the Royal Institute of Colonoscopy to research the role. Marvellous people there and the agility of your average lower intestine is simply astounding, I can tell you. I could see at that stage that I’d have my work cut out for me. The other change of course was the costume. I’d done nothing but motion capture for some years so it was a surprise. Very old-school. He had his reasons though.
“It’s the texture, Brett. The glisten. We can’t animate that.”
You know those Japanese lanterns? Made of paper, pulled over wire rings? Well that was it. Very basic, very arts and crafts. I could be topped and tailed to free my head and feet—you know, so I could get around the set and have lunch and so on.
He was such a stickler. They tried all sorts of things to get it right and finally settled on the obvious—melted chocolate. Milk and dark, to create a realistic variegation across the surface, and they did a good job with wooden spoons, creating ripples and fissures to mimic the lines of compaction on a real stool.
He finally got his glisten with a honey-water mix. Another obvious choice but then we so often overlook the obvious, don’t we? Anyway, they got there in the end. I imagine it’s some kind of mucus, in reality? But honey and water did the trick.
I personally think it’s where a lot of the onscreen magic comes from. That contradiction. I was a jarring presence on the set, I can tell you. Visually repugnant, of course, but at the same time delightful to the senses of smell, taste and touch. It must have been quite something to watch the make-up crew as they applied the coating.
And while it might be fanciful of me, I think you can see that frisson in the final cut; the crew would line up outside the rubber tubing we used for the intestine—they would squeeze at rhythmic intervals to propel me toward the anal ring, which they’d made out of an old inner tyre, and I really do believe that ambivalence comes across. I smelled fabulous! The whole set-up really walked that line between allure and disgust, you know?
Of course you wouldn’t have the visual element in a real colon—it would be very dark in there..
The float was close. It had come to a stop outside the Giametti house and a little light flicked the cab interior into view. Hogan and Logan were bent over a piece of paper which Hogan was holding up against the dashboard. Logan ran his finger up and down the page and Hogan followed intently. There was an exchange—an unhappy one of whisperbarks, out of place in the quiet of nearnight.
Logan stabbed the page with his finger. Hogan shook his head. He pulled the page from the dashboard and out of Logan’s grasp. Logan stepped out of the cab and lit a cigarette.
“What’s the matter with them?” asked Phelan.
“Come on,” said Nolan.
They took a handle each and covered the few meters to the little milk truck quickly.
“Hogan,” said Phelan.
“Phelan,” said Hogan.
“Nolan,” said Logan.
“Logan,” said Nolan.
“Hogan,” said Nolan.
“Is that everybody?” asked Nolan
“No,” said Phelan, “I haven’t said hello to Logan.”
“Hello Phelan,” said Logan.
“Everything OK here, chaps?” asked Nolan.
“It’s him,” said Hogan. “He’s taken it down wrong.”
“I took down what you told me to,” said Logan. “You wouldn’t let me have the phone.”
“Come off it. You know what you’re like.”
“There’s no harm done. I’ll leave a note.”
Logan’s voice was becoming a little shrill. Nolan looked nervously to the Giametti house.
“It isn’t as if we have a choice,” said Hogan.
The crates of milk had been stacked high and arranged around a cavity where Phelan and Nolan could conceal themselves. They threw the bag into the space and followed it in. When Logan got back from the Giametti’s front door, they set off.
It was a mint morning of red cheeks and breath puffs. Dry teeth and a clear day emerging from the murk. The day world. Some of the households—the earliest risers—would be cranking up. Lights on, socks on, toast made, fires lit. Low stripe of bright on the eye-level horizon. The wildlife out there, stirring. The other lives.
As the milk float ambled along the bottles jiggled in their grid of metal crates—convenient cover, in the otherwise silent pre-dawn, for the noise Nolan was making as he squatted to assemble the L115a4. He was fitting a Smith & Becker 4 Klassic hunting scope, very similar to the Smith & Becker 3 Klassic but with a larger objective lens and an illuminated reticle for optimal twilight performance. He paused as the float pulled in to the Mushanaokoji driveway.
“Your turn,” said Logan.
Hogan consulted the list. The Mushanaokojis were down for two semi-skimmed, one full fat and half a dozen eggs.
“They want half a dozen eggs,” said Hogan.
Logan poked his head out and whispered to Nolan. “Can you pass me half a dozen eggs?”
“Any ones. Half a dozen.”
Nolan hesitated. “But there’s two types. Free range or battery?”
Logan pulled his head back in. “Free range or battery?”
Hogan looked at the list. “Doesn’t say.” He dropped the page to his lap. “For heaven’s sake.”
“No harm done,” said Logan. “We’ll give them the free range. I’ve never heard of anyone objecting to a free range egg.”
“Are you listening to this, Phelan?” Hogan hissed, his head poking out of the cab. “Pay close attention, because this is exactly the kind of fuzzy, cavalier thinking that gets people killed.” He turned back to Logan and spoke in a tone so drenched in sarcasm that Phelan felt like asking for a towel.
“And the price, Logan? Do you think they might object to the price, since they may well have ordered the cheaperones, because they were cheaper?”
“I suppose they might. Leave them the free range and we’ll charge for the cheaper. No harm done.”
“Great,” said Hogan. “That’s just great.” He took the milk and eggs to the Mushanaokoji doorstep and returned. Logan had taken the driver seat and off they went. Phelan began her mental preparations; they were closing in on the crossroads now. She checked the smartphone. Target hadn’t moved.
The little truck tinkled. They were the old milk bottles—the fat little round-shouldered ones, foil caps glinting white, blue, and red. In the white-tops a layer of rich cream would gather in the neck of the bottle—a treat for the opener who more often than not was a sparrow in the porch. It occurred to her to wonder why that didn’t happen in cartons, that layer of cream.
Or did it?
“There’s the crossroads,” said Nolan.
She needed the bathroom.
We’re all little people, for a start. How could you not have noticed that? Of course you have. And what with there being seven of us, around this central female lead, we just assumed it was some kind of Snow White reboot. Didn’t enjoy working with Abby, if I’m honest. Did she tell you she’s worked with the greats? Of course she did.
Interpreted through Freud. That was my take, anyway. I mean, it’s all there, isn’t it? The Oedipus/Electra mash up. Where is the mother in all of this, after all? Is her conspicuous absence a reference to the evil queen? The stepmother? If Target is the handsome prince, how do we make sense of the final scene?
And what part of the story would constitute the enchanted sleep? The compound? The ‘job’ that Phelan refers to? Or all of it—is she, in fact, dreaming? Is someone else dreaming that they are Phelan? I was fascinated, personally. For his part, he played his cards very close to his chest. Wouldn’t discuss it. I think that’s exactly right for this sort of thing, don’t you?
The psychoanalytic tropes. Stroking a coiled rope? I mean, come on. The ham sandwich—would that be displacement or sublimation, do you think? Poison apple? And all that anal retention. The interminable lists. The egg thing. Such attention lavished on spurious detail while a central theme remains fugitive. Terribly clever. The end made me cry, I don’t mind telling you. It’s as if all the mystery dissolves. The symbolism seems to collapse under its own weight. It falls away elegantly, deliberately—revealing what is after all a very simple, even childlike, expression of grief. But apparently no.
“We overspent on the float and all this military hardware,” he said. “Not to mention a shit ton of tritium. There was an offer on dwarves.”
Nolan was on his feet, watching the crossroads through the Smith & Beckers, the smartphone in his other hand. Phelan crouched.
“He’s on the move.”
Target had vaulted the wall and made a run for it, right to left in Nolan’s sights. He threw the phone to Phelan.
“Keep track of him!”
The Four Forty reached the intersection where Logan brought them to a stop. Apart from the garden wall the crossroads was lined with hedges and wooden fences. The one streetlamp, still lit at this hour, bathed everything in its glow as the sky brightened. The scene seemed contrived, as if studio-lit, the daytime augmented by the lamp’s long shadows. Fake somehow, or super real. Phelan was still down, grimacing. She wanted to go to the toilet.
Nolan was looking at her closely.
There was nothing judgmental in his voice, but his eyes betrayed a we-don’t-have-time-for-this anxiety. “Is your sphincter trembling? You have to clench harder. Squeeze it back up and the convulsions will subside.”
She clenched as hard as she could but it wouldn’t go back up. This was borderline; the pain was sharp and pressing. She had brought it to the edge like this before but that had been for fun. Now wasn’t the time.
“Get up here, Phelan. It has to be you. You have to take the shot.”
She couldn’t. Beads of sweat were forming. She groaned. Nolan snapped.
“For goodness sake! You should have gone before we came out!”
She breathed. Steadily. Rhythmically. Cullen’s exercises. She thought about her brother. About young Tamas Giametti. About sparrows in the porch. At last the urgency retreated. She felt herself get an intestinal hold. She thought about things that were distant until her rectum was no longer in the grip of spasm. Then she stood.
“Take this,” said Nolan, handing her the L115a4 and switching to his Leopolds.
She put her eyes to the scope. Nolan was scanning for target.
“Got him?” she asked.
“At the corner of the house. He’s—”
The second she had him she let off a couple of rounds. Target went lower, partially obscured now by the hedge beneath the gable. Nolan lowered the Mark 3’s. He was pale.
“It’s him, Phelan.”
“Of course it is.” She grinned at him, elated. “Nearly there! It’ll be over soon.”
“No.” His hand was on the rifle. “It’s him, Phelan. It’s your dad.”
She put her eye back to the Smith & Becker’s and peered through the foliage. It was him alright, squatting and breathing heavily. She recognized his jumper; there were a couple of rips in it where she’d hit him.
This was it. She dropped the L114a4 and drew her Hochler & Kick.
“Come on,” she said and jumped off the float, making her way directly towards the house, diagonally across next door’s garden.
When she reached the house his back was against the wall. He hadn’t moved, hadn’t made any attempt to. His face was grey—no blood in it, nor any around the holes she’d put in him.
Opposite him, the bank of earth that separated the two bungalows. She’d played in it with her brother—a miniature zone of tunnels and plastic toys commandeered for second purposes.
She cocked her weapon. “Hello Target.”
She could make out the blurred, Brownian borders of supposedly sharp things. See the air shimmer where heat rose from the top of his head. Smell the inside of her own nose. Hear every turn of the rotor blades on the chopper that was coming for them. As her finger began to squeeze there was nothing wrong. Not with him, not with her. Each held the other by the eye. No fear. Nothing left to hold onto. It really was over. Uproarious laughter from the boys, the Apache descending, the stool on its final slide, into the light.