“You’re ours now!”
“There’s no escape for you!”
And this time, there wasn’t. A tiny, one-armed toddler held both her hands behind her back, his tiny fingers locked in a vice grip on hers, and try as she might, couldn’t budge him. She dragged his weight through the alleys of Ulster as the gathering crowd of countless bomb victims slowly closed in, toying with her as they realized that she could not escape them.
“It’s your time at last, Colleen!”
“Time to pay!”
They were almost on her. Yards separated them, then feet, then mere inches.
“How I’ve waited for this!” cried a healthy-looking woman who held a bloody red bundle that could only be a baby.
“There’s no escape for you!”
But they were wrong.
O’Reilly jumped awake. She lay on her side in near total darkness. Her heart was pounding and sweat poured from every pore. She remained chained, hands behind her, and her right shoulder burned from the position she had slept in. She couldn’t sense anyone in the box with her.
“Hello,” she said quietly. “Is anyone here?”
No answer. Taking a few deep breaths to wake up fully, she kicked the side of the container, hard. Immediately, the door creaked open.
“What are you doing?” a man snarled at her.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, “had a bad dream.”
“Oh. Well, you get back to sleep. You got a big day ahead of you.”
“Okay. What time is it?”
“Time for you to shut up.” He slammed the door.
That had been worth a try. No matter. She’d read his watch after she broke his fucking neck.
As O’Reilly had noted earlier, she had always had a big mouth, and it had frequently gotten her into trouble, seldom more so than that warm spring afternoon thirteen years ago. She and forty-odd people had been rounded up on an Ulster street by British paratroops. It was a random sweep, a block suddenly sealed at both ends, and everyone on it searched for weapons and contraband, evidence to be used at their subsequent trials.
Colleen was clean that day, simply out to buy bread for the family table. Already hard as nails, and at the doorstep of puberty, she felt like a woman, a wronged woman in this particular case, and her mouth just wouldn’t stay shut. She began to twit one particularly brutish-looking oaf about his courage, then his manhood. Warned several times, both by the Brits and the people around her, she kept it up until he suddenly spun around and backhanded her across the face, knocking her a good ten feet.
By the time she finished counting teeth, she was fully enraged, and attacked him with the only weapon she had at the moment, her words. She berated him for a fool, an example of why idiots shouldn’t be allowed to breed, a disgrace to the British, who were themselves a disgrace to the human race, and so on.
He advanced on her as she lay on the sidewalk cursing his genealogy, and when one of his mates laid a hand on his chest to restrain him. he brushed the man aside. As she tried to scramble up, he leapt into the air and came down with the heel of his jump boot on the back of her left hand. Pain like few ever experience shot through her as bones snapped and tendons stretched an tore. He ground it into the concrete, driving home his words with pain.
“A fine little Provisional whore you’re gonna make, what with havin’ a cunt at both ends. You’ll be rich and famous!”
Then his mates had dragged him off her as she lay in the fetal position, cradling a hand she was sure she would never use again, and memorizing every detail of the bastard’s face, singling him out for a lingering death. She never saw the man again.
The legacy of that chance encounter was that her hand hadn’t healed properly, and at a cost of some excruciating pain, she could stretch, twist, and dislocate its components until its diameter was no larger than her wrist.
She worked up her shirttail and wiped as much sweat as she could reach all over her hand, then taking a deep breath and biting her lip, she squeezed it with her right, rolling and wadding as if she were kneading dough. The pain began, and grew, and more sweat came as if to aid her efforts. All the while, she pulled against the ring of steel encircling her wrist. She gasped as something popped. The bracelet was around the base of her thumb now. Just a little more. She ground her teeth until she thought they would crack, put her right hand on the ring, and pushed with all her might. Her stomach muscles were as hard as a board, and her breath came in ragged gasps.
This must be what having a baby feels like, she thought, and suddenly, with one last searing jolt of pain, something else gave way, and the shackle popped off. She was free.
She lay in the dark for many minutes, panting and rubbing her hand, licking the abrasions, nurturing the frightened child within. But soon, too soon, it was time to become once again the adult she had been for her whole life.
She patiently, quietly fed the chain, still attached to her right wrist, through the tie-down, analyzing her new situation as she worked. She had come here to rescue a kidnapped boy. She had badly underestimated her opposition, and been captured twice because of it. She would not sell them short again. Now a ruthless drug trafficker could be hours away from obtaining the formula for a substance that could end life on earth, and the responsible agency, the American CIA, would do nothing to intervene because it believed that two of its best agents had the case well in hand. Could it be any worse? She didn’t allow her thoughts to travel any further down that path.
She had left her terrorist life behind because her strongly developing moral code would no longer allow her to do meaningless harm. Now, as surely as she knew that Seven and Three had no intention of paying her, she knew that she would save the world from these madmen for free, and no one would ever know nor care.
No matter. This was who she had become.
Wrapping several turns of shiny chrome chain around her right fist, she moved to the door and kicked the side of the container again.
She didn’t have to wait long for a response.
* * *
Takeri lay on his back on the stiff little cot. Back in his original cell, it was as if nothing had changed, not the woman, not the confinement in the trainer, nothing. Well, the food was better now.
Two guards prowled the outer room, alert and hungry, dangerous types who would not be tricked into letting their guard down so they could be surprised. There was something new in the air, and while he had no idea what it was, he could feel it around him like a chill fog.
He heard the familiar resounding clangs and clunks as someone operated the outside door, and several people speaking in Spanish as footsteps came toward him. He sat up and watched the front of his cell, and Mr. Rodriguez stepped into view, along with his usual entourage.
“Young Mr. Takeri,” the druglord greeted him jovially, “how are you feeling?”
“Like a prisoner,” Takeri said sullenly.
“Oh, now that is a harsh tone to take with someone who has just saved your life.”
“Saved my life?”
“Yes. Coming from London, as you do, you must be familiar with a group calling itself the IRA.”
“They are pestilence in England, much as drug traffickers are in the Americas.”
A dark look passed over Rodriguez’s face, but an instant later he was back in control.
“I have received more information on your red-headed friend since we last spoke. Do you know the name Colleen O’Reilly?”
“It sounds . . .” Takeri paused to think. “I don’t know, maybe. It’s a common Irish name.”
“Indeed it is, but attached to a most uncommon woman, wouldn’t you agree? Your mother was killed, what, six years ago?”
“How do you know that?”
“By an IRA bomb in London.”
“Who told you that?”
“It doesn’t matter. Did you know that six years ago, Scotland Yard was desperately trying to apprehend the IRA’s principal bomber in London, a twenty-year old girl named Colleen O’Reilly? You saw her up close when she tried to get you out of the cell. Did she look twenty-six?”
Takeri, mind racing, didn’t answer.
“Did she look like this?” Rodriguez held up a police composite from some archive he had tapped. It was a line drawing of a freckle-faced girl who could have starred in Riverdance. Or could have stood outside his cell two nights ago, fumbling with the key ring from hell.
“She might have. It’s not a very good picture.”
“No, it isn’t,” Rodriguez said sadly, putting it away.
“Have you heard from my father?”
“No, and that’s why I’m here.”
“You’re going to kill me?” Takeri recoiled from the bars, backing deeper into the cell.
“No, no,” Rodriguez said with a chuckle. “Your poor father has been through enough. No, I’m just here to warn you about the woman. She is a stone killer, and if she is interested in you . . . Well, I’m just glad she isn’t interested in me. As you see, I have laid on an extra guard for you. I only hope it will be enough.”
“If you’re that concerned about my welfare, you could just let me go.”
“With a dangerous assassin lying in wait for you? That would hardly be responsible. Anyway, I need you alive for my new plan.”
“I have just learned that your father was instrumental in the production of a terrible new war gas of some kind. I don’t really understand exactly what it does, but it sounds delightful, and I want it. Since I have something he wants as well, we may be able to reach an equitable agreement.”
“My father will never give you a weapon like that.!”
“Then I will never give him his son. He will come around.”
“Things like that are closely guarded secrets of the United States. He will not be able to just walk out with it like it was a newspaper.”
“Your father is a brilliant man. He has already lost his wife. If he doesn’t want to lose his son too, he will find a way. I’ll keep you posted. Oh, and about this woman . . .”
“She has already murdered your mother. She can only be here for one reason, which is to finish what she started. She is my prisoner at the moment, but she has escaped from me before. If she should escape again, and come looking for you, do not trust her. She is far more dangerous to you than I am.”
“She isn’t the one keeping me in a cell.”
“Exactly my point. If I wanted you dead, you would have been dead a week ago. She has no such reservations. Well, business calls. Do enjoy your stay.” He turned and walked away.
* * *
It was late, but Takeri didn’t feel much like sleeping. He lay on his back, head away from the bars, drifting in and out of a drowsing state, never quite nodding off. Time was measured by the occasional gritty tread of one of the guard’s boots and the random calls of nightbirds encroaching through the broken skylight.
He drifted up as one of the guards stopped at the bars to peer into his cell, ensuring that no funny business was afoot. As he squinted back through half-lidded eyes, he thought he saw a flicker of motion just behind the man’s head, then his face slammed into the bars. As he grabbed the steel to right himself, Takeri saw the little redhead drop to the floor in a crouch. Before the man could turn, she gave a little hop and kicked the back of his head again, repeating the whole process.
Enraged and bloody, the man turned just in time to see her drop into a one-legged squat, the other leg sweeping the floor in front of her, twisting his ankle and dropping him into heap on the concrete. Quick as a cat, she was up, sliding in with a dancer’s grace to stomp her heel on his face, but recovering his wits, the man caught her foot and twisted, throwing her to the floor in turn.
They were up at once and circling, her hundred and twenty pounds against his two hundred, and Takeri could only see one way this could end now that she had lost surprise. Anyway, the second guard would be here in seconds from wherever he had gotten off to, and that would be that.
The guard didn’t know who he was dealing with, but he had seen her handiwork before, and knew not to distract himself by scrabbling for his pistol. Instead, he rubbed his sleeve across his injured nose, examined the blood there, and his face contorted with rage.
“Fucking bitch!” he shouted in English, and charged like an angry bull, putting his hundred-pound weight advantage to work. Takeri almost couldn’t watch the inevitable outcome of this power move, but instead of shrinking away or trying to strike him, she just let him bowl her over, and as she fell backward, her foot against his hip bone launched him into an arc above her to crash on his back once again.
As the combatants scrambled to their feet to begin their dance once more, there was still no response from the second guard, and Takeri suddenly realized there wasn’t going to be; he had met her first.
The girl was up first, her superior quickness still dictating the pace of the encounter, and she kicked him in the ribs as he started to stand. The blow rolled him to his back, but he managed to grab something, her pant leg maybe, and pulled her down with him. As they rolled in a tangle of arms and legs, he secured her in a headlock, and to underscore the dominance of his position, he rolled his body up onto her chest. As if he didn’t have enough raw muscle to snap her neck, he now had gravity working for him as well. The air went out of Takeri, and he slumped in resignation.
Holding the woman with one powerful arm and his lung-crushing weight, he reached his free hand to his belt for his bayonet. He got the knife out and thrust it at her, but she caught his wrist with both of her hands, one arm across his face. Undaunted, he rolled more directly atop her and put his weight onto his arm. The knife slowly descended as her already fatigued arms weakened. It would be over in seconds now.
Takeri desperately wanted to tear his eyes from her death throes, but he simply couldn’t. The girl struggled furiously to keep the sharp steel from penetrating her skin, slicing through her vital organs, cutting away her life. She planted her feet and arched her back. He forced her back to the floor. She tried to roll. He held her as firmly as a vise.
Then, just when it seemed that her struggles and her life must end, he raised himself to put even more weight on the knife, and her black-clad leg came over his shoulder, the knee joint flexing around his jaw. Her other leg hooked over the foot, and she gave a tremendous jerk that broke his grip, yanking her neck out of his hold. Her body arched back in a graceful bow, her legs going as straight as two pillars. The sudden pressure on his neck and jawbone caused him to pull on her thigh with his suddenly freed hand as he let out a groan. Getting no result, he shifted to an awkward, inverted punching that had no more effect than the prying. All the while she twisted the knife hand in directions it wasn’t designed to go. Before his mind caught up with the fact that his legs were still free to kick with, the knife fell from his grasp. She snatched it up and drove it into his side.
The breath exploded from him in an eerie, sobbing moan. He suddenly weakened, and, taking her time, she pulled it out and drove it into another spot higher on his body. All the fight went out of him. Releasing the crushing grip of her legs, she sat up, extracted the knife again and, looking into the man’s eyes, drove it into the center of his chest.
Takeri stared, numb with horror, as she massaged her neck, brushed back her tangled hair, pulled the key ring from the man’s belt, and started walking straight toward him.
* * *
“Come on, then, let’s shake it off!” No one had interfered this time, and it had taken O’Reilly less than a minute to find the proper key. Now she had the door open, and the damned kid just stood in the back of the cell staring at her. She even looked behind her to see if she was about to be ambushed.
“What is it?” she snapped at him, irritated.
“You’re a killer,” he said, eyes wide.
“Of course I’m a killer. Do you think they’d send a secretary to do this job? Let’s go!”
“You killed my mother, and you’re here to kill me!”
“Back in England six years ago, you killed my mother just like he said.”
“Who? Just like who said?”
“Mr. Rodriguez. He told me everything.”
“And you believe him?”
“Well, did you?”
“It’s possible. Look, the CIA hired me to get you out of here because your father makes some nerve gas or something, but if I can’t get you out, then I am to kill you so that you can’t be used as a bargaining chip. Does that make sense to you?”
“I— I suppose. I don’t know. I guess so.”
“All right. Now, at some point, someone is going to come through that door, and before they get me, I have to make sure you’re dead, because these animals cannot be allowed to get hold of that gas. Do you understand?”
“Good. Then would you like to try to escape, or should I shoot you now? Make your choice, then.”
The boy seemed to shake off whatever was bothering him, and took a step toward her.
“Let us go, then.”
“All right. Stay close to me, and if any shooting starts, get flat on the ground. Come on.”
She took the dead guard’s pistol and ammunition, unlocked the big outer door with the antique key, and led him up the steps in a crouch. She had noted a row of vehicles parked to the left of the main house on her way here, and she knew that most had the keys left in them so that they could be used by anyone on the staff. She was about to break them of that habit. Eyes just above the level of the steps, she waited until the one patroller she could see moved away, then summoned Takeri with a crooked finger.
“Stay low,” she cautioned, and led him in a fast shuffle to nearest vehicle, a late model American pickup truck. Good that it’s big; the weight will come in handy. Sliding Takeri across the seat, she got in and started it, and started slowly toward the gate. Lights on, she maintained a slow pace down the shallow S-curve of the main driveway.
Nothing to be suspicious about boys. We’re just a routine grocery run headed for town.
As they rolled casually toward the gate, one of the guards stepped out into the driveway holding up one hand. Too bad; she had hoped to depart quietly. Keeping the high beams in his eyes so he couldn’t see her face, she eased right up to him, then floored it, trying to run him over. He was able to leap mostly out of the way, but she nicked him with the left fender, sending him rolling into the ditch.
“Low bridge!” she shouted at Takeri as the heavy truck tore the wrought iron gates from their hinges and threw them into the street. A few shots from the second guard whistled past, then they were around the corner and headed for Barranquilla.
“All clear,” she said, and Takeri sat up, removing the top of his head from the side of that deadly thigh. He had felt steel muscles against his scalp as she manipulated the gears, and he drew his left leg up to cover his burgeoning arousal. “Are you all right?”
“Yes. You are . . . I don’t know the word,” he finished.
“That’s all right. I’ve already been called everything anyway. My name’s Colleen. Colleen O’Reilly.”
“Yes, they told me that, too. You said you might have killed my mother. Don’t you even remember?”
“Amitabha, the world is, for the most part, an ugly place, filled with ugly people. I was born into the Irish Republican Army, to a mother who was a bomber. She raised me in the trade, and taught me all the myths that make the Irish fight. When she died, I took her place. I was planting bombs in London at the time your mother was killed, but I wasn’t the only one. No one will ever know whether I killed your mother, but there is a very real possibility that it was me, and I am sorrier than you will ever know.”
“How can this be?”
“I killed English because I was taught that killing English would liberate Ireland. Before I could see the fallacy in this, I had to gain much life experience, and by that time, I had already done a great deal of harm. Now I use my skills to right wrongs and help the helpless, and I only hope that when I go to hell, I won’t be sent to the darkest corner.”
“Perhaps this life is part of your penance,” he said with the remarkable insight of a child. When she didn’t answer, he said, “If I knew with certainty that you had killed my mother, I don’t think I could forgive you, but I don’t even know whether it is you that I need to forgive. You wield death like Shiva, for the higher good. Perhaps you have earned what I could not give. I will cooperate with you. What do we do now?”
“Get to my hotel and get you some money and a disguise. Then we’ll check the US Consulate to see if they’re watching.”
“If they are watching the consulate, will they not be watching the hotel also?”
“Perhaps, but the hotel is big and old, and has a dozen entrances. After we get disguised, the single entrance of the Consulate won’t be so difficult to approach. How are your legs, do you feel like walking?”
“Yes. We’ll have to ditch this truck before we get to town. Rodriguez will have reported it stolen by now, and there’s no telling how many of these wog coppers he has on the payroll.”
* * *
The terrain had been terrible until they reached the outlying slums, but from there it had been easy to catch a ride to near the dock district. They cautiously made the three-block walk to the hotel, and approached through the littered alley across the street. Two Eighty Three’s BMW was still parked in front, and in it sat the heavyset form of Four Twenty Seven. She studied him for a moment. His head was back on the rest, and he seemed to be napping; marking time on a stakeout was never fun.
Cautioning Takeri to keep out of the light, she drew him up beside her.
“Have you ever seen him before?”
“Take your time. It could be important.”
“No, I have never seen him.”
“Be sure, then. He could have been with the younger man that sold us out.”
“I don’t know about a younger man, either, only the Colombians who kidnapped me.”
“Okay. Well, if he’s out here, there’ll be more of them. Let’s see if we can catch somebody sleeping.”
She led Takeri back to the street a block away, and went to the corner, looking along the street facing the side of the hotel. She didn’t like the layout there, and led him back to side closest to the river. The lay of the land wasn’t great here either, but midway down the block a street light was out. Luck. Her skills accounted for ninety percent of her success, and luck, she reckoned, was the other ninety.
She led him around the block, keeping always to the shadows, and the reached the northwest corner, hugging some decorative shrubs.
“All right, then,” she said, “the moment of truth. We’ll cross at an angle. Keep to the shadows, go into that little garden at the side, and immediately go flat against the wall.”
“What if they have night vision equipment?”
“Then they’ll see us, won’t they? That’s why we wait behind the wall. Anyone who follows us in there will be taking a nap.”
“Will you kill them?” he asked, wide-eyed.
“Not unless they force me to. Ready?”
She led him out into the street in a brisk walk, neither hurrying nor dallying, keeping always to the shadows, and after what seemed a very long time, they entered the decorative gate and flattened against the wall inside. O’Reilly counted to one hundred, timing it by her heartbeat, then drew the guard’s pistol and risked a look around the corner. Nothing was moving.
“All right, then,” she said, “let’s find an entrance.”
Finding a group of darkened windows, she quickly examined the locks, then began to cast about for a small stick, or better yet, an overlooked garden tool, muttering, “These people need to hire a security consultant.”
* * *
Douglas waited patiently in the plush driver’s seat of the BMW. No one in the history of surveillance had ever enjoyed that quaint custom known as the stakeout, but over the years, Douglas had developed a zen-like ability to dissociate himself from his physical surroundings while some fraction of his consciousness kept watch for the designated target. He was on autopilot now, his slitted eyes barely alert to sound the alarm at any hint of motion, ears attuned to footsteps, while the bulk of his mind was bundled in tweed against the cold wind of the Scottish moors. The insistent chime of his cell phone wrenched him out of that wonderful refuge.
“Seven, it’s me, Three.”
“Is she here?”
“No. Have you seen her?”
“Yes. She went in twenty minutes ago. I was just waiting to see whether you’d catch on. Of course I haven’t seen her, you moron! I’m not going to see her. I’m sitting out here like a great flashy billboard to drive her around back to you. Have you seen her?”
“Well then, perhaps you should get off the phone and start looking.”
Douglas switched off the phone without further comment. Bradford was a good lackey, devoted and obedient, but if he should take over the operation after his own retirement, the authorities would be onto him, and then onto Douglas in no time.
Note to self, Douglas thought as he prepared to initiate a new phase of this ongoing game, make sure Bradford is safe before moving on.