AN INTERRUPTED JOURNEY
She said, ‘I know all about you. I’m going to kill you.’
Daniel Prestwick nervously brushed back his wavy brown hair. All about me? What was she talking about? His mouth was dry, his palms wet, and he was incapable of saying anything. All he could do was stare at her angry blue eyes and that gun!
It must be Rag Week or something? She can’t be serious!
She fired directly into his chest.
Zora replaced her automatic pistol in its holster beneath her jacket. As she knelt by the prone figure she heard shouting from further up the corridor. The racket of the train had not altogether drowned the pistol-shot.
She stopped her professional search of the man’s body, slid open the compartment door and peered intently along the swaying corridor.
Bermanos and Lyudin would be waiting a little further up the railway track.
The carriage’s other occupants hammered on doors, enquiring about the sound of a shot, heading in her direction.
She pulled the emergency handle.
The small group of disturbed sleepers were bundled into one another as the train braked.
Zora swung open the carriage door and leapt out into the pitch night, the cries of the train’s passengers drifting away.
Her feet hit soft turf and she rolled over – as she’d been trained with paratroops – rolling down the damp grassy slope.
A torch beam joined in the chaos and probed a wide arc from the diesel engine to encompass the coarse grass of a field across which ran a dark figure that appeared to be female.
Then, as the engine driver and guard descended the slippery slope in pursuit, they heard a massive chomping sound.
They hesitated, suddenly afraid.
The guard’s torch beam illuminated a small helicopter.
Breathless now, Zora loped beneath the whirring rotor-blades. Sliding into the cockpit, she looked back at the torch beam. She gave co-pilot Bermanos a sidelong glance and clicked her fingers.
He understood the simple gesture and grabbed a bazooka-like weapon alongside his seat and placed it in Zora’s waiting hand.
She rested the weapon on her shoulder, aimed at the torch beam’s source. The thing jarred her shoulder and she heard the whooshing sound of the ejected missile. Minor singeing of the cockpit’s upholstery resulted, burnt by the back-blast.
The two dismayed railmen backed away as they noticed the cockpit light up. They ducked instinctively and lay very still on the damp grass. Acrid smoke filled their nostrils and mouths and made them cough and retch – smoke temporarily paralysing the nervous system.
Lyudin gently levered on the joystick and the helicopter climbed gradually into the night.
The doorway of the compartment was crammed with a knot of onlookers. The speculative mumbling increased as a tall brown-haired man waded through the corridor of sensation-seekers.
Paunches and breasts, concealed by gaudy and colourful night-attire, gave way. His unwavering deliberation in the way he headed for the compartment gave the onlookers the impression that he was some kind of authority – a policeman, perhaps?
When the lean newcomer reached the doorway he was confronted by a corpulent hirsute fellow in blue-striped pyjamas who said, grumpily, as he scratched the hairs covering his belly, ‘And what, sir, gives you the privilege to push your way to the fore?’ He jutted out his lower lip.
‘Are you a doctor?’ the man asked, ignoring the animosity.
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Good.’ The tall man’s blue eyes sparkled as they met the doctor’s. He turned, said to the attentive crowd, ‘Everything is under control. Please return to your compartments. There’s been a slight accident, that’s all.’ He gently pressed the foremost spectator’s chest and the crowd receded into the corridor, a little indignant. ‘The train will be late.’ He closed the compartment door and rolled down the blind.
‘Gun-shot to the heart,’ said the doctor. ‘Mr, er –?’
‘Strong. Adam Strong, doctor.’ Strong began examining the contents of the dead man’s pockets. As he scanned the wallet he wondered about the similarity between the deceased and himself – in looks, build and eye-colour... And Strong’s line of work forced upon him the more than coincidental contingencies of his resembling a murdered man: he was employed in the ostensible firm of International Enterprises, a branch of the British Secret Intelligence Service.
‘I’m Dr Stafford Ord,’ said the doctor, intruding on Strong’s thoughts.
‘I’m a detective sergeant on leave,’ Strong lied. ‘Such a violent death necessitates an on-the-spot–’
Then the bazooka blast mutely reached them.
The sound animated Strong immediately. He raised himself from his haunches and leapt out the compartment door.
Landing on the cinder track, he sank to one knee, picking out the loud sound of a helicopter from the other side of the carriage.
Gingerly, his bare feet impregnated by cinders and chippings, he ducked beneath the train’s undercarriage.
Diesel fumes and oil and the smell of metal filled his nostrils as he reached inside his housecoat. Still under the motionless carriage, he withdrew an ArmaLite rifle from its sheath strapped to his waist. Swiftly his deft fingers removed the barrel lock and ammunition from the fibreglass stock, then assembled the lightweight eight-shot automatic.
Strong emerged and slid down the grassy slope, jumped the fence. But his housecoat snagged on barbed wire so he discarded it and then ran towards the diminishing sound of the helicopter.
Through the night-sight he watched the aircraft, about twenty feet above him and still climbing.
His first shot pierced the cockpit and splintered the glass.
Shocked, Bermanos screamed and fell into the rear of the cockpit.
Zora growled, ‘Quick – NG9!’ She was handed the bazooka and a large capsule in its mauve housing; mauve signified it comprised a chemical nerve-agent. A second bullet shattered some instrumentation: the altimeter read thirty feet.
The blast from the bazooka thrust out an orange-tinted glow and the capsule rushed down at Strong.
Diving to one side, Strong rolled over and over, away from the dangerous cloudburst.
His limbs were shaking uncontrollably as he reached the fence: motor nerves losing control.
He shakily picked up his housecoat, placed it on the barbed wire and clumsily clambered over using his arm on the material-covered wire for support. He thumped drunkenly onto the grassy slope.
Vision blurred. Hands felt leaden. Couldn’t sense the damp grass: sensory nerves affected already...
As he crawled under the carriage, he could smell and feel nothing. Everything was grotesquely distorted.
Mustering all his latent strength, Strong pulled himself up to the doorway of the dead man’s compartment, croaked, ‘Doctor Ord...!’
The rhesus face of the medical man appeared unreal.
‘Compart - ment - four - on bed - jacket - quick - b-b-bring it!’
Doctor Ord bent down to raise Strong into the carriage but the agent weakly waved refusal. ‘Please - compart - ment - four...’
As the doctor rushed away Strong dimly heard the voices of disturbed travellers descending to the track, echoes of frustration and indignation: the usual commuter complaints, he thought absurdly...
It was becoming impossible for Strong to keep his unseeing eyes open. It seemed as if a mountain had erupted and cast its detritus out and over his world, buried him alive, the choking, tasteless dust – the nerve-gas – sending its biochemical message of death to his brain.
Dr Ord hurried into the compartment carrying Strong’s jacket over his arm.
Somehow, Strong registered the doctor’s presence. ‘Ball-point pen – atropine inside!’
Ord obediently removed the pen and unscrewed its case to discover a miniature liquid-filled hypodermic syringe. He was suddenly afraid of what this man was, this man who possessed secret nerve gas antidotes and God knows what else.
He ripped open Strong’s pyjama jacket and noticed the rifle holster round the man’s waist, soaked in a thin film of sweat, as was Strong’s entire body. He professionally punctured the skin and injected the atropine.
‘You killed the wrong man,’ said the bald cadaverous Onetti. ‘My sources say Adam Strong survived and is recuperating.’
Unflinchingly, Zora replied, ‘I followed instructions. He was supposed to be in that compartment.’
Onetti sighed. That was the trouble with brainwashing people to be killers. They never used any initiative! ‘Never mind, my dear,’ he said. ‘It was just bad luck there happened to be someone closely resembling Strong.’ He shrugged, the wasting of an innocent life forgotten. ‘Better luck next time, eh?’
A Network South-East spokesperson regretted the delay of last night's Inter-City express from Kings Cross London to Newcastle and said that it was due to a foiled terrorist attempt to blow up the line outside Thirsk. (Reuters)
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.
Note: The character Adam Strong featured in my first ever novel way back in 1964, unpublished. He worked for an adjunct of MI6, International Enterprises, which features in the first Tana Standish psychic spy novel, The Prague Papers, now an e-book. Some ideas are so tenacious, they survive…